Sunday, September 28, 2014

What Happened to Sophie Wilder? by Christopher Beha

A young woman attempts to live according to the rules of her newly adopted Catholic faith

Sophie Wilder, an orphaned creative writing student, marries another orphaned student whose pleasant aunt introduces Sophie to the Catholic faith. Later, during Mass, Sophie feels a numinous joy she is intent on recapturing. She joins the Church, publishes a well received book of short stories, then disappears. After several years, Charlie Blakeman, a young novelist, one of her many past lovers, encounters her in Manhattan during a crisis in her life. Sophie tells him the story of what she has been doing. And it hasn’t been writing.

I really wanted to like this book. It’s a novel of ideas. The idea is what if you could achieve lasting joy or peace by submitting your human will to an outdated, likely fantastical, more than slightly ridiculous, half the time inconvenient moral code, would you? However, that particular idea is inconsistently presented.  It's on the novel side of the things that the execution stumbles – the fictional dream, the prose, the characterization, the dialogue. Worst of all the story begins in a writing workshop. The prose is sonorous and phony, the characterization barely makes an imprint, and the dialogue is creaky. Sophie Wilder is not a real person but a blowup doll. The only interesting character was the dying blackguard father-in-law but then the reader is supposed to believe this crusty old bastard carts around 24 boxes of newspaper clippings everywhere he goes. Novels should spring like Athena from the head of Zeus, helmeted and ready for battle. Not armed with meandering tension and unmotivated actions. However, what I did like about this book is that there are two endings.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bleeding Hearts by Ian Rankin

An assassin tries to figure out who set him up

Michael Weston is a meticulous paid assassin, who happens to be a hemophiliac. After he kills a prominent newscaster, he falls immediately under suspicion and is chased by his nemesis, the fat American detective Hoffer. Hoffer pursues him through England where Michael joins up with Bel, the lovely young sharpshooter daughter of his arms supplier. After a side trip through Scotland, Michael and Bel flee to America where they encounter the murderous machinations of a ruthless cult leader.

The only reason I read this genre novel was to learn about plotting because someone told me Ian Rankin was good at plotting. The prose was not unpleasant although the story relied heavily upon archetypes instead of actual character development. But plotting – hmm – there was a LOT of deus ex machina situations. We meet a new character in Texas on page 250 who fifty pages later roars out of a Seattle woods to save Michael’s ass from an impossible situation.

Reading this was sort of like doing a crossword puzzle but I don't do crossword puzzles. The book was a platform for somewhat entertaining ruminations about driving across America. The Michael and Bel romance made no sense to me because he’s a murderer and Bel’s mildly upset about that as if he were a slightly shady roofer.  The story almost degenerates into a romantic comedy, but who would cheerfully marry a paid assassin? The writing and the dialogue wasn’t so bad. The fundamental problem is that I didn’t care about a single one of the characters. Not the killer. Not the fat American not the cipher of a girl.  Also there were too many pages.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

A couple navigates their way through falling-to-pieces New York

 After cooking a delicious meal for her attorney husband, Sophie Bentwood, an educated housewife, is badly bitten by a stray cat she has been surreptitiously feeding. Over the course of the book, she ignores the worsening bite, as she and husband Otto attend sophisticated parties, complain about their sophisticated friends and visit their summer house, which inexplicably has been trashed. In between, Sophie sneaks a midnight drink with Otto’s estranged business partner, reminisces about her peculiarly detached lover who broke up with her and returned to his wife, and wonders if she has rabies. At the end of the book, Otto and Sophie stand in an embrace, ink splattered on the walls of their townhouse.

This novel reminded me of Diane Johnson's novels. A certain kind of seventies chic. Women raised to be household ornaments getting freed from their cultural chains. Now what? Sex probably. Then what? The best part of this book was the nearly surreal dialogue. There's an absurdity, almost Wodehousian, to the dialogue. My expectations, however, were probably too high. The story felt a little musty to me, airless. The musty smell of privilege, of a bygone world. The novel also reminded me of BUtterfield 8.  Parasites who don't need to work futzing around with their unearned money.  There's a little something of The Great Gatsby going on as well.

The sentences are wonderfully poetical, really designed to be read aloud and the scenes are short, vivid and surreal. The funny shock if the word “cunt” near the end of the book. And the shock of the turd in the summer home.  A mirror is held up to the face of society and the face doesn't turn out to be all that sweet.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

A woman looks back on her youth in Indochina

Our nameless narrator, a fifteen year old French girl living in Saigon, is noticed by an affluent young Chinese man who quickly becomes obsessed with her. She allows him to squire her about, support her family, wash her body with cool water from a jar and cover her with kisses. Her mother (and even the narrator herself) are ashamed of the mixing of the races, but the mother needs the money and the beaten down girl needs the excitement. Her home life is crazy, with a dead father who left the family penniless, and an overdramatizing mother who favors the sociopath older son, ignoring the two younger children. Ostracized at school, the girl eventually returns to France for education and the affair ends. 

This was a short novel, a reflection on a lost world, written in little biting chunks the size of a paragraph or two. The book opens with one of these little biting chunks. Our narrator is considered more beautiful now that she is old because her face is “ravaged.” Most of the story is told in the first person, though sometimes Duras slips into the third, to emphasize the depiction of the past and the narrator’s memory of the girl she had been. Mostly the past is rendered in present tense and the present rendered in past tense and sometimes the narrative slips into the future tense.  What Duras does is bring vividly to life a swept away colonial world, and in many ways, this novel reminded me of Faulkner, an attempt to recreate the deeply screwed up past.

I am intending to read novels about love and all the love novels are turning out to be about something other than love. I don’t think the narrator loves this weird little man and I think the weird little man simply has a freaky sexual obsession with her. This book, I think, is actually about the all-controlling Mother.