Saturday, February 10, 2007

Recent Reading Roundup 11

It's been a mainstream fiction sort of month (to counteract which, I am now rereading The Lord of the Rings), and here are some thoughts about the books I read:
  1. The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart - The cover of Shteyngart's debut novel is plastered with so many accolades, award notices, and effusive blurbs that there is hardly any room for the title, and for the life of me I can't figure out what these reviewers, award committees and authors were thinking. This is not to say that Handbook is a bad novel. It's well written, and quite funny--laugh-out-loud funny, at points. The novel describes the coming of age of twenty-something, Russian-born, Jewish Vladimir Grishkin, who emigrated to the United States as a child and finds himself, in the early nineties, aimless and identity-less in New York, desperate to escape his past as a foreigner and his present as the scion of bourgeois, money- and status-conscious parents. Over the course of the novel, Vladimir makes several attempts to reinvent himself--as the boyfriend of a beautiful, neurotic Upper East Side sophisticate; as the henchman of a Russian mobster in the fictional Eastern European country Stolovaya, just coming out from under soviet rule; as the ringleader and financier for a group of bohemian American ex-pats in Stolovaya's capital Prava; and finally, as a responsible, middle-class suburban husband and father--which have the increasing ring of desperation, and ultimately form the image of a personality so consumed with getting away from a semi-imaginary menace that it forgets to consider where that heedless escape might take it. This is, I suspect, the effect Shteyngart was aiming for, but he goes about achieving it in some decidedly strange ways.

    As I said, Handbook is a funny novel, but its humor is steeped in crass cultural stereotypes. The Americans Vladimir meets are air-headed poseurs bent on repudiating their middle-class upbringing and enchanted by the vestiges of socialism they encounter in Prava. The Stolovayans, meanwhile, are obsessed with American capitalism and with emulating American culture. None of the characters are allowed to breathe on the page, to amount to more than their ethnic or national identity (in Prava, Vladimir meets and falls in love with a women who briefly seems to be an actual person, to have a personality rather than a social agenda. Sadly, she quickly develops the latter, which causes her to lose the former). Vladimir himself, though not without abilities--he's smart, determined, self-aware, and good at bullshitting people--is so consumed with self-loathing, so obsessed with becoming someone other than himself, that occupying his headspace is quite unpleasant. One quickly comes to the conclusion that the purpose of the novel is to get us to pity Vladimir--a character who, objectively, has very little to complain about. Shteyngart's attempts to elicit this reaction become increasingly frenzied as the novel progresses--towards the end, he has Vladimir beaten up by a group of skinheads in the employ of his mobster boss--to the point that he almost seems to be bullying his readers into reacting to his character as he would like them to. To pity a character, however, we have to be invested in it, and Vladimir is rarely interesting and almost never likable. Instead of feeling pity for Vladimir, therefore, I just found him pathetic, and I found the experience of reading about him--and of being asked to feel for him because of the lingering scars that life under communist occupation had left in his psyche--a bit like being badgered. I'm not quite sure what the point of the entire exercise was.

  2. Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller - Heller's short, restrained novel doesn't try to do a great deal. It is a character sketch of two women--Sheba Hart, a slightly unhappy teacher just entering middle age who has an affair with a fifteen year old student, and Barbara Covett, Sheba's friend and confidant, who narrates the novel, chronicling Sheba's downfall as the younger woman awaits her trial following the affair's discovery. With lucid, unobtrusive prose, Heller brings her characters to vivid and undeniable life. Sheba is not precisely a bad person--in fact she's capable of great kindness and decency, taking no part in the popularity contests and petty squabbles that permeate the teacher's lounge at the school where she and Barbara work, and welcoming Barbara into her life. She is, however, very, very weak--the kind of person who has never made her own decisions, and who genuinely believes that someone will always turn up to solve her problems. That person turns out to be Barbara, desperately lonely, but so rigid in her expectations from the people around her that she walks around consumed with hatred and disdain, incapable of loving anyone who isn't perfect, or at least perfectly willing to sublimate themselves to her will. Notes on a Scandal could easily have ended up a rather simplistic story--the novel's main thrust, after all, is the shock of discovering that Sheba, who has done a terrible thing, is not a terrible person, and that the upright Barbara is in fact a monster--but Sheba and Barbara are so convincingly human, and both so pitiable, that the absurdities and contrivances of the plot (such as Heller stacking the deck for Sheba by having her be the more vulnerable, more involved party in the affair with the student) barely register. Notes on a Scandal may not try to do very much, but the things it does do it does exceptionally well.

  3. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx - After reading Proulx's short fiction, I thought I might enjoy her novels, and decided to start with the Pulitzer-winning Shipping News. At least one of these decisions was a mistake. The Shipping News is a pleasant novel, and quite beautifully written, even if Proulx's distinctive style--short sentences, usually peppered with odd, perhaps even invented terms and adjectives and missing as many verbs, nouns and prepositions as Proulx could lop off without rendering them completely unintelligible--begins to grate after a while, but it's also a fairly unremarkable effort. The protagonist is Quoyle, an unhappy, defeated man who after the death of his no-good wife moves his family back to his ancestral home, a tiny speck of a town on the island of Newfoundland, and there makes friends, discovers in himself abilities he had never suspected, and finds true love. Which is the plot of about a thousand TV movies with the gender of the main character reversed, and Proulx doesn't seem interested in doing anything out of the ordinary with it. The characters are well-drawn, but none of them leap off the page. There are no interesting themes or literary tricks with which to dress up this rather maudlin story, and although the novel shines on those occasions in which Proulx steps away from her main characters and describes the invented history of Quoyle's adopted home, complete with whalers, pirates, and numerous characters sent to the bottom ofthe ocean by a treacherous sea, these interludes aren't enough to give it personality (in fact, one too many of them and the novel starts sliding towards twee). I don't exactly regret reading The Shipping News, but neither do I understand why it won such a prestigious award, or in fact why Proulx bothered to write it.

  4. The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker - Look, it's another early-to-mid twentieth century short story writer. Much like the Cheever and Jackson collections I'd read before it, The Portable Dorothy Parker suffers from its comprehensiveness. Parker simply doesn't have that much to say. Her women are invariably passive-aggressive, her men are oblivious, and many of the stories can be summed up with a single concept--why doesn't he call me, did he ever really love me, etc, etc. There are a few gems here (although far fewer than in the Cheever or Jackson collections)--"The Lovely Leave", about a couple being torn apart by the husband's military service; "The Standard of Living", about a what-if game that makes the lives of two office drones bearable; "Mr. Durant", in which a married man callously disposes of a pregnant mistress--and Parker's famous wit is matched by an impressive facility with words and descriptions. The collection also includes some of Parker's poetry (a newer edition also collects essays and reviews, but my copy is an ancient thing I picked up at a used bookstore and doesn't include them), which is where it is weakest. 'Poetry' probably isn't even the right word. Nonsense verse might work if one didn't get the sense that Parker was being entirely earnest writing about doomed love and longing for death and generally being far too maudlin than is really good for anybody. In spite of a few famous and still-amusing pieces, the poetry segments are best skipped in favor of the far superior stories.

1 comment:

Abigail's Mom said...

Just a quick note on Dorothy Parker:

Parker's mother died when she was 5; her stepmother when she was 9. She was taken out of school when she was 13. She lost her uncle when she was 15 (he went down with the Titanic) and her father when she was 16. She married her first husband when she was 20 and was almost immediately separated from him by World War I. Her second husband may or may not have been gay.

And this woman made a living as a wit!

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