Ames, Jonathan My Less Than Secret Life
Burke, Theresa Who Killed Ty Conn?
Carey, Peter Oscar and Lucinda
Carey, Peter The True History of the Kelly Gang
Crosbie, Lynne Paul's Case
Eggers, Dave a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Ghosh, Amitav The Calcutta Chromosome
Hebert, Anne Am I Disturbing You?
Krauser, Lawrence Lemon
MacIntyre, Lynden Who Killed Ty Conn?
Nissen, Thisbe The Good People of New York
Pollack, Neal The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature
Salinger, JD Frannyranny & Zooey
Smith, Zadie White Teeth
Townsend, Sue Adrian Mole
In a (brief) flurry of creative activity a few months ago, I posted a couple of short stories on Zoetrope. One of the people who read my stories responded thus:
So who the fuck is Jennifer Amey (pic please)
Why am I sniggering uncontrollably?
Intrigued, I googled, and discovered that this Jonathan Ames had been published in some of the same places as I, and had read with people I knew (who will easily confirm that I am not Jonathan Ames. For one thing, I have very dark eyebrows). This fellow had concluded that I was Jonathan Ames, workshopping stories under an alias, due to the similarity of our names. Curious to see if the similarites ended there, off I went to pick up one of his books.
Not an easy task; the local bookstore didnít have anything, the big bookstore didnít have anything, but third timeís a charm, and I found the latest tome, a collection of diary entries (from an autobiographical column in the New York Press), short fiction, and essays.
We begin with the diary, and what a diary it is. As Chip Kidd blurbs, "This book is yet more proof that Jonathan Amesís life is infinitely more interesting than mine. And yes, yours." Mine too. I mean, my life hasnít always been as dull as it is now. In fact, at times itís been downright fascinating. But never in the way that Amesí life is. This "shy exhibitionist" finds glory and pathos in the details, the endless minutiae. He also has friends whose freakishness is unmatched (most notably his best friend, The Mangina), and stumbles into situations that would be unimaginable for anyone else.
All of which made me somewhat flattered by the comparison (someone mistook me for a writer with four books to his credit!) and somewhat apprehensive (someone mistook me for a balding alcoholic pervert!).
The fiction section, coming after the diary, is hard to read as fiction, focusing as it does on first person narration by protagonists who resemble the author himself: the single girl-crazy struggling Jewish author. Itís hard to separate author and subject, except to think that maybe the fiction is the daydream that he only wished happened (i.e., he gets the girl). Iím curious to read his novels, to see if they provoke a similar reaction.
The final sections are devoted to essays of various kinds: criticism, "Essays With Sexual Content (A warning or a recommendation, depending on your personality)," and "Essays Without Sexual Content (A warning or a recommendation, depending on your personality)." Ames brings the observation skills of a scientist to his subjects, rendering them in a style that only occasionally veers from interested objectivity into pathos (this is a man whose heart breaks a little regularly). Whether the topic is Life on the Set of a Porn Film or his own experiences in rehab, he brings a humour born of fondness to the task at hand, never condescending or making fun, but trying to understand.
In any case, My Less Than Secret Life is addictive, funny, enthralling despite its repeated forays into bodily functions (nosepicking is a frequent topic, and testicle waxing makes a rare appearance). I couldnít put it down even when I wanted to.
I first encountered Thisbe Nissen on Salon.com’s Table Talk forums. And I subsequently learned she knows an editor I’ve worked with. So when I was looking for something to read, and came across The Good People of New York, I felt a tingle of pseudo-familial pride: the same tingle I got when Tim announced he’d be touring with Elvis Costello, or when I was four and I thought that because there was a crew member named Jennifer mentioned in the credits for Readalong, that meant I was famous.
I wanted to like this book.
I started out hating this book, but it grew on me.
