Tag Archives: unreliable narrator

Jack of Spades: Joyce Carol Oates

Point me in the direction of a book written by an unreliable narrator, and chances are I’ll want to read it, and that brings me to Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates. First the disclaimer: I’m not a fan of this author’s novels–although I like some of her short stories, so I hesitated when I saw this.

Jack of Spades is narrated by best-selling author Andrew J. Rush who lives with his wife, Irina in a prestigious home in Harbourton, New Jersey. Almost immediately we can tell that there’s something a little off about Rush, for while he appears almost gushingly humble and self-deprecating, he never misses an opportunity to slip in self-flattery even as he tries to paint himself as a nice, normal man, a pillar of the community. He describes himself as “the most famous of local residents,” and with 28 books to his credit, this is no doubt true. He writes “best-selling mystery-suspense novels with a touch of the macabre. (Not an excessive touch, not nasty-mean, or disturbing. Never obscene, nor even sexist. Women are treated graciously in my mysteries, apart from a few obligatory noir performances.”

Jack of SpadesHere’s where the cracks begin to appear in Andrew’s self-portrait, for while he’s busy emphasizing that his books are in good taste, then he reveals that he writes an entirely different type of book under the pseudonym: Jack of Spades, “born out of my restlessness with the success of Andrew J. Rush.” These books have a cult-type popularity, are extremely violent, sexist, “cruder, more visceral, more frankly horrific.” The local library refuses to stock any titles by Jack of Spades, so Rush donates copies.

So right away, we have a paradox: Rush goes to great lengths to continually explain how his books don’t offend, don’t cross any lines, but then he also produces, secretly, this whole other line of books that are offensive and written in extremely bad taste.  We can only conclude that Rush is a very complicated man who needs to hide his more vicious, violent side beneath the surface of both his personal and professional life.

But is Rush a nice guy at home? As layers of the story drop away, we see Irina through Rush’s eyes. Once she was a promising writer, but now she teaches at a small school. Even though Rush frequently prefaces the word, ‘wife’ with the term “dear,” there’s violence, dominance and control behind his attitude, and that violence occasionally seeps through the surface when she questions her husband or suddenly appears in the areas of the house that are more or less forbidden to her.

Soon after we were married, Irina gave up writing. I had been her most enthusiastic reader and had continued to encourage her, going through drafts of stories and novels, but something hesitant and self-doubting had crept into her sense of herself as a writer. Gently I admonished her–“Darling, you care too much for precision and perfection. There’s no need to polish each damned sentence–just say what you want to say.”

But Irina grew ever more shy about her writing. I hope it wasn’t because I insisted upon reading everything she wrote, and offering my heartfelt, sincere, and sympathetic critiques.

It doesn’t take too long before you realize that the veneer of nice guy and good husband (and what about those estranged children?) is stretched thin and that Rush could explode at any minute. The name ‘Jack of Spades’ is a pseudonym, but it’s also a label for Andrew’s dangerously violent alter ego.

The pivotal incident occurs when Rush is served with a summons to appear at the local courthouse. With a very nice touch, the summons is misspelled, and Rush, for a moment, imagines that there’s some mistake–surely the summons is meant for ‘Andwer J. Rash,’ whoever he is, and not him. But no … as it turns out, he’s being accused by some local nut of plagiarism–and not just plagiarism; he’s also being accused of actually breaking into someone’s home and stealing her unpublished manuscripts.

This accusation sparks a violent turn of events in Rush’s life. So far, he’s barely managed to keep the more violent side of his personality under control. The civil suit tests that ‘nice guy’ veneer to the limit.

There are many. many five-star reviews of Jack of Spades out there. For this reader, in the minority, the book doesn’t have much appeal. Perhaps if I hadn’t read Henry Sutton’s brilliant: Get Me Out of Here or Phil Hogan’s wonderfully nasty  A Pleasure and a Calling, I’d feel differently, but both Hogan and Sutton take the intricacies of the unreliable narrator to new levels; Jack of Spades does not. The narrative exposition lacks subtlety.  Both Henry Sutton and Phil Hogan constructed windows in the lives of two very different, cunning, psychopathic narrators, and while we read about the actions of these men with fascinated horror, it’s to both Hogan and Sutton’s credit that we can acknowledge the nasty intelligence and craftiness of their protagonists as they create mayhem for other people. In the case of Andrew Rush, there’s nothing to admire–not even the bestsellers. Being in his mind is an unpleasant chore.

Jack of Spades is at its best in its references to Stephen King. Andrew Rush is constantly compared to King. This comparison to Stephen King obviously bugs the hell out of Rush who tries to get some recognition from King, and then later he plays a nasty trick involving King that seems both tongue-in-cheek and also references how King attracts the nuts for some reason. While Andrew Rush can’t help but be flattered by the comparisons to King, there’s a niggling annoyance there that Stephen King is richer and much more famous:

With my third bestseller in the 1990s it began to be said about me in the media–Andrew J. Rush is the gentleman’s Stephen King.

Of course, I was flattered. sales of my novels, though in the millions after a quarter-century of effort, are yet in the double-digit millions and not the triple-digit, like Stephen King’s. And though my novels have been translated into as many as thirty languages–(quite a surprise to me, who knows only one language)-I’m sure that Stephen King’s books have been translated into even more, and more profitably. And only three of my novels have been adapted into (quickly forgotten) films, and only two into (less-than-premium cable) TV dramas–unlike King, whose adaptations are too many to count.

But who’s counting, right?

Review copy

 

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Filed under Fiction, Oates Joyce Carol

A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan

“The only difference between the sane and the insane is how many people you can get to agree with you.”

An unreliable narrator in a tightly developed, fascinating, claustrophobic tale of escalating madness … within a few lines, I knew I’d love this book. In A Pleasure and a Calling, author Phil Hogan creates a smoothly operating, high-functioning sociopath, the seemingly respectable owner of a prominent, successful small town real estate company who organises his lifelong programme of intense, obsessive voyeurism by collecting  & using keys of the properties he’s sold. Middle-aged Mr Heming is one of those anonymous men who easily fades into the background, and this just makes his activities that much easier to conduct as through his dream job, he uses easily accessible keys to enter into homes and spy on the residents, probing into their lives, their bank accounts, and their correspondence.

Mr. Heming narrates this tale rather as though he’s talking to an old friend, so the tone is light and leans towards camaraderie. After all, he seems to argue, his hobby really doesn’t hurt anyone, does it?

If you were to put a gun to my head and ask me to explain myself, I suppose I might begin by saying that we are all creatures of habit. But then you might wonder, what creature of habit is a slave to the habits of others?

That’s the novel’s very first sentence, and in just a few brief revealing words, sociopath Heming immediately appears to subordinate himself, with a hint of self-pity, to his victims when he calls himself a “slave” to the habits of others. In reality, Heming’s “habit” of breaking into people’s homes, spying on them and in a few cases, ruining their lives, is all about power.

a pleasure and a calllingHeming is the very worst type of sociopath–high functioning, seemingly normal, mingling with ease, able to nimbly mimic the socially required emotions, and, of course, completely lacking a conscience. Through the clever narrative, Heming presents himself initially as some sort of invisible protector of his beloved town, a do-gooder, a righter of wrongs wreaked upon the innocent by some of the nastier residents. At one point, for example, Heming observes a local man impatiently walking his dog and failing to pick up the dog’s poo. This incident outrages Heming’s sensibilities, and so he takes revenge in an incident that is to have powerful, long-range consequences.

