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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Love story at the heart of Murakami's 1Q84

The world of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is not to be entered casually. I suppose I wouldn’t encourage anyone to blindly jump into one of his previous books either (except I can’t help recommending the dark brilliance of Norwegian Wood to anyone who asks). Murakami tends toward the dark or bizarre or the sad. 1Q84 brims with all of these and its intensities are sometime wearisome or upsetting. But what 1Q84 made me realize more than anything else is that Murakami’s novels are always love stories. The romances are hardly formulaic, but at the center of shifting worlds and convoluted self-discoveries the ultimate focus is strangely pure. The grand complexities of 1Q84 manage to emphasize this more than most.

Aomame, her name means green peas, is a determined, attractive, and somewhat frightening woman. Her audacity is evident from the first scene, in which she exits a taxi in the middle of a traffic jam on the elevated Metropolitan Expressway of Tokyo. She is in a rush to make her business appointment (she’s an assassin) and she effortlessly climbs down the emergency exit in her stockings and skirt suit. As she departs from the safe confines of the cab the driver offers ger strange advice: “Please remember: things are not what they seem.” Aomame’s descent allows her to keep her appointment, and takes her into a world with two moons, air chrysalises, and the Little People.

Tengo is the same age as Aomame and has the strange occupation of working as a professor of math and of being a writer. His entrance into the year 1Q84 isn’t marked by a dramatic change, but the course of his days do shift when his editor asks him to rewrite a short story submission the magazine has received. Air Chrysalis was written by a 17-year-old girl, Fuka-Eri, and the editor believes that with Tengo’s writing and Fuka-Eri’s youth and odd story, they will have a blockbuster success. Tengo agrees to ghostwrite the project, bringing to life with eerie clarity the actions of the Little People.

Murakami’s characters are nothing if not enigmatic and he constructs them with such careful detail that their quirks are easy to recall months later. An eccentric, protective dowager plays a silent hand in the fates of women, and the men who abuse them. A hideous, unlikable man works on behalf of dark groups without any real agenda. Fuka-Eri’s speech is strangely devoid of inflection, while the contortions of Aomame’s face in the throes of anger are so horrifying as to be unrecognizable. Tengo resembles many of Murakami’s previous heroes. He is contemplative, solitary, smart. At times his inaction has a more profound effect than any action and it is common to spend pages with him as he goes about his modest daily movements.

As the title clearly suggests, 1Q84 exhibits the themes of George Orwell’s 1984. The world that Aomame and Tengo find themselves in isn’t so different from the 1984 they know, but the currents of power have shifted and as their stories grow closer together their survival is mutually dependent.

There is much that is mystical and mysterious about Murakami’s novel, but sometimes the most incredible aspect is the love story. A foreordained quality exists in the lovers’ trajectory. The intensity of the link between the two is both sustaining and suspicious, humming too closely to the tune of a fairy tale. I find it wild that such a massive, complex and unique text is built upon such a delicate kernel of truth. Aomame and Tengo are written as incredibly solitary, self-contained people and yet their union is the fulcrum of the fate of 1Q84. The novel is an adventure, a journey through the fantastical imagination of Murakami and his incredible web of detail. There is much to analyze in the text, much to like or dislike. If you are a fan of Murakami, you will savor this book, if you are not, it may not win you over.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Stark Terrain of "The Outlaw Album"

The reader's introduction to any of Daniel Woodrell's stories is a clang of doom. "Morrow wondered if he might soon die because of a beautiful girl from his teens he'd never had the nerve to approach." This is typical of opening sentences in Woodrell’s short story collection The Outlaw Album. Non-decisions have just as much impact as bad ones. A horrifying combination of despair and accident exists in his characters' tales. Life is taxing and dark, danger is never too far off, and if you don't get mired in it this time, you are bound to the next time around.

In “Black Step,” Woodrell illustrates the life of a modern soldier with a gritty clarity that portrays the struggles of the returned as well as anything I've previously read. His protagonist, Darden, joined the army to become more interesting than his peers; overgrown boys who cruised the same bars night after night, hoping to get laid. Now that he has survived the desert the empty simplicity of those evenings is no longer available to him. Darden can’t even remember the desire to fuck or be touched. He remains at a remove, seeing his past as frequently as he sees his present, relishing graves that disappear.

The Outlaw Album isn't a collection to dive into without premeditation. I frequently noticed that I was steeling myself for the next encounter. Woodrell's language is spare, amplifying the intensity of what occurs. In an era where so much is packaged for our immediate satisfaction and instant entertainment, the weight of Woodrell's stories feel all the more poignant and necessary. Their edges are sharp and jagged. They not only cut into our consciousness but leave a corrugated mark as a reminder of what was learned.

