Tag Archives: mother & son

One Station Away: Olaf Olafsson

“But the brain is a maze, made up of so many parts, so much that is mysterious.”

Icelandic author Olaf Olafsson’s novel,  One Station Away arrived at the end of an excellent reading year, and although the competition is tough, this incredibly rich, complex novel easily makes my best-of-year-list. This is the story of a British neurologist, a transplant to New York, whose complex relationships with the women in his life challenge his notions of perception and delusion.

One station away

Neurologist Magnus Colin Conyngham  works in Cold Harbor Connecticut, part of a team of doctors researching brain activity on patients in a vegetative state being kept alive on ventilators. The American team shares research with similar teams in Cambridge and France, and the three teams follow the same procedure: patients are placed in MRI scanners and asked to imagine playing tennis and then walking through their homes. Each of these mental activities light up different areas of the brain, so, in theory, doctors can communicate with vegetative, yet conscious, patients and with some simple training patients can give answers to yes/no questions.

If you think this is far-fetched, then check this out. 

(Ads will pop up you have to close)

When the novel opens, Magnus is finding it hard to concentrate on his research which hasn’t been that successful, and his inability to concentrate can be explained by the sudden death of his Argentinean lover, dancer Malena, a warm and yet strangely remote woman. Magnus is sliding into an abyss when two things happen: his father, Vincent, asks Magnus to return to England for his mother’s 70th birthday, and a new patient arrives: a young, unidentified woman with significant head injuries who was left abandoned at the site of a horrendous motorcycle accident.

Magnus returns home reluctantly, and we gradually learn about his relationship with his parents. His mother Margaret, is a pianist, who, according to herself, and her devoted, single-minded husband, has been slighted and overlooked in her career. Magnus, who was the unwanted child of a neurotic, self-focused woman (according to his mother, he’s partly to blame for her failed career) has moved on from his parents and their pathological scene building of the thwarted monumental musical talent, but still, he finds it trying to be in their toxic, delusional company.  He worries that he has inherited his mother’s worse traits.

But the fact was, my mother had never fulfilled her potential, or rather, she had never received the recognition which she and Vincent felt she deserved. Many things, and people, were to blame, most notably the cliques controlling the world of classical music behind the scenes, who had systematically prevented her from enjoying the acclaim she was due. It was they who kept her from giving recitals in the most prestigious concert halls, they who wrote disparaging reviews about her in newspapers and magazines, although without being too harsh, for that might arouse suspicion, they who awarded grants to other pianists, not half as good as she, they who took every opportunity to push her side, knowing that she was indomitable and served no one but art, no matter who they were, what position they held or what the consequences might be. 

Magnus’s co-worker, Simone, who’s secretly in love with Magnus, has covered for him in the past, but now she’s very concerned about his behaviour. Magnus’s new patient sparks new life into this doctor who is beginning to question whether or not his research has any purpose, and soon he’s spending hours alone with this mystery  “Jane Doe.”

I sensed it the moment I saw her face. This wasn’t a suspicion or a hunch–it was an absolute certainty. The woman was conscious: she could hear me walking toward the bed, she could feel my presence. I was expecting her to open her eyes at any moment and speak to me. I imagined her voice echoing in my head, her accent when she asked where she was. I even saw her raise her hand and brush away the lock of hair that had fallen across her brow, before turning to me and smiling. 

One Station Away focuses on perceptions and delusions. Events occur which cause Magnus to question everything he thought was true. Is his mother extremely talented? Is she the victim of a thwarted career as she’s argued for decades? And if that’s true, shouldn’t she be treated with more compassion? Sometimes we manage to block out what is right under our noses, but, as the novel argues, we can also delude ourselves into believing what we want. MRIs reveal brain activity but how does that compare to the depths and intricacies of motivation? Olaf Olafsson explores this brilliantly in this incredible novel through Magnus’s relationship with the four women in his life: Malena, his patient, his mother, and Simone.  I cannot praise this book highly enough.

review copy

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Olafsson Olaf

Agostino by Alberto Moravia

Alberto Morovia’s novella Agostino follows one summer in the life of a young boy who goes on holiday to the Tuscan coast with his widowed mother. At 13, Agostino is no longer a small child, but he’s not yet a man; he’s in that awkward in-between phase when children ‘wake’ up to the adult world, its rules, its inconsistencies, and its hypocrisies. It’s a phase with Agostino, not locked out of the adult world, as much as if he’s looking through a window trying to understand what he sees.