A great deal of the novel’s success, and IMO, A Pleasure and A Calling is brilliantly conceived and perfect in its execution, comes from the well-realized creation of Heming. Author Phil Hogan slips into Heming’s skin seamlessly, and Heming’s voice and skewed vision never slips. But another large part of the novel’s success is also established through the novel’s black humour–Heming’s tone of reasonableness & logic.  This is particularly true when Heming is describing the foibles of his customers, and it’s here we see author Phil Hogan’s seductively, skillful technique as he takes us into Heming’s sick mind, and we find ourselves uncomfortably agreeing with Heming’s observations and opinions. Here he is complaining about the Cooksons–a particularly difficult married couple who’ve listed their property for sale:

I’d lost count of the properties the Cooksons themselves had walked away from at the eleventh hour–upscale dwellings that ticked every box on an evolving wish list that had taken the three of us out to look at converted windmills and maltings, a superior Georgian townhouse on the square, a riverside apartment with long views and finished in oak and granite, a wool merchant’s cottage with sizeable vegetable garden out towards Wodestringham. The paths of the couple’s individual whims–hers, at any moment, for a circle of yews, his for an authentic chef’s kitchen with wine cellar–rarely crossed. If one light went on, another went off. You saw them bickering quietly in their car. Once I heard Mrs Cookson refer to me as ‘that fucking creep, Heming,’ which seemed a little severe, though in the circumstances–I was lurking in a recess on the landing directly below them as them stood disagreeing about the aesthetic merits of porthole-style windows–I suppose she was right.

In Heming, author Phil Hogan brilliantly creates an unforgettable character–a man who’s developed his childhood sneakiness and ‘invisibility’ in order to wreak havoc on those who offend him or who cross him in some way, and as the narrative continues, the mask of Heming as a do-gooder, the guardian angel of his town slips and the true monster underneath is revealed through key events in his childhood, his adolescence and his present. It’s clear that Heming’s life could have taken a rocky path to social failure but for the (un)fortunate circumstance of stumbling upon the very job that automatically grants him trust and allows him unfettered, unlimited access to people’s private lives.

I have to smile when newspapers–so predictable in their attempt to explain the behaviour of those transgressing social norms or the workings of the deviant mind–speak of the ‘double life’ led by this furtive criminal or that. In fact the reverse is true. It is normal people who have a ‘double life’. On the outside is your everyday life of going out to work, and going on holiday. Then there is the life you wish you had–the life that keeps you awake at night with hope, ambition, plans, frustration, resentment, envy, regret. This is a more seething life of wants, driven by thoughts of possibility and potential. It is the life you can never have. Always changing, it is always out of reach. Would you like more money? Here, have more! An attractive sexual partner? No problem. Higher status? More intelligence? Whiter teeth? You are obsessed with what is just out of your reach. It is the itch you cannot scratch. Tortured by the principle that the more you can’t have something the more you desire it, you are never happy.

The humour here is deeply and subtly embedded in the plot. At one point, for example, Heming, blithely enjoys a leisurely meal at one of his “favourite breakfast spots,” cooking for himself and reading the newspaper while the unsuspecting family members are away. Elsewhere in the book, he uses his keys to advance an obsession with a female home owner. Towards the end of the book, Heming has occasion to visit a significant figure from his past–another man whose life is ‘a pleasure and a calling.’ The introduction of this element to the book brings Heming’s addictive, compelling story full circle and forms the perfect, ironic conclusion. A Pleasure and a Calling should appeal to fans of Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here –a book that easily made my best of year list in 2011.

review copy/own a copy

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The Dance of a Sham by Paul Emond

Brilliantly witty, mercurial and almost disorienting, The Dance of a Sham is narrated by a wily character who recounts, with some zest and no small admiration, the exploits of his more conniving friend, Caracala. The narrative is one long sentence which pours out of the narrator’s mouth with lightening speed.  Have you ever been in a situation, perhaps at a party, work, or at the pub, trapped in a corner while someone tells you a story that sounds less-than-authentic? You could, perhaps, escape but choose not to because the storyteller’s energy, sheer force of personality, and gift for bullshit becomes almost mesmerizing. At about 160 pages, The Dance of a Sham is the perfect length for this sort of narrative voice; any longer and you might have to seek the advice of a Professional.

the dance of a shamCaracala, is according to the narrator who admires him, a man “with the gift of the gab and crafty as a monkey to boot.” Here the narrator brags about the carousing and mayhem the two men indulge in.

we could drink all night and stay up the whole next day fresh as a daisy, occasionally the police found me one time and brought me home, my mom was shouting, haven’t you brought enough shame on us already, eh, haven’t you, and she was shouting so loudly the police were more scared that I was  they cleared out really quick, apologizing for the inconvenience but my mom wasn’t listening, I was the one she was after, you see, and she went on with her litany, aren’t you ashamed, don’t you feel any shame, I’ve got to say, that was a serious bit of merrymaking, I’d been out with my buddy for three days and went to every bar in a seven-mile radius, I’d even lost him at some point without realizing, he must have stayed with some girl because you couldn’t imagine the success he had with the young ladies, he’d serve them up one of his nest speeches, hot, just the right word to get them giggling and he had a knack even with the most reluctant ones, they never had time to get bored with him, he was never one to beat around the bush, my method’s a straight line, he’d say, cutting the air with his hand, but once it was over there was no question of sentimental primness, it was more of a hello, can I slide into your bunk, drop my little men and see you later, he had to have all of them , a blond then a brunette, one after the other, he was the champion of hanky-panky and proud of it but they knew what he was like and didn’t hold it against him, not usually, except one who wanted to kill him because she got pregnant, he claimed he wasn’t the father, no way I’m going to be the pigeon here he told me

That particular part of the tale doesn’t end well, but this is just one episode in Caracala’s demolition-derby-of a life. The story of Caracala’s escapades escalate seamlessly in severity, and the adventures of an amoral Lothario slide into criminality.  In his relationship with Caracala, the narrator compares himself to “that guy on his donkey following a half-crazy knight around,” so we need no more evidence about the narrator’s view of himself, but wait… just as we get one impression of the narrator’s slippery relationship with Caracala, that impression shifts and the narrator’s admiration of the lowlife Caracala morphs into something different, something much darker. The narrator’s versions of events alters–there’s the woman he claimed he liked, Marie-Ange who became fat and unhappy after she married someone else. End of story, or so we think, and yet in subsequent versions she has a “bad reputation,” has an “affair with the station-master,” and brags about her “flings.” The various images we are given of this woman are completely different. How much is delusional fantasy? Lies? Insanity? As the story continues and various versions of events multiply and shift, the truth becomes more elusive, and it becomes entirely possible that our narrator is a murderer.

there are some things that are hard to tell, you hesitate, procrastinate, you know, there are stories you wouldn’t envy share with your best friend, stories you try to bury once and for all in the most unobtrusive corner of your little imaginary garden, and if by some unfortunate chance they resurface one day, you feel so nauseous you’d rather be dead.

