Monday, March 5, 2012

The Hour of the Star (Plus How Should a Person Be)

A while ago, I'm not sure when, exactly, but sometime last summer, I started to read about Sheila Heti and her novel, How Should a Person Be?.  I looked it up, and saw I couldn't buy it (even though it had recently been published), but I was successful in obtaining a copy through interlibrary loan.  I believe that it was actually on released in Canada two years ago, which is why I couldn't buy it or otherwise locate a copy.  But, it arrived thanks to my lovely library.  I read it.  At times I liked it…there were some really great parts (I think – more on that in two sentences) but in the end I wasn't blown away, and returned it to the library feeling just ho-hum about it.  At that point I still hadn't realized that it wasn't yet published in the U.S.
I said, "I think" there were great parts, because I don't really remember.  I remember the basic story outline and how it was put together, but I couldn't tell you much else.  It was good, don't get me wrong, but forgettable. 
Lately I've been seeing all this buzz about it…excitement about its impending release this summer.  Many have read it and loved it.  But I keep asking myself, what really was so great about it?  Yes, it was unique in structure and form, but overall I wasn't changed.  And maybe I'm at a point where I want a novel to influence me in some way.  I don't know…for all it was, it just wasn't "it" for me.
Which brings me to The Hour of the Star. 
I don't know where I first heard about The Hour of the Star.  But I got a gift card to Barnes and Noble from my mother-in-law for Christmas, and needed something besides the Christopher Hitchens essay collection to use it up.  I came upon the just-released new translation of Lispector's short noveland immediately bought it. 
I started reading it back in February after We Need to Talk About Kevin. I needed something light (or at least non-dense) after that gauntlet.   I don't think it took me long to finish it…maybe a week or so.  But having read the many essays currently being published about it (Quarterly Conversation just published a few more this week), I couldn't help but wonder –what was all the fuss?  And all these people were moved by it.  Chad Post, on the Three Percent Podcast (my new obsession) called it "goddamn amazing" and likened it to Virginia Woolf. Did we read the same book?  I was deeply troubled by this.  Clearly I was missing something… (which is why this post begins with the same issue I had with Heti)
So…not wanting to miss something like I clearly did with Heti, I went back and read The Hour of the Star again. (I would not have done this had the book not been 77 pages.) I truly appreciated and enjoyed it more the second time around.  And this time, it only took me one day.
The Hour of the Star is told by the narrator, Rodrigo S.M. who had once seen this poor girl named Macabea (thinking about the structure of the novel, it's possible that the narrator invented that name for her) at a cafĂ© and fell in love with her.  Rodrigo feels compelled to tell this urchin's story, or rather to make one up for her.  The novel is a tragic tale for Macabea, with a rather humorous (though it shouldn't be) interlude when she has something of a boyfriend, Olimpico, but it's also Rodrigo trying to tell the story.  He doesn't know how to write, so makes frequent interruptions, at one point telling the reader he needs to take a three day break.  It's a beautifully rendered slice of life.  It's not supposed to be uplifting, but somehow it is.  One of the articles I read at Quarterly Conversation states that Lispector's characters "walk out of hiding from themselves" which is apt a description of this book as I could hope to give. 
I kept waiting for Shawn to ask me why I couldn't just finish this slim book already, since to the unknowing eye (that I was actually rereading this weekend) it would seem like I hadn't finished it three weeks ago.  And had I not reread it, this post would have continued on its Heti-problem trajectory, which is what I planned to begin with.  I could have scrapped the whole beginning about Heti, but in the end decided to keep it; maybe for future reference, maybe to remind me when the US version is released to find a copy of How Should a Person Be and try it again.  Sometimes perseverance, and not giving up on a text the first time around really does pay off.  Sometimes it doesn't, though.  Overall, I did end up really enjoying the story and am looking forward to the other Lispector novels that New Directions will publish in 2012.  But I will warn you: if you read The Hour of the Star, you may have to read it again. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

It’s taken me quite a long time to write this review.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is brutal and unforgiving. It’s terrifying. Disturbing. To the core. It will make people ask you if you are ok. And you will not be ok. Trust me.

The novel is comprised of a series of letters that Eva – mother of Kevin – is writing to her (ex?) husband Franklin. Kevin was the perpetrator of a high school massacre and is now serving time in a detention facility. Eva is looking back over her son’s life, trying to figure out if she was to blame…what she could have done differently along the way. What was wrong with Kevin? Was he “wrong” from the start, or did something happen that made him the way that he was? Shriver’s novel shocks over and over again…and even when it feels to be winding down, finally coming to “Thursday” there are still more shocks to come.

