Us by David Nicholls

Regular readers of this blog are aware of my fascination with books set against the backdrop of holidays. There are, of course, reasons for this. People cast adrift from their usual surroundings will sometimes test the boundaries of their behaviour–in other words, they behave in ways they wouldn’t at home, and that can make for an interesting story. But there’s another facet to holiday books I enjoy–if you send a family with problems away on holiday together, chances are the pressures of a confined space and 24/7 intimacy will make the cracks in the family relationships blow wide open, and this is the scenario in the engaging novel Us from British author David Nicholls.

UsDouglas Petersen and his wife Connie have been married for almost 3 decades when she announces, without warning, that the “marriage has run its course” and that she “think[s] she wants to leave him.” 54-year-old Douglas, the narrator of the novel, is stunned at the news. He’d thought that the marriage was happy, but with their only son, Albie, about to leave for a three-year photography course, Connie argues that their son is the reason why they’re together.

“I try to imagine it, us alone here every evening without Albie. Because he’s maddening, I know, but he’s the reason why we’re here, still together…”

Was he the reason? The only reason?

“…and I’m terrified by the idea of him leaving home, Douglas.

I’m terrified by the thought of that … hole.”

What was the hole? Was I the hole?

“Why should there be a hole? There won’t be a hole.”

“Just the two of us, rattling around in this house …”

“We won’t rattle around! We’ll do things. We’ll be busy, we’ll work, we’ll do things together–we’ll, we’ll fill the hole.”

“I need a new start, some kind of change of scene.”

“You want to move house? We’ll move house.”

“It’s not about the house. It’s the idea of you and me in each other’s pockets forever more. It’s like … a Beckett play.”

I’d not seen a Beckett play, but presumed this was  a bad thing. “Is it really so … horrific to you, Connie, the thought of you and I being alone together? because I thought we had a good marriage…”

I loved that quote because it reveals so much about the marriage and the dynamics between Connie and Douglas. He’s the product of a very reserved conservative, undemonstrative home, while Connie grew up in a large noisy, supportive family. These two people are completely unalike, but their marriage worked–at least for a while, but there’s always been the sense–agreed upon by both spouses–that Douglas was ‘lucky’ to get someone like Connie. The quote also reveals that Connie is the power figure in the marriage; she calls the shots and Douglas scrambles to catch up. Not only has she declared that she thinks she wants to end the marriage, but she fully expects Douglas to participate, without any awkwardness and no demands, in the last family holiday before Albie leaves home. Given Albie’s interest in Art (Connie is a failed painter and now works in a museum), Connie has organized what she calls the modern equivalent of the Grand Tour to “prepare” Albie “for the adult world, like in the eighteenth century.”  This month-long holiday includes stops in Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Padua, Verona, Florence and Rome.

Douglas’s first reaction to the news that Connie wants a separation is to cancel the holiday which he predicts will be like a “funeral cortege” with the imminent separation “hanging over” the marriage. Connie argues that it will “be fun,” and that Douglas should not be “melodramatic.” Albie isn’t thrilled by the holiday either and argues that “if it’s meant to be a great rite of passage and you’re both there, doesn’t that sort of defeat the object?”

Of course there were further sleepless nights, further tears and accusations in the lead-up to the trip, but I had no time for a nervous breakdown. Also, Albie was completing his ‘studies’ in art and photography, returning exhausted from screen-painting or glazing a jug, and so we were discreet, walking our dog, an ageing, flatulent Labrador called Mr Jones, some distance away from the house and hissing over his head in fields.

Common sense should tell these people to cancel the trip, but as you probably guessed, the Holiday from Hell begins…

The story goes back and forth in time with scenes of this miserable holiday contrasted with the history of Connie and Douglas’s life together. We see how Douglas, a shy man, almost 30 and a responsible scientist with no social life met Connie through Douglas’s wild and uninhibited sister, Karen. The fact that Karen (“Love was Karen’s alibi for all kinds of aggravating behaviour,“) can’t cook doesn’t stop her from throwing parties which include vile tuna casseroles, and it’s at one of these parties that Douglas meets Connie. We could say that Connie, who’s had a series of unreliable boyfriends in her checkered, exotic past, is out of Douglas’s league. She’s outgoing, drinks like a fish, and is ready to sample all the drugs passed her way–unlike Douglas who has no interest in drugs whatsoever. Douglas is a dud at parties and Karen says that “he had skipped youth and leapt straight into middle age.” The scenes at the party, when somehow Douglas finds himself competing for Connie against an aggressive hairy, circus performer are hilarious.

Jake, the trapeze artist was a man who stared death in the face, while most nights I stared television in the face. And this wasn’t just any circus, it was punk circus, part of the new wave of circus, where chainsaws were juggled and oil drums were set on fire then beaten incessantly. Circus was now sexy; dancing elephants had been replaced by nude contortionists, ultra violence and explained Jake, ‘a kind of anarchic, post-apocalyptic Mad Max aesthetic.’

As the story continues and Douglas relates the history of his marriage and the crises he and Connie faced, we also see how Douglas tries to keep up the pretense of a happy holiday amidst his laminated itineraries and Connie setting the rules about intimacy.

I loved this novel. Nicholls captured the dynamics of a dying marriage–a marriage which met the needs of one spouse while another felt stymied and bored. Nicholls also nails the subtle idea that one person in a family can so often be the low man on the totem pole, and, of course in this case, it’s Douglas. Many scenes underscore the intimacy between Connie and Albie which leave Douglas as an outsider (“Connie took to twisting her finger in the hair at the nape of his neck. They do this, Connie and Albie, grooming each other like primates“), and while Douglas is a conservative individual who lacks an ounce of spontaneity, this is how he was brought up. There’s another scene at a restaurant in which Albie and Connie shut Douglas out entirely and he becomes the butt of some rather malicious humour.

Due to its well-drawn characters who exist on opposite planes of values, Us may be the sort of novel to polarize readers. I had no sympathy for Connie and thought her a remarkably selfish human being who makes the dramatic announcement that the marriage is over and then expects Douglas to play Happy Families for four weeks for the course of an expensive holiday. Readers may also have a range of reactions to Albie’s behaviour. Douglas has moments of authoritarian fantasies, but there’s never any doubt that Connie is the one firmly in charge of the marriage, and one parent can afford to be lax as long as there’s someone else on the scene who tries to enforce some sort of reasonable behaviour. Nicholls also shows how we marry people knowing what they are, with no illusions, and then we rail at those very characteristics –at one point we learn, for example, that Connie makes snarky comments about Douglas reading nonfiction–”fascism-on-the-march” books as she calls them and not fiction which is her choice. The very characteristics that drew Connie to Douglas–stability, reliability, and security, are elements that Connie then rails against in her 50s.

