Tag Archives: loneliness

Strangers: Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner’s novel Strangers weighs the value of loneliness and the solitary life against relationships that are full of compromise. The main character is Paul Sturgis, a man in his 70s, who “loved too unwisely in his youth.” At this point in his life, Paul, who has retired from banking, has no friends and no family apart from Helena, the widow of a deceased cousin. Although he visits Helena weekly out of a sense of duty the visits are awkward and one-sided with him as the listener as Helena brags about her friends and how concerned they are for her.

So he usually resigned himself to a coolheaded appraisal of her folly (and of his), would listen to her accounts of her many friends, among whom was one she referred to as ‘my tame professor,’ and whose function in her life was unclear; there were also her partners at the bridge club–‘the girls’-and the neighbours who invited her to dinner (‘They make such a fuss of me I don’t like to let them down’).

With Christmas looming, Paul decides to avoid Helena  and instead takes a trip to Venice. On the journey, he meets an attractive, divorced woman in her fifties, Vicky Gardner, and although she’s a stranger, in his loneliness Paul encourages the relationship into an acquaintance. After a meal together Vicky promises to look Paul up when they are back in London, and to his surprise, she does.

Strangers

But while Paul longs for a friend or a companion, Vicky is neither of these:

Her determination not to be fully questioned was all of a piece with her sense of freedom, a sense which usually evaporates as one reaches the age of maturity. This she had somehow retained. On first encountering her on the plane to Venice he had thought her agreeable, no more, an ordinary woman on her way to friends, whose way of life appeared normal. In time, however, those friends had multiplied, and although anonymous, were somehow omnipresent. Her evasiveness was a way of exculpating herself from obligation: it was preemptive, in the sense that it proclaimed her to be guilt free

Then Paul runs into the love-of-his-life, Sarah, the woman who dumped him years earlier….

Although Strangers is a very calm, mannered undramatic novel, the plot revolves around Paul’s quiet crisis of confidence. Should he pursue the elusive Mrs Gardner or the acerbic Sarah? Mrs Gardener is much more fun to be with, but then again Paul and Sarah have a shared history and are more-or-less the same age.  Or then again, should a bachelor of 74 avoid matrimony altogether?

Thematically, Strangers is close to A Private View since both novels concern retired, lonely bachelors who find their lives invaded by females. The opportunistic (and unpleasant) Katy from A Private View could well have matured into the slightly more sophisticated but still eminently selfish Vicky. Interesting how people as volatile and restless as Vicky and Katy gravitate to the well-moored males they discover. I had a lot of sympathy for Paul who seems destined to be a perpetual sounding board for the women in his life. Although Paul has been made to feel ‘boring’ by women, he’s quite complex, hungering for the home and childhood he couldn’t wait to escape, and finding himself always haunted by what-might-have beens. Paul is very found of Henry James, and he’s very much a Jamesion figure–detached but watching the action; unfortunately he longs to be something else.

Here’s my order of preference so far:

Hotel du Lac

Look at Me 

Dolly

Visitors

Friends and Family

Undue Influence

Strangers

A Private View 

The Rules of Engagement

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Filed under Brookner Anita, Fiction

Stripper Lessons: John O’Brien

“he likes not knowing until the last minute where he’ll be sitting, sizing up the room like James Bond entering a casino”

Stripper Lessons, a cleverly constructed look at male loneliness from author John O’Brien, is a portrait of an unattached law clerk who works in a dead-end job for a large law firm, drives a beat up Vega, and lives in a small apartment in Hollywood. By day, he searches for an important, ever-elusive missing file, but by night, Carroll heads to the seedy strip club, Indiscretions, pays the cover fee and steps inside.

Dark, but not really. In fact when you come in night after night your eyes adjust before the velvet curtain swings almost-closed at your heels, parting into a vertical peephole and making you feel more INside than if six inches of oak had slammed shut tight at your back. It’s when the exit in the rear-EXIT ONLY-NO IN AND OUT PRIVILEGES-is pushed open and the security lights of the parking lot flood the room like sunshine, washing out the red  and blue spotlights that some of the girls are partial to, that you realize, or remember, just how dark it really is.

He knows all the “girls by sight if not by name,” knows their dance routines (3 in a row), can predict the DJ script, knows the “average stay for a dancer” (two months) and fantasizes about a private table dance. Unable to connect with women, he buys a VHS tape, “The Shy Man’s Guide to Meeting Women,” –a tape that’s largely useless and, if anything, reinforces his inability to talk to women.

stripper lessons

Carroll’s worklife is dominated by the thought of nights spent at Indiscretions. When he leaves the club, he feels “separation anxiety,” but then there’s the “anticipatory thrill” for the next night that feels like a promise of what could happen.

Already his mind is at work, confidence building and plans being laid. He need only complete another day of work and he will be right back in the music. Sparkling apple cider, things to be said, and perhaps even the will to say them. Yes, tomorrow could be the night that everything comes together.

