Extinctions a Charming Novel about Sad Things

Extinctions: A Novel (2018)
By Josephine Wilson
Tin House Books, 349 pages

A few days ago, I posted a review of Weather, which featured a character who worried about the end of human time. I found it trite. Let me offer what I perceive to be a far better book about things passing away, Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions.

It is set in 2006, though there is no particular reason for that, and centers on 69-year-old Frederick Lothian. He will immediately put you in mind of Frederick Backman’s titular character in A Man Called Ove. Fred was born in Scotland, moved to Australia, and married an American woman whom he met at JFK Airport during a trip to the States. He is a retired engineering professor with a great love of concrete. Why? Because it represents solidity, longevity, and simple design unadorned with frippery. How he managed to attract a vibrant woman like Martha and raise two kids—an adopted daughter and an unexpected biological son—is a mystery even to him, though he doesn’t spent a lot of time musing upon abstractions such as feelings. He’s clueless that there could be such a thing as a gay architect, or that his alleged best friend Ralph was an untrustworthy jerk. He also has a lot of trouble with metaphors.

Fred has spent his life surrounded by things built to last, and bound to remain that way if one doesn’t actually use them, like a Wassily tubular chair, a Braun SK6 turntable, and a classic electric shaver. The solidity of Fred’s world begins to crumble when his wife dies and he finds himself a recluse living in a retirement village cottage into which he has crammed books, files, and furniture from his former house. He might get by on his own, were it not for the woman next door with all those noisy budgies (parakeets), or witnessing the troubling sight of an elderly resident falling to the ground.

The title aside, Extinctions is funny, affecting, and thought-provoking. Fred’s neighbor, Jan, a retired primary school teacher, will challenge Fred to consider that maybe his life has been as rigid as rebar. His adopted daughter, Caroline, is a half-caste (Australian term) Aborigine who has issues Fred has never considered. She’s a curator who lives in London, but has made trips back to Australia about which he was unaware. Nor was he tuned in to the many of the things his wife did, especially in caring for their son Callum, whose auto accident left him brain damaged. How could Fred have never noticed how self-centered he is, how angry Caroline grew up to be, or what racist bastards some of his former colleagues are? Indeed, how could he have so thoroughly buried his own youth? And why does Jan seem perpetually exasperated by him?

Whereas Jenny Offill’s Weather relied upon written thought bubbles and aphorisms, Wilson uses photographs and blueprints that force us to see things that have proven transitory. One of the most heart wrenching is one of Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon. It’s doubly poignant, as Martha was the name of Fred’s deceased wife. Others challenge our definition of durability, including pictures of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in collapse and after. Not much is made of it, but the picture of a World War I tank looks an awful lot like an electric razor!  

In a quiet way—and men such as Fred or Ove don’t have skyrocket revelations—Extinctions asks us to consider what we cherish and how we act. What do we value, as opposed to things that have value? The opening epigram, a snippet from a W. H. Auden poem, puts it much better than I could ever hope: Column by column in a cloud of dust/They marched away enduring a belief/Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

Rob Weir

No comments: