Marcus Stevens obviously wrote The Curve Of the World with high aspirations. The story of Lewis, an American salesman lost in the Congolese jungles, offers a chance to examine national and cultural attitudes. Lewis’ search for safety and his family’s search for him provide an opportunity to explore themes of universal human feeling in a grand setting of civil war and international tension. It could have been brilliant. Africa is a powerful setting. And there’s nothing wrong with allegorical stories or characters with a level of symbolism. Almost every famous writer in history has used allegory, even if unconsciously.
The problem is that, before a story works as allegory, it has to work as a story. Before characters can make compelling symbols, they have to be compelling characters. Unless the tale is something as short and blunt as an Aesop’s fable, a character must be something more than “everyman”, since there’s no reason a reader should care about a cipher.
That rule isn’t followed here. The characters offer nothing to connect with, just a slew of actions around what the author intends them to represent. An hour after reading the book, I could not recall a single one of the central family’s names. Looking them up to write the review forced me to reread some sections, and The Curve of the World is not improved with repetition. Lewis, the supposed hero, is a bizarre shallow suburbanite parody of an average white American. He acts on impulse with no knowledge of his own immediate motives beyond the most physical. He suffers from frequent interior flashbacks, in which it’s revealed that he’s becoming estranged from his active, compassionate wife Helen and feels alienated from their seven-year-old son, Shane, because Shane was born blind. Not unhealthy, or emotionally disturbed, or unpleasant in any way, but only blind. And because of this, Lewis can hardly talk about or to his own child. It’s true that some parents of children with disabilities (or without) end up rejecting the children they see as imperfect, but it’s hardly an endearing or sympathetic trait.
Then again, maybe Lewis unknowingly resents his son for being a hopeless walking cliché. Shane is indeed blind. And angelically cheerful. And, of course, naturally spiritual, gifted with knowing that his father is alive through the magic channels available to disabled children in certain kinds of fiction. And a moral and spiritual inspiration through his disabled pluckiness, in a role that was annoying when Tiny Tim first filled it.
One of the best rules I’ve seen for fiction is that the protagonist should protag — that is, the hero should be assertive in their life. The Curve of the World seems reluctant to present a hero, afraid to let anyone find real meaning in their actions. The worst case is Lewis, who spends most of the story in the grip of malarial fever, a truly drive-sapping condition. Certainly no one has to be larger than life; but to sap the characters of almost all power and opportunity turns the book into a series of random events, rather than a story — a plane crashes, Lewis gets a fever, there’s a search that goes well or poorly. It’s true that real life typically offers little in the way of a plot, but the events in a typical life are given meaning and direction by the motives of the person living them. The only clear motive given to Lewis and Kofi is, essentially, “stay alive”—and even that primitive drive is given little emphasis. Helen’s search for her husband at least has the feel of personal impetus. Yet ultimately, the story is resolved through luck and coincidence that no one controls or could possible have known about. Perhaps this lack of human influence is supposed to provoke thought about fate and the need for control. But when a plot is resolved by helpful coincidence it’s usually called lazy, and that’s how it feels here.
Stevens seems convinced The Curve of The World will impress people with its depth. This edition comes complete with a literature class-friendly author’s interview and discussion questions which do nothing to alleviate the pedantic morality lesson of the book. The author’s interview is especially distressing, confirming that yes, most of these characters were created to stand for some wider trait rather than as organic, functioning individuals.
But for a book so reliant on its own sense of deeper meaning, The Curve of The World has nothing new to say. Africa is presented as a dark and savage land populated by either victims or perpetrators of violence. The African characters are given no life or initiative beyond their interaction with the visiting white family. People traditionally seen as outside “mainstream” (white, American, middle class) culture remain outsiders. Africans, non- Americans, people with physical differences, are portrayed as sometimes sympathetic, but ultimately alien.
Yet there’s a seed of a good book in here. Africa is a grand stage. Culture clash is very real. And The Curve of the World might have been able to say something about the forces that shape our lives if only Stevens had dared to let his story, for a moment, truly live.