Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A few thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s Payback

There is something cringingly jolting when you find yourself embarrassed by someone you revere. I can't shake that feeling right now having just finished Payback by Margaret Atwood. This isn't to say that the book isn't brilliant and that I'm not going to recommend it to friends; it is and I am.


The book overall is full of that casual genius that so much of her work teams with. There is that sharp insight, crisply illuminating details hidden right in front of our faces, and her amazing ability with language, using it so crisply and also plussing out double meanings. Travelling with her through an inquiry is a pleasure. This book is the bound form of a lecture series she presented, and you can sort of feel that as you read. It is communicated to an audience, not just a reader. This sounds like a silly distinction, but something delivered to a group versus individuals has a different feel to it even after it has been rendered for individual perusal. This is not a complaint; this is the same form that Negotiating With the Dead was born out of.


If I have no complaints about the scholarship or the handling of the subject or the form, why start off with a complaint? Because it is how the book ends which left me wincing; it is what I am left to walk away with.


Mrs. Atwood warns all the things this book is not about in the beginning, explaining that "Instead, it's about debt as a human construct –thus an imaginative construct- and how this construct mirrors and magnifies both voracious human desire and ferocious human fear." Or, "…that peculiar nexus where money, narrative or story, and religious belief intersect…" For the majority of the book, this is exactly what she satisfyingly delivers. Personal memories of childhood interactions with money and banking are shared, scientific studies are examined (providing what I found to be perhaps the most indelible anecdote in the book: monkeys in a study going apeshit over an unfair exchange rate for their pebbles when one gets a grape instead of the lame cucumber slices the rest of them had been given), and literature and popular culture are plumbed for relevant nuggets. It all flows smoothly and build progressively and works well together. Until the end.


Scrooge (Ebenezer and McDuck) is a reoccurring character throughout, at once recognizable and both beloved and reviled, an archetypical persona who would have been hard to avoid in any case while discussing debt in a modern Western literary context, and she uses him deftly and to good effect… for most of the discussion. But he is more than just a universal type, he is also a temptation. You can't have a cautionary tale to tell and invoke him and not end up tangled up in a late night trip with the ghosts of [subject of cautionary tale] past, present, and future.


It is a good story and a brilliant device, but I'm still a little surprised that she stepped in it. Still, it isn't necessarily that she went there, but that this departure lacked the style of the rest of the book. Also, it feels like a mugging. Her Dickens moment takes us through a night ride with a modern Scrooge who is painted to be everything obnoxious in a modern mogul –more on this in a moment- forced to look at his and, indeed, all of our effect on the earth and what the wages of that will be. It becomes an ecological tale. I've got absolutely nothing against a good ecological warning; we could use more of them. My complaint is that this comes flying out of nowhere and seemed so forced. The book was about debt as a human construct, how it is born out of our sense as social animals of value and fairness, and how this understanding plays out in the real world and how it informs the stories that we tell. The ecological angle isn't an unfair one, but it is a break with the narrative that had been built up. I can't argue with any of the information she drops on us, and I can't complain that it is being said. It just pulls away so much from the rest of the book and seems artificially inserted that I can't help feeling annoyed by it.


The ecological Scrooge presented also struck me as hitting the wrong note. I'll stand by my complaint that the book hadn't done anything to build up to the ecological warning, but if the Christmas Carol ploy had been explored differently I might have been less hostile to it. The Scrooge was too much a caricature and not enough of a Scrooge. Part of Scrooge's appeal as redeemable villain was that as we were shown how he failed and what turned him into who he was, it also made us care about him and understand how someone might end up there. You might want to grab him and scream that work and money aren't the most important things or that he should care and that other people care about him, but you find yourself wishing for a better future for him; you want him to get a second chance. Our new eco-Scrooge? Not so much. He is painted as this horrible smarmy nightmare and even if you find yourself terrified by this future we are getting warned of, you can't sympathize with the character being dragged through the night this time. Instead of finding him emblematic of ways any of us could get off track and find ourselves needing to reexamine our lives and beg for a second chance, he ends up playing more as a scapegoat for us to look at and revile and blame for where we are going. This is exactly opposite what the message needs to be: it isn't that some rich guys are going to kill us off with their greed, but rather that all of us are racking up this ecological debt and are going to have to make good on this withdrawal one day. She makes this point but her eco-Scrooge works against her efforts and discolors an otherwise spectacular book.



red claw

I bought Red Claw by Philip Palmer at the airport, wanting something fun to read. It looked like it would fit the bill and I liked how the cover felt. I’ll spare any detailed analysis about why this relationship didn’t work out, but I just can’t see it through. 67 pages in is as far as I go. It is embarrassing and distracting in that same way a Clive Cussler novel is: you can feel the author trying as you read the story. The difference is that though you can feel Mr. Cussler’s heavy hand forcing the story, his narrative drags you along for an adventure. Mr. Palmer’s does not.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Folding on Folding Star

The Folding Star was already sitting on our shelf at home and had caught my eye earlier in the week, so when John recommended it, it secured a spot in my duffel bag library. This would not be my first tangle with Alan Hollinghurst. Back when The Line of Beauty won the Booker Prize, I kept hearing it's praises being sung and seeing gushing reviews, so when I saw that my boss had it one day at work, I had asked her if it lived up to the hype. She seemed a little skeptical, not really loving it and seemingly feeling guilty about this. She enthusiastically suggested that I could borrow it when she was done, which hadn't really been my intention when I asked about it, but when she brought it to me at my desk one day and said she'd like to hear what I thought of it, I thought, why not?

