Choice: The Power and the Glory
A review of Alexandra York's novel Crosspoints: A Novel of Choice
By Erika Holzer
In her "Introduction to The Fountainhead," Ayn Rand defined Romanticism as "the conceptual school of art" that dealt "not with the random trivia of the day, but with the timeless, fundamental, universal problems and values of human existence . . . ." To would-be novelists weaned on The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and steeped in Rand's aesthetics, Romanticism constitutes a daunting challenge. To many, it remains an out-of-reach literary abstractionif not an impossible dream, then something to aspire to.
Alexandra York's most stunning achievement in Crosspoints: A Novel of Choice is that she rose to the challenge, grasped Rand's concept of Romanticism in all its complexities, and produced a conceptual work of art that glories in fundamental values which are about as "timeless and universal" as they could be. What boggles the mind is that Ms.York has tackled with passionate conviction and a sure handin this, a first novela couple of truly ambitious themes: the age-old clash of reason versus mysticism and, more fundamentally for her plot purposes, of free will versus determinism.
The more abstract your theme, the more arduous the task of concretizing events that successfully convey your novel's message. I'm talking about the toughest, most demanding aspect of fiction writing: plot. ". . . [T]he art of storytelling," Ayn Rand points out in "What is Romanticism?," her definitive essay from The Romantic Manifesto, ". . . requires three cardinal qualities: ingenuity, imagination, a sense of drama. All this (and more) goes into the construction of an original plot integrated to theme and characterization."
York delivers in all three categories. Take ingenuity. Her approach to storytelling is at once intricate, wide-ranging, and startlingly ambitious. It immerses us in both traditionalread "idealistic"and contemporaryread "decadent"art forms (predominantly painting and sculpture). Treats us to a fascinating exploration of ancient Greece's archaeological history, even as we get to compare it with your typical (and not so typical) robust Greek-American mentality in the ethnic environs of midtown Manhattan's restaurant district. Entwines the concept of hero worship with Greece's treasure trove of bronze and marble gods, in the process forging a love triangle that all but consumes the lives of Crosspoints' three major characters.
York turns her imagination loose, not just in Greece and New York, but in exotic, sensuous Turkey, as well as the smug socialite-paradise of Palm Beach. Her sense of place is impeccable. So is her sense of cultural malaise as she zeros in on an art scene teeming, in her words, with "freakish 'appeal'" and a hard-drug scene where the cynical and depraved treat sex "like an easily consumed and disposable fast-food hamburger."
As for sense of drama (in my view, the crucial "quality" on Rand's list), it's the element that makes us turn the pageor not. Crosspoints is a page-turner in the best tradition. York doesn't accomplish this with gimmicky car chases or a series of cliff-hanging threats to life and limb. She does it the hard, traditional way: by creating characters we care about and then investing them withto use a Randian phrase"I-must-but-I-can't" conflicts. The best plots are constructed on a combination of such searing conflicts, inner and outer, and in York's novel, they don't get any hotter than this.
Tara Niforous, a Greek-American archaeologist, is so committed to her work that, for ten years, she has virtually abandoned the family she loves and the city she adores to become the talented protégé of a world-class scholar in classical Greek civilization who heads the prestigious National Archaeological Museum in Athens and mounts groundbreaking expeditions in marine archeaology. Dimitrios Kokonas, whose tutelage of Tara has evolved into an intimate working relationship of passionately shared valuesand whose patient mentoring has evolved into loveagonizes over Tara's myopic view of him: partner in archaeological adventure, beloved friend. Leon Skillman has it all: wealth, acclaim, classical good looks, and a steady diet of admirers to feed his appetites. Famous for his huge steel and iron shapes, endlessly amused that his corroded abstracts, labeled "sculpture," are sought after in galleries and museums, he sets out to seduce the idealistic Tara on a betand ends up being wildly, inexplicably drawn to her.
Discussing the demanding standards of some top rank writers in "What is Romanticism?," Ayn Rand noted how their plot events had been "shaped, determined and motivated by the characters' values (or treason to values), by their struggle in pursuit of spiritual goals and by profound moral value conflicts." In Tara, Leon, and Dimitrios, Alexandra York has created the kind of larger-than-life characters Rand was alluding to in this passage. All three, having suffered betrayal or acute spiritual isolation (the men, very early in their lives), engage in a grueling struggle to reach the vision with which they started, and York's plotline is shaped throughout by the value choices of these characters.
There are scenes of rededication: "New York. Even as a child, she'd felt that only special people belonged here: people determined to rise through life like the tall buildings in which they lived."
And scenes of wrenching self-reproach: "When had he fallen in love with Tara? He didn't know! Tara . . . wasn't psychic . . . Psyche: the soul. He had opened his mind to her, but when had he ever opened his soul . . .?"
Scenes of cautious discovery"There was a purity of spirit about this woman that seemed almost childlike"merge with scenes of painful revelation: "Leon, reeling through space from the shock, felt her body come alive with such an intensity of commitment . . . that only one thought, one unimaginable certainty, went ringing through his mind: This is the way it always should have been. * * * Tara laughed softly, exultantly . . . And then she felt the wetness against the skin of her breast. She held him silently, confusion chilling her euphoria into a cold lump of doubt . . . as his tears washed all peace from her mind."
Scenes in which the outrageous"One of [Adria Cass'] paintings, which took up nearly a quarter of an entire wall . . . was a sticky mess of swirling, bleeding colors; it looked like the battlefield of a war going on in some poor psychotic's demented brain."
competes with the sublime: "Reminiscent of some mythical mermaid coming to rest on a rock in the sunlight for a moment, the figure . . . expressed the immediacy of one real girl while embodying, simultaneously, the radiance of all young womanhood . . . . It was the kind of face people meant when they thought of an angel or a goddess . . . not an image of either, but a uniquely human face . . . the mouth barely parted, as if waiting for a kiss from the breeze to touch its lips with the marvelous breath of life."
But it is Tara's uneducated, immigrant father, fiercely devoted to his adopted country, who imparts resonance to the novel's theme of personal responsibility and free will. Kostas Niforous has incessantly, devotedly, lectured his three children about "crosspoints" (an endearing confusion of "crossroads" and "turning points"). "All your life," he explains with an equal mix of patience and sternness, "you will come to times when the thing you choose will affect the rest of your life . . . . Listen to your feelings, yes . . . but in order to take action, you must think about what to do. If your head decides it is not good, believe me, in a little while your heart will agree . . . ."
Before I read Crosspoints, I wondered why Alexandra York had taken the unusual step of giving her work of fiction a subtitle: "A Novel of Choice." By the time I'd finished the book, I'd sensed that, for her, the abilityand more, the willto choose is both empowering and glorious.
Readers interested in Alexandra York's Crosspoints: A Novel of Choice can purchase copies signed by the author through this Web site: http://art-21.org/HomePage/NewBook3.html. The novel is also available at Amazon.com.
Reviewer Erika Holzer's own novels, Double Crossing and Eye for an Eye (also a Paramount feature film), were published, respectively, by Putnam and St. Martin's Press. Her article, "Passing the Torch"about Ayn Rand's impact on Holzer's own fiction writingwill appear in the Fall 2004 issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, and will be available from xLibris in time for the Ayn Rand centennial in the Spring of 2005. Visit Ms. Holzer's Web site at www.erikaholzer.com for further information about her work.
Readers may also be interested in Erika Holzer's A Conversation with Alexandra York