For Kings and Planets

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 318

Ethan Canin has had an impressive literary start as the author of two fine collections of stories, EMPEROR OF THE AIR (1988) and THE PALACE THIEF (1994). However, his first novel, BLUE RIVER (1991), was a disappointment; FOR KINGS AND PLANETS now proves a flat-out failure. The plot is all-too-familiar: A friendship between a Midwestern hayseed and a Manhattan sophisticate turns increasingly problematic. It’s all too predictable: the tortoise with and then against the hare, innocence opposed to decadence. Orno Tarcher is an insecure, not particularly bright kid from small-town Missouri; Marshall Emerson is a brilliant son of brilliant professors from Morningside Heights. They meet and bond as freshmen at Columbia University.

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Orno plods his way through Columbia and then dental school. Marshall leaves Columbia in his sophomore year for Los Angeles to write and produce film and television scripts. Orno falls in love with Marshall’s sister, Simone, who is unpretentious and stable while her brother is seductive and mercurial. Orno and Simone live together in a small Maine town, where he joins a practice. Then Orno’s father insists on planning an elaborate wedding for them. It never comes off, as Marshall maligns his sister to Orno and disappears from the Cape, his father commits suicide, and Simone reveals to Orno that both her dad and brother lived lives of mendacity and pretentiousness. Orno concludes that he has received a moral education.

Canin’s dialogue is carelessly and flatly written, and most of his characters ring false. Banality and sentimentality infest his novel.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, August, 1998, p. 1920.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 17, 1998, p. B6.

The Economist. CCCXLIX, October 17, 1998, p. 16.

Library Journal. CXXIII, September 1, 1998, p. 212.

Los Angeles Times. November 18, 1998, p. E1.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, September 13, 1998, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, July 6, 1998, p. 49.

The Spectator. CCLXXXI, October 31, 1998, p. 46.

The Wall Street Journal. September 17, 1998, p. A20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, September 13, 1998, p. 11.

For Kings and Planets

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1746

Ethan Canin has had an impressive start as a writer of stories, some of which are long enough to qualify as novellas. His first collection, Emperor of the Air (1988), won praise from reviewers for the maturity of his intelligence, the sensitivity of his perceptions, and the grace of his prose. His second, The Palace Thief (1994), was even more widely acclaimed for its steady moral compass, confident voice, acuteness of detail, and, above all, for the extraordinarily sensitive way in which it dealt with the consequences of feelings when people’s dreams tremble and then dissolve. He has already been proclaimed as a master of short narratives comparable to Peter Taylor, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, and even John Cheever.

Not so with his novels. His first, Blue River (1991), was a disappointment: too much background, not enough narrative drive. For Kings and Planets proves a flat-out failure. The plot is all too familiar: A friendship between a Midwestern hayseed and a Manhattan sophisticate turns increasingly problematic. Orno is an insecure, wide-eyed, not particularly bright grind from small-town Missouri; Marshall is a brilliant son of brilliant professors from Morningside Heights. It’s all too predictable: the tortoise with and then against the hare, the provincial against the slickster and trickster, innocence opposed to decadence. Not only have readers been here before, but usually in better company: many of Honoré de Balzac’s novels, some of Charles Dickens’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Thomas Wolfe’s autobiographical opus, for examples.

In September, 1974, Orno is driven to New York by his parents from Cook’s Grange, Missouri, the first in his family to go east for higher education. He is dressed in corduroy pants and tie, reads Wolfe’s 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel, rises early and, his second day at Columbia, meets Marshall Emerson, returning at dawn from sybaritic revels. They share a history class on Ancient Greece and Rome. Orno works every evening in the library; Marshall never studies. Orno tells Marshall of his farming background, recounting simple memories of Missouri winters; Marshall quotes the mystic G. I. Gurdjieff and charms Orno with stories of extravagant adventures when he lived in Istanbul as a child with an Irish nanny, while his mother, an anthropologist, did her field work in the Turkish countryside. Then Marshall tells of evenings in his parents’ apartment when Margaret Mead, Francis Crick, Ralph Ellison, and other distinguished company visited; in return, Orno can only identify Steve McQueen on Columbus Avenue. Orno gets B to B- grades; Marshall’s are A+. Blessed with an eidetic memory, Marshall scores the highest grades in all of his classes while not even bothering to attend lectures. Orno has to struggle.

His first spring in New York, Orno makes the acquaintance in one of his classes of Sofia, a Russian, the daughter of a physicist who had defected. Canin flatly describes what happens next: “He was a virgin but she was not, and soon he wasn’t either.” His grades decline as they have sex daily. Marshall withdraws from Orno to date a girl descended from J. P. Morgan, but then phones him for help. Orno finds him overdosed on drugs, gets him home, and there meets Marshall’s family. Professor Emerson, an authority on vertebrate biology, cruelly informs Orno that his history professor, Winthrop Scott, has changed his name from Irving Greenstein. Later in the novel, Marshall’s sister, Simone, will reveal to Orno that her father’s real name was Mendelsohn, that he is descended from a Lithuanian Jewish barrel salesman, and that he had made up a false genealogy that he traced back to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Manipulated by the charismatic Marshall, Orno joins a clique of heavy-drinking would-be poets, with Marshall cruelly mocking whatever targets he can find among them. He also takes Sofia from Orno; neither can resist him. The next stage in this predictable narrative finds Marshall leaving Columbia for Los Angeles, ostensibly to write a novel, actually to write film and television scripts. Orno plods on at Columbia. With his grades too low for admission to medical school, he settles for dental school and is admitted to Stony Brook’s. The summer after his first, difficult year there, Orno visits Marshall in his Venice Beach townhouse. Yes, Marshall gives the stereotypical show-business party. Yes, the guests lie about their careers and sniff cocaine, while Marshall introduces Orno as a surgeon and comforts himself with starlets. And yes, Orno is repelled by this kind of existence.

