Tag Archives: dominance

The Beggar’s Pawn: John L’Heureux

They first met Reginald Parker ages ago–in the innocent part of the year 2001– before disaster struck at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at a time when it was still possible to think ours was a virtuous country, and everyone liked us and terrorists were just a plot complication in the movies. We had no idea then what forms terrorism could take, at home and away, in that innocent time ages ago.

John L’ Heureux’s novel The Beggar’s Pawn gives a whole new meaning to the expression: home invasion. This is the story of a happily married, affluent couple in their 60s whose lives are slowly invaded by a casual acquaintance. While the plot is deceptively simple, various tangled moral dilemmas complicate our characters’ lives: the vagaries of helping those less fortunate, just how involved should we become with the problems of others, transparency in marriage vs keeping the peace, what do parents ‘owe’ to children, what do children ‘owe’ to parents, when does helping one’s children start ruining their characters, at what age (if any) do people stop blaming their parents and start taking responsibility for their own actions? All these dilemmas are faced by the two main characters, and the result is a splendid book–at once very funny and terrifying. The sort of thing that happens in these pages could easily happen to many of us. I loved this book for its approach to one of my pet theories: Don’t tolerate the intolerable.

The book opens in 2001, with 65-year-old Stanford professor David Holliss and his wife Maggie who are empty nesters living in “professorville,” in a large, beautiful home in Palo Alto. The house was bought a long time ago with Maggie’s trust fund money (always a sore spot with David) and they raised three ungrateful, awful, privileged children in that house: Sedge, Will and Claire.

Serial monogamist handsome Sedge “would marry an unsuspecting girl, buy a house, he could always depend on the parents in a pinch, and settle down forever with his new bride. Within the next year or two, Sedge and his wife would decide it had all been a well-intentioned, glittering mistake, though of course they would remain good friends. Divorce, division of the spoils, alimony for a specified time. Never any children so there was no need for child support.

Will, the supposedly perfect son, tends to take the moral high ground with his family. Like his father, he’s a professor, but he lives in England with his British house and his growing family. Since Will lives in England, his parents don’t see him or the grandkids much. Finally there’s arguably the most trouble, and troubled, of the bunch: Claire. Claire and her abrasive “fierce integrity” (rude) drifts from one extreme to another. Unable to find a job, she joined a commune, and had a child she abandoned. (This child eventually attended Princeton paid for, of course by the Hollisses.) After the commune, Claire has a lesbian relationship with a theatre director but moved on to “The Little Sisters of the Poor in Oklahoma. She made a retreat at their convent and after the 8 days were over, she asked to be admitted as a novice. The Mother Superior was an old hand at delayed vocation.” The fact that she wasn’t a Catholic seemed to be of no importance to Claire who answered the Mother Superior’s questions with her typical aggressive hostility. So much for the convent.

Thank god the kids are gone, and now the Hollisses share their home with a puppy, Dickens, a dog that they were supposed to just take care of while their son Sedge went through his 4th divorce. All the trouble starts in David and Maggie’s tranquil enviable life when they have a chance meeting with Reginald Parker while walking the dog. It’s a Spot-The-Looney situation. Maggie thinks Reginald is “nice,” but David has some intuitive feeling that the man is “trouble,” although all he can pinpoint is that Reginald’s hair is too long and he’s “intrusive.” As a long-time married couple, both Maggie and David have well-established roles. She’s friendly and more tolerant and David is the curmudgeon.

The few casual meetings between Reginald and David and Maggie are limited, but it doesn’t take much to realise that the man is a liar, hostile and on drugs. He patently and nastily rubs in what he can and can’t afford. (He rubs it in that he can’t afford a dog which may be what happens when you siphon your wife’s meagre income towards cocaine.) He always leaves the Hollisses with a definite uncomfortable feeling. His words are moored with conventional politeness, and weighted down by guilt over their material situation, the Hollisses tolerate Reginald, who latches on like a blood-sucking parasite when really they should tell him to fuck off. But one day in 2009, Reginald, after scoping out the Hollisses’ home, saves Dickens from being run over. This incident acts as a lever for Parker to insinuate himself into the lives of the Hollisses. Soon he hits Maggie up for a loan, and then invites them to a horrible dinner with his downtrodden wife Helen, who’s employed part-time at Walmart and their poor neglected daughter, Iris. From this point, Reginald Parker becomes obsessed with the Hollisses, and the situation isn’t helped by Claire who has a sexual relationship with Reginald. Claire loves cruelly ridiculing her parents while blaming them for her messed-up self. So Reginald moves to start writing a book based on the Hollisses.

