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 everyone...you 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.