Nissen sets the tone in a very tone-setting way, for lack of a better word. Just as there is a certain feel to the pilot episode of a sit-com, when the characters come out one by one and try as subtly as they can to say, "Hi, my name is Alex, and I’m precociously conservative," and fail miserably on the sublety every time, Nissen tries to establish her characters too quickly, leading to awkward turns of phrase:
Roz Rosenzweg, who with her crazy ostrich legs and excruciatingly bright and irrevocably short Marimekko minidress looked remarkably like a strawberry lollypop, and Edwin Anderson, seersucker suit rumpled to Kennebunk perfection though he was himself not a Mainer but a Nebraskan, arrived on the stoop outside Fran Kornblauser’s simultaneously and became acquainted on their knees as they scrounged in a bed of impatiens for the elusive key which had ricocheted off a third-floor balcony and landed in the little cordoned-off flower patch.
Rumpled to Kennebunk perfection? No surprise one of the jacket blurbs is from Vogue.
The good people of New York are all good-looking, well-to-do, precocious, smart, adorable, "quirky," and just generally in need of a smack. Actually, a couple of Nissen’s characters are less than wealthy, but they make up for it by being even more good-looking than the rest.
Once she hits her groove - past the exposition, just going with her characters and seeing what happens - Nissen is a good storyteller. Maybe that’s the problem - we feel like we’re being told a story rather than watching it unfold or taking part. The book is written in the present tense (for the most part; it slips into past tense occasionally, but I’m not sure why), chatty, and sometimes it feels like a pitch, a description, like someone talking about a movie she’s seen: they do this and then they do that, and then this happens, and she says whatever. The technical term for this kind of narration is third-person omniscient, but whoever is telling the story isn’t terribly omniscient, or is keeping the good parts to himself. Or may there just isn’t the depth-of-field to work with in these characters; they don’t seem to think a lot about what they’re doing, and the narration doesn’t delve into their motivations either. The story floats on the surface, subject-verb-object, and any greater insight never comes.
However, a great narrative instinct underlies it all. I often think books are under-edited, but this one seems under-written - maybe Nissen’s publisher was pressuring her to get it done. I can’t help feeling that if she’d spent more time filling in the details, we’d have a much more interesting book. And if she'd allowed the characters to take their time finding themselves, filling out more slowly but more fully, she wouldn't need to resort to the chichťs which mark the beginning chapters.
I guess the old adage "never leave them wanting more" does not apply here.
I will confess it took me a long time to get into this novel. The first couple of pages I thought: oh god. No.
I tend to be prejudiced against novels written in dialect, or with a local accent, or any other similarly quaint style. I find such affectations irritating, and consider them to be a bit of a cheat, a literary parlour trick: doing a global search'n'replace to change "isn't" to "ain't" is a hell of a lot easier than, say, character development.
So when I realised that the hero of the True History of the Kelly Gang was writing in the style of a semi-literate rural Australian of two hundred years ago, I cringed. I couldn't help it.
There isn't a single comma in the damn book, for crying out loud!
I picked the book up. I shortly set the book down. And then, after months had gone by, got around to picking it up again.
Once one gets used to the style - having lived in Australia, the localisms were easy for me to pick up, but there were still plenty of words I'd never seen before - one gets sucked in. The story is inherently engaging - Ned Kelly didn't become a folkloric hero by being dull. Carey creates a cast of charismatic larrikins, a vivid landscape out of grey trees and brown rivers, an adventure to rival any cowboy movie, as Ned and his fugitive gang outwit the police and escape through the bush.
But this is no simple yarn.
Within is concealed a critique of the class structure which mired the Kellys in poverty, a dissertation on the histories of Australia and Ireland, a study in ethics vs. the law.
Not to mention the power of words. Language is Kelly's redemption, and his weakness. He owns one book, but devours it repeatedly until it falls apart in the rain. He writes letters to parliament, seeks to publish pamphlets, knowing that the way to win over the people is to tell his story. Of course, the powers that be know this equally well.
So I didn't just "get used to" the punctuation (or lack thereof). Ned Kelly is a born story teller. His voice, as imagined by carey, has a rhythm and lilt that feels not only authentic and true to the casual conversational manner of its owner, but also transcends its idiosyncracies to achieve beauty, to approach, at times, a stream-of-consciousness poetry:
Snuffing the candle we both come out onto the front veranda and there we seen the undertakers smudged as charcoal in the rain an army of invaders riding round the flank of our familiar hills. As dan were hurrying towards the creek I turned to follow but Mary Hearn touched my hand what bliss what torture she loves me yet she loves me through the drizzling rain.