In the early days of summer, Agostino and his mother used to go out to sea every morning on a small rowboat typical of the Mediterranean beaches known as a pattino. At first she brought a boatman along with them, but Agostino gave such clear signs of annoyance at the man’s presence that the oars were turned over to him. He rowed with deep pleasure on the smooth, diaphanous, early-morning sea, and his mother, sitting in front of him, would speak to him softly, as joyful and serene as the sea and sky, as if he were a man rather than a thirteen-year-old boy.

Agostino wants to be the man in his mother’s life, and for most of the time, he has that role, but his mother “a big and beautiful woman still in her prime,” gets a lot of attention wherever she goes. Agostino, proud of his mother, and also possessive, feels that they are “onstage before an audience of hundreds of watchful eyes.” Alone on the boat, his mother will sunbathe naked, and Agostino takes his role of protector very seriously–never invading his mother’s privacy as she strips.

agostinoOf course, all this idyllic time must come to an end, and the change begins when a man begins a relationship with Agostino’s mother. Literally and symbolically he’s “a shadow [who] obstructed the sunlight shining down on” Agostino.  Over the course of a few days, Agostino, humiliated and sulky, witnesses changes in his mother’s personality as she flirts and shows a sort of helplessness that was previously entirely absent. Agostino notes this side of his mother that he’s never seen before, and in his turn, he begins to show new behaviours too. He resents what he sees as his mother’s betrayal, but at the same time, her relationship with the man has stirred Agostino’s developing sexuality; he’s confused by all these conflicting feelings, and then he becomes involved with a gang of local boys.

Agostino is not a typical coming-of-age novel. Agostino’s on the brink of the adult world and his experiences that summer open a window into troubling and confusing adult sexuality. Agostino sees things which he doesn’t understand, and when he becomes involved with the local boys, he’s introduced to a far more dangerous world. Author Alberto Moravia creates a languor in this story that contradicts the turbulence under the surface, and the many scenes of the ocean or the river juxtapose that languor and serenity to the unspoken dangers of sexual relationships.

For a moment Agostino felt happy as he swam while the cold powerful stream tugged at his legs, and he forgot every hurt and every wrong. The boys were swimming in all directions, their heads and arms breaking through the smooth green surface. Their voices echoed clearly in the still air. Through the glass transparency of the water, their bodies looked like white offshoots of plants that, rising to the surface from the darkness below, moved whichever way the current took them.

Agostino steps away from his mother’s love and protection, and feeling neglected, he enters the much harsher, cruel world of the local boys who all hang around the lifeguard Sero, a brutal individual who surrounds himself with the boys and creates a marginally criminal enterprise. Used to worshipping his mother, Agostino now discovers how women rate in this world of bottom-feeder males, and the company of these rough, poor children only complicates his feelings for his mother as he’s torn between protecting her image and showing the boys that he’s just like them.

While sexuality, emerging or hidden is a major force in the book, class also plays a role. Agostino, as a holidaymaker with leisure time, is clearly from a different class than the local children, and he falls back on this difference for security and power whenever he has the chance, so that we see how money spares Agostino from raw experience and simultaneously allows him bragging rights to experiences and conditions the poor children envy. In one very clever scene, Agostino has the opportunity to play a power card through a different role to another boy whose circumstances mirror Agostino’s privilege.

