The Burning, by Thomas Legendre

Gambling with life and love
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The Independent Culture

Many of us, much of the time, are motivated by more than lust, envy and comfort. Ideas and a search for righteousness are also an important part of what makes us human: materials that are sometimes neglected as the driving forces of the novel. There are stories that cannot be constructed without the characters' intellectual and political lives.

Thomas Legendre's impressive first novel derives much of its strength from traditional matters - adultery, divorce, betrayal, theft, academic rivalry - but much also from a sense that what is at stake goes beyond the personal. His protagonist, Logan, is an economist in his first academic job, who has fallen out of love with his trade only to rediscover it as a way of discussing prudent human behaviour in a world of limited resources and maximum greed. For much of the novel, he is coping with an impending sense of doom both for humanity's life on this planet, and for his own position in a faculty dominated by advocates of consumption and the illusions of the free market.

We are betrayed by what is false within. Logan has taken a colossal chance in his emotional life, as has his wife Dallas, whom he met when she was dealing blackjack in Las Vegas. They have goodwill and sexual passion on their side, but this was never going to be one of those stories that end happily. Dallas suffers the professional deformation of her trade. She is a gambler, and she does not know to quit when she is ahead.

In this, of course, she has much in common with the patterns of human behaviour Logan finds himself describing. Their progressive alienation is almost inevitable, and deeply tragic. Yet Logan, by accepting a life of limits, may yet have a chance. His growing love for the company of astrophysicist Keris, and their intellectual collaboration, is chastened and realistic. Logan's replacement of his garden with plants appropriate to the Arizona desert they inhabit both makes Legendre's point about how we must change our lives, and works as a symbol.

This is a book steeped in dualities; the chill of the desert at night is placed against the air-conditioned rooms where thinkers promulgate theories that ignore realities. Dallas betrays her lover and her better self for that momentary rush of thrilling sensation that gives the novel its title. The world is burning in the same fire, Legendre is telling us; things are falling apart, and civility and compassion are all that will save us.

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