Thursday, February 21, 2013

Love a Dangerous Game in "Gone Girl"

Boy meets girl; beautiful, blonde, accomplished, from a semi-famous family. Girl meets boy; handsome, southern charm, writer’s aspirations, a romantic at the right time in the right place. This perfect couple come together in the streets of New York, as so many do, but when the Dunnes are presented to the reader, the recession has hit and Nick and Amy are living in Missouri, his home state. It is their fifth wedding anniversary and Amy is missing. Within the first ten pages of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn there is an abundance of lies, blood, and questions.

The state of the couple’s house suggests that Amy has been killed and Nick’s cagey demeanor, both as a narrator and with the cops, fuels the common deduction that when the wife’s been killed, the husband did it. The riddles Amy has left for their traditional anniversary scavenger hunt become more and more incriminating and as the pages turn even Nick’s twin begins to doubt his innocence.

The dramatic architecture of this novel is exceptional. The first section is told from Nick’s point of view, but the chapters alternate between him and his wife’s diary entries. As the reader gets to know Nick personally, Amy’s version of her husband is also provided; complicating our understanding of both characters. Nick’s voice is present day with occasional flashbacks, while Amy’s diary entries begin the day they met and slowly build toward the blood pool on the kitchen floor. To give away more of the structure would be to ruin much of the novel’s suspense. Suffice it to say that my opinions of the characters were turned on their head more than once and that the book was nearly impossible to put down.

Flynn has a canny eye for personality with an edge. Her narrative despises pushovers and the implication is that only the tough and wily survive. Whether they do so and are happy is a lingering mystery. Many of the peripheral characters are sketched with too much caricature, but Nick and Amy are the driving force of this novel and their complexities are enthralling.

Gone Girl cleverly uses the recession as a backdrop for its drama. What happens to the bright ambitions of two smart, beautiful people when their financial expectations are irrevocably altered? Who can they fall back on if their parents are leaning on them either for care or for money? Is a partnership of love enough to see you through? Gone Girl is a fairly terrifying answer to this hypothetical. But unlike Tana French’s excellent mystery Broken Harbor, which addresses the same quandary, this story feels particular to the characters Flynn has created, as opposed to speaking more broadly to the delicate psyches we all possess.

I am not partial to the suspense genre (probably because I am a not-so-latent book snob) but I do love being pulled through a book at rapid fire pace, and Flynn accomplishes this expertly and with a keen eye trained on the driving force of human desire and human weakness. If you are a fan of this type of novel, I think you will find Gone Girl to be extremely winning. If not, you now have the perfect bewitching read to distract you during an international flight or a sleepless night.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Exotic and Emotional Travels with Ann Patchett

In Ann Patchett’s lovely Bel Canto, the reader travels to a fictional South American country and bears witness to an odd tale of the quotidian, love, and a high stakes hostage situation. Her latest novel, State of Wonder, also uses the exoticism of a South American background and is thick with themes of foreign climes and cultures, as well as bonds that supersede borders, and the energies that drive science.

Dr. Marina Singh has her careful routine turned on its head when news reaches her in her Minnesotan lab that her colleague Anders Eckman has died in the Amazon. The details are vague, reported in a letter by the brilliant but uncommunicative Dr. Annick Swenson. She has spent years of her life and millions of the Minnesotan pharmaceutical company’s money studying the Lakashi tribe who live on the banks of the Rio Negro. Anders was sent to discover the extent of Dr. Swenson's progress and to ensure the value of the work. His death deprives his three sons of a father and his wife of a husband, but it also throws another ratchet in the company’s investment. Mr. Fox, Marina’s lover and the president of the company, asks that she achieve what Anders attempted. Coupled with Anders’s wife’s firm belief that he is not dead, Marina heads south.