Morovia emphasizes the sensual and it’s no coincidence that sexual encounters occur on boats as they rock gently on the tranquil sea. This is a seemingly simple story that resonates with a sort of brutal truth. We all have to grow up and we can usually point to pivotal moments when childhood was stripped away. Agostino begins with a proud boy with complex feelings about his mother and ends with a troubled teen who understands that the treacherous  world of adult sexuality awaits him.

“But the intensity of his filial vanity and the turmoil of his infatuation would linger for many years to come.”

Translated by Michael F. Moore

Review copy/own a copy

 

18 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Morovia Alberto

The Grifters: Jim Thompson (1963)

Perhaps watching the film version of The Killer Inside Me drove my interest when earlier this year I decided to hold a Jim Thompson noirfest. It was time to dust off those copies and actually read them, so I committed to seven novels, and whittled down the reading list to:

The Killer Inside Me

Savage Night

A Hell of a Woman

A Swell-Looking Dame

The Getaway 

Pop 1280

And this brings me to The Grifters. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m fascinated by the book-film connection, and this (and curiosity) influenced my Thompson noirfest choices (still have to read After Dark My Sweet). I saw the film version of The Grifters some years back, and while this didn’t cloud my reading, scenes from the film flooded back as I read the novel.  

The protagonist of The Grifters is Roy Dillon. Any relation to Frank Dillon from A Hell of a Woman? The two men must be related in author Jim Thompson’s mind as both Roy and Frank Dillon are restless and on constant vigil for the next buck. That said, Roy Dillon is far more successful than job-shifting, small time salesman Frank, but there again, Roy has selected a goal in life and stuck to it: the short-con.

The Grifters begins by dropping us right in the action as young Roy Dillon stumbles out of a small shop, staggering from a blow to the stomach. Roy just worked the twenties–a short-con grift in which the grifter cons the shopkeeper by presenting a twenty-dollar bill in exchange for purchasing a small item. After getting his change for the twenty, then Roy produces–seemingly by surprise the change after all–and then asks for his twenty back, so in theory, if Roy manages to catch the shopkeeper off guard, he will leave the shop with almost an extra twenty in his pocket. On this day, however, the shopkeeper’s son, who doesn’t seem too swift in the brain department, catches on to the grift and lands a bat in Roy’s stomach.

As it turns out this is a pivotal event in twenty-five-year-old Roy’s criminal career. He’s been immensely successful up to this point mainly due to some crucial lessons early in the game from a seasoned grifter named Mintz:

There were two highly essential details of grifting which Mintz did not explain to his pupil. One of them defied explanation. It was an acquired trait, something each man had to do on his own and in his own way; i.e., retaining a high degree of anonymity while remaining in circulation. You couldn’t disguise yourself, naturally. It was more a matter of not doing anything. Of avoiding any mannerism, any expression, any tone or pattern of speech, any posture or gesture or walk–anything at all that might be remembered.

That’s lesson number one.  Lesson number two is to keep on the move. Here’s Mintz:

New York wasn’t a big city, he said. It just had a lot of people in it, and they were crammed into a relatively small area. And no, you didn’t help your odds much by getting out of jampacked Manhattan and into other boroughs. Not only did you keep bumping into the same people, people who worked in Manhattan and lived in Astoria, Jackson Heights, etcetera, but you were more conspicuous there. Easier to be spotted by the fools. “and, kid, a blind man could spot you. Look at that haircut! look at that fancy wristwatch, and them three-tone sports shoes! Why don’t you wear a black eye-patch, too, and a mouthful of gold teeth?”

According to Mintz, there’s one exception to the constant on-the-move option:

“You can usually play a fairly long stand in Los Angeles, because it ain’t just one town. It’s a county full of towns, dozens of ’em. And with traffic so bad and a lousy transportation system, the people don’t mix around like they do in New York. But”–he wagged a finger severely–“but that still doesn’t mean you can run wild, kid. You’re a grifter, see? A thief. You’ve got no home and no friends, and no visible means of support. And you damned well better not ever forget it.”

