Tag Archives: american fiction

God is an Astronaut by Alyson Foster

Epistolary novels were tremendously popular in the 18th century, and now we’re seeing an emergence of the e-pistolary–a novel told exclusively though e-mails. In the case of Alyson Foster’s novel, God is an Astronaut, the e-mails are one-sided; they’re written  over the course of a few months from married Botany professor, Jessica Frobisher to her “favorite colleague” and fellow professor Arthur Danielson, who is on sabbatical in the “wilds north of Winnipeg.” Jessica pours her private thoughts into the e-mails to Arthur while she shares a lot less with her emotionally distant husband, Liam, the senior engineer for Spaceco, a shuttle company with a long waiting list of commercial passengers who want to travel into space.

astronautJessica, or Jess as she prefers to be called, begins writing e-mails to Arthur a few days after the explosion of the Spaceco shuttle Titan which resulted in the deaths of the two crew members and four passengers. With reporters camped out in the driveway, and Liam travelling back and forth to Arizona to the Spaceco launch site, Jess is left to her own devices. The shuttle explosion heralds disaster for Jess’s marriage–a marriage already in trouble and locked into a “passive-aggressive standoff.” Jess admits “we have no shortage of skeletons in our marital closets–the predictable collection of festering specimens, the things that go bump in the night, etc.” She begins an e-mail exchange with Arthur, and also begins long-delayed work on a greenhouse.  While the physical labour of digging trenches is a satisfying distraction, the e-mails to Arthur reveal Jess’s private, candid thoughts. Liam is entrenched in the details of the shuttle explosion and the subsequent media storm, and for Jess, under scrutiny from the neighbours and colleagues, the e-mails to Arthur seem to be the one way she can express her real feelings and moral concerns about the shuttle explosion. Troubled and yet trying to hold her life and home together for her two children, Jess admits to Arthur: “There’s something about trying to sum up your own take on a terrible truth.”

While Liam tells Jess not to speak to reporters camped outside (“the CNN crew had some sort of miniature grill out, and they were barbecuing what appeared to be breakfast sausages,”) she is required to show solidarity with her husband and other Spaceco executives and wives. Spaceco hires a pushy crisis consultant who orders Jess to dress a certain way for the press conference:

she finally settled on the least objectionable outfit she could find, that green silk suit I wear once a year when I’m presenting at a conference, the one you said makes me look like a woman playing a politician in a mini-series.

Much to Jess’s annoyance, Liam invites filmmaker Theo Lacroix and his latest wife Elle back to Michigan in order to make a documentary film about Spaceco. Lacroix has a habit to popping up at the most inconvenient moments with his camera, and Jess finds that Lacroix’s presence in her home is unsettling. How much does he see and understand? Here’s Jess explaining to Arthur her exchange with Lecroix after telling him that she retained her maiden name:

But he didn’t seem offended. “Ah,” he said, “A woman after my own heart. I wouldn’t allow any of my wives to take my name. ‘Get your own,’ I said.”

He bent down, picked up my ergonomic shovel, and inspected it. “Besides you never know when you might have to change it back. And then there will be all that bureaucratic nonsense and—” he waved his hand dismissively. “It is all very tiresome. When it comes to marriage, most people are very … What is the correct word? Unrealistic. It is better to be prepared.”

It was impossible to tell, Arthur, whether he was bullshitting me or not. “That’s a great philosophy,” I said. “I bet all your wives really loved it.”

“They understood. Some of them sooner than others.” Lacroix flicked a piece of dirt from the sleeve of his sweater. “They were smart women,” he said. “And beautiful.” He sighed with a touch of what I assumed was nostalgia.

 Jess’s voice is engaging, lightly humorous in tone and very real, but the e-mails occasionally do not sound like e-mails at all. Ok, so perhaps not everyone knocks off short e-mails, and perhaps some of us wax poetic, but sometimes the writing here is just too good to be a believable e-mail.  Conversely, there are also times when the e-mails seem to be a false construction:

I shut the laptop. I left the bathrobe in a puddle on the kitchen tile. Still half naked, I walked through the living room and up to the bedroom.

At other times, Jess is describing a dramatic event, and divides it into several long e-mails, and again, this felt a little false. I read some reviews in which people expressed frustration that the e-mails were just one-sided. Actually I liked that aspect of the novel because I had to read between the lines, and also pay close attention to the subject header topic which was the best way to gauge Arthur’s response. Plus on a deeper level, just what is Arthur to Jess? A colleague or something more? Over time, of course, we learn the truth which was easy to guess almost from the first e-mail, but even when the truth is finally revealed, it’s clear that Arthur served many purposes for Jess, and here he is as a sounding board as Jess rides out the greatest crisis of her life.

I particularly liked the way in which Jess is shown avoiding dealing with reality through the distraction of her greenhouse, and at one point she even describes the space beyond the dining room designated for the new greenhouse as “an escape hatch.” Liam disapproves of the project, mumbling about their “sasquatch-size carbon footprint,” which is hypocritical given what he does for a living, and there’s the sense that he disapproves of a great deal to do with Jess. Perhaps she finally begins construction of her greenhouse, not only as a meaningful distraction, but as a type of defiance. After all, she buys many exotic, delicate plants with the plan that they will defy the Michigan winter in this superb construction and, as Lecroix, points out, with her “ruthless gardening.”  God is an Astronaut, a light read,  is well-written and engaging. Author Alyson Foster captures that period of disintegration in a marriage when both partners are aware that the relationship is pathological, but neither chooses to acknowledge the problems. Yet.

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Funny Once by Antonya Nelson

“I’ve had to deduce that women grow hard over time while men grow soft.”

A few years ago, I read Antonya Nelson’s novel Bound, the story of a woman who unexpectedly finds that she’s the guardian of a teenage girl. Bound explores the issues of obligation, responsibility and loyalty through the lives of its characters, and while I enjoyed the novel, I have to say that these short stories in the author’s latest collection, Funny Once, are truly superb.

If there’s a common thread in the nine stories and novella in  Funny Once, then that common thread must be the unexpected links we make with people, and once again obligation, responsibility and loyalty are issues at play.  These stories are not about dysfunctional families, but rather it’s fractured families that are examined here. What sort of stew do you get when someone has been married 3 or 4 times, has children and step-children from various marriages, and old relationships with former in-laws? Move over the theme of dysfunctional families and instead let’s look at a very common scenario, at least in my part of the world, the crazy quilt of fractured families.

Funny onceIn Soldier’s Joy, Nana, a woman married to her much older husband returns home to Kansas following her father’s accident. There she meets a former lover,  a man who was a crucial factor in her much later marriage.  Nana’s husband is her former professor:

She and Helen had met Dr. Shock at an apex, his as a certified celebrity, theirs as nubile acolytes. He had then been a casual tenant of his attractive still-young body, but now was a fearfully vain and anxious one of the older model. For two consecutive years he had gone about claiming to be sixty-nine, not even consciously, so averse was he to the number seventy.

Nana and her husband  don’t have children, but they own dogs.

Lacking children, Nana and her husband had settled for dogs; their friends no doubt pitied their misplaced affection. This was the third pair of siblings they’d owned. First black labs, next Cocker Spaniels, now the Corgis–each set a slightly smaller breed. “We’ll die with Chihuahuas,” Nana had once told her husband.

“You” die with Chihuahuas,” he’d corrected her. “”I’ll die during the dachshunds.”

Nana’s parents have never really understood her marriage or why all of her education “led her no further than housewifery.” When Nana returns home, she discovers that her parents have become surrogate grandparents to the children of the neighbours, and that the neighbour is her first boyfriend. This difficult situation is fraught with might-have-beens and fantasies of a possible future. There’s a shock in store for Nana, but it’s not what you expect.