Slowly the mask slips:

the more far-fetched stories you tell them, the more they believe them, the bigger the starship you paint for them, the more they start itching for an implausible journey, but it isn’t easy to fool your listener, to lie well, to lie sensitively, if I can put it that way, there’s an art to it, you have to be able to stand your listener in front of a mirror, then slip a second mirror between his face and the first one, and then another, and another, and you go on like that as long as you like and your victim keeps smiling sweetly at each new mirror, doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.

We have every reason to doubt what the narrator tells us, and the persona he presents, that of an idle, naïve, careless man with little thought of the consequences of his actions, is replaced by something else entirely.  I would normally pass on a novel that consists of one long sentence–even if it’s less than 200 pages, but in The Dance of a Sham, the narrative voice matches the slippery tale. The style could be stream-of-consciousness, but when you consider just what we’re being told, it’s clear that what flows from the narrator’s mouth isn’t stream of consciousness at all;  it’s cleverly conceived fabrication deliberately weaved around some very dark events.

The novel includes a Q&A interview with the author. One of the most interesting aspects to The Dance of a Sham is the transaction that occurs between the reader and the narrator, and the author addresses the complicity created by the text in this interview and how the book “transgresses” the  “pact” between author and reader. If this all sounds elaborate, it is, but the narrative trumps all other considerations of experimentalism and intellectual exercise. A sociopath will happily construct and deconstruct an event until he finds the version which suits, and this is exactly what happens here.

Translated by Marlon Jones.

Review copy 

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Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

“In my profession, true relaxation is a necessity. I see and hear things all day long. Things you need to get off your mind at night. The fungal growths. The bleeding warts. The folds of skin between which things have gotten much, much too warm. The three-hundred pound woman you have to examine in a place you hoped you’d never have to go again.”

The Dinner by Herman Koch made my best-of-2012 list, and when I turned the last page of the book, I was very disappointed to discover that there were no other books available in English by the author, so you can understand my delight when I heard about Summer House With Swimming Pool.  Plus a big bonus on this book, it includes the added attraction of one of my reading obsessions: a holiday setting.

Summer House with swimming poolSummer House with Swimming Pool is narrated by doctor Marc Schlosser and the book begins with a deliciously nasty, claustrophobic, self-obsessed first-person narration which recalls Bernhard, or a sicko version of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. The not-so-good doctor, a general practitioner is obviously a seriously disturbed man, and that makes him an unreliable narrator.

Many of us have probably had doctors who’ve seemed unbalanced, but Schlosser is dangerous because, on the surface, he seems to be so stable. This is a man who loathes his patients, who grimaces at their ailments which he believes are mostly imagined, and yet his carefully developed professional mask has helped Schlosser built a large practice of loyal patients mainly from the “creative professions.” Schlosser paces his patients twenty minutes apart, “his selling point” as a doctor, but he barely bothers to listen to the litany of health issues, and confides that in his practice, “the key is not to worry too much about medical standards.”  While he knows that people line up on a waiting list to become patients, believing that he “makes time for each individual case,” Schlosser brags that “patients can’t tell the difference between time and attention.” He has a well-honed script to deter anyone from seeking a specialist, and a manner in which he encourages patients to keep coming to him while feeling good about their bad, unhealthy addictive habits. Repulsed by his patients’ bodies, he has fantasies of death during examinations:

Human bodies are horrible enough as it is, even with their clothes on. I don’t want to see them, those parts where the sun never shines. Not the folds of fat in which it is always too warm and the bacteria have free rein, not the fungal growths and the infections between the toes, beneath the nails, not the fingers that scratch here, the fingers that rub there until it starts to bleed … Here, Doctor, here’s where it itches really badly … No, I don’t want to see. I pretend to look, but I’m thinking about something else. About a roller coaster in an amusement park. The car in front has a green dragon’s head mounted on it. The people throw their hands in the air and scream their lungs out. From the corner of my eye I see moist tufts of pubic hair, or red, infected bald spots where no hair will ever grow again, and I think about a plane exploding in the air. The passengers still belted to their seats as they begin a mile-long tumble into eternity: It’s cold, the air is thin, far below the ocean waits.

One of the very best scenes in the book, and one that made me laugh out-loud concerns how Schlosser terrorizes patients prior to a rectal exam while appearing to reassure them as he slowly and methodically preps. Of course, any doctor with an attitude like this is a disaster waiting to happen, so it doesn’t come as any great surprise to discover that something has gone terribly wrong with one of Schlosser’s patients. A famous actor, Ralph Meier, is now dead, and Schlosser is accused of malpractice.

Meier, a larger than life, bon vivant, obnoxious womanizer, first came to Schlosser’s practice 18 months before because he had heard through the grapevine that the doctor “was fairly accommodating with prescriptions.” This, incidentally, is another way that Schlosser has built his practice.  A series of events brings Schlosser and his wife, Caroline into Ralph’s social sphere. When Ralph is introduced to Caroline, he doesn’t disguise his lust:

As he examined the back of Caroline’s body from head to foot, a film slid down over his eyes. In nature films, you see that sometimes with birds of prey,. A raptor that has located, from somewhere far up high in the air, or from a tree branch, a mouse or some other tasty morsel. That was how Ralph Meier was regarding my wife’s body: as if it were something edible, something that made his mouth water. Now there was also some movement around his moth. The lips parted. his jaws churned, I even thought I heard the grinding of teeth–and he breathed a sigh. Ralph Meier was seeing something delicious. His mouth was already anticipating the tasty morsel that he would, if given the chance, wolf down in a few bites.

The most remarkable thing perhaps was that he did all this without the slightest embarrassment. As though I weren’t even there.

Ralph and his wife Judith invite Schlosser, his wife Caroline and their two daughters (aged 11 & 13) to join them near the Mediterranean coast at a rented summer house. Caroline wants to decline, and yet strangely enough, Schlosser manipulates a visit which ends in complete disaster…

Summer House with Swimming Pool is a bit of a disturbing curiosity. It begins with an unreliable narrator, a nasty toxic, twisted doctor who indulges in violent fantasies involving his patients (and humanity in general), who references the teachings of a former university professor who was “later drummed out of the university” for his controversial studies, and isn’t completely honest about his motivations. These motivations become clear over time, and yet I still didn’t quite trust his version of events.  While the book was initially very funny, in a sick psycho sort of way, the plot spins in the doldrums for a while before it takes an unexpected, very serious turn, and the two parts of the novel don’t quite mesh smoothly. 