My sympathy was with Douglas all the way, and for me both Connie and Albie behave atrociously  (Albie insists on taking his guitar on holiday and guess who gets to carry it around). The disastrous Holiday from Hell does have its good points as it becomes the impetus for self-realization for Douglas. Us is a brilliantly clever, witty, insightful examination of power dynamics in a marriage and in a family, but even beyond that Nicholls questions the attributes valued by our society–a society in which experience and risk-taking are valued over restraint. At one point, I was very concerned that Nicholls was leading me down the PC path to cliché, but I was spared… . Us, incidentally, made the longlist for the 2014 Booker prize, and this goes to prove once again, how I prefer the Booker Losers.

Incidentally, I’ve read a few articles recently that delved into the issue of post-50 divorces. One article stated that since the 90s, the divorce rate for people over 50 and older has doubled. I initially thought, to be honest, that that was a little weird. After all, haven’t people worked out their differences by then? I asked a divorce lawyer I know if she was seeing more post-50 divorces and she replied, ‘yes, absolutely.’ I asked why this is on the rise and she said that, in her experience, she’s seeing people who don’t want to live in retirement with the current spouse. She said she has female clients who come home and see the husband sitting on the couch watching TV and they say “I can’t take 20 years more of this.”

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Nicholls David

Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffman to Hodgson Edited by Darryl Jones

“But there are men, sane men, who are entirely of the opinion that it is quite within the bounds of reason to suppose that there may be what the world commonly calls spiritual manifestations–dealing with the seen and the unseen. Of such men, I avowedly, am one.”

A severed hand with murderous intentions, a portrait that drips blood, a husband out for revenge, opium-fueled dreams, and a locked bedroom in which a brother turns into a monster… yes all this (and more) occurs in Horror Stories: Classic tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson from Oxford University Press. The book, a review copy sent to me from a friend who chose not to read this, comes with a fantastic intro from editor Darryl Jones.  I would not call myself a fan of horror and typically avoid the gore of modern horror novels–although for some reason I have a weakness for a handful of films that fall under that heading: The Shining, The People Under the Stairs, Nightbreed, and Hellraiser. And this brings me back to the informative intro which adds a great deal to the selected stories.

Horror is a phobic cultural form, both in the sense that it is designed to produce a specific reaction–fear and loathing–but also in the way that it is produced by and directly reflects cultural preoccupations, fears and anxieties at any give moment, which it renders obliquely, in displaced and often highly metaphorical guises, as monsters, madmen, ghosts. A very clear example of this can be seen in the rise of colonial horror in the later nineteenth century. As the British Empire and the other empires of nineteenth century Europe reached their zeniths, so appeared the ‘reverse-colonization’ narrative, a paranoid cultural form in which conquered or oppressed colonial subjects return to the West (or to the Western officials in the colonies) to wreak terrifying revenge.

There are several examples of this ‘reverse-colonization’ in this wonderful collection, and I doubt that I would have made the connection but for this savvy intro which also explores the nineteenth century emergence of fascination with spiritualism, the “elements of terror,” the “contradictions” of Horror, and the “terror/horror binary.” Darryl Jones states that “the long nineteenth century was the great age of the ghost story,” and that the ghost story “represents a significant breach in the Victorian narrative of progressivism and modernity.” Jones, who obviously took a great deal of care in making his selections for this collection, points out that Stephen King, “by far the most prominent living horror writer” acknowledges The Monkey’s Paw (included here) as a “quintessential example of the tale of terror.” 

Horror storiesThe 29 stories in this collection are from the period 1812-1916, and while many of the author names are expected (Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson,) many are unexpected–Zola (The Death of Olivier Bécaille), and Balzac (La Grande Bretêche) are just two examples of authors I didn’t expect to find here.

As I read the stories, I was struck by how the authors keyed into our deepest primal fears. In Sheridan Le Fanu’s Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter, for example, the narrator explains how he came across this strange story through his acquaintance with a military man who owns a disturbing painting by the long-dead painter Schalken. The painting seems to capture a horrifying moment, and the owner of the painting relates the tale of a beautiful young woman claimed by a dead man. Yet another terrifying painting plays a role in E.H Benson’s creepy The Room in the Tower–the story of a man who has a recurring dream which involves being left to sleep in a tower room. Inevitably, of course, the person who suffered a lifetime of bad dreams finds himself relegated to the tower room which contains … a painting which drips blood. I’d run for the hills, but our narrator spends the night almost as though he cannot resist this moment. Zola’s The Death of Olivier Bécaille tells the tale of a young man who falls ill and enters some sort of coma state, and of course eventually he faces another of our primal fears: being buried alive. Yet another deep rooted fear is the centre of W. F. Harvey’s August Heat– the story of a man who learns the date of his death.

One of the biggest surprises of the collection was Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Case of Lady Sannox. A childhood exposure to Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes created a lack of curiosity in Arthur Conan Doyle as an author, but I loved this clever story, and perhaps some of my enjoyment can be explained by my newfound recognition of ‘reverse-colonization.’ This is, of course, one of the best aspects of reading a collection from several authors–we are inevitably exposed to someone we’ve never read before.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s  The Case of Lady Sannox, Douglas Stone “one of the most remarkable men in England” is embroiled in a passionate affair with the notorious Lady Sannox. Stone is a “high-handed, impetuous” man, one of the most famous surgeons in London.

Those who knew him best were aware that famous as he was as a surgeon, he might have succeeded with even greater rapidity in any of a dozen lines of life. He could have cut his way to fame as a soldier, struggled to it as an explorer, bullied for it in the courts, or built it out of stone and iron as an engineer. He was born to be great, for he could plan what another man dare not do, and he could do what another man dare not plan. In surgery none could follow him. His nerve, his judgment, his intuition, were things apart. Again and again his knife cut away death, but grazed the very springs of life in doing it, until his assistants were as white as the patients.

Lady Sannox, a former actress, has many lovers in her past, and there’s a degree of speculation as to whether her mild-mannered husband is clueless about her affairs  or “miserably wanting in spirit.” But when Douglas Stone becomes Lady Sannox’s latest lover, there’s no attempt to hide the affair which very quickly becomes a subject of scandal and threatens Stone’s career.

As I noted earlier, I would not classify myself as reader of Horror fiction, but I am certainly a fan of Gothic fiction and the supernatural. The book’s title: Horror Stories: Classic tales from Hoffman to Hodgson may possibly alienate potential readers, and that’s a great shame. Gothic or Supernatural Stories may have a wider appeal, and yet as the intro emphasizes, Gothic “is a term with a bewildering variety of referents.” After reading this excellent collection, the use of “Horror” in the title seems most appropriate as we move from anticipated dread (which in Gothic fiction may not materialize) to the horror of our fully realized fears.

