The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish by Mike Kleine

August 29, 2016

pilotBased on the two books I’ve read out of the three he’s published so far, I have the feeling that Mike Kleine is an extremely contemporary writer. By this I mean that his work seems to be anchored very firmly to the present moment and the present atmosphere, so reading his books gives me a sense of inclusion and insider knowledge because I also live in the present moment and I know something of its atmosphere, too. But I can’t be sure how his works will come across 20 years from now – I have no way of knowing whether they will persist or expire.

Comparing this play to Mastodon Farm, Kleine’s first book, I think this has a higher chance to survive and avoid expiration because it’s not anchored as deeply to the present reality and to the pop-cultural products and the entertainment industry of the present as Mastodon Farm is. Instead, The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish is set in an undefinable place and time, somewhere around the (both temporal and spacial) end of the world. (So after all – it could just as easily be set here and now.)

There’s no point going into the details about the plot because the play doesn’t have a plot. It doesn’t have characters, either – at least not the kind of characters whose physique and identity remains roughly the same. It’s certainly no accident that the cast overview is missing from the beginning – here neither the appearance, nor the personality of the characters is stable. (Clearly, appearance and personality are never stable – but Kleine takes this changeability to whole new levels.)

What’s here instead of plot and constant characters is three persons switching their form, gender, name, occupation and personality throughout the play while sitting in a house where the floor is painted a deep ocean blue, and where hundreds of painted fish (including the titular seventeen pilot fish) swim without movement through the big big blue. The three characters spend most of their time discussing whether one of the male characters is the husband of the one female character or not, and they also try to find out the source of the noises that come from the wall. Meanwhile, the world outside is collapsing. In a very matter of course fashion.

So yes, this play is rather absurd. And it resists easy interpretation. During the last couple of weeks I read it three times, and it was only after the third time (which was incidentally the first time I read it with sufficiently fresh brain) that I realized that Kleine’s words are where they are because they need to be there. It was only after the third time I realized that Kleine is not just being absurd for absurdity’s sake (which would also be fine with me) but he has a point (several points) to make (and having a point in absurdity is even more to my taste than being absurd just for the fun of it).

A couple of themes this play examines: how hard it is to find meaning – in things, the world, and other humans; how everything is ever-changing and open to thousands of different interpretations; and most prominently: how weird, magical, reality-creating and reality-changing things words are – and how all the meaning we convey with them is based on strange, silent agreements, agreements that can be broken anytime – easily, unilaterally. And how all this – all this is scary and intimidating.

Just one example. The female character of the play once tells one of the male characters: „You can call me Heather.” A little later the man calls her Heather, to which she replies: „My name’s not Heather.” Sure, it’s absurd, but if we stop for a moment and take the meaning of words seriously, and not just interpret them on autopilot mode as we usually do, then it makes perfect sense. Offering someone to call you something doesn’t at all mean that that’s your real name. And anyway – does it even matter what’s someone’s real name? And what makes real real?

The themes are definitely interesting here, but I can’t avoid the question: why is this a play, and not a novella, or something else? I have a strong suspicion that it would be virtually impossible to stage this play. Granted, I can imagine a sort of divided stage, where one part is the house, and the other part is everything else out there (but both must be visible at the same time, as the events often happen simultaneously inside the house and outside in the world), and I can also imagine projecting photos and videos to show what’s going on outside – but none of these would be precise. I often feel that the words here are not translatable to another medium, they couldn’t be shown or acted out because their effect lies in the fact that I consume them as written words.

Seeing onstage that the ocean blue floor of the room is teeming with painted fish wouldn’t have the same effect as reading about the ocean blue floor of the room, and then reading a list running several pages about the exact types and number of fish covering the floor. Reading the list of dozens of fish species (while I secretly wonder: do all these really exist, or are some of them just fictitious fish?) on the one hand gives the play lots of verisimilitude (because only reality can be so messy, so random, so disorderly as Mike Kleine’s fish), on the other hand it creates a distance between me and reality – because reading lists of several dozens of items makes my brain switch off after a while, and I just keep reading hypnotized, and no – I’m not going online to check whether each and every type of fish here is real or not.

