Monday, August 13, 2012

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

I've had this book on my shelf for nearly a year, and just couldn't push past the first chapter. It was distanced, somehow, as though the characters were just not interesting to her. There was little of the exuberance of language I associate with her, and the people at the center of the story were so boring, unpleasant, aloof. It was hard to engage with this book.

I persevered, and finished it, but I'm not really willing to recommend it. Kingsolver is attempting some new things in this book, there are some formal innovations that are different from other works, and there are parts that zing with the obvious interest the topics have for her. However, too much of it feels like scaffolding designed to support those zingy sections, and it's a lot of work for not much pay-off. "Not much pay-off" being scaled entirely in relation to the other books of hers I have read.

The book follows the life of one (fictional) William Harrison Shepherd (1916-195?), the son of a (mostly absent) American father and a social climbing Mexican mother. Shepherd's mother has launched an affair with a wealthy Mexican landowner and has dragged her young son to the hacienda where she tries to divorce her American husband and entice her Mexican lover to marry her. Young Shepherd is left to his own devices mostly, so he learns to cook from the kitchen staff, he swims in the ocean, and he reads books in lieu of school. This is the dreary life of the first chapter, and it's really not promising. I had hopes for the titular "Lacuna" which Shepherd finds while swimming--there is a cave opening just below the surface of the water that goes through a small island and ends in a small natural well in the center of the island. It requires significant breath control and the assistance of the full moon to make the journey without drowning.

Of course, a "lacuna" is a gap, a space, a void, and Shepherd is himself the embodiment of a void, a character so devoid of character or action as to nearly be missing from his own life story. Because this book is his life story, told through the device of his life-long personal journals, most of which chronicle the world around him while failing to include his own thoughts and feelings. As such he moves through history, the cut-out of a human figure, conveniently turning up wherever Kingsolver wishes to record a historical event. After far too many pages chronicling Shepherd's lack of education and his dysfunctional mother, Kingsolver packs him off to a short stint in boarding school in DC in order to have him witness the Bonus Army riots. That accomplished, he's sent back to Mexico City, where he meets Diego Rivera and uses his baking techniques to mix plaster for Rivera's monumental murals. He ends up as a cook in the Rivera-Kahlo household and subsequently a typist as well during the residency of Leon Trotsky. He witnesses Trotsky's assassination, and again ends up in the US in time to be disqualified from active service in WWII due to (mostly theoretical) homosexuality.

Eventually he ends up a confirmed bachelor in a small house in Ashville, North Carolina, and he writes three novels drawn from the folklore of Mexico's past--Cortes versus the Aztecs, the Mayan migrations. These are presented as thrillers, but they are also barely veiled social commentary: soldiers bear the brunt of war, any improvement in weapons technology will foster an arms race, the kind of obvious "message" that the worst of third season Star Trek used to carry. During this period, he hires a secretary named Violet Brown who is a sassy Scottish hillswoman. It is this vaguely presented national background that (barely) saves her from being a cliche--she is neither a Sassy Gay Best Friend nor a Magic Negro/Sassy Black Woman only because she is an asexual white woman of a certain age. However, it is appallingly easy to imagine her being played by Octavia Spencer in Minnie Jackson mode (from The Help).

Predictably, Shepherd runs afoul of the HUAC during the Red Scare--he lived and worked with several of the most internationally well-known communists outside of the Soviet Union--and he gets hauled up before a Congressional Committee. He arranges his affairs, takes Violet on a trip to Mexico, and dies while swimming in the place he lived as a child.

Yes, of course there is no body. Kingsolver doesn't bother to be very subtle about making it plan that Shepherd fakes his own death and goes back to cook for Frida Kahlo. (He escapes by swimming into the lacuna he found as a child, and then presumably hides until the search for his body is called off, then works his way back to Mexico City and Frida.) Violet returns to North Carolina, where she prepares all the diaries into the book we are reading.

So, that's the plot--Everyman experiencing several major events of Historical Import. But there is surely more going on--this is Barbara Kingsolver we are talking about, and she doesn't just do pot-boiler, or survey of early 20th century Mexican-American relations. In the addenda at the back of the book, there is a brief interview with the author, in which she describes what she is doing as exploring the nexus of art and politics. How is it that Diego Rivera can be overtly political, while Shepherd is not? How do the shifting winds of political fashion affect the reception of art? The book is at its sharpest (and is most worth reading) in the passages where Shepherd muses on how the shared sacrifice of war efforts molded America into something closer to Trotsky's imagined utopia than the Soviet Union ever achieved. The end of the war is painted as an inevitable return to class strife, as manufacturers strive to grab the dollars that went unspent during the war. Shepherd realizes that as consumer goods become available again, they will go first to the wealthy who will pay premium prices for new refrigerators and cars, leaving behind the camaraderie of the war years where everybody shared in sacrifice for a better future.

The other section that is really worth reading are the years of the Red Scare. Kingsolver is very very good at capturing the ease with which public opinion is spun, how a quiet gentlemanly writer of light fiction can suddenly become a threat to the nation. A single line of dialogue in one of his books is pulled out of context and used to make Shepherd look like an incendiary revolutionary. How does this happen, Shepherd asks, bewildered by the sudden shift in the culture? Violet Brown describes it as the inevitable aftermath of winning a war, a need grown out of the fear of war to define what it means to be "American."

The testimony Shepherd is called to give before the HUAC captures beautifully the way hearings are staged to look like fact-finding inquiries, but are political theater designed to allow Congressmen to score rhetorical points in front of a national audience. Poor Shepherd is peppered with multi-part questions dripping with innuendo, and then commanded to answer only "yes" or "no." For example, this colloquy on Shepherd's role in accompanying several of Frida Kahlo's paintings to New York to assure their safe arrival.