Now Roy is a kid with brains, and he’s reasoned that being a grifter constantly on the move is an easy way to eat up any capital gained, so he moves to Los Angeles where he basically leads a double life. He is a salesman and has been with the same firm and rented the same drab Grosvenor-Carlton hotel apartment for years, and while it’s a gig in which he earns peanuts, he supplements his income with grifting. That supplement adds up to over fifty thousand dollars which is stuffed inside some cheesy clown pictures that hang on his wall:

For his first year in Los Angeles, he was strictly a square john. An independent salesman calling on small businessmen. Gliding back into the grift, he remained a salesman. And he was still one now. He had a credit rating and a bank account. He was acquainted with literally hundreds of people who would attest to the excellence of his character. 

Sometimes they were required to do just that, when suspicion threatened to build into a police matter. But, naturally, he never called upon the same ones twice; and it didn’t happen often anyway. Security gave him self-assurance. Security and self-assurance had bred a high degree of skill.  

Roy’s life changes radically when his mother, Lilly, a woman who’s a mere 13 years older than Roy shows up in Los Angeles. Lilly is bad news–for one thing she works for mob bookie Bobo Justus and then again Roy has some serious mummy issues. Lilly’s job involves travelling around the country betting large sums of money to lower the odds on longshots. Normally Lilly wouldn’t be welcome in Roy’s life–after all they haven’t seen one another for years, but when Lilly arrives, she finds Roy dying from internal injuries, and she uses her mob connections to get him the best medical care. 

As Roy recuperates, Lilly meets his girlfriend, Myra, long-term grifter and part-time prostitute, and while the two women instantly dislike one another, the truth is that they’re made from the same rotten mould, and now they square off over Roy…. 

The double life–a sort of splitting–in which the individual leads both a legal and a secret illegal life is the sort of thing we see in The Killer Inside Me and Pop 1280, and it’s when these two lives collide that Thompson’s characters experience trouble. Roy has kept the fact his real passion, grifting, from Myra, and yet Myra, who isn’t all that she appears to be, knows a fellow grifter when she sees one, and she has a good idea that Roy could be the long-term grift partner she’s been looking for.

As the story plays out, there’s the sense that these three characters are drawn to one another–almost against their will–in a savage dance of self-destruction. The Grifters is a story of insatiable appetites, and none of the three characters can give up a way of life that feeds those hungers–Lilly can’t stop working for the mob, Roy can’t give up the grift, and Myra can’t stop dreaming of the long-term con of a lifetime. These damaged characters are driven by passion for money–money which offers the sort of security that a harsh society has failed to provide any other way. Only money gives them the confidence, assurance, and security they crave, but unfortunately in The Grifters, these appetites collide. There’s even the fourth character whose insatiable appetite is literally just that–concentration camp survivor Carol tries to stuff herself with food to fill the space left by human cruelty.

Author Jim Thompson picked up the short-con from ‘Airplane Red’ Brown at the Hotel Texas in 1920s when working as a hotel bellboy. Airplane Red was one of those fascinating individuals who drifted through Thompson’s life and left a permanent impression.

Here’s one final quote about Lilly, married and pregnant at age thirteen and widowed by fourteen :

Settling down in Baltimore, she found lucrative and undemanding employment as a B-girl. Or, more accurately, it was undemanding as far as she was concerned. Lilly Dillon wasn’t putting out for anyone; not, at least, for a few bucks or drinks. Her nominal heartlessness often disgruntled the customers, but it drew the favorable attention of her employers. After all, the world was full of bimboes, tramps who could be had for a grin or a gin. But a smart kid, a doll who not only had looks and class, but was also smart–well, that kind of kid you could use.

They used her, in increasingly responsible capacities. As a managing hostess, as a recruiter for a chain of establishments, as a spotter of sticky-fingered and bungling employees; as courier, liaison officer, fingerwoman; as a collector and disburser. And so on up the ladder … or should one say down? The money poured in, but little of the shower settled on her son.

11 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Thompson Jim