So why is this a play then? I presume it’s because it’s a good genre for Kleine to play with the things he likes to play with, to use lots of music and visual elements in his work, and to be as minimalistic as possible. After all, in a play there’s no pressing need to provide detailed, explanatory descriptions of events and characters (not that there’s too much of those in Mastodon Farm, either). Here it’s only language, only random and pointless and contradictory and all-too-real utterances – with no background, no explanation. Yes, it feels real. Often frightfully so.


Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way by Bryan Charles

August 22, 2016

grabon

This is such a heart-shattering and beautiful book. Which surprised me a bit – after all, this is supposed to be just another average coming-of-age novel.

In fact, it’s more restrained, more average than a lot of other coming-of-age novels I know: the main character’s, Vim’s family is just averagely screwed up (his parents only divorced and looked for new partners once, and Vim’s stepfather, for instance, isn’t a brutal child-abuser, but a totally normal and likeable man); Vim doesn’t suffer from any – diagnosed o undiagnosed – mental or physical condition (sure, his behavior is often morbid and obsessive-compulsive, he has some inclination towards self-harm, he’s very melancholic and alienated and clueless, and he’s full of teenage angst – but to all this I say [not cynically, but with well-remembered heartache]: so it goes); and his agonizing first attempts at sex and relationships, and his fears of growing up are all well-understandable and don’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary.

The initial setup isn’t anything new, either: Vim’s just graduated from high school, he’s going to college in the fall, and in between graduation and college, there’s that weird no man’s land between being a teenager and being an adult – that scary, unsettling period when nothing is certain, where childhood has already ended but you have no idea yet how you’re supposed to play being an adult from now on, and whether it’s worth it, anyway.

The story (which is very fragmented and far from linear – I’ll get into this a bit later) is driven by two emotional forces. One is the hatred and bitterness Vim feels towards his father. His father quit playing family when Vim was still a baby, but he has a tendency to show up from time to time and explain why he was a bad father, and how he plans to be a better father from now on. Vim is less than impressed by his father’s bullshit, and he spends a sizeable chunk of his time pondering why and how he hates his father, and why he feels uncomfortable in his father’s company.

The main story-line is driven by Vim’s almost-hopeless attraction towards the girlfriend of one of his friends – towards Helene, who is way more screwed up than Vim. Vim’s feeling towards Helene is a mixture of teenage crush and lust, the „we don’t know each other but I’m sure you’d understand me” illusion, and the „I want to save you” syndrome, and this curious emotion deeply unsettles the boy’s heart and mind – which weren’t too peaceful to begin with.

All this, though, wouldn’t necessarily be special – a significant percentage of teenage novels deals with themes like these. What makes this novel special is Vim’s voice and narration.

As regards, for example, the fragmented quality of the novel I already referred to: the novel is only about 200 pages yet it has more than one hundred chapters. There are a couple of longish chapters, in which Vim really describes a particular event (a party, a night by the lake, a band rehearsal), but even these descriptive, story-telling chapters are chaotic and incomplete (probably because the events Vim narrates usually involve the consumption of alcohol, therefore Vim’s recollections are somewhat hazy). And there are dozens of micro-chapters (consisting of a single sentence, a couple of sentences, or a single paragraph), which are not directly attached to the main story-line, however, it’s from these chapters we learn the most about how Vim feels and thinks about life and the people around him.

Because on the surface (in his usual human relationships) Vim tends to act like a cynical and nonchalant teenager, and he also tends to react to events with an extremely tiresome, smart-ass kind of humor. As soon as he remains alone with his thoughts, though (which happens often, even during parties, band rehearsals, and so on), Vim transforms into a freely associating, emotional and deeply sensitive poet-brute, driven by rage and passion. The result of this transformation is a beautiful and tangled mess of self-expression which almost brings me to tears. Not because it’s so tragic or painful, but because it’s so precise: being a teenager can be exactly like this.

The atmosphere and poetics of the novel remind me of the music of the Smashing Pumpkins – say, like their song 1979, which – like this novel – always makes me feel that being a teenager is exactly like that. Even if my teenage years had been nothing like that.

And even though the Smashing Pumpkins is not mentioned in the novel (it could have been – the story is set in 1992), a lot of other songs and bands are, Vim himself also plays in a rock band, and the rhythm of the novel is very musical. And I can easily imagine Vim’s poetic and associative flows of words as the lyrics of a more melancholy rock band.

And I repeat: his voice – it disarms me.


