Tag Archives: Friendship

The Rules of Engagement: Anita Brookner

Back to Brookner with The Rules of Engagement, and what an interesting and yet somewhat frustrating main character we have here in Elizabeth.

The book opens with Elizabeth describing how she met another Elizabeth in school. To keep everything from being too confusing, the non-narrator Elizabeth chooses to switch her name to Betsy. Immediately there’s the idea (at least to me) that these two are somehow tied together but with Betsy branching off into her own zone. If we keep to that idea, then we see Elizabeth marrying Digby, a staid, responsible man, 27 years her senior, while Betsy goes to Paris and marries the radical Daniel.

Betsy fades in and out of Elizabeth’s life: appearing at her wedding (and obviously shocked by the groom’s age), but eventually returns to London years later. The two women aren’t exactly friends–although they call each other by that title. Rather they have a shared history buried in childhood. They have very little in common: Betsy longs for a family, while Elizabeth is all about clinical detachment.

the rules of engagement

This is the most introspective of Brookner’s novels I’ve read so far. Not a great deal happens, so I can’t talk much about plot without giving away the central dilemma. Instead I’ll focus on Elizabeth who really is a very strange character. At times I wondered if she were quite sane, or at least how she became so damaged. She marries a man old enough to be her father (which makes sense given her home life) but then very quickly begins an adulterous affair.

Elizabeth is a mass of contradictions, and there were times I wasn’t quite sure what she was saying. For example, their wedding night would seem to be sexless:

He was tired, and it showed in his face. He looked nearly as old as my father, whom I had not managed to thank for all the fuss. As we drank our tea the strain we both felt slowly dissipated. We had baths, changed into simple clothes, decided to go out for dinner, and let the rest of the day take care of itself. We were due to catch an early plane the following morning, and would probably appreciate an early night. That was what Digby said. I envisaged a succession of early nights, in which nothing very remarkable would take place. In this I misjudged him, and was pleasantly surprised. 

I read that passage over several times and interpreted it to mean that her predictions of early nights did not happen. Hints of evenings out, lively conversations or sex? After all Brookner is subtle. But then as the plot develops, we see Digby time and time again falling asleep in his chair.

I knew Digby would take the evening paper into the other room, switch on the television, and fall asleep. He slept heavily, more heavily than I did, and seemed unable to invest any energy into keeping awake. 

and later:

After we had eaten he went into the other room as usual, and switched on the television. When I joined him I found him asleep, a scene of passion beaming out unnoticed. When two characters joined in a violent embrace I switched it off.

I really wasn’t sure how to align these two impressions: the sexless marriage and the part about being “pleasantly surprised.” But this was not the first time I was confused by Elizabeth. Here she is talking about the hairdresser:

For this was an establishment not favoured by the young: I liked it because it was so close to home, and because Alex, who did my hair, was so soothing and deferential. In my normal state of mind I found this irksome; in my reduced condition it felt like balm. 

Early in the book Elizabeth mentions that both she and Betsy were born in 1948, and that “the sixties took us by surprise.”  These two women were raised in one set of expectations but were then ambushed by the shifting nature of society, and this idea works well.  I liked some parts of the book–especially Elizabeth’s introspection about her affair, but she seems very critical of poor Betsy (and tough on Digby too). On one hand, this is a very focused novel, but at the same time, it’s also blurry. I had no real indication of poor Digby as a living, breathing human being, and he remains a rather cardboard figure.

One of the criticisms I read of this book is that Elizabeth is too clinical and analytical, but the story is told in retrospect. Also Elizabeth really is a casebook for study, so much so, I began to wonder about her reliability as a narrator. She’s happy putting marriage and sex into different compartments, and while it seems that she married Digby as a father figure, there’s also the argument that she married him in order to avoid any sort of normal relationship. As the plot rolls on, that argument just strengthens. Ultimately, Elizabeth is a few cards short of a full deck–something happened in the emotion department.

order of preference so far:

Hotel du Lac

Look at Me 

Dolly

Visitors

Friends and Family

Undue Influence

A Private View 

The Rules of Engagement

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Demons: Wayne Macauley

Wayne Macauley’s novel, Demons, is set over the course of one winter weekend and concerns a groups of friends who gather together at a remote coastal house and, there, without the distractions of children, computers and televisions, they plan to “stop time,” by just enjoying each other’s company, fixing group meals, and swopping stories. It’s supposed to be a time “to get back to something real.”