It’s not often that a novel can really, really stir up emotions…particularly emotions that are completely contained, shall we say, within the action of the novel. This isn’t a case where I’m reading my own life – thank god! – into the action, seeing myself in the characters. This is sheer rage, sheer sorrow over what Shriver puts to us. You have to have the stomach for this novel. And even after every twist and turn, I had to restrain myself from balling my eyes out at the ending. I did not see that coming, though I should have…it was hinted at but I chose to think, “no…it cannot happen.” It did. I’ll leave it at that.

It’s rare – very rare – that…that what? So many things – that you meet a character that is so horrifying in a very human way. I know what I’m trying to say here, but it’s a difficult idea to form and verbalize. A story might be scary – even horrifying. A ghost story. Halloween, the Ring, the Shining, whatever. But a lot of what is horrifying isn’t real…on a human scale you know it’s going to hurt you. Michael Meyers might be a sociopathic psychokiller… but the idea that you can’t kill him? It’s not real, and on a human level you know that.

Kevin is the type of person you hope that you never have to meet in life. I’ve seen pieces of him in others before, but this full-on sociopath who is so bored with life that the only things that they find interesting are things that hurt other people. And they just don’t give a shit.

In my mind, I’m comparing this to the villains in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo…they were very real – their crimes were human. And they were sociopaths. But the horror is different than in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Where Dragon Tattoo’s villains too one dimensional? Is it that they were seeking out victims in a relatively random way? Kevin is targeted: he will tell you the thing that will make you want to kill yourself. He will do to you what will damage you most, and then let you live. Or, maybe, he’ll just kill you himself. He’s terrifying on a primal level: as a homo sapien, I think we have evolved to be horrified and repulsed to the gut by people like this…who don’t get that we are supposed to work together as a society, who just say fuck you to the social contract.

But while it’s Kevin that I am scared of, it’s his father – Franklin – that I was angry at. Franklin is so completely in his world of Andie Griffith, Oh gee pop that sounds great - that he completely misses his son. He is not seeing Kevin, he is seeing his dream child. And anyone who dare suggest that the dream child isn't the dream child, there is something wrong with their assessment. I know people like this. I know people who have almost gotten people fired from their jobs because their kid is a hellion and they refuse to see it. Even when it's on video. I understand loving and being awed by your kid. What I do not understand is being so utterly blinded by it, or by your own weirdness that you don't see your child at all.

Children don’t come with a manual. And the best advice is conflicting at best. Every child is different, and the trick of parenting seems to be figuring out your own kid – what they need, when, how, by whom. The trick is, though, that this isn’t something you simply light on when your child is 3 months old, and it serves you the rest of your life. It’s not that simple. This story of watching Eva struggle as a mother to find how to interact with and control her son is unsettling, and I found myself measuring Brendan's quirks and outbursts with Kevin's...this book will not allow you to escape the idea that you too may have raised a murderer.

As I mentioned earlier, this is definitely not for really have to be able to stomach it. Shriver is cruel, and her cruelty will take a toll on you. But I'll tell you, when I finished it I immediately went and bought some other Shriver novels, and they look about as bleak as We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Comedy in a Minor Key

How do you do dispose of a body you aren’t supposed to have in the first place?

That is the central problem for Wim and Marie, an average young Dutch couple who agree to hide a Jewish man, Nico, during the Nazi occupation. And then he dies.

Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key is a slim, somewhat simple novel that easily shows the anxiety and issues arising from having someone in your house that you aren’t supposed to have in your house. At first they think that they can do it without anyone knowing, including family and the cleaning lady. But slowly – purposefully and accidently – a lot of people end up knowing. Through it, they come to learn that many of their own circle that they thought they knew well were also concealing secrets – which end up helping them in the end.

What I liked most about this novel is the averageness of its characters. Wim and Marie don’t take Nico in out of some high purpose…there isn’t any moralizing about “the right thing to do,” or Schindler’s breakdown (“I could have done so much more!”). They do it because it has to be done, out of some vague sense of duty to their country. Someone asks them and they say, well sure. And Nico is so ordinary himself…a single perfume salesman, parents are dead, and no real relatives or importance. As much, I suppose, as any person could be said to be unimportant.