London Fields by Martin Amis

August 15, 2016

londonfields

Martin Amis feels like the Michel Houellebecq for one-time literary majors like me who don’t necessarily like to take everything seriously. Amis writes about the same topics as Houellebecq (the world is coming to an end; the era of emotions and „normal” human relationships is past; the only possible connection between two humans is sex; nothing makes sense any more; and so on) in the same postmodern way, and if I were inclined to take him seriously, he would make me want to cut my wrist like Houellebecq does. As opposed to Houellebecq, however, Amis does have a sense of humor, and he gives me the chance to not take him seriously. And this is a chance I gladly take – partly because I don’t think that life is terribly bad, and partly because – if life were really such terribly bad, I would only be able to stand it with lots of humor.

But now on to the novel. London Fields is the story of a carefully planned murder (or suicide), and symbolically the story of the whole world’s suicide. As regards the particular personal suicide and the characters in the novel: the protagonist is Nicola Six, a mind-blowingly seductive, manipulative sex goddess, and mistress of all kinds of erotic games – a woman who’s always been able to give men anything they wanted, except for love, a woman who’s always been able to get everything she wanted from men – except for love. It’s not at all certain that love would have changed anything in her life (Nicola Six is not exactly a sentimental woman), so her lovelessness in life is not the only reason why she decides to commit suicide – but it’s part of the picture.

Nicola, however, doesn’t want to go through the suicide-business alone – she needs someone who does her the favor of killing her. At the beginning of the story, she finds two possible candidates for this role. One of them is Keith Talent, a violent, not particularly winsome con man whose life consists of sex, booze, and darts, and who generally acts like a man perfectly capable of and willing to kill a woman, should the circumstances arise. The other candidate is Guy Clinch, a soft, gentle, exceedingly naive aristocrat, who doesn’t at all look capable of killing anyone – but Nicola Six is just the person to induce murderous rage in the most peaceful man on earth. And then there’s a third man here (and a fourth, hidden in the background) – these latter two are ironic alter-egos for Martin Amis: one of them is the person who knows the most about Nicola’s plans and is writing a supposedly true-life novel about Nicola’s way to self-obliteration, and the other one is also a writer, and he’s the person Nicola has been the most attached to all her life (or not).

Is this already sufficiently tangled, annoyingly over-complicated, and postmodern? I guess so. But I also guess that this is Martin Amis’ method. I haven’t read all his novels, far from it, but from what I’ve read, it seems that he likes to build his stories around a single joke. This is what happens in Money, this is what happens here, and this is what probably happens in some of his other works I either haven’t read or don’t remember anymore. Another typical Amis feature is that he likes to exaggerate (a lot), thereby making everything hardly-real, hardly-credible. Case in point: his characters’ name, and their habits and behavior: Guy Clinch with his out-of-this-world naivety; Keith Talent with his unsustainable habits of drinking, smoking, and womanizing; and Nicola Six with her one-of-a-kind sexual prowess.

And I’m glad Amis writes like this – this way I can pretend while reading that none of it is true. Sure, if I try to glance behind the exaggerations, the irony, and the unreliable narration, then I see how hideous and horrible all this is – but I don’t necessarily want to see all of this. And I appreciate it that Amis lets me decide when and how much I take him seriously. And I like it, too, that it’s also my decision how much I take this novel to be the suicide story of not just Nicola Six but of the whole world. Right now – not too much. Amis can be awesome when he deals with someone’s personal apocalypse but he hardly ever manages to make me believe in his large-scale apocalypses. In fact, I feel as if he himself hasn’t yet figured out – hmm – why exactly he thinks the world is ending, and what’s this world-scale apocalypse anyway. Which is just as well for me.


Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

August 8, 2016

angelas

A couple of paragraphs of this memoir were enough to convince me that this was going to be a good read. And indeed.

The first two paragraphs run as follows:

“My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

These paragraphs already demonstrate the talent of McCourt: his writing is beautiful and unsentimental, melodic, and captivating – it’s a pleasure to read. Even if the theme of the book is far from pleasant.

Frank McCourt was born in 1930 in New York, the first child of Irish parents. His parents lacked even the most basic ideas about what’s necessary to raise a family, yet, they went ahead and had four more children in quick succession, and after a couple of years they moved back to Ireland and eventually settled in Limerick, the home town of the mother, Angela. This is where Frank spent his childhood, in the deepest poverty – often hungry, going about with holes in his shoes, covering himself with coats instead of blankets, and in general, living a truly harsh life full of depravity.