One of my favourite stories in the collection, and it’s hard to just pick a few favourites, is The Village. In this story, Darcy, now middle-aged recalls how a car wreck she caused as a teenager led to a strange confession by her father of an extra-marital affair with a woman named Lois. He begins with the sentence “sometimes people do things that other people might call mistakes.” Circumstances lead to Darcy meeting Lois, and she becomes one of the formative people in Darcy’s life. When Darcy goes to Lois’s funeral, she thinks she’ll finally be able to acknowledge exactly what her father’s long-time mistress meant to her, but she learns otherwise. This is a wonderful, and curious story, as Lois is a shadow figure. We never actually meet her so we only see her reflected in the mirror of various memories. To one lot of people, Lois was a remarkable woman, while to her own family, she’s something else entirely.

In IFF a woman finds herself living with hairdresser Gloria, her ex-mother-in-law, detritus from the divorce from Nathan.  Gloria is Nathan’s stepmother, and while he’s moved on, and is about to remarry, there’s simply no room in his new life for his step-mother, and Nathan seems to think Gloria is an -ex too. Like unwanted baggage, Gloria is left behind, yet she and her former daughter-in-law share a bond that goes beyond the tenuous bond of a wobbly marriage.

In First Husband, Lovey now married for the second time, deals with her step-daughter, Bernadette, her “ex-husband’s youngest most difficult girl.” While her other step-daughters found Lovey “lacking,” Bernadette, was “needy” and formed a relationship with her young stepmother which continues in spite of the divorce and remarriage. Lovey and Bernadette share a complicated bond of loyalty and disappointment stemming from their relationships with the same man–Bernadette’s father and Lovey’s ex-husband.

When she married him, he was at the tail end of his fruitful handsomeness, it’s fulmination, at forty-five, still moving in the world with the confidence of a man who’d bedded a lot of women, all of them except the first few–when he was a beginner, when he was on the receiving end of a romantic education–younger than himself; he was a serial seducer. “Handsome men are dangerous,” Lovey’s mother had warned her. Lovey had been his third wife; perhaps she could have predicted that she would not succeed where those others had failed, but that was the nature of love, and of youth, and the combination, youthful love, to make one arrogant, or stubborn, impervious to the lessons of others.

If you took all the lessons of others, you might never do anything.

Now Lovey has moved on to a very placid, comfortable re-marriage to William, a doctor, but still the past intrudes through the obligations she feels to Bernadette. Bernadette was her step-daughter, and now she has children. Is Lovey a grandmother? Are these her grandchildren? And what of Lovey’s second marriage to William?

And she understood that William, too, had been disposed of, that his ex-wife had had a similar nuclear potency, and that he loved Lovey with the same conscious intensity of somebody exacting a kind of revenge, or, perhaps, simply forever behaving with the belief that his ex was paying attention, that he had need to prove he’d survive and thrive, the victor. A victor, anyway.

The novella, Three Wishes, follows the lives of the three Panik siblings, Hugh, Hannah, and Holly, and the story begins when they deliver their father, duct-taped into his recliner, to a nursing home. With their father in a home, the siblings return to their lives. Hannah, the only one who’s married, is the one who seems to have her life together whereas Hugh and hopeless single-parent, Holly are visibly stunted. There’s a great scene when the siblings enter a bar called Ugly’s:

Hannah had a nervy awareness of her femaleness, the way the den of men had vaguely stirred, straightened its collective spine–math nerds, slackers, divorced professors–when she and Holly had entered. Her older sister looked like a woman who knew how to have fun in the world, whose smile came from zealous desire, whose mind was worth investigating, who wouldn’t reject you without a test run.

His little sister looked like somebody who’d threaten to kill herself if you broke up with her.

Hugh, who’s been living in the ramshackle family home (with hippies next door), and works a marginal job, returns there and begins attending creative writing classes at night at the local college–“his current attempt to curtail his drinking.” Over time we learn that there should have been a fourth sibling, Hamish, who died, “animation suspended at age nineteen.” Even though he’s been dead for decades, Hamish’s shadow lingers over his siblings who never quite connect with their lives.

The characters here are aging and trying to come to terms with the mistakes in their lives even as they mull over the invisible crossroads that took them to unintended destinations. Even Ms. Fox, the bitter creative writing professor in Three Wishes doesn’t seem to know how she ended up in Kansas. Antonya Nelson’s stories are relevant to today’s family situations where the nuclear family is riddled with fault lines–multiple marriages and divorces, step-children, step-parents, & step-grandparents. We know that responsibility doesn’t end with divorce, and with great sensitivity and insight Antonya Nelson explores the reaches of loyalty which trumps legal obligation. This is a marvellous collection and comes highly recommended.

Review copy.

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The Travel Writer by Jeff Soloway

“I’m a travel writer, and corrupt as they come. I’d sell my journalistic principles for two nights at the Four Seasons with a free meal and a massage.”

Jeff Solway’s debut novel, The Travel Writer, the first in a new series, is for those who enjoy reading mysteries set in exotic locations. This is a modest little book, and as I write this, it’s being offered for the modest sum of $2.99 on Amazon US. I’m mentioning this because The Travel Writer probably won’t get a great deal of attention when compared to the GIANT blockbuster novel I just read: Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair–a novel which overreached and failed. The Travel Writer, in comparison, is a novel that accomplished what it set out to achieve, but that shouldn’t be too surprising as the author was an editor and writer for travel guides.

the travel writerThe self-imagined hero and narrator of The Travel Writer is Jacob Smalls, a man who scrapes together, barely, a marginal living as a travel writer. This isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds–at least not at Jacob’s bargain basement level. He has a matchbox sized studio apartment in Queens which he shares with an amphibian turtle. If you think about it, both Jacob and his turtle live in their own tanks:

At home in my tiny studio apartment in Queens I cook massive meatless stews and freeze the leftovers or, when I’m feeling flush, order pan-Asian takeout by the pint. But when I’m working I live like a vacationing CEO, eating for free at multi-Michelin star restaurants and staying for free at hotels that charge two months of my rent per night. Some travel writers call themselves journalists; I refuse to debase the term. Just that morning I’d been trying to book another fact-finding trip for my yet hypothetical Ritziest Ritz series. Whether or not I could sell the thing hardly mattered.

The novel begins with a press conference given by a Bolivian luxury hotel’s PR agent, Pilar Rojas. The press conference is supposed to help satisfy the media frenzy surrounding the disappearance of New York based travel editor, Hilary Pearson. Hilary, young and attractive, vanished without a trace from the prestigious Hotel Matamoros, “the Xanadu of the Andes, the super resort that had risen up like Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome.”  Local police, and even the FBI have failed to find even the smallest clue about Hilary, and it’s feared that she’s been kidnapped and murdered. Pilar, who has a past romantic history with Jacob, asks him to come to Peru and help her find the missing woman. There’s a great deal at stake here as Bolivia’s entire tourist industry is threatened by Hilary’s disappearance. Pilar offers Jacob free plane tickets and a week’s stay at the Hotel Matamoros, and she hints that she’s in danger.

Jacob, who after all, lives for free trips, takes the bait, and under the guise of writing a puff piece for the Hotel Matamoros, flies to La Paz. Stringing along is the uninvited 26 year-old Kenny, another work acquaintance of Hilary who’s nursing a giant crush for the missing woman.

