Saturday, January 28, 2012

Le Mariage by Diane Johnson

An American groom and Parisian bride encounter distractions on the way to the altar

It was relaxing to return to the hands of a master – the telling of a story, the juggling of many characters who are the cogs of a farcically complex plot, the painting of a moral picture. It’s all very skillfully done. I love Diane Johnson's sentences. The best have an elegantly flowing preface ending with a common or almost vulgar thump. For example, “Tim always spoke with great affection of his mother, inadvertently giving the impression she was dead, though she lived in Michigan.”

The story begins by introducing the three main characters - Clara Holly, the beautiful young retired actress, Tim Nolinger, the classic somewhat dopey good American, and Anne-Sophie, the cute whimsical Parisian who owns an antique stall specializing in equestrian themes. The three of them undergo many comic misunderstandings, Franco-American and otherwise, on the way to Tim and Anne-Sophie’s wedding. There’s a murder, a forgery, a doomed love affair, American wackos, obscene French novelists, paranoid Polish movie directors, limping girls and growling attack dogs. However, eventually I thought there may have been one too many things going on. Sometimes the brass machinery of the plot was visible clicking away beneath the too thin skin.

I’m not sure if you need all the Oregonians (however humorous those hicks may have been) as well as the hasty trip to Oregon three days before the wedding. I was never quite sure what was going on with the Oregon cultists. Were they supposed to be like the Branch Davidians?

Diane Johnson writes comedy though with a ribbon of tragedy. I felt this time the tragedy never cut to the bone the way it usually does. The story felt a little frenetic.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Everybody has a Before and an After

Oh, boy. I was set up by all the stellar reviews, probably, but this book disappointed me. Luckily there weren’t many pages, so there wasn’t much debate about whether to quit or not. I stuck it out. Unfortunately, this book also directly touched on my pet peeve, which is the book of short stories being marketed as a novel. This was not a novel. It was a miscellany. And a gimmicky one at that.

Two of the stories I really liked. “A to B”, a story of infidelity in an upscale suburb, and “Selling the General” which was a funny satire of the public relations industry. Everything else felt to me like it was treading water. The multiplicity of characters never generated any tension for me, even though I believe each main character gets two stories (before/after). But Jennifer Egan is good at the “bon mots,” the home truths, even though they felt occasionally too glib. I enjoyed reading those, and they were studded throughout the stories.

The biggest problem was that I kept thinking, God, these people are annoying. Sasha, one of the “main characters,” suffers from kleptomania, and I lack sympathy for affluent Caucasians suffering from kleptomania. I just do.

The famous Powerpoint chapter was clever, though cloying sentimental. My expectations when reading a novel is that the story will engage the emotions directly through the character’s struggle with some conflict. Bottom line, I never connected to these people.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

A sister gets pregnant, ruining her three brother’s lives.

This classic was number five in my Re-reading the classics. Once again, I’m wondering why I waited thirty years to reread this book. It’s so much better than I remembered. Faulkner had stuck in my memory for his run on sentences, and hysterical obscurity, but now I see that his primary gift was dialogue. He’s a master. The Benjy section is composed in large part of dialogue, and comprehensively sets up the story. The writing is beautiful and emotional and I cried. I cried at: You mustn’t cry. Caddy’s not going away. The betrayal of children is tragic.

The four Compson children inherited a grand name, a great history and they degraded it. I told someone from Mississippi that I was reading this book and he said he lasted about three pages himself but that the first thing I needed to know about Mississippi is that the white man runs everything. And that fact does seem to explain a lot of the internal dynamics of the plot. Many of the plot obstacles in the novel would be completely dissolved by inevitable social advancement. Nowadays Caddy would be an Ole Miss freshman lifting her tee shirt at Mardi Gras; Dilsey would be a municipal bus driver or the Mayor.  It’s almost like the pivot of the whole novel is based upon a mistaken Victorian idea about female sexuality.

Not sending Benjy to Jackson becomes the essential moral core of the book. Are you working for or against that? The characters almost all fail that test, lost in their own selfishness, especially Caddy and Quentin. Jason actually turns out to be the one who is at least “not sending him to Jackson”. Not yet anyway. In many ways, the characters are sentimentalized and the plot melodramatic, but highly gripping. 

Faulkner is such a good writer. The walk with the little Italian girl in the Quentin section is vividly rendered. And the Jason section is really funny. He’s like one of the Three Stooges, chasing Miss Quentin all over town. I wasn’t that crazy about the Dilsey part because I didn’t like the run on sentences much. It felt too monumental. His real strength were the voices.

And the appendix.  Huh? Are we actually supposed to read that?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky

A woman takes a baby on a trip, despite it not being her baby

I loved this book and read it delighted in one sitting

It’s about Marie, three weeks out of prison, who for some inexplicable reason gets hired by her childhood friend to be a nanny for her only child. Marie likes being a nanny, on her terms, which include getting drunk and giving the baby in a bathtub, seducing her friend’s husband and snatching the kid for a transcontinental road trip. She’s an active character and this makes her interesting. Although the book is like a primer on bad decision making.

I loved the crackling limpid prose, the sharp to-the-point dialogue, the screwy flawed characters. Marie is incapable of following the rules as so far the rules have not served her well. She doesn’t seem to care about anyone, only Caitlin, her little charge. The tone is whimsical, and because of the child, there’s an undercurrent of real danger. Only in the final scene, however, do we taste the fear - would she really abandon the child, do something really evil to an innocent? All of Marie's other "marks" completely deserve being conned.

What makes the scenes come to life are crazy weird situations – a cat with no teeth gnawing on a cat food can. In a way, this is also a novel about Paris. It’s a road novel which makes the plot simple and direct. I really enjoyed it.