Patchett is an exquisite and patient writer. She details the excruciating heat and the unexpected barriers that Marina faces upon her arrival in Brazil with a keen eye and satisfies any possible curiosity. Dr. Swenson does not want to be found and Marina finds herself drifting between the desire to do her duty and the itching dissatisfaction with her role and the particular environment it places her in. Marina studied as an obstetrician before switching to pharmacology, a path that ties her to Dr. Swenson, and has had a profound effect on the course of her life.

The novel is a mystery as well as a study of human impetus and connection. It is well into the book that the reader is allowed to approach the tribe that Dr. Swenson has worked with for over 50 years. We are coupled to Marina’s sphere of knowledge and invested enough in the unknown behind the walls of green to wait with appropriately baited breath and bug spray as Patchett ekes out the details of her story. The Lakashi tribe is the source of hope for the pharmaceutical company that has staked millions on the idea that their immense fertility can be translated into a drug for women everywhere. The studies have reported that Lakashi women bear children into their 70s. I can’t think of anything I’d like to do less as I enter my twilight years, but this is the era of the octomom.

Patchett’s characters are fully-dimensional and their layers are intriguing, and sculpted as believable parts of their history. The novel is a thorough account of the motives of its protagonists and mounts to a surprising end, which is girded by the tensions of the unfamiliar and incredible turns of events. Patchett has an interesting perspective when it comes to matters of the heart and her view of the complexities of moments between people, when coupled with high emotion, is again on display in the final pages of State of Wonder.

Because a number of the same tropes lace Bel Canto and Patchett’s latest work, it is hard not to compare the two. While I didn’t feel that State of Wonder had the same emotional punch as Bel Canto, traveling to the tropics in the chill of a New York winter was not an unpleasant journey, particularly with Marina as my guide.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Like It or Not "Dirt" Sticks with You

I try to keep a running list of titles in order to have something to refer to when I am looking for a good read. I’m not very diligent about my list, so I tend to assume that anything I wrote down I added for good reason. I sent my list off to Santa this year, and the first novel I dove into Christmas morning was Dirt by David Vann. It surprised me, and now, having filed it safely away on my bookshelf, I am still wondering what I was thinking when I chose it.

Galen and his mother live somewhere outside Sacramento on their nearly defunct family walnut farm. His grandmother has dementia and has been sent to a nursing home though she is physically in perfect health. His aunt lives nearby with his hyper-sexual cousin, Jennifer, who relishes the chance to tantalize her cousin with glimpses of her body and half-realized physical encounters. The fractured family goes through a strained, daily ritual of afternoon tea, followed by a visit to grandma, followed by dinner, laced with barbs from his aunt, denial from his mother, and aggressive flirtation from Jennifer. The repetition is caustic and life on the farm, stagnant.

Galen feels trapped by his mother. He hasn’t gone to college because she says there is no money, and the two live off the wages for an ostensible gardener and maid. Galen hunkers down with his copy of Sidhartha on the porch, and while the summer heat creeps up to encase him, the reader’s initial instinct is pity. Poor bright boy, seeking enlightenment, suffocated by his mother and the golden past she wears like armor against the present. It is not long before Galen’s self-absorption and scuttled meditations reveal there is more at stake. The four women and Galen spend a weekend together in a cabin in the woods and the semi-privacy supplies the catalyst for Galen’s epic destruction.

The dirt of the title coats the subject literally and figuratively throughout the novel. In Galen’s attempts to reject the material world, to throw off the shackles he believes bind him, he plunges into the extremes of nature at his body’s expense. Every time Galen took a shower I drew a breath of relief, as if he were staving off some awful disintegration, and a real sense of dread built when he stepped out of doors once again.

Vann has written a disturbing novel about family, modernity, money, delusion, and self-serving personal exploration. Galen fancies himself to be spiritually beyond the people he is surrounded by, entirely failing to recognize the humility of his idol, Sidhartha. The family he is given is hardly a picnic, but Galen makes no effort to understand the distress of their relationships. Had he tried to unravel the tensions that surround him, rather than trying to cut directly through them, Galen might have understood the people in his life as more than obstacles to, or as pawn-like ushers toward, his deliverance.