I read The Travel Writer before knowing that it’s the first in an intended series of novels. As the first of a series, this is a good start, so if you like light-hearted mysteries with a touch of humor, set in exotic locations, this series should appeal. Jacob Smalls makes a humble interesting hero. He leaves New York with images of being a prize winning journalist, saving Hilary (a woman he’s never met but knows through e-mails), and winning back Pilar, and while those are all, perhaps, fairly predictable daydreams, the author injects a fresh aspect to the storyline by sticking Jacob with Kenny. Jacob has a tendency to patronize and pity Kenny, and once down in Bolivia, Jacob, who’s a seasoned traveler, can very easily dominate the relationship. But there are a couple of moments when, through his relationship with Kenny, Jacob realizes that he’s being unkind, and there’s not such a huge difference between the two men after all. Since he views Kenny as a pathetic loser, it’s an uncomfortable realisation for Jacob, and one that makes him a better human being.

As for the location, readers get a tourist’s view of La Paz and its marketplace as well as the hungry tourist industry desperate for an injection of foreign money. The magnificent Hotel Matamoros, which will be to expanded with new branches deeper in the jungle, is a vital concern for Bolivia’s tourist industry, and the fact that an American travel writer has gone missing while staying there just isn’t good for business. According to another hotel owner, “Matamoros was all built on narcotrafficking money,” and Jacob discovers that Hilary’s disappearance is a topic of concern for a Bolivian political group.

The novel, built on the idea of tourism, takes a insider’s skeptical view of the industry, and while the issue is never overworked, the idea of a ‘genuine’ tourist experience is lampooned through scenes with the Kallawaya and mention of the “handful of Amazonian medicine men” hired by the hotel for a “splash of color.” The novel takes the position that tourism is a artificial construct, and that by its very nature has built in voyeurism and paranoia. There are moments of shameful self-revelation for Jacob when he realizes his life of privilege is based on freebies from Bolivians who live on pennies a day. Jacob’s character was a little fuzzy at times–a little too Walter Mittyish at the beginning with his fantasies of heroism, but I liked the framework of a small-time travel writer leveraging freebies through hints about glowing articles.

Review copy

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During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase

I’d never heard of Joan Chase’s novel: During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, and while the title caught my eye, I wasn’t sure if I’d like the content. This was a case of trying the book simply because of the publisher, New York Review Books, and after ending this magnificent tale, I can easily predict that it’ll make it to my best-of-2014 list.

during the reign of the queen of persiaDuring the Reign of the Queen of Persia is set in the 50s and concerns the lives of a three-generational matriarchy with Gram at the top, her 5 daughters and 4 female cousins: Celia, Jenny, Annie and Katie. The title has an edge of irony, as the ‘Queen’ is a not an exotic figure, but a tough Ohio woman who in one scene throws a tin can at her retreating husband while yelling “horse-piss. shit-face.” Still, Gram, a woman whose early life was miserable until she inherited money, in definitely in charge, and she does what she wants:

“The way Gram told it was that all she had ever had in life was kids and work and useless men and what she wanted, and had earned besides, was to be left alone.”

The story, divided into 5 very specific chunks of history, is told collectively by the 4 young cousins. It’s impossible to tell which girl is the narrator, and identification defies logic. I tried to narrow the choice in the first section, and thought I’d nailed it, only to be trumped in the other sections. The result of this unusual, superb narrative style is that the reader intuits that the thread of the story is childhood, and its fluid narration transcends a specific character or a single version of events. Instead we have the collective experience of four young girls as they witness, respond to, and try to make sense of the tumultuous lives and the messy world of adults. The collective narrative occasionally acts as a chorus of experience as in this section which follows an episode with one of Gram’s son-in-laws, ne’er-do-well Neil, as he symbolically reestablishes his male dominance over females through a strange, sadistic ‘game’ that takes place with his two daughters (Annie and Katie), and two nieces (Celia and Jenny):

We four climb up into the haymow, up to the rafter window. We vow we will never forgive him. We swear to avenge ourselves, even if we have to pay with our lives. We tell each other how he’d feel if we died. Dry-eyed, exhausted at last, we lie in the sun-shot darkness of the barn, and the soft cries of the doves seem to be the sound of Neil’s grief when he knows that he has lost us, when he views us, innocent girls, cold and still in death.

We are released then, forget again, and begin to descend the levels of the barn, down through the shafts of sunlight, and then we run off down the pasture lane into the woods, walking by the stony shallow stream until it is deeper and runs clean. We slide into the water; our dresses fill and float about us as though we have been altered into water lilies. after our dip, cool, absolved, we lie upon the bank, brushed dry by the coarse grasses, which hold a mosaic of daisies and Queen Anne’s lace.

While each of the sections covers some specific, non-sequential events in the history of the family, common threads appear throughout the book: the unreliability of men, the treachery of sexuality, and the importance of the female hive. Women dominate the story, and most of the men in the story are feral–either on the periphery or drifting in and out periodically, causing trouble. The book’s first section, appropriately called Celia introduces the multi-generational family as it describes Celia’s explosive entrance into puberty which begins with the appearance of a “pack of boys” who hang around “with a patient wistfulness.” Celia’s burgeoning sexuality sprouts a series of inappropriate lectures from her mother, Libby.

“Don’t think I don’t know the charms of young men,” Aunt Libby said, and we knew she did; beautiful again, a trace of blood spurting from her cold heart, illuminating the texture of her skin, warming yellow to gold. And her eyes softening like a melting amber. They hardened again. We trembled to hear her. In Aunt Libby there was none of Gram’s flip “You may as well fall for rich as poor.” For Aunt Libby it was a matter of outrage and contest.

She spoke incessantly of love. Endless betrayal, maidens forsaken, drowned or turned slut, or engulfed by madness. Most chilling were the innocent babies–stabbed with scissors and stuffed into garbage cans, aborted with knitting needles. In all this, love was a blind for something else. For sex. Sex was trouble and when a girl was in trouble, sex was the trouble.

Nor would Aunt Libby allow us the miscalculation that marriage put an end to trouble. Men were only after what they could get. When they got it they didn’t want it anymore. Or wanted what someone else had. The same as the cars they bought and used. It was their nature. Some got nasty about it. That she attributed to liquor–which men turned to out of self-pity and petty vengeance.

Even Rossie, a young male cousin, is a destructive, disruptive presence for the duration of his unsettling visits, and significantly he never integrates with his female cousins. Rossie, as a male child, cannot penetrate the world of his female cousins, and after the death of one of Gram’s daughters (in spite of the best efforts at intervention by a Christian Science sibling) we see that according to Uncle Dan, the exclusion of males continues beyond the grave:

Gram had refused to pay for that kind of burial. She had said she wasn’t going to get mixed up in any heathen ways when not a bit of it meant anything anyhow. “She’ll lay up there aside of me, where she belongs,” Gram said then. granddad was already there, on top of the hill at the cemetery, and Gram had bought plots for herself and her five children. “I don’t know what the rest of us are supposed to do,” Uncle Dan had said. “Just wander, I guess. Outside paradise.”

For most of the book, two men are residents at Gram’s Ohio farm; there’s Gram’s husband, Granddad, a surly man who takes care of the cows, and whose relationship with the rest of the family is restricted by his own resentful, anti-social behaviour, and Dan, the husband of Gram’s daughter, Libby. Dan, a butcher, the father of Celia and Jenny, and one of the book’s most stabilizing forces, who never meant to stay at the farm for long, appears to have made some sort of pact with his wife which included the return to the farm and leaving California behind. Dan, “the surviving male figure” for part of the novel, surrounded by women, is affable and easy-going–although he does have a brief rebellion through the purchase of an outdoor swing which represents his longing for California.