The novel paces Reginald’s persistent encroaching aggression against the way the Hollisses roll over rather than confront. I’m reminded of Mon Oncle D’Amerique and dominance/avoidance in human behaviour. There were times I laughed out loud at this book, thanks mostly to the appalling Holliss children, all with chips on their shoulders springing from imagined hardship childhoods. They refuse to grow up and take responsibility for their actions, demanding, and taking for granted, endless handouts even as they bitch at (and about) their parents. Claire, for example, claims that she suffered “familial torture while she was a child. She had been obliged to attend concerts, the opera, and on one terrible occasion, the ballet.” The sections with the children are funny–even though the children are appalling in their presumptive privilege for which they ALL blame their parents. Reginald hates the Hollisses for what they represent, and he begins blaming them for his choices. As his obsession with the Hollisses grows along with the idea that everything in HIS life is THEIR fault, it’s almost as though he becomes the fourth child. He demands they become his saviours and just like the Holliss children, any help given to Reginald is not enough–rather the opposite. His belligerence, bitterness and aggression grow. … The book was so funny at times, that its dark turn is shocking. There are many moral lessons to carry away from this entertaining, engrossing book.

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, L'Heureux John

UV: Serge Joncour

Members of the wealthy Chassagne family are gathered together at their palatial estate for the annual Bastille celebration. The patriarch presides over the household in his absent-minded detached autocratic fashion. His wife seems a little scatter brained and then there are their two daughters, Julie and Vanessa. Vanessa rather conveniently married André Pierre. I say “conveniently” as the marriage kept a lot of messy domestic details swept under the rug. André-Pierre, who as family fixer “protecting the family,” “keeping secrets,” aware of “sordid goings-on,” has risen in the company, and now Andre-Pierre and Vanessa have two children together. The only family member missing is Philip also known as “the Pyro.” So when a stranger arrives at the Chassagne estate and announces that he’s a friend of Philip’s from boarding school, everyone accepts his presence. Well everyone except André-Pierre, but then André-Pierre knows a few things about Philip that the others don’t.

UV

It’s a beautiful, peaceful summer day; Vanessa and Julie are sunbathing topless when the stranger begins his invasion.

It must have been the white that reassured them .

When a stranger pushes open the gates to your property like that, when he is dressed in white from head to foot, and when that white is so absolutely spotless, you don’t even think about it being suspicious.

The stranger’s name is Boris. He very quickly takes over the household and he’s one of those shape shifters who knows what people want, and then he morphs to feed that need. At first, Vanessa and Julie seem to dominant, but that’s only because Boris’s arrival sparks sisterly competition. Soon the entire household is beguiled by Boris. He flirts with both sisters and listens to the father’s stories, but after he saves the father from drowning, Boris’s place as an honoured guest seems assured.

There’s the occasional glimpse into Boris’s thinking, and it’s clear that he’s a predator:

To him his family configuration was the ultimate exoticism: this arrangement in which people are at their most docile, their most vulnerable too, ripe for the picking.

The big questions are: what does Boris want? What will happen when Philip returns?

This is a tale of dominance and control. There’s the dominance of money, sex, power, class, cruelty, and violence. The Chassagne family live in a gilded environment in which money, lots of money, is thrown at problems and then those problems simply go away. Boris, however, shakes up the established order. By various means, he soon controls the household. He entertains the parents, flirts and gropes the sisters and even whisks off the children into danger. Boris keeps pushing the boundaries and he keeps getting away with it. André-Pierre is the only one outside of the circle of enchantment but then he’s dominated by a healthy fear of Boris.

There’s something fascinating about this sort of story and how a complete stranger, with sheer dominance, can bewitch a group of people out of their comfort zone. Especially when you think that privileged people like the Chassagnes would never ordinarily run into someone like Boris. They are not nice people at all, but they are still no match for Boris and his cunning. Of course, in these situations, you’ve never sure how far things will go.

I liked UV but found the characters held at arm’s length. The tale skimmed the surface and it could have been much more engaging if events had been explored. There’s a red herring which seemed annoying rather than anything else.

Here’s Emma’s review and it seems to match mine.

Translated by Adriana Hunter

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Joncour Serge

The Pets by Bragi Olafsson

“And at the same time I wonder why the hell one ever gets to know other people, or let them take advantage of oneself. One feels sorry for some poor fellow who happens to work in the same place, invites him to come abroad, and pays his keep, and the only thing one gets in return is ingratitude, rudeness, and the experience of being trampled on–quite literally.”

I’m not sure that I’ve ever read an Icelandic novel, and if that’s true then I started with a blast when I picked up The Pets from Bragi Olafsson. It’s a simple enough plot that revolves around the relationship between two men: Emil and Havard.

Emil is divorced and the father of a young son. He has a long-distance, vague relationship with Vigdis: “My girlfriend or lover (depending on how you look at it)” . When the book begins, Emil is returning to Reykjavik after a trip to London. He won the lottery and went on a spending spree, returning with cigarettes, whisky and bags full of CDs. Also, rather significantly, he did not get the items Vigdis requested. On the plane back home, he sits next to a middle-aged linguist named Armann Valur who bores him by constantly talking. On the up side of the plane trip, he runs into fellow passenger, Greta. He saw Greta years before at a party and she’s occupied his lustful fantasies since that time. Emil can’t believe his luck when he strikes up a conversation with Greta and she agrees to come to his apartment later that night.