Viewers of last year’s film “Winter’s Bone” will be familiar with the ferocity of Woodrell’s tales. He is the author of the novel and the filmmakers captured something of the sparse despair of the regular days of his characters; their shots floating across run down properties that are encapsulated in a persistent, dour grey.

The austerity of Woodrell’s prose puts him in league with Hemingway but tacks closer to Raymond Carber. Like Carver he writes of hard drinking, lost men, and determined, stern women. He excavates communities that we are not or comfortable, accustomed to, reading about. Readers of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories may be more at ease with Woodrell’s terrain but he takes a different tone. There is filter on his lens and what is delivered is stark and harsh. Moments of possibility and beauty are not absent, but they are pared down to their essence. The presence of an artistic flourish would undermine the truth of what Woodrell creates and he has no need for them.

To infer that the absence of flourish means a cut and dry tone would be a mistake. Woodrell is a master of his craft and has a command of multiple writing styles. He is first person and third, brother and daughter, violent and loyal. Each hardscrabble character in Woodrell’s collection has a different story of upset and survival to tell. Recuperative periods are suggested between each portrait of life that he presents, but Woodrell’s book is a rare and raw piece of work that should garner the admiration and attention of its readers and perforate the heart.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Harbach Wins Fans with Debut

On occasion there are fictional characters whose lives you can imagine beyond the pages of the book they reside in. One feels like one has been given a window into their experience, not as if they have been created solely to prove a point or tell a single story. The characters in Chad Harbach’s debut novel The Art of Fielding are these sorts of people. When I reached the last page, in a matter of days despite the novel’s bulk, I was sure that Henry, Schwartz, and their teammates would continue on with their lives, and it was my loss to no longer be a witness.

Henry Skrimshander is a kid from South Dakota for whom baseball is the only thing. He plays shortstop with an effortless kind of beauty that Mike Schwartz spots immediately. Schwartz is a student at Westish College, a small, fictional school in Wisconsin. A hulking, stereotypical form of an athlete, Schwartz recognizes the kind of talent he always wished he possessed and decides to help Henry realize his potential. Schwartz himself is perhaps the most compelling character. He pursues law school as vehemently as he coaches the best from his teammates but finds himself skidding to a confused stop and searching for what actually anchors and drives him.

Schwartz changes Henry’s life drastically, shifting its course from community college student to rising baseball star of Westish. Henry’s arrival on campus exposes him to grueling, vivid training sessions and introduces him to his roommate Owen, one of the book’s fulcrums.

Guert Affenlight, the president of Westish, and his daughter Pella, are actors off the baseball field. Affenlight is a wonderful, scholarly figure, whom we see stirred by unexpected desires. His daughter has returned to him after a botched, early marriage, and is trying to land on her feet. Both characters add a dash of relativity to the events on the field, though struggles are not placed in a hierarchy.

Often I found myself pausing over Harbach’s sentences for the pleasure of rereading them. He is inclined to describe people with food in mind and I was happy to be sent to the dictionary more than once, though fuchsin was perhaps unnecessary since fuchsia works just as well. Quite a lot of reference was made to the “hip hop anthem of the moment,” a tired means of expressing the wilted nature of the surrounding college culture. But happily much is made of 19th century literary bastions, particularly Melville, whose brief, rediscovered visit to Westish earns the college athletes their name, the Harpooners.

The relationships in The Art of Fielding are fragile. Some of the relationships constructed by Harbach seem founded on very little. But then that can be the case; an incidental bond at the heart of something that grows almost without encouragement or reason. Their basis resides in the familial, loyalty, awe.

For much of the novel Henry is an obedient puppy dog to Schwartz’s insistent regime of vicarious success. But Henry’s relationship with baseball founders at the novel’s center, calling into question his purpose. He is infamous for his errorless play, and just as he ties the record of his hero, he throws an errant ball. The consequences multiply and set numerous, irreversible events in motion.

The Art of Fielding
educates the reader about passion as well as confusion, prejudice, and baseball. As someone for whom sports are incidental, the novel was a consistent pleasure if not a comprehensive course on America’s favorite pastime.

Monday, September 26, 2011

History, Fables Meld in "The Tiger's Wife"

In her rich and often startling debut, The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht exhibits an attraction to wonder, and a finely tuned talent for storytelling. Natalia is a young doctor in an unnamed Balkan country, which is still recovering from the effects of the recent war. While traveling across the border to administer vaccinations at an orphanage, she learns that her grandfather has died. Her grandfather was a doctor himself. His death is the crux of the novel and his life is its bulk.

Old world superstitions are close to the surface in the landscape of The Tiger’s Wife. Near the orphanage a family is vigorously digging up the vineyards. They are suffering from tuberculosis, but refuse treatment. The patriarch is convinced they are sick because he has not yet found the remains of his cousin. A cousin he had to leave behind during the war and buried under the vineyard. Natalia is pragmatic, a woman of science, and knows this can’t be true. But as her time across the border unfolds, interspersed with the narrative of her grandfather, everything begins to seem possible.

