The Death of All Things Seen by Michael Collins review: prose of pace and grace
Bad choices snare the characters in an absorbing novel about a contemporary US family
Michael Collins: describes himself as an Irish emigrant, runner and writer
The Death of All Things Seen
Head of Zeus
Michael Collins describes himself as an Irish emigrant, runner and writer. Convention tells you that a novel should be considered in isolation from the author, but Collins the writer invites you to consider other aspects of his being, and they should be taken into account in reading this dense, absorbing work, shot through with brilliance and insight.
The novel opens with the violent deaths of Helen and Walter Price. Their affairs, financial and physical, cast a long shadow. We are brought into the life of their son Norman, a gay playwright living with his adopted daughter, Grace, and housekeeper, Joanne. The parents’ death attracts others into their orbit: Daniel Einhorn, the perpetrator and soon victim of a financial Ponzi scheme; Nate Feldman, a Vietnam conscientious objector, long fled to Canada; and the lawyer Mr Ahmed.
The structure is loose, driven by past crimes. Norman tries to address love – for his parents, his adopted daughter, for Joanne, who has been dumped by her poet lover. Norman’s attempts to put his own life right result in confrontation with his past and his departed lover, Kenneth. It’s a theme in the novel – people’s bad choices catching up with them. Norman and Nate are connected through a family secret and they seem to be working towards some kind of resolution, but it isn’t that kind of a story.
The prose carries the momentum of the novel. It is driven, virtuoso. The pace counterbalances the weight of the prose. The urgent phrasing impels the reader forward, the writer’s insight wants you to dwell on the individual sentence. It’s the runner’s aesthetic, driving you into the deeper recesses of self – you can feel the presence of Collins the ultra-runner, who has been to the summit of Everest, the man running a marathon every day for 30 days. This demands a certain amount of stamina from the reader as well, but that’s fair enough. The rewards are worth having.
Nate Feldman has long ago bailed out, gone to Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft. He is a coureur de bois, a runner of the woods, the term for a European who has gone inland, taken a tribal lover.
For the most part, Collins places his characters on just about the right side of empathy. They have to earn our sympathy. Ursula is the exception: she possesses a race wisdom that the others do not have, an access to an elemental life that is harsh but rewarding between understood boundaries. It can’t last. The late author Jim Harrison said that the price of flying is landing. There are no easy outcomes and happiness is fleeting.
The novel covers a lot of ground, from JFK to 9/11, from Arnold Palmer’s golf swing to the Roadrunner. But it doesn’t set out to be epic and earns the right to range over the past century. This is where you start to consider the author’s emigrant point of view. At first glance, this is an American novel, American lives seen through American eyes. But there is a difference. It’s hard to put your finger on what this is, but it’s there. The subtle positioning of family at the heart of the novel. The centrality of the outsiders’ point of view, in the form of the native Canadian Ursula and the lawyer Mr Ahmed. The feeling that this kind of spiritual forensics would be differently undertaken by an American author on the basis that it is hard to be an anthropologist to your own society.
It is left to Ursula to run an explicit eye over the history of the Irish, recalling the famine ships and the horrors of Grosse Île, the First Nation’s people wondering what the kings and queens of the world across the water were like that people would put themselves through such agonies to escape them.
Collins is funny and merciless in his analysis of Einhorn’s Ponzi scheme, the daft and dangerous logic of risk finance. The special pleadings of the wealthy are held up to the light, the well-off struggling in traps of their own making. It is worth knowing how these people think of themselves, and Collins is brilliant at the intellectual smash-and-grab involved.
Sometimes it is hard to know who we are listening to – author or character – but the point being made is worth listening to one way or the other.
If you strip it all back you find death, or the accommodations that people seek in the face of their own death. A graphic depiction of cancer is offset by Helen Price’s wry view of the disease as “slovenly, up to date, a reaper in hoodie and sweatpants . . .”. Nate’s mortality is made bearable by the revenant Ursula’s intimation of other worlds, other possibilities for the spirit, the promise of “what a man might want in the closing dark of a hunt . . .”. Even the compromised Daniel, crouched in a closet awaiting a hitman, has the memory of doing the right thing by his daughter to freight him towards his fate.
Norman survives. He might not finish with the family that he thought he’d get, but he ends up with a decent facsimile of one. The gay man, the child adopted from another country, and the housekeeper whose life is on permahold make up a family like most others: threadbare, compromised, holding things together day by day and not looking too far ahead.
For all the rigour of Collins’s work, the gruelling introspection, you’re left with an underlying sense of compassion. Hard times are not imposed on the lives witnessed here. They are all wished well on their journeys towards death or redemption.
Collins as coureur de bois has gone inland in search of America. By this account, he has found it.
The Death of All Things Seen is a formidable, demanding achievement.
Eoin McNamee is the author of the Blue trilogy