I enjoyed Summer House with Swimming Pool, but I prefer The Dinner–a novel with nastiness that built relentlessly to the end. Both books examine the parent-child role–specifically the issues of protection and innocence. In Summer House with Swimming Pool, the male adults at the rented home, who include a visiting American film director with a taste for nubile young girls, engage in a summer of irresponsible, lustful juvenile behaviour which naturally ends badly. The motivations of all the characters are under scrutiny here, and while revenge may seem to be the dominant directive, troubling questions remain regarding Schlosser’s actions. We all tend to believe what we want to believe and accept the version of events that we like best, and perhaps this is what happened with Schlosser.  Unfortunately for the book, the Marc Schlosser we are left with at the end appears to have run out of steam and nastiness and this, in spite of the fact that Schlosser has finally had to confront the validity of his demented mentor’s misogynic ravings, doesn’t quite gel with the character revealed at the beginning. That said, I just read that Herman Koch has a third book soon to be published in English, and you bet I’ll be reading it.

Translated from Dutch by Sam Garnett. Review copy.

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Decompression by Julie Zeh

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for the unreliable narrator, so throw in a holiday setting, and it was guaranteed that I’d be interested in Julie Zeh’s book, Decompression a torrid tale of a love triangle told in alternating views by two sides of that twisted relationship.

Years before, Sven slipped the leash of a legal career in Germany and now, looking at his 40th birthday, he’s a resident of Lanzarote and runs a tourist business which allows him to combine his love for diving with independence. He’s lived on Lanzarote now for 14 years. He’s in charge of the diving side of things while Antje runs the actual business. That means she cleans the guest accommodations, cooks the meals, maintains the website, and manages all the finances. Note that I didn’t say that Antje is Sven’s girlfriend or S.O, and there’s a reason for that. While Sven and Antje live together and have sex, she occupies an undefined space in Sven’s life. She probably thinks she’s his girlfriend, but Sven sees the relationship more as a convenient business arrangement. And if you’re thinking that I don’t like Sven, you’re right.

decompressionThe book opens with Sven picking up two tourists from the airport. Usually he books several guests for the same period, but this is a special arrangement. This time Sven is exclusively under contract for the next two weeks to only two guests: writer, Theo and soap opera actress Jolanthe, also called Jola. Theo, who, at 42, is 12 years older than Jola, has one book to his credit, and Jola, who intends to bust out of television into film, is there to learn all about scuba diving hoping that she will land a major film role in a biopic about Charlotte Hass. Jola, the daughter of one of the world’s greatest film directors, sees the role as her “last chance” to leave television roles behind, so the diving lessons are of primary importance.

In very little time, Sven, who lives in the beachside cottage right next to his guests’ quarters, establishes that Theo and Jola have a twisted sick relationship which, as it turns out, includes violence as an erotic component. Sven is attracted to Jola, and the feeling appears to be mutual. While there’s a definite attraction between Sven and Jola (with both of them fantasizing about a future together), Theo, the odd man out in this sex-triangle, conveniently seems to step aside to allow Sven access to Jola.

The story unfolds through two dueling narratives. There’s Sven’s version, and then there’s Jola’s version of events. While these competing narratives agree on the basics: date, location, and weather, on everything else, all agreement ends. According to Sven, Jola teases and plays dangerous games, creating some very awkward and embarrassing situations since, as a client, she’s theoretically off limits. But listen to Jola, and she’ll tell you that Sven can’t keep his hands to himself. In this increasingly dangerous and risky situation, who do we believe?

Part of the sick joy of reading a story told by the unreliable narrator is the feeling that we, as readers, recognize the way truth slowly peels away from the narrative. Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here and Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks are both excellent examples of the unreliable narrator and give the reader the experience of being in the minds of total nutjobs who do terrible things while justifying all their actions quite merrily. Decompression is more a he said/she said scenario, and yes, while that gives us possibly two unreliable narrators, one of them may be telling the truth. Or at least a partial truth.

While the novel’s premise is intriguing, one of the problems is that Sven, Jola and even Theo are all unlikable characters–not that there’s a problem with unlikable characters as I enjoy reading about people I would not tolerate in my life. But Sven, who’s got this hot babe throwing herself at him under the nose of Theo, alone at night, begins masturbating to episodes of Jola’s soap role in Up and Down, and yet by day, according to his narrative, he’s prudishly pushing her away telling her that she’s off-limits. He’s drawn to Jola but simultaneously gets very bad vibes about the situation. He isn’t honest with himself, so is he honest with us? His confessional narrative which includes a wisp of victimhood could make him a reliable narrator–a man drawn into the very sick relationship between Theo and Jola, or this could make Sven somewhat unreliable too.  He’s certainly struggling to stay focused on his better self, and that struggle remains until a very dramatic but foreseeable scene which occurs towards the end of the book.

Jola’s diary, which forms her part of the book’s narrative, reads like the confessions of a spoiled teenage girl flexing her sexuality for the first time rather than the devious, seasoned mind of a femme fatale, and this is part of the novel’s weakness. While the two narratives verge and diverge, neither of them are strong enough or appealing enough to carry the plot. Sven had his problems before this famous couple arrive and play havoc with his island paradise. He can’t commit to his long-suffering girlfriend and seems embarrassed to admit that there’s anything between them other than business. When it comes to sport for Theo and Jola, he’s ripe for the picking, and he never quite gets the rules of the game. As a morally compromised character drawn into a relationship in which he’s out-of-his-depth, his questionable narrative doesn’t quite work. For this reader, Theo remains the most interesting side of this sick triangle, and yet we only see Theo opaquely through other people’s eyes. Ultimately, the novel’s best scenes describe the landscape or the underwater moments between Sven and his troublesome clients.

The Spaniards had long since given up tinkering around on their half-finished houses; instead they would sit on their driftwood fenced roof terraces while the salty wind gnawed the plaster off their walls. Wooden cable spools served as tables, stacked construction pallets as benches. Lahora was a terminus. A place where everything came to a halt. Furnished with objects that would have landed on the rubbish pile long ago if they were anywhere else. The ends of the earth.

 Review copy. Translated from German by John Cullen

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Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

You know how it is with some books. You’ve been meaning to read them for years, but somehow you always pass them by. Perhaps part of that comes from the idea that you think you know what the book’s about, and there’s a familiarity to it since it’s been sitting on the shelf for decades. This is exactly the case with Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. I’d always meant to read it, but I passed by my old hardback edition–even the college library threw it away which is how I came to own it. For some reason that I cannot adequately explain I had the impression that Castle Rackrent was a gothic novel–perhaps because I’d seen it linked with Ann Radcliffe’s works, so I was very surprised to find myself laughing at this very funny short book narrated by the old, faithful family retainer, Thady. Thady manages to outlive generations of dissolute owners of Castle Rackrent in the book that he presents as a “Memoir of the Rackrent Family.” The cover of the Oxford Classics edition says it all:

castle rackrentBut first a note on Maria Edgeworth… the introduction to my copy states that she was born on January 1, 1767 and died on May 22, 1849. At this point in time, Wikipedia gives her birth year as 1768. She was born in Oxfordshire as the result of the marriage between her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth and the first of four wives. My copy states that Maria was the first child of 19–Wikipedia places her as the second of 22. Right away of course, whichever version is the correct one, we know that there’s an interesting dynamic at work–especially with a quote from Maria’s father regarding his four wives:

I have had four wives. The second and third were sisters, and I was in love with the second in the lifetime of the first.

