“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Book Review: The Philanthropist

The Philanthropist
By John Tesarsch
Sleepers Publishing

John Tesarsch’s debut novel, The Philanthropist, centres around Charles Bradshaw, an Australian industrialist in charge of a corporation worth nearly a billion dollars, who is also a prominent philanthropist. Charles, now in his 50s, is a wealthy and powerful man, but in the book’s opening pages he suffers a heart attack. While he narrowly survives, Charles is left in a physically debilitated state thereafter, and must step down from his corporate position. While he has plenty of money, Charles is left with nothing to fill his days, and is both forced to confront the grim realities of his family life and haunted by his own past actions.
            For all of his ‘generous’ acts of philanthropy (which, in many cases, were also convenient tax write-offs), Charles, himself, has been anything but kind in his personal life. Struggling with his ill-health, he quickly realises that he has ignored both his wife and his children, who have little interest in supporting him during his time of need. As a result, Charles tries to reach out to Anna, a woman he loved in his youth, in an attempt to come to terms with his unpleasant past.
            The book is populated by people who have intense emotions but are completely incapable of expressing them, and the the tone is generally melancholic. This combination is effective in a way that might recall novels like Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. The tone is aided by Tesarsch ’s writing, which is simple and sure, almost as if he were compiling the facts of a case for a legal brief (indeed, Tesarsch is a lawyer); this technique conveys an effective subtlety to character relationships and descriptions. There’s a good deal of legal knowledge in the book (usually delivered through the character of Anna, who is a judge), but it never becomes too heavy, and Tesarsch himself ironises such material by noting that ‘it is said that to study law is to allow the left brain to encircle the right and finally eat it.’
Tesarch also does an excellent job of re-describing important events through the eyes of different characters, forcing the reader to acknowledge that our understanding of events is dependent on our point of view. Indeed, this is a book that attempts to investigate the notion of morality and what constitutes a ‘good’ act (as the title The Philanthropist suggests), but finds that, in the complex muddle of life, defining our own actions according to a rigid moral schema is extremely difficult, if not impossible. This is reflected in the character of Charles, who in so many ways desires to make amends for his past actions, but, due to his many character flaws, finds that all of his attempts at restitution only result in creating further problems.
The Philanthropist is a tightly plotted novel with strong and interesting characters, written in prose that has an economic, concise beauty. This is a strong and compelling first novel that raises big questions, but refuses to provide us with easy answers.

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