by Jonathan Raban
Seattle is a young city, and not yet accustomed to its inhabitants. Houses slide from hills as the rain slicks hilly city streets, and every third person you meet is pledging to move back to the East by year's end, population trends be hanged. As both a port town and part of the golden promise that is the Far West, Seattle has been attracting immigrants from both in and outside of America ever since the founding fathers first christened it New York, seeing in it a mirror of that other island (which is why that tiny Statue of Liberty stands at Alki)--before promptly losing these new citizens to other, less "provincial" locales. Despite its position as the first metropolis of the Pacific Northwest, Seattle remains a city constantly in flux, populated by those who no sooner move in than the rain washes them back out, a community of itsy bitsy spiders. Jonathan Raban's new novel, Waxwings, holds a steady gaze on transient Seattle, a city short on memory, examining it through the eyes of two immigrants--innocents in an innocent city--and illustrates that, as far as the land itself is concerned, we're all just passing through.
Waxwings takes place across an amazingly fraught period in recent history: the year and a half leading up to 9/11. For Seattle, it was a time marked by the WTO riots; the arrest in Port Angeles of a suspected terrorist and the mayor's subsequent cancellation of New Year's festivities; and the supernova of the dot-com boom. Yet instead of writing about the aftermath of these events--what Seattle (and by extension, the world) is like today--Raban has chosen to write a historical novel: He opts for songs of innocence over those of experience. Tom, the main character, is a recent transplant to Seattle from England, a solipsistic professor whose self-absorption leads to the downfall of his marriage. Beth, his wife, is a materialistic dot-comtrix who puts the couple's child on an oligoantigenic diet. Concerns about Trollope and Red #40 seem laughable now, but as the couple's relationship begins to disintegrate and the world around them begins its slow tumble, these small things become talismans, as Tom retreats into Kafka and Beth into her Belltown condo. Tom's misfortune compounds when he finds himself the inadvertent star of a missing-child circus--he becomes a prime suspect simply by being around the crime scene and (the horror!) smoking a cigarette--and suddenly Tom's life, so interior and self-focused, becomes something he can hardly recognize: Literally, when a sketch of the girl's suspected abductor is shown on television, it takes Tom a moment to realize the man depicted is him.
Instead of pandering to the reader's knowledge of what wickedness this way will come--the imminent September morning when two planes will fly to their death like giant birds into giant windows--Raban localizes the jittery tensity of an America trying to find its way by having his characters struggle to find their way in a world not engineered for their happiness. Seattle, in its gray gloom, looms over the unhappy couple. The family's Victorian home, once a point of pride for Tom, now causes him to remark, "In this wet and wooden city, houses were as ephemeral as sand-castles." Seattle, as a city whose name is writ in water and wood, will vanish as surely as that of the Etruscans, as Atlantis sinking to the sea floor. It retains the qualities of a frontier town, hostile and daunting, in what is in many ways still a frontier country--terra incognita--facing an uncertain future.
English-born Tom is not the only immigrant in the book; his foil is Chick, who sneaks onto a Seattle-bound freighter from China, erases any trace of his past identity (the name he chooses for himself is a misheard racial slur), and sets about becoming an American--something Tom has never quite been able to do. As Tom's fortunes decrease, Chick's increase exponentially: He is the ecstasy to Tom's elegy, tumbling out of the ship to see "skyscrapers, like New York--a dozen glittering sticks of light packed close as sheaves of wheat." While Chick struggles to establish himself--first as a worker, then as a human being--his innocence buoys him up above circumstances the reader recognizes as horrendous, such as sleeping on an asbestos-filled ship after he's spent the day working there. Of all the characters, Chick has the fewest resources and yet the most ability to accustom himself to his new life; this comes, however, at the cost of forgetting everything he has known before--to anyone who asks, he says he's from Everett.
Innocence is a state that is meant to be temporary, as is the state of being an immigrant: Eventually, one becomes experienced and settles down; the transitory state ends and structure enters. But at what point do these changes occur? And can't these states, once granted, be revoked? Tom feels at home before he realizes his house is rotting above him. He says to Beth, "It seems bloody ridiculous to say it now, but I thought, I really thought, we were happy." It's a maxim that could be applied to the entire world pre-9/11; to the dismal Seattle job market; to the endless fluctuations between structure and liminality that mark life in a border town. Yet Tom is not concerned with the world as it will be, he is concerned with the trouble of being "here--now."
The characters in Waxwings are, like us, poor way- faring strangers, living in a world hurtling toward unknowable horrors, a world indif- ferent to their existence. Waxwings opens with a startling scene of man set against nature--a young girl killed by a cougar--and closes with another natural image: that of the titular waxwings, birds that immigrate to a bush, pillage its fruits until they are berry-bloated and almost too heavy to fly, then move on.
But are we the birds or the bush? Tom sees:
[T]here was a here here, where herring gulls were a traffic hazard and all streets led down to the water, where the older buildings pursued a guileless infatuation with the architecture of Ancient Rome, and ungovernable greenery--bramble, vine, salal--rose up defiantly from every crevice and scrap of waste ground, as if to strangle the city fathers' vain Roman ambitions.
With the story opening and closing with scenes of man encountering nature (and losing), Raban's expansive novel serves as a reminder that we are all immigrants here--in this city, in this country, in this world--our presence a beneficial accident, until our empires of light and dust crumble into the frontier's inevitable new dawn.