Joyce Carol Oates is so prolific, it literally became a joke.
A person calls and asks to speak to the award winning-author. “I'm sorry, Dr. Oates is finishing a new novel and can't be disturbed,” her secretary says.
“I'll hold,” the caller says.
I'm not sure Alexander McCall Smith would make you hold. Since 2003, when his “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” was published here, McCall Smith has had 27 novels released in America, plus his Harriet Bean detective series for children and other stories. (In Britain, the tally is even higher. We're running a little behind here, which at least gives his fans a chance to catch up.)
In 2010 alone, he's got four books out, for a total of 1,232 pages. That's “War and Peace” with a sizeable foreword, or the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy with a couple “Silmarron” stories thrown in for good measure.
In addition to the sheer output, what's impressive is the consistency of quality. I can count on one finger the number of his novels I haven't liked. (And frankly, with his perennial concerns about decency, civility, and kindness toward others, you feel a little curmudgeonly NOT liking one.)
In his recent releases, he combines a Dickensian concern with morality and penchant for evocative names with a Wodehousian knack for wordplay and comic setups surrounding tea things. (Here it's a Spode teacup instead of a cow creamer).
“Corduroy Mansions,” the first entry in the lives of London inhabitants of a building constructed “in a fit of Arts and Crafts enthusiasm,” bears some similarities to his serialized 44 Scotland St. series, which swirls around one long-suffering boy burdened by a mother who makes Lady MacBeth look maternal. In the most recent offering in the series, “The Unbearable Lightness of Scones,” Bertie longs to join the Cub Scouts, which Irene regards as a savage throwback to an unenlightened time. Besides, he has his yoga, psychotherapy, and Italian lessons. What more does a young boy need? (It is not comforting to learn in the foreword that Bertie – and his mother – are real, although the existence of painter Angus Lordie and his dog, Cyril, is a balm.)
There are no Berties in “Corduroy Mansions,” but there are references to classical music, Proust, Auden, and E.F. Benson's “Mapp and Lucia,” lost masterpieces acquired under shady circumstances, moisturizer for men, and a poem to wrap it all up. And of course, a dog, although Freddie de-la-Hay has been deprived of the raffish freedom of Cyril, with his gold tooth, winking eye, and “unresolved personal freshness issues.”
While Cyril has fathered six pups in “The Unbearable Lightness of Scones,” Freddie is a seatbelt-wearing vegetarian when William French, a wine merchant desperate to have his 24-year-old son, Eddie, move out, takes him on in a dog-sharing arrangement. (Eddie is petrified of dogs.) There's an MP named Oedipus Snark, who, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, absolutely deserves it; his revolted mother, her spacey brother, and Snark's longsuffering secretary; an art history student who shares the flat with the secretary; her best friend, who likes to talk about the morality of architecture; and a female caterer who wants Eddie to move out even more than William does.
Corduroy Mansions acquired its nickname as an insult, but it's since become a fond sobriquet. “There was something safe about corduroy, something reassuring, and while corduroy might be an ideologically near neighbor of tweed, it was not quite as ... tweedy..... There was something slightly bohemian about corduroy; it was a sign perhaps, of liberality of outlook, of openness to alternatives – of a slightly artistic temperament.”
“The Unbearable Lightness of Scones,” the fifth entry in the 44 Scotland St. series, is an outstanding outing. Even Bruce, “sometime surveyor and persistent narcissist,” is allowed some character development.
Nobody actually eats any scones, but there are oatcakes slathered in illegal marmalade, and musings about their cultural significance. “Love, blue Spode, marmalade – these were all things that worked away in the background, binding people to one another in invisible nets,” anthropologist Domenica MacDonald thinks. “She suddenly thought of a piece of 17th century music. ... “In Nets of Golden Wires” – that was what it had been called. In nets of golden wires – such a lovely image of how life, and love, may ensnare us, and now she took a small bite out of the oatcake Maeve passed her. It was a sharing – almost sacramental in its solemnity as that which had been exerted upon Proust by those small Madeleine cakes, years ago, in a very different world.”
In addition to the question of whether Bertie will be able to don the scouting uniform, there's a wedding between Bertie's lovely former teacher and the sheepish art gallery owner and there's also a purloined Spode teacup, which Domenica is determined to get back from her thieving neighbor.
McCall Smith devotes an entire chapter to the correct pronunciation of the town of Gullane (Gillan), about which the locals have such strong feelings that woe betide the lost motorist trying to ask for directions. He also explains why coffee is not conducive to soul-searching. “And a coffee cup, as we all know, is not something that it pays to look into if one is searching for meaning beyond meaning; coffee, in all its forms, looks murky and gives little comfort to one who hopes to see something in it. Unlike tea, which allows one to glimpse something of what lies beneath the surface, usually more tea.”
But underneath the teacups and marmalade, his subject is the same as Domenica's: “I think there's something going on in Edinburgh,” Domenica said. “There's an invisible city just underneath the surface. Every so often we get a glimpse of it; somebody makes an unguarded remark, begins a sentence and then fails to finish it. But it's there. What we anthropologists would call a realm of social meaning.”
And of course, the year's not over yet. In October, there's the latest Isabel Dalhousie mystery, “The Charming Quirks of Others.” With any other writer, it would be “The Annoying Tics of Others.”
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.