The 1930s and 40s were probably not easy times in Ireland anyway, but the McCourt family sinks even deeper into squalor and poverty than even the most destitute of their neighbors. The McCourts have the worst of everything: more than one child dies in the family in a short period, and after each death, Angela sinks into an almost-catathonic state, which results in her neglecting her remaining children; the father, Malachy is a happy-go-lucky alcoholic, who doesn’t feel any particular remorse when he regularly spends all his unemployment benefit on supporting his drinking habit, and when he accidentally lands a job, he can stand the life of responsibility for a maximum of three weeks; when the family moves, they always end up in the most uninhabitable house on the street; moreover, their relatives are not exactly friendly towards them, not the least because Malachy is from Northern Ireland, and „has the look of a Protestant”, and it’s an almost unforgivable offense that Angela, who comes from a good Catholic family, consented to marry such a man.

Speaking about Catholicism: it wasn’t only the helplessness and irresponsibility of the parents that made it tough for a child to grow up in Ireland in that period – the church had a big part in this, too. McCourt illustrates this with descriptions about the religious education of children, which mainly consisted of teachers and priests filling children’s minds with concepts such as sin, redemption, and so on – concepts they were way too young to grasp, but at least they quickly learned that whatever they do is wrong, consequently they deserve all the punishment and all the misery they have to live through.

Should you have any doubt, I’ll try now to disperse them: this is an extremely maddening book. There’s such an abundance of foolish, weak, unstable, irresponsible, careless, unreliable adults in this book (that is, in Frank’s life), and these adults tend to behave in such pitiful and disgusting ways that I can only wonder how Frank managed to grow up into a functioning adult (and of course I also wonder that he ever lived long enough to grow up into an adult, having for parents people who were incapable of providing for even the most basic needs of a child, and who tended to cure a sick child with outlandish home remedies for weeks before ever considering that the child might need a doctor.)

As regards, however, the way the book is written, there’s nothing maddening here. On the contrary, the writing is rich and fascinating. I already mentioned the free and enticing flow of McCourt’s language, and I must also mention his remarkable humor and sense of irony. McCourt doesn’t write as cruelly and cynically about his childhood, as, say, Dimitri Verhulst does in his memoir, The Misfortunates – McCourt is more gentle and forgiving. Of course there’s some bitterness from time to time, and it’s all the more cutting and strong because it’s so rare. For example, when Frank’s father decides to go to England to look for work, Angela – despite all her previous bad experiences and her awareness of her husband’s legendary irresponsibility and unreliability – hopes that this time everything will turn out just fine. In the book this looks something like this:

“[Angela to Frank:] Don’t cry, don’t cry. Now that your father is gone to England surely our troubles will be over.
Surely.”

This single „surely” (clearly the laconic, ironic comment of the adult McCourt), written on a separate line, says more about how wrong the naive Angela was in her hopes than several pages of detailed litany could say.

So all my awe and respect go out to McCourt for the way he managed to write so pragmatically, so ironically, so enjoyably about all those things that couldn’t have been the least bit enjoyable to live through.


The Harder They Come by T. C. Boyle

August 1, 2016

harder

In the motto of his novel, Boyle quotes D. H. Lawrence, according to whom the true American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.

In this novel, Boyle examines this hard, etc. American soul, but not on the level of some abstract national character, rather, on the level of individuals – as the three main characters of the novel are all embodiments of some primeval American-ness, in different ways.

Take for instance Sten Stenson, a man in his 70s: he’s a veteran of the Vietnam war, an accidental hero, and a Real Man – the kind of person who handles every frightening situation excellently; the kind of person who takes the wife out to dinner without ever stopping to ask where she’d like to go; the kind of person who emanates the fumes of tension and violence. Sten is, by the way, a model citizen, no-one could find a fault in his life, in his patriotism, or in anything else – but he seems constantly to be waiting for the moment when someone steps in his way, when someone gives him the slightest excuse to erupt violently. (There are more than one episodes in the story where Sten thinks the exact same thoughts – or when he puts these thoughts into practice.) And in my view, this is also a form of paranoia (I’ll deal with the other forms shortly): when you are constantly on the lookout to notice when anyone strays from the virtuous track so that you can immediately jump their throat – and, sure, quite rightly, since you are a model citizen after all.

