The Grammar Architect
by Chris Eaton
Published by Insomniac Press
285 pages, 2005
Reviewed by Holly Day
At the risk of sounding like a complete idiot, I have to admit that I'm not that familiar with Thomas Hardy's work. I have a vague recollection of long, winding sentences that seemed to go nowhere, brilliant-sounding descriptive phrases that read beautifully but left incredibly muddled pictures of what was being described and overwrought characters that seemed to have way too much time on their hands to really hold my interest. Hardy's literary contemporary, D.H. Lawrence, was always much more to my liking.
So when this book, which claims to be a literary "cover" of Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes, fell into my lap, I didn't have high hopes for it -- and honestly, couldn't remember enough about Hardy's original, if I ever actually read it, to be able to compare the two adequately. Luckily, my husband's cousin, Jeff, is a huge Thomas Hardy fan, so I was able to call him up on numerous occasions to compare my notes against his.
"Jeff, does Hardy's book mention time traveling or time travel theory?" I asked Jeff during his lunch break from work.
"No, I don't think so," he answered.
"How about circus freaks? An opera singer with an enlarged throat and a penchant for giving blowjobs?"
"No. I know that one for sure," he answered.
"Gene Simmons from the band KISS?"
"No," said Jeff. "Definitely not. What book are you reading again?"
After much speculation, the two of us decided that this can't really count as a cover of A Pair of Blue Eyes, or really anything Thomas Hardy ever wrote, in the sense that when a band covers a musical selection, you can pick out significant events -- such as lyrics or musical phrasing -- in the resulting cover that match the original piece. Eaton has brilliantly managed to capture Hardy's style of writing in this book, with the long, beautifully-constructed sentences and elaborate phrasings that made up so much of Hardy's work.
However, I'd be more comfortable lumping this book with that of something written by Stanislaw Lem or the 1960's Czech science fiction writers than that of any English writer. The sentence structure especially gives one the feeling that this is an extremely-well-translated work instead of something written according to traditional English grammar rules. That is one of its strengths.
In The Grammar Architect, a writer, Neil, is hired by an architectural firm to write a book about a historical church tower being renovated. In Hardy's book, the character being mirrored is hired to physically restore the tower. Eaton's Neil dives into the project to the brink of madness, writing lists of everything found in the tower, not found in the tower, trying to physically construct the tower using only words, digging up bodies in the ancient basement and rearranging them, saving his excrement in jars for experiments, etc., etc. His romantic interest, Judith, is the daughter of a demigod named Tragedy who insists on breaking up all of her relationships. The book is broken up into the romantic couplings of the various characters in the book, as well as the extremely bizarre and confusing events that happen to those couples during their relationships, including a pair of time travelers in search of another time traveler and an opera singer who gets turned into a circus freak and then a barely-human machine.
Hardy's legacy, of course, along with Lawrence and the rest of the writer-philosophers of their day, is their determination to nail down exactly what the relationships between men and women and men and men and women and women were, because at that point, such speculation into the human psyche was considered indecent. Since then, however, so many books (and movies and plays) have been written about the human experience that new books about the subject can seem redundant.
Eaton's book builds on the groundwork laid out by the New Romantics and others and takes for granted that readers are on board for a story. Not a lot of real digging into the characters' flawed psyches is done here. Instead, we are presented with a group of flawed university students who sleep with each other because, these days, that's just what kids do, and are bitchy and mean and passionate about their trysts because that's what people do. All of the characters are brilliant artists and scientists and writers and musicians. The only exception to this is the woman, Judith, who is nearly everyone's greatest muse at one point or another. | January 2006
Holly Day works as a high school journalism instructor and an entertainment columnist in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her work has most recently appeared LO-FI Magazine, California Quarterly and Brutarian Magazine.