Saturday, April 27, 2013

Inside by Alix Ohlin

Running away

Inside tells the story of four characters – or perhaps more accurately, it tells four stories of four characters. Grace the therapist, Annie the actress, earnest Mitch, also a therapist, and the haunted Tug. The locations are Montreal, New York, Los Angeles, Nunavut, and Rwanda. The four characters are somewhat connected, though not their stories really are not - perhaps this is actually a book of linked novellas. For the most part, the story arcs are about the unintended consequences of trying to help. In some cases, the results are negative. In other, neutral or maybe slightly positive.  I was impressed that the author didn’t feel the need to have a “happy” ending with everything neatly tied up.

I’m not sure if this was my cup of tea. The prose was tastefully smooth and the numerous characters were well delineated and deep, but for me the story was too bland. There was no passion and I like passion. There’s not even that much quirk. Reading the book felt a little like watching a Barbie and a Ken be propelled through a doll house. The motivations felt suspect. Would anybody, let alone a therapist, enter into a romantic relationship with a person they just cut down from a suicide attempt? And would a wary hard young woman invite a pregnant homeless teenager into her one bedroom apartment and start sleeping on the sofa? I just didn’t buy it, though I bought it enough to finish the book.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

NW by Zadie Smith

A glimpse at modern day London 

NW presents the interior lives of three characters in their mid-30's: Leah, Keisha/Natalie and Felix, the success stories of Caldwell, a London housing project. A fourth character, drug addict Nathan, drifts in and out of the plot like lightening. The writing was stupendous, imaginative and entertaining, although the book didn’t quite feel like a fully integrated novel, but more like three and a third novellas.  The individual stories never seemed to merge and the book fell apart at the end with implausible midnight hysterics.  However, a failed novel of Zadie Smith is many times more interesting than a perfect novel by someone else.

One of the themes is betrayal. The novel even starts with a con. The women betray their husbands, and Felix is betrayed by the neighborhood, or Fate, or his hopes of escaping.  The motivations for the two women’s actions are embedded in their characters, but are not supported strongly enough to justify the really unforgiveable betrayals each inflict on their husband. Yes, Leah likes being childless, and Keisha/Natalie likes orgasms but these likes don’t seem powerful enough to derail Leah's inherent kindness and Natalie’s inherent caution. Out of all the sections, Felix’s is written the most traditionally, it actually gets a little dull, then gets very interesting.  The reader begins to care about him and his struggles, then whomp. Betrayal. (Of the reader?)

Another theme is class and race, about striving to get ahead, about trying to become someone different, an affluent stranger.  Can it actually be done?  Or have you only succeeded in being an imposter in both worlds?  Each section devoted to a particular character is written in a particular style. The Keisha/Natalie section (an intellectual/sexual history) is made up of numbered paragraphs and is really funny. (Though full of references which in coming years will need to be footnoted.) The number 37 has a magical meaning in this book I couldn’t figure out. In the numbered section it’s missing. But there are many thoughtful observations on the way we live now. I definitely plan to reread.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Their Dogs Came With Them by Helena Maria Viramontes

Four teenage girls come of age in 1960’s East LA.

I like reading about teenage girls, the 1960’s and LA, so for the most part, I was absorbed by this strange incantatory book. The novel tells the stories of four strong young women: Turtle, the tall girl disguised as a boy, disgusted by her femininity; Ana, the protector of a schizophrenic brother; Ermila the orphan tempted by lust; and Tranquilina, the holy girl who helps her family feed the homeless. Sadness permeates the pages. I hesitate to call this a novel, as a novel implies a journey between point A and point B, and these girls never really meet, except for a page or two at the end. Rather, the structure here is Point A, Point A, Point A... About a fifth of the way through, I thought, when is all this stuff coming together? About halfway through, I realized, it’s not. The narrative sequence was tragic slice of life after tragic slice of life, and the “chapters” don’t even function as short stories. It would have been better if the characters had a problem to solve apart from Fate crushing their hopes. But still I cared about these girls and kept reading.

I would also describe this book as a lyrical history of East LA, and I was consistently entertained by the descriptive though somewhat “writerly” writing. There’s a hallucinatory feel to the endeavor – like what is the Quarantine Authority, these police-like figures keeping the inhabitants trapped in East LA – did that actually happen? Were the police controlling for the spread of rabies – so why then when Ermila gets bitten by a dog, is she so matter of fact about it? Was the reader supposed to be concerned about her? The ending is frankly incoherent and lacks the emotional resonance it was probably supposed to carry.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Gathering by Anne Enright

The suicide of a brother forces an affluent woman to confront family secrets

On the surface, Dublin’s Hegarty family, with Mammy, Daddy, the twelve kids, is the classic devout Irish Catholic family. However, the chaotic reality of their upbringing was significantly more hellish. Veronica, a middle child, claws her way free and constructs a more tranquil family life, but is unable to save Liam, her closest sibling, who is a drunk and a fuckup. When Liam drowns himself in England, Veronica returns to the family home to oversee the funeral. Once there, she remembers (and also imagines) family secrets, secrets that could be the root of Liam’s pain. Because one summer, long ago, Mammy became overwhelmed, and Veronica and Liam are sent to stay with their Grandmother Ada. Something happened there (or did it?).  The novel is about Veronica beginning to remember.

The story is beautifully, evocatively written, and technically skillful.  The numerous siblings are memorable, delineated in quick crazy observations. The plot is submerged, but surfaces periodically to move the story along when needed. Much of the book consists of Veronica's voice: thinking about the past, taking field trips to visit the past, mourning the inevitable death of her brother. Veronica hates her middle class life – the life she struggled so hard to build as a contrast, a rebuke, to the emotionally neglectful way she was raised. Extended passages are set in the distant past and concern the life of her grandmother, and Ada’s choice between two suitors: Charlie, her good-timey husband, and the very careful very creepy Lambert Nugent.

I wasn’t quite sure what happened at the end – events surged to produce a happy ending. Or at least an ending that wasn’t boxed in with despair. Overall, a wonderful book.