Tag Archives: middle age crisis

A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee

Fellow blogger Kevin from Canada read, reviewed and enjoyed The Privileges, an earlier novel from American author, Jonathan Dee, and so when I saw a new title A Thousand Pardons from the same author, I knew I wanted to read it. Kevin had mixed feelings about The Privileges–enjoying it immensely at first (well this is my interpretation at least) but then feeling not-so-happy with an ending which he felt did not live up to the novel’s excellent opening. I say all this because I had the same reaction to A Thousand Pardons, a novel that had an absolutely tremendous start with a gripping plot, but then the novel appears to move into a different zone, dropping the storyline I so badly wanted to continue. And then the ending…well I’m still chewing it over, and now after reading A Thousand Pardons and re-reading Kevin’s review of The Privileges, I’m about to conclude that the ambiguous ending which I found disappointing, was a decision by the author–not to disappoint us, of course (who wants to do that to a reader?), but to show the emptiness and disenchantment of the American dream.

a thousand pardonsNow to the plot…

The novel begins with a view of a marriage–Ben, a New York attorney commutes to work from a gorgeous home in a small affluent town while his wife, Helen, is a stay-at-home mother to their 12-year-old adopted Chinese daughter, Sara. Ben pulls impossibly long hours at the office, arriving home just long enough to grab something to eat, walk around “like the walking dead,” and go to bed. Not much of a life.  Things have deteriorated to the point that Helen is trying to retrieve their relationship and their 18-year-marriage through therapy. Ben arrives home later than usual one night–a “passive-aggressive” move on Ben’s part, Helen is certain, and they barely make it to their therapist’s office for their weekly session and an unpleasant revelation:

“Because it’s all so unsurprising.” Ben said, very much as if he hadn’t heard anyone else’s voice. “I’m scared of it. I’m scared of every single element of my day. Every meal I eat, every client I see, every time I get into or out of the car. It all frightens the shit out of me. Have you ever been so bored by yourself that you are literally terrified? That is what it’s like for me every day. That is what it’s like for me sitting here, right now, right this second. It’s like a fucking death sentence, coming back to that house every single night. I mean, no offense.”

“No offense?” Helen said.

Helen knows that she and Ben should divorce, but she’s in that mode of punishment and endurance:

She knew what the right thing to do was. Dismantle it together: help him find a new place, work out the money, sign whatever needed to be signed, put on a united front for poor Sara, who’d already had two parents abandon her, after all. But for once in her life Helen didn’t want to do it. Why should she make it easy for him? She’d made everything easy for him for eighteen years, and he’d repaid her by making an explosive, weepy public display of his horror at the very sight of her. Screw the right thing. If he hated her so much, if life with her was such a death sentence, then let’s see him be a man about it, for once, and devise his own escape.

I happen to be a believer in the idea that some people (with the exception of natural disaster, disease, or just plain bad luck) get what they want by hook or by crook. They may not be honest or straightforward about getting what they want, but somehow things just seem to “happen.” Back to that passive-aggressive thing. In Ben’s case, he seeks freedom from his boring, predictable life without taking firm, direct action, and just how he achieves his desire through sabotage takes up the first, gripping section of the novel. Shortly, and with virtually no warning except the fact that her marriage has been on the rocks for some time, Helen finds herself seeking work, and this section, covering Helen’s subsequent career takes up quite a chunk of the novel.

The section dealing with Ben’s self-destructive sabotage of his life is unbelievably good–after all a married father who’s affluent, and with a secure, enviable career has a lot to lose, but there’s also a lot of protective padding. So it’s logical that Ben is going to have to sabotage all his advantages in a spectacular way if he wants to jettison from his established life. But then the novel moves on, leaves Ben and follows Helen’s job hunt in New York. The move from Ben’s gripping, incredibly insane actions to the plod of a job hunt is a tremendous change of pace, and one that is not without its narrative problems. Helen has been out of the job market for over 10 years, and even when she did work she was a sales manager at Ralph Lauren. Somehow, with no experience whatsoever, she lands a decent job at a pathetically small PR company. I had problems with swallowing that part of the plot and could only conclude that she was hired because her new boss must have fancied her. My annoyance with this plot development was premature as the author addressed this issue later on.