That Nico died in such an ordinary way underscores this. There is a sense that he didn’t need to go into hiding just to die from an illness; he went into hiding so he could live - so the three of them could come out the other side. That comedic irony, as well as the simple way in which his disposal is bungled (a mere oversight of a monogram and a laundry tag on a pair of pajamas) is what makes this novel almost humorous. It has a slapstick, Waiting for Godot quality about it. One review I came across called the novel’s subject the “goofy, quotidian kindness that is one possible response to violence.” The everyday-ness of the novel, the, “yeah, sure we’ll do that” is what’s amazing. There aren’t many light-hearted novels on this subject.

Comedy in a Minor Key is a small novel that doesn’t deal with any of the larger issues that I have come to expect in a story of occupied Europe. It’s about muddling through and figuring it out as you go along. But perhaps its publication in 1947 is a reason for that – it takes decades to truly process the totality of such a disaster. At this point I could start to go on angrily about our expectations of the 9/11 novel by extension, but I’ll save that for another post. It’s perhaps the ordinary stories that often come first, the stories that would be familiar to most people. The overarching epics that make us proud to be humans – in spite of what we humans sometimes do to one another – seem to come later.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Enduring Love

Sometimes in my life, I get feelings about things. I don’t mean everyday coincidences, such as the fact that today I e-mailed a consultant about grass (my life is so exciting, I know), and it turns out he was on the job site at that moment looking at the grass. That’s a coincidence.

By feelings, I mean connections between people, often before they are aware of it themselves. I often am able to pick up when a person likes someone else…not obvious flirtations, but those secret things we don’t always like to admit. The way they throw a snowball, or the slight, so easy to miss twinkle in their eye at the mention of the person’s name.

Once, I don’t remember the situation, but I shared a very personal story with a friend of mine. There was some subtle something in the way she reacted to the story, and I thought, I think she (yes she) is in love with me. Months later…maybe four or five months later, she tells me that she is in love with me. Here was the rest of the conversation:

“I know.”
“You know?”
“I’ve known since November.”
“But I didn’t realize it until March.”
“I’ve known since November.”

I usually try to keep these feelings at arms lengths, especially when there is a desire for them to be correct. So I try to ignore them, and let things go where they go. And also because every now and then I seem to be off.

In Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, Jed Parry gets it very, very wrong.

I loved the first few paragraphs, setting up the story:

The beginning is simple to mark. We were in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind. I was kneeling on the grass with a corkscrew in my hand, and Clarissa was passing me the bottle – a 1987 Daumas Gassac. This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand, and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout. We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing, I was running toward it. The transformation was absolute: I don’t recall dropping the corkscrew, or getting to my feet, or making a decision, or hearing the caution Clarissa called after me. What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness among the fresh spring grasses by the oak. There was a shout again, and a child’s cry, enfeebled by the wind that roared in the tall trees along the hedgerows. I ran faster. And there, suddenly, from different points around the field, four other men were converging on the scene, running like me.

…I’m holding back, delaying the information. I’m lingering in the prior moment because it was a time when other outcomes were still possible; the convergence of six figures in a flat green space has a comforting geometry from the buzzard’s perspective, the knowable, limited plane of the snooker table. The initial conditions, the force and the direction of the force, define all the consequent pathways, all the angles of collision and return, and the glow of the overhead light bathes the field, the baize and all its moving bodies, in reassuring clarity. I think that while we were still converging, before we made contact, we were in a state of mathematical grace. I linger on our dispositions, the relative distances and the compass point- because as far as these occurrences were concerned, this was the last time I understood anything clearly at all.

What were we running toward? I don’t think any of us would ever know fully…it was an enormous balloon filled with helium, that elemental gas forged from hydrogen in the nuclear furnace of the stars, first step along the way in the generation of multiplicity and variety of matter in the universe, including our selves and our thoughts.

We were running toward a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes.

One of the men running was Jed Parry. Our narrator, Joe Rose, has an odd encounter with him when one of the people trying to hold down the balloon is lifted up and eventually falls to his death. Jed asks Joe to pray with him there over the body. Joe refuses, disgusted at this reaction and leaves. In the middle of the night, Joe receives a phone call from Jed: he knows that Joe is in love with him, and he just wanted to call and let him know that he was in love too. So it begins.