Gathering together for the weekend are film-maker Megan and musician Evan, “lately gone a bit to seed,” who have “five kids between them, late teens to early twenties,” lawyer Adam and Lauren whose career is “in advocacy,” retired journalist Leon (Megan’s brother), “he’d beaten the grog with naturopathy, meditation and yoga, and the cure had clung to him almost as persistently as the disease” and Hannah, his new girlfriend– the youngest in the group.

demonsPolitician Marshall and his wife, Jackie are also expected but Marshall arrives late and without Jackie:

Is he with Jackie? said Megan. Evan looked out, and shook his head. If he thinks he can still get something to eat then he can go fuck himself, she said. Marsh! said Evan, waving, but Marshall was already at the door.

That short quote gives you an idea of the author’s style, and while the tone and the conversations are startlingly realistic, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who is saying what since this conversation-heavy text is completely devoid of quote marks.

As the weekend wears on, members of the group, a rather privileged cross-section of Australian society, take turns telling stories, and of course telling stories about other people and their problems allows those listening to make various comments about what they’ve heard. But in between these disturbing stories, which range from the deadly serious to the trivial, various problems between these people begin to emerge, and soon, the planned weekend takes a different turn…

It’s Marshall’s arrival that begins to change the atmosphere. He arrives after abandoning his wife during a family tragedy, and his decision to leave his wife and join his friends at the coast says a great deal about Marshall, and while the characters focus on story-telling as entertainment, it becomes clear that the characters also fabricate a kind of fiction around their own lives.

While I can’t say that I liked the characters much, the dialogue and interactions seemed very real indeed, but overall, I carried away the feeling that this might be one of those rare instances in which a film version could be better than the book. I found myself enjoying the stories told by the characters more than the interactions between the friends. In particular, I enjoyed Leon’s story which he claims is true: The Broken String. Leon prefaces the story with the announcement that it’s “about the death of idealism … and the growth of expediency.”

These entertaining stories reveal a great deal about the storyteller, and yet… there’s the sense that Macauley’s characters have fabricated these stories to make salient, social commentary in order to impress one another or to impose some sort of moral message. In other words, there’s no small amount of posing going on as one might expect from this particular, privileged cranny of Australian society. We all know people like Macauley’s characters, and while reading about them & listening to them talk sounds very real, at the same time, I know I wouldn’t want to spend a weekend with this lot.

Ultimately, the stories these characters tell were, for this reader at least, the best part of the book. Megan’s story about a nurse who fights against the bureaucracy of Australian health care hits a nerve even as it uncovers the absurdity of managing recovery :

There’s not much time for any of the Florence Nightingale stuff. Key Performance Indicators, that’s the mantra: people are numbers, even sick people. Especially sick people. It’s an obsession. I don’t know when it started–it’s already lost in the mists of time–but someone at some point decided that the way to improve a screwed-up health system was to ask the bean counters to make it more ‘efficient.’

It became a numbers game. The government put a carrot in front and a stick behind: move the patients through faster and you’ll be rewarded, slower and you’ll be punished.

But when the novel reverts back to its characters, there’s the feeling that we’ve seen these types before–shallow, selfish, self-focused people facing the terrifying void of middle age and discovering that their lives haven’t turned out the way they planned. Naturally the weekend implodes, but the implosion was a storm in a teacup, and the Demons aren’t much more than time-worn, middle-age, middle-class angst.

Review copy

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Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri

The Secret In their Eyes , a crime novel from Argentinean author Eduardo Sacheri, was made into an excellent film. I saw the 2009 film first–and I suspect that the film’s success prompted the book’s translation into English. The Secret in their Eyes is the story of Benjamin, an Argentinean clerk who formerly worked in an office which investigated crime, and now in retirement, Benjamin begins writing the story of a decades-old crime that haunts him still. The film version featured one of my favourite actors, Ricardo Darin as the sensitive, troubled Benjamin, and I mention Darin as I also imagined him playing Fernando,  one of the characters in Papers in the Wind, the second novel by Sacheri to be translated into English.

While The Secret In Their Eyes is a crime novel which delves into Argentina’s Dirty War, the novel also is partly about the friendship between two men.  Papers in the Wind explores the friendship between four men and what happens when one of them dies of pancreatic cancer, but the novel is not just about friendship; it’s also about letting go of one’s dreams and accepting middle-aged reality & regrets.

papers in the windWhen Mono dies of cancer, he leaves behind a daughter, Guadalupe who lives with Mono’s bitter, angry ex-wife, Lourdes. Mono didn’t have much of a legacy to pass on, but he did ‘invest’ in a soccer player, Pittilanga, a young man whose transfer was purchased by Mono with his severance pay of 300,000 pesos. According to the advice Mono received from a possibly questionable source,  Pittilanga was supposed to be a promising player, and Mono, once a soccer hopeful himself, expected to see a big return on his investment when one of the top teams purchased Pittilanga’s transfer. But now Mono is dead, and Pittilanga is still on a team “out in the sticks,” and due to his continued poor performance–not exactly helped by his weight gain–he’ll probably soon be booted even off of this  bottom-rung team. Then it’s back to his village and a dead-end job for the rest of his life.