What initially I feared would be a chore to get through, grew quickly into a compelling read. Who needs commas, anyway?
Paul's Case Lynne Crosbie
Who Killed Ty Conn Lynden MacIntyre and Theresa Burke
The literati tend to scoff at "genre fiction." Occasionally they will allow themselves to be seduced by a writer who's talents are too great to ignore (Elmore Leonard, for example), but generally speaking, they scoff at romance, fantasy, science fiction, mystery. Or worse: true crime.
True crime is especially suspect. First off, being non-fiction, it must necessarily be earth-bound and leaden; secondly, it is far too often geared toward the prurient titillation of the snuff film rather than a deeper examination of the human condition. Think pulp paperback, designed to biodegrade in the three hours it takes to read, lurid cover, more lurid title. Prime audience: the lowest common denominator.
Paul's Case and Who Killed Ty Conn deal with two of Canada's most infamous criminals: the horrifyingly evil duo of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, whose murders are unmatched in this country for cruelty, and Ty Conn, the smart, charming, non-violent bank robber and escape artist, who never fired a gun. Stories of sex and violence, the principals are good looking, these are stories made for hollywood.
My main question before I started reading: how do people get like this?
how do smart, attractive, middle-class people, whom one might expect to go far in life, turn into criminals?
And how do you write about them without sliding into b-movie sleaze and cheese?
Who Killed Ty Conn is classic straight-ahead reporting: MacIntyre and Burke are journalists, both of whom knew Conn before his escape - the first successful escape from Kingston pen in fifty years - made the headlines.
MacIntyre and Burke (from television's fifth estate) first met Ty Conn five years before, when he was in a correctional institute in saskatchewan, and they were working on a show on the effects of child abuse. They had encouraged Conn to start an autobiography, and maintained correspondence with him over the years, offering them an amazing quantity and quality of material to work with in uncovering how Ty Conn came to be one of the country's most notorious bank robbers.
Conn's journals and letters are not only thoughtful and introspective, they're also clever and funny. It's hard not to feel sympathetic towards this affable, amiable kid, who'd had such a hard life. He was "twenty-seven doing forty-seven... And never so much as threw a punch."
And Burke and MacIntyre are indeed sympathetic, they wear their hearts on their sleeves. This is evident from the first paragraph of chapter one: "Ernie Hayes [Conn's birth name] was, by all accounts, the loveliest child that anyone had ever seen. Bright and cheerful, he seemed to be immune to all the sorrow and confusion that whirled around him from the first moments of his life."
But who can blame them? This is, after all, Ty Conn, whose won the respect and trust of prison wardens, whose honesty and self-deprecating charm made him (to his ultimate downfall) a media darling in his weeks on the run.
Detailing his life from birth to his tragic adoption as a toddler into a household run by a paranoid schizophrenic (the family had connections and circumvented normal channels in order to adopt the charming little boy), through his tormented childhood and a litany of foster home cruelties, his later life as an escape artist seems almost inevitable. Can't blame him for making a career out of running away. MacIntyre and Burke construct a solid argument that abuse of children makes them unable to function legitimately in the world. With the deck already stacked against him from birth, Conn also found himself up against a criminal justice system woefully lacking in manpower and money. While unwilling to look at himself as a victim ("He then told me bluntly... That he'd never been wrongly convicted or, in his view, unfairly sentenced"), it is undeniable that someone who had never, never committed an act of violence should not have been locked up in maximum "where the most dangerous people are kept." Who wouldn't try to escape that?
Conn's is a great story. From the early horror and pathos, we watch Ty Conn grow from a clever kid into the cunning, cocky (during one escape, he sent a Christmas card to his old warden) fugitive of justice. We're sucked in. Like the public of the time, we can't help rooting for him:
The policemen asked her what she'd do if he showed up again.