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Filed under Balzac, Blackwood Algernon, Dickens Charles, Fiction, Hodgson William Hope, Hoffmann, Jacobs W W, James M R, Machen Arthur, Stevenson Robert Louis, Stoker Bram, Zola

The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe Di Piazza

That’s what those years were like: we kept spreadsheets of death, weapons, and none of us were really expected to uncover anything. Investigative journalism was a figure of speech in Sicily in the early eighties. It was a place where Hammett’s red harvest really was a bumper crop of blood.”

The Four Corners of Palermo from Giuseppe Di Piazza takes us back to Italy of the turbulent 80s and the Second Mafia War. These four tales are narrated by a crime reporter who looks back over his youth, his life, his loves and his coverage of the organized crime beat in Palermo. Dating many beautiful (and some troubled young women), the narrator describes his past when he’d leap onto his Vespa and charge off to get the story behind the latest slaughter. There’s a heady, powerful authenticity to these tales which isn’t too surprising in this fictionalized account from author/journalist Giuseppe Di Piazza. Many of the names here including Judge Falcone, Paolo Borsellino, Rocco Chinnici, and Mario D’Aleo  were in the headlines during this period in a series of explosively violent acts. These four retrospective stories, are the tales of people who didn’t make the same headlines, but the haunting stories, nonetheless, left lasting, troubling impressions on the narrator. He’s cognizant of his place in history and that he “was living in a novel by Dashiell Hammett, and that this city wasn’t called Palermo, but Poisonville: a place where everyone died. Always.” With death ever present, the enjoyment of life is crucial, and the narrator admits that he loved many women as an antidote to the environment of death. “We were taking high doses of love and sex to conquer our fears.”

4 cornersThe first story Marinello: A Western involves a young man from a mafia family who breaks the rules by falling in love with a girl “from a family where no one has been combinati, made Mafia.” The young man’s relatives take drastic measures to end the relationship. The second story, is the tale of a beautiful French model Sophie, whose heroin addiction brings too much baggage. The narrator, acknowledges that he suffered from “Lancelot Syndrome,” and decades later struggles with his conscience.

In Vito, the narrator receives an anonymous tip that a man named Vito Carriglio has gone missing along with his three young children. According to the newspaper photographer, the brutish Vito is “dark and evil,” an “ugly customer,” who, wearing a bulletproof vest, had been shot in the legs and arms as a “warning” some months before. But why the warning? The story of Vito takes us once again into the hierarchical world of the mafia. The children’s mother is the daughter of a mob boss, and when she turns to the police to help find her children, she’s “breaking one of the most inviolable taboo’s of the cosa nostra.”  The involvement of the police is a subtle message:

An act of contempt towards her husband. If she’d just turned to her family it would have been normal; setting the police after him, after this half a malacarne, is a terrible punishment.

The fourth story, Rosalia, is a dark story of the vicious punishment of a man who crossed the wrong people. The narrator feels a bond with a young girl named Rosalia who asks for his help after her father is murdered. In this city known for bizarre slayings, the discovery of a head on the passenger seat, and the torso in the trunk leaves both the journalist and the police wondering just who the victim,  a petty thief named Giovanni Neglia, had managed to piss off.

Laced with regret and painful memories, these stories explore how one man copes with being confronted with constant death and violence in a world where gruesome death, reprisal murders and vendetta are daily realities. Through these four snapshots of life in Palermo in the 80s, there’s the strong sense of living for the moment–a friend made today could be murdered tomorrow. Our crime reporter is a witness to this violence, and occasionally he becomes emotionally involved–hence these four stories which continue to haunt him decades later. The stories convey the sense that these were remarkable times to be a crime reporter and yet these experiences come with a heavy cost. There’s the excitement of jumping onto a Vespa and racing off to see the discovery of a Mafia armory, knowing members of  theSquadra Catturandi. Mafioso hunters,and there’s the thrill of knowing that you are a witness to history–if only you can survive physically, emotionally, morally….

This deeply philosophical book subtly juxtaposes the reporter’s coping mechanisms, his pursuit of women and drinking, but beneath the surface the tales are replete with explanations of the significance of various staged executions and codes of conduct:

Killing someone from a moving motorcycle means showing respect for your target: it means they’re someone hard to reach and to hit, like the greater amberjack, which is a carnivorous fish. “Incaprettare” a victim, hogtying someone so he chokes himself to death is a very different message: a sign of absolute contempt for a body reduced to a self-strangling mass: even worse, you can arrange for the victim to be found gift-wrapped in this contemptuous manner in a car trunk, left out in the hot sun of a Palermo summer.

Review copy. Translated by Anthony Shugaar

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Puffball by Fay Weldon

With its emphasis on fertility, infidelity, bad parenting and the ancient magical pull of Glastonbury Tor, Fay Weldon’s novel Puffball illustrates the human capacity for creating turmoil. The drama begins when Liffey and Richard, childless Londoners who’ve been married for seven years stumble upon Honeycomb Cottage during a weekend in the country.

Many people dream of country cottages. Liffey dreamed for many years, and saw the dream come true one hot Sunday afternoon, in Somerset, in September. Bees droned, sky glazed, flowers glowed, and the name carved above the lintel, half hidden by rich red roses, was Honeycomb Cottage and Liffey knew that she must have it. A trap closed around her.

And so all the trouble begins. At first Richard, the breadwinner, insists that they can’t leave London, but Liffey, an office temp and the possessor of a small inheritance, argues that at last she’ll be able to write that novel. Eventually a deal is struck between Liffey and Richard; they’ll buy the cottage if she’ll have a baby, and he’ll stay in London and return on the weekends. The rational reader knows, of course, that this is a recipe of disaster, but since this is a Fay Weldon novel, we also know that we’re in for some fun as the characters scramble around and make a mess of their lives.

puffballOn the day Liffey and Richard discover the seemingly idyllic cottage, they romp around in the grass for a quickie. Little do they realize that they’ve attracted the attention of the neighbours Mab and Tucker.

“Isn’t she skinny,” said Mabs, watching through field glasses from the bedroom of Cadbury Farm. Her husband Tucker took the glasses.

“They grow them like that in the city,” he said. They both spoke in the gentle, caressing drawl of the West Country, mocking the universe, defying its harshness. “You don’t know they’re from the city,” Mabs objected. “They’re not from round here,” said Tucker. “No one round here does it in public.”