Jed follows him – staking out his apartment, interpreting the movement of curtains for signals from Joe. And Joe’s wife Clarissa misses all of this. Jed hides when he sees her coming, and his handwriting is close enough to Joe’s that Clarissa thinks Joe is making it all up. Until he tries to kill them.

I thought the book got off track when Joe goes to find Jean (widow of the man who fell), and she asks him to find the girl that must have been in the car with her husband. She believes he must have been having an affair with whoever left the scarf behind. This plot line was then seemingly forgotten about to return to the original plot – so wholly forgotten that I had to go back and make sure I didn’t skip a chapter. It is introduced again at the very end for what seemed like no purpose. After thinking about it, the purpose obviously was to give a non-psychotic twist on the case of getting it wrong. Jean believes – based on evidence she interprets – that he husband was having an affair. In actuality, he had picked up an illicit hitchhiking couple who flee the scene when it takes its deadly turn.

In the end, I don’t think that I particularly cared for Enduring Love. I think I really enjoyed the Jed Parry/Joe Rose story…maybe “enjoyed” isn’t the word. I was freaked out, kept interested. But the other portions of it seemed superfluous. I thought for certain that when Rose looked into the mysterious scarf left in the car, he would find another reason to fear Parry. Instead, he found what amounted to a strange and unnecessary feel good ending – or at least feel good in context. The end, generally, all neatly tied up, was really just feel good in context. And I suppose that that is where my disappointment lies. Not because I didn’t want it to end well for Joe and Clarissa, or anyone else, but it seemed both rushed and dragged out at the same time. I found myself skimming through conversations on Keats to find out what Parry was going to do next.

So, something like The Mustache is happening here with my reaction to the book. It was, as a whole, just ho-hum...the ending like a deflating balloon (pun intended). The ideas that the novel presented and explored, however, were interesting and disturbing. McEwan writes, “No one could agree on anything. We lived in a mist of half-shared, unreliable perception, and our sense data came warped by a prism of desire and belief, which tilted our memories too. We saw and remembered in our own favor, and we persuaded ourselves along the way….believing is seeing.” How much do we see about the world, and our relationships, simply because we believe it? How much of the stuff we see as symbolic, or “meaning something” is just coincidence? What’s disturbing here is to see those pattern-seeking tendencies we have as humans blown up into something deadly. And where is the line between generally reading evidence and drawing a wrong conclusion, and just being certifiable? Probably somewhere around the time you start following someone around. Creepy.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Mustache & The Class Trip

I've been taking a lot of recommendations from The Millions these days. The description of Emmanuel Carrere's The Mustache and Class Trip in this article was too much for me to resist.

Imagine Rod Sterling's voice here. Meet ____ (we don't know his name). About to set out for a dinner party, he decides to shave off his mustache. In this ordinary act, something extraordinary occurs. When he walks out of the bathroom, he will be entering - The Twilight Zone.

Ok, that was lame. But imagine you had a mustache for years. And you decide to get rid of it, just to see. But no one notices - not your wife, not your friends, not your coworkers. Your mustache, you thought, was such an obvious feature of your appearance that someone would comment on its disappearance...especially since some, like you wife, have never seen you without it. But no one notices. You begin to suspect they are all playing a trick on you, an elaborate joke. One night you ask your wife (named Agnes) why she hasn't said anything. And she informs you that you never had a mustache. !

You call some friends, and they say you never had a mustache either. ! You produce some photos from a trip to Java you and Agnes took, with your mustache, and Agnes dismisses them. In the morning, the photos are gone, and she informs you that you never went to Java, with or without mustache. The friends you visited the night before - Agnes tells you that you not only spent the night at home but that she never heard of these friends. !

Through all this, you find out that your father died the year before, but you don't thought he was alive and well. !

So...what do you do? Are you insane? Is Agnes insane? Is Agnes trying to convince you that you are insane for some reason?

___ runs away - hopping on a plane to Hong Kong, where he spends a few days riding a ferry back and forth and shaving over and over and over and over again. He moves on to Macao, and one night coming back to his hotel - there is Agnes, talking about going to the casino again, as if she had been along on the entire trip. He goes into the bathroom, and cuts off his face. There. All better.

The Mustache certainly isn't for everyone. I wasn't sure it was for me, given my New York Trilogy problem. But I actually really, really liked it. Sometimes I apparently have trouble relating to people who think differently than I do, to the point where it seems there are two different realities. So the concept of The Mustache - that what we feel constitutes our life, our reality - could be very, very wrong is extremely creepy. What if reality as I perceive it is as it is for the unnamed narrator? Not that I actually think it is - I'm not that crazy (I don't think!) but it is eerie nonetheless. There are tracts of Sartre and Nausea here.

