Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book Review: "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes

[Cross-posted on]


In terms of overt clues and Adrian's equation, Adrian had an affair (perhaps not so brief, near the end of his life) with Veronica's mother Sarah, who bore the child, also named Adrian, who was later sent (after Sarah's death?) to a caregiver facility.

I think what nags at Tony at the end is that there are other possibilities that could fit the evidence better. Unless Veronica spills it, or Adrian's diary is not burnt after all, Tony can never know for sure. In all scenarios he's guilty, in some achingly more than others.

The child could have been Veronica's by Adrian or by Tony. The memory of the trip to the river seems to imply a night of unprotected, romantic sex. Sarah might have cared for the baby when Veronica couldn't, or wouldn't. Veronica's pregnancy would have been when she and Adrian were newlyweds. He might have died thinking the baby was his. Or sure that it wasn't.

Tony says the child (seen now as a young man) looks like the presumed father, his old friend Adrian. But did Tony look like Adrian? Is Tony looking into a mirror and denying the familiarity he sees? Is Tony's remarking on the resemblance a clue to throw us off the track?

The child could have been Sarah's by Tony. This strange possibility best explains: 1) Sarah's bequest, 2) Veronica's rage, and 3) Sarah's enigmatic parting gesture to Tony, implying a secret they shared (that she'd seduced him during the visit). The fact that Adrian has repressed the memory of the sex act (but not the washing up after) would seem totally implausible, except in the context of this book which is all about how our minds rewrite history to suit our opinion of ourselves.

It's a mind twister, and credit Barnes for giving plenty of clues but being brave enough to perplex his readers by providing only the sense of an ending.

Book Review: "The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides

[Cross-posted on]
The Marriage Plot is masterful on many levels. At first I wasn't drawn to any of the three characters in the love triangle - Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell. Each seemed deeply flawed, and they are. Except you read along and find that Eugenides thinks we all are, just as deeply in our unique ways, and are none the lesser for it. That's the way people are, and the way life goes. We stumble through it, thinking we are somehow in control, and it's what happens nevertheless while we are furiously busy making other plans, or simply fretting about making up our minds.

This is a literary novel, in the best sense, and I was surprised to read some critics cramming it into the diminutive genre "campus novel." That would be like classifying Pride and Prejudice as a rom com, which is not as irrelevant as it sounds. The marriage plot, you see, is the genre form of which that work is representative. Eugenides wants to know whether the marriage plot is dead as a meaningful literary form, now that marriage seems hardly worthy as the ultimate goal of youthful aspirations.

Then there's the theme of semiotics. I studied with Roland Barthes (yes, I'm that old) and back then I don't think the term semiotics even existed. At least, I don't recall his ever having used it. But he talked incessantly about structuralism, that a novel is a long sentence spoken by its author, a literary construct waiting to be parsed. Understand, I didn't get any of this from him back then, just from what others, including Susan Sontag, have written about him since. His lesson plan was built around Balzac's short story "Sarrasine," which is the engrossing tale of a man obsessed by an opera star who turns out to be both a castralto and the "kept woman" of a powerful priest. But why Barthes chose that story for his criticism totally escaped me at the time, and I can only surmise now what his intentions were.

But back to Eugenides. The characters meet in a semiotics class at Brown, and the author gives a lot of detail about the subject and its impact on their personal thoughts. Semiotics claims, for example, that humans would not experience love as we have come to understand it unless we had read about it (or seen movies about it) first. There's a similar concept in Stendhal's The Red and the Black, in which the narrator comments that peasants in the French countryside cope with life less well than the sophisticated citizens of Paris, who have all read novels that give them models for how to act in society.

Ultimately, this is a novel about perception, what we make of reality as it is happening to us, and our inability to make meaning of events in time to control their outcome. Things happen or they don't. Things work out or they don't. They mostly don't, and we move on.

Perhaps significantly, the character in this book who understands himself best is the one whose grasp on reality is most tenuous, because he has to work at staying sane. In his acknowledgements, Eugenides credits several experts and sources for genetic research (another theme), but he thanks no one for his extensive detailing of bipolar disorder and its treatment. So naturally I wonder how he came by this information, and at what personal cost

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Book Review: "Black Cow" by Magdalena Ball

Friend and colleague Magdalena Ball sent me an (electronic) advance reading copy of her new novel Black Cow. Maggie is a contributor to the Boychik Lit blog (helping provide sensible sexual balance), and she is the founder and editor of the Compulsive Reader book review site. I previously reviewed her debut novel Sleep Before Evening, a painful coming-of-age story about a nice, bright girl (Marianne) from the Long Island suburbs who gets lost in the New York subculture of drugs and rock 'n roll. In Black Cow, the female protagonist (Freya) is all grown up, pushing middle age, settled down with her mildly dysfunctional family in Double Bay, one of the trendier suburbs of Sydney, Australia. Freya is married to the charismatic but now underperforming James. They are both busy striving to be capitalist overachievers after having long ago abandoned their youthful hippie ideals. Freya is a harried residential real estate agent. James is CEO of a nameless firm that seems to be engaged in nothing in particular. As a result of the global Great Recession malaise, Freya's house hunters aren't buying and James's shareholders are blaming him for, well, everything. Their teenage children Cameron and Dylan, once sweet and precocious, have turned cynical and introverted. No one is getting any satisfaction.

Freya's family reminds me of Katie's in Nick Hornby's  How to be Good, and it's almost the stereotype of middle class home life these days, the nuclear family of reality TV and sitcoms alike. It's somewhat depressing to realize that life is so much the same from Bloomsbury to Darien to Santa Monica to Double Bay. Ho hum. What to do?

Freya and James decide, after a long sequence of mishaps and arguments, to sell out, move the family to rural Tasmania, and take up organic farming and cattle ranching.

In so many novels, perhaps because of the authors' strong desires that blockbuster movies get made from them, some horrific, extraordinary event suddenly disrupts the mundane flow, triggering a hell-bent plot. An example would be Ian McEwan's Saturday, in which the daily middle-class routine of London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne is upset when a terrorist breaks into his home.

Although Black Cow is full of the aforesaid mishaps and arguments, it lacks that exceptional, catastrophic inciting incident that would transform it into a horror story or a family adventure movie. Assuredly, shit happens. But you may find Freya's dilemmas no worse or more dramatic than you experienced in your own dysfunctional family last week. This lack, in my opinion, is to the book's great credit. Black Cow is to be commended for its realism and its honesty. It's not a thrill ride, not an entertainment to divert us momentarily from the challenges of daily living, but a meditation on how life should be lived, on what we value and what we don't.

Having at least two meanings, the title suggests a theme.  The first is a confection made from root beer and ice cream. It's the treat Freya used to offer Cameron and Dylan when they were younger, the one sure-fire way of bringing a smile, a trick that no longer works. The term also refers to the Tasmanian Wagyu, a breed of black cattle prized for its marbled beef.

Those two meanings book-end the story.

So, does chucking it all and moving to the country resolve the family's unhappy issues? Remember, I praised Maggie for her unflinching realism.

All this said, they could well make a movie out of Black Cow, and I'd buy a ticket.