Natalia’s grandfather is an equally practical man of medicine, whose experience was nevertheless deeply tied to the lore of the tiger’s wife and his repeated encounters with the deathless man. The narrator, Natalia, invents or extrapolates the background details of the main players in these stories, deepening and obscuring the realities. In her hands no one is an open book.

The tiger who appears in her grandfather’s village is just one example of someone with a storied past. He is an escaped resident of a zoo miles away. His unexpected freedom is the result of a rain of bombs, missiles that liberate him even as they crush the lives of others. The abused, deaf-mute wife of the village butcher does not respond to the tiger’s presence with fear, and neither does Natalia’s grandfather, who is excited to know the Jungle Book’s Shere Kahn is in his own woods. The tiger’s former life depended on familiarity with the hand that fed him, which leads him to the butcher’s wife, inspiring terror and suspicion in her neighbors. Every piece is part of a bigger lattice, brought together by unique turns of fate. Life wouldn’t have it any other way. The tiger turns the village of Gallina topsy-turvy, and convinces her grandfather that he must get out.

Natalia herself is not as vivid as the subjects of her stories. She is a witness to the war, and tries to be a part of the remedy. But her character is mostly built on her grandfather’s stories and her affection for him. Natalia’s love for her grandfather is deep, but not particularly complex. Her father is a markedly absent presence, and this is never discussed, putting more weight on the relationship with her grandfather. Natalia’s rebellions are brief and her grandfather’s pursuits quickly become her own. Perhaps it is a relief in the chaos of war to follow so closely in someone else’s path.

Obreht’s descriptions are rich and affecting. She is terrifically young, barely 26, and was born in Belgrade, moving to the US at the age of 12. Amongst these stories certainly lie parts of her own understanding of her history. Her subject is heavy but she handles beauty just as well and can spot moments of humor amidst acts of betrayal and destruction. Obreht undeniably recognizes human fallibility; she casts light on manipulative actions without judgment, merely incorporating them into the fabric of her tale. People are human and they keep themselves sane through the little fictions they tell themselves. At some point, who is to say what is real and what is merely possible.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Interest is Drowned in "The Lake"

The coupling of the protagonists in Banana Yoshimoto's novel The Lake is begun in a cinematic fashion. Chihiro starts observing Nakajima from the sill of her window. They begin exchanging cross-alley waves and she grows comfortable in the familiarity of his presence. Waves lead to coffee and all at once he is spending most nights in her apartment, carefully reimbursing her for the extra heat and groceries he uses. They sleep together a single time. And it is a lonely and sexually pleasureless union. The two seem to have bumbled into each other’s company. Their accidental merger is a reflection of quiet desperation more than an enjoyment of companionship.

Chihiro has moved to Tokyo from the village where she spent her childhood. Her mother is dying of cancer when she leaves, and after her death Chihiro finds very little to tie her to her home. Not even the presence of her father affects her affiliation to the place. She has her art degree and is a muralist of a vague amount of minor fame. When she begins her time with Nakajima she has been enlisted to paint a mural on a wall of the local school. The piece grows to represent much more than a project as her relationship with Nakajima takes shape.

Nakajima is a mysterious figure and we are meant to wonder what lies behind his oddities, including his inability to want and enjoy sex. He is a brilliant Ph.D. student, who has lost himself to his studies in the past and opens himself up very little. Chihiro begins to suspect that there is a shady reason for all his strangeness, suspicions that are confirmed when he brings her to the lake.
At the lake we meet an even stranger pair than Chihiro and Nakajima. They are a shrunken brother and sister pair, Mino and Chii. He entertains the guests, serving them the best tea Chihiro has ever had, while his sister sleeps in a room nearby. Chii’s almost always asleep, and when she does rouse herself, she communicates through Mino, who seems to channel her words telepathically. Chihiro is not sure what this duo explains about Nakajima’s past, but she knows it is the key to his difficulties and his uncomfortable manner.

Aside from the improbable nature of their meeting, there is no real romance between Chihiro and Nakajima and I had a hard time feeling a resonance in their connection. Both have lost their mothers and are marooned in the seclusion of their own worlds. It’s fathomable that this on its own can bring people together but that magnetism remains absent. Chihiro’s language frequently vacillates between security in her affection for her companion and allusions to a shadowy naiveté of sentiment. Her inability to truly fixate on Nakajima, often felt like the fault of mistranslation. Whatever the cause, the result was frustration with unknowable characters, their emotions and actions too perforated to complete a whole.

