Friday, April 1, 1994

Book Review: David Mamet, "The Village"

David Mamet
The Village
(Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1994. 248 Pages, $21.45)

The most obvious thing about The Village is that we are not in venues usually associated with the author. This is not David Mamet’s Chicago or any other big city. There’s a distinct absence of underworld types. Nor are there con jobs, cabals, sales pitches, or games within games within games.

The setting is a small rural community, which by its climate and the accent of its inhabitants — Mamet uses ellipses and italics to help us hear, not merely, read, their speech — appears to be New England. The reader is led to imagine the kind of Vermont town that consists of a gas station, a hardware store, a post office, a settlement short on sidewalks, long on dirt roads.

The inhabitants are brought together not by any physical center visible to outsiders but by memories going back generations — about what happened to the last person who claimed to have seen a mountain lion, for example, and what a bear might or might not have done to a hunter a few decades back.

Woods surround the village, just as silences surround the words the villagers use to tell their stories. Mamet manage to capture some of that silence between quotation marks. The topography of the place resembles the speech patterns of the characters in other ways as well. In both there are crevices, hidden places, rises, turns, places to revisit, wander, or get lost. There’s a great deal that’s unseen and unsaid in this book. Many of the characters’ defining experiences occur in solitude, often in the woods, and resist recounting.

The thought processes of Henry, for example, are astute, philosophical — and shielded. It’s almost as if he fears the fine logic he discerns in things would be betrayed if shared. Henry’s aesthetic sense is keen, his contentment after wood-chopping, for example, connected to the way the jumble of split pieces look: “No artist could do this,” he muses, “It’s too various.” When called upon to communicate to others, however, particularly to his wife — the communications impasse between men and women is as pronounced as in other David Mamet works — the results are halting and pitiful.

If, in The Village, you find yourself momentarily adrift in unnattributed thoughts, chances are the thoughts are Henry’s. His ruminations segue naturally into those of other villagers. Dicky, for example, when he spots a squirrel one morning, thinks that there is no sure way to know, “in both the shape and the rhythm of the thing, if it was a squirrel or a fallen leaf blowing across the road,” and wonders why nature devised the similarity.

And Marty, a hunter, is willing to remain perfectly still and silent against a tree throughout a winter’s day if that’s what it takes to disguise his presence in the woods. He sees Henry sloshing by in the creek below and doesn’t greet him. He hears a plane overhead and doesn’t permit himself a glance. Marty recalls his father telling him that the moment he set foot in his own house would know instinctively “if there was a deer in there or not,” and that whenever you’re in the woods, “you’re in the deer’s house.”

There are strongly drawn female characters in The Village, though here, as in his other work, David Mamet takes greater pleasure in, and spends more time on, the workings of men. Maris, for example, is a teenager already experiencing her attractiveness as both a power and a problem. Discomfort with her mother’s leering boyfriend makes it possible that she will one day flee the village. Most other characters are inconceivable elsewhere. In a city, for example, they would be stripped of their keenest senses, converted into refugees.

Like the author’s plays and screenplays, The Village’s true subject matter — its real setting — is language itself. Because it is a novel, we become acquainted with the characters’ interior engagement with questions of language. How to tell a story, how to be heard and believed, how, especially for the men, to express an emotion, are among the characters’ most pressing and sometimes most painful concerns.

Mamet’s dialogue has been criticized for being unlike any known variety of speech. That’s a bit like faulting Picasso’s guitars or women for not resembling their physical models. Picasso’s renderings tell us a great deal about rhythm and color — not to mention women and guitars. Mamet listens very closely to his characters; the way implicit and explicit are balanced in their utterances reflects on all verbal communication.

There are conflicts, love affairs, and deaths within the book, the usual material out of which novels and lives are constructed. It does not understate the impact of these events to emphasize instead the way they are recounted. The close listening David Mamet bestows on Henry, Marty, Dicky, Maris, and the others comes across, in The Village, as a kind of tenderness. 

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