"I said: 'You know what? I've thought about that.' and this is what I told them: I said 'I'd bring him in. There's no doubt that he'd be hungry and I'm make him soup and sandwiches if it was lunchtime.' And of course they gave me a real bad going over about that attitude."
By the closing pages, we feel the same. If anyone ever deserved sanctuary, it was Ty Conn.
And if there was ever a couple who didn't deserve it, it's Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka.
Poet Lynne Crosbie takes an experimental approach to her subject. Subtitled the Kingston Letters, Paul's Case is structured as a one-way correspondence, a series of letters written to Bernardo in jail. But this is no simple epistolary novel. The preface goes above and beyond the standard disclaimer: "this is a critical emterprise, and exploration... A work of historical fiction... Imaginative investigation... References to persons living and dead are purely fictional, and designed as imaginative and analytical responses to extant portraits of these individuals." whew.
There are letters, there are postcards, there are comic strips and composites, quotes and collages. Crosbie re-imagines the rap songs Bernardo wrote dreaming of a career in music. Includes a bizarre chapbook about a secret investigation. There are word games and puzzles, clues and questions.
Crosbie inhabits the world of the victim writing to her attacker, the anonymous spectator in the courtroom, she enacts the imagined retaliation. She considers the situations that could have bred this monster.
While lyrical and engrossing, the effect of Paul's Case is clinical rather than compelling. The explorations of language have a distancing effect, keeping us away from the subject, rather than drawing us in. The verbal gymnastics are like a the glass partition in a prison visiting room: we see and hear, but we do not feel: strange for a story so brutal and horrible. Perhaps this is her point ("I will present you in fragments. And make a figment of you"), to strip Bernardo of his power by turning him into a mere curiosity. It is disturbing to have such a villian made bland, and makes for an unsatisfying read.
Lawrence Krauser: Lemon
What can I say about this odd little tome?
It is "the story of one's possession." Wendell is a young gen x-er in love with a lemon. His life as memo writer for the payroll department of an obsessive corporation is transformed when his girlfriend, Marge, leaves him, and in that post-relationship state of angst he begins to carry around a lemon.
The conceit works best when his obsession is in the "I just like to carry it around" stage (his embarrassed refusal - his inability to explain it, his own over-reaction to the whole situation - to let a co-worker use it in her tea), and when Wendell encounters situations that would be plausible but for the fruit (bringing the lemon to meet his parents: "-- Does it talk to you? -- Mom, it's a lemon.").
After a while, though, it gets a bit silly, including stylistically. The changing point of view is fine, but Krauser's eschewal quotation marks in favour of dashes, was irritating when Joyce did it, and it's irritating here. It (along with Krauser's penchant for wordplay) also makes one wonder if the entire book isn't intended as Joycean parody: making an epic out of a fruit instead of a Dublin day? oh, please, spare us that.
What begins as a plausible (if off-beat) story suffers from an excess of flourishes. I will confess here a general fondness for the off-beat-but-everday stuff over the outright wacky. Just as in Perv: A Love Story I liked the first part, where nothing really happened (having been sent home from boarding school, disaffected teen skulks around his mother's apartment building). That I liked. But the second part, the sex drugs and rock'n'roll road trip part, that part bored me. But I digress.
Maybe it's just a matter of taste that I prefer the inter-office memos and disjointed limericks that Wendell trades with his co-worker Michelle, but the nine pages of verse stuck in the middle of the book just strikes my as try-hard. A paragraph opener like "Eye to eye in the morning sun. Cougar, doe, stone pharaoh" is pointless, unilluminating, and reeks of teen poetics. It stops being a book and turns into a creative-writing exercise.
I mean, he had me! Krauser had me believing in lemon-love, and then he went and ruined it by getting all arty.
It feels like Krauser lost his way, like he painted himself into a corner and his only escape was to jump out the window. I am reminded of an interview I saw with filmmaker Ray Dennis Steckler; he tried to make a "serious" movie once, but got bored half way through and turned his two main characters into caped crusaders. That sort of device may work in the world of ultra-silly b-movies. In the arena of avant-garde lit, it strains the credulity even of someone as credulous as myself.
