Sunday, June 28, 2015

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

The good girl is tired of being good; the bad girl pulls herself together.

In this installment, scholarly Elena marries a superior scholar, accidentally gets knocked up twice, thinks herself better than the neighborhood that made her, writes a shitty novel and gets bored out of her mind. Lila endures her horrific job, accidentally unionizes the sausage factory and her midnight studying of flowcharts pays off big. The book is also a portrayal of the 1960s in Italy, and a study of what happens to society and the economy when women are released from their bonds.

I haven’t had such an intense, purely pleasurable, reading experience for several years. The end of each chapter is propulsive -- the reader wants to know what happens next. Like a Jane Austen novel, or a soap opera, one event keeps happening after the other, and, just like a murder mystery, this book commences with a dead body. There is a meticulous attention to plotting, really coming into view in Volume Three in which no character introduced in Volume One is wasted, but used to illustrate a point. The question is: how does Ferrante suck you in, what narrative techniques does she use to make the reader identify with the characters, get annoyed when they waste their lives? The ending of each book is powerful and moving, each books concluding with an unforgettable very powerful image.

Elena finally gets what she thinks she always wanted, the literary fame, the wonderful apartment, the sophisticated in-laws, though almost with her realizing it, her success is slowly swamped by the suck of domestic life, the babies and the dinner needs of an absent-minded professor. Elena also comes to the realization that her loyal husband loves her, but views her as kind of a charity case dolt. Meanwhile, little by little, Lila starts to crawl out of the mess she made of her life. This volume reminded me of The Golden Notebook. All the men are shits except for Elena’s cheerfully corrupt dad. One of the themes is that Italian men (all men?) are clueless about how to give a woman an orgasm. The only one who understands is the disgusting old scuzzbag Nino Sarratore’s dad who took Elena’s virginity. In these books, pregnancy is a disaster.

The shadow of the corrupting Mafia hangs over everything, including Lila, of course, who never left Naples, but also, much to her annoyed surprise, Dottoressa Elena. Virtually everyone in society is in their debt, vulnerable to their terrible violence.   Nothing happens without the Solaras' say so.

The story is also about how people's minds differ. Elena’s is plodding but with good judgment. Lila's is brilliant but crazy. Elena’s husband is loyal and boring. Nino Sarratore is exciting and untrustworthy. Nobody here, however, has a sense of humor.

The translation is wonderful, seamlessly switching between the high scholarly language of the university, the technical language of Marxist revolution and the vulgar shit filled language of the streets. Lila’s phone call at the end when she rips Elena a new one is just so satisfying – she says exactly what the reader is thinking.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Bob the Gambler by Frederick Barthelme

 A husband and wife get into serious financial straits at the Biloxi casinos

Ray and Jewel Kaiser, satisfied residents of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, one day leave their house to try out the flashy new casinos moored along the once old timey shore. It’s not very long before Ray, without even thinking deeply about it, has gambled away thirty-five thousand dollars, and the couple, along with their teenage daughter RV, must move in with Ray’s understanding mom.

This book had a low key charm, the engine being the first person narration and humorous dialogue between the husband and the wife, the stepdad and the stepdaughter. The setting and the writing definitely felt like another time and place. The novel reminded me of Joy Williams. I guess you would call it Minimalism. The stakes feel low, but in retrospect, the hero is a guy who loses every material thing, as well as his pride.  He takes it well -- the tone feels jokey.

The frame of the book is gambling, specifically blackjack.  The destructive compulsiveness of those card scenes is beautifully described. After finishing the novel, I googled Barthelme- he lost all his money gambling, then was indicated for fraud. So the breezy low stakes tone here – were the stakes really low, or did he find out once he lost everything he felt freer? Or was that the only way to feel anything at all?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Beginning their lives as women, two friends compete

In Part Two of the Neapolitan novels, beautiful brilliant unstable Lila is now queen of the old neighborhood, with an affluent handsome husband, and successful grocery and shoe store she only makes more successful with her charm and intelligence. Elena, chubby with thick glasses and bad skin, trudges along with her studies and her hopeless crush on dashing Nino Sarratorre. Little by little, however, as Elena starts to excel in the alien educated world outside the claustrophobic violence of the neighborhood she takes charge of her own destiny, avoiding entanglements with men while Lila finds herself trapped inside a social and sexual prison. By the end of this book, their roles are reversed, Lila on the run, suffering at the most menial of jobs, and Elena a celebrated young novelist.

This was so good! Full of life and longing. Although there’s a little bit of false marketing going on, as this is not really Book Two of a series of linked novels, but rather this is the second section of a much longer, much more ambitious novel, like War and Peace or Middlemarch – an epic that not only examines the petty vicissitudes of the two main characters’ love life, but also takes on the modern history of Italy, the education of the masses, feminism and the rise of technology.

Now that the elaborate setup of Book One is out of the way, the personal story, that is, the story of the two women’s friendship, can really get going. In the first book, the plotting was harder to discern but in this volume the magnificent architecture comes into view. The many many supporting characters also serve as plot devices, that is, they are always bringing some gossipy tidbit or party invitation to Elena in order to move the story along. The book is about how two women struggle with their relationship, also about how they wake up to the consciousness of how men oppress them. And what is the meaning of the epigraph from Faust at the beginning of the first book? Which one, Lila or Elena, is the devil here? And also what is the meaning of the prologue to the first book, when Elena sits down to the computer, saying, you’re not going to win this time. What are these books about? Revenge?

Elena literally is learning a new language – Italian versus the dialect, and on her journey, she is helped by women and hindered (is that the right word) by men – or definitely not helped by men. At every critical juncture older women help her, the most critical help given by an anonymous professor who tells her about the scholarship to the free university in Pisa. The book is female-centric. The men are merely appurtenances or the bars of the cage.

The writing (including the translation) is consistently excellent. I went back and reread the opening of book one which was from the point of view of a four year old child. Excellently done. On one hand, the writing is highly realistic, on the other, I loved the effective use of imagery - Elena dropping of Lila’s box of letters in the Arno to open this book; Lila the burning of her Blue Fairy story to close the book. I love that the two girls love Little Women.

Round One: Lila with the wedding feast; Round Two: Elena with the book deal. Although the final scene of this book, where Elena has “won,” and Lila stands there stinking of offal in the refrigerator of the horrific sausage making factory, and then says, there’s this new kind of calculator and a flow chart, made me think that Elena has a kind of a Wile E. Coyote thing going on with Lila.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

P.S. by Helen Schulman

A ghost engenders lust in a nearly middle-aged woman

Louise Harrington, admissions coordinator for a graduate art program at Columbia, feeling old and dried up, gets a second chance at love. A folder lands on her university desk -- the applicant, F. Scott, is apparently the doppelganger of her tragically killed high school boyfriend, Scott. Should she investigate further? She certainly does.

I don’t think this was really my cup of tea. The story didn’t hook me. The stakes were too low and the whimsical tone grated. Although I enjoyed the prose and the dialogue. The characters were all depicted distinctly, each with his own quirky flaw. The plot was a little like a Twilight Zone episode, although for me, the story fell apart at the end. I began to get anxious in the last third – how was Schulman going to wrap this up? Is F. Scott the posthumous baby, the reanimated corpse, the extreme coincidence, the cloning experiment? The plot is not on the realist plane (though everything else is), but that question fatally distracted me.