Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Blix by Frank Norris

A light-hearted romance from one of America’s best novelists
The cryptically titled Blix is an early novel by the great American writer Frank Norris. Originally published in 1899, it is probably his least-known work. Later that same year he published the novel McTeague, a now highly regarded masterwork that was controversial for its time. While McTeague put Norris on the map as a force to be reckoned with in American letters, the unassuming Blix was most likely forgotten soon after its publication. Nevertheless, this obscure novel from the early years of Norris’s brief but illustrious career displays ample evidence of his characteristic excellence as a storyteller.

Travis Bessemer is an attractive young woman of 19, mature for her age and independent-minded for her time. She resides with her father, a widower, in a moderately well-off home in San Francisco, where she helps to raise her younger sister and brother. She enjoys the companionship of a 28-year-old suitor, Condy Rivers, who bears some resemblance to a young Frank Norris, in that he writes hack articles for a local paper while waiting for his big break as a fiction writer. Although they have been a couple for about eighteen months, Travis forces Condy to admit that the two don’t really love each other, and that they should stop pretending they will be married some day and simply be friends. She also decides to renounce her membership in San Francisco society, turning her back on the debutante balls and society teas that have tediously occupied so much of her time. Determined to find her own means of enjoying life, she invites Condy along for the ride, as chums only. The two then embark on a series of unconventional adventures, such as spending a leisurely afternoon in a Chinese tea house or embarking on their first fishing trip. The more Travis enjoys her nonconformist lifestyle, the more independent she becomes, and, not surprisingly, the more she becomes her own woman, the more Condy falls in love with her.

Though the subject matter of Blix is quite frivolous in comparison to the life-and-death struggles one encounters in Norris novels like The Octopus and McTeague, for what it is—a story of two young people enjoying one another’s company—Blix is actually quite good. There’s not a great deal of conflict here, but the reader finds a pleasant joy in sharing in the enthusiasm of the two main characters as they go about their humble adventures. To his credit, Norris treats this story with the same naturalistic precision that he imparts to all his novels. His vividly detailed descriptions of a sunset over San Francisco Bay, the bustling streets of Chinatown, or even the wares on display at a sporting goods store show an observational gift worthy of his literary idol Emile Zola. Here and there the Norris fan can find scenes that would go on to be repurposed and reused in later works, like a scene of wheat being loaded onto a cargo ship that reads like it’s straight out of The Octopus. One major drawback to Blix is the annoying century-old slang which Condy spews forth with each and every sentence. A few chapters into the book, he gives Travis the nickname “Blix,” apropos of nothing, and the reader is stuck with it for the rest of the book. The novel also unfortunately bears a weak final chapter, which is too convenient and conventional for the book that precedes it.

In its entirety, however, Blix is a well-crafted, fun, and engaging little romance. It doesn’t deliver the shock and awe of a Norris masterpiece, but those who have enjoyed his other works, or naturalist literature in general, won’t regret plucking this novel from obscurity and giving it a try.

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