Framed by recent reminiscences of an unhappy family, Oscar & Lucinda tells the story of two very unusual characters. Unlike many historical novels, it is not dull, it is not an excuse to describe pretty dresses, and it does not dwell upon the unkind living conditions with which people were faced in Days Of Yore.
Oscar and Lucinda are misfits of the highest order.
An early epiphany causes Oscar to run away from his puritanical father at an early age, seeking anglican enlightenment with the local preacher.
Lucinda is kept from society by her mother, a fiercely political woman with strong ideas about feminism and socialism, an oddity in the victorian era. She outfits her daughter according to the principles of rational dress, and believes in the moral value of factories.
Lucinda is led to gambling by loneliness born of her outsider status: it is only amongst outsiders that she can relax.
Oscar was told to gamble in a vision from god.
Each a rebel in his own right, they are drawn together even when circumstances pull them apart. Two addicts with a shared obsession, their interactioins crackle with the energy of a ricocheted bullet.
Their union is embodied in the Prince Rupert Drop: "a solid teardrop of glass no more than two inches from head to tail... Although it is strong enough to withstand the sledgehammer, the tail can be nipped with a pair of blunt-nosed pliers. It takes a little effort. And once it is done it is as if you have taken out the keystone, removed the linchpin, kicked out the foundations. The whole thing explodes." This object, impossible to create except by chance, is the key to the novel. Glass and water appear throughout the novel, their contradictory natures of force and fragility, purity and sin, the core and downfall of both protagonists.
This dual nature is also mirrored in the context of Australia's colonial wilderness with Sydney's pretensions to class and modernisation, the new world with the old. A brilliant and passionate novel whose personae breathe with desire and shame.
Oscar & Lucinda won the 1988 Booker prize
A promising start, a disappointing middle and end.
Our first encouter with antar, an aging egyptian information worker, whose job consists mainly of filling in time until retirement, is in his apartment building in near-future new york, a thoughful and multi-dimensional in a richly-described world. The wonderful opening chapters let us believe that we can expect something more than a thriller with ethnic flavour.
It's a very complex story, and if Ghosh had given it the time and pages to write it out in full it could have been three times as long and three times as good. Unfortunately, he quickly slips into a straight-forward expository pitch: Antar remembers a lunch with Murugan, a disappeared colleague, who relates the history of the medicine of malaria. His tone is that of a quirky professor: slightly more idiosyncratic than the average narrator of a BBC documentary, but not by much. It's a spare, pitch-like way of giving us background.
When he leaves a curse-ridden message on Antar's machine, it seems hopelessly out of character, until one remembers that we were told that Murugan was a bit obnoxious.
Not shown, mind you, just told.
Therein lies the problem. In order to cram everything possible into 300 pages, Ghosh's characters too often lapse into expository mode, leaving their personalities at the door, and occasionally abandoning their personalities altogether. Urmila, the predominant female character, goes from oppressed dutiful daughter to tough bitch to credulous nancy drew to bbc narrator, with no bridge from one mood to the next. It's jarring when a character behaves one way for fifty pages, and then abruptly becomes someone else.
Finally, as one approaches the end and thinks "Aha! Now everything is about to (finally) come together" one turns the page not to find climax or even denouement, but acknowledgments. It's like the last chapter is missing. Or Ghosh couldn't think of an ending. Or it's a cliff hanger waiting for a sequel.
After being dragged through medical history, after meeting a million characters who are mentioned and then abandoned, we could at least have been given an ending!
Only a writer as brilliant as Pollack could have created a character as compelling as Neal Pollack, the protagonist of Pollack’s latest book, "the Neal Pollack anthology of American literature." with the endearing naivety of a candide, Neal roams the world, searching for love and truth, finding only sex and blind adoration. Each of these missives emanates from a different corner of the globe, from his sojourn among the chiapas to the brothels of havana. Rarely has a journalist managed to convey the injustices of the world with such sensitivity. Why, in some of the forlorn countries Neal visits, many people have not even completed their masters’ studies, let alone received multiple doctoral degrees from harvard and oxford. How do people cope with such misery?
