Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Drama of debut makes "April & Oliver" hard to put down

While reading April & Oliver, the debut novel by Tess Callahan, I frequently went back and forth between thinking it was superb and wondering if I was being conned. Notably, I couldn’t put the book down during this debate. I was certainly caught up in the intrigue and the danger. Upon realizing how mistrustful the content of the story made me, I began to pay more attention to Callahan’s craftsmanship. Having finished the novel I am still not sure if I have been played, but I have to admit that I not only fell for the dramas of the characters but fell a little bit in love with them too.
April and Oliver are cousins, kind of. Their fathers grew up calling April and Oliver’s Nana “Mother” but neither shared the same father or mother. April and Oliver’s proximity and age led them to be inseparable. As children they appeared to have internal radar that kept them aware of the other’s location.
The novel begins with the death of April’s younger brother Buddy. His death brings the family together again and April and Oliver begin to become reacquainted after years of separation.
As teenagers April and Oliver’s approach to their lives had already begun to diverge. April developed quickly, into a bold, sexy and vulnerable young woman. Oliver, on the other hand, exhibited almost excessive responsibility. Despite being an exquisite and talented pianist, he quits the instrument he loves cold turkey and sets off for Stanford, bound for a life less uncertain than that of a composer. Despite Oliver’s desire to protect April from herself and her unfortunate choices in men, as a teenager Oliver is helpless and she is soon lost to him.
When Oliver returns, it is with his fiancée. Bernadette is overwhelmingly kind and beautiful. She is in many ways the antithesis of April, but is canny enough to recognize that the place April holds in Oliver’s past is one that threatens the stasis of her own relationship with him. Because of the attachment to April the reader develops early on, it is difficult to not automatically reject Bernadette as inferior.
Plenty of drama ensues. April has a severely troubled and jealous lover who fails to leave her alone. His presence in the novel is frightening and April’s attraction to him reveals a number of weak spots in her character.
The tension that constantly undercuts the exchanges between characters, and particularly between April and Oliver, is well managed by Callahan. There is not a single dynamic between two people in this narrative that is repetitive. Each relationship is charged in a different and believable way. The most striking is the intensity of feeling between April and Oliver. Their mutual attraction is palpable but at the same time contains an element of danger. The extremity of their differences might possibly be the ideal complement to the other’s nature, but Callahan ensures that the opposite is just as likely.
The author marvelously constructs intricate qualities of both the primary and secondary characters in this novel. I felt I knew these people well and I had a lot invested in the decisions they came to and their respective fates. Again, I do not know if this is partly because I was conned into needing to know about them due to the high level of personal drama in this narrative. Ultimately, I do think there is more to the novel than the sensational aspects of it. Callahan’s ability to tell a good story is finely tuned, and the depth of her character construction suggests an impressive understanding of the intricacies of emotion that make people tick.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The rich and fabulous lack luster in McInerney's short stories

The stories collected in How It Ended by Jay McInerney spans almost thirty years. They are assembled in no particular order and include McInerney’s first published story as well as a number that he produced rapid fire in 2008. What struck me most about these stories is that I could never guess in what year each was written. I was almost always surprised by the date at the end. This disconcerted me. Rather than being illustrative of a particular style, it suggested stagnation.
The content and characters of How It Ended are particularly fascinated with wealth, beauty and too many drugs. McInerney excavates the terrain of infidelity with much the same vigor as John Updike applied to the same subject. Trust in one’s partner appears to be a naïve fantasy in almost every story, a fundamental I find depressing, inaccurate and a tad sensationalist.
The message in most of McInerney’s stories is that his characters are by and large decent people with relatively good intentions. They just always seem to stray. Whether this means another drink, line of coke or affair, the repercussions are never too severe. Usually the protagonists come to in an alleyway they would prefer to avoid or saddled with lawyers fees they would prefer to avoid. The stakes of the aftermath rarely include death or consequences that might teach these wayward individuals a lesson.
A minor, almost silly, point that I have to mention is McInerney’s utter lack of imagination in the department of names. Being drawn to complex and odd names myself, I was chagrined not only to be acquainted with the regular Tom, Dick, and Harrys, but also with the repetition of monikers. I can understand using a non-descript name once for one protagonist, but then to have another character who takes center stage as well with the same boring name was much too uninspired for my liking.
McInerney roots most of his stories in New York, though there are a few trips to the lush South as well. The lives he describes are either full of riches and glamour or they concern people who are brushing against the linen lapels and satin skirt hems, hoping to get in with the proper crowd and experience the lush life, as is their apparent due. It was difficult for me to feel sympathetic toward these people.
It was not difficult, however, for me to believe that these people exist. McInerney does not use fancy language to describe the fancy lives his characters live. This contributes to the credibility of the conversation and even makes the presence of a potbellied pig fathomable in the master bed. He paints the facts of his protagonists lives clearly, if not coldly.
The stories are delivered in such a well-mannered and matter-of-fact tone that McInerney’s intentions ultimately remain unclear. Is he providing the reader with a peek into the lives of the inordinately wealthy in order to reveal the pitiable qualities of a life of excess and absurd and dangerous luxury? Or is the author asking that the reader to feel empathy for these characters, characters who are just as lost in their lives as those less fortunate financially and far more lost than others?
My inclination was to be somewhat contemptuous. The love stories and indiscretions that McInerney recounts neither struck me in their simplicity, beauty or authenticity. These characters fell in or out of due to boredom or because they lacked imagination. The tragedies and disappointments that these decisions inevitably led to appeared to be exactly what was deserved. As the collection progressed I saw few characters develop any self-awareness and this rendered McInerney’s rich far less valuable than their bank accounts would suggest.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Despite engaging pace, debut novel fails to hold attention