Mr. Ravenner. Did you know precisly what you were transporting? Did you pack these crates yourself?

Mr. Shepherd: No. I had a roster with the names of the paintings.

Mr. Ravenner: You smuggled large crates of unknown content into this country? From the headquarters of some of the most dangerous Communists in any country touching our borders. Is that correct?

Of course the questioning goes on to cast Kahlo's paintings (which were not "smuggled" but legally transported, but these are theatrical times) as "Communist propaganda" and "concealed objects." Obviously, the purpose of these hearings is to make Congress look like it is successfully protecting the nation against dangerous criminals. And you have to find these criminals in order to look effective, even if you have to manufacture their misdeeds. Of course it is frightening to see how easy it is to use innuendo and charged words to change the meaning of whatever actions are being examined. With the assassination of Trotsky, Kingsolver points out how easily the newspapers could accept a story that Trotsky planned his own death in order to gain publicity for his cause. This twisting of "fact" to fit political fashion of the time not new, and Kingsolver tries to mine the abuses of yellow journalism for outrage, but doesn't quite manage it (for me) until the FBI starts "finding" enemies of the state.

There are clues that Kingsolver wants to connect the Red Scare to more current events--probably to the build-up to the Iraq War after 9/11 and the false case of WMDs. Certainly, Shepherd's books about the ancient Aztecs include commentary on the then-current issues like the use of nuclear weapons, and so one looks for ways in which this book uses the events of 1920-1950 to comment on 21st century politics. However, the parallel doesn't quite gel. The vivid way she writes about the perversion of mid-century witch-hunting and the twisting of fact to fit a political agenda should make us wary of what in the book is "true" and what is "interpretation"--yet I never got the sense that she intended Shepherd's impressions to be anything but honest reportage. He is too boring to be an unreliable narrator, at least in a literary sense. His view of world events might be limited, but they are never less than unbiased and clearly reported.

Which is a bit too bad--the themes of politics and art might have been more fun to sort through if her characters were slightly more twisty themselves.  On the whole, the book rather suffers from being just too earnest--Trotsky was such a nice man, surely his political theory would have been a nicer way to live--and straightforward.

There are hints that the book was perhaps a little bit rushed as well. Specifically, I sensed a missed opportunity for the kind of lush writing I go to Kingsolver to find. In the last quarter of the book, Shepherd travels to Chichen Itza to research Mayan culture for his third novel. There is a brief travelogue, with some rushed descriptions, but none of the lovingly detailed prose that she gave us in Prodigal Summer for example.

Then, sometime later, Violet Brown summons up a moment in flashback. Remember, she says, how we sat at the top of El Castillo at Chichen Itza, and suddenly the light changed. Everything was still the same, all the buildings, all the trees, but it suddenly all looked different. (Obviously, this is paraphrased.)  Imagine how this scene might have been rendered if Kingsolver had shown it to us as it happened, not a rushed memory used to make a point about McCarthyism, but if she had really described how the view from the top looked, and then what the shifting light did--how the shadows changed color or direction, how things that had been foregrounded seemed to efface themselves and revealed new mysteries, new perspectives. The woman who wrote about the lush flora of Appalachia in Prodigal Summer really could have brought this scene to life and made it a deeply memorable experience. Instead, she evoked it and discarded it only a few words.

I wish she had given us that scene. That would have merited her talents.

It's a fine book, it has some ideas to present, but it just doesn't shimmer like I expect a Kingsolver book to do. I enjoyed it as I read it, but it's definitely a lesser achievement from a writer who can do much more wonderful things.

I see that she has a new book coming out this fall, called Flight Behavior. It is set back in Appalachia, and has been described as taking on matters of faith and climate change. I'll probably read that one too, eventually, but I'm not going to put it on pre-order, not after the middling experience of The Lacuna.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Broken Harbor, by Tana French

The fourth book of the Dublin Murder Squad series, this book follows French's M.O.--select a secondary character from the previous book, and feature him/her; and use a murder investigation to document the psychological unraveling of that character.

In her brilliant debut novel In The Woods, French gave us the double mystery of what happened to Rob Ryan, as he tries to solve a murder with his partner Cassie Maddox. The current murder takes place in the area where Rob lived as a child, where he was found traumatized and bloody, where his two best friends disappeared and were never found. The Likeness gave us Cassie Maddox going undercover to impersonate a woman who was found dead, trying to solve that murder by recreating the dead woman's life and then living it. Faithful Place took Cassie's boss Frank Mackey, and force him to confront the fact that the woman he planned to elope with stood him up. Except she didn't. (Yeah, spoiler. Technically. There is no way Tana French wasn't going to twist that plot up.)

Now we have Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, who I don't remember at all from Faithful Place. He's a rules guy, straight and narrow, which we learn over the course of the book is his way of dealing with the chaos of his life. It's almost talismanic, the way he counts on rules to keep him safe. Of course, over the course of a French book, the hero is going to find out that what he counts on to make sense of the world isn't going to work when placed in the pressure cooker of a murder investigation.

This one is hard, because there are kids. Two young kids, maybe 6 and 4, smothered in their beds, their parents stabbed in the kitchen downstairs. Against the odds, the mother may survive. Scorcher has a rookie partner, Richie Curran: he likes having rookies for partners, because they allow him more control over the investigation. He also has a past in this location--Broken Harbor was where his family would camp for two weeks at the end of each summer until the summer his mother walked into the water.

Twenty some years later, it's been renamed "Brianstown" by the developers who planned a glamorous multi-purpose, all-inclusive community until the market collapsed in 2008 and the left, leaving most of the estate unfinished and uninhabited. Only four families remained on the property, prisoners of a housing market where they owed more than the houses were worth, the developers cut corners and can't be located. And now the multiple murders of the Spains, Pat and Jenny and their two kids, haunt the eerie location.

