Anatole Broyard (review date 9 October 1977)
SOURCE: "Painted into Opposite Corners," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. LXXXII, No. 41, October 9, 1977, p. 14.
[In the following review, Broyard compares Unsworth's The Big Day to MacDonald Harris' Yukiko. Though his critical evaluation focuses more on Yukiko, Broyard uses it to illustrate why he finds The Big Day a disappointing follow-up to Mooncranker's Gift.]
Yukiko and The Big Day illustrate, all too neatly in my opinion, two contrasting attitudes toward the novel, two unrewarding corners into which quite a few authors have painted themselves. MacDonald Harris writes a dogged, log-ahead prose under the assumption that his story is irresistible enough to grip and hold the reader. Barry Unsworth offers impressive style and technique that overwhelm the thin and rather stale idea behind his novel. Mr. Harris's style, his novelist's equipment, seem to be virtually forgotten in his preoccupation with his subject. His diction is deadpan, and there is hardly a memorable sentence in the book. His tone seems solemnified by the grandeur of what he is attempting. He has no time for frivolity, for bandying words or digressing into the psychological complexities of his characters. He is a bringer of a message, a purveyor of profundity.
Compared to him, Mr. Unsworth strikes me as a literary playboy. He enjoys the run and rhythm of a sentence, the happy impact of a well-chosen word. He has such a consummate talent for getting inside his characters' obsessions, he so blurs the figure-ground boundaries, that his characters spill like wine over the table he has set. It is, however, merely a platter of hors d'oeuvre.
Yukiko concerns four men, three American soldiers and a Japanese-American interpreter, who land on the island of Hokkaido in August of 1945. Their original mission was to deliver Havenmeyer, a commando, and his interpreter Ikeda to the island by submarine so that he might blow up a heavy-water plant. Under ambiguous circumstances, the submarine runs aground on a reef, and Gus, the sub commander, and Angelo, his navigator, are forced ashore with the other two.
Havenmeyer is a caricature, a destructive machine. Ikeda is a shadow, a mere decoder of language. Gus, the narrator, seems to have been hired, as one hires a butler, to bring a wry, humanistic perspective to the proceedings. Against all these predictable elements, Angelo embodies the unpredictable. He is moody, ironic, laconic, mysterious, forever saying things the others fail to understand. This deliberate inscrutibility, one supposes, is meant to create an aura of ominousness, of more-than-meets-the-eye, of suspended tensions.
When Gus asks Angelo whether he deliberately ran the submarine aground, Angelo will not talk about it, even though they have been friends and fellow officers for several years, even though four men were drowned as a result of Angelo's "mistake." It is not "healthy," Angelo says, to dwell on such things. He is not traumatized by the incident; he just does not feel in the mood to discuss it. He is, in other words, a prototype of contemporary fiction.
It may seem that I am laboring the point, but in fact most of the action in the book is of this nature. Mr. Harris is forever retreating into coy obscurity. There is no reason, for example, for Gus and Angelo to accompany Havenmeyer on his suicidal mission. The war is almost over, they point out. Under the circumstances, the mission is not only suicidal, but pointless. Havenmeyer invited them to leave, adding that they are useless...
(The entire section is 1498 words.)