Tag Archives: truth

Life Sentences: Laura Lippman

Cassandra Fallows, soon to be 50 years-old, has two immensely popular, best-selling memoirs under her belt. The first, “My Father’s Daughter,” reveals her childhood, youth, and ends with the failure of her first marriage. The second book, “The Eternal Wife” tells how Cassandra’s second marriage went down the toilet, flushed with innumerable extramarital affairs. So fast forward to Cassandra’s third book: this one is fiction and it’s not selling well. Everyone connected with Cassandra urges her to return to non-fiction as that seems to be her forte.

Life sentences

Cassandra happens to catch a news story which refers to a crime that occurred decades before involving Calliope Jenkins, Cassandra’s former classmate, an afro-american woman whose baby disappeared. Since Calliope’s first child was removed by Child Protective Services previously, the baby’s disappearance, along with Calliope’s history of drug use, takes on sinister overtones. Calliope refused to talk, and the baby was never found. Calliope served 7 years in prison and was subsequently released. Cassandra’s next book begins to form in her head–not exactly “true crime” as she explains:

I don’t know what I’m writing, but there’s clearly a story there. She was one of us once. Not part of our gang, but a classmate. I want to figure out how the path deviates, how we end up in middle age, safe and snug, and she flounders so horribly.

So New York based Cassandra returns to her old stomping grounds, Baltimore, to uncover “the accidents of fate, the choices and temptations we faced.” Soon Cassandra is contacting former classmates: Donna, Tisha and Fatima. To complicate matters Donna is now married to Tisha’s brother who was Calliope’s one-time lawyer. Cassandra also tries to talk to Calliope’s first lawyer, the flinty Gloria, and Teena, the detective who worked on Calliope’s case. People connected with the case were forever tainted by it and the buzz is:

That case, it’s like a curse, isn’t it? Like something you’d see in an old movie.

Memory, truth and perception lie at the heart of this novel. I’ve read several Lippman titles, and Life Sentences is the most impressive. Cassandra has ‘bared all’ in her memoirs, but those memoirs are written according to her perceptions. She may have written ‘her story,’ but when she includes other people as bit players, some are offended. According to Cassandra’s childhood friend, Tisha, Cassandra “thought everything was about her. She’s incapable of telling a story where she’s not at the center.”

While on one level, Life Sentences is about what happened to Calliope Jenkins’ baby, it’s really about the stories we tell–the stories we tell ourselves, our interpretations of events. Those stories can remain safely in our heads, but when we air them to other people, especially other people who may ‘appear’ in those stories, the ‘truth’ slides into parallel, yet deviating, narratives. At one point, for example Cassandra finds herself questioning whether or not a publisher truly doesn’t remember meeting her (and turning down her first book) or whether he’s just trying to save face.

Early in the book, a woman attends one of Cassandra’s readings and asks why she gets to tell a story involving real people, and that is yet another issue that floats to the surface of this multi-layered novel: why should Cassandra tell Calliope’s story? How can she possibly do that? There are many times when Cassandra tries to pull Calliope from the fog of her childhood memories, and it’s clear that she did not know Calliope as other than a figure in the same room. Cassandra may have bared her own life to public exposure, but even then it’s through a lens of her construction. Does she have the moral right to co-opt Calliope’s story?

A middle-aged, twice divorced white Cassandra returning to her old stomping grounds and meeting her former Afro-American friends makes for fascinating reading. While Cassandra set out to tell Calliope’s story–whatever that may be–she runs headlong into what happened to several other women who were connected to Calliope’s case.

The solution to the mystery was the least satisfactory part of this otherwise interesting, highly readable book. The novel is populated with memorable characters including Calliope’s first lawyer, “famously, riotously deliberately seedy,” Gloria, former detective Teena, “if this was what pretty could become, what age could take away from you,” now permanently damaged physically and mentally who still considers the Calliope Jenkins case her ‘bête noire,’ and Cassandra’s philandering father, her “psychic tar pit,” a man who shapes his infidelities into a palatable narrative and massive love story.

Ignore the cover. It does the book no favours.

(The book includes a note from the author in which she explains that the Calliope Jenkins case is loosely based on a real crime.)

TBR stack.

Advertisements

10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Lippman Laura

Dinner: César Aira

César Aira’s Dinner is a delightfully strange, genre bending novella narrated by a bachelor in his sixties who lives in the Argentinean town of Pringles. We don’t know the details of what’s gone wrong in this man’s life, but he’s bankrupt, washed up and living with his elderly mother–a very undignified position to find oneself in at any age, but the narrator, with old age looming, cannot kid himself that life will ever improve.

