“I have been missing since I was born.”
As Isaiah Berlin noted the distinction between thinkers who know many things, like Archilochus’s fox, and thinkers who know one big thing, like Archilochus’s hedgehog, so it’s helpful to distinguish between writers who explore myriad strategies of fiction, more resembling chameleons than foxes, and writers who rarely venture beyond their early successes, refining and refurbishing familiar, well-traversed burrows. Consider one of the great experimental writers in English: Who could have predicted on the basis of James Joyce’s Dubliners that this quietly devastating realist in the tradition of Chekhov and Turgenev would next write A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, an idiosyncratic reinvention of the bildungsroman; then Ulysses, a yet more radical reinvention of the novel as a mock odyssey thrumming with sights, sounds, smells, and emanations of Dublin on June 16, 1904; then, yet more ambitiously, the boundlessly imaginative, obsessively solipsistic Finnegans Wake? Each successive work of Joyce’s is a profound leap away from nineteenth-century realism, with its emphasis upon the meticulously observed exterior world; though traces of Dubliners may be detected in Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s final work of fiction differs so utterly from his first as to suggest a totally different aesthetic, if not a different consciousness.
By contrast, most writers cultivate a signature prose style and an aesthetic perspective that last them a lifetime. Like favorite hiking boots, these strategies are not willfully surrendered once they are acquired and have proven durable: each Jane Austen novel resembles its predecessor just enough to make Austen a reliable brand, arousing intense loyalties (and intense animosities). Writers as disparate in other respects as George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Donald Barthelme, John Updike—and many more—develop through their careers in ways that depend less on formal reinvention from work to work than on a deepening of individual vision once a distinctive style has been established.
Born in Tasmania in 1961, the descendent of Irish convicts transported in the mid-nineteenth century to the island penal colony Van Diemen’s Land (later known as Tasmania, a state of Australia), Richard Flanagan is among the most versatile writers in the English language. That he is also an environmental activist and the author of numerous influential works of nonfiction makes his achievement all the more remarkable. Each of Flanagan’s seven novels is distinct from the others, as if they are by different writers; each is a tour de force of its own kind, and several have been called “masterpieces” by reviewers—as if a gifted writer might be expected to have a “masterpiece” with each publication rather than once in a career.
Flanagan’s first novel, Death of a River Guide (1994), plunges the reader into a dazzling kaleidoscope of language—impressionistic, visionary, “archetypal,” personal—as a river guide drowns after his raft has overturned on the turbulent Franklin River in…
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