Part of the pathos of the Spains' deaths is that they obviously were people who "tried." The house was beautifully furnished and maintained, they themselves were lovely, they seemed to be doing everything they were supposed to. So why were there holes cut into the walls all over the house? Why were there baby monitors scattered around?

As in her other three books, French is less interested in "whodunnit" or even "whydunnit" as teasing out the slow psychological disintegration that makes the unthinkable something that someone can think--and can actually do. What forces make decent people stop following the rules for civilized behavior and cross their own lines?

For Scorcher, it's the accumulation of pressures. Not only does he have this creepy case, which would be bad enough, he's also got the echoes of his own traumatic loss that resonate throughout the case. Plus he's got a younger sister who has an unspecified "madness" who shows up and demands his attention. In the four days covered by the book, he gets only a few hours of sleep, and he becomes increasingly disoriented as the pressures build. He needs to lean ever harder on his fundamental belief that if he toes the line, follows the rules, everything will turn out right.

But the Spains disprove that belief, because they did everything "right," they invested deeply into the way people are "supposed" to live. They met and married young, they adored each other, they had two beautiful children. Pat had a prestigious job that earned enough that Jenny could stay home with the children. They drove the right cars, had the right parties, wore the right clothes, invested in home ownership so they could get onto "the property ladder" because kids need a house and a yard to play in. Jenny made herself into the perfect housewife, even switching out scented candles with the seasons. Then the economy collapsed, Pat lost his job and couldn't find another one, and they ended up dead.

By my estimate, French uses the first two thirds of the book to establish the set up. We follow the police procedures as they try to make sense of the Spain puzzle. We get the slow buildup of threat--the way the house was beginning to collapse from its shoddy construction is a metaphor for Scorcher's life and the Irish economy. Shaky foundations can't be corrected by scented candles. But Scorcher can't confront the shaky foundation of his own life--he doesn't dare to. He has to believe that his younger sister's mental condition was caused by their mother's suicide. He needs to believe in cause and effect to keep faith in his own sanity, and so he begins to identify with Pat Spain, the man who played by the rules. So Scorcher resists the evidence that would implicate Pat as the murderer, and insists on pinning the deaths on a loner, Conor, who had loved Jenny since they were teens. Conor had his own personal financial crisis, and had taken to hiding in an empty building on the estate where he could watch Pat and Jenny enact the kind of perfect life he dreamed of for himself. Early on, he is arrested and then he confesses to the murders.

Even as he celebrates the solve, Scorcher can't stop questioning. There are too many loose ends, and anyway his partner doesn't think Conor did it. Curran wants to keep investigating Pat as the killer, and the pressure he puts on Scorcher isn't helping. Why are there holes in the walls, anyway? Who wiped the browser history from the computer and why? Why did the killer use a kitchen knife rather than bringing his own weapon? Scorcher begins to deviate from his rules--instead of accepting the simplest explanation, he spins a baroque fantasia about Conor launching a campaign to drive Pat insane, involving remote control mp3 players and speakers run into the walls of the house. Scorcher doesn't quite see that Curran is beginning to pity him, worry for him, and that compassion ruins everybody.

Because, of course, it wasn't Conor who killed the Spains, and it wasn't Pat either. It was Jenny. Jenny who caved into the psychological pressure of watching her husband become unmoored. Pat became convinced that there was an animal living in the attic, and he began posting at various websites trying to get some advice. And because this is the internet, as well as a French novel, the responses are indeterminate. As the months go by, Pat stops searching for work and slowly falls into his own obsession. He becomes convinced that his own worth as a husband and father is inextricably bound up in capturing this animal. Not boarding up the access hole in the attic, but capturing it. First he wants to protect his family, but as the weeks go by with no physical evidence of the animal, he needs to demonstrate to Jenny that it is real. He needs to show her that he is fighting a real wild animal, and as he hears it moving in the walls, he cuts holes and sets up video baby monitors hoping to catch sight of it. Obviously he has moved away from protecting his family--if this animal is in the walls, now it can get out at reach the family.

But Pat can't see that. He has become completely absorbed in this one-on-one battle with the wilderness, exemplified by this animal. Soon he moves into territory that would frighten me to death if I were Jenny. He buys a leg trap and sets it up in the attic. He buys live bait--a mouse from a pet store that he sticks to a glue trap and then places in the attic with the trap door open. His plan is to capture the animal in this enormous trap and watch it as it dies. This is where Jenny should take the kids and move to her sister's house, honestly. Pat is completely divorced from family life, chasing this animal and staying up all night watching the monitors and haunting internet chat rooms. Although they have almost no money left, he starts buying electronic equipment to capture this animal.

The final straw comes when Emma comes home with a picture of her house, and she has drawn a large black animal with glowing eyes in a tree in the yard. Jenny does not believe in this animal, and while she has indulged her husband's weird hobby, now he has tainted the children with it, and she no longer has any emotional reserves left. She snaps, and the mantra she has is "we have to get out of here." So she goes upstairs and smothers the children. She then goes into the kitchen, where Pat has stuck his own hand into one of the holes he's cut into the walls, using himself as live bait. In his other hand, he has a large kitchen knife. Jenny takes the knife and begins to stab Pat. They struggle, and although she is physically outmatched, she is determined and she gets lucky and kills him. However, she's exhausted, and she can't finish the job on herself. This is when Conor rushes in--he's seen the struggle from his hide-out, and he's too late to save his friend. Jenny doesn't want to live, and she asks him to finish her off. There is time pressure, you see--she wants to join her family before they move on without her.