It is a cruel place, this world we live in. How difficult it must be for an educated man like Neal, a man with a delicate and flower-like soul, to encounter such atrocities. The locals struggle on, they have not the intellect to contemplate their situation, or the sensitivity to realise how cruel the world. Thank goodness we have writers like Pollack to offer erudition, analysis, eclaircissement. Lord knows these people cannot do it for themselves.
Neal’s life reads like a summation of the defining moments and most influential minds of our century, from the beginning of his literary career sixty-four years ago with the publication of an essay on Faulkner (a stunningly lucid work, especially considering he was only six at the time), to his foray into popular music as a member of the Beatles, his affair with Margaret Thatcher, his acceptance of the Booker prize. Pollack’s brilliance is so overpowering that it has led many to believe that he does not actually exist. I could not resist kidding him about this when last he visited Toronto. "I read on salon.com that you do not actually exist," I said. "is this so?" he laughed. It is one of the perils of fame, success, and wealth, to be plagued by the idle rumours of those who would succumb to envy and other deadly sins. "I am just me," he offered with typical modesty.
It is stunning that a writer with such a remarkable career would not have been anthologised previously. Perhaps conventional publishers were afraid to tackle a work of such magnitude. "the Neal Pollack anthology of American literature" is the inaugural publication of mcsweeney’s books, and an auspicious beginning it is: the volume comes complete with a bookmark of gold ribbon, and has some pictures, which is always nice. McSweeneys' readers have long been enamoured of Pollack’s articles, some of which have been reprinted in this anthology. Indeed many of these pieces have appeared before in a variety of journals of renown (the publishing notes list "I Am Friends with a Working-Class Black Woman" as having previously appeared in the new york times magazine as "Grumble in the Bronx" and "Introduction to the New Slavery" as having previously appeared in Cigar Aficionado as "Puffing up with Danny deVito"), but they are well worth revisiting.
Whilst other correspondents have been known to err on the side of condescension and pomposity, Pollack remains true to his vision: to help and uplift the downtrodden, no matter how poor their taste in clothing.
Many writers lean towards autobiography for their first novel. Some do it honestly, announcing their books as memoir; most simply write an improved version of their lives (in which their friends are better dressed, they get into the coolest nightclubs, and they have sex more often with more attractive motas*).
And then there is Zadie Smith.
I have an instinctual tendency to lean away from certain blurbwords and phrases: "coming-of-age," "depression-era," "an epic sprawling three generations." This I realise is unfair. There are many brilliant coming-of-age novels, for example (go and read Michael Turner's The Pornographer's Poem, if you haven't already). And White Teeth is a truly brilliant epic, sprawling three (or more) generations of several London families.
Unlike some sohipithurts writers, Smith does not concentrate on well-dressed urbanites her own age. Much of the novel delves into the lives of middle-aged men, the comforts they have found to keep the slings'n'arrows at bay, their inability to comprehend the youth which surrounds them. It amazes me that a twentysomething woman could capture so perfectly (although, being a twentysomething woman myself, I wouldn't really know if she had it all wrong, now, would I?) the allure of O'Connell's Poolhouse (populated solely by men, minimum age thirty-six, but the older the better), not to mention the vernacular speech of characters ranging in age from infancy to eighty-four, and in background from working class to haute-bourgeoisie, from English to Bengali to Jamaican. Each character is fully three- (or even four-) dimensional. The only one who might be said to fall short is Irie Jones, the one character who might (or might not) resemble Smith herself. Perhaps this is why she shies away from irie's life: fear of being accused of memoir?
There is no concession to coolness here, no gratuitous cool Brittania party scene. Just incisive wit and sensitivity without sentiment, and an immense amount of wisdom. It would appear that Smith has devoted all of her (brief) adult life to studying religious texts; her book is peppered liberally with quotes from the Bible and Qu'ran, not to mention discussion on genetics and Jehovah's Witnesses.
And yet it is funny. At no time during the book does one have that doing-my-homework feeling, one is too busy laughing and turning the pages.