Liffey, eager to begin her new life in the country decides to rent the London flat, a wedding present from Richard’s parents, Mr & Mrs Lee-Fox to a couple she’s known for a short time. Liffey, already established as an impractical character with little sense of finances, imagines that the rent (which she immediately discounts) from the flat will cover the cost of rent for the cottage and that there’ll be a profit besides. Fat chance of that happening….

Mory and Helen moved in a couple of hours after Richard and Liffey had left. With them came Helen’s pregnant sister and her unemployed boyfriend, both of whom now had the required permanent address from which to claim Social Security benefits.

With Liffey stashed in the country in the life of her dreams, everything begins to go to hell. Richard, resentful and on the loose in London, begins a period of sexual experimentation. Liffey, pregnant and stranded, relies on the help of her neighbours Mabs and Tucker. Mabs, at Cadbury Farm, is the daughter of Mrs Tree, a herbalist, and whereas Mrs Tree’s concoctions are supposed to heal various ailments, Mabs, who has more than a streak of malevolence, fancies herself as a bit of a witch. Mabs sees Liffey as a “candy on the shelf of a high-class confectioner’s shop. Mabs would have her down and take her in and chew her up and suck her through, and when she had extracted every possible kind of nourishment, would spit her out, carelessly.” With her husband and gaggle of half-starved, neglected children in her thrall, Mabs, who “seemed to have a hot line to the future,” dominates the farm and tends to get her way. Liffey and Richard’s friends Bella and Ray who “wrote cookery columns and cookery books” in the throes of mid-life crises have marriage problems of their own, and while they actively encourage the move to the country, behind Liffey’s back they ridicule country life.

I really liked the way Fay Weldon sets up the story of a seemingly happily married couple whose lives are derailed by Liffey’s desire to move to the country. This decision creates a fissure in the marriage, and then most of  the other characters exploit the situation in one way or another. There’s the sense that the universe is somehow out of balance, but all throughout the marital mayhem, the presence of Glastonbury Tor in the distance seems to provide a positive influence, and when Liffey is tuned in to her unborn child, a healthy almost supernatural force comes into play.

One of Fay Weldon’s favourite themes is the viciousness of women towards each other, while men, little more than troubling nuisances who philander their way in and out of women’s lives, are the prizes women battle over. That theme is dominant here too with Mabs feeling threatened by Liffey, and Liffey’s friends Bella and Helen ripping Liffey’s life to shreds behind her back. It’s as if Fay Weldon tells us that if women would only cease squabbling over male spoils, then the world would be a much more productive, albeit less interesting place.

Another theme here is fertility seen through Liffey’s pregnancy which is recorded in almost excruciating gynecological detail. You could definitely hand this book to someone as a 101 on pregnancy.  Nature, in the world around us, is seen to be an unstoppable force, but there’s also human nature with its powerful sex drive, and the desire to nest and raise a family. By the time the novel concludes, there’s the sense that much of our behaviour is defined by powerful hormonal drives.

This is the second reading of Puffball for this die-hard Weldon fan. The first time I was busy laughing at the way these characters almost insanely wreck their lives (the sub-plot which follows the renters/squatters in Liffey’s old flat is hilarious). This time I paid more attention to the various examples of parenting in the book. Liffey’s mother, Madge, a “lean, hard-drinking prematurely white-haired teacher of chemistry in  a girls’ school in East Anglia,” is a ‘hands-off’ parent. She’s sees motherhood as a type of trap, an obligation, and agrees to visit her daughter reluctantly  “I suppose it is the kind of thing a mother is expected to do. Once you’re given a label you never escape it.”

Richard’s mother is a bundle of “nervous energy,” and the news of an impending grandchild spurs her to action, “as if some trouble, pacing for years behind at a steady distance, had suddenly broken into a jog and overtaken her. She started knitting at once, but there was a tenseness in her hands, and the nylon wool cut into her fingers.”

Continuing on the spectrum, Bella and Ray are benignly neglectful parents. If they can fob their children off on other people, they’re happy. The presence of an au pair releases them to pursue their self-indulgent affairs, and their children appear to grow up in spite of their parents–although their diet deteriorates drastically when the au pair leaves. Mabs and Tucker have differing views on parenting. He thinks it’s ok to kick the poorly-fed dog whereas she’d rather whack her poorly fed children. Of course all these examples of less-than-perfect parenting (another favourite theme from this author) makes you wonder why people have children in the first place, but they are the natural fall-out of the confused coupling of the adults. In spite of the fact that this is a comic look at marriage and parenthood, the book is full of Fay Weldon’s wise, cryptic humour. She boldly rips the shallowness of female friendships, the inauthenticity yet convenience of the office affair, the results of a parent who fails to love a child, and so often in a Fay Weldon novel, chaos must be endured before any sort of rationality can be achieved.

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Filed under Fiction, Weldon, Fay

The Parrots by Filippo Bologna

A writer writing a novel is like a serial killer who’s keeping a victim locked in the cellar. Every evening, he slides under the cellar door a tray with a little water and stale bread, just enough to keep his victim alive, anticipating the moment when he descends the cellar stairs to have his fun with her.”

As readers, we pay attention to those who carry off the coveted literary prizes in the publishing world. Those who directly benefit are probably the most interested in following the Trail of the Winners and the Losers. I note who wins this or that prestigious prize, but mostly my interest stops there. I don’t have any interest in reading a book just because it’s a prize winner, and I tend to be skeptical of the entire selection process. Nonetheless, I appreciate the efforts of those who try and read the short list for themselves prior to the announcement of the prize, and I also empathize with authors who wait for the news only to hear they’ve been passed over. It would be tempting (and also torturous) for those who didn’t win to read the prize-winning novel and chew over the reasons why this one won while theirs didn’t.

The ParrotsI’ll admit that the nasty side of me wonders what goes on in the minds of the contenders. The healthy thing, of course, would be for any nominee to cross fingers, ignore the process, hope for the best, and then behave gracefully when the prize falls to someone else. Sometimes it’s just not that easy to lose, and stories of rival authors attempting to sabotage each other through Amazon reviews give me hope for humanity. And that brings me to the Italian novel, The Parrots by Filippo Bologna, the cynical, but very funny story of three authors in Rome all competing for the same prize. These authors are known as The Beginner, The Writer, and The Master–all men at different stages of their lives and their writing careers. They are men who want/need that prize for a range of reasons, and given that I love to read books about people who behave badly, it was almost guaranteed that I’d like this.