He loves her, he loves Pat, and so he tries. But he's not ruthless enough, and so she survives. It is Conor who also tries to save Pat's posthumous reputation by wiping the computer history. His final act is to confess to the murders, to save Jenny the horror of realize what she has done.

Richie Curran has also traveled a morally ambiguous road. He knows that there is nothing the justice system can do to Jenny that is worse than her having to live with the deaths of her family.She is "already writing the note." At the first chance, she will finish the job and kill herself. Scorcher won't allow that--he's got his own issues with suicide, and he's determined to arrest her and convict her, in the hopes that she will get medical treatment and can come out the other end with something to live for. Richie wants to let her go, let her kill herself.

This is an interesting debate to have, as it completely reversed the "Golden Age" detective novel approach. In particular, there is a Dorothy Sayers novel where Lord Peter Wimsey asks the murderer to "do the right thing" to spare his wife and children the horror of being revealed as a murderer. The man walks into traffic and dies--and the clear authorial stance is that this was the Right Thing to Do. There is some nonsense wiht a piece of evidence--one of Jenny's fingernails and a thread from her daughter's pillow turned up in Conor's apartment. Curran found it, but didn't turn it in as he debated with himself the "right thing to do." He doesn't share Scorcher's fervent believe in the proper operation of the system, and he thinks that it might be better to let Pat be blamed for the deaths, and leave Jenny free to take her own life.

Of course, we already know that Scorcher has over-identified with Pat, and he simply cannot allow Pat to be thought of as a murderer--even through the man is dead and really, what would it matter to him? And this is where it all unravels. Because Curran got the evidence tainted, and that was enough to bust him back into uniform. Harsh and a great loss, since Curran was a very very good detective, very good at figuring out what happened. However, he was not a good murder cop, because he was not willing to play his role in the larger system. He wanted to act on his own recognizance, his own belief as to the "right" thing to do. You really can't have that or the system collapses.

So now Scorcher has to manufacture his own evidence, in order to put the case back on teh right path. He has to enlist Jenny's sister in the play of "discovering" a piece of Jenny's jewelry and "remembering" she had picked it up at the crime scene. And this is the destruction of Scorcher's career, because now he knows how easy it is to cross those lines, and he can't trust himself not to cross them again.

French is really up to more than merely writing a well-crafted detective story, and I kept sensing parallels to her break-out In The Woods, most powerfully the use of the unseen animal. In the first book, the young Rob Ryan was found frozen against a tree, his fingers digging into the bark. There was blood in his shoes, that soaked into his socks, and four tears in his shirt but no marks on his skin. There is some hint that perhaps an animal may have made the scratches, and that animal may have killed his friends, but the solution is never spelled out. Similarly, in Broken Harbor there is the unseen animal that Pat is chasing, there are even sets of scratch marks on the beams in the attic, but no corresponding animal tracks or scat.  They are both traumatized by something nobody else can see. They have both engaged in a life-and-death battle with the unseen and lost.

What can we make of this? To be honest, my memory of In The Woods is pretty spotty, and I find I didn't blog any of these books when I read them. But there is something edging around the procedurals, something that is entirely the opposite of the nature of a detective novel. There is wildness and disorder, and while the police bag and tag and assemble the facts, there is a spirit that can't be contained in the sterile procedures of forensics. I suspect that some of this is truly metaphorical--that these men stand as a last defense of order in the face of chaos, and their bespoke suits and natty ties are a means of rebuking the wildness of things with claws that scratch. I also think there is an element of wordplay here. Were the Spains killed by an outsider? No, their destruction came from "within their own walls." Similarly, In The Woods forced Rob Ryan to excavate his own forgotten past as he investigated a murder on an archeological site. That's almost straight past literary construction and right back to being literally obvious.

What makes killers strike? What is going on inside their heads that they can lose touch with civilization to such a degree?  Pat lost his family when he began to ignore them and obsess over "beating" this animal that only he could see. What led him to that level of madness? Would it have happened if he hadn't lost his job? Probably not. So once he lost the ability to protect his family financially, he had to protect them physically--but there was no solid enemy he could confront. It was a creature of smoke and mirrors.

There is a rot at the heart of both books, a corruption of the surrounding systems. It's the politicians and land developers who stand to make fortunes from land speculation and bribes when an expressway is planned. The past has to get out of the way of the future, as the archeological site is going to be obliterated by the new road, and no one will authorize moving the road to protect their history, because there is too much money at stake. Similarly, in Broken Harbor, the land developers sold a promise that they did not deliver, and they disappeared with the money. There is something venal and greedy at the heart of both these books that preys on the unwitting people who wander into its path. This could be what the elusive animals refer to as well.

Rob Ryan never understands what happened in his past. Scorcher Kennedy never looks at the video recordings to see if there ever was an animal at the Spains. I'm not entirely sure what Franch means by these undocumented animals, but she definitely means something.

I completely recommend the entire series of books. There is a lot going on in each of them, and I suspect there is a lot going on between them. Right now, I'm not smart enough to fully recognize what all that is.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Because I Am An Idiot

Back when velociraptors ran Blogger, I used to get an email of any comments posted to the blog. Somehow I didn't notice that had changed, and until I clicked on something I have never clicked on before, I didn't realize there were such thoughtful commenters reading this blog!

So I want to say thank you for reading, and thank you for posting. I would love to respond--now that I know you are there! I read every comment, and I will try to answer any questions.

But most of all--thank you!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn

I had heard good things about this book before Gone Girl came roaring out of the chute. After devouring that book, I picked this one up too.

Not as good as Gone Girl, but nicely astringent and a solid fast read.

