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by Tim Parks

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 1-55970-470-5
Publisher: Arcade

Mixing meditation and the mundane, this collection of 13 essays (several of which appeared in the New Yorker) looks for philosophical inspiration in the quotidian, but sometimes finds only banality. The self-described task novelist Parks (Europa, 1998, etc.) has set himself here is “to dramatize an intimate relation between reflections that are timeless and the ongoing stories of our lives.” In the best pieces, such as “Adultery” (the kind of awed and fearful musing on the seductiveness of extremes only an Englishman could write) or “Ghosts” (a delicately etched reflection on death and remembrance), Parks is letter-perfect. He combines the sensibility of a poet with a philosopher’s ratiocination and a novelist’s awareness of the world’s profusion of exceptions and contradictions. But there are deep traps in mining the ordinary, and in at least a few essays, Parks falls in headfirst—for example, “Analogies,” in which he contrasts a faltering Italian soccer team’s luckless season with a friend’s teetering marriage to utterly affectless and contrived effect. Elsewhere, such as in “Maturity,” he flounders about desperately in domestic habitudes, trying to grasp at any passing profundity, no matter how little apropos. There is also a certain crimped, European Union smallness and dull homogeneity to some of the material. Parks may be a well-traveled Englishman living in Italy, but his Europe seems quietly dreary and uninflected. In essays such as “Europe,” that is perhaps his unspoken point. The “end” of history has left us with only our own niggling, unsolvable, eternal problems, which seem almost more picayune now that they can no longer be juxtaposed against great events. But even when Parks is unable to focus or is focused too deeply on his own omphalos, his questing intelligence and humanity shine clearly through. A largely agreeable diversion.