The Optimists

The Optimists - Andrew Miller The leads in the three of Andrew Miller’s novels that I’ve read are plagued with emotional removal. “An Ingenious Pain” focuses on, literally, an unfeeling doctor. His second novel, “Casanova in Love,” is remote and cruel in its treatment of women. “The Optimists,” which I read after its release in 2005 and again now, deals with a man, a photographer who has abandoned his craft – named, with heavy authorial nod, Clem Glass – and who is removed, because of trauma, from his entire world.Miller’s goal is always the bringing-round rather than the getting-to, and we know Glass as removed from the start. Miller does a good job – perhaps too good – of capturing emotional withdrawal, but the larger problems with “The Optimists” are that the plot feels to be all dread and little story, and that the method of removal this time around is used to questionable purpose.You could argue that “The Optimists” is not really about Africa, or about the “well documented atrocity in Rwanada in 1994” mentioned in the Author’s Note. You could argue that the genocide only sets in place the events more to our concern, and that we are viewers removed from what could be any tragedy: a European genocide, a Western superpower confronting terrorist attacks, etc. But such a view does injustice to the real and individual tragedies that are glossed over by the approach. That the chosen conflict is still fighting for legitimate attention from Western media, and that Westerners have never been great about differentiating the nations and peoples of the World’s second-largest continent, creates a cloud of discomfort over Miller’s tone that, considering one plot point’s improbable turn, isn’t left behind at novel’s end. In invoking Africa only as a giant mass and a few moderately drawn figures, Clem’s tragedy is too general, and too much aligned with the Western expectation that most news from Africa – a continent that to us may as well be of any size, really – be tribally affiliated, unspecific in motive or pall, but also as horrific as we can imagine. The difficulty for authors like Miller in exploring this world is that the exploration can seem culturally removed, even colonially paternal, and gruesome for its own sake, as if the tragedies are so expected, so within the realm of our experiential vocabulary, that they could almost be relegated to their own genre of form, sort of like what we’ve done with Holocaust-themed fiction.All this fuss over what is probably a minor part of the novel suggests to me that the story itself is so withdrawn and generic as to not warrant much discussion. It is a story of removal-from and returning-to comfort and conscience that weighs heavily on the latter.