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BABEL TOWER, by A.S. Byatt

by Kate McDonnell

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Byatt Orchestrates a Babble of Voices in Latest Novel

A.S. Byatt is most famous for her award-winning 1990 novel Possession, a literary puzzle in a high-comedy mode. It was playful, clever and yet rather hard. It also wasn't typical of her work till then, which had been more passionate and realistic.

Byatt's most memorable earlier novels had been The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life. Both of these novels centered around a character called Frederica Potter. The intensity with which Byatt wrote about Frederica suggested she might be quasi-autobiographical, but I've never seen anything to confirm that. They were interesting books, but they wouldn't surprise you if you'd already read Murdoch, Lessing and Drabble--in fact, Byatt is Margaret Drabble's half-sister and has written a major study of Iris Murdoch herself.

Byatt's latest novel, Babel Tower, also stars Frederica, and is now declared to be volume 3 of a projected quartet of novels. That's not necessarily good news at the start of a long novel because you know the author has prepared an escape hatch in case of loose ends. As it turns out, the looseness in Babel Tower isn't of the does-the-plot-resolve nature. It's a little trickier than that, because this is a departure from the solidity of the earlier novels.

This isn't a classic linear modern novel like the earlier Frederica books. Byatt intertwines the story of the breakdown of Frederica's marriage, her refuge in London during the ferment of the 1960s and her experiences as a single mother, with sections from another story. Babbletower is a dystopian fantasy written by Jude Mason, whom Frederica meets in the course of one of her London jobs. I found the jumps between the main thread of the story and the long passages of Babbletower in the first third or so of the book were arbitrary and a bit disruptive, but Byatt builds enough suspense about Frederica's life to carry the reader through this.

Clever but wearing. Byatt has the ability to dazzle the reader with her virtuoso shuffling of themes, but sometimes the reader can feel like she's being asked to juggle too many balls at once. The nature of education, the role of women, passion and love and sex, the degree to which society should permit individual freedoms, all of these issues affect Frederica and her friends in London and are mirrored in the plot of Babbletower. Jude Mason, self-outcast from society, turns out to have written a novel which sums up and condemns the social changes afoot; we're given Frederica's reports on novels she's reading for a publisher; we're given her cutups of legal texts from her divorce case and other sources; we're given a selection of quotations Frederica takes from other texts and we're given her housemate's fantasy adventure for children. In each of these Byatt illustrates one or more of her themes so that the book becomes a dizzying pattern of repeating motifs.

Byatt manages to unite, mostly successfully, the literary playfulness of Possession and the intense focus on Frederica's fate that anchored the two other novels. The terror in her disintegrating marriage and her love for her son are vivid, and the earlier part of the book has a momentum that fizzles a bit in the later chapters with the details of the divorce and custody trials as well as the obscenity trial for Babbletower.

Byatt is an intellectual and I suspect might never have considered the average reader's interest in the personal passages might not carry over into issues of more cerebral importance. I also found that sometimes her urge to be witty undercuts the seriousness she would like to claim--calling a law firm Tiger and Pelt, giving a character a Thomas Hardy joke name like Pippy Mammott. Maybe these read differently to a British reader?

There are also loose ends. Some derive from the earlier books--it's helpful to have read them to know about Frederica's family, especially the accidental death of her sister. Some are unaccountable dead ends, like the information about Gerard Wijnnobel, the Dutchman who heads an educational inquiry board that involves several of the characters. We're told a lot about Wijnnobel, but then he's completely dropped. (I noticed that Doris Lessing put a French character into her recent novel as well. Can it be that British novelists feel obliged to give a nod to the European Community?)

Another oddity is that we're introduced to London in the Sixties, shown some of the cultural excesses that made that era so exciting, but when Frederica says she doesn't get it, doesn't understand the music, is out of place there, it's a disappointment. It's likely Byatt didn't get into that scene herself and is therefore only partly capable of conveying the atmosphere, but it's the reader who loses out.

Nonetheless, this is a huge and impressive book. I don't have room in a review this size to list its strengths or ramble on about the wittiness of its dualities, up to and including Frederica's affair with a man who's an identical twin. Byatt's strengths -- writing poetic prose, describing friendships between men and women -- are given a good workout, and we're getting to see a good writer starting to make claims on being a major one.

Design quibble: the book is set in Bembo, and the text of Babbletower in Joanna. It's a nice idea but the typefaces are too much alike for the contrast to work. Otherwise it's a very pretty book.

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