I am certain there is much I am forgetting here; White Teeth is packed to overflowing and there is no way I could say all that needs to be said without writing a review as long as the book itself. But why do that when you can just read the perfect original itself?
It's summertime, and the reading is light. No one wants to be too worried about concentrating on complex plots or deciphering complex imagery in this weather. The main purpose of summertime books is to shield our eyes from the sun as we nurture our melanomas.
Hence, the latest Adrian Mole installment.
Being only slightly younger than Aidy, and having grown up as an
aspiring intellectual (read: a snot) in the provinces (well, rural Ontario) myself, I have long been a fan. This latest installment finds Adrian at the ripe old age of 30 1/4, working as a chef in a trendy Soho restaurant (for fans wondering when he learned to cook: he didn't. "Hoi Polloi" serves only reheated offal and tinned peas). Pandora has entered politics, labour of course, and is elected in the Tony Blair landslide. Barry Kent, ex-thug, goes from success to literary success.
Adrian's move to London gives Townsend the opportunity to poke delicious fun at the trendoids who live there, along with the high-minded literary pursuits of our hero (who is as wonderfully
oblivious as to the goings-on of the real world as ever) and "cool Brittania" politics. Despite being number x in a series, the book stands on its own; Townsend has also provided a helpful "dramatis personae" section for those of us who might otherwise get confused (read: me).
Aidy is also a pleasant antidote to Bridget Jones. I thoroughly enjoyed the first Jones diary (haven't read the second) for the same reasons I love Mole: the slightly cringe-making pangs of recognition, and lots of laffs. But the ending to the Jones book was disappointingly happy! Call me a cynic, but I'm really sick to death of fake-o happy endings. Especially since it falls back on the whole stereotype where marriage/coupledom=happiness for women. Which pretty much contradicts the rest of the book. But I digress.
We have no fears of the deus ex machina in Mole's life. It may appear momentarily that he is about to experience a stroke of good fortune, but it does not last. And his endless literary allusions (read: malapropisms) allow us to feel smug and superior while reading summerweight fluff. What more could one ask?
I tend to avoid nonfiction, especially autobiography, but decided to make an exception for this stunning debut.
Eggers (unlike far too many memoirists) has led a remarkable life (briefly: just out of college, he is orphaned and made guardian of his young brother), one which would lend itself to melodrama if he let it. As well (and again unlike others in the genre), he is a brilliant prose-stylist, capturing the energy and neuroticism of youth in a mAnner so vivid, so compelling, that it is almost exhausting to read. The tone is highly conversational, as though Eggers had, perhaps, dosed himself with uppers and sat down to tell his tale as best he could remember it. There is self-doubt (of the I-may-not-be-remembering-this-correctly variety). There is also the (much-commented-upon) doubt of his characters/relatives. While this could be dismissed as mere cleverness, it contributes to the sense of authenticity (ironic, no?), as well as commenting on the lamentable unreliability of memory. Do we remember things as they did happen or as we wish they had happened? (the New Internationalist had an interesting issue a decade ago, dealing with this topic as it relates to photography. And still fools believe the camera doesn't lie! It certainly fibs, if not... But I digress). Digression is, of course, another aspect of the book that contributes to its (in a way) naturalistic tone, as well as its entertainment value.
I read an article (probably in the globe and mail) on the ironic pose theoretically adopted by "my generation." completely setting aside (for the time being) the fact that 99% of the popluation needs a refresher course in grade nine english, because they misuse and abuse the word "irony" endlessly (Naomi Klein, I'm talking to you), one point articulated by this essay that hit home with me was the fact that we got the parody before we got the real thing (i.e., I spent decades wondering why the line "really big shoe" always got a laugh). Parody is the style we relate to most. Our parents had westerns, we had Blazing Saddles. Anyway, my point: young Eggers cuts off at the knees any criticism that he is being too clever by announcing the fact in his preface, and criticising himself for it throughout the book. His memoir is a parody of memoir.