I was dead broke, they’d repossessed my house and my car, I’d taken refuge in my mother’s apartment and was living off her retirement income (if you can call that living.)

The narrator and his mother spend an evening with an eccentric friend–a wealthy building contractor who owns a splendid large home which is stuffed full of bizarre, expensive collections. The narrator has sought this invitation as he hopes to hit up his last friend, a self-made man, for a business loan. While the host shows off his fantastic automatons, the conversation veers towards various residents of the town. For the host and for the narrator’s mother, it’s all about names, “the conformations and genealogies of all the town’s families.” And as the evening progresses “each name was a knot of meaning wherein converged many other chains of names.” These are discussions which do not interest the narrator. While he has “real memories, full-fledged memories,” there are also “inexplicable memories” from his childhood. The narrator’s memories don’t quite mesh with the memories of his mother, and while his mother jumps from memory to memory by the use of names, the narrator notes that for him, there are “pits” in his memories which symbolize  ” ‘holes’ in memory.”

The shifting nature of memory then morphs into a question of what is true and what isn’t. When the narrator and his mother return home, the conversation shifts to their host. The narrator sees their host as a wealthy man, but the mother argues, vehemently and with detail, about massive debt & failure. Soon the narrator begins to doubt the affluent version of his friend’s life.

dinnerAlone, and only with the television for company, the narrator channel surfs and finds himself spellbound over a programme on the Pringles channel in which news reporter Maria Rosa zooms around on her scooter tracking the nightlife of Pringles. The programme is supposed to seem, “improvised, informal, youthful,” but with a cameraman in pursuit of the intrepid Maria Rosa, instead each episode is amateurish and almost laughable. But the narrator finds himself glued to the set as Maria Rosa takes her scooter to the cemetery to confirm the story that “the dead were rising from their graves.”

At this point, the story shifts completely from the narrator watching the programme to the assault on Pringles from the Dead who exit their graves, descend upon the town and, in the pursuit of endorphins, suck the brains from the living….

Is this a nightmare brought on by the evening’s discussion of “pits” and the cemetery? Did the Dead rise and kill many of the inhabitants of Pringles or is the event a publicity stunt? Or is the event about something bigger–symbolic of memory, the truth and “representation“? You decide.

César Aira’s prose is poetic, smooth, and slides like honey. This is how the book begins:

My friend was home alone, but he invited us over for dinner anyway; he was a very sociable man, liked to talk and tell stories, though he wasn’t any good at it; he got the episodes mixed up, left effects without causes and causes without effects, skipped over important parts, and dropped anecdotes right in the middle. This didn’t bother my mother, who at her age had reached a level of mental confusion equivalent to what my friend had been born with; I think she didn’t even notice. In fact, she was the one who most enjoyed the conversation–and it was the only thing she enjoyed that evening–because there was a constant mention of the name’s of the town’s families, magic words that distilled her entire interest in life. I listened to the names drop, as one listens to the falling rain, whereas for her, each was a treasure full of meanings and memories.

The dinner is an elegant occasion, leisurely in nature, with the host proudly showing his guests some delightful, intricate, miniature automatons. But the evening is a contrived event–a representation of the subtle unspoken politics of class, wealth and business acumen. While the evening appears to be composed of two old friends reconnecting over dinner, it’s an occasion in which the narrator cannot help but compare his failure to his friend’s phenomenal success. Perhaps this partially explains the narrator’s mother’s irritation. The narrator sees that his mother, who loves him, is in “complete denial” of the facts. “And her life was reduced to that denial; I had reduced her to that.”

Perhaps she sees the host displaying his expensive toys as more than the actions of an enthusiastic collector:

Her idée fixe was that I was not a failure, that I had no reason to be dissatisfied with my life, that I could be happy, and that in fact I was. According to her, I had always done the right thing, and I continued to do so; I was an exemplary man, a role model, and moreover, I was young, good-looking, and intelligent. The objective facts contradicted her categorically: I was approaching sixty; I was fat, wrinkled, stooped; I was alone. without any family (except her), money, work, or future. Mama overcame this discrepancy by closing her eyes to reality, and since this didn’t suffice, she blamed the rest on humanity.

Automatons, zombies, representations, perceived wealth and failure, slippery truths and memory holes–all very clever ways of asking that age-old question:  what is truth and what is reality?

Translated by Katherine Silver

Review copy

14 Comments

Filed under Aira César, Fiction