Laila Lalami's debut novel Secret Son enters the streets and houses of both the wealthy and poor of modern day Casablanca. Through the eyes of characters young and old, Lalami works to illustrate the struggles of identity and the reconciliation of class, politics and beliefs within Morocco.
In the slums of Casablanca, Youssef El Mekki lives with his mother. She is a widow, working in a hospital to support her only son. Youssef is thoughtful, excels at school, and though he wishes he had grown up knowing his father, he is a loving son.
Soon after a flood destroys much of Youssef's neighborhood, a Muslim group calling themselves the Party sets its headquarters up in the old cinema. It is at this juncture that Youssef's life and the lives of his friends begin to diverge. Amin heads to college with Youssef, while Maati is hired as security for the Party, a position that is questioned and scorned by his friends.
Soon after entering the university, Youssef learns that his father whom he believed long dead is very much alive. Nabil Amrani is a successful businessman and he resides in Casablanca, though the life he leads might as well be worlds away from the one Youssef has experienced. The discovery of the truth about the encounters between his parents causes Youssef to question his mother who for years has raised him on lies describing a man who never existed. He wonders how many other secrets she has kept from him. His distrust leads him to seeking out his father and revealing to Nabil his identity.
Surprisingly, Nabil invests time and money in his illegitimate son. He has recently fallen out with his daughter and Youssef’s appearance seems an answer to his disappointment. Amal is studying at UCLA and Nabil has discovered that she has an American boyfriend. His displeasure with her fuels his relationship with Youssef who is the son he was unable to have with his wife. Youssef is his second chance.
Nabil’s wealth and opinions are enticing. Youssef willingly accepts his father’s offer of an apartment, as well as a job and fine clothes. He leaves his mother behind despite her warnings about the fickle nature of people such as Nabil, along with his childhood friends and dedication to school. Youssef’s entrance into the world of the wealthy is disorienting, pleasurable and brief.
As Youssef’s brief sojourn among the affluent unwinds, he is left stranded. Having had a taste of a more comfortable life it is both arduous and shameful for him to return the life he had led quite happily.
Lalami combines a number of human factors to explicate the circumstance of Youssef. Everyone In the novel plays a role in the disintegration of Youssef’s prospects including the young man himself. Greed, pride, stubbornness, naïveté and love are all essential and understandable factors in the disastrous repercussions of Youssef’s desire to participate in his father’s life.
Secret Son is a quick and engrossing read. But having finished it nothing lingered. The development of some characters, particularly Youssef’s mother, occurs too late. What is revealed is too little and distressingly detrimental to Youssef.
Casablanca never fully came alive in this novel. I vaguely knew that Youssef’s neighborhood stank and that there were no sidewalk hawkers by the apartment Nabil owned but at no moment did I cringe in disgust at the absurd luxuries or the wretched stench. Lalami is a fair storyteller and hers does say something about the atmosphere in Morocco. Unfortunately her prose does not drive the weight, danger and complexity of the circumstances home, leaving the reader with only a vague impression of what has just been read.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Meetings with the Gods in Gaiman's novel