The Writer, on his second unhappy marriage, and plagiarizer of his mother’s work, badly needs the prize. He tried writing novels “filled with love affairs, lonely desperate men throwing stones at the stars, missed dates, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette ends and women dragged by their hair, raincoated figures waking the night streets, cars speeding by beneath the streetlamps, the glances of strange women behind the windows of buses: that was how he imagined the stories he would one day write.”  But “his stories had kept slipping away from him, his sentences had jammed like rusty revolvers.”  

The Beginner turns out to be a tough contender, and according to The Writer’s publisher, The Beginner’s first novel may win the prize because it’s a “first book. And when it’s your first book, they forgive you everything.”

The Master plagued with bills, is convinced that other writers have the edge due to computers, if he could just “plug his technology gap,” he’ll be able to “rival other writers in creativity.” Facing cancer, he mulls over the “prizes he hasn’t won, the recognition he hasn’t obtained” and he sees the prize as “the only way to take leave of the world with dignity.” This drives him to desperate measures.

The Prize is organized and financed by The Patroness who as “the lines on her face crease a moment like a ruff, then relax” conjures up the image of an aging fashion model.  Votes roll in. The Publisher tells The Writer that he’s behind in the prize voting which he explains is due to the death of voters they used to count on. The rash of deaths has lowered the age of the typical voter on the panel:

The older they are, the better. What little time they have left isn’t enough to read all the books in the competition. So they have to choose: read or live. They can’t do both. That’s why they have to trust what we tell them.

On the other hand, there’s The Beginner:

They’ve had him park his arse on the right sofas, on TV and in drawing rooms, they’ve stuck him on the covers of women’s magazines. He isn’t very intelligent but it’s not vital for him to be intelligent–on the contrary. He’s polite, good-looking, blue eyes, women have a soft spot for him.”

“I don’t think he’s that good-looking, he has a stupid face.”

Of course, you get the idea that it isn’t about the books, it’s about the projected personalities, the PR campaigns, vote rigging, and  the pathetically unattended book events in provincial towns in which The Beginner offers “himself as a sacrifice to a handful of torturers who have emerged from their houses.” And of course, that’s taking the optimistic look that anyone will even show up. But there’s worse: “the neglected provincial writer chosen to chair the debate”:

Because he could well imagine ending up there himself. The Beginner had immediately recognised the type, universally knows as “provincial writer who hasn’t made it”.  It was a very specific, widespread and in no way innocuous, anthropological and literary category. Poisoned by the suspicion, if not the contempt, of their fellow citizens, hurt by the smugness of literary society towards them, worn down by rejection and their own inadmissible lack of talent, such people spent their wretched days exiled to their desks, writing imaginary reviews, updating their blogs, working away at novels doomed to the eternal darkness of a drawer. With the passing of the years, they ended up suppressing their feelings of failure and converting them into a sense of martyrdoms. They constructed vast conspiracy theories in which powerful publishers, ensconced in the centre of things, did all they could to crush anyone outside their own charmed circle–the only proof of this conspiracy, of course, being their own misfortunes. They founded small and apparently crusading publishing houses in some cellar, or directly in their own homes, clandestine distilleries where they got drunk on the very spirits they sold under the counter. By so doing, they were finally able to realize their dream and see some of their own manuscripts in printed form, just for the fetishistic orgasm of touching the cover, leafing through the pages, arranging them on display on the mantelpiece in their best room. The most enterprising of them even managed to found schools of creative writing–on the pattern of the more famous ones–in premises placed at their disposal by cooperatives or local authorities, more as an opportunity to exchange a few words with some human beings on autistic winter evenings than as an assertion of their own debatable teaching skills.

Ouch! That long quote gives a sense of the novel’s tone. Caustic, merciless, and cynical, this clever novel pokes fun at the publishing industry, and apart from the occasional sink into farce, this mostly works. I found the objectification of the three authors: The Beginner, The Writer, and The Master, a bit wearying at times, and asked myself why the author chose to write the novel like this. Why not give his characters names instead of leaving them as types? But after concluding the novel, it seems fair to argue that individualism doesn’t count–identity beyond production doesn’t matter as in many ways. The Beginner, The Writer, and The Master, while three separate human beings plagued with their own issues, are arguably the same person at different stages of their careers in this grubby cannibalistic industry.

The Parrots is a good companion read to Gert Loveday’s very funny novel, set at a writers’ workshop: Writing is Easy.

Review copy/own a copy. Translated by Howard Curtis.

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Who is Martha? by Marjana Gaponenko

“A shame to die,” he sighed, “things are only just beginning to get exciting.”

who is marthaWhen Who is Martha? from Ukrainian author, Marjana Gaponenko opens, Professor Emeritus of Zoology, Luka Levadski, at age 96, has just received “a death sentence” of carcinoma of the lung from his doctor. Living alone in Ukraine, in his tiny apartment where he talks to his books and chews over the little future he has left, Levadski decides to decline chemotherapy, “that cocktail of chemicals,” and return to Vienna to a happy time in his youth with memories of eating pastries with his great aunts. In other words Levadski decides to not go out with a whimper but with style while he indulges himself in various luxuries and whoops it up with whatever time he has left. The decision results in him no longer focusing on his disease and imminent death:

The desire to die in luxury he had never lived in spread like wildfire within him. It grew within him and swallowed up his fear of death. The sudden desire for luxury robbed Levadski of any sense of respect for the seriousness of his situation and reduced his lung nibbled by cancer to a mere trifle.

There have been no women in Levadski’s life–just a long, respectable career. Somewhere deep in his past, there’s an ignominious memory which involves a little girl and pastries in Vienna, but on the whole, Levadski, so focused on birds and their mating rituals and habits, just doesn’t understand women.

That he had a long time ago thought of winning over the opposite sex with this pathetic affected behavior, when his head had been filled with nothing but the mating dances and brooding habits of birds, was something he did not want to be reminded about. But he did think about it, he thought about it with a hint of bitterness. After a fulfilling academic life he knew: Women would have interested him more if they hadn’t constantly insisted on emphasizing that they were different from men. If they had been like female birds, a touch grayer and quieter than the males, perhaps they would have awakened his interest at the right time. Levadski would gladly have procreated with such a creature. Only he didn’t know to what purpose.

While the book describes Levadski’s often hilarious misadventures in Vienna, it also goes back into his past, his childhood and his youth. This is a life in which birds were always of paramount importance. At one point, for example, Levadski, a student at the Institute of Zoology in Lemberg, receives a letter from his widowed mother urging him to come home:

My son, something is brewing in this world. The non-migratory birds like the crested lark, wren and the common treecreeper have turned their backs on our little place, the forest and the fields. There is no sign of the house martin either. House sparrows are now nesting under the eaves. I can no longer remember the last time I saw a house martin standing before a puddle, stuffing mud into its cheeks as building material for its nest, it was such a long time ago.

