Sunday, November 5, 2017

Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

A young woman goes across the world to go quietly mad

Elyria’s adopted sister jumped off a building. Her mother is an egomaniacal horror. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Elyria encounters her sister’s shell shocked professor, a young man whose mother also jumped off a building. The professor and Elyria get married but things don’t go well. Elyria starts to hate him and one day, leaves Manhattan and her great job and travels to New Zealand based upon a casual invitation from a visiting writer. After her husband cancels her credit cards, Elyria must rely on the kindness of strangers. And strangers, though kind, are basically uninterested, as the young woman enters more and more into an alienated state.

The plot wasn’t the point of this novel – it was the superb writing and the meticulous creation of a completely mad claustrophobic world. Little by little Elyria acts outside the boundaries, at first the reader thinks she is just taking a trip, but it is not very long before Elyria acts completely nuts. The New Zealanders start to treat her like she nuts, but Elyria refuses to deviate from her plan. She takes the reader along for the crazy ride. Perhaps her conflict is between the desire to be a supportive wife, sister and mother versus an asshole who needs to find out something about herself. The people in New Zealand react very reasonably to her extreme passivity.

The sadness, which is partly a result of the perfectly modulated voice, is also a function of the reality that no one really misses Elyria. Her husband is dumbfounded that she left and humiliated him. He’s not concerned about her in the slightest. A very unique novel.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Made for Love by Alissa Nutting

A woman tries to escape from her high tech husband

Hazel, an ordinary woman married to Byron, a high tech billionaire, Sergey Brin/Mark Zuckerberg type, flees her stifling marriage and escapes to her father’s house. Her father is not that thrilled to see her having recently purchased a perfectly lifelike sex doll and is eager for hours of privacy. Too late Hazel discovers Byron had a chip implanted in her brain, so that at noon each day all her memories and desires are transmitted to his lair. The situation seems hopeless until young Jasper, a Jesus resembling con man who cheats lovesick women out of their life savings, and is also addicted to dolphin sex, is dispatched to save her.

I loved the prose – so sprightly and off kilter. Also I appreciated the observations about modern day America. However, there seems to be a problem with the plotting. The energy appreciably picks up the moment Jasper and his dolphin initiation/obsession subplot is introduced. The book might run aground on the primary plot which is: why would a billionaire be attracted to Hazel: Miss Ordinary or even perhaps Ms. Mediocre? Why would he marry her, and then, when she ran off, why would he pursue her? The story’s meaning and the Hazel plot remained at the level of entertaining confection, rather than a journey of illumination, where the two plots build on each other. It’s almost like there are three separate short stories or tales of “Made for Love”: Hazel and her technocratic husband; her father and his two sex dolls (their eventual end is hilarious) and Jasper and his eventual chemical/surgical creation of a heart/conscience.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Animal Farm by George Orwell

A fable about human nature

Farmer Jones, a drunk, get too careless with the security apparatus of the farm, and the animals, motivated by a new philosophy formulated by a revered old hog, eject him to run the farm himself. Their sacred hymn is “Beasts of England.” Free of the farmer’s tyranny, yet beset by enemies on all sides, the animals at first work together in harmony. However, little by little, a certain class of animals (pigs) betrays the revolution’s ideals and soon end up as bad as the human farmers. The animals are once again exploited, and what is even worse, betrayed.

This was a short novel, very direct and, to my mind, spoke to human corruption. I’m not sure if socialism, when compared to other ways of organizing society, is more susceptible to lying and greed. Part of the dramatic tension came from the animals slowly discovering that they had been conned – their deepest ideals had been violated. The sheep, however, never seemed to figure that out, but were happy repeating whatever stupid things the pigs told them. The most interesting part of this was the corruption of the language and memory in such a brief time period in order to support the ascendancy of the pigs. What is recently agreed to be the truth is not good for Animal Farm.

This probably was a very effective piece of political fiction. So there were aesthetic aims, and they were also political aims.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Life and a trip to the lighthouse

A beautifully written meditation divided into three parts. The first part concerns the hustle and bustle of mother-of-eight Mrs. Dalloway’s life one summer day as she tries to ensure her many guests have a wonderful visit at the Dalloways’ beach house. A matchmaker, she wants everyone to end up as fecund and satisfied as herself, though some tough nuts are visiting, among them Lily Briscoe, artist and spinster and a bit proud of being both. That summer’s day Lily is puzzling out the composition of a painting, and ignoring the match making pressures of her hostess. The second part is that same summer house in a sad decade later. The third and final section is the long awaited trip to the lighthouse, across the many miles of sea in a sailboat.

Wow, I really loved this. A beautifully conceived and executed work of art. There’s kind of a “gimmick” that happens in the middle that still works well. The omniscient third person point of view is full of insight and the long sentences feel very often like poetry. The repetition and echoes of the scimitar metaphor is particularly effective. Also the fruit tree. But why is Mrs. Dalloway always opening the windows?