Yoshimoto's prose is incredibly sparse. Her subjects in The Lake are very often odd and perhaps the basic nature of her language is meant to temper the peculiarities that inhabit her worlds. I kept slowing down and looking for something that might send me to the dictionary or at least pique my interest. Instead I was shuttled from the apartment, to the schoolyard, to dreams of Paris, to the lake. I couldn’t care very much. How much is at stake when the complicated pasts of protagonists aren’t synthesized into an engaging future? The loneliness of Chihiro and Nakajima didn’t play on my sympathies. And what did it matter if they found each other if there was no one to care?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"Tough Without a Gun:" A Flat Tale of a Dimensional Star

My beginnings as a cinephile were unusual, going, as I did, to a Waldorf school where TV was frowned upon, and belonging, as I did, to obedient parents. My sister and I were, however, allowed the requisite one or two movies on the weekend. Disney was verboten, so there was a lot of Shirley Temple flicks, which graduated into Rogers and Astaire, and finally, pivotally, Noir.

The foreign twang of the word was enough to satisfy me and my 14-year-old cohorts; eager, budding culture snobs that we were. Sleepovers were popcorn-packed nights of Hitchcock, Gilda, The Third Man, and Humphrey Bogart. Finally, ultimately, Humphrey. We fell for the cantankerous, weather beaten antihero as so many had before us, sketching out lines from To Have and Have Not in our margins and whistling for our imaginary Steves. (To my everlasting delight, my high school sweetheart met my Lauren Bacall in full rumrunner regalia one Halloween.)

All this is by way of saying that I had to read “Tough Without A Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart” by Stefan Kanfer. I was excited to learn about my gruff idol, find out if he was the face of the Gerber baby, and how it was that he had dodged his third wife (whom he called “Slugger”) to make Lauren his fourth.

I got my answers but the delivery was a little dull. Kanfer clearly reveres the star and faithfully takes his readers through Bogart’s life, which began in 1899. Humphrey was born to a well-to-do family in New York City, the eldest, with two younger sisters. Although bright, he rebelled against authority and it was evident early on that he would not be following in his father’s footsteps toward the medical profession.

Bogart got his start on Broadway, as most stars had to at the time. He married and divorced, slowly rising to roles of more prominence. Upon Bogart’s move to Hollywood, Kanfer patiently unpacks his cinematic choices and outlines how one sort of movie led to another, culminating in the films that define how Bogart is viewed today: He is renowned as classic, unshakably masculine. He withholds his affection but there is tenderness beneath the crust.

Kanfer spends a good amount of time quoting reviews from the era. He details the many ways that history intersected with Bogart’s career, affecting his trajectory as a star and sculpting his image. These tie-ins were often striking, and yet when Kanfer directly quotes his subject, Humphrey never comes off the page. Even Kanfer’s descriptions of Hollywood and the Bogarts’ travels in Africa fall flat. There are glimmers of dimension but ultimately the biographer sticks too close to his facts without illuminating the contours of the scenes or personalities. I never felt like I got to know Kanfer’s subject better, though he handled the impact of Bogart’s afterlife with much more skill.

My sense is that the author’s respect for the figure and for his family outweighed his desire to make Bogart human. The decision to avoid sensationalist guesses about his fidelity is admirable, but Kanfer’s whitewashed approach is tiresome. Somewhere there is a happy medium, maybe the next biographer will reach it. Because it is obvious that though Bogart reached his cinematic heights in his 40s, and died more than 50 years ago, this is only the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Fourth Novel is a Finely Tunned "Tale" of Wealth

Julia Glass is the author of a wonderful book called “Three Junes” (which you can always get a copy of at the bookstore “Three Lives,” read it to find out why). Last fall she published her latest novel “The Widower’s Tale.” It’s largest and perhaps only real flaw is the title. The book is about much more than the charming, cantankerous, widowed Percival Darling and the title oozes a treacly sentiment that is absent in the novel.

Glass is partial to male narrators and the four we have in “The Widower’s Tale” are a diverse bunch. The aforementioned Percy lives on the property where his wife died 30 odd years ago in an accident for which he thinks he is to blame. The novel opens as his barn is being transformed into a fancy pre-school, a surprising decision fueled by his desire to ground his eldest daughter. Ira is one of the teachers at Elves and Fairies. He is damaged, recovering from the harsh loss of his previous job as a result of false accusations stemming from his sexuality. Then there is Celestino, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala whose life looked immeasurably brighter before he fell in love with his patron’s daughter years before. The youngest protagonist is Robert, Percy’s grandson, a bright boy at Harvard, blithely following his mother’s footsteps toward med-school.

Circumstance and humanity bring these lives into the same orbit in crucial ways. Percy’s careful widowhood is reshuffled by a new love and the pleasures, risks and heartbreaks associated. He is the only character given a first person narrative and his voice is often hilarious in its high brow, dry humor. The reader experiences Percy’s awakening in an immediate manner, and we find ourselves puzzled and righteously appalled by the privilege that has altered his small town into something he finds absurdly gentrified.