All these signs, my son, as you yourself know, are alarming. Our dear father would have said : the rats are leaving the sinking ship. He would have been right.

Levadski listens to his mother’s warnings of a pending “catastrophe,” and it’s a good thing he did. I loved this section (and the character of Levadski) which illustrated how people, attuned to nature, pick up signals that others are oblivious to. The theme of Levadski’s life spent studying birds continues in his depictions of people he observes in Vienna:

Levadski’s gaze wanders to an inconsolable face. Two strings of pearls entwine the wrinkly neck they belong to. The old woman turns her head like a blue tit, looks around, before she plucks up the confidence to shakily steer the fork with the piece of cake in the direction of her mouth. She protectively holds her other hand beneath it, chews, swallows, and then, with a critical gaze, chin pressed to her chest, she checks whether any of the cake has fallen into her lap, her bosom no longer able to catch crumbs.

While the novel is amusing, and may even seem like a simple story, Who is Martha? raises some relevant questions about life, death, the humiliations and also the compensations of old age. Levadski retired at the age of seventy (twenty-six years earlier) “with the thought that he would not live much longer,” but the story opens with Levadksi at 96, just a few years short of 100. In this life affirming, optimistic, bittersweet story, the message is that we should never give up on life and the experiences offered to us. Levadski, armed with a death sentence, finally feels free to indulge in the luxury he’s always denied himself.  It’s sad that Levadski didn’t experience so many things in life until he had that death sentence hanging over his head–at one point, for example, he dares himself to touch a waitress, but we can only cheer him on as he orders a new suit, special shirts, buys a drinking cane full of 2 Star Odessa Cognac, and, with his new credit card, decides to stay in the Hotel Imperial, the “best hotel in town.” The story sags a bit when Levadski gets to Vienna, and I wish he’d crossed a few more of those self-imposed boundaries. This is the sort of story to elicit a range of opinions concerning the limitations we impose upon ourselves and whether or not Levadksi’s latter-day liberation is a cause for celebration or sadness. Perhaps both. Recommended for book clubs as the story is certain to generate discussion from readers.

Review copy. Translated by Arabella Spencer

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Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann

But in fact Billy had been a blank screen, onto which Mabel, and so many others, had projected their own hopes and needs.”

While William J. Mann’s non fiction book Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood centres on the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor, the sensational 1922 murder is set against the backdrop of censorship, scandal and the shifting times. Mann argues that a constellation of dark events which include the death of Olive Thomas, the Fatty Arbuckle trials, and the murder of William Desmond Taylor all paved the road to the establishment of censorship and fed support for the various ‘moral’ crusaders who saw Hollywood as a den of iniquity which threatened the morals of the audience. The book is essential reading for any readers interested in early Hollywood and the development of the Hays Code.

TinseltownThis was an era when “thirty-five million Americans–one out of three–went to the movies at least once a week.” Everyone agreed–politicians, fans, film moguls, and moral crusaders–that the film industry was impacting culture, and this resulted in a range of opinions and a figurative tug-of-war between the opposing camps on the subject of censorship. Film moguls, such as Hungarian immigrant and founder of Paramount Pictures, Adolph Zukor, and Marcus Loew, founder of MGM, for example, were loath to hand over censorship power to any outsiders, and for a period, the film industry self-regulated. This is where William Desmond Taylor comes in as an important figure. He was “well regarded in the film colony” but was a “bit of a cipher.” An “ardent defender against the increasing calls for censorship,” he was a stalwart, well-respected spokesperson for the film industry. His death and the subsequent scandal were building blocks in the road to film censorship. The “murder of Taylor–the man who’d once argued for the decency and integrity of Tinseltown–ratcheted the campaign of the reformers up to new levels.”

The book delves into the months leading up to the crime–Taylor’s increased nervousness and the spate of burglaries at his home. The night of the murder is detailed along with various eye-witness accounts, information regarding the removal of evidence by the general manager of Paramount Pictures, and the initial bungling of the case (Taylor was first thought to have died of natural causes.)  Four women are part of the author’s dissection of the crime: actress Mabel Normand whose cocaine habit (rumoured to be around 2,000 a month) was a matter for the press, Margaret Gibson, who reinvented herself as Pamela Palmer following her arrest in Little Tokyo for prostitution, former child star Mary Miles Minter and her formidable mother, Mrs. Shelby.

There’s so much intriguing information raised here: why, for example was Mrs. Shelby repeatedly given a layer of protection by Woolwine, the DA, and why was Margaret “Gibby” Gibson rehired repeatedly by film producer Jesse Lasky and the Famous Players Corporation against the odds?

With an utterly undistinguished filmography, a record for prostitution, and a desire to form a company that would compete with Famous Players, Gibby should have been a pariah in Lasky’s office. But instead she had now been hired for a second major feature at the biggest, most prestigious studio in the industry.

Author William J. Mann offers plenty of explanation for the events. The personalities of these long-dead people leap from the pages–from Zukor’s megalomania, the sacrifice of Fatty Arbuckle to a vicious witch-hunt, Will Hays’ drive to become independent from the movie moguls, Margaret Gibson’s history of involvement with the criminal element to Mabel Normand’s gentle determination to defy the gossip mongers and survive without scandal. In this compelling book, Mann creates a cogent argument that William Desmond Taylor’s past was involved in the solution to his murder. A must-read for fans of early Hollywood.

Included in the book is a chapter devoted to a confession to the murder and another much-appreciated chapter:”What Happened to Everyone Else.” The author also explains his sources: letters telegrams, FBI files, police reports, news accounts, production records and emphasizes that he “did not venture unbidden into the minds of my subjects. When I write ‘how terribly she missed him’ or ‘Zukor seethed,’ these descriptions are based in interviews or memoirs by the subject on question, wherein such feelings, attitudes, or motivations were disclosed or can be deduced.” I appreciated this clarification. Too many books in this genre tend to offer the thoughts of characters, and as a reader I’m left wondering what really happened and what is made up. Finally the author also acknowledges his debt to http://www.taylorology.com.

And so out had come the censor’s shears. In Pennsylvania, state-appointed moral guardians had even snipped out scenes of a “woman making baby clothes, on the ground that children believe that babies are brought by the stork.” What was next? asked the New York Times. “Will it be a crime to show a picture of a man giving his wife a Christmas present on the ground that it tends to destroy faith in Santa Claus?”

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Cometh Up As a Flower Part II

Rhoda Broughton’s book Cometh Up As a Flower was much more romantic than I expected, but nonetheless, parts of it were wonderful. Nell Le Strange, the narrator of this ultimately tragic novel makes an interesting yet at times, frustrating, heroine. Pressured by her sister, and with her family in desperate circumstances, she bows to convention, and marries a man she doesn’t love. She compares herself on her wedding day to “the poor lamb [whose] throat was about to be cut” and “the female martyr.