There was one memorable fight; it lasted two days. Uncle Dan came home with groceries and a flowered lounge for the yard or porch and Aunt Libby hit the roof the second she saw him unloading it, yelling from the window, “we can’t afford that kind of thing. you have no business. What would we do anyway with a thing like that?” Going on to tell Uncle Dan that he was forever needing some new trinket for amusement. When would he ever grow up? And when had he ever had a spare minute to lay in the sun?

“In California,” he said, as he worked to adjust the mattress, “they’re set up for this kind of thing. They don’t mind a little fun. A fellow works all his life. What’s the harm?” His face looked as though it had rained all his summers, his eyes gray from clouds that had passed over his heart.

Aunt Libby’s voice spurted anger and something of alarm too. “You! You have an uncontrollable notion to lay in the sun. What are you, a beach boy/ Use a blanket. a towel, for god’s sake. I don’t live at home with my mother, scrimping and saving, to look out the window and see you snoozing on a bed of roses–orange roses at that. The thing reminds me of an orgy, just looking at it.”

“That thing reminds me of everything I’ll never have,” Uncle Dan said.

It would be easy to say that not a great deal happens in the book–people die, fall in and out of love, one girl becomes engaged, one gets married and a baby is expected, but in this rich story of life with all of its messy complications, the focus is on the details of these tribal relationships. Gram, a wise, solid life force, has experienced and endured a great deal, and “fed up with cooking” and work, she spends her evenings at “bingo parties, horse racing, roulette at a private club” opting to stay out of her children’s lives, except for the occasional battle with her husband or one of her sons-in-law. Now her children are adults, she mostly ignores them even though her large home is a refuge from trauma for her daughters. With just one daughter, Libby, there permanently, the other daughters come and go, particularly at times of crisis, gathering strength from each other even as they acknowledge differences and weaknesses. Interestingly, apart from the occasional neighbor, we don’t see much of life beyond the farm, but it simply doesn’t matter in this wonderful, timeless tale of family, childhood, love and loss.

 

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The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

“For years, I worked so hard to hold my tongue, I nearly swallowed it. For years, I had slid around the dining room table in various costumes of the bright, eccentric variety, opposite the Klee, directing traffic with deft signals and smiling, always smiling.”

The Blazing World, and it’s no coincidence that the title is the same as a largely forgotten work from 17 th century female author Margaret Cavendish, is a complex look at Perception, Identity, and Gender politics in the art world. In this challenging intelligent novel, author Siri Hustvedt presents a fragmented, troubled portrait of a now deceased woman, artist Harriet Burden. Harriet, or Harry, as she was known, was at one time a young artist in New York with a few shows to her credit in the 70s and 80s. Then she met and married the phenomenally wealthy art dealer, Felix Lord, and for years lived in the background as his wife, a mother to two children and as a “chic” hostess to various, critics, dealers, and artists involved in the art scene. In her fifties and widowed Harriet is a deeply unhappy woman, a rejected daughter, a forgotten artist and once the wife of a prominent wealthy man. But these were all unsatisfactory roles for Harriet who is left, after the death of Felix, with a lingering feeling that life has passed her by and that the overwhelming bias of the art world ignored her talents.

The blazing worldHarriet devises a master plan, Maskings–an “experiment that took her five years to complete,” that was “meant to not only expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover complex workings of human perception.” Maskings was a series of three arts shows, The History of Western Art, The Suffocation Rooms and Beneath in which she masked her female identity by exhibiting her art under the names of male artists who colluded with her ‘experiment.’ According to Harriet, this project Maskings, would not only reveal the bias and hypocrisy of the art world but also yield a sort of gender and personal triumph.

The Blazing World appears to be a non-fiction book in which Harriet’s story unfolds through multiple narratives pieced together through Harriet’s labyrinth layers of deceit by an editor, a professor, who takes extracts from Harriet’s many cryptic journals as well as interviews with various people including her two children, filmmaker Maisie and writer Ethan, the artist Phineas Q. Eldridge, a friend, art critics, one of those “New Age fruitcakes,” and a final lover. A complex fragmented portrait of Harriet emerges, and as we see though her journals, she’s an angry woman intent on revenge. But revenge against whom? Against what?

After a meltdown, Harriet sought therapy which according to her daughter “unleashed a Harriet Burden none of us had ever seen before, as well as a number of other characters or personas she had been sitting on for quite some time. … protean artist selves that needed bodies.” Seeking to renter the art world using a succession of male names, Harriet selected three male artists as three successive beards or “masks,” who “acted as fronts for her own creative work.” While Harriet created the art for display and sale under the names of the three male artists, Harriet argued that an intriguing transaction occurred in each masking. She “insisted that the pseudonym she adopted changed the character of the art she made. In other words, the man she used as a mask played a role in the kind of art she produced: each artist mask became for Burden a ‘poetized personality,’ a visual elaboration of a hermaphroditic self which cannot be said to belong to either her or to the mask, but to a mingled reality created between the two of them.”

The three male artists Harriet chooses are all very different types; the first man, young, naïve Anton Tish, is a blank slate whose interactions with Harriet destroy his already fragile persona. The second artist (and one of my favorite voices) whose professional name is Phineas Q Eldridge, a black gay man who defends Harriet’s arguments of sex bias and who has already struggled with identity, is perhaps the most savvy and understanding of the voices when it comes to his relationship with Harriet. The third artist is Rune, a cultural icon, a virile blond, blue-eyed hunk of an artist who knew what it meant to be a celebrity. Rune’s show The Banality of Glamour which ensured his place as a rockstar in the art world included film footage of “facial morphing technology,” and “plastic surgery patients under the knife.” Rune offers various versions of his own elusive life, constructing fable upon fable, but according to one source, that’s just Rune:

Those stories he told to journalists were part of his shtick, a kind of tongue-in-cheek self-promotion, making a mystery of himself.

It’s with Rune that things really begin to go wrong. Rune’s dealer cannot answer whether Rune’s show Beneath was out of context for Rune and he admits that he “could tell you what was in or out of character for Rune,” a man who continually re-invented himself, using “maskings” of his own and whose previous great triumph of Art was vinyl crosses–a yellow cross, sold for 3 million dollars because “he had only made one.”

Of course, there’s a paradox to Harriet’s theory. If the art world is indeed hypocritical and disinterested in the work of an overweight, unattractive middle-aged woman, yet ready to worship the work of three male artists–no matter how moronic (Tish) or slick (Rune) they are, why would those who hold the reins of power–the critics and the dealers–care or even believe her when she reveals how she duped them all? Will they believe she was the “virago mastermind” behind the three art shows or will they see her as just another bitter, deranged, disappointed and talentless woman? Through the voices of the critics, in which fame and perception are locked together, we see absolute, blind adulation directed to the famous artists whose work fetches millions. According to one critic, Harriet’s early work was not ignored when she first appeared on the art scene; she simply opted out to be a wife and mother, yet another critic who profoundly disliked Harriet, insists that she  was “so obscure she wasn’t even a has-been.”

One of the interesting aspects of the book is its structure. It’s written as though ‘edited’ by a professor of aesthetics who is trying to reach the ‘true’ story about Harriet Burden, now dead, so we get multiple perspectives about Harriet and her actions. I was intrigued by the author’s approach. How much easier to have written a straight fiction book–let’s say, for example, a book that was written chronologically starting with Harriet married to wealthy art dealer Felix Lord and watching any hopes of her career crumble away as she recedes into the roles of betrayed wife and ignored hostess to various luminaries in the art world.  Instead this fictional work is presented as a faux non-fiction book. This construct is more complex and also takes a much more scholarly tone with many footnotes referencing the very real people mentioned throughout. While this approach doesn’t make an easier read (the footnotes can be distracting at times–I launched off on a whole tangent concerning James Tiptree Jr. at one point), Siri Hustvedt certainly creates a much more intriguing, in-depth and complex read by her bold approach to the topic. While this is the story of Harriet, her rage at a “phallocentric world,” and her attempt to unmask the hypocrisy of the art scene, this story is just one layer on the deeper questions: who decides what is great Art? Why is something Art while something else is trash? How much are critics and then by the trickle-down effect the audience swayed by image and celebrity? These questions are addressed in the multiple narratives within the novel–in particular through the voice of Case, an acidic art critic, one of the influential gatekeepers of the art scene, a man who decides what is great art and what is tired and boring. Throughout the book, the image of Harriet remains with some disturbing questions–how greatly was she tainted and damaged by her early perceptions of herself? How much was self-sabotage, lack of confidence, or simple life choices?