Robert, Celestino, and Ira’s stories are interesting but they lack the vibrancy of Percy’s voice. Each character’s transformation is crucial and fleshes out another dimension of current society.

The novel is not just of men. But they are our lenses, a perspective Glass manages quite well, faltering only with the college age slang Robert and his roommate Turo mouth. Almost across the board Glass’s women are tough. As mothers, doctors, scholars, and even lovers, they have a somewhat fierce outer layer that their men want to penetrate. I liked these women well enough, but my understanding of them was less complete, more fractured, and I wanted to be better acquainted with their weaknesses and their drive.

Issues of the moment are central to the narrative. The novel encompasses capitalist greed, gay marriage, illegal immigration and the seepage of technology into the way we live. This is not done obliquely or in a preacher’s tone. The subjects’ presence never feels forced (unlike the racial and class crossings that occur in the popular “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” by Helen Simonson). Percy’s wealthy Boston suburb becomes the victim of a mysterious eco-terrorism group, clever pranks he initially finds amusing. The impact of these attempts to right an imbalance in wealth and spotlight an abuse of resources is both startling and thought provoking. The logic might be sound, but the execution is badly misdirected.

What I ultimately appreciated about Glass’s novel is that very little is neatly packaged at its conclusion. Like many novels before it, it ends with a wedding. But the event felt more like a beginning of something or a continuation for all the characters. There were no clear answers or sure destinies, but the possibility of transformative opportunities just might be on the horizon.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Visiting with Egan's "Goon Squad"

Winning an award for your work is inevitably an honor and for some readers the mark of the Pulitzer Prize is a compelling emblem; for others it is intimidating. This year’s winner is a laudable accomplishment as well as a comprehensible and engaging read. In fact the most elusive feature of Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” is the title.

The first chapter, and first story, introduces us to Sasha. She is a thirty-something single woman in New York, discussing her most recent setback with her shrink. The scene is typical so far. Sasha, it turns out, is a kleptomaniac and her fervid encounter with an online date concludes in forgettable sex and a poignant theft.

Sasha's story introduces a few of the characters who appear in the successive stories. Egan cleverly extracts minor figures from early stories and fleshes out their worlds as the book proceeds. For a time, the reader is traveling backward in time, retracing history, but ultimately we arrive somewhere in the future. While Sasha’s presence is a fundamental thread in the book, she never entirely reclaims the narrative as her own. The reader pieces her life together through the eyes of her contemporaries and acquaintances, and we learn almost as much about them along the way. It is fair to say that the story is no more hers than it is any of theirs.

“Goon Squad” follows its population of protagonists to Naples, Africa, and the suburbs, but it always returns to New York. The city harbors the wounded and spits out the derelict. It is a place where gifted musicians become riverside fishermen, PR magnates light their guests on fire, people find their callings, and others find themselves selling their foundering souls. By reconnecting with Egan’s characters in different stages of their lives, we become acquainted with a panorama of their choices. Throughout the book their mistakes and triumphs come into focus and give them a very human identity. An aging producer who seduces young girls is also a father and a mentor while an American sweetheart actress morphs into a political rebel. Egan’s characters are unfailingly complex, and like most people, they continue to surprise us.

In addition to the creative tool of intersecting but not continuous or chronological storylines, Egan uses a variety of methods to tell her story. A troubled college student speaks about himself entirely in the second person, until he reaches a mental climax and collapse. A young girl illustrates the fluctuating complications of her family via power point, and a few conversations are had entirely via abbreviated Ts, a form of texting reduced further than our own. These methods reflect both time and states of mind.

Egan’s characters' narratives come together like puzzle pieces. It is a sly approach and one that Egan executes with grace. It is somewhat disappointing, however, not to acquire a full view of any one of her characters. This is partly a compliment to Egan's craftsmanship as a writer that we want to intimately understand everyone she creates. But the sliver we are given, no matter how substantial, is never enough. Arguably our chagrin at remaining on the fringes of these realities should be swallowed in homage to artistic license. Egan is, perhaps, using these slices to paint a larger picture. I resented the deprivation nonetheless. “A Visit from the Goon Squad” is a novel in short stories. I am a fan of both genres and Egan’s book is a well-developed delight, but I couldn’t help wishing I’d had one or the other because both didn’t give me enough of either.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Dark Corners in "Swamplandia!"

Karen Russell’s second book “Swamplandia!” is a novel of the south, set deep in the swampy groves of Florida. The lush plant life and entangled landmasses permeate the book’s atmosphere and provide a climate not often explored in fiction or even by non-fictional people. The story is about children and the timbre of the tale is dark, an effect deepened by the innocence of the children’s voices.