Mono died with “practically nothing in the bank,” and Mono’s brother, teacher Fernando, feels obligated to recoup Mono’s investment in Pittilanga with the plan to use the money for Guadalupe’s future. He asks Mono’s childhood friends, serial failed businessman Ruso, and materialistic lawyer, Mauricio to help. Ruso, who shared Mono’s enthusiasm for the soccer player scheme in the first place, is only too happy to be involved, but Mauricio sees it as a lost cause and offers minimal help.

While the plot concerns the friends’ efforts to recoup and sell Pittilanga as a promising young soccer player, most of the novel delves into the relationships between these four very different men. The chapters alternate between past and present, so the story begins with Mono’s funeral, and then moves forward to the problem with Pittilanga. Every other chapter then traces the back story of how Mono decided to take his severance pay, how he dealt with his diagnosis & the series of failed cancer treatments. Unfortunately, this is the weakest part of the book. At first these chapters have some sort of point–there’s one good segment when Mono meets an oncologist whose treatment of his patient is so inhumane Mono’s friends almost cause a riot, but the merits of these short chapters quickly fade as Mono’s options whittle down, and we begin to follow his death with pointless chapters such as this:

Hey, Fer …”

“What Mono.”

“I asked you a question.”

“…”

“…”

“…”

I asked you if you don’t console me because I asked you not to, or because you think I’m done for.”

“And?”

“the truth.”

“of course.”

“Both.”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“…”

This is about half of one of those backstory chapters, and when these chapters begin to replay the last times Fernando and Mono spent together, during Mono’s treatments and end stage, some of the conversation is relevant, but most of it isn’t, and I do not understand the constant appearance of the “..”.  This would have been a better novel with the back story just cut back to Mono’s purchase of Pittilanga’s transfer, the diagnosis and aftermath. As written, we move forward with one chapter and then move back into these chapters of private moments between Fernando and his brother. The constant  “…” felt like someone had censored the more sensitive exchanges.

The novel’s strength comes from its characterizations. Ruso and Mono have a symbiotic relationship; they are both dreamers, and their enthusiasm feeds off of each other. When Mono comes up with this scheme to buy a soccer player’s transfer, eternal optimist Ruso, with a long history of failed business ventures, is all for it. Fernando understands that part of Mono’s dream includes memories of his brother’s thwarted desires to become a world-class soccer player; there’s “an element of revenge, of outstanding debt.” Also well conveyed is the character of Mauricio. Fernando doesn’t particularly like Mauricio, and while Fernando recognizes that Mono wanted to involved himself in the world of soccer any way possible, he lacks the insight to see that some of his dislike of Mauricio is based on the lawyer’s material success. These men grew up in the same neighbourhood, but their lives all took different paths, and Fernando sometimes ponders just how much their characters say about their success or failure. Ruso, who holds playstation tournaments with his employees during business hours at the car wash, seems oblivious to the idea of money and success. Obsessive Fernando, however, often knocks his own status and mulls over exactly why Mauricio is so successful. There’s a buried resentment and envy there that Fernando doesn’t recognize and which is layered with antagonism.

But what of the women in the story? Mauricio has a high-maintenance wife, Mariel, whose good looks are due in no small part to her pampered life style and the wonders of plastic surgery. Mono’s “testy” ex, Lourdes, seethes with resentment and hate for her ex–dead or not, and Ruso’s long-suffering wife, Mónica, is driven to desperate pleas when her husband’s feckless ways threaten to bring the roof down on their heads.

Fernando thanks him and thinks, as always, that Ruso is a real case. Since they finished high school he has set up an infinite number of businesses, all on his own, all preceded by fantastic predictions of “this is a surefire business” and “I’m going to wear out my shoes walking to the bank.” And all them buried, sooner or later, in debts and failure. Fernando and Mono talked about the issue, more than once. Because Ruso’s surefire knack for missing he mark in his investments seemed forced, as if he were intentionally avoiding success. Mono claimed that Ruso’s problem was questions of timing: all the businesses that he thought up were sound, but two years before Ruso  got involved with them. By the time Ruso considered them, and put all his hopes and his shrinking pesos into them, they were on their way out. Fernando , for his part, didn’t know whether to be sorry about the fact that Ruso, when he left high school, had been able to count on a modest fortune his father and grandfather had amassed in their leather workshop in Móron. On the one hand, that money had financed only failure after failure. On the other, it still allowed Ruso, his wife, and his daughters to eat every day.