Thanks to both Caroline and Emma for pointing me to this author.

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Six Figures by Fred G. Leebron

In Fred G. Leebron’s novel, Six Figures, Warner Lutz is the newly-appointed director of  MORE, a third-rate charity in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a very small budget. There’s BIG money to be made working for high-profile charities, but Warner certainly isn’t getting rich at a salary of $35,000 a year while his wife, Megan makes $25,000 a year working at an art gallery. With a combined income of $50,000, the Lutzs are just over double the poverty level for a family of 4, so we can’t exactly feel sorry for Warner. That’s ok, he’s busy feeling sorry for himself, and even Megan, who’s continually put in the position of finding the so-called silver lining, admits that Warner is the “most negative person” she knows.

six figuresWarner is full of bitterness, anger and resentment about all the things he doesn’t have. They live in a tiny townhouse and drive a beat-up Honda that’s clocked over 100,000 miles. It doesn’t help that Warner mingles with the wealthy or drives by their mansions, and while he knows that life could be worse, he could fall through the “trapdoor” and join “the working poor, the criminal poor,” he can still barely contain his resentment at being treated second class.

Yet he still wanted more. Every morning when he drove Sophie in their shitcan hundred-thousand-plus-mile Honda with the guardrail crease down one side to the private but only $175-a-month preschool and he saw the other parents in the new Volvos and minivans and Suburbans, he wanted more. Every noon when he stood in line at the vegetarian take-out for his cup of soup and can of diet cola while in a nearby café the gray suits and sleek dresses milled between garden salads and poached salmon, he wanted more. And in the evenings when he drew up to the cramped, redbrick town-house apartments of Crape-Myrtle Hill, having passed the magic dust mansions of the growing rank-and-file rich with their screened-in porches and their two-story great rooms sand their eat-in kitchens and their master bedroom baths and built-in saunas, he wanted more.

Warner deeply regrets going into charity work, but it’s too difficult to change careers, and so he spends his days bitterly comparing his lot in life with those who ooze money; he “failed to swallow Megan’s relativity argument,” and finds it impossible to curb his anger and resentment.  Megan becomes the centre of much of Warner’s anger, and when Warner’s job performance comes under scrutiny, pressure mounts to boiling point. Then something terrible happens.

Six Figures is a novel seeped in psychological suspense in a domestic setting, and in this examination of a marriage, we see the simple day-to-day demands of a family. Megan has put her career on hold in order to follow her husband, and yet he secretly resents her and the children. Everything seems to be a choice for the Lutzs as they juggle careers, car repairs and daycare with strained financial realities. Warner is stretched to breaking point by the immense pressures of his job, and his constant envy of the ever-elusive affluent lifestyle. While a crime takes place, this is not primarily a crime novel. Instead this is the story of a marriage, the assignment of blame, and the limits of trust.

Warner is an unlikeable, alienating character with a nasty temper, and while that’s not a problem in itself, nearly everyone in this slightly depressing book is unpleasant, including Warner’s parents who arrive on the scene from Pennsylvania. There are a few scenes in which Warner rubs up against those wealthier than him and while his resentments and observations are directed towards showing the superficiality of status markers, we see that he wants the very things he supposedly despises.  There will always to be people who have more than us, but you can bet that there are also people who have less. Warner and Megan’s social position puts them outside of the window of the wealthy looking in, and that’s an interesting but uncomfortable place to be. While it’s easy to have sympathy for Megan, it’s not easy to have sympathy for Warner, yet they are, after all, in the same boat.

I loved the book’s title–after all that six figure income is a term that’s bandied about and seems to mean that the recipient has passed some magical status marker to a point of arrival. It’s a bit odd though when you think about it as 101,000 is a lot different from 999,000 but those two numbers both qualify as ‘six figures.’ It was interesting to see how the Lutzs decided to spend $150 on carpet cleaning on a regular basis when they are supposedly squeezing every penny to buy a house, but that’s society for you. I’m always amazed at how many people who claim to be ‘broke’ have regular lawn service, or cleaners, or who take their pets to be washed when they could do it their damn selves.

The biggest problem I had with the novel is characterisation. Initially this seemed to be a character-driven novel focusing on the dynamics of a marriage, but for this reader, the crime aspect worked against the character development. For the first part of the novel, Warner is a time bomb waiting to explode and then later, he remains in control until one big outburst which is intended as a defense. Somehow this didn’t quite gel. There’s a big build up and then a dispersal of all that anger and rage as it disappears … puff… into the ozone. Perhaps people would act this way in this horrible situation, but character seemed secondary to the plot.  A couple of the plot twists strained credulity, and readers should be prepared for the ambiguity of the ending.

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What We’ve Lost is Nothing by Rachel Louise Synder

Apart from gangster lore, I know very little about Chicago, but I wasn’t far into Rachel Louise Synder’s debut novel What We’ve Lost is Nothing, when I realized that the action is set in a real community. Oak Park has its very own Wikipedia page, and according to the book’s intro (which I didn’t read immediately in case it contained spoilers–it didn’t), “Oak Park is  a suburb in flux. To the west, theaters and shops frame posh homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. To the east lies a neighborhood trying desperately to recover from urban decline. Although the community’s Diversity Assurance program has curbed the destructive racial housing practices that migrated from Chicago’s notorious west side over the past decades, cultural and racial integration has been tenuous at best.” I’m including that entire quote because I can’t do better. The name “Austin Boulevard” also crops up in the novel, and I discovered that this road is the border between the crime-ridden community of Austin (termed Chicago’s deadliest neighbourhood) and the community of Oak Park. So who wants to live in Oak Park, the neighbourhood which boasts the largest number of Frank Lloyd Wright designed residences? Come on raise your hands….

what we've lost is nothingWhat We’ve Lost is Nothing focuses on a neighbourhood mass burglary that takes place one afternoon in Oak Park’s fictional Ilios Lane, a cul-de-sac of eight houses–all of which are burglarized. The incident challenges the lives and beliefs of the residents as shock waves from the burglary wash through the neighbourhood and issues of race and class float to the surface.

The premise of the novel sounded … well… interesting.  Burglaries are traumatic events for anyone, and that trauma goes far beyond the loss of stuff that can be replaced. Sometimes items that are worth next to nothing, but hold immense sentimental value, are taken, and then there’s the sense of violation that remains long after the event. For the residents of Ilios Lane, however, the burglary has even deeper ramifications as the residents begin to question whether or not they can live a safe middle-class existence right next to the crime-ridden community of Austin, located on the borders of Oak Park.  This is especially true for Susan McPherson who’s an agent at a housing office and who believes wholeheartedly in “diversity assurance.” She spends her days showing apartments to young couples, proud of her “progressivism,” assuring them that the neighbourhoods are safe.  She believes in her sales pitch until the burglary tells her otherwise. Meanwhile, her husband, Michael, begins to feel that he has to ‘do something,’ and his inner fascist awakes.