“Swamplandia!” is full of oddities. The title refers to the amusement park/tourist attraction located off the mainland run by the Bigtree family. The Bigtrees are not an ounce Indian but they don the garb and raise alligators, or Seths as they call them, and impress their audiences with death defying performances. Ava, our primary narrator, is the third generation of the Bigtree dynasty and a witness to its collapse. She is the youngest member of the alligator wrestling family, baby sister to her brother Kiwi and sister Ossie.

Their mother dies at the outset of the novel and Ava doesn't quite know how to deal with the fact that it was cancer that killed her, though she defied death regularly during her alligator swims. Her mother’s tragic but mundane demise disappoints the tourists and without the star of the most popular attraction, the audience to dwindles.

The appeal of the Bigtree theme park is further diminished by the establishment of the sinister World of Darkness on the mainland. The new park is host to a vast array of disturbing rides and the slick, manufactured nature of the entertainment is something Chief Bigtree looks down on. But Ava’s father, while a safe presence, has no grasp of how to care for his children and when Kiwi runs away to the mainland to help bail out the family, the Chief leaves Ossie and Ava on their own soon after.

The three children are displaced by the loss of their mother and they take very different tacks to manage the situation. Their attempts to embrace and escape their legacy are central to the story and tainted by darkness.

Ossie is dreamy, the middle sister. In the wake of her mother’s death she begins to obsess over, and eventually consort with, ghosts. Thick in the margins of adolescence, Ossie becomes enamored with a young dredgeman, Louis, who died decades before she was born. Ava listens to her sister’s recitation of Louis’s tale (perhaps the best section of the novel) and is swept up in the romance but never believes the way Ossie does, and can’t discern the limits of her sister’s imagination.

When Ossie disappears into the everglades, Ava begins her own odyssey to find her. Her guide is a sinister, mystical guy called Bird Man, who claims he can lead her to the underworld and retrieve the sister she has lost. Russell has asked us to suspend our disbelief to minor degrees throughout the book and by this point we want to trust in the Bird Man as much as Ava, even though our better judgment tells us to be wary.

Parallel to Ava’s adventures through the slippery waterways, is Kiwi’s exposure to mainland culture. The bright, homeschooled boy is used to being the star of his surroundings and is suddenly thrust in the judgmental mediocrity of teenage life.
Kiwi is dealt the surprise of different uncertainties, neither more nor less prickly than Ossie and Ava’s precarious involvements.

Russell constructs a strange world for her protagonists and deftly guides the reader around its contours. The distinction between fantasy and reality is tenuous in the worlds of the Bigtree children and Russell expertly reminds us of the appealing possibilities that accompany this fluidity as well as the dangers.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Continuous Pleasure of "Just Kids"

The 2010 winner of the National Book Award is a modest tome brimming with charm. Patti Smith’s memoir “Just Kids” is a memoir of love. It is a love story written for New York and for Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith tells her tale without frills and her matter-of-fact delivery makes her brushes with celebrity more compelling and her relationship with Mapplethorpe incredibly affecting. Her path to success feels almost accidental and incites a certainly misplaced nostalgia for the trials of the past. Smith manages to create a Neverland out of New York, despite the fact that this was actually her life and the challenges she overcame were quite real.

Smith's prose is imbued with a grounded ingenuity. She arrives in NY after a little bit of college, giving a child up to adoptive parents, and with an interest in poetry and art. She not so marches as glides into the New York of '67, the summer Coltrane dies, as she marks it.

Her memories of New York are stippled with gravestones. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and finally, Robert Mapplethorpe. The way she depicts the times, the New York of these artists was roiling with creative opportunity. They lived beneath the surface and made their worlds the center of the universe.

Patti meets Robert by chance on a hot day in Brooklyn. Their second and third encounters are as accidental as the first, but they are the beginning of an enduring love affair and, more importantly, a relationship between artist and muse.

The cursory knowledge I had of Mapplethorpe before this book was of his later photographs. It is impossible to forget his images of nudity and bondage once you have seen them. If the subject matter doesn’t appeal, the beauty of his execution does. His photographs suggest a sexual preference; an assumption that is easily made and not quite accurate.

Patti walks alongside Robert as his sexuality burgeons and changes. His metamorphosis is terrain she does not play a part in and yet her embrace is complete. “Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art,” she writes. “He worked without apology, investing the homosexual with grandeur, masculinity and enviable nobility. Without affectation, he created a presence that was wholly male without sacrificing feminine grace.” Smith’s rendering of Mapplethorpe’s personal expansion is incredibly gentle and a tribute to their bond as well as to her patience and desire to understand him.

Reading about the New York of 40 years ago today is delicious. The cost of living makes your mouth water and the casual encounters Smith has with artistic legends are simple and savory. Smith blossoms separately from Mapplethorpe, but their work was in constant conversation with the other’s. Smith lists toward the light, while Mapplethorpe probes at the darkness. "Just Kids" is in many ways a work of poetry and though it falters at times in its center, its artistry and emotion make it an overwhelming success.