Then comes one of Broughton’s evocative passages on the day of Nell’s wedding:

The air is full of snow; flakes are sailing crookedly down to join the other flakes lying already on tree, and hedgerow, and field. There seems no horizon to-day, no definite boundary to the prospect–sky and earth are mixed and jumbled up together; it is freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing every five minutes.

Broughton doesn’t make Nell’s husband a villain; he’s a nice man, but nonetheless, the implications of sex with a man Nell doesn’t love are there. At one point she admits that she “wished he would transfer his amities to some other person, even if it were the cook.” Shockingly frank for its day, I’d think, and certainly Margaret Oliphant found the book shocking when she exclaimed that “Nell’s ‘flippancy … revolts the reader’” (from the intro by Fionn O’Toole).

In one scene, prior to Nell’s marriage, the butcher arrives to try to collect on a long unpaid bill which has amassed to thirty-five pounds, five shillings and 4 1/2 pence. One site calculates that in today’s money that would be a bill of around 2,725 pounds!

Nell is ruminating on the family’s poverty when there’s a knock at the door. She knows that it must be the cook/housekeeper “come with one fell object, namely, to get money for some of the numerous tradesmen who were kind enough to throng our doors.” The sympathy which had been gathering for Nell vanished with this scene for we see that she expects good and services to continue even though those who provide them go unpaid. She still complains that the butcher has the gall to send poor cuts of meat when really she’s lucky he’s sending anything at all.

“I wish he and his bill were at Jericho.” responded I, tartly.

“He says that this is the ninth time he has brought it in, and he wants to have it paid.

“Want must be his master,” said I briefly.

“But he says he must have it paid; that he’s got a very ‘eavy engagement to meet next week, and he cannot do without the money.”

“They always say that,” replied I, surveying ruefully a yawning chasm in the heel of my stocking.

“Indeed, ‘m, I think they do; but , if you please, what am I to tell him? he’s waiting.”

“Tell him that I shall be most happy to pay his bill if he’ll only show me how; that I cannot coin money; and I haven’t a farthing in the world, except the crooked sixpence on my chain, which he is most welcome to, if he likes to take it.”

Nell sees the butcher’s claim as a YP not a MP. Who remembers that wonderful scene at the recording studio in the film  Boogie Nights? The characters Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and Reed (John C. Reilly) decide to become rock stars (hey, why not?) and make demo tapes at a recording studio. But they don’t have the money to pay the studio’s owner and tell him that they have to have the tapes first and then they can pay him later when they become rich and famous. Makes sense to them. But the studio owner says, in one of the great lines in the history of cinema, that the lack of money is a “YP not a MP.” But back to Nell … that’s one of her problems, she doesn’t grasp the realties of life: she lives in poverty with her father and sister but still expects food to miraculously land on her doorstep. It’s not the butcher’s problem–it’s her problem. Her options are running out, and then her sister Dolly fiendishly intervenes in Nell’s fate…

Boogie Nights

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Cometh Up As a Flower by Rhoda Broughton Part I

When I began Rhoda Broughton’s novel Cometh Up As a Flower, I thought I’d end up loving it. I didn’t, as it turns out, I only liked it. Parts of it were wonderful, but parts of it were too romantic, too wilty for my tastes. But those complaints aside, while Cometh Up As a Flower left me more appreciative than ever of M.E. Braddon’s masterful plotting skills, Broughton’s book does have a lot going for it.  The book opens very strongly indeed with our tragic heroine, Nell Le Strange, the youngest daughter of an impoverished, once wealthy, noble family sitting alone in the local churchyard:

Ours was a churchyard that it would have been a real luxury to be buried in. It inspired one with no horrible, hardly even melancholy ideas. One never thought of skulls or cross-bones, or greedy worms, while looking at those turfy mounds sloping so softly; those mounds that the westering sun always gave his last good-night kiss to before he went to bed behind the craggy purple hill. Were one really dead, stowed away in one’s appointed oak box, it would concern one, no doubt, not a whit whether one were huddled with other oak boxes into some ghastly pit, among the dark benettled grass of some city charnel, or laid down reverently in the fragrant earth, shadowed by some peaceable little gray church tower, such as ours was. But while one is yet alive and one’s oak box is as yet not a box at all, but the trunk of some branchy tree, one cannot realize this. Unconsciously we fancy that we shall smell the odorous mignonette and carnations that are reveling in the summer sunshine above our heads, that we shall hear the birds preaching our funeral sermons, and singing their own epithalamiums when spring comes back, that we shall shiver in the snow, and be chilled by the wintry rains.

A flawed, yet still beautiful passage (too many ‘ones’–read this quote using first person and it’s much better) that gives a sense of the novel’s main character, Nell. I immediately liked her, but at the same time knew that she was destined, with all that romanticism, for some painful lessons. Nell is the youngest of two daughters who live with their widowed father. Dolly, the eldest sister, the much more conventional of the two, was engaged to be married to a wealthy young man who inconveniently died right before the wedding. The marriage would have solved some of the family’s problems, but now Dolly’s value on the marriage market isn’t so great:

“life in an old barrack, with no present income, and with no future prospects, hardly seems to me a theme for Hallelujah; for weeping and gnashing of teeth rather.”

“I would not gnash my teeth if I were you, Dolly!” say I, with sarcasm, which is a weapon I but seldom use, as it mostly cuts my own fingers when I lay hold of it, “or you may break them, and that would seriously diminish your prospects in the market.”

“Market, indeed!” echoes Dolly, interrupting herself in the perusal of a toilette de promenade. “This little pig does not go to market, and very sorry she is for it too, she might have all her teeth drawn and knocked out, or gnashed out, and nobody would be the wiser. Alas! alas! there are no pig dealers in this Sahara.”

A very bold passage for its times, and one which reveals that Dolly is all too aware of a woman’s fate should she remain unmarried.

cometh up as a flowerNell falls in love with a man who can’t salvage the family fortunes, and so she finds herself marrying a man she doesn’t love. She’s so young, so full of life, we can almost hear the joy being squeezed out of her as she’s married off feeling only “huge loathing” and “infinite despair.” The skullduggery in the plot seems relatively tame after other Sensation novels I’ve read, and the crime involved is a moral crime more than anything else. While in Lady Audley’s Secret, M. E. Braddon creates a pathological female who will do whatever is necessary to get ahead, the wicked woman here is Nell’s sister, Dolly, who in many ways, at least externally, embodies the Victorian ideal woman.