It’s an accomplishment to evoke such visceral feelings of distaste from your readers while still compelling them to continue on with the story. I am not sure I am pleased to have met Galen, but he certainly won’t be forgotten.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Pryne resurrected as Payne in "When She Woke"

A few summers ago, I read a novel about a young woman who moves to a farm in the south with her family and is caught off guard by the grueling nature of the enterprise. She is shaken by the heat, the loneliness, and the crags and craters of her emotions. I remember being surprised by how much I enjoyed Mudbound and knew I would keep my eyes out for Hillary Jordan’s next publication. Nevertheless, when Jordan’s second novel was published I was hesitant to bring it home with me. When She Woke takes on the uncertain landscape of the future. I am often deterred by these premises. Maybe this is because Brave New World was spoiled for me by high school, maybe because I prefer to have uncertainties of the present enumerated for me, or maybe I’m just an old crank. Adding to my skepticism was the knowledge that Jordan’s second work modeled itself on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. If there’s something that makes me very nervous, it’s novels based on Classics. Despite my trepidation, there is much to be said for When She Woke. Jordan imagines a future where criminals are identified by the color of their skin. A virus has been created which alters your DNA and turns you a color that matches your crime. Green an arsonist, drug dealers blue, etc. Rather than overload the prison system, criminals are allowed into the general population. They serve out their sentence in years as their designated color. Unsurprisingly the Chromes form a new lower class. And as with all things other, they are largely despised and preyed upon. Jordan’s America is governed by a radical religious right. Abortions are illegal. If caught you are chromed red: murderer. Hannah Payne, our modern Hester Pryne, is the daughter of intensely religious parents. As a child she is shamed for asking too many questions, wanting to wear pants, sensing there is something out there bigger than her parents’ doctrinal obedience. She never quite fits into the rigid strictures of her world. Aidan Dale, her married pastor, is her undoing and her love story. Unlike Hester Pryne, Hannah aborts her child, unwilling to bring it into the world they inhabit, unwilling to incriminate her lover. After Hannah’s chroming and solitary imprisonment she is released into a religious halfway house for chromed women. Cruelty abounds, overseen largely by the proprietor’s wife. Hannah is able to build a deep friendship with another red, Kayla, and together they strike out into their own brave new world; a world full of Klan-like vigilantes and terrorists trying to give victims like Hannah a second chance at life. Jordan’s future is expertly crafted if not always fully explained. The scenarios and gadgets that fill her novel are probable extensions of current trends: biodiesel cars, restricted personal freedoms, mobile devices called ports that make calls, track your money, your location etc. Jordan’s terrain, technological and political, is familiar enough to be frightening. The roles of religion and freedom are seriously discussed and it isn’t difficult to see how the extremists arrived at their decisions. It’s abundantly clear how hard it is to win those freedoms back. In the end I felt that Jordan rushed to bring her heroines to a conclusion. Despite deviations in the middle, the story’s arc ended with a scene very close to Hawthorne’s. I found the synchronicity unnecessary, because When She Woke had taken on a strong life of its own. The novel neither reinforced my prejudices about futuristic, classic-based novels, nor assuaged them. I would like to see what Jordan does next.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Complexity of Internet Age Lost in Banks Novel

In his recent novel, Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks tackles three separate subjects: the criminality of sex offenders, morbid obesity, and his apparent love for Florida. There is certainly room for these three themes to become intertwined and accentuate each other. Unfortunately their crossings feel entirely forced and the novel is one of the few I can best recommend as a doorstop.

