Sunday, April 24, 2016

Radio Iris by Anne-Marie Kinney

A receptionist slowly starts to understand her job truly is a sham

Iris Finch, well meaning receptionist at a typical Los Angeles firm in a Class C office building, each morning dutifully arrives to perform her mundane duties.  Her boss is odd, occasionally abrupt, fond of making urgent calls from far off locales; the guy in the office next door is even weirder and apparently seems to be making the office his residence.  Iris becomes obsessed with this tenant, passing little notes beneath his door and tucked under his windshield wipers.  She also has a college friend who tries unsuccessfully to set Iris up with a man.  On these dates, Iris seems to be actively trying to repel the guy.  There are recurring alternating narratives with her brother and the aftermath of a tragic long ago (yet somewhat comical) accident.  The resonating ending has Iris descending into a new world, then escaping with her life just before everything caves in.

For anyone who has ever worked a temp job, (especially in Los Angeles), Iris’s tale is very recognizable.  The calm acquiescence in absurdities, the precious minutes of lunch break, the getting and spending of office supplies.  The brother’s story didn’t really tie to anything – maybe we needed those chunks of semi normality to break up the airlessness of Iris’s world view.  But the claustrophobia, the absurdity, of Iris executing her meaningless job is the whole point of this novel, right?  This reminded me of Vida and Vida reminded me of Cusk.  So I’ve been reading a lot of stories lately of neurotics cast into otherworldly, absurd, situations.  The narrators must decide what they will do once they are embedded in the unnatural situations.  The genuine pleasures of reading these books do not come from the plot but from the increasingly suffocating atmosphere.  An atmosphere both comic and recognizable.  Maybe modern work lacks meaning.  The author is good at cranking up the tension, such as skillfully deploying a piano, as the story progresses.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida

A visitor to Morocco loses her identity

Our nameless narrator (one of twins) is, on her very first day in Casablanca, the victim of a particularly skillful pickpocket, losing her passport, credit card and money.  (First thing to do in Casablanca is to get out of Casablanca.)  She has no way to prove who she is. After several bumbling attempts at assistance, the intimidating police chief hands her another woman’s backpack, insisting that the case has been solved. The narrator uses the other woman’s credit card to rent a luxury hotel room. She turns to the US embassy, but soon becomes convinced the US Embassy is about to discover all her stupid dishonesties.  At her wit’s end, it luckily turns out she is an exact body double for the famous actress shooting a movie in Casablanca and our narrator gets a paying job.  But her body double acting is so good, on screen and off , that the famous movie star gets enraged. Just in the nick of time, and with the help of another astonishing coincidence, our narrator escapes being found out yet once again. In addition, at the end, the big secret from back home is perfectly detonated.

I really enjoyed this novel, although for most readers, this may be an esoteric pleasure, an extended joke, a meditation on identity. Critical bundles get stolen, seemingly nice doubles stab the heroine in the back.  There are also a lot of costume changes. The pleasure comes in the narrator’s increasing paranoia, her off the chart neuroticism and overall ineffectiveness. I kept reassuring myself: This could never happen, could it?

The book was perfectly crafted; the narrator never wears out her welcome in any particular role. This is one of the few novels I have read recently where the intensity properly increased as the story went on, and the “secret” was opportunely presented. The narrator doesn’t really go to all that much trouble to retrieve her identity, because if, at any point, she ever did the logical thing, the story would end. Finally, the book was hilarious – there definitely is a Keystone Kops thing going on.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

In the Fold by Rachel Cusk

A thirty something married man visits a family of eccentrics

The novel opens with college boy Michael receiving an invitation to a party at his friend Adam’s family estate, Egypt. There he encounters the rest of the Hanburys: grouchy contrarian patriarch Paul; first wife Vivian, fashionably blonde; dour second wife Vivian; and an eccentric pack of maladjusted children. However, at this first meeting, most of their names rush over Michael’s head and it isn’t until years later, when Michael has settled down with his own beautiful yet moody wife Rebecca, and preverbal three year old Hamish, that the two friends reconnect. Adam asks Michael to help with the lambing on Egypt for a week. Hijinks ensue, but the hijinks center around the restraints of marriage and family. The prevailing opinion of the book is thumbs down on both.

A fold of sheep is dumb; the fold of family is dumber. Each Hanbury seems unhappy, if not trapped, and it isn’t very long before the reader realizes that first person narrator Michael is trapped as well. The writing is hilarious, vivid, like PG Wodehouse, a contrapuntal masterpiece of hilarity. Each character has a tic, a lamentation and a typical page has at least one crazily inventive metaphor. Although sometimes the parade of laugh lines can seem relentless and the ultimate meaning of the book feels obscure. 

This book resembles a This Country Life, but This Country Life made a certain sort of narrative sense and the end of that book contained a well plotted surprise. This end of this book is merely the end of a series of fascinating patterns. There may be, in fact, perhaps one too many characters for the reader to keep track of. I want to reread this book, not because of the depth of the theme or the imagery, but so I can figure out what’s going on. I sense that lots is going on, lots about marriages and families and how, deep down, they all hate each other.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin

In every way, white society emasculates the black man

These eight stories are glimpses into people’s lives.  They are about a repressed boy from a Pentecostal home, a struggling actor who can never feel at ease, a math teacher trying to do right by his heroin addicted brother, and an aspiring woman fearful her lover will abandon her. What seven of the eight stories have in common is the negative effect society’s racism has upon people just trying to build a life, and the way racism insidiously corrodes self confidence on both sides of the equation. My favorite stories were “Previous Condition” and “Come Out the Wilderness.” “Previous Condition” is about an actor who wants to live a fulfilling artistic life, but is unable to because everywhere he goes in white New York; he is reminded of his inferior status, his sub humanity. He can’t rent an apartment, he can’t raise his voice to his white girlfriend without fear of being lynched, he cannot participate in artistic society. Only when he travels uptown to Harlem he can be freer, but only a little, because there he cannot live the intellectually and emotionally fulfilled life he longs for. In either world, he cannot be who he is. “Come Out the Wilderness” is about a professional young secretary, who supports a white lover and is terrified of his leaving her. Meanwhile, the professional black man at her workplace is interested in her. She is aware she is wasting her life, but can’t help herself.

Boy, were these stories bleak. In Baldwin’s world, there is no hope. The characters are pushed to the point of desperation. An air of sadness permeates this collection. I’m not completely sure these stories were my cup of tea. Perhaps my expectations were too high – I was expecting each story to be a literary masterwork, and the collection was uneven. Some of the stories felt a little dated, at times a little false. The writing was old fashioned, although monumental and authoritative. The prose reminded me of Flannery O’Connor but without the humor. A reoccurring incident is the innocent child being called a racial slur. Also policemen play a role in most of these stories. 

The passion behind the words and the declaiming rhythm of the sentences make me interested in reading Baldwin’s nonfiction. I think to really understand the rhythms of the sentences and the inspiration for the titles and imagery the reader would need a thorough grounding in the Bible and gospel music.