I just finished reading Steve Himmer’s new novel The Bee-Loud Glade. The premise of the book is fantastic—millionaire Mr. Crane hires Finch, a recently unemployed middle-aged office worker, to live as a hermit on his estate. If he agrees and follows the strange whimsical rules that Mr. Crane establishes, (including a vow of silence) Finch will earn five million dollars for the first year. There’s a lion named Jerome involved. A really scratchy tunic. Mr. Crane’s sexy wife. Sometimes painting and flute playing. You should read the book to see how these things come together. Here’s a hilarious little taste from the middle of Crane’s business proposal:
“What we need to know about a people, Mr. Finch, we know from their gardens.” He turned to the window, his back toward me and the book still in his hand. . . “The French liked everything ordered . . . But the Georgians, Mr. Finch, the Georgians! They enjoyed nature for its own sake and in its own state. They liked it just as it was, though of course they made improvements to keep it that way.”
As he spoke, Mr. Crane pushed a button set in a brass plate on the wall, and an opaque screen slid down from the ceiling to cover the window and block out the light. I heard humming behind me, and looked up to find a data projector suspended from the ceiling. A photograph of an elaborate garden developed before me on the screen, then faded as another one took its place. (52)
I am really captivated by the premise and the imaginative leaps Himmer makes to explore ideas about what is and is not natural to us, what nature really is in the 21st century, and the ways which we can/cannot experience it. The title of the book, The Bee-Loud Glade is a quote from a great Yeats poem, and the book is also definitely informed by Transcendentalist thought that is then twisted through the ringer of postmodern predicament. It also made me think about Emerson’s “Self Reliance,” which I’d just recently reread for a story I’ve been working on called “Thousand-Eyed.” It had been a long time since I had read any Emerson before that, and I remember picking up the essay in a moment of grief, looking for just the right words that would assert I could stand on my own. Even though I was in my most receptive state, I was taken by surprise at the power of Emerson’s words—they seemed both immensely wise and crazy. For instance, in the first paragraph of the essay: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,–that is genius.” Clearly, Emerson had not taken any postmodern courses in college. Or postcolonial courses. Or post-anything courses. We’ve been taught for the last 35 years or so (and for many good reasons) that point of view changes everything. Here, Emerson says point of view changes nothing. The whole concept of belief itself is very foreign to many contemporary readers who aren’t devoutly religious (and then, of course, belief is much different than the kind Emerson is talking about). More than ever, Emerson’s essay flies in the face of everything I’m not supposed to do or want or understand, and maybe that is part of what I find so enticing about this essay. I want belief back.
The Bee-Loud Glade does a really interesting swerve from Emerson—can something be both postmodern and Transcendental? If so, Steve Himmer’s book is as close as it gets. The book definitely satirizes the notion of getting back to nature and relying on the self, and yet things happen for Finch in this environment that could not happen elsewhere.
The premise of this book reminded me a bit of two wonderful books—Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance and John Fowle’s The Magus. In both, bumbling men are caught in the web of some wealthy person’s game. In The Music of Chance a gambler must pay his debt by building an enormous wall using only his hands and a wheelbarrow and in The Magus (my vote for one of the best novels of the century) a guy wanders around a beautiful Grecian island complete with captivating women trying to figure out when he’s living his life of his own free will and when he is an unwilling actor in an eccentric millionaire’s production. In both, the men attempt to resist their entrapment. They form plans to escape and to undermine THE MAN even as it’s clear THE MAN is inescapable.
Himmer does something different with The Bee-Loud Glade, though. Mr. Crane is not Finch’s archnemesis. In fact, Finch really starts looking at him as a benefactor who enables Finch to live the only kind of life that makes sense to him. That’s definitely not self reliance, and yet, what is self reliance in the 21st century? Emerson states “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” And in some ways, this is the state of mind that Finch begins to embody. But it’s impossible to forget that Finch is doing his best to follow the orders of someone else at the same time as he begins to depend on himself. The Bee-Loud Glade definitely reminds us that we are surrounded in some very funny and inescapable ways, but that inside these enclosures, there are also other possibilities.