The protagonists are not awarded with the dignity of names. They are merely the Kid, a young, white adult male recently out of prison for a sex crime, and the Professor, an obscenely fat man who takes a scholarly interest in the ramshackle community of sex offenders living beneath the Calusa causeway. What we are meant to recognize early on is that both men are layered in misunderstandings and concealments. This clearly manifests in the Professor’s gross size, which Banks conveniently chalks up to overindulgent parents who were wowed with the brilliance of their only son, and in the Kid's secrecy about his offense.

It is easy to feel sympathy for the Kid. He grew up as little more than a mouth to feed in his mother’s house and he has a tendency to lavish kindnesses on odd or wrecked animals. His affection for his iguana, Iggy, is both sweetly touching, baffling and his undoing. The Kid basically suffers from a lack of knowhow. He can be viewed as an everyman or middle-man, but unlike other heroes he’s given no particular talents and his dispassionate if vaguely self-aware presence is fostered by an environment in which it’s possible to disappear through the cracks into various byways. The Kid chooses to quench his loneliness with sexual satisfaction and the rampant porn supply on the internet allows him to do so without ever becoming intimate with another person. The dastardly role that the web can play into modern lives is more than interesting in itself but Banks mars the easy vulnerability of his character by repeatedly patronizing him and undermining whatever dignity the unassuming Kid possesses.

The Professor's formula is excess. He is a genius and has ended up as huge fish in a tiny pond and the girth to make everyone take note. His interest in the Kid feels predatory even if it's not and we're expecting to uncover some sort of darkness between his evasions. The expectation is satisfied in the most absurd manner of secret government agencies and years spent as a spy. The Professor is as opaque as the Kid is transparent and the friendship that arises is unlikely and unconvincing.

A novel can be redeemed through its descriptions, either through ripe language or visuals. Again Banks disappoints. Florida never came alive for me. Even when the Kid and Professor are caught in the throes of a hurricane I felt nothing for the crashing waves nor felt the force of the surrounding storm. If Banks harbors a particular love for the complicated culture and environment of Florida he utterly fails to communicate it or to embroil the reader in its complexities.

At no point could I divine Banks’s purpose and I was wholly disappointed by the author, whose books I have previously enjoyed. His effort to uncover the complicated role the Internet plays in our lives today, allowing us to disappear from each other into alternate but not necessarily safer realities, is crippled both by his language and the lack of dignity and thrall in his characters' stories.

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Blueprints" an Explosive Portrait of Post-feminist Girls

The first story of Elissa Schappell’s collection Blueprints for Building Better Girls explodes off the pages. The vulnerability, sadness, cruelty and idiocy are like brutal scratches and the familiarity of the emotions like salt on a wound.

Heather has a bad reputation. Slut is shouted more than whispered as she walks through the halls of her high school. Ross is haunted by his recent past as the fat kid. The one in the pool with a long shirt, the one shoved into lockers, his books catapulted toward the floor. They find each other and it is a first exchange of intimacy and surrender. They are broken fledglings and their desperate search for solace is heartbreaking and destructive. “I couldn’t figure out why Ross, after taking such good care of that car, polishing each sleek curve, never seemed to clean outside,” thinks Heather, illuminating the way that all of Ross’s workouts and diets have shaved off the pounds but not smoothed whatever is inside him.

Schappell’s stories are linked by incidental crossovers between characters and my mind hopped around a bit trying to remember where Jenny had appeared before and what I knew about her. I’ve begun to tire of the six degrees of separation approach in short story collections, but Schapell’s overlaps bothered me less than some.

Joy of Cooking was good enough to make me pause. I have a tendency to react violently to narratives of eating disorders. Too often they are so wrong it feels like an insult. Schappell is at her strongest when she is writing in the first person and this is the best way to inhabit the pain of Emily’s mother. Twelve was the beginning of her daughter’s anorexia. Sit-ups, calorie counting, 74 pounds. The story hurts. The disease is an awful game where the winner dies, and this insidious disease is everywhere. Joy of Cooking harrowingly reminds us of the ripple effect, the way the obsession with food scuttles relationships and devastates multiple lives. “No one saw how much the mother hurt,” Schappell writes. “No one knew, or cared, what she’d lost.”

