Saturday, August 25, 2012

Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

The marriage of two damaged people goes into a sharp downward spiral

Irene, a stay at home mom to three children, is also the muse to Gil, successful painter, and wealthy rageaholic. He is needy, charming and an egomaniac. He also beats the kids and wants to utterly consume Irene. Deep down, Irene knows she needs to get out, but passive aggressively cruelly manipulates Gil's jealousy to the point of madness and the destruction of her family.

I read this searing novel, completely gripped, on the plane, then sat down in Baggage Claim to finish it. Its true subject, I think, is two people destroying their children, one by control and the other by abandonment by alcohol.

The writing and complex imagery are extremely beautiful and wrapped around a downer story. The abuse scenes are alternated with playful funny scenes of affluent family life -- outdoors winter fun in Minneapolis.

The plot is escalated by Irene's use of a fake diary to feed Gil's insecurities and jealousy. He's made his reputation on paintings of her - degrading paintings perhaps. She's her own Iago and keeps upping the ante, creating a feedback loop of contempt intense love and lust all rolled together. The moral problem is that kids are brought into the mix. Everyone pretends to be the perfect family when they are all walking on eggshells. 

Shadow tag refers to a game the family plays - stepping on someone's shadow. Since there's a Native American frame around the novel, shadow tag also refers to what Gil has done to Irene - he stole her shadow, her soul, to make his paintings, his reputation, his identity. The couple truly is codependent.

A revelation at the end was gimmicky, however, and detracted from the power of the book.  But all in all, a frightening moving story.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Lulu In Marrakech by Diane Johnson

A naïve young CIA agent tries to make sense of Marrakech, and by extension, the Islamic world

Something went terribly awry in this novel. In Diane Johnson's other beautifully written books, her trademarks have always been tight classical plotting, a ditzy American heroine, trenchant social observations and a submerged outrage at individual and societal obtuseness. In many of her novels, as well, there is an underlying fascination or fear of the Other. But something went wrong in the execution of Lulu in Marrakech. The plotting is clumpy, with clues piling up suddenly, the ditziness of the heroine falls below a reasonableness standard as no government agency would ever employ her, especially as a spy, and finally her cover story of a love affair that actually is a love affair creates too little conflict. Finally, the fascination with the Other, in this case, Muslims, crosses the line into offensiveness.

Lulu Sawyer, the assumed name of the young California CIA agent, travels to Marrakech, to resume her relationship with Brit Ian Drumm. She lives with him in his compound and gathers information on terrorist funding. She also spies on Ian, but seems to be genuinely in love with the man. The weeks pass and Lulu learns more about the expatriate community.  She also works to help a French girl, Suma, who is in danger of being killed by her brother for the dishonorable crime of losing her virginity. In addition, Ian's neighbors, the good looking Saudis, Gazi and Khaled, are much closer to Ian than Lulu originally assumed. These plot elements gather together, but not in a climatic fashion.

In short order, Lulu stops a suicide bomber, and assists in a CIA rendition. The tone, as is typical in a Diane Johnson novel, is zany, but a huge problem is that a 14 year old suicide bomber is not zany and a man choking to death on his own vomit is not zany. The tone is too muddled. I think we as readers are too close to 9/11.

Here's what I liked. It was consistently absorbing, and I learned a little about Moroccan culture.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

A girl becomes a man

Two stories entwine in this ambitious novel. The first is the three -generation immigration saga of the Turco-Greek Stephanides family and how they became prosperous Americans, rising along with the city of Detroit. The second is the story of Calliope Stephanides, Detroit teenager, who discovers something terribly shocking and unique about herself.  She's a freak.

I found the immigration story off putting at first - the prose was brittle and "rollicking" and there were pages and pages of it. The long and complicated family history, however, serves as the scallop shell or presentation for the very moving story of Calliope's "two births". The story picks up considerably about halfway through when Callie finally leaves off her grandparents' story and begins her own.

Calliope begins life as a much desired pretty little girl and slowly starts to realize something is wrong, something is different about her. Her story is suspenseful, hounded by the ticking clock of puberty. The prose changes as well -gone iss the hyper energetic Keystone Kops rhythm, and in its place are carefully written scenes describing the life of a prosperous young girl. And when Callie has to make a decision, whether to continue life as a woman, although a woman lacking "eroto sexual sensation," or to keep on becoming a man, her decision is instantaneous. It's also the moment she goes from child to adult.

This novel is also a love story to Detroit, to immigrant hustle, to Greek Orthodox ritual. The Elijah Muhammad subplot is hilarious. Like all excellent novels, the story worked on many levels and was supported by a structure of symbols - the silkworm, the mulberry tree, the Muses, Tireseas . I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell

Young women are jarringly disappointed by society’s expectations

Much like last week’s book, Richard Lange's Dead Boys, the emotional and geographic landscape of this book felt insular, almost claustrophobic. These stories, however, were not about tough guys, but about their opposite: upper middle class neurotic white women. The problems these women faced were very recognizable to me, and the writing was often hilarious. But unlike in Lange’s book, the stakes here felt middling to low, so some of the stories dragged. Schappell’s heroines confront anorexia, date rape, Grampa’s Alzheimer’s and the realization that this whole marriage/motherhood thing may not make you feel fulfilled but rather imprisoned. The women address the problems with wisecracks, but only a few of the stories moved me. Many of them felt like a series of sharply written comic paragraphs that never ignited into a real story.

The story I liked best was Aren’t You Dead Yet? in which the narrator, a seemingly unconfident young woman, turns out to be quite the cold blooded artist who gets annoyed her dickhead artist ex boyfriend, slated to die young, and therefore the perfect subject for a play, apparently is going to get better and live. The story worked, I think, because the narrator was active instead of passive or passive aggressive. 

These stories were linked, tentatively but skillfully, not intrusively. I didn’t feel like this collection was claiming to be a novel under false pretenses.