The novel begins the day after the burglaries and then follows various characters for the 24-hour fallout after the event. Mary McPherson, a cheerleader, was cutting school with Sofia, a Cambodian friend, and the two girls were high on Ecstasy, under the dining room table during the course of the burglary. Another couple, the Kowalskis, were on holiday, others were at work, and one man, Arthur Gardenia, the novel’s most sympathetic character, who suffers from Hemeralopia, was at his usual daytime post– upstairs in the dark. He heard noises downstairs but was too afraid to investigate. The items stolen from his house are without value to the thieves, but the loss crushes Arthur and tests the limits of his already-fragile existence.

Who goes into a pawnshop in search of used notebooks? What was the street value for such a personal thing? Arthur fought waves of nausea and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He couldn’t even search for them himself, his vision was too poor. They were simply gone. He sat on his bed, fighting a growing sense of helplessness, waiting, it might seem, until the sanctity of his haven was restored, the one place he felt he could emerge from his own helplessness. This, too, he had to admit, was what had been invaded. Not his home, but his sense of security.

Meanwhile Mary finds that Caz, the school lothario, is attracted by her new-found notoriety and increased “social capital.” Understanding that the burglary “catapulted her into Caz’s periphery,” she’s desperate to hang on to that attention.

While the novel, with its emphasis on class and race has a very interesting premise, I wish the plot had spent more time on some of the other residents; additional development with some of the more neglected characters would have produced a more even story. We see that for some residents of Oak Park, life there is an arrival, a step up into the middle-class, but for others, it’s a daily fight to keep their heads above water. While the burglary realistically brought some issues between the neighbours to the surface, the whole diversity issue was hammered too heavily. It was there front and central immediately through geography and Mrs McPherson’s employment, and the additional elements (particularly her run) moved the story from incident to cliché. The portrayal of the Cambodian family was also weak.

Unfortunately, there seemed to be a little too much emphasis on Mary and Caz, and aren’t cheerleaders, by their very role, popular? At least that was my impression, but here Mary is painted as a bit of a wall flower who’s desperate for Caz’s attention. The final scene between Caz and Mary was far too extended and resulted in an unfortunate and not entirely believable conclusion.  On the positive side, I liked the way the novel showed that the residents all led fairly fragile existences for one reason or another, and that these lives were shattered by the burglaries. If you’re on the bottom levels of society, suburbia may seem enviable, an impossible dream, but middle-class life brings its own nightmares, and the author explored that aspect of the story well. Also of note are the fast-forward moments which give us glimpses into the futures of some of the characters, and the insertion of the listserv comments where various paranoias and beliefs emerge, and everyone unleashes an opinion they might not express face-to-face.

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A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

Peter Taylor (1917-1994) was born in Trenton, a city in Tennessee that appears in A Summons To Memphis, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel for 1987. There are a few autobiographical features to this story, but they are just trimmings in a slow-moving, eloquent novel about family dynamics and a crisis bad enough for siblings to gather to take action. There’s always a division of opinion when it comes to prize winners, and this also applies to Taylor’s novel, but for anyone out there who’d like to try some Southern American Literature (which is its own sub-genre), this is a great place to start, for while the ‘Southernness’ of the novel may seem foreign or even quaint, most of us will be able to identify with the toxic family dynamic, and perhaps, most importantly, there’s no Southern dialect to wrestle with.

a summons to memphisOur narrator is 49 year-old Phillip Carver, a man who escaped from his Memphis family years before and is now living in New York as a book editor. He was living with a much younger woman, but something has gone wrong with the relationship–nothing easily identifiable, but they’ve separated. Phillip was originally one of four children, but his older brother was killed in WWII–there’s the sense that at worst he got himself killed on purpose, and at best, threw his life away. Now there are the three siblings left–all unmarried, and that’s enough to make the reader sit up and take notice. Phillip keeps in contact with his family mainly through the newsy letters written by his two middle-aged, spinster sisters. Their mother died two years before, and that leaves their geriatric father on his own. Thanks to the letters, Phillip is aware that many elderly widows have been inviting the elderly Mr. Carver for dinner, but things have taken a more serious turn; he’s been seen at local night spots with much younger women, and now, he’s announced his imminent marriage:

The courtship and remarriage of an old widower is always made more difficult when middle-aged children are involved–especially when there are unmarried daughters. This seemed particularly true in the landlocked backwater city of Memphis some forty-odd years ago. At least it is a certainty that remarriage was more difficult for old widowers in Memphis than it was over in Nashville, say, or in Knoxville–or even in Chattanooga, for that matter.

That opening paragraph sets the scene and the tone of the book–along with the theme that life in Memphis is different from life in Nashville–a most important factor once we uncover the Carver family history. Phillip receives two separate phone calls–one from each sister, Betsy and Jo, demanding that he come back home (his summons to Memphis) and assist in thwarting their father’s plans for matrimony.  As Phillip sits in his Manhattan apartment he recalls various similar case histories in which family members banded together and had their elderly parents hauled off into hospitals, dragged into court, or held prisoner on their own plantations away from “any female predator in Memphis.”  All these stories caused Phillip discomfort and embarrassment when he first heard them, and he never expected this to occur in his own family.  Of course, these situations do occur frequently, and then many questions erupt regarding inheritance, mental competence and whether or not the bride to be is a gold-digger. The sense we get from Phillip is an overwhelming embarrassment and shame that his father’s nocturnal activities with a much younger woman have become the source of jokes in the community–mainly thanks to his sisters who hold court at various social events while they recall their father’s attempts to dance and how foolish he looks trying to keep up with people young enough to be his grandchildren.

At this point, A Summons to Memphis may sound like an old familiar story as the adult children gather for an ‘intervention,’ but here’s where the story is different–Phillip goes back into the family’s past, and a complex set of familial relationships are uncovered which reveal exactly why those sisters are unmarried. At one time the Carvers lived in a mansion in Nashville but the father was ruined by a Mr. Lewis Shackleford, who was also, unfortunately, their neighbour. More than forty years earlier, the family moved to Memphis in 1931 for a fresh start, and while the father’s law practice was successful, Phillip’s mother sank into “nearly thirty years of real or imagined invalidism,” and the scars from the Nashville move remained permanently damaging. Now the plump middle-aged sisters run a successful real estate company, and according to Alex Mercer, Phillip’s best friend and a professor at Memphis State University, they are “the laughingstock of Memphis.”

The awful fact was that with figures by no means any longer youthful they often got themselves up in the most extreme fashions that only the most sylphlike and dashing young girls should have worn in any given year–even the most daring fashions, one might say. If, for instance, low backs were favored for evening gowns, their backs would be bare down to the divide in their rather sizable buttocks. Or if particularly low necklines were in vogue, then theirs would plunge between mountainous breasts practically to the navel. If slit skirts were the fashion, then my sisters’ would be vented well above the knees, exposing fleshy thighs which by this time in my sisters’ lives were indeed of no inconsiderable size. Whenever I was at home I had ample opportunity to observe all Alex told me about them was true. They would sometimes come by father’s house before they went out of an evening to ask Father and me to inspect their ridiculous getups. If we were shocked, then they would laugh uproariously. Sometimes I felt their appearance was as big a joke to themselves as to everyone else. But laughingstock or not, I could seldom manage a smile even at the grotesquery of my sisters’ costumes or the awful incongruity of their figures with the alluring postures they assumed. Because I would always see in them still vestiges of the beautiful older sisters of my Nashville boyhood.