Emil returns home looking forward to listening to his cds and drinking some of his duty-free whisky when he’s warned by a neighbour that a strange man wearing an anorak and carrying a plastic bag has been hanging around and asking for Emil. The strange man is Havard, a former co-worker and one-time co-housesitter–a walking disaster of a man Emil has every reason to avoid. Havard, who’s spent the last few years in some sort of institution is, at the very least, bizarre and eccentric, but he’s also possibly a great deal worse than that. With Havard knocking persistently at the door, Emil hides somewhat humiliatingly under the bed, but Havard, who’s anything but predictable, breaks in…. 

The novel runs on two storylines. One hilarious plot thread follows what happens as Havard takes over Emil’s apartment and starts inviting people in (and over), and the second tragi-comic story thread goes back in time detailing what happened years earlier between Emil and Havard when they housesat for some poor sod, a friend of Emil’s father, who owns a flat in Stoke Newington:

We had only known each other for about a month when we went off to London together. And it was by complete chance that Havard, whom I didn’t really know at all, accompanied me. I had just started working in a hardware store when a friend of my father, a former professional footballer and joint-owner of a soap factory in England, invited me to stay in the flat he owned in London for six weeks and take care of some animals that lived there: a cat, a rabbit, a guinea pig, and an ancient iguana. 

Since the housesitting disaster five years before, Emil hasn’t seen Havard–not since Emil paid Havard 400 pounds to get out of the house and go away:

Go away as far as possible, much further than just out of London, preferably to another country. And he said–with a grin fueled by two or three pints of Special Brew he had drunk before lunch–that if I could give him four hundred more then he would never show his face again.

I should have given it to him.

Olafsson tells us that relationships are dangerous. Once we let someone into our lives, all bets are off. This idea starts on the plane, and as the story plays out, we see that Emil has problems with setting boundaries in relationships. The first hint of that comes from Emil’s acquaintance with fellow passenger Armann. We’ve all been annoyed by fellow travelers at some point or another in our lives, but the problem runs deeper with Emil:

Really it’s no small risk one takes, boarding an airplane. For three hours (not to mention on longer trips) one is locked in a tight, uncomfortable space, way above any civilization, with unpredictable people, who could drink themselves senseless or spill their food and drink all over you–and the only place of salvation is the toilet.

On the plane, Emil is conned into buying alcohol without being quite sure how it happened, and in spite of the fact that Emil has ear plugs in while he’s listening to music, Armann, an “overdressed” perpetual lozenge consumer, refuses to take the hint, repeatedly engaging (or bothering) Emil until Emil gives up trying to listen to music:

Armann didn’t seem to have understood that I wanted to be left alone. I had shut my eyes and was trying to look as though I was concentrating on the music in the headphones, but it didn’t seem to make any impact on my neighbor; he nudged me again

Similarly, Emil isn’t quite sure where he stands with his girlfriend Vidgis, a woman who’s all ready to play Happy Families while that idea makes Emil a bit uncomfortable. Then there’s Havard. It’s purely a matter of personal opinion whether or not what Havard does is motivated by dominance, deviance or just from the fact that disaster follows in his wake. In both significant occasions between Emil and Havard (in Stoke Newington and back home in his flat), Emil could stop what was happening, but he’s driven by hope (that the bad situation either won’t occur or that it’ll end) and he’s also hampered by polite behaviour. The strongly drawn characterisations of Armann and Havard are in contrast to Emil–a man who wavers indecisively at crucial moments. But there’s one sentence that tells us a great deal about Emil:

It took less energy participating in something boring than trying to struggle against it, especially when there was no possibility of avoiding it.

This deceptively comic novel says a great deal about avoidance and tolerance of aberrant behaviours. The Pets is great literature for the way in which it forces us to examine our own lives as we recall the Havards we have known, the point at which we realised that these relationships were invasive and destructive and just how much we took before giving our own personal Havards the old-heave-ho. Emil relieves his past in a nasty no-exit-existentialist sort of way through the invasion of his own home (instead of someone else’s), the misuse of his property, and the resolution of his past thoughts about Greta.

The Pets is delightful, comic, and original, and its abrupt ending lingers leaving a bitterly hilarious taste behind. Finally a quote that shows there’s a great deal going on underneath the humour:

If time has some special role then I think it is two-fold: to take things away from one…and to give one something else instead…-something that doesn’t replace the loss, but helps one to forget now and again what one has lost.

Translated by Janice Balfour

Review copy from Open Letter Books

15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Olafsson Bragi