The morning I took “Just Kids” out of my purse, I dined on eggs in the West Village. Looking up after ordering, I saw a woman with a cappuccino in front of her, and a notebook. She had a pen on the table but was reading from the book and smiling from time to time. The restaurant was tiny and I didn’t want to invade her privacy, but I whispered to my companions, “It’s her! It’s Patti Smith!” The serendipity of the moment felt like a slice of the old New York she knew. The coincidence of the sighting was a moment of urban grace, which wrapped us up in the world she wrote of.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Freedom" and its Disappointments

I almost hate to add my voice to cacophony surrounding Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom.” For weeks after its publication you could barely get three paragraphs into an arbitrary New York Times article without mention of the book.

The wild success of Franzen's latest suburban fiction is baffling to me. I read “The Corrections” in high school and abhorred the characters so intensely that I have no recollection of the novel beyond my dislike. The lack of redemption and personal depth in each cranky, self-involved figure seemed a belittlement of their live, equally flawed, counterparts. I read “Freedom” hoping the extra years would open my eyes to the strengths of the author’s oeuvre and perceptions.

I did like “Freedom” more than “The Corrections,” which is like saying I like a vicious hangover more than food poisoning. “Freedom” is an easy read. The characters are less despicable than those found in “The Corrections,” but ultimately every one comes up with a less than full deck of humanity.

Walter and Patty Berglund are surburbanites, the harbingers of gentrification in a Minnesota neighborhood. On the surface they are a Pleasantville unit of contentment, which contributes to their neighbors' enjoyment when the family begins to implode. It should come as no surprise that the pages are full of infidelity, superiority complexes, and helicopter mothering.

The conceit of the characters in “Freedom” is that they appear to be fully realized, complex figures. Franzen does not shy away from exhibiting the flaws of his characters' "human natures" and at first glance this reads as depth. But as my uncle noted in a correspondence about the text, we never really know, and thus don’t like, any of the characters.

The majority of the Berglunds actions are driven by anger, revenge, repression, etc, and are held up as prototypes of middle-class normality. I agree that people are inherently self-interested, but not that they are exclusively, constantly so.

Perhaps my life has been unfairly filled with generous people. But I come from a world of comfort and privilege and nothing I've encountered resembles the selfish, bad behavior of “Freedom.” I agree with Franzen that our boundless range of opportunity has provided us with more reasons, not fewer, to be disappointed by our circumstances. I agree that humans are flawed, egocentric and prone to making mistakes. What infuriates me about Franzen's work is that he creates caricatures and proceeds to endow them with so much history, a full 562 pages, that we are tricked into believing they are three-dimensional.

Recently, a friend asked me what was wrong with reading about characters you don’t like. Perhaps it’s a blind spot of mine, but my feeling is: Why bother? Which is not to say that I dismiss literary figures based on whether or not I would take them to dinner or agree with their morals. There is humanity in reprehensible characters, think of Humbert Humbert, and when that humanity is accessed the reader can identify or reflect upon similar vulnerabilities, moral or emotional, in herself.

Franzen’s characters made me want to smack them over the heads for being so self-consumed. They are in a state of paralysis, unable or unwilling to adjust their circumstances. There is a bit of silver lining at the end, but at that point I couldn't forgive them and just wanted to forget.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Cleopatra: A Life" is a Chance to Enjoy the Enduring Wiles of the Egyptian Queen

“She really was impressive, wasn’t she,” said my great-aunt Phoebe over the soup. We were discussing our mutual fascination with Stacy Schiff’s biography “Cleopatra: A Life.” Aunt Phoebe’s sparkling eyes brightened talking about the victories of the queen. Although a figure infamous for her sexual allure, Schiff separates the strength of the woman from the strength of her notorious legacy. The result is a sumptuous depiction of the era, with a discerning eye turned toward the biases of the time.

The tumultuous world of Cleopatra's Egypt is easily accessible on the arm of Schiff. Her extensive research puts her at ease in her subject's world and gives her the ability to enthrall those who are unfamiliar with its terrain. Schiff deftly organizes the clutter of history and hearsay and she brushes the cobwebs off of intrigues 2,000 years old.

The name Cleopatra is tossed around with such frequency that one imagines one knows her entire story. Her seduction of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, her venomous suicide, her deadly allure. Cleopatra's name is practically synonymous with devastating beauty. The primary point that Schiff makes about the queen is that we have virtually no idea what she looked like. The exquisite cover of the book shows the arch of a woman's neck, her face turned away. Cleopatra was a woman who always held something back, making her all the more dangerous and powerful.

