Saturday, December 26, 2009

Book Thirty-Two: The Storm by Frederick Buechner

It takes a lot of nerve to update Shakespeare and I'm sure there have been failed attempts in the past. But Frederick Buechner takes it one step further and not only updates The Tempest, but adds a Christian element to it as well. Well, what you do you expect from a Presbyterian minister who is as comfortable with fiction as he is theology and has a sense of humor to boot.

The Storm uses Shakespeare's play as the basis, but Buechner avoids trying to recreate the scenario item by item. Considering the fantastical nature of much of the play, this is a good idea and someone unfamiliar with Shakespeare could read the book, find an interesting story, and never the connection make (or need). [Anyone wishing for a quick refresher on The Tempest could read the BBC's humorous, tabloid, 60-second version.]

Buechner's story centers around Kenzie (Prospero) who has left New York in disgrace after fathering a child with a young woman he should have been caring for (this episode alone could keep us talking for some time). His brother, Dalton (Antonio), in an effort at clarity exposes and shames not only Kenzie, but the young woman who gave birth to daughter named Bree (Miranda). It is the shame for the mother that Kenzie cannot forgive his brother. Eventually Kenzie finds himself living on an island after marrying Willow (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) who shares the house with her 40-something, wind surfing Averill (Ariel) and served by Clavert (Caliban). Dalton is called to the island by Miss Sickert (Sycorax), who owns the island and oversees much of what happens. He calls on his semi-estranged stepson, Nandy (Ferdinand), to accompany him.

Thus with all the characters assembled we have simply the action to take place, and it does. Perhaps because we know the ending already Buechner rushes this section along to quickly. It is not often I wish for a book to be longer, but the meeting of the brothers and the subsequent tempest could have been expanded. The strength of the book lies in the outset where Kenzie's wandering life as an author is pulled into focus as he begins to work with the homeless. He throws himself into this new understanding of life, even losing friends and a wife with his commitment, until finally he becomes to close to what he is learning about.

Buechner is a Christian, but this no "Jesus-in-a-box" type story. Kenzie's religious leanings are mystical rather than dogmatic, and much of what he believes is inspired by the saints he studied in writing one of his books. His new life is clearly that of a conversion, although he himself does not understand it. But he senses a greater power when describing his time in the "rich people's chapel" he notes that "[e]ven on the warmest, most breathless Sundays he sometimes felt a stirring of cool air about his nostrils. He could not make it happen although he had tried...He was not prepared to say where it came from or to what purpose, but what he took it to mean was that the weather of the world is as distinct from true weather as the sultry stillness is from the coming storm." This Prospero is no sorcerer, but he is tied into something more powerful than he is. More importantly, in a life seeking forgiveness he realizes he is already forgiven and has the power to forgive others, namely his brother. This is certainly an interpretation Shakespeare could live with.

If you are not familiar with Buechner's work he is certainly worth the effort. I've read some of his novels, and his work has been a finalist for Pulitzer and the National Book Award, so he gets the critical acclaim as well. His output is varied, but visiting the Buechner Institute is as good of starting place as any. I've read more than once and given more than once one of his non-fiction works, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who, which is hilarious, insightful, and thoughtful all at once. In looking into his life a bit lately I found that he studied at Union Theological Seminary with one of the most influential theologians in my life, Paul Tillich. This helps explains Buechner's confidence in God's message that he does not need to have an author screaming conversion every other page -- as Prospero would certainly know, God is not dependent on humanity.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The Tempest, 4. 1

Shakespearian Updates to Recommend?

After reading this I'm curious about what other updates of Shakespeare's work people out there have read and enjoyed. Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres is a personal favorite. I read the book when it first came out and was into it quite a ways when suddenly I realized it was King Lear, one of my favorite plays. Let me know what other ones are out there and we'll all have a list to pursue.

Reading Challenges
It was Christmas just a few days ago (Merry Christmas!) so things were busy. I again chose well since The Storm  is a short book (199 pages) and I knew Buechner was a good writer. I actually read this in a few sittings -- it was tougher getting the time to sit down and write this!

Up Next
Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji, and actually I'm a bit apprehensive. It is a coming of age story set in Iran during the 1973 revolution, and I'm hoping to get more out of the Iran part of things then a romantic story. Some reviewers warn men not to be scared off by the pinkish cover withe the rose at the forefront, so I'm taking their word that my macho sensibilities will not be offended.

Happy reading!

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