Friday, December 30, 2016

Review: The Phantom of Thomas Hardy

University of Wisconsin Press.
2016. 184 pages
2016 has been something of a remarkable year in that it has seen the release of three novels featuring Thomas Hardy as a character. I wrote earlier in the year about the first two of these, Winter by Christopher Nicholson and Max Gate by Damien Wilkins. The third, The Phantom of Thomas Hardy, is perhaps the most engaging to the admirer of Hardy's work who will, in its pages, recognize a common kinship with its author, Floyd Skloot, through his very personal quest to connect with Dorset and the places that shaped Hardy's life and his writing.

The Phantom of Thomas Hardy sits on the bleeding edge of modern fiction in that it poses as a memoir while slyly inserting elements of fiction alongside Skloot's very believable and vulnerable writing about himself, his wife, and their journey to Dorset. He expands the range of the novel beyond an extended trip to Hardy country with his wife by including in a much larger narrative about Hardy's longstanding presence in his intellectual life. Skloot's presence in the work is also informed by his decades-long process of coping with neurological eccentricities that came with the development and recovery from brain lesions in the 1980s.

These eccentricities, in fact, form the fulcrum of the suspension of our disbelief throughout the novel as Skloot is visited, numerous times throughout the novel, by the titular phantom of Thomas Hardy as he explores the locales that served as the backdrop for the pivotal moments in Hardy's life. Even as Skloot questions the validity of his own experiences against the expectations of a mundane world, the reader is invited to wonder where the line between what happened and what is imagined within the book actually lies.

It will be difficult for Hardy's admirers not to identify with Skloot and his journey in this book. His trip to Dorset is informed by a lifetime shared with Hardy's work. The narrative isn't merely a travelogue to Dorset. Skloot cuts directly to the heart of why Thomas Hardy and his work still speak to an audience more than a century removed. His first-person account serves as a crucible for the work, the man, the place and the reader to intermingle in a way that reflects my own internal experience with Hardy's work and, I suspect, that of many others.

The ending of the book wraps up just a little too neatly for my taste, having the effect of showing how a magic trick is performed just before its awe-inspiring climax. I was enjoying Skloot's high-wire act, balancing fact and fiction so deftly that I couldn't distinguish between them and the close of the novel definitely dispels that in a way that is unmistakable. It reminded me of an element of Max Gate that drew me out of the narrative at nearly the same point in the book. Perhaps both intended it to serve as a kind of narrative frontality to underscore the fictional nature of all seemingly biographical writing?

It didn't spoil the book for me in either case but I was perfectly happy to let this one close without being reminded that the otherwise note-perfect writing was not just a love letter to Thomas Hardy but also to his many fans. As Hardy himself might note, there is nothing unsavory in giving oneself over to the passion evoked by a well-written love letter but there is wisdom in retaining some small piece of the self in skepticism because love is prone, by the very selflessness of its nature, to overselling its own durability.


  1. Now this is both a damn good review and damn well-written review.

    1. Thank you, James! This book will warm the heart of any long-time Hardy fan.