Another subject is the relationship of men and women. Women, maybe according to Mrs. Dalloway, must be the admirer of men, the inspiration. Lily Briscoe, however, can envision a life for herself that does not require men. I loved the way the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Dalloway is portrayed – their silences, and their shifting relationship. They need each other. Who is in charge? When Mr. Dalloway says “Damn you,” to Mrs. Dalloway it comes across, even in this day and age, as shocking.

Mrs. Dalloway has eight children – this is presented as a sign of her happy life. In part three, we learn that at least the two youngest despise their gruff father. However, in many ways, this is a book where a lot of loving attention is devoted to the characters and also to the characters’ world. Part of what this novel is about is close observation. The final scene in the novel is mediated by Lily Briscoe, through an artist’s sensibilities. I didn’t realize till after I had finished that it is autobiographical. It’s a ghost story, and parts, indeed, are very spooky.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

All Things All at Once by Lee K Abbott

An ordinary Joe from New Mexico reflects upon life in these United States, women, and a few supernatural happenings

These stories are full of life and typically start in bravado fashion, opening with an extremely long and complex sentence. The rest of the paragraphs are mix of high falutin vocabulary and the vernacular. The most striking thing is that in this collection of 23 stories, every single narrator or narrative consciousness turns out to be a middle aged white guy from New Mexico who likes golf. This whole book is like a flashback from the Sixties. Not that there’s anything wrong with that narrative consciousness. But even in 1969, twenty three times in a row? There’s a lot of disappointed first wives in here, and good natured good timey gals. The themes are musty.

The Vietnam stories were good, especially “Love is the Crooked Thing” about a Vietnam war widow and the aforementioned New Mexico golf guy. Great descriptions are studded throughout, especially in those long sentences that typically open each story. I also liked the Columbine story –“One of Star Wars, One of Doom” maybe it was because it was not about a New Mexican golfer (although he of course was the narrative consciousness) but rather tried to create the life of a high school and come up with some idea of a motive for the massacre. Many of the stories have a UFO subtext, the mystery of a why a perfectly happy person, in a privileged position in their New Mexico golfing milieu, would risk it all with a tale of madness?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Twins with ESP feel an earthquake coming in St Louis.

Daisy and Violet, identical twins, grew up in a house filled with sadness. Their parents didn’t seem to get along. Both girls "sense" premonitions of things that might happen. Violet runs with her special ability, while, Daisy, sick of the more unstable, less conforming Violet, pushes it away. Daisy changes her name to Kate and manages to minimize Violet’s role in her life. She marries a kind man and they have two lovely children. Kate becomes a stay-at-home mom. Then one day Violet gets a premonition that St. Louis will have a major earthquake, and unwillingly, so does Kate.

Almost immediately this book rubbed me the wrong way, though I was reading on the plane and stuck with it and grew to admire the plotting. The cutesy dialogue at the beginning between the two sisters really grated. I don’t think two sisters would talk like this, or especially if they were psychic. The dialogue felt very expository. Kate, who narrates the story, has the most rounded character. What puts this in the women’s fiction or genre category is the importance of plot at the expense of character. Plot comes out of character, but there weren’t really any characters. The one bit of life for me was when Kate surprisingly confirms Violet’s earthquake prediction with her own.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Bakkhai by Euripides

A young king doubts the power of Dionysus

Dionysus was born of a human mother, Semele, but Semele’s royal family rejects this proposition as ridiculous. Therefore, Dionysus shows up in disguise at the court of his young cousin, Pentheus, accompanied by a chorus of his barbarian female worshippers (the Bakkhai). Dionysus is disguised as one of his priests, a very handsome long hair priest who carries the sacred staff, the thyrsus. Before his arrival, however, Dionysus has charmed all the women of Thebes to be his sacred worshippers, and they have fled to the mountains and run around in a frenzy with fawnskins on, killing wild animals with their bare hands. The women include his royal aunts, including Agave, Pentheus’s mother. Young King Pentheus is disgusted by this display of female wildness and he takes Dionysus captive, cuts off his hair, and pens him up. The god then erodes Pentheus’s reason and, rather than sending the army to capture the woman and return them to the city, Pentheus decides to dress as a woman, and climb the tallest pine to spy on their carnal rituals. But his mother, assisted by the other Theban woman, think he is a mountain lion and tear his body to pieces. Agave enters the stage bearing Pentheus’s severed head and is talked back into shocking reason by her grieving father.

The heart of this play is the dialogue between the captured good looking Dionysus and the curious (bicurious?) young King. The erstwhile priest gets this rational controlling young man to dress up like a woman, preen, and sends him off to the mountain to spy on these frenzied women. Once Pentheus gets what he came for, the rest of the play is Dionysus taking his terrible revenge. Don’t ignore the call of the wild, because it will come get you at the end. Part of the question is why does the whole family have to suffer? Dionysus is not merciful.