So whether we are talking about 19 children or twenty-two, this had to be an energetic and chaotic household. Maria Edgeworth lived with her aunts until her mother’s death and then her father remarried and relocated the family to his Irish estates. She returned to England for her education  during the illness of her first stepmother, Honora Sneyd, but after her death, and Mr Edgeworth’s remarriage to Honora’s sister (my intro says that this was Honora’s dying request), Maria shortly returned to Ireland yet again. So no small amount of impermanence and upheaval until Maria’s teen years. At this point she became involved in her father’s business and estates.

Castle Rackrent was published in 1800, initially without the author’s name, but this was added for the second edition. This is an unusual novel for its time as it is narrated by a servant, Old Thady Quirk, and if this story were told by the successive gentry owners of the estate, it would be a very different story indeed. As it is, Thady ‘s disingenuousness may be a construct to not speak ill of his various ‘masters,’–a habit from a lifetime of obsequiousness, or it may be his way of telling this shameful history while still appearing ‘loyal’ to the dissolute members of the family. Nonetheless, it’s the spaces between Thady’s naïve narrative and the actual events that creates so much humour. And this is how it begins:

Having, out of friendship for the family, upon whose estate, praised be heaven! I and mine have lived rent-free time out of mind, voluntarily undertaken to publish the MEMOIRS OF THE RACKRENT FAMILY, I think it my duty to say a few words, in the first place, concerning myself. My real name is Thady Quirk, though in the family I have always been known by no other than “Honest Thady.”

The insertion of Honest Thady let’s us know that the version we are about to hear is suspect, and as the tales unfold from Honest Thady of a dissolute bunch of owners, we have every reason to suspect his version of events.

Castle Rackrent was originally owned by Sir Tallyhoo Rackrent who came to a bad end, so the estate passed to Sir Patrick O’Shaughlin with the stipulation that he take the “surname and arms of Rackrent.” The litigious Sir Patrick, “who used to boast that he had a lawsuit for every letter in the alphabet,” according to Thady, “gave the finest entertainment” in which “not a man could stand after supper but Sir Patrick himself.” Here’s an example of Thady’s fond recollection of a Rackrent:

I remember when I was a little boy, the first bumper of claret he gave me after dinner, how he praised me for carrying it to my mouth.

Probably a good thing that the male Rackrents seem to die early and without issue–and that brings me to my very favourite member of the family, Sir Kit, who brings over his new bride who is, as we learn later, a very dark-complexioned Jewish woman, the “grandest heiress in England,”  who’s been married for her fortune.  The poor woman has no idea of what’s in store for her:

“Is the large room damp, Thady?” said his honour.

“Oh, damp, your honour! how should it be but as dry as a bone,” says I, “after all the fires we have kept in it day and night? It’s the barrack-room your honour’s talking on.”

“And what is a barrack-room, pray, my dear?” were the first words I ever heard out of my lady’s lips.

“No matter, my dear,” said he, and went on talking to me ashamed-like I should witness her ignorance. To be sure, to hear her talk one might have taken her for an innocent, for it was, “What’s this, Sir Kit?” and “What’s that, Sir Kit? all the way we went. To be sure, Sir Kit had enough to do to answer her.

“And what do you call that, Sir Kit?” said she; “that–that looks like a pile of black bricks, pray, Sir Kit?’

“My turf-stack, my dear,” said my master, and bit his lip.

Where have you lived, my lady, all your life, not to know a turf-stack when you see it? thought I; but I said nothing. Then, by-and-by, she takes out her glass, and begins spying over the country.

“And what’s all that black swamp out yonder, Sir Kit?” says she.

“My bog, my dear,” says he and went on whistling.

“It’s a very ugly prospect, my dear,” says she.

“You don’t see it, my dear,” says he; “for we’ve planted it out; when the trees grow up in summertime—” says he.

“Where are the trees,” said she, “my dear?” still looking through her glass.

“You are blind, my dear,” says he: “what are thee under your eyes?”

“These shrubs?” said she.

“Trees,” said he.

“May be they are what you call trees in Ireland, my dear,” said she; “but they are not a yard high, are they?”

“They were planted out but last year, my lady,” says I, to soften matters between them, for I saw she was going to make his honour mad with her: “they are very well grown for their age, and you’ll not see the bog of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin at-all-at-all through the screen, when once the leaves come out. But, my lady, you must not quarrel with any part or parcel of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin, for you don’t know how many hundred years that same bit of bog has been in the family; we would not part with the bog of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin upon no account at all; it cost the late Sir Murtagh two hundred good pounds to defend his title to it and boundaries against the O’Learys, who cut a road through it.”

Now one would have thought this would have been hint enough for my lady, but she fell to laughing like one out of their right mind, and made me say the name of the bog over, for her to get it by heart, a dozen times; then she must ask me how to spell it, and what was the meaning of it in English–Sir Kit standing by whistling all the while.

According to Thady “she laid the corner-stone of all her future misfortunes” this very first day, and if you want to know the fate of this particular Lady Rackrent (none of them exactly fare well), then you’ll have to read the book. Thady relates her history in this deadpan style–as if what happened to the poor woman was 1) deserved and 2) normal, but then the term ‘normal’ doesn’t apply to the Rackrents–an atrocious bunch of Anglo-Irish riffraff, a family of boozers, bounders and debtors, and the very worst sort of landowners.

There’s also an extensive glossary that accompanies the text, and written in an authoritarian style, this adds another level of irony to the humorous tale. Finally the topic of the Irish Roof emerged in Great Granny Webster, and the subject appears again here–the windows are broken and the roof leaks, but there’s too many debts and too little money to fix anything as the various heirs to the castle run the place into the ground.

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Consequences by Philippe Djian

“Evil’s out of hand in this country.”

Earlier this year, Emma pointed me in the direction of Philippe Djian’s novel, Consequences. It’s a great title as the main character, Marc, a middle-aged professor whose failed literary career has led him to teach creative writing, has reached his 50s in a life full of bad choices that is still, miraculously, consequence-free. But this is all about to change, and it changes rapidly within the first few pages. After an evening of drinking, Marc drives one of his young students back to his “lair” for “one full night of fun.” The next day, the girl, whose name he can’t remember, is dead. Marc doesn’t hesitate; he disposes of her body in a deep crevice on a hillside in the nearby woods.

consequencesStrange reaction … but then everything about Marc is a little strange. Not that the casual observer would necessarily pick up the warning signs right away. After all, Marc is a professor, middle-aged, and lives with his sister, Marianne. The fact that he lives with his sister is a little worrying, and then again they are awfully close. On the surface, Marc seems a ‘normal’ libidinous middle-aged professor who compensates for life’s disappointments by engaging in meaningless sexual encounters with students.

Quite a few years ago, he’d understood that the time had come to take advantage of certain perks that came with his profession–for lack of the better rewards that he had to stop expecting. One day, by a kind of miracle, one of his students began to glow as he looked at her–from the inside out, like a Chinese lantern with a wonderful gleam–but was, despite this, insipid and ordinary, almost devoid of interest, and absolutely incapable of putting two sentences together. Yet, just as he was brutally jeering, in front of other students, at work she’d turned in, he was blinded by a blast of heat. And this girl turned out to be the first in a fairly long series, as well as one of the most satisfying lays he’d ever had.