The other main character is Sten’s son, Adam. Adam has an unclarified mental illness and occasional psychotic episodes, he’s a substance abuser, and as far from being a model citizen as you can get. Adam lives his life fully instinctively, only caring to satisfy his basic needs (food, sleep, sex, moving around), and he harbors his own special brands of paranoia and delusion. Adam’s mind is governed by two overriding themes: one is that in his mind, he’s the present-day embodiment of the relentless, freely roaming, superhuman Wild West legend, John Colter; and the other is that the threat of an alien/Chinese attack is ever-present, therefore utmost vigilance is required. Sure enough, Adam defends himself – first passively, by building a safe hideout, then another one, and later moving on to attacking first before the supposed alien attack ever comes.

And then here’s Adam’s lover, Sara: an anarchist, a rebel, constantly fighting against the authorities with or without reason while quoting those passages of the Constitution that support her claims and ideas. Sara, just like Adam, sees an enemy in everyone, and she lives her life somewhere above/on the sides of the law – but contrary to Adam, she still lives more or less in reality.

The story (which I don’t go into) is told through the perspectives of these three characters, and all three perspectives are convincingly rendered – surprisingly enough, all in the third person. Boyle’s descriptive power and his ability to present the reality through his characters’ eyes is so strong that sometimes I had to double-check whether the third-person narrative is really third-person after all, I was so directly experiencing the world through the characters’ minds. While reading the chapters alternating among three points of view, I don’t only believe but also feel Sten’s hardly controlled aggression, Sara’s frustrated, passive-aggressive, “don’t you ever mess with me” attitude, and the way Adam gets immersed deeper and deeper into the wild, free, heroic (mythical) American reality of 200 years ago, while losing touch with the present-day reality.

And by the way: besides the deeply convincing reality perception of the characters, the best and most surprising trait of this novel is how anachronistic these old American values seem today.

I was always taken slightly aback when someone in the story broke her cell phone, or when two friends watched some movie on Netflix – because in the normal course of the novel, I felt as if this was a story set in the 19th century. This only goes to show how old codes and norms the main characters follow – and they follow and uphold these norms so relentlessly that I often forgot that this is a story that takes place in our days.

And while I’d refrain from drawing general conclusions, by the time I reached the end of the novel, I got the impression that the supposedly ancient American traits (Liberty! Individualism! Everyone for himself! Self-reliance! Never giving up!), so dearly valued by the main characters, perhaps don’t necessarily lead to anything good in themselves, without being combined with more cooperative values – especially in an age where it’s not the Wild West out there anymore, and where you don’t actually have to run for your life naked, with a bunch of Indians hot on your trail. (This happened to the real John Colter, not to the characters of this novel. At least not literally.)

And though it doesn’t strictly belong here, the way Adam’s life turns out illustrates this point – like I said, the history of Adam’s illness and his psychotic episodes are not detailed, but I still got the impression that Sten abandoned his son to his fate rather nonchalantly, saying in so many words that “Adam is a free and self-standing person, and his illness is not my business.” And that’s only a touch of (heartbreaking) dramatic irony when Sten finally realizes: Adam’s illness is his, Sten’s business, too.


A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

July 25, 2016

singleman

I saw the film version of this novel a couple of years ago, and I still remember one episode vividly: George and Jim are sitting on the couch, both of them are deeply immersed in their books, but all the while their bodies are touching – casually, naturally, non-sexually – and from their positions, attitudes, light touch it’s obvious that they can talk to each other any minute, and it’s obvious that if one of them starts talking, the other won’t be annoyed.

Isherwood describes this more beautifully than I ever could, and he doesn’t need quite so many explanations, either:

“He pictures the evening he might have spent, snugly at home, fixing the food he has bought, then lying down on the couch beside the bookcase and reading himself slowly sleepy. At first glance, this is an absolutely convincing and charming scene of domestic contentment. Only after a few instants does George notice the omission which makes it meaningless. What is left out of the picture is Jim, lying opposite him at the other end of the couch, also reading; the two of them absorbed in their books yet so completely aware of each other’s presence.”

This is one of the most beautiful and most succinct depictions of intimacy I’ve ever read, and besides its beauty, it also implies everything that happens before two people can exist with each other like this: observing the other and being observed by the other – but not eating up each other; being constanstly aware of the other, even during times of separation; and most importantly: being aware that the other person is another person, not the continuation, supplement, or copy of the first person.