That quote gives a strong sense of the author’s languid style. This is a very slow-moving, eloquently constructed novel, and while the title, A Summons to Memphis may indicate that much of the tale takes place there, it’s more a signifier of a family in crisis, and most of the novel is devoted to Phillip’s memories and the telling of his family’s history. This really is a wonderful book, an exquisite example of Southern Literature, with its unhurried, placid style, and exposition of Memphis society. But even more than that, there’s the sense that the Carver family would seem quite strange to an outsider, but Phillip’s narration makes sense of it all, exposing the central paradox at the heart of the family dynamic. The lines of familial responsibility and intervention shift and alter with time. Some family wounds take a long time to heal, and in order for us to mature, we need to forgive, or at the very least, forget:

Forgetting the injustices and seeming injustices which one suffered from one’s parents during childhood and youth must be the major part of any maturing process. I kept repeating this to myself, as though it were a lesson I would at some future time be accountable for. A certain oblivion was what we must undergo in order to become adults and live peacefully with ourselves. Suddenly my sisters seemed no longer a mystery to me. I understood much of their past conduct as never before. They were still, while actually in their mid-fifties, two teenaged girls dressed up and playing roles. It was their way of not facing or accepting the facts of their adult life. They could not forget the old injuries. They wished to keep them alive. They were frozen forever in their roles as injured adolescents.

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T.C. Boyle Stories II: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle

At 945 pages, T.C. Boyle Stories II: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle, follows volume 1 which was a mere 708 pages. If you’re a TC Boyle fan, then you really can’t go wrong with this collection, and if you’ve never read this author but like short stories, then there’s something here for you. The first volume was published in 1998, so here we are 15 years later with volume 2, and T.C. Boyle’s been busy. The stories are a combination of various short story collections: After the Plague (15 of the 16 stories), Tooth and Claw (15), Wild Child (14), and 14 uncollected stories which appear in the final section of the book under the title: A Death in Kitchawank.

TC Boyle StoriesAs with any collection, there are some stories that hit a nerve and stay with you. This is such a large collection, it’s impossible to discuss all my favourites, but Boyle got my attention right away with the first story in the collection: Termination Dust. This story is set in Alaska–a place I’ve never visited, but a state that holds a fascination for me. The story is about a ‘event’–I don’t know what else to call it–which involves 107 single, all-too available women who arrive from the lower 48 to meet Alaskan bachelors:

There were a hundred and seven of them, of all ages, shapes and sizes, from twenty-five-  and thirty-year-olds in dresses that looked like they were made of saran wrap to a couple of big-beamed older types in pantsuits who could have been somebody’s mother–and I mean somebody grown, with a goatee beard and a job at McDonald’s.

Our narrator is Ned, a man who’s there to greet the mostly “hard-looking” women as they arrive at a hotel for the Labor Day Weekend event which includes a buffet, a “Malibu Beach Party,” and an auction. See in a town like Boynton, population 170, there are just 32 women, “all of them married and all of them invisible.” Women are in short supply, and there are reasons for that. English teacher, Jordy seems to stand out from the rest of the women at the auction, so after the meet-and-greet it’s probably not surprising that bidding for a date with Jordy is hot and heavy. Local bad boy Bud Withers, who now has plastic feet after his real ones were badly frostbitten following a night of boozing, bids against Ned. The proceeds from the auction are for charity, but charity is far from the minds of the men as they bid, furiously, for the women.

Nobody talked about sex–that would demean the spirit of the thing–but it was there, under the surface, like a burning promise.

Killing Babies is another favourite and this story shows how TC Boyle can take a controversial subject and weave it into fiction but this is not a ‘statement’ story, so the characters feel very real . This is the story of Rick, a young addict, just out of rehab, who moves in with his brother, sister-in-law and their children as part of his court-dictated release agreement.

When I got out of rehab for the second time, there were some legal complications, and the judge–an old jerk who looked like they’d just kicked him out of the Politburo–decided I needed a sponsor. There was a problem with some checks I’d been writing for a while there when my resources were going up the glass tube.

Rick leaves sunny California and lands in Detroit in the middle of the long winter–a place where “the only palm trees are under glass in the botanical gardens.” Rick is one of those people who doesn’t take life too seriously:

I wasn’t stupid. Not particularly–no stupider than anybody else, anyway–and I was no criminal, either. I’d just drifted into a kind of thick sludge of hopelessness after I dropped out of school for a band I put my whole being into, a band that disintegrated within the year, and one thing led to another. Jobs came and went. I spent a lot of time on the couch, channel-surfing and thumbing through books that used to mean something to me. I found women and lost them. And I learned that a line up your nose is a dilettante’s thing, wasteful and extravagant. I started smoking, two or three nights a week, and then it was every day, all day, and why not?

Rick hasn’t seen Philip in six years, and Philip hasn’t aged well:

So Philip. He met me at the airport, his thirty-eight year face as trenched with anal-retentive misery as our father’s was in the year before he died.

You’d think there would be some catching up to do, but the relationship slides back into its old grooves. At first, Rick thinks that Philip has an enviable life, but there’s something wrong, and Rick, who’s hired as “an entry-level drudge” at his brother’s clinic, soon finds out what the problem is. Rick’s never taken anything in life, even his rehab, his check-bouncing, and his court appearances to heart, but now here suddenly he finds himself in the middle of a situation fraught with tension and controversy. Will this be a maturing experience or an explosive one?

Boyle shows his incredible range in these stories, always hitting an authentic voice–no matter the subject, the character, or the situation. In Achates McNeil, a young college student who was abandoned by his famous, hip author father, is confronted by the very man he loathes in his Contemporary American Literature class when he sees two of his father’s novels on the syllabus. Achates find out the hard way that having a famous father has its benefits and its drawbacks, and even the benefits seem to morph into drawbacks somehow. Achates finds himself publicly confronted with his father’s impossible ego, stripped of any privacy he may have had when his father decides, once again, to use real life as the raw material for a novel.

After the Plague takes a look at a post-apocalyptic America, and I loved this story for its unique take on a clichéd much-overused scenario. In Peep Hall, a story in which reality and fantasy collide, a under-employed middle-aged man who works on his Master’s thesis (eleven years behind schedule) in his spare time, becomes addicted to “Peep Hall,” a subscription website in which six college girls “going about their business” are monitored by strategically placed cameras as they shower, gossip, and exercise (in the nude). In  Jubiliation, a great favourite, no matter which author or story collection under consideration, concerns an affluent man who decides to buy a home in a popular Florida theme park. In this “dream community,” houses are in demand and are sold by lottery. Jackson Peters Reilly considers himself lucky to ‘win’ and he moves into the community–only to find that things can still go south.

I’ve been living in Jubilation for almost two years now. There’s been a lot of change in that time, both for the better and the worse, as you might expect in any real and authentic town composed of real and authentic people with their iron-clad personalities and various personal agendas, but overall I’d say I chose the Contosh Corp’s vision of community living. I’ve got friends here, neighbors, people who care about me the way I care about them. We’ve had our crises–no question about it–Mother Nature has been pretty erratic these past two years–and there isn’t a man, woman or child in Jubilation who isn’t worried about maintain property values in the face of all the naysaying and criticism that’s come our way. Still, it’s the people this whole thing is about, and the people I know are as determined and forward-looking a bunch as any you’d ever hope to find. We’ve built something here, something I think we can all be proud of.

With some exceptions, this bulk of this collection explores many aspects of contemporary American life–the controversial, the mundane, life as we experience it in its many manifestations. As fans of Boyle’s work know, one of this author’s favourite themes is the conflict between civilisation and the wilderness, so that theme also appears frequently here in many of the stories. From the back story of the underground gardens of Fresno, a case of plane rage, and the voice of a middle-aged woman who believes that “cleanliness … is what separates us from the animals,” Boyle shows compassion, insight and a remarkable ability to create authentic voices.  This is a huge collection, and it serves to showcase Boyle’s incredible talent.
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The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt

“It’s always the memories you comb through the most avidly that fade the fastest, that are eclipsed  by–what to call it–? a sort of memory-fiction. Like a dream. Whereas the things we forget totally, the things that sneak up on us in the middle of the night, after thirty years–they’re so uncannily fresh.”