Carroll’s world changes with the arrival of Stevie, a new dancer with a messy private life, who wears a revealing camisole and whose pubic area is naked. The other men “look disappointed about something they haven’t yet identified and uncertain about why they should be,” but not Carroll; he’s smitten.

There’s an unspoken competiveness between the male customers who place dollar bills over the rail waiting for the stripper to dance her way over and pick them up. Leaving a five (or larger) brings the hope that the dancer may linger tantalizingly close for an extra second. Melissa, whose routine is predictable, a “one trick pony,” dances with disdain and “narrows her eyes in antipathy at each new bill placed on the rail, looking then to the man behind it as if to catalog the perpetrator.”

A guy in a three-piece suit and no tie puts a twenty on the rail, but she just turns away, eyelids drooping. ThreePieceNoTie looks around and laughs: he wants us all to know that this is exactly the reaction that he wanted; he got what he paid for and then some; he’s nobody’s fool. The guy thinks she loves him, thinks he loves himself.

The novel takes place over a handful of days and nights with Carroll becoming increasingly fixated with Stevie. Carroll is intelligent, and detached enough to realize that a “cool move” made by a dancer, spinning “low on her heel, simultaneously bending forward in a tricky twist and giving a full view of her backside to the men seated along the rail,” is made not so much for effect but for the dancer to make a “quick tally of the bills hanging on the top of the rails.” But in spite of this clarity of vision, he still projects his feelings onto the dancers and makes it personal when these performances are anything but. He’s excited that he placed TWO dollar bills on the rail, and when the stripper doesn’t acknowledge the double up, he doesn’t admit disappointment and instead decides she doesn’t want to be “unprofessional” and can’t “openly express the gratitude that she must be feeling.”

The novel’s strength lies in its descriptions of Carroll’s deluded thoughts, and the imaginative leap we make that many of the other leering male customers think along the same lines. Here are these young women dancing in front of customers who imagine that because they go to the club frequently and leave dollar bills on the rails, that they have some sort of relationship with the strippers. A customer/business relationship is all too often misconstrued, and how much more fraught with landmines is that relationship when fantasy, nudity and erotic dancing is added to the mix?  At one point for example, Carroll decides to ask Stevie about what happened to another dancer. He thinks “such are the benefits of being well-connected.”

Of all the girls dancing, the one that sticks out is Tasha, a girl “who dances with her pussy. Way more than any of the other girls, like in a different league, this being largely a breast place.”

He watches her saunter directly to a corner, put one leg up on the brass rail and part her thighs for the benefit of the two or three men who are favored with a propitious angle. She puts down her open hands, one on each inner thigh, squeezing her own tender flesh, stretching what she can out of the club rules, inspecting herself right along with her audience, a gynecological flair. Satisfied with the state of things, she looks to the men, studies their faces as if to say; Have you seen this? Take a look-see down there. Snap shut the thighs …maybe not that quickly. In any event she is off, a moment spent center stage in an obligatory tit twirl-heel down and the stage is her compass–before strolling off to another corner.

Tasha makes the men feel uncomfortable. Perhaps because she’s so bold and aggressive, removing any playfulness or naughtiness from her routine or perhaps it’s because by stripping away the fantasy of what the men are here to see, she controls the power.

While the book’s title and cover may sound titillating, this is not a book about sex (although there’s a lot to be said about how the power of sexuality)–rather it’s a very poignant look at how a very lonely man tries to connect with females, and how, after two years at the club, the dancers’ routines substitute for a meaningful relationship. Author John O’ Brien makes us feel how Carroll’s real life fades in comparison. At one point, Carroll, whose ultimate fantasy is to bring a girl from the club home, looks around his apartment and the excitement exits his fantasy just like air out of a popped balloon.

I came across Stripper Lessons by accident and took a chance. It’s a remarkable novel for its portrayal of male loneliness, sexuality and fantasy. The ending, unfortunately, IMO, undermined the novel’s main thrust, but still, well worth reading.

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Filed under Fiction, O'Brien John

Guys Like Me: Dominique Fabre

“There are no second acts.” The narrator of Dominique Fabre’s novel Guys Like Me is a 54 year-old-year-old office worker. Due to a lack of personal details, the narrator remains throughout the story, an Everyman, gray, balding, a little out-of-shape, a little overweight, one of the many anonymous divorced, solitary men we see at work, at the supermarket, or on the streets every day.  Once he was married but he made a lot of mistakes and was divorced years earlier with the usual acrimony; move on to middle age and he’s still alone. There has been a string of women but none of the relationships were serious–except one that lasted two years and which left our narrator damaged and wary of involvement. So here he is full of regrets, a sense that he’s failed as a father, living alone in a three room apartment in Paris. He’s employed, more or less going through the motions, and with occasional contact with his twenty-six-year old son Benjamin. Guys Like MeUnmoored from any structure in his life, finding common ground in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the narrator has attempted to create some meaning to his existence.