Camille Preasker is a middling reporter on a fourth rate newspaper in Chicago, not quite living up to her potential when news of two sensational murders in her small Missouri hometown comes across the wires. Her editor sends her off, hoping to inspire her to the greatness he believes her capable of, and boosting the paper's reputation as well. The murders--two thirteen year old girls, killed about a year apart, and all their teeth pulled out. To secure her future, Camille has to return to her past.

It's a nasty place, Wind Gap, Missouri, in the boot heel of the state, full of generations of nasty cliquey girls who grow up to be nasty, cliquey women, travelling the same roads as their mothers had. Really, there are hardly any men in this story at all--it's like a cross between Mean Girls and the ABC Family show "Bunheads" with murder thrown in.

Flynn is a taut writer, and she doesn't tip her hand too early generally. We learn that Camille has a distant relationship with her mother, but we experience the odd formality between them before Flynn gives us the downlow. We are gently teased with hints of the family pathology--just who is this "Marian" that appears in a photo with a young Camille? What is the story with her father? What is going on in this town and this family?

There is a little flabbiness--the town sheriff mostly disappears after having been introduced and doesn't seem to be very engaged in solving these murders. There is a detective on loan from Kansas City who becomes a love interest, but the attraction between them is not really well developed to the point that when Camille accuses him of using her to get information you can't help but think "Well, duh!" And also, "I'm rubber, you're glue." Because really, there was no softer feeling between them--they drank hard together, tried to get information without giving to much away, and had sex. Pretty much equal opportunity opportunism.

Slowly, Camille reacclimates to the town, and as she does, she loses her precarious confidence, sliding back into her childhood role at home and by the end, basically doing whatever she is asked in hopes of being loved and accepted by her mother and half sister. And so we see her move from simply writing words on her arm, to having to actively resist cutting, to hacking at the last bit of unmarked skin (other than her face). She wrestles with unresolved grief over the death of her sister Marian two decades before, with meeting her much younger half sister (born after Camille moved away to college) and developing a relationship with her. Flynn takes her time, showing the rampant alcohol, drug, and sexual abuse that everybody seems to engage in to deal with the overwhelming dreariness of small town life.

Meanwhile, the murder investigation takes place mostly off-stage: Camille isn't tasked with solving the case, just with finding stories to report. It's a decent solution to the "amateur detective" problem, which is that police don't tend to allow just anyone to meddle in an investigation--because they have to preserve the integrity of the evidence in order to get a conviction. (Most mystery novels are concerned with just solving the puzzle of whodunit--police actually have to know the "truth" and be able to prove it up in court.) So Camille wanders around town, talks to different people, giving us a view into the hierarchies that get established in middle school and play out the rest of these people's lives.

In the end, we see the madness that dominates Camille's mother--it's Munchausen's by Proxy, the systematic infliction of illness of a child so the mother can look like a saint and benefit from the attendant approbation and attention. Of course, Camille's mother is a textbook case of it, and that's what killed Marian. Adora (the mother) is also arrested for the murders of the two girls, and Camille takes her young half sister Amma back to Chicago with her.

There is a brief coda in Chicago that really could have been fleshed out more, and would have been in something that was attempting to be more literary than this book, where Camille has to confront her own potential for repeating her mother's pathology. Amma gets sick, and Camille wages an internal battle over whether to give the girl aspirin for her fever. Is there an unhealthy joy she is experiencing from being able to take care of this girl? Amma makes a friend in her new school, but that friendship quickly sours and Amma starts remaining in her room when Lily comes around. Then Lily is found dead, six teeth missing, shoved in a space similar to that of the second girl back in Wind Gap.

That's right--Amma killed those two girls with her clique of three precocious blonde minions. There were a lot of hints that it must have been Adora, which is obviously not the answer, since this is a novel and so there has to be a twist. The teeth? Amma had a dollhouse that was designed to be an exact replica of Adora's house, and Adora's bedroom had an ancient and rare ivory floor--Amma used the teeth to replicate the tile in the corresponding room of the dollhouse.

This last twist was fast and sharp, but not entirely satisfying because it was presented as an epilogue, including the confessions of the other three girls.  In contrast, the last section of Gone Girl was the most harrowing--after all the twists, Flynn spent time exploring the emotional resonances in the aftermath of her characters' sociopathy. That would have been the Real Meat of this book as well--after Camille comes to the realization of just how messed up her own childhood was, she has to untangle Amma's culpability and her own feelings about it as Amma's deeds come to light.

So--definitely a fun read, and an exciting debut, but not the sure-footed work that Gone Girl is. If you only have time for one Gillian Flynn book--read that one.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

It Sucked and Then I Cried, by Heather Armstrong

If you know who "Dooce" is, then you already know all about this book. If you don't know, then I don't know how you found out about this book. How DID you find out about this book, anyway?

Heather has made a successful career from her blogging, and this is a real career, with real income, and real non-blogging ventures into things like television and design. And she does it because she has been uncommonly brave and forthcoming and funny about things that would have sent me into a cave of self-doubt and shame. I believe I am not alone in admiring her ability to say the things that happen, that are honest and \
human, if not particularly cut out for, say, White House dinner parties.

Much of this book has appeared--in daily journal form--on the blog. And the book hasn't entirely broken free of the blog form, while at the same time, it has sacrificed some of the immediacy and impact of the daily immersion you get from reading a blog. (Even--or especially--if you gobble up months and months of entries in a single greedy and ravenous gorge-fest of reading. Totally immersive.)

This book is a couple of years old now. I've had it forever, and couldn't quite bring myself to read it. I too suffered from a form of post-partum depression--possibly more accurately, depression triggered by pregnancy hormones that was turned up to 11 by life stress, financial stress, job stress, and then post-partum chemical imbalance. This book came out after I had more-or-less negotiated that on my own, and I wasn't sure if reading it would be like having a girlfriend who totally understood what I was going through and could give me some hope, or if the whole thing would be like a PTSD flashback to some of the darkest days of my life.