Sometimes reading choices are serendipitous, and that is definitely the case with David Leavitt’s excellent novel The Two Hotel Francforts as it turned out to be a perfect companion piece to a novel I read earlier this year: Transit. While Transit (which is highly recommended, by the way) depicts desperate Jewish refugees trying to exit Marseille, The Two Hotel Francforts depicts two affluent couples–one American, the other Anglo-American–in Lisbon in no particular hurry to embark on the SS Manhattan for New York.    

We met the Frelengs in Lisbon, at the Café Suiça. This was in June 1940, when we were all in Lisbon waiting for the ship that was coming to rescue us and take us to New York. By us, I mean, of course, us Americans, expatriates of long standing mostly, for whom the prospect of returning home was a bitter one.

The narrator is Pete Winters, a General Motors executive stationed in Paris, who is married to the very high-maintenance, temperamental and neurotic Julia. Being married to Julia is like devoting oneself to a cause, but since Pete acknowledges that “she was never satisfied, my Julia,” it’s a thankless, wearying task. When pursuing Julia, he “disregard[ded] every warning sign” which included Julia’s own mother who told Pete “I beg you to reconsider” when he indicate his desire to marry her daughter. Now, the marriage isn’t about passion, love or even friendship–it’s about one person absorbing the other’s demands, neediness and neuroticism:

All my life, I saw, I had been looking, in the absence of any pressing desire of goal, for a purposefulness outside myself on which I might, as it were, ride piggyback. It could have been a religion, it could have been a political party, it could have been a collection of musical instruments made from shoeshine boxes. Instead it was Julia.

As the background of this couple is teased out, we learn that Julia and Pete have lived in Paris for 15 years now in a mausoleum of a showcase apartment. They moved to Paris at her insistence, and “she had sworn” that she would never return to America. Julia intended to be a writer, but “she could only write first chapters. The middle, the vast middle, defeated her.” Instead, she’s become an empty woman who shops and decorates endlessly and is terrified that her many relatives will swoop into her home. She claims to see various relatives in various places and these sightings cause her to panic & run into hiding. Pete, who is used to dealing with Julia’s hysteria, isn’t convinced that these sightings are legitimate.  It’s with a sense of defeat and a low-grade panic that Julia counts the days until the SS Manhattan arrives. Julia schemes to stay in Portugal, and there’s the hint, from this story that’s narrated about the long-ago past, that something goes terribly wrong:

And how funny to think that when all is said and done, she was right and I was wrong! For we would have been perfectly safe in Portugal. Well it is too late for her to lord that over me now.

With money and the appropriate papers, Lisbon is a decent place to wait for a ship sailing for America. After all, “everything that was scarce in France and Spain was plentiful here: meat, cigarettes, gin. The only trouble was overcrowding.” As the refugees pour in, “hotel rooms were nearly impossible to come by.” As a consequence, there’s a desperate end-of-the-world air to Lisbon, with some people staying up all night long at the casino. The Winters are the lucky ones. They have somewhere to go and the papers to ensure they get there.  They are also lucky enough to secure an excellent room at the Hotel Francfort, but with Julia insisting that she doesn’t want to leave, there’s a great deal of tension between Pete and Julia. Then the Winters meet Iris and Edward Freleng and their elderly dog, Daisy. Meeting the Frelengs is a welcome distraction for Pete Winters, but Julia dislikes them. Iris begins to absorb some of Julia’s demanding fitfulness, and this gives Pete a little respite from Julia’s 24-7 care. The meeting seems fortuitous, and the Frelengs offer Pete, at least, interesting intelligent company for the week or so before their ship arrives. But just what is the Frelengs’ game? ….

the two hotel francfortsStrong on characterization, the novel sets the scene by showing how Pete feeling “almost giddy with relief and gratitude,” leaps at the apparent lifeline thrown to him by the Frelengs. Pete is mentally exhausted by herding the unwilling Julia to Lisbon, and the Frelengs, who are peers in the same socioeconomic status, appear to absorb some of Julia’s neediness. Julia’s impossible personality does not deter the Frelengs who seem determined to ‘buddy up,’ and the very first time the Winters meet the Frelengs, Iris drags an unwilling Julia off to see the vet blatantly ignoring Julia’s protests and disgust with Daisy.

It seems natural, at first, that the Frelengs, who write detective novels under the name Xavier Legrand, should want to spend the next 7-10 days in the company of the Winters, but then again, Julia doesn’t exactly attract friends. Her petulant self-focus is expressed almost the moment she meets the Frelengs and the two couples exchange thoughts about the war that has ripped their life plans apart:

“Us?” I said. “Oh we’ve been lucky.”

“And just how is that, pray tell?” Julia said.

“Well, we’ve made it this far without getting killed, haven’t we? A ship’s coming to rescue us. And when you think what some of these poor devils wouldn’t give to have a ticket on that ship–“

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see why their having to leave their homes is any worse than our having to leave our homes,” Julia said.

“Oh, but it is,” Iris said. “Because we’ve got somewhere to flee to, haven’t we? Whereas all they have to look forward to is exile–that is, if they find a country willing to accept them.”

“But it’s exile for us, too,” Julia said. “France was our home, too.”

It’s impossible not to draw parallels between The Two Hotel Francforts and Ford Madox Ford’s excellent novel The Good Soldier, for while the setting is different, both novels examine two marriages and the problematic relationships sparked between the two couples years after the events take place. Leavitt’s intriguing title, The Two Hotel Francforts hints at the duplicity at play in the novel, and that duplicity exists on several levels. No one is quite what they seem and everyone reveals what they want people to see–no more than that.

For Edward, his broad shoulders notwithstanding, was mercurial. You could reach for him, and sometimes you would grab hold of him. But sometimes all you would grab hold of was a reflection of a reflection in a revolving door.

The ‘rules’ and dynamics of any marriage are impenetrable to outsiders, and both the Winters and the Freleng’s marriages are pathological, but in very different ways. While we know almost immediately how toxic the Winters’ marriage is, just what keeps the Freleng’s marriage together isn’t apparent at first–although the dog Daisy is arguably part of the visible gel that bonds Iris and Edward. Their lives appear to coalesce around Daisy, and it’s because of her they declined to take a ship to England. As these two couples wait for the ship that will take them to New York, the foundation of European civilization is in a state of upheaval; people are running for their lives, and here, just as the Winters and the Frelengs appear to have reached safety, their lives are ripped apart by duplicity and will never be the same. The four main characters, whose actions are clouded with desire, desperation and selfishness, are thrown together by circumstance as the world spins from unbridled fascism. They all lie to each other and to themselves, and as Iris tells Pete:

Poor thing, you’re such an innocent in some ways. Such a novice. You think there’s a protocol to all this … But there are no rules here. We’re beyond rules.

While the narrator of Ford Madox Ford’s novel, The Good Soldier, is classically unreliable, the narrator of The Two Hotel Francforts appears to be reliable. But after I put the book down, I chewed that decision over, and concluded that Pete Winters, in the depths of the lies he contrives, could possibly be unreliable in his version of events. Was his marriage to Julia quite how he portrayed it with him as the unhappy factotum for his wife’s neurotic demands? After all, we only have his version of things decades later. If you can’t already tell, I loved this novel for the way in which Leavitt depicted the complexities of these two toxic, brittle marriages–both kept together by a set of unspoken rules.

Review copy

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