Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

An immature librarian takes a boy on a cross country road trip

Lucy Hull, a children’s librarian, is concerned about ten year old Ian Drake, avid reader and odd child. His Christian mother visits the library instructing Lucy to allow him only books that have “the breath of God in them.” Lucy also believes that his parents have placed Ian into a “pray the gay away" program, therefore she helps Ian smuggle home unapproved books and tries to be supportive of his nonconforming personality. One morning, after she discovers that Ian has spent the night hiding in the library, instead of calling the police or returning him to his parents, she takes him on a cross country road trip.  Huh? That implausibility, for me, dealt the story a blow from which it never recovered.

I found The Borrower disappointing because I have enjoyed Rebecca Makkai’s short stories – they are honest, direct and true. But this silly premise cannot support the story, despite the injection of the “road novel” structure. Plotting must create narrative tension and keep the reader reading. There is no narrative tension when the librarian is always by the side of the highway wringing her hands worrying about going to jail for kidnapping. I was just about to set the book down for good, when suddenly we were in Chicago with a whole family of Russian eccentrics, and I was transported by the energy. Temporarily bolstered, I kept reading, but the rest of Lucy and Ian’s trip felt forced.

The obvious parallel here is to Lolita, but Lolita has a base coat of tragedy. I also felt the narrator was unnecessarily mean spirited in her character depictions – the elderly drunken head librarian, the anorexic Christian mom. We never got a sense of the agony parents would feel at the disappearance of their small child, so in the end Lucy and Ian felt like game pieces moved around a big map of the United States.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Venus Drive by Sam Lipsyte

Drug addicted losers disappoint themselves

That summary sounds grim, but the experience of reading the book is more positive.  At heart, these stories are a celebration of wordplay and of voice.  The drug addicted losers are not in despair over their condition – their physical dependency amuses them (and us too).  However, I felt ultimately that none of the stories ever cut close to the bone.   I’m not sure if any character really bleeds.  They feint at bleeding.

My favorite story was “Ergo, Ice Pick” about half ass revolutionaries, and showcases Lipsyte’s skill at painting entertaining nutcases.  I was a little disappointed reading this collection, as I enjoyed The Ask and some of Lipsyte’s later stories.  They seem to evoke a deeper more despairing emotion.  Prose must kneel to story, I think, if you want to evoke deep feeling.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

One too many tragedies sends a woman over the edge

Maria (Mar-eye-ah) Wyeth, a 31 year old failing actress living in Beverly Hills, starts behaving in self destructive ways. The institutionalization of her young daughter has contributed directly to her divorce from Carter, a hot movie director. However, it is Hollywood, so the strange behavior doesn’t raise that many alarms. As the novel goes on, one horrible thing after another happens to Maria. Overwhelmed, she lets it happen without direct protest.

The writing is tremendous, crazy and hilarious, all about the telling detail, compulsively readable, so that the reader completely buys being in Maria’s crazy head, although the reader is also expected to pay attention enough to figure out what exactly is going on with the plot. The dialogue as characterization is wonderful. Didion keeps it mysterious, at first. The organizing principle is gambling. “I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what went out on the last.” A classically optimistic American (Californian?) position. But lately that philosophy hasn't been working too well for Maria. She copes by stumbling through Hollywood like a zombie.

The story is familiar, perhaps even hackneyed. A beautiful girl from a rural Eden gets transported to Hollywood. She has a fairytale marriage, a beautiful blonde baby, a nascent career as a movie star – then, everything falls apart. Her daughter has a severe mental illness, which puts Maria in agony. Her primary motive in the book is to help her child but her child is beyond help, so Maria numbs her feelings.

Carelessly, also numbly, she gets pregnant. Her ex-husband arranges the illegal abortion. Huge chunks of this novel concern the abortion and Maria’s subsequent horror of bloody fetal parts clogging the drains. She’s so traumatized she can’t react. At night, she tries to comfort herself with peaceful images of her and her daughter and her lover at the beach eating mussels. During daytime, she realizes it’s a fantasy.

I’m not sure that this novel is a fully realized realistic portrait of society. The husband is a two timing villain. And the female friends are monsters.  Near the end, the plot gets to be like the perils of Pauline. I was like come on, she's getting raped too? I could feel sympathy for Carter’s exasperation.

She never tries to make sense of what’s happening to her. But she never gives up either.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh

A sociopath marries three women

Handsome speedy eater Ken Kimble’s story is told through the eyes of his three sad wives, whom he betrays one right after the other. The entire time I was reading, a voice in my head kept saying, this story is stupid, but I kept turning the pages, enthralled. There was a fascination in witnessing his impersonal cruelty, also, Jennifer Haigh also has good story telling skills.

However, I wondered whether this novel was a literary novel or a genre novel. (Because I really don’t want to waste time reading genre novels). Early on in the story, I thought genre, as the opening section was too long winded, but then I recognized the tripartite structure of the book and the thematic and stylistic echoes among the three wives, and I thought ok, this might be literary. But then there were some tired constructions, such as “heart being furiously.”  Also, there was the persistent problem of the main character, Ken Kimble, the villain, being so completely villainous. Ultimately, I think this novel was probably more simplistic than it needed to be. Couldn’t we have celebrated Ken Kimble’s anarchic sense of freedom, his unwillingness to be tied down to drudgery? All his wives are depicted as such victims (although the final wife Dinah manages to turn her ruined life around). I was starting to root for him, if only because he was such a force of nature.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Colour by Rose Tremain

A English couple emigrates/escapes to New Zealand and are tested by the unforgiving environment

Joseph and Harriet attempt to farm the harsh New Zealand countryside, but their expectations are met with failure. Joseph is secretive and parsimonious and his discovery of gold (the “colour”) in their stream unhinges him further. He abandons Harriet as well as his status conscious mother to join the gold rush on the other side of the mountain.

This novel left me a little cold - key characters and key motivations are introduced late in the story. In addition, Joseph and Harriet both have drippy personalities. I really didn’t care what happened to them and since the situation for both was so bleak, the book was a somewhat of a chore to finish. Also, perhaps one too many historical details slow down the story. The sentences, however, are beautifully written and many of the scenes are spectacular, set against the spectacular natural backdrop of New Zealand. I especially liked the disintegration of the farm house. That collapse tied into the theme of shelter which was woven throughout the narrative – houses, tents, and caves.

The plot gets condescending in a politically correct way, however, as the supporting characters, saintly aboriginal Pare and saintly G-spot-knowledgeable Chinese immigrant Pao Yi, remind the European characters of their holy connection to Nature. In the end, everyone gets the fate they deserve.