In the end, it was a little of both.

But to be fair, by the time she wrote this, Dooce herself had moved on and gotten some healing and some perspective, and so, unlike the blog, we already know the ending of the book. In fact, if you read the blog, you know that Leta does stop screaming, Heather does get to sleep again and gets her shit back, and even goes on to have another child who is currently three. (Three-ish?) So in some ways, the book is like a less successful version of the blog, because it condenses so much, is so clear about the looming happy ending. It's the same thing narrative of labor stories--it was horrible at the time, the hardest thing I had ever done, and I didn't think I could possibly survive it, but then I did, and it's kind of hard to recreate what made it so hellacious at the time.

This is parenthood.

The book covers a lot of ground, from the biological clock aspect of wanting to get pregnant to coming out the other end after getting treatment for PPD and confronting the ongoing problems of parenting. But because it covers all these things, the book feels like a mash-up of several genres, and never quite does any of them justice.

For example, Dooce writes a lot about pregnancy and it's effects on the body: the way your body suddenly (and I mean suddenly!) morphs into something you don't recognize and can't control. Food cravings, the incredible increase in pee-production and the simultaneous bladder shrinkage, the fear, the inability to sleep, the way clothes can stop fitting during the course of the day while you are wearing them. Pregnancy can be wonderful, but it can also be an experience that entirely warps your perception of reality, and it's very hard to recreate that experience over the course of a couple hundred pages.

Then there is the labor and childbirth, which are themselves entirely unlike anything you have ever done either. Then you get released from the hospital and you are trapped at home with a tiny alien being who you love distractedly, which demands all your time, energy and attention, and you still can't sleep, still have food cravings and now you're recovering and you still can't get any perspective. Again--this is hard to convey, especially as that time recedes, but it is fundamental to understanding why Dooce ended up voluntarily entering a psychiatric ward at the hospital in order to get help for the PPD. She was there for four days--which isn't all that long, except of course she had no idea how long is would be when she went in, and having to voluntarily self-identify with the people who were already there was itself a form of disorientation.

You can see how this book seemed like a winner--a memoir with a clear arc of wanting a baby, to struggling with what it takes to get there and then be a parent, capped by a trip to a mental ward and then recovery. but the book doesn't move in a straightforward fashion, but gets sidetracked by interesting stories, or funny turns of phrase, and so it feels like it's trying to be too many things at once. Part of it wants to be a book that throws you into the crazy world of sleep-deprivation, anxiety, and depression, so you can see just how hard this job is, and maybe you can be a little bit nicer to pregnant ladies and new parents. Part of the book seems to want to be a "Girlfriend Guide to Pregnancy and Parenthood," a book that will talk you through the things that nobody tells you about the whole experience. Part of it wants to share the genuine joy Dooce takes in life and it's absurdities, in the clever turn of phrase and awkward experience. Part of it is a love letter to her daughter and her husband (which is itself awkward, because we blog readers know they have separated, that Dooce asked him to move out.)

And so, having been such a fan of the blog, I have come to see the difficult person that Heather B. Armstrong is, while also seeing what makes her worth all the trouble, and seeing how much she struggles which makes it clear that she is frankly heroic for doing all she does and keeping any kind of sense of humor about it. So I am happy I bought the book, because this is a person who deserves all the support she can get. She is living a vividly difficult life with transparency, which serves to show the rest of us that we are not alone in our struggles, and that's good for everybody.

But I like her blog better.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Long Earth, by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett

This is not the Terry Pratchett book you are looking for.

Sure it's got some of the famous touches--the beginning of the book starts almost exactly the same way Going Postal does, Launching into several scenes in medias res that are explained much later. The first few pages have that deeply humanist character that marks the best of Pratchett, where the mechanics of the "science" and the "ideas" are firmly placed in the background to the development of the characters and their reactions to the situation.

This is not the Discworld.

It is also not Good Omens the delightful collaboration between Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

This is a book where the characters are basically cardboard cut outs who do what must be done to explicate the "thing" that the book is "about." And then they re-explain it, over and over, in case you weren't paying attention. 

I assume that this is actually a Stephen Baxter book, although I haven't read anything else by him.  The idea here is "long Earth"--someone has discovered how to build a "Stepper"--a simple switch device you can build yourself and power with a potato, that allows one to "step" into a parallel Earth. And there are millions of parallel Earths, with different types of animals, different evolutionary histories, some with different geologies, all empty of humans. So of course, humans move into these worlds like 19th century Sooners, staking out homesteads, trying to exploit the now infinite resources.

It's like Little House on the Prairie by way of the Boy Scout Camping Handbook.  This is like bad Robert Heinlein by way of Horatio Alger, where a can-do attitude and some elementary handyman skills makes an "ordinary" lad more qualified for the New Frontier than anyone else. However, there is a soupcon of divine gifts and magical birth as well--a boy who is also The One (Who Was Foretold even?)

This Can-Do Boy's Life Great White Hope lad is Joshua Valiante, who starts the book as a "natural stepper"--when the kids of the world find the instructions for building a Stepper on the internet, and start disappearing, Joshua has taken the time to build his perfectly. When he activates it and finds himself in a new place, he is surrounded by kids who are scared, hurt, and sick. He keeps his head and leads them back, one-by-one. Fifteen years later, he is contacted by the mysterious Black Corporation, a plot device that serves to provide unlimited funding and the latest in high-tech gadgetry, to undertake an expedition to explore the new worlds. His only other member is "Lobsang," a Tibetan monk/motorcycle repairman (is this supposed to be a joke about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Because it's not funny.) who has been reincarnated into a massive computer memory bank. So he is ostensibly both "human" and "artificial intelligence." Lobsang has an airship and since he's the ghost in the machine, he can step and bring the airship (and Joshua) with him.