In a way, this book could have been titled The Importance of Being Earnest (a play which is, in an oddly fitting way, quoted in the preface). Because young people (god I sound so old saying that) are generally quite earnest, though they will deny it till the day they die. They want to do big things for the right reasons (speaking of being earnest, that nitwit child who wrote that book last year about being earnest missed the point completely. Earnesty does not preclude irony. In fact, they are often one and the same. Seinfeld is, in a way, more sincere than any other tv show because he is not pretending to be something he is not. He doesn't even bother to dress well. Dramatic irony is dependent upon the earnest good intentions of the unwitting protagonist. But I digress (again)). While he looks back wistfully at the naÔve idealist he was so long ago (last year), he skewers himself for doing it. And as a master of internalised hara-kiri, I relate.
Yeah yeah, I know, it is woefully unfashionable to harbour Oprah-like feelings for a character in a book, but there is a certain epiphanic feeling you get when you read something that makes you realise that, although one may be a neurotic lunatic, one is not the only neurotic lunatic. In fact, some people may outdo one in both neurosis and lunacy, and still manage to (on some level) succeed in life.
So read this book. It's brilliant. It will knock you over with its brilliance.
Can I start off by saying that this is my favourite book of all time? And that I see references to it almost everywhere I look? I loved Magnolia, because the quiz show was obviously an homage to It's a Wise Child. In Russell Smith's young men, there is a reference to ultra-dry martinis being a cheap excuse to drink straight gin - obviously an homage to Franny's comment regarding the martinis she and lane have before lunch at Sickler's ("I hate it when they're absolutely twenty-to-one"). I bumped into Smith on the street a while ago and he insisted that this was coincidence rather than homage, leading me to wonder if I have allowed my personal whims to cloud my objective critical judgment. And then I thought, who cares? Who reads this, anyway? it's my webpage, and I'll be opinionated if I want to.
The brilliance of Franny and Zooey lies in its simplicity. Salinger articulates big ideas without resorting to four-dollar words like "articulates." In the meantime, he also creates a description of a certain type of new york apartment which is on a par with Ulysses in its thoroughness (chagrin break: I realised a while ago that the reason I chose light blue for my bedroom walls - not being remotely a "pastel" person - is that it is the colour of the Glass' living room, in which young Frances lies in repose. But, once again, I digress).
Basically, it is two slim novellas (one Franny, one Zooey) revolving around two of the children in the mythic Glass family.
- Franny, a young woman attending the right school and dating the right boy, goes to visit her beau at his Ivy-league school. They have lunch and she collapses.
- Zooey, her brother, lives with his mother in the apartment he and Franny grew up in. She returns to the fold post-collapse to lie on the couch with a flea-ridden cat, while Zooey spends time in the bathtub, arguing with his mother and reading a letter from his brother.
Obviously, it is better the way Salinger tells it.
Every word is believable, real and colloquial, every action frustratingly true. In a book so slim, each word must be necessary to justify its residence on the page, and each word does so without seeming Fraught With Meaning. Every action is a clue: for example, the cigarettes. This book is actually the main reason I started smoking; Salinger has written a language in cigarettes, burning fingers, lighting a second while the first languishes forgotten in the ashtray, the solace in a repeated act. Cigars in the bathtub.
But for all its weighty thoughts and big ideas, the book is funny. I am especially fond of the scenes with Zooey and his mother in the bathroom, perhaps because they remind me somewhat of my relationship with my own mother.
But it feels almost foolish to try to encapsulate the novel in this way. It is far beyond my meager skills. Just read it. Now.
Am I Disturbing You?
translated by Sheila Fischman
This giller winner is deceptively slim and readable, for there is much floating beneath the surface.
Two men in Paris, Edouard and Stephane, are colonised by Delphine, a girl from Quebec. Stephane is entranced by her peripatetic, melodramatic existence; Edouard, while drawn in to a certain extent, remains aloof, distrustful, resentful of the intrusion. And intrude she does, showing up uninvited begging for a place to sleep as her grandmother's inheritance dwindles to nothing. Their reactions are polarised by her ungainly presence and inexplicable disappearances.
She is the past you crave, but are simultaneously glad you left behind. She is also the past you cannot escape.
* motas: Member Of The Appropriate Sex
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