The intro to my Pocket Classics edition, written by Fionn O’Toole acknowledges that the novel, written in 1862-3 and finally published anonymously in 1867 is “sentimental and melodramatic in parts.” Cometh Up As a Flower, a best seller in its day, tackles sexual attraction, a loveless marriage, and strongly critical of a woman’s choices, “strip[s] away the facades and veneers of a respectable woman’s life and mock the society in which she is trapped.”

Rhoda Broughton, the niece of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu enjoyed a long writing career, but when Broughton died in 1920, her popularity was in decline. Born in Wales in 1840, Rhoda Broughton’s first novel Not Wisely But Too Well was serialized in Le Fanu’s Dublin University magazine, and while Broughton is categorized as a Sensation author, publisher Victorian Secrets argues that her work is “risqué rather than sensational.” Cometh Up As a Flower is an entirely different animal from other Sensation novels I’ve read so far. While the Sensation novel owed a debt to both the Gothic and the Romantic, Cometh Up As a Flower seems to have grown from the latter.

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There Must Be Some Mistake by Frederick Barthelme

When is thinking carefully cowardice? When is avoidance cowardice? Is it cowardly to evade and dodge, to leave by the side door, to step out of the way? Is it fear that makes a person behave ‘properly’ and in accordance with one or another code of conduct?”

American author Frederick Barthelme whose work is described as Dirty Realism or K-Mart Realism has a reputation for setting books in the New South.  There Must Be Some Mistake (and I’ll admit that I was attracted by the book’s cover) is the story of Wallace Webster, a divorced, retired architect. Wallace lives in one of the “prestigious” Forgetful Bay condos in Kemah (“halfway between Houston and Galveston“), Texas and more or less leads the sort of life he wants. His first wife died of cancer, his second wife Diane inherited a sizeable stash from her father and now lives on Rhode Island, and his college age daughter Morgan drifts in and out of his life. Jilly, a former workmate also visits, and with Jilly the relationship is a bit murky. There’s an attraction there, but Jilly is still damaged from her marriage which was “like TV show nasty, true crime nasty” to the ubiquitous Cal, a “tough piece of business.” Neither Jilly nor Wallace seem willing to make a move on the attraction and are happy to keep their relationship as an easy friendship.

there must be some mistakeThe book begins by setting the pace of  Wallace’s life, and although this is a man who could harbor bitterness towards some of the events in his life (his first wife, a singer died of  cancer, he was elbowed out of his business by his partners) Wallace is a very well balanced individual, content to enjoy his life and his free time. We realize that Wallace has an enviable life in many ways–it’s peaceful, bucolic even, and he has the means to do what he chooses.

All this peace and quiet begins to shift when a series of mysterious events occur in the condo community. First Wallace’s neighbor crashes his car in a deadly accident which claims his life, and then another resident Chantal White is “found in her kitchen, her hands bound with picture-hanging wire from the back of her prize art print and blue paint smeared all over her.” These are the first two things that occur, and it’s just the beginning. While the residents of the HOA aren’t exactly dropping like flies, it does become a whose-next scenario. As various crimes are investigated, Wallace finds the police presence “oddly reassuring. Like your life imitating television–murders and drive-bys and robberies and whatever happening to people all around you.”

For a few weeks the police were all over the neighborhood like mice. They were asking questions, coming in twos to everyone’s door, inviting themselves in, sitting on the edges of sofas and wing chairs with their little tablets, little flip books where they took notes whether the interviewees knew a thing or not.

With the police now frequent visitors to the condo development, Wallace finds himself becoming involved with the mysterious Chantal White, a woman whose murky past isn’t quite as buried as she’d like it to be. Chantal is the owner of a architecturally unique restaurant called Velodrome, and Wallace is just as drawn to Chantal’s restaurant as he is to her. It’s through his relationship with Chantal that Wallace chews over a great deal of his past choices.

There Must Be Some Mistake initially carefully creates an atmosphere which reflects the security of Wallace’s life in the Forgetful Bay Estate. This is a community where the highest stakes seem to be who is going to run the HOA. Wallace’s neighbors, for the most part, appear to be a boring bunch of middle class, middle-aged Americans whose priorities are status, gossip and lawn care. Wallace’s divorce is amicable, his daughter presents no problems, and his life is predictably safe. His laid-back lifestyle emphasizes internet searches, facebook status, TCM, lazy daytrips, Target shopping  and visits to “finer eateries.” But underneath the surface of this easy-going life, strange things begin to happen on the Forgetful Bay Estate. …

Through his characters, author Frederick Barthelme asks  ‘how well do we know anybody? How well do we know ourselves?’ Lulled into a false sense of security, this reader was unprepared for the direction the novel began to take as Wallace finds himself involved with the “comfortably weathered” “hard as nails” Chantal White at her restaurant, Velodrome:

We got back late and the bar was lit up with floods high on the telephone poles in the lot and I got the midnight view–the building was like a giant rock, made out of that blow-it-on concrete that people make odd-shaped buildings with, except here the shape wasn’t geometric, it was like a boulder the size of a small hay barn, all chiseled planes, small cliffs. irregular flat spots, poorly framed square holes for the windows, and what looked to be a small Airstream trailer stuck up on top. Homemade architecture, what we once called ad hoc design.

Chantal exemplifies the novel’s theme that even your neighbor, a person you think you know, can hide the deepest secrets, and when Chantal’s performance artist daughter Tinker arrives on the scene, things only get stranger for Wallace.  All the mysteries of the novel are not solved by its conclusion, and while in the hands of another author, There Must be Some Mistake would become a dramatic murder mystery, instead Barthelme veers away from the predictable and gives us a marvelous novel that is a reflection of, and a meditation on, modern life: from Trayvon Martin, reality TV, google searches, celebrity and junk culture. Some people disliked the ending, but for this reader, the ending matched the novel’s optimistic tone while embracing the realities, the unexpected and the mysteries of life.

And here’s a final quote I loved from one of Wallace’s neighbor’s:

So I’m looking forward to social security, know what I’m saying, and I run into this woman in the hardware store. She’s buying a set of wrenches, good ones, too. So she asks me a couple questions, and I act like I know from wrenches, which I oughta, and maybe I even did at one time, back in the old days, but the thing is I’m thinking sixty-one is not much different from fifty-nine, even fifty-five, but it’s night and day to fifty. Fifty you’re still alive, still a functioning cog in the system. There are parts to play, deals to make, women to bed. you can still sell yourself to the ones that remind you what pretty women look like, what god skin in, and the rest. But it goes downhill after that. Some guys keep up the pretense, but I never could.

Review copy.

 

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