It was wondered if perhaps something would click with me that didn't with her because, like me, the protagonist was gay or if maybe it would resonate more with someone from a younger generation. These seem like reasonable assumptions, and I thought going into it perhaps that would bear out. It did not. Well, at least not until the end or until I found myself discussing it with her later.

From the beginning, I hated the protagonist. Ok, hated is too strong a word. I never actually wished him harm; he just struck me as a sort of irritating narcissist. Part of this is the practical person inside of me hating the shallow stupidity that gleamed through anytime he spoke of love and lust and all that. He lusted after the obviously inaccessible straight friend in whose house he had found himself staying. The family had invited him in as a family member and he treated this proximity simply as an opportunity to incubate this glowering desire. Now at this point it should be noted that I am not trying to suggest that I've never had any inappropriate desire or lusted after someone who was for some reason or another never going to happen. The attraction and desire I can understand, it was his relationship to this desire and how it colored his relationship to his friend and other people that grossed me out. Throughout the book, he shits on potential friendships and wastes the affection of others, until he finds himself at the end with both everything sort of taken care of and also falling to pieces around him.

In his downfall, I find him more likable and less heinous, but I also felt like he had been carefully laying the foundation of his ruin along the way. At this point, he also shines in contrast to how horribly those around him are painted (when margaret thatcher comes across as one of the more agreeable characters in a gay novel, you may be sure there is a problem), though if I remember correctly, the object of his affection was the most likable of the bunch, visibly wounded by being left out of his confidence about being gay and dating their close friend in secret. I found myself moved by the rejection the protagonist felt, but also feeling resentful at being forced into solidarity with him. Nagging in all this was that the book was written beautifully. The construction of the story, the way it was told, the visualizations, the language – all amazing. I simply found myself inside the head of a character whose head I didn't want inside of.

Not the entirety of the character, but parts of him and how he thought reminded me of perennial arguments between me and close friends. Particularly my friend John, who has now recommended a second Hollinghurst novel. Our relationship is famous amongst those who've known us since college for being lovingly antagonistic. On so many things we agree heartily and connect and understand each other, but on others, we are like oil and water. It was almost as if we were each other's punishment. Neither of us would let the other get away with any glib conceit. He thundered political and identity certainty, openly challenging and proclaiming things that were wrong in the world, which terrified me at the time, but I howled back about dealing with things the way they are and being realistic instead of idealistic, making peace and making do. I don't think it is too much to say that either of us would be unrecognizable today without this push and pull from the other. Even today, no longer in daily conference with him, I run things past an idealized version of him in my head, anticipating his objections or critique or praise.

This, of course, would be a person I'd enthusiastically read a novel about, but it wasn't a full image of John that this character evoked for me. Rather, it more recalled things that had irritated me about him, things that we never saw eye to eye on and only those things. I wonder if there is some ugly literary other out there, some worst scenario version of what I'm like given a glimpse inside my head.

It was the glimpses inside the character's head that made him insufferable, not most of his exterior action in the story, so I wasn't surprised when Ben told me he really like the mini-series based on the novel. I'll watch it one day, and perhaps forgive and make up with this character and quit my silent judgment of his vacuous self-importance.

Getting back to my own current vacuous self-importance, I've started trying to read The Folding Star. And I've stopped trying to read it. Again, beautifully written. The language and description is brilliant, but this character has even less to redeem him. He is basically the same character, only he seems to hold less potential for redemption this time around.

If I knew someone else was reading this right now and could compare notes with them, I might trudge on through, but in absence of that, finding that I have less time for reading than I had originally anticipated, I can't devote more to this bland fool. I would have kept going but for a single scene which abruptly launched me out of the book (literally throwing the book to the other end of my bunk), no longer able to care about anyone in it. I'll not describe it fully, but for those of you who have read it, it is the moment in the bar with Cherif when the main character makes his declaration of love. This was my deal-breaker.

When I gave Ellen back her copy of The Line of Beauty, I had to agree with her that it was beautifully written and left a bad taste in my mouth, though as we discussed the particulars I found myself defending the protagonist and even the story itself. The language and the story I could defend, just not the narration. I may yet come back to The Folding Star, but for now it is only the language that I can defend and with other books begging my attention, that is not enough.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Thoughts on rereading Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation”

Mrs. Turpin is Hoyt's mother from True Blood. I couldn't help but picture the character in the story the same as the character in the show, but the funny thing is that I don't think this is something new from having watched the show. I think Hoyt's mother is the way I've always imagined this character. I think I've watched the show and wondered where I'd seen that actress before and now I think I might have never seen her, but rather found her familiar because she is the precise embodiment of that particular archetypical woman that Mrs. Turpin is the perfect literary description of.

Oddly enough, even though she isn't fat or ugly, Sooki is always making the expression ("…snapped her teeth together. Her lower lip turned downwards and inside out, revealing the pale pink inside of her mouth.") that the fat ugly girl keeps making at Ms. Turpin in the doctor's office before attacking her.