Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff

My dad, the con man

This was a researched biography, from birth to death, of Duke Wolff, father of the author. As a young boy, the son, Geoff, hero-worships his dashing dad. World War II hero, Skull and Bones man, a take charge executive rolling in dough. This persona, however, turns out to be a lie.  Duke Wolff was actually a petty criminal, inveterate liar, yet talented enough to keep getting engineering job after job. The family is constantly moving, from shack to palace and back again, one step ahead of the bailiff. On the other hand, if the reader ignores the many scenes of sickening terror, it does seem like the family had some good times. Eventually, Geoff’s young mother gets fed up with losing all her friends and flees to Florida with the two children. Their country club lifestyle is downsized as she gets a job working forty hours a week at Dairy Queen. One day when he's twelve, Geoff, who is depicted as a menacing problem child, abandons his mother to live with his father, who always displayed a strong love for his son.Somewhere around age 20, Geoff snaps out of “it,” starts to achieve under his own steam rather than lying to people, and realizes he must cut off his father, if he wants a tranquil life.

This memoir was beautifully written, a mosaic of plain words, a tale shaped by a life, from Duke’s privileged birth as the only son of doting parents to his death, his naked corpse lying unnoticed for two weeks. I also admired the way Wolff weaves his own life story into the narrative, from innocent kid to serious trouble maker. His father seems like a demon seed and Geoff seems to be going down exactly the same path. Many times, Geoff is depicted as just an out-and-out asshole and I grew worried he was going to turn out like dad. Like many other excellent memoirs, this is a mixture of the high accomplished lyrical voice and the criminally insane parent. Maybe the criminally insane parent part is that part that forges a writer.

Are con men born or made? Probably born. Although young Duke Wolff seems to have had an amazingly spoiled childhood. One thing I can never figure out about people like Duke is the amount of effort they spend on the deception is almost as much if they actually worked hard to achieve what they wanted.  Perhaps their problem is a profound laziness. Or a profound rejection of society’s mercantile values. Also, again and again the father seriously underestimates people's intelligence. Geoff never speculates on mental illness but the father must have had one. The most ambiguous scene in the book is the scene where, the Duke gives his son a precious gift of a year at Princeton, paid for by selling his ex-wife’s family silver.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Lightning Field by Dana Spiotta

Three women navigate LA

Mina, apparently the only woman who walks in Los Angeles, has an unfilled marriage and somehow, considering how passive she is, manages to pick up two lovers, who also leave her unfulfilled. She is employed by Lorena, her schizophrenic brother’s ex-lover. Lorena is a lifestyle consultant who establishes decadent theme restaurants, where, for example, waitresses are assigned the floor based on their astrological chart. Finally, there is downmarket fearful mom Lisa, who cleans Lorena’s house. These three characters drift through an LA where people straightfacedly espouse the trendiest of ideas, and film industry hangers on try to repeat the successes of famous artists of the past.

The prose style is a little hard to follow – there’s a lot of characters in a fairly short book. I kept getting the women mixed up (Maybe I was supposed to?) Many of the same themes here are also in Spiotta's Stone Arabia: the terror of child murders, the aimlessness of LA, the mental illness, the close yet painfully unbridgeable proximity to fame. Those themes, however, have far more emotional resonance and, in fact, beauty, in Stone Arabia. Lightning Field feels slighter, like thin gruel. This wasn’t quite realism yet never quite launched into surrealism. It’s like a satire of LA. The book also reminded me of Less Than Zero, though the attitude here was more whimsical, not so deadly serious.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

NW by Zadie Smith

Voices from the old neighborhood

Zadie Smith tells the story of four people who grew up on the same council estate; two females, two males; one spectacular success, two middling successes and one spectacular failure. The novel also describes the period of time from the Nineties to the beginning of the Great Recession. The four main characters are: Leah Hanwell, red-headed only child, happily married, secretly resisting her husband’s and mother’s desire that she become pregnant; Felix Cooper, the ex addict, optimistic child of lackadaisical parents, who has big plans for himself and his new love; Natalie Blake, aka Keisha, the ambitious smart girl who isn’t quite sure who she is; and Nathan Bogle, derelict. These four lives intersect in different ways, giving the reader a flavor of contemporary London, the differing expectations of modern women, and the craziness of the human heart. The book also serves as reportage and a recreation of voices from different social classes. The Jamaican, the Pakistani, the Irish, and the African.