 Translated by Mara Faye Lethem. Review copy.

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Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum

“All my life I have imagined that my morals were high, that I was decent and honest and truthful. But what happened to my morals when I was tested?”

I came across a review of Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum at Reading Matters. I’d heard of the book before, and while I’m not that thrilled with Scandinavian crime novels, Kim’s review made me rethink my initial dismissal. Bad Intentions is one in a series of Inspector Sejer mysteries. This is the first I’ve read, but that didn’t seem to matter. Some reviews I read complained about the lack of Inspector Sejer’s presence in the novel, and it’s true that he isn’t around a great deal until closer to the end of the book. This is somewhat unusual for a series novel as readers frequently return to the next novel in order to hang out with a favourite fictional character. The lack of Inspector Sejer’s appearances did not trouble me as I am new to the series, and the story of Bad Intentions is engrossing. Even though there’s not much about Sejer’s personal life here, there’s enough info about his psychology to make him interesting. This is a man who dislikes loose ends:

He liked interrogating people, he liked spotting the lie when it came. A lie had its own pitch, and over many years he had learned to recognise it. He liked the moment when the confession finally spilled out, when all the cards were on the table and the course of events could be mapped out and filed.

The story begins on Friday the 13th of September (not a good sign) with three young men who’ve arrived at an isolated lakeside cabin: Axel is a 25-year-old advertising executive who drives a Mercedes, Philip is a passive druggie who barely manages to hold a menial job at a hospital, and finally there’s Jon, a frail young man with a number of health problems. Jon is currently a resident at a local mental hospital, and he’s been encouraged by his therapist to go off for this weekend with his friends. He’s a nervous wreck and popping anxiety pills every four hours doesn’t seem to help.

Obviously the three have shared childhood memories and are around the same age, but apart from that it’s not easy to see why they maintain this relationship. Axel is a domineering, materialistic character who makes the decisions for all three. He’s a charmer, a born actor and it seems odd that he’d continue, in adulthood, to hang out with Philip and Jon. The ill-groomed Philip’s behaviour is marred by passivity and drug use, and Jon is a tangled, neurotic mess. It’s arguable that Jon and Philip might want to hang out with Axel since he has more independence, but why does Axel want to hang out with these two?

Axel suggests a boat trip onto the lake in the moonlight:

Axel Frimann was looking out of the window. It was almost midnight on 13 September and the moon cast a pale blue light across the water. There was something magical about it all. At any moment, Axel imagined, a water sprite might rise from the depths. Just as the image came to him, he thought he saw a ripple in the water as though something was about to surface. But nothing happened and a smile, which no one noticed, crossed his face.

Three men leave and two return. Can’t say more than that, and then the novel segues into the investigation. The novel peels away layer after layer of deceit, and the mystery becomes not just what happened that night, but the events that led up to that night.

Bad Intentions is a page-turner as it explores the psychology of the relationships between these three young men. One of the reasons the novel appealed is that it taps into a pet theory of mine–that certain combinations of character types can be deadly. The title gives clues to the novel’s moral message. I am fond of the proverb “The Road to hell is paved with good intentions” and in this novel, we see three young men–two of whom are weak and malleable who make some very bad choices. Crimes take place within these pages, but at the heart of these crimes lies the question of intention. And how can we know what anyone really intended to happen? We are only left with the consequences.

Axel started listing the good intentions which had motivated them originally. What had followed was bad luck, pure and simple, and beyond their control. In a moment of weakness they had been tricked by one of nature’s whims.

Inspector Sejer and his sidekick Jacob Skarre find that they must unravel a mystery in which intention plays a pivotal role. Their investigation takes them to Ladegarden Psychiatric Hospital and to the homes of grieving mothers. The best thing about the novel is its different slant on crime. There’s an emphasis on guilt, responsibility and intent, and at one point Inspector Sejer gives a very interesting speech on the subject:

Just because you’re to blame for something doesn’t mean you accept that blame. Or that you feel guilty. Gacy killed more than thirty people, but he said it was like squashing cockroaches. When he was finally caught, he went on about his childhood and how awful it had been. He spoke the following classic line when he was put in prison: “I’m the real victim here.”

My copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley. Read on the Kindle.

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