Sunday, April 26, 2015

Thirst by Ken Kalfus

Stories that work on several levels

These stories are about people in different worlds, ranging from an uptight Irish nanny in Paris, a New Yorker who seems to be living his dream (literally), a nuclear family in an endless snowstorm in Brooklyn, tand finally to Vietnamese peasants in a monsoon. The voice was authoritative, though slightly off-kilter. On one hand, these are smoothly controlled satirical narratives about American life, on the other, just beneath the surface was an unquenchable rage against injustice. The stories depict power relationships, but each time, the powerful one asks, who is really in charge?

I had read Kalfus’s story about Dominique Strauss Kahn (Coup de Foudre) in a recent edition of Harpers and knew I had to read more. That story was about an influential man and his sexual escapades, then it turned into an indictment, an indictment of the man and an indictment of the system that made him. And, oh yes, an indictment of men in general. The stakes were huge. The stories in Thirst are similar – sensual writing framed by an intellectual accusation. Did I mention they were also very funny?

The writing was consistently excellent, and personally I favored the more realistic stories, although I liked Night and Day You Are The One, about a young man who seems to be living two different lives – one on the East Side of Manhattan, the other on the West. A few minutes after he goes to bed he wakes up on the other side of town and needs to head off to a different job as well as a different woman. Which one is the dream? I also like The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz, which took a turn into the surreal and was hilarious. I wasn’t that crazy about Cats in Space, about kids torturing kittens, but I loved Rope Bridge. This was the most realistic of the stories and cleanly and sensually written. The stakes at first seem to be low, a simple adultery story, but then it also turns into a story about losing your mind, doubting yourself and losing the family life you care about a lot.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A young Nigerian woman emigrates to the United States, then, after several years, returns home

Ifemelu, a good student, almost on a whim applies for a US visa and gets it, moving in with her vivacious Aunty Uju who scrambles to make a decent living. At first, life in the United States nearly overwhelms Ifemelu, then she thrives and starts penning a tart-tongued blog. Meanwhile, back in Nigeria, Ifemelu’s school days boyfriend, Obinze, who has always longed for a life in the States, is unable to get a US visa and smuggles himself to London where he takes menial jobs, leaving in fear and observing how his fellow countryman change for the worse after their arrival in the West. Obinze is deported, returning to Nigeria a failure. However, because of lucky contacts in the booming country, he becomes a wealthy man, with a submissive exquisitely beautiful wife. He and Ifemelu don’t keep in contact, but after her return to Lagos she watches with bemusement the newly prosperous society and reunites with Obinze.

At almost 600 pages, this novel made no bones about its ambition, attempting to say something about Nigerian society, American racism, romantic love and hairstyle choice. Where the novel really worked was illustrating both Ifemelu and Obinze’s despair at having to take humiliating jobs in order to eat, as well as their intelligent analyses at how the people around them behave when confronted with poverty and racial differences. What was particularly successful was the depiction of
Ifemelu's growing consciousness of the concept of “race.” She arrives in the US as an immigrant wondering why all the black Americans are obsessed by race and then begins getting obsessed by race herself because white people are unable to refrain from making every single social interaction about race.

This was a good book, consistently absorbing, though only in the last few pages did it fully commit to be a love story, and that love story’s fraught conclusion was squished into the end. I’m not sure I even fully bought the idea of crotchety Ifemelu paired with serene Obinze. But just as the conflict about his wife and child starts to come to a head, he ups and leaves his wife. It made me think a little worse of him.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce

Teen mom waitress degrades herself in order not to feel the pain

Marie, once headed to Yale, gets pregnant at sixteen, and, needing cash, enters the tough world of waiting tables, first at chains like Olive Garden and Chili’s, then at fancier establishments, until finally she lands a gig at the “Restaurant,” the competitive pinnacle for servers wanting to make lots of money.  To stay employed at the “Restaurant,” a waiter must be hardworking, a team player and have excellent people skills.  The payoff is a “good night.” Marie gets skilled at being a high-end waitress, better anyway than she is at being a wife, and probably at being a mother.  In addition to sucking up to customers and bosses (as well as despising them), Marie parties heavily, never declining a proposed sex act.  Days off are spent with her adored daughter and the secret cutting and burning of Marie’s flesh.  The two sensations, of adoration and degradation, are connected.

I grabbed this book before stepping onto the plane, not knowing a thing about it.  I settled in, started reading, then realized, Jackpot. The writing was amazing, the strength was the voice, fully alive, and the surety of the artist.  The sentences were gripping, and the reader is totally compelled to follow Marie’s tale of reestablishing her life after it gets blown up by an accidental pregnancy. 

Part if the narrative structure is Marie’s progression to better paying serving jobs and the ego crushing things she needs to do in order to keep the job.  There were lots of insights into how America really works, and how workers are actually treated and how workers are actually treated is not that pretty.  This book also reminded me of Kasischke's Suspicious River, that is, the plot is almost a pretext for gorgeously written scenes of female degradation.  And also like Kasischke, structure-wise, a little of this goes a long way.  The mystery is the motivation, why Marie keeps hooking up with these crummy losers.  Not for orgasms, not for money (not like this girl.)  I didn’t feel the oblivion nor the compulsion for oblivion supposedly Marie is seeking.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Smart little girls grow up and grow apart

Two tots play with their dollies in the courtyard of their apartment building, then later attend school together. Shy Elena is intimidated by proud confident Lila, though they quickly fall into a passionate friendship. Both girls are bright, but the teacher’s pressure on the uneducated parents to continue the girls’ education only works on Elena’s family. Nonetheless, Elena is always conscious of her parents’ financial sacrifice and doesn’t want to let them down. At first, Lila tries to keep up with Elena's schooling, by reading all the books in the library, learning Greek and writing eloquent letters. Later, her creativity and passion turns to the art of shoemaking, but then Lila loses interest in learning, placing all her aspirations on a marriage.

For this one, maybe my expectations were too high. The novel felt overly long, like I was being beaten over the head. Got it. Lila is brilliant. Brilliant and screwed. In the background a bunch of working class napoletani, almost indistinguishable from each other, beat each other up. Or throw children from windows. But then the book began to sneak up on me like Sebald or Middlemarch or Gina Frangello, books in which unrelated repetitive mildly boring scenes turn out to be the backdrop for a magnificent architecture.  And then, I understood. This book is about realizing some things are irrevocable. Like education. The stakes I thought were small but the stakes are actually huge.

Lila is presented by Elena as sort of a monster, icy cold and ruthless, but if you were to analyze her actual interactions with Elena, she seems to be a very nice young woman, politely deferring to her friend on many occasions. The story is equally about Elena and her escape from the ignorant neighborhood as much as it is about Lila. Elena, quite aware her wall eyed mother doesn’t like her,  but again and again, when she is about to quit school, she is encouraged by the mother. The reader needs to parse Elena’s narration.

Lila is headed, you can tell, for unhappiness and Elena is headed for something greater. But will the neighborhood hold her back? So I am eager to read the rest. I’m afraid Elena’s going to join the Red Brigades or something.