People, in the plural, can be hell – they are all different, they are all others: unknown (all of them – themselves), frightening, with all their different desires. This episode with the couch depicts that state when the other person (not other persons) still – very probably – wants all kinds of things all on his own, and he’s still unknown (and will forever be, being other) – but he’s no longer frightening.

The main character, George loses his partner, Jim – and following this loss everything reverts to its original frightening state. And the way Isherwood writes about this from George’s point of view – condensing everything into the events of a single day – is desperately, heart-breakingly bitter and angry.

But the novel isn’t only about George’s personal loss – it’s also about the state of being a stranger in a frightful world in general, about the ways people try to become less strange, less frightening to one another, and about the realization how random, selfish, ridiculous, and meaningless these experiments in taming other humans can be.

And George is very smart and experienced, and he knows all too well what social interactions mean. He knows that his neighbor doesn’t want to invite him over when she has other guests because she’s afraid the other guests might notice that George is gay. He knows that his eager student at the university only invites him for dinner for the second time because two dinner engagements – according to a weird social code – already signify intimate friendship, and two dinners with George will enable him twenty years later to boast to his university friends: yes, George and I used to be good friends. And he also knows that his friend living next door only requires his company because she needs a manly shoulder to cry on.

Everyone wants all kinds of everything, and – as it often comes up in the novel – everything is symbolic. The relationships, the conversations, the way Americans live – are all symbols for something, but they themselves are not something. At the same time there’s the hope, knowledge, certainty in the novel that finding – or rather: building – something is not impossible. Not impossible – but it takes long. And it’s difficult. And at any moment you might wake up to realize: there won’t be time for it anymore.


Buried Child by Sam Shepard

July 18, 2016

buried

Sam Shepard’s plays, as far as I know them, often deal with the questions of family inheritances/curses, and with the idea that progress is impossible. In Shepard’s world, a family is something you can never get out of, something that will keep pulling you back, no matter how hard you try to get away – an institution where change cannot happen and where the same themes and patterns keep recurring for eternity.

This play is no exception. The characters are the members of a dysfunctional, half-ruined family – each of them unable to communicate and unable to understand the others, all of them kept together by an old family secret/curse (a curse they brought upon themselves).

At the beginning of the drama, the old parents and their two adult sons are merrily indulging in deep family misery: they all lack trust in the others; they don’t listen to each other (it’s a telling detail that a significant percentage of their conversations is conducted in shouts as the conversing parties are usually in different rooms); they casually ignore the reality and needs of the others; they lie all the time – just for the hell of it; and they have serious doubts about both their own, and about the others’ sanity.

Then one day the 20-year old grandson shows up with his girlfriend – the prodigal child is ready to reconcile with his family he abandoned long ago.

According to the traditions of literature, the arrival of outsiders usually signifies a major change, so at this point we might start expecting that suddenly all the family will confess their sins, rebuild their lives from scratch, and so on. How surprising then – though probably not in Shepard’s world – that here all these efforts stop halfway, and no major improvements take place.

The outsiders are not outsiders enough, or not strong or dedicated enough to push any major change through.

After all, the prodigal grandson, Vince just wants to find his proper place in the family again, and he works hard to achieve this goal: he even goes so far as to evoke wild horseplay and childhood tricks, hoping that this way his father and grandfather will recognize and accept him again – the fathers, however, remain silent and are unwilling to embrace Vince. (And again, it’s typical: Vince manages to find his way back to his family when he stops trying, and assumes the irresponsible behavior characteristic of his family – then he becomes instantly recognizable.) All in all, Vince is only interested in the big family reunion, so his presence doesn’t really shake the boat.

The other outsider, Vince’s girlfriend, Shelly is a different matter, though – and she’s quite an exciting and unpredictable character. At first glance, Shelly is a stereotypical dumb California chick, accompanying her boyfriend on a family visit without much enthusiasm, thinking that the great reunion will involve roast turkey and apple pie, a caring granny and a gentle grandpa – but when it turns out that things in the family are not exactly as she imagined, she stands up to the challenge and deals with the less than comfortable situation with admirable presence of mind.