Have you read any Jules Verne? Yes, think back that far. Traveling by airship--and not the kind of G6 leather seats kind of luxury (although there is a private Lear jet at one point). No this is an airship with the kind of Victorian design sensibility of Captain Nemo's Nautilus. Staterooms, glassed in "observation decks," a large room used as a restaurnat and a cinema. (I mean, seriously? A cinema? Even now, with the ubiquity of DVDs and home theaters, they really try to make the presence of a "cinema" seem glamorous?) It's straight out of Around the World in 80 Days

Issac Asimov did this story in 1972 with The Gods Themselves where the discovery of a parallel universe offered the promise of unlimited energy. As I recall, the politicians were giddy with the idea that "Water runs downhill both ways!" The promise of unlimited resources was gobbled up uncritically, but then it was ultimately discovered that continued contact with the paraverse would cause the sun to supernova. Which is bad for humans, but we were already so addicted to the unlimited energy. . . .

You know what? I'm not going to try to trace the heritage of all the ideas in this book. Suffice it to say, it's a disappointment. It's fine, it's a nice idea and all, but it's undercooked. Under-populated. There is too little actual, believable humanity in this book, and so it's just a travelogue to an imaginary world. There are some hints--the British Cabinet meeting where the Prime Minister tries to figure out how to manage this new situation, for example--where you see some Preatchett-ness, some attempt to look at the human response to this incredible reordering of our idea of the universe. But it's too little, too underplayed, too quickly discarded for "oh look, giant jawed thing rising out of the ocean and almost eating Our Hero!"

It's basically boring, spiced with some clunky bits that bring the book nearly down to a one star. (Oh yeah, in this case, two stars is generous.) Behold my bitching:

  • Kids don't build things anymore. They just don't. Plans for something called "A Stepper" show up on the internet, and do you know what happens? Nothing. Kids don't keep copper wire and transducers and shit like that around. They post cat videos, they rip music from YouTube onto their iPods, they go play Angry Birds. They do NOT build stupid "Steppers" out of parts found lying around the house, ESPECIALLY if there is no reason to do this. Honestly--build this thing, it's run by a potato, but what does it do? Just build it and find out? Nuh-uh. I don't buy it for a minute.
  • Does Joshua HAVE to be the coming of the next Jesus Christ? No known father, mother a young (very young) teen, who steps to the next world while in labor? Joshua has "special gifts" for world stepping? Are we going to have him played by Keanu Reeve in the TV adaptation?
  • Except, what is Joshua's "special gift?" Turns out that about 20% of the population can step without a box. For nearly the last third of the book, Joshua travels with Sally Linsey, the daughter of the man who invented the Stepper, and apparently most of her family, dating back to great-grandma or something have always been able to step. Plus Sally knows about "soft spots" that let her step across multiple worlds at once. So why is Joshua the Big Hairy Deal?
  • Lobsang--what a disaster. Pratchett has a character named Lobsang Ludd, from Thief of Time. That is a character with an interesting arc, who becomes quite complex and wise by the end of the story. This is not that character, and has nothing to do with that character, except the coincidence of the name. This Lobsang is never believably human, not remotely believably Buddhist, and is not even a very believable AI.(As well as not believable as a motorcycle repairman.) He is kind of an ass, frankly, given to pontificating smugly about everything that he can access in his memory banks, while simultaneously betraying any possible humanity, since he repeatedly reports that he is adopting voices and tics in order to seem more trustworthy and human. I might have believed something like that if he was supposed to be born an android, but as a reincarnated Buddhist? The whole point of that was to make this scary robt thing more human, so why throw that out the window for a couple of feeble "jokes" about imitating actors in order to appear to be empathetic? Inconsistent with his own backstory, and obnoxious to boot. 
  • The Big Bad is. . .so what? It's a blob, from outer space or something. Supposedly, it's such a horrible oncoming thing that it is driving other life forms in front of it, as they flee it's inexorable progress toward Our Earth. Joshua senses it, like a giant migraine before a thunderstorm, or something, from thousands of worlds away. Yet when they encounter it--so what? He doesn't have any noticeable discomfort in its presence, there is no real threat to it. It's a lonely blob looking for interaction. It "talks" to Joshua, Sally and Lobsang, and then swims away. This is the big scary monster? Hell, the Abzorbaloff from Doctor Who was much scarier than that!
  • Lobsang decides to just go join the blob, fully merge his consciousness with hers--why? Why not send a portion of that consciousness and have it report back, so the scope of the threat can be communicated? This is where the lack of any believable characterization for Lobsang is the most devastating. I don't believe there is any motivation for this decision that arises from the character: not religious belief, not intellectual curiosity, not a mission imperative. Furthermore, it's handled in a single conversation with Joshua and Sally, like "oh, by the way, you are over 2 million worlds away from home, and I've been the program that ran the entire airship and you've never seen any of the controls, but hey! It'll be a fun challenge for you to get yourselves home! I've decided to join the blob and I'll probably never come back again because I am fully committed." The end. Turn the page and Joshua and Sally are towing the damn airship by hand. Why did this happen? Is it just a sloppy replication of the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey? Because that's what it feels like. Sloppy and derivative and pointless.
  • We Need To Talk About Tilda. Dr. Tilda Lang Green is a problem, but part of a larger problem of the women in this book.  This is a bullet point, but the discussion is pretty long, so I'm going to break it up into paragraphs.
The story of the Greens is that Dr. Green decides that the best way to procure their children's financial future is to hop a Conestoga wagon train (literally!) and homestead some land in one of the new Earths, out past Old 100 K. This requires a 9-10 month journey through the other Earths, after putting together a team of people who have all the skills needed. It's like playing Oregon Trail! So Dr. Tilda browbeats her husband into setting out for the new frontier. But see, the reason Husband doesn't want to go is because they have a son who can't step. (In classic bell curve fashion, about 1/5 of the population can't step at all, even with a Stepper, while about 1/5 don't need the Stepper.) So Dad kind of posts a mild objection along the lines of "Um, Honey bun? What about our 13 year old son who can't Step and so can't come with us?" Dr. Tilda for some reason isn't deterred in any way, and palms her son off on a relative so she and the rest of the family can go play Laura Ingalls Wilder or something. They go ahead, they homestead far away, daughter Helen Green becomes the Laura Ingalls Wilder by blogging on the radio by reading from her paper journal, they write letters back to Abandoned Son but they never hear back.