Richard Oslo, the department head, a real cretin in Marc’s opinion, isn’t the least attractive to women, so Marc congratulates himself that he may not have gained the directorship, but at least he can seduce any woman he wants. To Marc, this “reestablishes the balance.” Marc congratulates himself on a narrow escape from some messy consequences with the dead girl and starts lining up his next affair with a student who “was making use of lower and lower necklines as the year advanced.” There’s no shortage of eager young female students, it seems, but all of Marc’s erotic machinations fly out the window when he meets Myriam, the gorgeous red-headed step-mother of the missing girl. Marc, who normally steers clear of mothers, has never had sex with a woman older than 26. He’s powerfully attracted to Myriam, and since her husband is somewhere in Afghanistan, she’s alone.  Marc is warned to stay away from Myriam by Richard Olso, who sees a PR nightmare ahead, but Marc is already hooked into the chase:

Certainly a department head had a more comfortable salary, and the power that came along with it, especially in these uncertain times, had to be very enjoyable. Yet attracting women, turning the heads of widows, students, housewives, and holding on to that gift, appealing to these fucking women before you even opened your mouth, without putting the slightest effort into it–well, he said to himself, now that was something that gave pause for thought.

He wouldn’t have traded places with Richard, There was no sense thinking about it for hours. Ten or so years ago, his life had changed. It made a 180-degree turn the day he realized how something that seemed so complicated was really so easy. Things took on a different cast. And what a relief that had been! What a profound rebirth, in fact.

From there to thinking he wasn’t against extending his hunting grounds to mothers, to the parents of students and the like, was a step he took easily.

One very clever device utilized by Djian is the collision of consequences. Initially Marc, who ironically is teaching a course of “John Gardner and moral literature,” escapes all the consequences of his actions–his casual affairs, and the way he treats his female students. As the days pass, the author gradually reveals glimpses of Marc and Marianne’s childhood, so that we see how these middle-aged siblings live, daily, with the consequences of their childhood. Memories of the past and actions of the present are interwoven until the consequences of both collide.

At 195 pages, this is a slim, deeply unsettling novel, and one that is very easy to underestimate. Initially when Marc doesn’t question why the girl died and he decides, casually, to toss her body into the crevice, the plot seems implausible or at least sketchy. As the book unfolds, events as they are explained or presented to us by Marc become increasingly questionable. I’m used to an unreliable narrator in the first person. Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here and Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks are both superb example of just how far authors can go (and have fun) with narratives told by unreliable narrators. Philippe Djian takes the riskier road less travelled and for this novel, using the third person, he tells the story through Marc’s eyes.  It’s all so very cleverly done, and yet because this is a third person narration, Djian initially risks alienating the reader with a story that appears to have implausible actions committed by the main character. All the red flags would have popped up sooner with a first person narration, but the third person narrative places an additional murkiness to events in this dark tale of crime, twisted relationships, and the inability to escape the consequences of one’s actions and experiences. The cover, reflecting the narrative in multiple ways, is a perfect choice for the novel. 

Translated by Bruce Benderson.

This is the second Djian novel I’ve read, and I’d rate Consequences above Unforgivable. So thanks Emma for another great recommendation.

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Constance by Patrick McGrath

To say that I looked forward to reading Constance, Patrick McGrath’s latest novel would be putting it mildly. His novel Dr. Haggard’s Disease makes my favourite books list, so I approached Constance with some high expectations. McGrath’s father was the superintendent of Broadmoor Hospital, and I don’t think I’m making a leap when I say that you can see this influence in his work.  I’m specifically thinking of Asylum and Spider which were both made into excellent films in case anyone is interested. Since Patrick McGrath uses the unreliable narrator in his novels, I expected more of the same creepy insanity. Was I disappointed? Well yes and no.

SO … imagine that you are a middle-aged professor, an expert on Romantic poetry with a couple of failed marriages under your belt. You don’t think you’ll ever love again at your age and with your soured attitude towards love and relationships. And then, one night, while attending a  book party, you spot a beautiful young woman alone and out of place in the room full of people. You go and talk to her, take her from the party and go to a restaurant to talk. The young woman, whose name is Constance, is obviously damaged goods. Brittle and … yes … on the mentally fragile side. She hates her father (long story) but also has a daddy fixation. Not a good combination. And to top it off, you become the father figure in her life. How unhealthy and potentially hazardous is that?

ConstanceAnd here’s how the novel begins:

My name is Constance Schuyler Klein. The story of my life begins the day I married an Englishman called Sidney Klein and said goodbye forever to Ravenswood and Daddy and all that went  before. I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy. I intended to become my own woman. I intended, oh I intended everything. I saw myself reborn. Gone forever the voice of scorn and disapproval, the needling querulous voice so unshakeable in its conviction that I was worthless, worse than worthless, unnecessary.

Constance is married to her new “daddy,” and things, hardly surprisingly, are not going well. While I understand why one partner in a relationship may seek a new parent, I’ve always found the other partner facilitating that role cringeworthy. Perhaps it can work if both people in the relationship accept the parent-child dynamic but how can it be healthy and isn’t it guaranteed to be fraught with problems and tension? Naturally, it follows that this parent-child relationship is going down the toilet. Sidney is, of course, old enough to be Constance’s father (that’s why she’s attracted to him) and so according to Constance, he likes to lecture his girl-bride and ‘teach’ her how to think. Shades of Pygmalion here so often found in relationships between much older men and young women: she offers youth and he offers experience, stability and financial security.

Told in dual narratives from Constance and Sidney, narratives that are possibly unreliable from their very defensiveness, we learn how these two people met. We already know that Constance has a daddy-complex, and while Sidney seems happy enough, at least initially to accept that role, he’s attracted to Constance’s damaged self. Sidney, a lover of Romantic poetry, is working on a  book called The Conservative Heart and is at an all-time low when he first spots Constance at the book party that changed the direction of his life. Attracted by her “air of angry untouchability,” he approaches her. On Constance’s part, she sees Sidney in a far from flattering light. We’re told he’s tall and “heavy,

It was a warm evening. I was in my light seersucker and apparently there were beads of sweat on my forehead. The effect she said later, was that of an obscure consular official going quietly mad in a far-flung outpost of empire.

Constance’s daddy complex is more than matched by Sidney’s doomed Romanticism:

I asked her about her childhood, and she told me she’d grown up with her sister, Iris, in a falling-down house in the Hudson Valley complete with a framed verandah and a tower. It had been in her family for generations, she said, but when I asked her how many generations she was vague. Oh, two at least, she said. Daddy grew up there. It stood high on a fissured bluff, and on the south side of the property a steep wooded slope descended to a wetland meadow by the railroad tracks and the river. This was the view she’d had from her bedroom window, she said, the sweep of the mighty Hudson far below her, with the Catskills in the distance. It was called Ravenswood.

It was all too good to be true. The old house with its tower on a bluff above the river, and this beautiful girl, clearly in flight from who knows what horrors she’d suffered there, it was a Romantic cliché, the whole thing. But for that I liked it all the more.

