Saturday, September 29, 2012
Who hears the cries of the lonely dead?
I found parts of this novel truly frightening and disturbing. I also thought the sentences were hilarious. Toward You is about Bob, an Aspergery upholsterer, who builds a helmet (the "Communicator') constructed of egg cartons and duct tape in order to hear the voices of the dead. The helmet seems to work, though not very well. Meanwhile, Bob is tormented by Steadman, a cop who suspects him of numerous crimes, and deranged Dennis, who feels that Bob had something to do with the death of his beloved rabid dog. Who is also named Bob.
Bob has a deadpan, slightly aggrieved voice. He earnestly labors on his helmet, much like Jonathan in Krusoe's Girl Factory labored on his lady revitalizing yogurt project. Meanwhile, Bob reminisces about the only woman he had a close relationship with, Yvonne, who dumped him. Inexplicably, according to Bob. Then one day Yvonne shows upon his doorstep, eight year old daughter Dee Dee in tow, searching for the dog who bit Dee Dee. In a surreal comic scene, Bob serves them yellow cake.
Eventually, the story turns plotty, though all the threads don't quite come together. I felt there was real pathos and horror with Dee Dee's story, who seems to be stuck in Limbo with Bob, the rabid dog who killed her. The deaths in Girl Factory were funny. The death of Dee Dee's wasn't. A crevasse opens up in the novel and there is real emotion under the dead pan prose.
In some ways, this novel is about trying or not trying to follow the rules in suburban American. Bob tries to, but just can't figure it out.
Saturday, September 22, 2012
A high school basketball player suffers from unrequited love
This novel was strangely compelling, even though it was "about" schoolgirl basketball and I don't have that much of an interest in schoolgirl basketball. But the book didn't concern games and practices and sneakers, not really. It was about a girl in love with another girl, and how the girl cannot bring herself to say so. The love story pulled me along, the way that Nancy is trapped, has no power over her love. In addition, the novel offers a glimpse into another world, a world not usually seen in literary novels-- African American 1980's LA, a background of endless freeways, carjacking and Laker championships.
Nancy Takahiro, 17 year old basketball phenom from Inglewood, is in love with Raina, the 17 year old star guard from a rival high school. It so happens (and this is handled believably), that Nancy's dad and Raina's mom are in love and move into together. The girls become housemates. Nothing much happens in the novel after that. Nancy pines, they drink a lot of beer, their respective teams win until they meet in the championship where Raina pulls a Isaiah Thomas bonehead style pass. Racial tensions, homosexual tensions, are in the background of this novel, not the foreground. These kids really don't know they're poor.
The novel is about 25% baggier than it needs to be. We may need to know all the players on Nancy's team, but do we really need to know all the players on Raina's team? At the end it bogged down, the emotions unsupported, but Nancy with her blind strivings, her passion for Raina, keeps the reader interested. Raina, however, is essentially unknowable. I guess that's what makes her the love object.
Monday, September 17, 2012
A mystery and a love story and a growing up story
This is the third novel I've read by Rose Tremain, and all three have been deeply moving. The subject matter and settings have been very different, but each book has been written with a high degree of technical artistry, founded on a bedrock of fully imagined three dimensional characters, rich with telling details and emotions.
Lewis Little, the precocious, highly literate, 13 year old narrator of The Way I Found Her, accompanies his mother to Paris, when she is working as a translator for an eccentric chubby Franco Russian historical novelist. (So we get a little commenting on the craft of writing novels). Though Lewis is very smart, there are many things going on between the adults in the story that he is not quite aware of or doesn't understand. And therefore sometimes the reader doesn't fully understand, but the fogginess is not unpleasant. All the characters are well rounded, unique -- Lewis's unwitting father back in England, his red headed passionate mother, the existentialist roofer, the middle aged novelist Lewis is in love with. The little dog is a compelling character as well as a plot device.
Lewis is translating a famous French novel about adolescence, Les Meulnes (which probably needs to be read to really appreciate the book). He also likes Crime and Punishment, and those two novels clank and bang around this one. The book is also a travelogue of Paris.
The grand finale is highly plotted, a bit like the end of Huckleberry Finn, where a thought provoking piece turns plotty, and though the ending felt fantastical, it felt right.
Sunday, September 9, 2012
We are the barbarians
I understand what they mean now when they say novelists are moral teachers. This book was a masterpiece, containing lyrical dreamlike imagery, concise beautiful prose, a sympathetic protagonist, and a moral and political lesson.
The allegorical story is about the Magistrate, who heads up a sleepy little town at the frontier of the sophisticated powerful Empire. The town lies near a vast desert and a glacier. There are guns but no internal combustion engines. However, there is humanity and its delusions, which seem to remain the same no matter how fantastical the setting. The Magistrate spends his time being an amateur archeologist and sleeping with willing young servants. One day a man with newfangled sunglasses visits - Colonel Joll. He has arrived to snuff out the incipient Barbarian rebellion. The Magistrate scoffs at his fear mongering but soon the Colonel supports his thesis by torturing some natives, some unto death. The Magistrate objects to the torture, (though not strongly enough) and becomes the fascinated patron of a Barbarian girl maimed by Colonel Joll. In the course of trying to help the girl, he is identified as a traitor by Colonel Joll. Then the Magistrate experiences degradation and understands how much protection his education and superior culture have given him. That is, not very much.
Perhaps this anti torture novel has more relevance for the America of 2012 then the South Africa of 1980, for which it was written. That is a dreadful thing.
What is innocence?
Sunday, September 2, 2012
A lonely immigrant to LA tries to find out what's inside a private Russian nightclub
So called Anya, Polish born, but brought to this country as a child, comes to LA, and is fascinated by the garish Twin Palms nightclub next door to her run down West Hollywood apartment. She is determined to see inside, and, with a blunt direct seduction, chooses club goer Lev, a middle aged Russian wise guy, as her "boyfriend." Lev is all too happy to use Anya for sex but not much else. When Lev puts her in her place, she turns to a drastic solution.
There were echoes here of Burning, Diane Johnson's novel of LA eccentrics who continue in their sun baked eccentricity even as their mansions go up in smoke. I think in both novels there is an underlying editorial approval, Sodom and Gomorrah style, that LA going up in smoke is a fine conclusion. Waclawiak has an appealing deadpan prose style that works well as Anya encounters the Russians next door; Lev's wife and her nasty friends; Mary, the eccentric Bingo lady, (who in her life has experienced true love). The characters are vivid and lively.
Anya's motivations confused me a little, however. Why does she want to get into the Twin Palms? It seemed very tacky. Why does she pursue Lev? He really seems tacky - though manly and animalistic. I didn't understand the fascination. I assume it was a sort of deranged lust, but then again Anya finds all human excretions disgusting and parts of the book are nauseating. In a literary way, of course.
I sense the real emotional story lies with Anya's Polish mother left behind in Texas and their strained phone conversations. The real immigrant's story of leaving family and culture behind. And also Anya's relationship with Mary, the chippy bingo lady and the tale of her lost love. The conflagration at the end felt a little tacked on.