This was the second time I read this and it was a fruitful rereading as many details and delights only became apparent on a second reading.  The opening paragraph works on so many levels, in its lyricism and in its establishment of the plot elements. The authorial voice also has many wise insights. The prose is beautiful, and the plot points are inserted smoothly, barely discernible. The expository dialogue is not in the least intrusive. I read this voraciously.

What is with the number 37? Is that their ages? I think it has a mystical significance. There are more than a few Chapter 37s and they sometimes reach to something beyond. Another thing I want to know more about is the how the story fits into the map of London.

The Felix section is exquisite, a recreation of this ordinary man’s ordinary world. Slowly the details of his life build, perhaps even tediously.  There's a great scene when he says goodbye to an old lover.  Or at least means to say goodbye.  Felix's, however, concludes with a deep emotional punch. The first time I read it I cried.  On the other hand, its self contained beauty maybe derails the novel, as it felt like a fully developed novella with little connection to the more mundane problems of Leah and Natalie. The narration at the end, the old feet on the subway seat dilemma, is great, increasing the tension to a high pitch.

The Natalie section, which tells the story of her life in entertaining comical chunks, is also wonderfully written, although here the plot falters. The biggest (maybe only) problem is that the end of the novel doesn’t work – the threads of the plot feel forcibly fused together and it turns into a detective story at the end, but more of the Nancy Drew variety. The causes of this problem, perhaps, are the motivations of the two heroines. Leah does really not want a baby, to the point of having an abortion without telling her much loved, most baby desiring husband. Leah seems like an easy going people pleaser so the strong need to do something so drastic I didn’t quite get. And then she seems to be in some catatonic sunburn situation at the end. Why? She’s sad about her dog? And Natalie, the extremely cautious high achieving workaholic, whose prime motivation seems to be being superior to everybody, suddenly starts cruising for anonymous sex. This might have worked if lust had played any part in her personality before this. The characters come to implausible unsupported realizations just to bring the book to a halt.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Conformist by Alberto Moravia

A man desperately wants to be normal

Marcello Clerici is an affluent effeminate Roman boy whose bullying schoolmates gang up to dress him in a skirt. He is rescued, then accosted by a pedophile chauffeur. What happens after that, in Marcello’s view, colors his entire life. He is extremely self conscious about not being ”normal”, about having an insane father, a dissolute spoiled mother, and confronting the strange compulsions of violence inside of him. This shame motivates him to become a rising young official in the Fascist party, and to court a seemingly wholesome completely ordinary middle class girl. When his superiors ask him to assist on a sinister mission, Marcello schedules his honeymoon to a visit to Paris in order to betray an old professor. However, several years later, once the war ends and the Fascists have lost, the good times for Marcello and his precious family have ended.

Somewhat to my surprise, I liked this book a lot, each night looking forward to reading it, I think because many scenes were delightfully surprising. Many of the scenes were so weird and compelling I was pulled into them completely. I loved those scenes where the social pretence ripped away and we see the freaky characters beneath. There were some great ones here, the one in the confessional, the mother in bed with the dogs, the visit to the insane asylum, and even the final very moving scene.

There was an effective use of interiority. Marcello is a very likeable well mannered Fascist. Is the suppressed homosexuality some kind of comment on the leather bound super masculinity of Fascism? I also thought the story is easy to plot when the man gets to tell the wife what’s happening next. The sudden love felt for Lina didn’t quite feel motivated, but worked none the less.