Use Once, Remember Fondly
Navigating The Razor's Edge, 60 Years Late
W. Somerset Maugham
Vintage Books ($13)
For most of the 1990s, I worked at Bailey/Coy Books, one of Seattle's many retailers to encourage employees to share their enthusiasm for the stock via "staff recommendations." Among my coworkers was an intelligent, literate fellow who, when he put pen to paper, unfortunately became retarded. "With phrases akin to precious jewels, _____ is a very rich man, indeed," wrote our well-meaning lunkhead of some author I can't recall, while his other greatest hit is forever burned in my brain: Assessing Frank McCourt's Irish weepie Angela's Ashes, our man dressed his praise in a jolly brogue: "It tugged me strings, it did!"
Here's the thing: His recommendations worked--sometimes freakishly well. Case in point: his plainspoken, blarney-free tag on The Razor's Edge, placed on Bailey/Coy's fiction wall in the summer of '95, with text along the lines of, "I loved it! I couldn't put it down! Read it, read it, read it!" For the next six months, a 50-year-old novel by Maugham leapt from the shelves, selling better than almost any book not written by Sedaris or stamped by Oprah.
Vintage has reissued The Razor's Edge, and after 15 years of meaning to, I finally read it. And I loved it! I couldn't put it down! Truly, Maugham's masterful juggling of cannily complementary plots--a dreamy expatriate's spiritual quest woven through a sexually frank serio-comedy of manners in the context of dramatically-rich history (the War/the Boom/the Bust)--is so intoxicating I immediately flipped the book over and read it through again. Whoops. On second read, Maugham's previously thrilling balance of philosophical ambition and soapy drama tilts steadily toward the latter, and comparisons to The Great Gatsby, with which Edge practically shares a cast list (ambitiously dreamy protagonist, sacrificed love interest with beefy husband, ambivalent narrator) end. The Razor's Edge is not an eternal work of art. But if you haven't already, read it, read it, read it.