As a reader I had also issues with Ben’s mental shift as he morphs from a man adamantly denying a mid-life crisis and making a complete idiot out of himself into the one character in the book who seems to have it all together. I began to wonder if he was on medication as he stoically swallows his pride and suffers through humiliation after humiliation in some sort of penance. Meanwhile Helen takes on the PR management of the sins of a small business owner, mega corporations, a film star and even the catholic church. She’s spent the last ten years of her life being the perfect mother and the perfect (here I invoke that rather sickening word,) “homemaker.” I suspect that Helen was as sick of her life as Ben was; he just expressed it better. Once in the work world, Helen gets a taste of just what it’s like to juggle parenthood with career demands, live with a judgmental teenager, spend hours on a ridiculous commute and come home too exhausted to do anything except sling take-out meals on the table for dinner.

 In spite of its flaws, this was a compulsive, addictive read which I finished in two sittings. While the ending left me scratching my head (back to Kevin’s response to The Privileges), some of the scenes and the characters were phenomenal. Jonathan Dee certainly has a knack for recreating the suffocation of upper-middle-class life with its markers of success, gleeful pettiness at failure and its delight in gossiping about those who’ve fallen off the middle-class wagon of respectability. There aren’t many likeable people here, and most of them are as sad and lost as Helen and Ben. One of my favourite characters was the rather bitter, deeply unhappy Bonifacio, hired by Ben–a hungry small-town lawyer who rents a space above a hardware store. He can’t hide just a sliver of glee at his client’s downfall:

When she looked over at Bonifacio, he wore a smirk like he was enjoying a bad TV show. How he must have hated guys like Ben, Helen thought–lawyers who rode off to Manhattan every morning while he climbed the stairs behind the hardware store and tried to act outraged over whatever sad grievance one of the locals might bring in.

So, not a perfect novel, but Jonathan Dee is certainly treading in the literary footsteps of Richard Yates with his themes of inertia, the dreary treadmill of routine, the slow death of romance and love, and the utter disenchantment with the American Dream.  Dee offers us a frightening, claustrophobic look at the American Dream which has somehow or another turned into the American Nightmare–Ben and Helen, initially at least, have everything we are supposed to strive for, and yet Dee shows us that this soulless existence is something no sane person would want, and as it turns out Ben and Helen don’t want it either. The conclusion leaves us with the uncomfortable, hollow feeling that there’s not much to replace our pathetic social goals and meaningless social status markers.

Review copy

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Where Do We Go From Here? by Doris Dörrie

As part of Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature month, I chose Doris Dörrie’s novel: Where Do We Go From Here? Dörrie is one of my favourite German filmmakers, but unfortunately not all the films she’s made or the books she’s written are available in English. If you are at all familiar with her films, you know that her off-kilter work sometimes includes Buddhism (Cherry Blossoms, Enlightenment Guaranteed).  I should mention that Dörrie is a buddhist, so she’s certainly qualified to set the novel Where Do We Go From Here? in a Buddhist retreat. I’ll admit that I had some concerns that perhaps Dörrie’s beliefs might weaken the novel as veiled attempts at ideological conversion can ruin a novel. My concerns, however, were not realised, and Where Do We Go From Here? is a warm, witty, and wise look at the frailties of the human condition told through the eyes of a middle-aged man in crisis.

The man in crisis is Fred Kaufmann. He and his eminently organised, admirable, and practical wife Claudia owned a chain of vegetarian restaurants which they’ve now sold. The void in their lives left by the sudden departure of business responsibilities reveals that they’ve grown apart, and their marriage is on the rocks. Claudia turns to Buddhism,  he has a wild affair, and a weekend in London to repair their relationship serves only to reveal just how bleak things are. Meanwhile their only child Franka has announced that she’s in love with a Buddhist lama named Pelge. When the book begins, Fred leaves Munich with 16-year-old Franka in order to deliver her to a Buddhist retreat in the south of France. There Franka is supposed to reunite with Pelge before they leave for India together. The plan is for Fred to monitor Franka and bring her back to Munich when she comes to her senses. Nothing goes as planned….

