In no television show in the land will you find a guest who will complain that they suffer from high self-esteem. According to the pop psychology of our day, too much self-regard is considered inconceivable. Everybody is supposed to blow their own horn. Even bragging about how much they have suffered if they have nothing else to brag about.

The concern for self-esteem is universal. Despite this, because of this really, it’s actual presence is rare. Long gone is the attitude of the Victorians and their children that modesty and humility are admirable qualities. The only attitude towards your humility is to brag about it.

The 20-Somethings

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood is told from the POV of a group of brighter than hell 20-somethings who are attending Cambridge. That is, except for the central character who is a working class guy named Oscar, a nurse’s aid at a retirement home near the university. My guess is that Oscar’s background is rather close to the author’s and that the novel reenacts the social class rapprochement that is a subtext of BW’s life.

Whether I guessed right about that or not, Benjamin Wood is utterly convincing in telling the story of how the Cambridge princelings take in Oscar, by degrees, as one of their own. BW is a master writer who can make the improbable sound plausible by easing up to his concept by degrees, carefully preparing the ground by a sequence of small incidents and character observations. Writers can take their readers anywhere if they take it one step at a time. Maybe that should be considered a mild form of hypnosis.

I loved that Oscar is modest about his lack of resources and formal education but never ashamed. And Oscar’s admirable mind always thinks for itself. He’s never bowled over by status. In the midst of these COE (Church of England) establishment types, he is resolutely atheist in a matter-of-fact way.

I remember the names of this social set of wunderkinds offhand. If you have just read a novel and can’t recall a character’s name, then the writer has failed to convince you of their reality.

There’s Iris, Eden’s sister, who’s urged by him to give up her amateur standing as a cellist in order to concentrate on being pre-med. There’s Marcus and Yin. Yin is the only American in the group, the descendant of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. And there is Janet, who seems to be swamped by her role as Eden’s girlfriend. Not that anyone around Eden isn’t swamped by him.

When Eden was eight years old, he would hypnotize his younger sister, Iris, and attach safety pins to her flesh. After he removed the pins, he would attempt to heal her flesh by gripping her hand.

The students have their own digs off-campus, an old Victorian house that the Bellwether family owns. So even within the Cambridge campus they are a hothouse group held apart. The 20-something group has a shared identity like a vaporous social envelope. They see the world through collective eyes. It’s as if Benjamin Wood has created this group of friends as a proto-character in itself. Their protective shell doesn’t crack until the end of the story.

The Power of Music

I mentioned in my first Bellwether post that Eden approves when his sister, Iris, improbably befriends Oscar. Was Oscar’s entrance into Kings College Chapel, the catalyst of the story, caused by Eden playing the church organ? That’s Eden’s view of reality. That by the playing of certain sequences of notes he can compel behavior according to ancient baroque principles of the power of music. He approves of Oscar because he thinks his sister’s new friend demonstrates his power.

The Bellwether estate has an additional building that serves as a guest house. It contains a large organ. Eden uses the organ to amplify his abilities. He believes that the right combination of notes can effect any change he wishes. The gang falls into helping Eden create compelling hypnotic concerts in the organ house.

Benjamin Wood’s descriptions of Eden’s playing are a marvel. Your ears will vibrate as you read.

The Gay Oldsters

I’ve mentioned Doctor Paulsen, the mid-eighties resident of the nursing home who is Oscar’s best eldest friend in my first Bellwether post. Paulsen is gay and his aborted relationship with Herbert Crest, a writer of books on clinical psychology, balances the improbable spin on reality that is Eden Bellwether’s mind. Although Crest and Paulsen have been estranged for decades, it’s touching how proud Paulsen was to be (officially) the third most important person in Crest’s life.

Moving also is BW’s depiction of the realities of old age. There is no patronizing sentimentality in Wood’s view of aging. It’s a horror show of declining physical and mental abilities. As his last work of published literature, Crest, slowly dying of cancer, is determined to demonstrate that hope is a delusion, virtually a pathology.

Making Crest a leading expert on the narcissistic personality re-frames the story as realistic even as Eden is applying his brilliance to undermine that realism. It’s fascinating to have a character in a story who ends up creating a dynamic realism by trying to undermine the premises of that story. Eden challenges fact. He counterpoises faith in himself to fact. He’s Faust at Cambridge. It’s the frail elderly Crest against the youthful, potent Eden. They’re oppositional even without meeting each other.

The Documents Are Sealed

I’ve hinted at a wildly improbable tale about a group of extravagantly talented university students who have every right to think well of themselves. One of their number aborts a realistic personality in favor of a degree of self-esteem that would virtually create a god if it were actual.

This is a realist novel that seals the book on any attempt to achieve a magical solution. But in saying that the documents are sealed, we are implying that there might have been something to seal off. Benjamin Wood renders his work more memorable by not speaking the whole truth but allowing us to speculate on what it is. And when you close the book, you’ll end up missing the gang at Cambridge as if they were your own friends. The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood, published by Viking, can be read by civilians on July 2nd.