During my tenure as a student at the Waldorf School in Santa Fe, I became well acquainted with the gods. In second grade we learned about Native American beliefs, in third grade we studied the Old Testament, and by sixth grade I knew a little something about the Norse, Greek, Indian, and Egyptian gods. The title of Neil Gaiman’s book, American Gods, didn’t immediately put me in mind of what I learned ten plus years ago, but it wasn’t far into the novel before I caught on.
Shadow is on the verge of getting out of prison when he learns that his wife Laura has died. He is released three days early from his three-year sentence in order to go home and take care of the funeral arrangements. Shadow is stunned and somewhat incredulous that Laura has actually died. Very quickly, however, her death becomes the least impossible phenomena he encounters.
Soon after Shadow has left the confines of his cell, he is met by Wednesday. Wednesday enlists his services with almost no explanation and a very vague list of tasks for Shadow to complete. Believing that he has little or northing to live for now that Laura is gone, Shadow agrees to work for the mysterious Wednesday.
Laura appears in Shadow’s motel room the night he buries her. While it is clear that she is dead, her skin is cold to the touch, there is clay from the grave in her hair, she unquestionably enters his room and talks with her husband. Shadow is a particularly even-keeled guy, and though Laura’s appearance unsettles him, he manages to take it in stride.
This bodes well for him as Wednesday takes him on a journey to a number of astonishing and even impossible places.
Interspersed with Shadow’s adventures, are vignettes that depict the manner in which certain gods were carried from the old world to the new. A wanton British lass brings her beliefs across the ocean on two different voyages and African lore is passed through generations of slaves. It is due to these transportations of faith that America has the sprites and spirit of the old world.
The trouble for Wednesday, and by association for Shadow, is that these beliefs have begun to fade. They have been replaced by worship of TVs, the media, material goods. People no longer leave out a bowl of milk for their gods nor are there sacrifices in their names. Wednesday is gunning for a war between the old gods and the new.
The characters that populate American Gods are an incredible cast of oddballs, hot tempers, and seductresses. Shadow spends a prolonged amount of time in Wisconsin. Those who come to the surface in this small town are both endearing and complex. It is the only place that seems to be absent of all danger and where the reader gets to know Shadow more completely. He is a gentle man and aside from his meager assortment of coin tricks, he has very little up his sleeve. It is impossible not to want to look out for him.
Gaiman brings up interesting issues of worship and faith in this novel. I am partial to the idea of moody gods and they were abundant here. The perennial Norse trickster Loki makes an appearance as does the Indian Kali. I was surprised to find the Greeks absaent, however. Their pantheon fails to make a peep despite being infamous for their meddlings in the mortal world.
Ultimately it is Shadow’s relatively easy acceptance of what happens to him that makes the novel plausible. His tranquility in the face of all the strange events that occur after his release from prison makes the story believable. It does, however, frequently and delightfully dip into the fantastic. For worshipers of gods, fantasy, and America alike, this is a quick-paced, intriguing novel.

Friday, June 5, 2009

All Alone in Livesey's "World"

For some reason I am always surprised by role of sadness in Margot Livesey’s novels. This has much to do with her excellent character construction. She brings the reader into the minds of her protagonist, shedding light on their doubts and insecurities. The people she introduces become intimately known, making their tribulations all the more affecting. Having read The House on Fortune Street, I should, perhaps, have been prepared for the sorrows of The Missing World, a novel whose premise is fairly dark.
Hazel is crossing the street when she is hit by a car. Though she is not immediately affected, an hour or so later she winds up in the hospital in a coma. On the phone with her ex-boyfriend, Jonathan, at the time of her collapse after the accident, he is the one to retrieve her from her apartment and deliver her to the emergency room despite their recent history of animosity. Hazel awakes with no memory of the last three years, conveniently providing Jonathan with an opportunity to recreate the life they had together before things began to disintegrate.
Parallel to Hazel’s disaster, Livesey introduces the reader to Freddie. Freddie is an American who has taken up residence in London, currently supporting himself by repairing the roofs of the British. It quickly becomes clear that Freddie is unlike many other roofers. Years before, on the verge of graduating from Stanford, he abruptly dropped out and left the country. He has survived by picking up odd jobs across Europe, trying to escape something long unnamed. Freddie’s work takes him to Jonathan’s house, where he is struck by Hazel’s beauty and the fragility of her condition. He senses she needs to be helped and becomes tangled in Jonathan’s complex evasion of the past.
Finally there is Charlotte. She is equally as lost as Freddie, but her denial of her destitution intensifies her situation. Charlotte is a failed actress; she is behind on her rent, delusional about the scope of her charms, and prone to inviting herself where she is unwanted. Having exhausted every possible source of support, Charlotte winds up living with her disapproving sister Bernice, who has been hired as a nurse for Hazel.
Slowly and precisely all the characters that Livesey initially tracks individually manage to collide. Sexual attraction and indiscretion muddy the intents of the protagonists and the atmosphere of the story accrues elements of danger and the perverse. Despite the contrivance of placing all these characters within the same boundaries of exchange, Livesey does not let the plot devolve into a series of predictabilities. While rescue and renewal are achieved to some degree, little is resolved.
The melancholy of these characters’ lives is more tangible in some instances than others. Charlotte’s life pulsates with destitution that she manages to diffuse with alcohol and a falsified self-importance. Heroism edges Freddie’s persona, but it emerges that little of what he does satisfies his own needs, leaving him incomplete. Hazel is the one to be most pitied it seems. She, however, is the one into whose head very little entry is made. I felt sympathetic toward her, but never felt I knew what made her tick as I did with some others.
Suspense runs at a well-controlled rate throughout this enjoyable novel. The characters are etched with persuasive precision and their plights are convincing. The conclusion of the story contains premonitions of what might follow. The men and women of Livesey’s work pulsate with so much life that it is unfathomable to imagine their lives stop once there are no more pages.