Her foreignness is truly foreign, and she has no interest at all in finding her place in the family, so she really acts as a catalyst: because Shelly is a stranger, her presence doesn’t seem to matter all that much, so everyone goes ahead and tells her about deeds and secrets that have been age-old family taboos. Still – Shelly is only one outsider, all alone against five living and hordes of dead family members – there’s no way she can bring about real change on her own.

In the end, I’m not sure if all this is tragic – because Shepard has a bizarre, wicked sense of humor, and it’s just enough for me not to quickly succumb to deep melancholy. Still, if I think about it for a minute – Shepard’s world is a gloomy and hopeless place.


Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

July 11, 2016

middlesex

It took me a long time to get around to this novel. One reason was that I didn’t want to exhaust the life work of Eugenides too quickly, because no matter how much I love re-reading, and no matter how quickly I forget (meaning that after a few months or years I can read something again almost as I were reading it for the first time), I can only really read something for the first time once, and I wanted to wait for the perfect moment for my first reading of this book.

The other reason for my procrastination was that I looked at this novel somewhat suspiciously. I found its topic and the (literary) opportunities dormant in it intriguing, and generally I would be happy to read even the laundry list of a person who can write such a mesmerizing novel as The Virgin Suicides – still, I had my doubts. One of my several phobias is an inexplicable aversion to family sagas, and this is a saga for sure.

The novel follows the lives and times of an inbred Greek family, and starts off with Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides (who are third cousins and siblings, and also married to each other) leaving for America from Smyrna in 1922, and moving in with a relative. As the years go by, children are born both to them, and to their relative, the lesbian Lina (who has a husband), and the children of the new generation, not being aware of their fragile genetic makeup, follow the century-long tradition of marrying their close relations – to the utmost horror of Desdemona, who – understandably – spends her time worrying when a freak will eventually get born into the family.

The years pass, the first grandchild is born, and after still more years, in 1960, the true main character of the novel is finally born. She’s Calliope Stephanides, a beautiful little girl, who apparently has nothing wrong with her. As Calliope enters puberty, though, she notices more and more weird details on and within herself, until a fateful day reveals that Callie is in fact a boy. (I won’t go into the genetic details – Eugenides does that, and that’s enough.)

The extremely detailed, complicated story is told by the now-adult, 40-something Cal (not Calliope anymore), who’s been living as a man since his teenage years. To give you an idea about the detailed quality of the novel, suffice it to say that a few hundred pages pass before the main character is even born. However, Cal – in the thoroughly enjoyable manner of an ironic-omniscient narrator – knows all there’s to know about his forebears, even things they don’t know about themselves – but when it comes to knowing himself, his knowledge is limited since until the age of 14 he doesn’t know himself for who he is, and even as an adult he constantly struggles with the problem that sometimes he feels like a man, and sometimes like a woman – even if both officially (genetically) and according to his own evaluation he is a man.

The main theme of Middlesex is fantastically interesting. Eugenides examines the eternal questions: what makes a person who he is, and what does our definition of our identity depend on? Is it genetics that defines our identity, is it our upbringing, or something else entirely? And what if there’s a conflict between our genetic identity and the identity that came into being through being brought up one way or another? Can we then freely decide which one to keep? Of course Cal’s case is less than ordinary, consequently, he has a hard time deciding what to call his identity.

I won’t go into details as to why, in the end, he decides at the age of 14, blessed with a man’s genetic makeup and a woman’s identity, that he wants to be a man from that point on – it’s enough to say that the process of choosing (or finding) an identity for himself is deeply human and beautiful – I read with nothing but wonder about the stages of Cal’s journey towards himself. Partly because the journey to the self is always exciting (though of course dangerous), and partly because Eugenides – as usual – writes with such tenderness, poignancy and delicacy that all I can do is sigh and be glad that such beautiful things as his books do exist.

Despite all this, I was a bit disappointed upon first finishing the novel, and I felt as if roughly 500 pages were missing from it. After perusing the elaborately detailed backstory and Cal’s first 14 years of life, I felt as if Eugenides had forgot something: namely, to write about one thing I was extremely interested in: what happened to Cal between the ages of 14 and 41. After a while, though, I realized that of course Eugenides knew what he was doing – because whatever happened to Cal after his decision at the age of 14, that already belonged to his adulthood, and not to the period of defining his identity. And that would be an altogether different story. (A story I’d still be deeply interested to read.)


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 179 other followers