Bernard Malamud wrote a classic. He must have wrote one. There are too many good things in The Assistant. At its best, it’s a novel that gets why novels work. It’s a story primarily driven by the characters that still has a plot, instead of just a string of bad mornings. Malamud gets close to every character, and just when you think he wrote a villain he pulls back the mask to show us it’s a human.
He just had to spend so much time on inner monologues instead of showing.
If the novel was written by Raymond Carver, it’d be brilliant. Malamud writes the same kind of story Carver writes, but he fixes Carveer’s weakness. Despite being responsible for some of the best prose, Carver occasionally failed at plotting. Malamud manages to get the same intimacy of Carver’s writing while having a sequence of events that lead to a conclusion, instead of just a really nice closing sentence.
Malamud also knows that a plot shouldn’t be a series of hoops for the characters to jump through. Every event that helps push it forward has something to do with the characters. Malamud puts these events to challenge his character’s worldviews and see how they react to them. He even took the ‘dramatic death’ and found a way for it to merge with the story. He doesn’t pull them out of his sleeve whenever he’s worried that ‘nothing happens’.
It’s so good that it just emphasizes how useless these monologues are. Frank Alpine’s repetitive behavior of sin and redemption is clear enough. There are enough events to illustrate this. They make some of the best moments of the book. Malamud nails what it’s like to be a person so driven by good intentions. Frank wants to be, above all, a good person. He may try to achieve that by helping others, but in the end it’s a self-centered worldview. Whether you want to be a powerful or a good person, you are still the focus.
Alpine’s biggest mistakes are whenever he completely succumbs to this selfishness. He does plenty of less-than-worshipful things. Since he’s so focused on being a good person, he thinks that by trying enough he could get away with stealing and stalking. He doesn’t. If your aim in life is to be a good person by helping others, you’ll never be. The center of this worldview is still you.
Like Carver, Malamud also has the talent of describing the dull. The people in this story are ordinary working class people. They’re poor, but it’s a dull poverity. They will never go through enough to become gangsta rappers. Whenever Malamud tells what’s going on in an ordinary day at the grocery, he writes a perfect description of the emotional state. These are people who are living in the monotony that doesn’t get better. They have little, but they still have too much to lose in order to throw at themselves at something.
With such a talent, why are there so many pages inside the character’s head?
Maybe Malamud needed to pad the novel. Maybe he didn’t want this to be a novella. He could have at least padded with dialogues, or more scenes at the grocery. All the monologues about redemption and love just tell us what we already know. Since they’re not written in first-person and the language can’t help us the understand the characters any better, he just beats ideas to the ground that he really doesn’t have to.
There’s a good story and some lessons to learn from The Assistant. It’s a good novel, but it reads more like a talented author operating just in first gear. If you already went over Selby and Carver and need more, read this. If not, get to Carver quickly.
3 milk bottles out of 5
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