For me, as for many daughters, the time before my mother became a mother is a string of stories, told and retold: the time she got hit by a car and had amnesia; the time she sold her childhood Barbie to buy a ticket to Woodstock; the time she worked as a waitress at Howard Johnson’s, struggling to pay her way through her first year at Rutgers. The old photos of her are even more compelling than the stories because they’re a historical record, carrying the weight of fact, even if the truth there is slippery: the trick of an image, and so much left outside the frame. These photos serve as a visual accompaniment to the myths. Because any story about your mother is part myth, isn’t it?
At the end of the evening when everyone at our table got up to leave, I realized that one of my dinner companions was wearing a tail, which swished through the crumbs on his dessert plate as he walked away. In that moment, the hierarchical nature of the competition seemed secondary to the feeling of community it fostered, to its ability to gather together a basket of adorables united by a shared love of books and the worlds they create.
The stories in “Trajectory” are a guided tour through the author’s preoccupations: the follies of academia. (Fighting words, but I’d pit Russo’s “Straight Man” against any of the novels in David Lodge’s “Campus Trilogy.”) The disappointments of midlife. (A theme in virtually every Russo novel, but if you’re new in these parts, grab “The Risk Pool” or “Nobody’s Fool” or “Empire Falls”; the last one earned the Pulitzer Prize in 2002.) How marriage devolves into a two-headed Kabuki drama. How children recapitulate the mistakes of their parents. And, most notably — most persistently in this collection — how the world neatly divides into those who believe they are special, and those who do not.
The violence is staggering, with people thrown into dark dungeons for days without food or water, throats slashed, heads bashed. Turning pages with pounding heart, I wondered if I could have connected this book with Tóibín if his name weren't on it. I don't think so — despite some telltale signs, including the fraught family baggage, circumspect homosexuality, and themes of loss, exile and return. But House of Names works because of the empathy and depth Tóibín brings to these suffering, tragically fallible characters, all destined to pass on "into the abiding shadows" — yet vividly alive in this gripping novel.
The lesson we learn is that everything is unreliable: our memories, our cover stories, and the grander narratives nations tell to justify their actions. And only Le Carré, it becomes clear, could have made this point so convincingly.
Instead of manuscripts and first editions, there are interactive touch screens and high-tech multimedia installations galore, like a mesmerizing “Word Waterfall,” in which a wall of densely packed, seemingly random words is revealed, through a constantly looping light projection, to contain resonant literary quotations.
There are also homier touches, like cozy couches in the children’s literature gallery and even the occasional smell of cookies, unleashed whenever someone pushes the plaque for Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” included in an installation called “The Surprise Bookshelf.”