Most of the reviews of Pauline Melville's Eating Air so far have remarked on the many characters introduced in the novel:
Eating Air has a wide-cast of characters and the story moves seamlessly from one to another . . . Despite the wide cast of characters I found it easy to remember who was who (not always the case in my experience!) -- commonreader.
Technically, the novel is a virtuoso performance, playing with a gallimaufry of characters... -- Independent.
...for 407 pages we’re jumping from character to character, scene to scene, at a pace that is exhilarating (if slightly dizzying). Melville has created the literary equivalent of a Cirque de Soleil performance... -- Booksexy.
The number of characters (one person counted over 18; I didn't bother to count) may prompt this question: Does the novelist have to introduce several characters to give us a wide story? Marlon James's Book of Night Women covers roughly two plantations of people, and we meet several of them. But, arguably, the many minor characters we meet never take our attention away from the novel's few major characters. They either help the plot along, or give us something additional to think of the major characters.
Pauline Melville's Eating Air, on the other hand, gives us a kaleidoscope of characters and plots, and though the characters and plots intertwine--which helps keep them all in one place, so to speak--what we get is essentially an artistic realism where plots are sometimes planned, sometimes incidental, and the outcomes are never quite predictable. It's a realistic panoramic view of a cross section of society and folk that may require some metal exercise to remember who is who, but the questions raised may be more intriguing than the characters themselves. And we are guided through it all by a narrator who pops up in the narrative occasionally to (among other purposes for such narrators) remind us that we are reading a work of fiction.
The novel is set mostly in England and spans a few decades of activism against ruling societal principles--from anti-establishment marches and other forms of activism in the 1960s and 1970s, to modern-day suicide bombers--and the major source of the novel's development concerns several possible questions: If one chooses revolution, what form should it take? How does one decide when revolution is effective? Can art remain pure, unaffected by politics? What is an older revolutionary to do when he's still revving to go, but he disapproves of the ways of younger revolutionaries?...... A bomb or a novel?
The most dominating plot in the novel is the love story between Ella, a dedicated dancer (part Surinamese) who sees her art as separate from and unaffected by the revolutionary activism around her, and Donny, a roamer who declares that he doesn't believe in anything. Together they create the novel's best ironies and statements about the nature and effect of revolution.
But although Donny and Ella's story dominates, we are treated to other characters whose dramatic quirkiness give the novel a cinematic feel: a transvestite pilot; a pill-popping, social-climbing American woman with a penchant for telling tall tales and stealing; a heart-broken capitalist who ends up in a mental institution... And whether they are large (a plane crash into a housing estate) or small (a trek through a harsh Omaha landscape, or a dinner gathering), the exorbitantly detailed events in the novel also add to its cinematic feel.
Eating Air is an overall revelry of folk, art, common matter, and world affairs--a combination of substantive fulfillment and intangible ethereality (as its title suggests) that would be a delight to the reader who eyes its 400+ pages and decides to read it anyway. And if you'd like the chance to read it and see for yourself, be the first to comment and I'll send you a copy.
Eating Air, by Pauline Melville (Telegram, 2009, 407 pp).