The Class Trip, on the other hand, is very very different. No need to just go with it here, no need to suspend disbelief. Nicholas is a shy, outcast kid whose dad (a prosthesis salesman) insists on driving him to ski camp instead of letting Nicholas go on the bus with the other kids. He forgets Nicholas's bag in his trunk, but doesn't return to drop it off. A boy is found murdered in a neighboring village. What did Nicholas's father have to do with it?

This novel is understated almost to a fault. It's a horror story without suspense, with barely building any tension. It's a horror story that, 20 pages from the end, I thought of just abandoning. I knew what had happened and there was no need to see how it resolved itself. The reader is never given any perspective other than Nicholas's, so the story is really about a boy who comes to see that is father is a child murderer and not a hero as opposed to a story about the actual crime. It was interesting, but not compelling.

I could have skipped The Class Trip and not missed anything. But the concepts in The Mustache will stay with me.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Summer 2011 Soundtrack

It's been a crazy summer. Here are the lyrics:

--Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before

--Check this hand cause I'm marvelous

--I don’t know what you mean to me, but I want to turn you on, turn you up, figure you out, I want to take you on

--You’re standing in the places…that bring to mind traces of a girl that I knew somewhere/I just can’t put my finger on what it is that says to me watch out, don’t believe her…And if your love was not a game, I’d only have myself to blame…

--Is it my turn to wish you were lying here...

--I see your lips moving but I don't hear nothing/Everybody talking like they really wanna know about us

--Do you feel what I feel? Can we make it so that’s part of the deal?

--What if you could smile? What if I could make your heart ignite just for a while?

--You might think that I’m crazy but you know I’m just your type…if I said my heart was beating loud...

--Give me everything tonight, for all we know we might not get tomorrow (Is it weird that I think this song is sooo incredibly sad?)

--I never dreamed that I'd meet somebody like you...

--There ain’t no reason you and me should be alone tonight/I need a man who thinks it’s right when it’s so wrong…

--And now I know just why she keeps me hanging around/she needs someone to walk on, so her feet don’t touch the ground/but I love her…

--He’s a wolf in disguise, but I can’t stop staring in those evil eyes

--You’re so hypnotizing/could you be the devil/could you be an angel? You’re not like the others…

--Can’t believe you’re taking my heart to pieces

--At night you hang about the house and weep your heart out, and cry your eyes out, and wrack your brain…you sit and wonder how anyone as wonderful as he could cause you such misery and pain

--Child of the wilderness, born into emptiness, learn to be lonely…learn to find your way in darkness

--One begins to read between the pages of a look...I saw you coming back to me.

--In this world, if you read the papers, you know everybody’s fighting with each other…so if someone comes along who’ll give you some love and affection, I say get it while you can

Billiards at Half Past Nine

I’m really not sure what to say about Heinrich Boll’s Billiards at Half Past Nine.

I’ve sat with that sentence now for quite some time, and haven’t been able to come up with anything else.

Firstly, I took too long to read this novel. It wasn’t anything against it, anything I didn’t like. There were even periods in the last two months when I was really into it. But then I would see something shiny. This is very different to the other Boll novel I’ve read, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, which I finished in two days.

Secondly, it wasn’t anything like I was expecting. But on the other hand, I’m not sure I was expecting anything. Which, I suppose, is strange. I didn’t know anything about this book other than what was written on the back cover. Boll is not particularly fashionable, as far as I can tell, so not many people are talking about him.

Billiards at Half Past Nine is a day in the life of a family of architects in 1958 Germany still dealing with the aftermath of Nazis. Strange thing about this book – Nazis are never mentioned. Instead, everyone is divided up into those who partook of the Host of the Beast and those who didn’t (also called lambs). But the beast imagery also continues into their present. Every chapter is told from the point of view of a different family member. I sometimes had difficulty figuring out who I was following.

I feel like I’m getting nowhere with this.

The writing was good, but nothing jumped out at me enough to underline. The plot was mildly interesting, but not enough for me to even explain any bit of it here beyond what I already did. I don’t know what else to say about Billiards, and I have nothing to say about Boll other than I want to like him but I just keep being left cold. I liked Katharina Blum better than this one.

Here ends my useless review.