Meanwhile, Orno and Marshall’s sister, Simone, have fallen in love. In contrast to her mercurial brother, she is modest, candid, unpretentious, and stable. She settles in with him during his later dental studies and reveals not only her father’s mendacity but his need to impress people with a Cape Cod cottage and expensive boat, neither of which he can afford. Orno is repelled yet also fascinated by the Emersons, father and son. As Marshall takes Orno for a drive down Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard to the Pacific Ocean, Marshall’s moral resolution is delivered in clunky prose:

He tapped the brake. He’d never wanted a life like this. Hard work and an honest standing in the world—that’s what he’d been after. A wife and children. A house and neighbors. He’d wanted to be able to look his father in the eye.

“It’s nice,” Marshall said. “Isn’t it?”

Orno was startled. “It’s not for me,” he answered. He wanted to be home.

Graduated from dental school, Orno joins a small practice in Preston, Maine. He and Simone buy a modest house and plan their wedding. However, Professor Emerson takes over its preparations, insisting it be at the Cape and promising “a Kennedy or two at the ceremony.” The two sets of contrasting parents meet, with Canin illustrating the gulf between them by having Orno’s mother misunderstand the professor’s field of taxonomy for taxidermy. Marshall, in a confessional moment, tells Orno that both he and his father are hollow at their center. As if to illustrate the point, he has brought Sofia for the wedding and attempts to “return” her to Orno; she and he are appalled. Marshall’s destructive drive then kicks into high gear: He maligns his sister to Orno as perfidious and promiscuous, tells Orno his parents are opposed to the wedding, and disappears. Simone and Orno spend days hunting for him. When he is still missing on the dawn of their wedding day, they decide to leave the Cape and elope; they are married by a judge in Portland, Maine. Simone tries to explain Marshall’s erratic behavior. His mother was too preoccupied with anthropological field work to care for him, his father was too busy making his academic mark; inadequate love from either parent has streaked Marshall with self- centered cruelty. As for the Emersons’ elaborate wedding plans, the Kennedys had never been asked.

Both male Emersons break down: Marshall shows up at Simone and Orno’s house but has to be rushed to the hospital with an acute case of alcoholism and bleeding ulcers. Professor Emerson takes the terminal step of drowning himself at sea. Mrs. Pelham asks her children to forgive her for not having taken them, when young, away from their father.

Marshall then concludes a long anecdote he has related to Orno on several occasions. When the young Marshall and his mother were in Istanbul, her purse was stolen their first day. Luckily (or so it then seemed) an older man caught the thief, returned the purse, and became their protector. His name was Selim Aziz. A retired ferry captain, he knew both the local countryside and the islands, was intelligent, interesting, and courteous, and spent much time with Marshall while his mother did her field research. However, the day they were to leave Turkey, all of their money and valuables were stolen. They figured out that the purse’s first theft and return had been arranged between Aziz and his confederate so that Aziz could gain their trust, only to betray it to his fullest advantage. After his father’s death, Marshall confides to Orno that he would occasionally steal his father’s cash and send a money order to Selim. Granted, he was a thief, but he had played the role of father admirably and had shown Marshall much grace. “And to this day,” he concludes, “it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done.” However, Simone later reveals to Orno that Marshall has never been to Turkey, with or without his mother. At the novel’s end, Orno has written off Marshall’s treacherous friendship and has decided that “he had come a great distance in his life”; he and Simone become the joyous parents of a son.

The only artistic grace note of this deeply flawed novel is the tale of Selim Aziz. Up to this point in his career, Ethan Canin has shown himself a masterful story writer but, unfortunately, a failure in the longer fictive form. For Kings and Planets flounders with sentences that are carelessly and flatly written, such as “Spring peaked early and inside him expectancy opened,” or “all kinds of buildings seemed to have been joined together to make the hospital,” or “and then soon afterward he understood that this meant that from then on he was going to cast his lot elsewhere.”

Ethan Canin’s characters ring largely false: Both pairs of parents as well as Simone are too sketchily drawn. What do convince the reader are Marshall’s deviousness and Orno’s dullness. As for the central theme, we have read too many times before about the simple, honest hick from the sticks who is dazzled by the glamour of the worldly denizen of the metropolis. Canin’s command of elegant prose and mellow irony has here deserted him; instead, banality and sentimentality infest his text. Gifted as he has shown himself to be, Ethan Canin should file this mishap under “Mistakes Made” and move on to better things.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, August, 1998, p. 1920.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 17, 1998, p. B6.

The Economist. CCCXLIX, October 17, 1998, p. 16.

Library Journal. CXXIII, September 1, 1998, p. 212.

Los Angeles Times. November 18, 1998, p. E1.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, September 13, 1998, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, July 6, 1998, p. 49.

The Spectator. CCLXXXI, October 31, 1998, p. 46.

The Wall Street Journal. September 17, 1998, p. A20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, September 13, 1998, p. 11.

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