Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

A happy little girl will always need special care

How wonderful it felt, how relaxing, to open this book and feel in the hands of the master. The opening passage is a beautiful blend of description and mystery (although I did have to look up the word “proleptic.”) A young anthropologist in Africa, Jessica Speight, contemplates the happiness of tribal children suffering from a genetic deformity of their hands. Years later Jessica becomes the mother of a child, Anna, who will never learn to read or write. A pure gold baby. The novel recounts fifty years of their lives, and becomes, rather than a traditional novel driven by plotted conflict between the characters, a social and historical commentary. It is a meditation on growing older, mental illness, Dr. Livingstone proselytizing in Africa, and whether perhaps life has a structure or a meaning only visible at its close.

The story is about a mother’s love and the disabled daughter’s necessary immense trust in the mother. Once Anna receives her diagnosis as a toddler, her mother’s hopes of continuing her career the way she had envisioned are over, but Jessica never seems to resent the child/woman who shadows her. The novel is narrated, not by Jessica, though several passages seem from Jessica’s point of view, but by a neighbor, one of a circle of female friends. An interesting woman (who seems to have a sort of Margaret Drabblish kind of history) who goes on interesting tangents. Tangents about London neighborhoods, real estate prices, the evocative story of Livingstone’s death, the sad story of Camille Claudel confined to an asylum. This medley worked for me, but I could see how other people would find it draining the narrative tension. The descriptions were beautifully written.  There were quasi religious overtones here. Life has a pattern and perhaps when you are at the end of your life you see the pattern. Will the world be a lesser place when the births of pure gold babies, intellectually deficient people who love without suspicion or demands, are eliminated?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Transactions in a Foreign Currency by Deborah Eisenberg


Neurotic characters wittily negotiate life

For the most part, these were weird cosmopolitan stories of eccentric lonely women in Manhattan, depicted in sharp descriptive prose. Much of the dialogue is deadpan flat out funny. Personally, I didn’t feel all that much sympathy with the main characters, the stakes of their dilemmas seemed a little low, but they all were alienated from normal life and I identified with the yearning for connection. The characters were fully three dimensional, not stock.

Every story is told in the first person which lent an instant structure to the collection. I loved Days, about a woman trying to quit smoking. The story is made up of comical scenelets, all taking place at the YMCA,illustrating a progression from one emotional state to another. I also liked Broken Glass, about a woman grieving for her mother during a long vacation in a South American country. That story was scary and vivid and moving. A commentary on colonialism. Some of the stories felt unfashionably long, a little dated as it might have been in, What It Was Like, Seeing Chris. The story was excellent. I don’t think it would get published today.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li


An unsentimental look at people striving to get ahead

These stories are about Chinese trying to figure out their strange new capitalist world. Long ago, the people were irrevocably severed from ancient traditions, but now they are cut off from the all encompassing revolution that formerly dictated their actions and beliefs. They have to figure things out on their own and you’re out of luck if you don’t have enough cash. Immigrants who venture to America are sucked under by the same sadnesses. Like Li’s novel, The Vagrants, the stories are tragic, about lives crushed by fear, and at times, the stories were so sad, I wondered why the characters bothered going on. I’m not sure if that question is completely answered. It seems that both repressed spied upon life in Communist China and ignored life in dog eat dog capitalist China is terribly cruel.  

I loved "Immortality" in which a young man from a town with a proud history of supplying imperial eunuchs is both blessed and cursed with a resemblance to the dictator. A quiet fable extrapolated to indict an entire country. I also really liked the enjoyable story "Death is not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way" a story about a little girl running around Beijing talking to people who live in an apartment block. A story called “Persimmons” is told in multiple voices and concerns a murder. You get a sense of a small town. Some stories, like "Extra", about the love for an abandoned old lady and a small boy, flirt with sentimentality but still are very memorable.  

Li is a powerful writer, able to suck the reader in with tactile descriptions. The stakes are high in every single paragraph. People are trapped, but people have to cope with it.  I really enjoyed this book.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Amor and Psyche by Erich Neumann

After pain and suffering, Psyche and Amor mature

Venus is offended when yokels abandon her temple to worship the beautiful human Psyche. She orders her son Cupid to disgrace the girl, but he falls in love with her instead, allowing Psyche’s parents to believe a sacred monster wishes to devour their daughter. Dressed in wedding finery, Psyche is abandoned on a mountaintop but soon the gentle west wind bears her to a magnificent palace. Unseen servants pamper her, and at night, she is visited in the dark by her new “husband.” Quickly growing accustomed to their nighttime activities, she gets pregnant, but is lonely during the day, and begs her husband to let her visit her parents. Unwillingly Cupid acquiesces, and even more unwillingly acquiesces to her sisters' visiting the hidden palace.  They fill her mind with suspicions about her never seen husband, perhaps he really is a cannibalizing monster, and so one night she takes a sword and a lantern to bed. She lights the lantern, only to discover in her bed the God of Love. Transfixed, she accidentally spills burning oil on him, causing him to wake and flee in painful betrayal. A period of suffering and four highly symbolic tasks are required before Psyche and Cupid are reunited, older and wiser. Her reward is elevation to Mount Olympus.

This book was erudite but also very readable. Erich Neumann, a disciple of Jung, a professor forced to emigrate from Germany because of Nazism, uses the story of Cupid and Psyche to illustrate how women psychologically reach maturity. I found this book a fruitful basis for contemplation of certain questions. What is education? What is a mystery? What is the essence of being human?   Also I wasn’t all that convinced Neumann’s points applied only to women. Neumann claims that the original marriage, in which Psyche is an unwilling blind participant, is a “marriage of death.” There’s a lot of discussion of the uroboric consciousness – the snake eating its tail. In order to become an adult, in order for both Psyche and Cupid to become adult, they must free themselves from the dark confines of Venus’s control, the mother’s control, and make their own lives.  It is only then that they can achieve the Godhead.