Before Fred and Franka get to the retreat, they find themselves reluctantly picking up a depressed passenger, middle-aged hen-pecked-husband Norbert who decides he needs some time at the retreat too. While Fred is initially annoyed by this turn of events, he finds it somewhat reassuring to be confronted with a peer who’s in an even worse state of mind.  As it turns out, the retreat is packed with dozens of similar people–middle-aged lost souls, haunted by lost dreams, broken by failed careers & wrecked by bad marriages. Everyone is there for answers or some sort of peace of mind. There’s a strange other-world atmosphere at the retreat: there are those who are unhappy with the spartan accommodations, and others who appear to thrive on the hours of meditation, vow of silence and the meagreness of a rice diet. Fred is one of those who’s horrified by the sight of what’s in store:

I know we’ve come to the right place, because we’re already passing some of them.

They’re worse than my wildest dreams. Men with long, sparse hair in pale green tracksuit bottoms, women with massive buttocks in baggy lilac pants, their pendulous, braless boobs wobbling beneath faded pink T-shirts, children with fringes in front and page-boys behind. So these are the Enlightened Ones–or the candidates for Enlightenment.

Since Claudia has managed to effectively tune out Fred through her Buddhist meditation, he arrives at the retreat ready to loathe the suckers who’ve lined up to receive wisdom from Lama Tubten Rinpoche, author of How to Transform Happiness and Suffering into the Path of Enlightenment: How to be Happy When You Aren’t. Fred and Norbert are given a daily schedule and shown to a bleak room which holds three smelly foam mattresses. Here’s the schedule and the rules:

5:00 Getting-up time

5:30 Meditation

7:00 Breakfast

9:00 Lectures

12:30 Lunch

14:00 Working Meditation

18:00 Supper

19:30 Meditation

21:30 Lights Out

Please observe noble silence. We request you, during your retreat, to abstain from tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and sex.

You won’t find that too hard, I say to Norbert.

Not where three out of the four are concerned, he replies with a grin, and this time I get a chance to put an admonitory finger to my lips. Norbert gives a start and peers around anxiously, as if scared of being arrested on the spot.

To give away too much of what happens would spoil the experience for any potential readers, but I am going to include a quote which captures some of this wonderful novel’s flavour:

After fifteen minutes the monk strikes the gong once more. Everyone jumps up at once, chattering, and goes to get a bit more brown rice.

I get up too, intending to take my plate over to the plastic sinks, when the telephone in the kitchen rings and something quite extraordinary happens. They all come to a halt in mid-movement and fall silent as though transfixed, as though the sound has put them into a Sleeping Beauty trance. I see Franka standing there with a broom in her hand, more erect than I’ve seen her for years, because she usually keeps her head down so her hair hides her face.

Nobody seems to be going to the phone. I don’t know what to do. Embarrassed to be the only one in motion, I also halt with the plate in my hand. At children’s birthday parties in the old days we used to play a game in which we had to freeze suddenly, whatever we were doing at the time. If someone in the big tent were fucking–which god forbid–would they have to stop short and wait?

After the phone has rung seven or eight times, everyone abruptly comes back to life and carries on as if nothing had happened. I make a beeline for Franka.

You might at least have explained the rules, I say reproachfully. I feel like an absolute idiot. What the devil happened just now?

You’ll find out, Dad, she whispers.

This eternal whispering is getting on my nerves, I say loudly. She simply laughs and turns on her heels.

It seems we each have to wash up our own plate at the series of sinks. We dip it in the malodorous, lukewarm broth and hand it to our neighbour, who dips it in some slightly less malodorous broth and hands it on in turn. Meantime, we go to the end of the washing-up queue, take our plate, and dry it on an already sodden and not particularly clean drying-up cloth. The local hygiene leaves a lot to be desired.In my bagel cafés I’d have had the health inspector breathing down my neck a long time ago.

A bacterial paradise, I mutter to myself.

The story is loosely divided into thirds–with the trip to and from the retreat framing the time spent in France. The book follows Fred’s struggles with the retreat’s rules as he sneaks off for cigarettes and food, tries to meditate and mingles with people he feels he has nothing in common with. Over time Fred discovers that he shares more with the other guests than he initially realised, and alone with his thoughts he must confront the truth about his failed film director career and his marriage to Claudia. With piercing wit and a generous view of human nature Where Do We Go From Here?  explores how the unrealised dreams of youth reappear to haunt us, how we try to imbibe our lives with meaning as we try to adjust our lives to what they’ve become, and just how easy it is to blame others for the choices we’ve made.

Translated by John Brownjohn

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