Schappell examines more than a few marriages, probing at the eventuality of children. She illuminates the polarizing feeling of absolute love and devotion paired with a distinct, if temporary, loss of self.

Sex itself is a vital thread in this narrative of girls and women. Unfortunately, every instance of sex in these pages is laced with ulterior motives, a promise or a deprivation. A woman bears three children to her husband and he stops sleeping with her. Another can't bear children and is similarly rejected. The anorexic is so uncomfortable in her body she can’t be touched, and a college girl tries to erase herself through degrading, semi-conscious encounters. Sex is not a success for these women, which I found upsetting and unfair. When will women, even in the confines of fiction, be permitted to pursue their sexual impulses without damning results?

I spent a lot of time thinking about these women’s relationship to sex afterward. Wanted, denied, unwanted, degraded, feared. Ultimately I think Schappell wouldn’t let sex be easy for her characters. Maybe she thinks it isn’t easy, or maybe she thinks it shouldn’t be, and maybe she’s right. But I can’t help hoping for stories about women who ask for what they desire and get it, without strings, without damage. How many times have we explained the foibles of men as boys being boys? When Heather’s son explains away a girl’s slip-up in a similar manner, her reply is devastating: “Don’t be a fool, there is no such thing as just a girl.”

Schappell unveils the frigid contours of post-feminist blueprints. The ability to have it all was somewhere confused with a directive. And as anyone knows, who has tried to be the good daughter, the temptress, and the measured prude, you simply can’t be everyone you’re expected to be.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Grief of Others" Speaks to Suburbia

When I read a review of Leah Hager Cohen’s novel The Grief of Others, I was curious how it would compare to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. ¬The books possess similar elements, a fraying family, suburbia, secrets. As readers of Booking Around are aware, I did not like Freedom. I felt differently about The Grief of Others.

The Ryries live outside of New York City in a pleasant neighborhood and have two children. John also has an elder daughter from a relationship in college. And the Ryries have just lost their infant son. Ricky chose to carry the baby to term, though she knew he would survive only a few hours after his birth. He had a rare defect where his skull didn’t properly form to protect his brain. Ricky kept this knowledge from her husband John and her secretive decisions has opened a vast chasm between them and shaken the constructs of their family.

The shift has affected both their children, and the parents seem just mildly aware of the impact their marital trouble is having. Paul is being bullied by his peers, and Biscuit has started skipping school for no reason they can discern at the early age of ten. John’s first daughter, and their half-sister, Jessica shows up with a pregnancy of her own, and it is her presence that begins to bring the Ryries’ rupture to light.

What Hager Cohen draws from her characters is the human despair and desire to improve that Franzen failed to imbue in the Berglunds. They infuriated me because they saw their problems but wouldn’t attempt to repair them and answered the situation by destroying the lives of the people around them instead. The Ryries are similarly on fragile ground, and while the behavior that occurs may be hurtful, it is not cruel. The complexity of desires and selfishness of people, even mothers and fathers, is not overlooked by Hager Cohen, but neither is it indulged.

Gordie is another character who comes into the frame of the Ryries lives. He is of college age and has lost his father to cancer. He happens to spot Biscuit as she falls into the river and brings the sodden child home and finds himself welcomed into a home that doesn’t seem to have room for each other. He is suffering from his own grief and confusion about who he is now that he has one less template of personhood to compare to.

Hager Cohen gets deep into the heads of all of her characters, illustrating each with clear and sometimes startling illuminations of their thoughts. Her writing has the qualities of a river, direct in its course but able to respond to changes in light and interferences. The book is about recovering from crisis. Moving beyond what one believes one is capable of in order to be there for the ones left behind. The Ryries struggle to revitalize what they have built without razing their first attempt. The work is hard but the ability to reflect is available to them and recognized.