It is difficult to trust the descriptions we do have of the queen and its necessary to examine the sources. Notably, no one was able to mention her beauty without also elaborating on her intelligence. In an early biography of Marc Antony by Plutarch, Cleopatra dominates more than have the narrative. Schiff is mindful of the fact that people writing about Cleopatra wrote a hundred years after her death, or more. Inevitably they were men. Cleopatra’s accomplishments were extensive, (presiding as an unmarried queen over an enormous empire, enlisting the help of Rome in the face of a siege, carrying the children of two Caesars) and it is unsurprising that the commentary about her success is biting.

Schiff pokes fun at the attitudes of the time, and indeed some details inspire frank amazement. Members of the Ptolemy clan routinely married uncles, mothers and daughters. Cleopatra was likely the daughter of a brother and sister. The family was also known for brutally murdering each other in order to achieve the throne. Amusingly the Greek language was considered one of "low morals, the dialect of sex manuals, a language 'with fingers of its own.' The Greeks covered all bases, noted a later scholar, ‘including some I should not care to explain in class.'"

Schiff educates us on the customs of the times, and describes the opulent approach of the queen that it becomes impossible not to get lost in her world. The evidence shows that Cleopatra was educated in the same manner as Julius Caesar and that their personalities were uncommonly alike, as was their desire to rule their empires.

Throughout the book Schiff debunks a few myths. An asp undoubtedly did not strike the queen in the breast, despite the poetry of the image. For all the accusations of Cleopatra being a skilled and wanton seductress, she was a virgin when she became Caesar's lover and Marc Antony may have been the only other. There are moments of repetition in the tome, but by and large the information, based on thorough research and clever guesswork, is a spectacularly engaging biography.

What with all the conjecture around the infamous temptress, what remains is Cleopatra's indomitable wit and her ability to shape the world around her despite her gender. Whatever the whispering tongues of history have said or will say, she lived her life as she chose to, no small feat.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Glamour drowns insight in "Why Not Say What Happened?"

The world of the have-a-lots is intrinsically appealing to outsiders and insiders. Glamour and power bounce from the gilded facades of the rich, famous and infamous, and we might just catch a ray; a secondary glow seems better than none. We can’t help at least glancing through the tabloids to read about the latest scandal and to get a glimpse of someone’s tumble or rise. Ivana Lowell’s memoir “Why Not Say What Happened?” plays directly into our eager appetites for the lavish and sensational. A descendant of the wealthy Guinness family, she is also the stepdaughter of the American poet Robert Lowell. The lure for the reader is both the wealth and the brilliance of the players.

The memoir opens with the death of the author’s mother, Lady Caroline Blackwood, wife of Lucien Freud and Robert Lowell. Whisked away from mourning in order to lunch with a friend of Caroline’s, Lowell finds herself forced to question her paternity. Her dining partner suggests, coyly, that by now Lowell knows that she has a different father than her sisters. Lowell is startled and this quandary is meant to be a driving force behind the book. But Israel Citkowitz, who Lowell believed to be her father for thirty odd years, died when she was a child, and her most vivid memories of a father figure are of Robert Lowell himself, who chronologically cannot be her father. Because Lowell's sense of paternity is already benignly disjointed one wonders if the mystery needs to be solved.

Lowell speeds through her narrative by illustrating anecdotes of splendid wealth, whimsical indulgences, and a veritable menagerie of names worth mentioning. Her grandmother Maureen is portrayed as something of a tyrannical social climber, and her mother's moods sway in tandem with her inebriation. Maureen touts the queen mother as among her closest friends, and is only saved from the “family problem” of alcoholism by fatally embarrassing herself in front of the royals and swearing off liquor. Neither Lowell nor her mother escape so easily.

The second thread of the memoir is the author’s struggle with alcohol. Lowell tells us that she has gone to rehab many times, occupying those of both a sparse and luxurious nature. She trots through them at unspecified points in her life and mentions them so lightly it is difficult to discern if she takes them seriously. It is even harder to know if she’s close to conquering her alcoholism or interested in doing so, and your heart goes out to her daughter Daisy, who is a glimmering apparition of hope in her mother’s narrative.

For all of the glamorous hullabaloo Lowell kicks up, there is very little revealed about the depth of either her or her mother’s struggle with alcohol; nor are any of the author’s relationships delineated with concrete particulars or insight. I understand the delicacy of family and the sacred nature of its history. Bringing the public into family secrets is a tricky business. But if you are going to write about it, you have to peel back all the layers. Otherwise the result is not worth even a modicum of the discomfort it will inevitably cause.

Robert Lowell is little more than a benevolent, phantom presence in the narrative and it is disappointing to find his complexities so easily dismissed. The major matriarchal figures in Ivana Lowell’s life are described with an awareness of their venom but without any real exploration of their truths or the consequences. Perhaps this stems from a reluctance to accuse or, merely, to find fault, but Lowell’s inability to truly examine her predecessors makes it impossible for her to incorporate their lessons into her understanding of herself. As a result, not even the reader learns anything of note.