It started when I turned forty, like most guys I know. I sponsor a little orphan, a little Haitian boy as it happens, and every year I keep the letter he sends me, a completely stereotypical letter to the white man who sends him a check for twenty-five euros ever month. A year after my divorce I also started volunteering in a hospital, but that way of doing good didn’t suit me all that much, because often, the next day, I’d start to feel symptoms, and more than once I fell ill. How can you give a hand to someone who’s dying anyway? I never figured out the answer to that. There were support groups too, with shrinks, only it bored me, and I stopped, it wasn’t my thing. Then I met a woman I was hoping to get love from, but nothing like that happened. I was forty-four when I discovered that you can hope to get love in return for a washing machine, two installments on a car, and other things like that, I was cured of that woman, and of others in the long run.

The narrator has a good friend, Marc-André, a man he admires a great deal because although he too was divorced, he’s somehow managed to throw himself back into the game, remarried and has a patchwork family with this second wife. Marc-André pulled the narrator out from his depressive slump, and the narrator acknowledges that Marc-André is “braver than me, he’d been strong enough to start all over again from scratch.” Marc-André has a philosophical approach to life:

We talked some more about guys, old friends we’d lost touch with, after a while it became painful to live with too many of these memories, it’s age, Marco said. And time. You can’t do anything against time.

Another main male character here is Jean–a man the narrator bumps into on the street when the book opens. And here’s a quote that gives a good sense of the writer’s style:

He looked familiar, from where I was. From where I was it might still have been possible, somehow to turn around and walk away, even though obviously I would never have turned around and walked away of my own accord. But a car might have started, in which case I’d have had to get out of the way, or I might have looked the other way and not seen his reflection in a shop window. I’d have reacted by saying to myself what does that guy want with me? And I’d probably have ignored him, I’d probably have forgotten him. His face looked drawn, but his hair wasn’t gray. I’ve almost lost my hair. Sometimes I run my hand through it, and there’s nothing there. My ex-wife used to laugh when I did that, and I don’t think I took it well. I don’t like taking a wrong turn, but it’d be right to say that when we met again we’d both taken a wrong turn. Maybe our lives, too: lots of wrong turns placed end to end, you can never reconstruct the whole journey.

Jean, a man whose “good times were already behind him” before he was thirty, is also alone but he’s unemployed and desperate for work, so the narrator and Marc-André pull together to help Jean out of his slump. Although author Dominque Fabre doesn’t overwork the connection between the three men, Marc-André, Jean and the narrator, it’s easy to see that there’s a hierarchy of social functionality. Marc-André has successfully managed to build another life for himself from the debris of his first marriage, but Jean is a total failure–the sort of man any rational woman would run from, and that leaves our narrator in the middle of this totem pole of functionality. He occasionally wobbles near the cliff edge (gluing together and mounting business cards for a room decoration) and he struggles with despair, but at the same time, he knows he must make some sort of effort to form interests and relationships. And this is where the book’s central motif comes into play: there are millions of middle-aged men divorced, lonely and adrift, and while the narrator notices Jean’s decline and asks himself “how could a guy like that get to this point?” it’s clear that the narrator could so easily become as dysfunctional as Jean. The narrator belongs to a dating site but finds that his dates are “pretty dull,” and that the “women [are] obsessed with their age, in a hurry to rebuild their lives.” An interesting comment since he posts a younger photo of himself in his profile. Of course, we don’t get an opinion from the women the narrator meets, but since he says he “soon stopped putting on a show,” I’d imagine that his dates find him dull too, but then he meets a woman, whose screen name he initially dislikes, through the site. It’s through this tentative relationship that we see the awkwardness of a middle-age romance between damaged lonely people who juggle need with fear and who consequently set boundaries as a safety net, balancing the desire for intimacy and love with the fear of rejection and disillusionment.

Of course, there was an enormous loneliness there, it was like a kind of ocean, the messages people sent each other hummed with it. These last few years I’d met two or three women who were real culture vultures, and I’d run away after the sixth exhibition or the fifth museum. There had also been a woman I liked, ten years younger than me, but she’d taken off after three dates and I couldn’t blame her. She sent me a long recorded message two weeks later the gist of which was that she was looking for somebody better than me, a younger guy who could be the father of her children. Three women I’d slept with, without hope or despair, just like that.

In this loosely plotted novel, we follow the narrator through his life, his relationship with his son, his friendship with Marc-André, his attempts to help Jean, and his dating experiences. All of this is very well done indeed, and I loved the author’s melancholic, yet ultimately optimistic style, and the way in which the narrator’s voice, at times almost hypnotic, is created in such a way as to appear to be from a man who is used to his own solitary company. The excellent central motif of  “guys like me” which has the paradoxical result of making the narrator simultaneously one in an anonymous crowd and yet highly individualistic is occasionally overworked, but that’s a minor quibble. Regret is an emotion felt at every age, and yet during the 50s, regret rolls in with the accompanying realization that it may be too late to fix our lives; Fabre captures that feeling perfectly.

I’d pass guys like me, you also see us, younger ones, waiting at the ends of platforms, in large stations, at the beginning  and the end of the school vacations.

French title: Les Types Comme Moi Translation: Howard Curtis Review copy.

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Filed under Fabre Dominique, Fiction