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A Romantic Manifesto

A Romantic Manifesto

5 Mins
August 18, 2010

May 2004 -- BOOK REVIEW: Alexandra York, Crosspoints: A Novel of Choice (New York: Promethena Press, 2004). 446 pp., $24.95, paperback.

Those who love Ayn Rand 's novels have searched, with little result, for works that are similar to Rand's in both ideas and essential conception. Alexandra York's Crosspoints is, despite some notable shortcomings, the novel most in keeping with Rand's ideas and work that I have yet read. In subject and content, it represents and defends Romantic Realism—the school of art, defined first by Rand, that seeks to create artwork embodying an idealistic concept of man as a heroic being. York endeavors, through her characters and plot, to dramatize the power of ideas and volition in a realistic, contemporary context. The novel is driven by a plot that brings to life a conflict of ideas, and it has many engaging, even moving, scenes and characters.

The central plotline concerns a love triangle centering on Tara Niforous, a beautiful Greek-American archeologist specializing in ancient Greek art. Tara's mentor is the Greek scholar and archeological adventurer Dimitrios Kokonas, who has been too absorbed in his work to realize that he has a more than professional admiration for Tara. For her part, Tara is drawn to Leon Skillman, a handsome and charming American sculptor who seems to embody her ideal. After some events in Greece, including some exciting underwater archeology, Tara returns to New York City, her hometown, where Leon also lives. Passion erupts, conflicts arise, and Dimitrios pursues. The action plays out mostly in and around New York, with some romantic Mediterranean asides, and involves a large cast of additional characters who contribute in one form or another to advancing the novel's theme.

The "crosspoints" of the title are fateful choices. Free will is central to the novel's plot, and at several key points York's characters explicitly discuss or muse upon the role of our choices in shaping our lives, work, and character. But the theme of the novel is really the nature of art. York shares Ayn Rand 's view of what art is: the concretization of important ideas through the re-creation of reality. Her heroes yearn, and in some cases strive, for the birth (or rebirth) of a thriving school of Romantic Realism or idealistic modern representative art. Tara and her younger brother Nicky represent this in the positive: Tara because she is deaf to "Modern Art" and has buried herself in Greek civilization to find her ideal. Nicky because he struggles to master landscape painting, mentored by a saintly, brilliant painter who is one of the lone defenders of a modern vision of representative art. In the negative, we have Leon and a raft of his decadent art-world cronies. Leon has abandoned early representative, idealistic statues to do crude, Modernistic pieces welded haphazardly out of huge, tortured sheets of metal. But he hides this from Tara, who touches the lost, idealistic side of him that preceded his current cynicism and nihilism. Tara must choose which man she loves and must face up to the modern art world. Nicky must choose between integrity as a representative artist and fame as a lauded designer of "abstract" monstrosities. Dimitrios must choose whether to reveal his feelings to Tara, when doing so would threaten their comfortable working relationship. Tara's sister Kally must choose between her smothering Greek family and the soulless glitz of the wealthy socialites she admires from afar. And Leon must discover and choose who he really is, as an artist and a man.

Fans of Rand 's ideas and fiction will probably love the passionate engagement of the characters, the many dramatic scenes, and the ideals the heroes defend and exemplify, such as reason, reality-orientation, and independence. The lone gallery that features Romantic Realist art is called: A IS A GALLERY. It doesn't get more Randian than that!

But this is Alexandra York's first novel, and it is not published by a major publishing house. Her inexperience shows in the roughness of her craft. A basic part of the craft of good novel writing, for example, is the management of the information conveyed to the reader. A novel is not an essay—a novelist should depict the story through action, description, and dialogue. A powerful novel does not tell us that someone's heart has been broken; it shows us the moment it broke. In this respect, York's writing is uneven and too many vital events are told to us rather than shown. But, to be fair, many powerful events are movingly shown as well.

Another way in which a novelist manages the reader's experience is by selecting carefully what information we learn. A novelist must know what every character is thinking in order to know what they will say and do next. Without this, a novel lacks depth and realism. But a reader wants to know where to focus his attention, and wants questions left open so that reading the novel is a process of ongoing discovery. Imagine the dullness of Atlas Shrugged if we knew whom Eddie Willers was talking to in the cafeteria. Imagine an Agatha Christie mystery if instead of knowing only what Miss Marple knows, we knew who was guilty from the start.

From the first, Crosspoints disappoints in this respect. We know how Tara sees Leon. We know what Dimitrios is thinking of Tara. After a few pages wherein Leon is as interesting a mystery to us as he is to Tara, we learn exactly what Leon is all about. Oh, and Leon's decadent friends are thrown in, too. Why do we need to know what they are thinking? They will play a role in the story, to be sure, but as yet we do not even know the main characters very well. Indeed, the decadent friends muddy the waters. "Who really are the main characters?" one might well be wondering. And when the narrator jumps from one character's perspective to another's from paragraph to paragraph, the text becomes at times a bit confusing and off-putting.

There are other shortcomings. There are clumsy passages and times when the characters lose their depth and turn into talking points. Their ideals are thrilling to an Objectivist, but too many of the characters shift too easily into speechifying about the abstract principles that guide their actions. The main characters who live in Greece see it as if in a tourist's dream, where the ancient world lives in the ruins and the modern world seems irrelevant. Having lived in Greece myself, I found this unrealistic. Greece is a living country, not a mere museum. A reader familiar with the art world might well make a similar charge of unrealism. This goes to show that Romantic Realism is a difficult form of art to make, because it ambitiously seeks to integrate the exceptional and the natural.

So I am conflicted over how to assess this novel. I have written fiction myself and am perhaps a more severe critic of the shortcomings I mention than would be many readers. As an Objectivist and a fan of Rand's fiction, I thrilled to many passages in Crosspoints and felt, while reading it, that I was often in a rarely visited homeland. Alexandra York deserves every credit for taking on such a challenging project in her first novel and for carrying it off so well. Is this book for everyone? No. But is it worth a look from those eager for a fresh taste of Romantic Realism? Absolutely.

This article was originally published in the May 2004 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.

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