While Constance ostensibly seeks a new father figure who is everything her real father isn’t, Sidney soon, in common with Constance’s father, becomes the villain–the villain to be rebelled against. And while Sidney was initially attracted to Constance as a damsel-in-distress, that old cliché becomes wearisome when he realises that he is now the source of her distress. Sidney discovers that being the caretaker of a mentally damaged, fragile person is both draining and thankless, so when Constance’s sister, Iris, moves to New York and finds an apartment “over a noodle shop in Chinatown,” Sidney is pleased.  Sidney rather approves of Iris who intends to become a doctor like her father, and this really doesn’t help the child-parent dynamic between Constance and Sidney as this effectively recreates the toxic competition between the two sisters for attention. Sidney’s approval of the freshly relocated Iris,  “a messy beatnik floozy,” very effectively signals trouble for Constance’s marriage.

McGrath novels often include a lurid, pathological past, and there are hints of that from Constance, and those hints blow wide open into a lingering malignancy as the book progresses. All the past secrets, of course, reside at Ravenswood, a house that is slipping into decay–symbolic of course of the pathological secrets buried deep in the past. Why is Constance’s father (who reminds Sidney of the “pitchfork man in Grant Wood’s American Gothic”) so emotionally distant from his daughter? There are shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca here in the very unhealthy atmosphere at the family home at Ravenswood. There’s a creepy dried, up, “sour,” housekeeper, Mildred Knapp, who takes over after the lonely death of Constance and Iris’s mother Harriet. What’s the dark secret involving Mildred’s husband, and why are certain topics strictly off limits at Ravenswood? The book has an underlying trademark McGrath creepiness, with its emphasis on death and decay. Buildings and people fall apart. While one character is slowly dying, New York’s Penn Station is being stripped and noisily demolished–both incidents depress Sidney who sees the pointless destruction of the station as evidence of the decay of civilization.

Constance is a problematic character in this beautifully written novel in which the characters never quite seem comfortable together as they drift through the story rather like disinterested dance partners. While Constance is the less-favoured daughter, there’s something of the spoiled brat about her damaged air, and for this reader, there were a couple of story threads which were never fully explored–one involving oily lounge lizard, pianist Eddie Castrol, thrown into the mix but underexploited for the plot.  Dr. Haggard’s Disease remains my favourite McGrath novel, and it’s a book that set an impossibly high standard to beat, and unfortunately Constance doesn’t come close. The madness and obsession found in Asylum, Spider and Dr Haggard’s Disease appear in Constance but in a much lighter dose. There were occasions when the novel seemed about to take the reader down the dark labyrinth of total insanity, but instead the story lands on neuroticism. Does Gothic not translate effectively to Manhattan in the 60s? Or is Gothic simply replaced by its more modern counterpart, Neuroticism?

But she had such a tricky psyche, all turned in on itself like a convoluted seashell, like a nautilus, and at times I caught her talking to herself as though in response to what she heard in that seashell. When I asked her who she was talking to she’d all at once startle and wouldn’t tell me. It was disquieting.

Review copy.

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Solo Pass by Ronald De Feo

“People continued to pass by, and I meant nothing to them, as they meant nothing to me. Who needed to court their approval? Why had such a need ever been important to me? And this particular group was especially pitiful. Here they were, just leisurely strolling about, gazing in windows, stopping in shops, hurrying off to drinks or a late lunch, while a thief and a madman traveled among them, by their side, almost shoulder to shoulder. And the fools didn’t even know it. They believed themselves to be perfectly safe.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for novels told by an unreliable narrator. I also have a perverse interest in any book set in an asylum, so add those two factors together and throw in a name I already know, Ronald De Feo, who delighted me in 2011 with his extremely unusual novel, Calling Mr. King  –the story of a hit man who finds an inner life. It’s a triple whammy. How could I lose?

solo passOtt, a man in his 30s, is our unreliable narrator. He once had a career as a New York editor, but his life began a downhill spiral when his wife Elizabeth left, and after a meltdown, he found himself being carted off to the mental health ward at Essex Hospital. Well, this is Ott’s version of events, and as the novel continues,  we discover, of course, that Ott’s view of life is inaccurate. His problems extend far beyond the breakdown of his marriage, and if anything, marriage was a failed attempt at normalcy and connection with another human being. But hey, things could be worse–there’s also a violent ward at Essex and Ott isn’t on it. He also isn’t being shipped off to Courtland, a hospital for more permanent cases, full of “frigging zombies talking to walls and chairs.” No, life is looking up for Ott; he’s on the brink of being given a solo pass to spend a few hours outside of the hospital by himself. A solo pass is a trial run of sorts, a taste of full release and theoretical freedom . Will Ott be able to handle it?

According to seasoned patient, Mandy, a young trust fund woman, there’s a knack to being released. She advises Ott to “just tell them what they want to hear.” ‘Them,’ of course refers to the doctors in the ward–the ones who make the decisions about medication and further treatment. She also advises Ott not to open his mouth to rant against his bête noir, that “uncouth bastard,” Prodski, Ott’s former therapist, and as it turns out, the man Ott blames for the breakdown of his marriage and his life. Mandy is an expert on solo passes–on her last one, she immediately found another former patient and had sex. These days we’d call Mandy a sex-addict, but back in the 60s she’d be on the nympho ward in Sam Fuller’s spectacular over-the-top film, The Naked Kiss (yes, one of my favourites).

Solo Pass takes us through Ott’s preparations for a few hours of ‘freedom’ in one afternoon. Of course, since we are privy to Ott’s innermost thoughts while his doctor is not, we get a sense of whether or not he’s ‘ready’ to fly solo, or whether this is a risky venture:

“Any of those strange feelings lately?” Dr. Petersen asked, referring to those feelings that used to creep up on me–at my job, at home with my ex-wife, just about anywhere and at any time. There I’d be by the window of my office staring out at the office buildings across the way or sunk down in my favourite easy chair at home studying Elizabeth reading on the sofa, and I’d suddenly feel that I didn’t belong, that I had been placed in someone else’s life, that everyone and everything around me was foreign, unfamiliar, wrong.

No, I told her. None at all. And I smiled again, this time to indicate that I now regarded those feelings as rather ridiculous, a product of an illness that was no longer with me. Why the very mention of them amused me more than anything else. I conveyed this amusement well. Yes, I believe I was very convincing.

Through Ott’s memory, glimpses of his married live with Elizabeth emerge along with scenes of his hostility at work:

And when I discovered that my immediate boss, Richard Lorch–a smug, officious nuisance–had an aversion to office plants, considered them bourgeois and decorative clichés, I brought in more. “What’s the point?” he had the nerve to ask one day when he caught me hanging up a new addition. Perhaps to annoy you, I answered in my head.

Apart from his relationship with Mandy, Ott also chats with other patients, including  Wally, a man addicted to cheesy TV programmes and Tommy, a man with a history of violent behaviour:

He held up a sheet of paper covered with what looked like graffiti–words, circles, cylinders in red and blue ink–quite a mess really, an aggressive, violent one at that, “My plan for attacking Iran,” he said, and went on to explain that the dozens of circles represented tanks, our tanks, thousands of them, and that they would form a line and sweep down into the country and destroy everything in their path. And then they would get air support from thousands of fighter jets–the cylinders–that would be firing on anything the tanks missed.

“Fuckin’ great, right?” he said when he finished detailing his battle dream,. “We’ll wipe out all those fucks. Right?”

One of the subtler aspects to the novel is the idea that certain bizarre behaviours are condoned by society while others are deemed unacceptable, and of course, the real question here is just who gets to decide which behaviours are ok while other behaviours are not. For example, Ott’s uncle insists on dressing smartly to visit graves. It’s a sign of respect, he argues, while Ott can’t see the point. However, when Ott calls his own answering machine and leaves himself a message this is considered most peculiar by Uncle Arthur. Bottom line, once you’re deemed ‘unstable’ good luck getting that label changed.

In this highly engaging novel, Ott presents his version of events, but we are still able to see cracks in the narrative, and eventually a well-formed picture of what really happened emerges.  Are Ott’s workmates “cool or just plain indifferent?” And why did the secretary resign “for personal reasons?” This is a story of a man who doesn’t fit in, and his attempts to do so have failed abysmally. Now with time out, therapy and the appropriate medication, what will happen during this test run–a solo pass for a few hours? The novel’s conclusion didn’t go in the direction I perversely urged, but that is, I think, my personal preference, and not the fault of the story. Ultimately, author De Feo shows that the weight of conformity and a desire to belong to a social group can be both a terrible burden, an overwhelming challenge, and oddly enough a liberating choice. Some of us just have to go farther to find a comfort zone.

Review copy

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The Dinner by Herman Koch

“When faced with lower intelligences, the most effective strategy in my opinion is tell a bare-faced lie: with a lie, you give the pinheads a chance to retreat without losing face.”

I’ve discovered that I share some reading tastes with Tom from A Common Reader , so when he read and reviewed Herman Koch’s book, The Dinner, I knew I’d enjoy it too. The narrative (which is hilariously funny, btw)  appeared to be taking me in one direction–something along the lines of a nasty interior dialogue which mostly consisted of an under-achieving brother bitching about the success of his sibling–in other words, something we can all relate too. In terms of the fussy sniping, the narrative style is reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard’s novels, and reminds me of the translator Richard Pevear’s term “the dialectic of isolated consciousness.”  Just as I was laughing, and enjoying the ride, the book took an unexpected turn, and there I was in the middle of a bunch of nasty characters who had to make a serious, life-altering moral decision.  

the dinnerThe story is set around, as the title suggests, a dinner, at a swanky Amsterdam restaurant attended by two very different brothers and their wives. Serge Lohman, a politician, “leader of the largest opposition party,” the much more affluent and successful brother, is married to Babette. Paul Lohman, and the unreliable, unempoyed narrator of this story is married to Claire. There’s a lot of unresolved baggage between the brothers, and it’s one of those social situations in which every decision, every choice made is assumed to be making some sort of point or insult. Serge, for example, part of “that class of Dutch people who think everything French is ‘great’ ” selected the restaurant, and it’s impossible to get a table there unless you book months in advance. It’s not impossible for “nationally famous” Serge, of course, and so even the selection of the restaurant seems to be a dig at his brother’s lesser position in society.  At another point, Paul selects an appetizer he dislikes simply because he thinks “to have the same appetizer as my brother was out of the question,” as it would look as though he “wasn’t original enough to choose an appetizer of my own.” Yes the relationship between the brothers is that poisoned. And so you ask why on earth are they spending a tortured evening together? They are there to discuss an incident that involves their sons. That’s as much as I can say.

I knew I was going to thoroughly enjoy this book almost immediately, but by the time we got around to the toadying floor manager who describes every dish and its point of origin as if he personally trekked hundreds of miles to hunt down unique food items for his customers,  I was laughing out loud:

“The crayfish are dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions,” said the manager: he was at Serge’s plate now, pointing with his pinky. “And these chanterelles from the Vosges.” The pinky vaulted over the crayfish to point out two brown toadstools, cut lengthwise; the “chanterelles” looked as though they had been uprooted only a few minutes ago: what was sticking to the bottom, I figured, could only be dirt.

It was a well-groomed hand, as I’d established while the manager was uncorking the bottle of Chablis Serge had ordered. Despite my earlier suspicions, there was nothing about him to hide; neat cuticles without hangnails, the nail itself trimmed short, no rings–it looked freshly washed, no signs of anything chronic. For the hand of a stranger, though, I felt as though it was coming too close to our food–it hovered less than an inch above the crayfish; the pinky itself came even closer, almost brushing the chanterelles.

I wasn’t sure I would be able to sit still when that hand, with its pinky was floating over my own plate, but for the sake of a pleasant evening, I knew it would be better to restrain myself.

As the courses pile on, and the detailed origins of the food continue, tensions mount and old scores are revealed. There’s an argument over the merits of the “new Woody Allen,”  with Serge declaring the film a “masterpiece,” while confessing that he lusts after Scarlett Johansson (“I wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers,”). Paul is then boxed into taking an oppositional statement about Woody Allen, the film, and Serge’s lust object. Babette is already visibly upset when she arrives with Serge and as the evening wears on, much to Paul’s glee a number of embarrassing scenes take place and threaten total meltdown.

As the situation that created the need for a dinner engagement is gradually revealed, additional details of the private lives of these families surface. Paul and Claire have a teenage son, Michel. Serge and Babette have two children: Rick, who is the same age as Michel, and an autistic daughter, 13-year-old Valerie. They also have an adopted son, Beau from Burkina Faso, according to our narrator, as part of–Paul nastily suggests– a  “rent-to-own agreement.” Paul hints that the adoption was motivated by career concerns and notes that after Serge and Babette adopted Beau, the “ African son,” Serge “began to pose more frequently for family photos.”  Our unreliable narrator loathes his brother, and since Serge is an ambitious politician, someone who is obviously conscious of image, it’s difficult to pierce through Paul’s perceptions to find reality. Paul frequently predicts Serge’s attitudes and behavior. We know, for example, that Serge attended a “six week wine course” at night school, and thereafter with diploma in hand, became one of those annoying wine experts

I can’t remember exactly when he first presented himself as a connoisseur; in my memory it seems to have happened quite suddenly. From one day to the next he became the one who picked up the wine list and mumbled something about the “earthy aftertaste” of Portuguese wines from the Alentejo: it had been a sort of coup, really for from that day on, the wine list automatically ended up in Serge’s hands.

The menu courses keep rolling in, the floor manager and his intrusive pinky keep appearing, and between the four diners, layers of pathology are slowly revealed. The motivating factors behind the dinner are cleverly supported with memories of the past and through a series of revelations, a portrait of skewed morality, deeply troubling parenting, and mental illness emerge from the wreckage of the evening. In the final evaluation, however, the book is not what it initially appears to be, and the dynamics of the relationships between two brothers and their wives are subsumed into a statement about modern Dutch society. The Dinner is especially recommended to fans of Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks  and Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here.

Thanks for the suggestion, Tom.

Translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett. Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Koch Herman