Okay, there are lots of things wrong with this story. I'll start enumerating them here:
  1. It is NOT AT ALL CLEAR how this homesteading is supposed to be securing anybody's future, either the pioneers themselves or those they have left behind. Since when is subsistence farming a dynamic economic future for anybody? What are the economics of this new frontier anyway? I mean, it's not like they are creating gentrified neighborhoods and can reap the benefits of increased property values. We are told there are enough new worlds that everybody could have their own planet--what's the financial plan here?
  2. Did any of these people have ANY plan for handling dangers--for example, weird animals, like the scary differently evolved animals Joshua and Lobsang keep coming across--or the murderous baboons Joshua ran into on a Congressional tour that killed everybody in his party? The whole process of finding a team and a leader and a plan for settlement was handled like a Airport Holiday Inn seminar on Time Shares and Limited Partnerships. There were absolutely NO stakes or risks conveyed in this story--it was more like a decision to take a vacation on safari in Kenya versus going to an all-inclusive resort in Cancun. Can't take the kid, because he's got soccer camp and can't miss that many practices. 
  3. What is Dr. Tilda's story that she is so eager to be on the economic and geographic frontier? What is the appeal for such an upper middle class couple anyway? After all, the economic point of colonialism was that the people who stayed behind in the mother country benefited from the new resources/raw materials imported from the colonies. In the Gold Rush, the people who made money were the ones who sold things to the miners, not so much the miners themselves. There is absolutely no convincing story about why a doctor would abandon her own child--just sort of a vague conversation about "securing financial future" and "the best thing for all of our children." 
  4. The emotionally resonant and powerful story was completely shoved off the page. Why did Dr. Tilda want to leave so badly? What was she thinking to leave her son behind--was it really as cavalierly as represented? How did she tell him. What was his reaction? What did the aunt think? How, in a 21st century culture, can this just happen? Maybe (and only maybe) back in the middle of the 19th century this kind of thing happened, where families would head west, and leave some members behind. But it's pretty clear that this kid resented being left behind, that this was a case of the mother being at best indifferent to the emotional damage she was inflicting on a kid. That relationship is the interesting one, not the banal diaries of the sister describing their journey. We get a lot of pages from the sister, we even get some entries from the dad. Nothing from the mother, and nothing from the kid left behind until the end, when he's roped into some reactionary political protests that end up planting a nuclear bomb to discourage Stepping. Is this believable? Well, I imagine that a kid left behind like that would be pretty pissed off. But that's all I have--what I imagine the story might be. Baxter and Pratchett never actually tell this story.
  5. This is an example of the kind of gender awkwardness of this book. If Baxter and Pratchett are re-spinning stories of the Great Westward Expansion of the mid-19th century, then the gender politics were very clear. The man decided to move west, and the wife and kids went along with it. It wasn't like there was any social support system for a woman who wanted to stay behind: when Pa Ingalls was ready to move further west, Ma packed the wagon and went too. This is not a story that can be simply transplanted into the 21st century--women's equality has made too many strides for that. But even less believable is that we can take that 19th century narrative, plus switch the gender roles and accept it. I certainly expect that a mother will care about a child beyond mere financial stability. The book doesn't show us a world where gender dynamics have changed so much that women are now the equivalent of Victorian men, unilaterally deciding these things for their families. It's not supportable socially, the personalities of the characters can't support it because we don't see them handling this situation, and so it's just weird. Similarly, there are a couple of references in the book to national figures--I believe both the British Prime Minister and the American President--who are off-handedly referred to as "she." Again--awkwardly handled. They seem to be only mentioned in order to make a point of their gender, without actually doing anything within the action of the story to demonstrate gender equity or female dominance. It's like some editor somewhere mentioned that the story was very male-centric, and suggested they add a strong female character or two. So they did. Sort of. But didn't really get the thinking right at all.
Maybe it's unfair to pick on the story of the Greens, since almost none of this book is well thought out or well written. One of the Pratchett-y elements is the periodic interlude with a character who makes a cameo appearance to illustrate a different angle on the main plot, and then generally disappears. In the Discworld books, these are often just introduced with a new paragraph, along the lines of "Sergeant Pepper hated walking the portion of his beat that took him past. . . ." The in medias res thing again. In this book, however, too often the cameo is preceeded with a clunky exposition introduction--usually by Lobsang--along the lines of "I don't think this is the first time humans have encountered this phenomenon. There is a story about [fill in name here]. Sit down and let me tell you all about it."

The effect of this construction is to distance the anecdote. It's not happening, it's being told. And it's being told by Lobsang, who usually has a blindingly obvious point to make about the story, which he then exposits to Joshua, thus increasing the awkwardness of the whole narrative.

There is also a glaring disconnect between the Joshua/Lobsang story and the experience of the rest of the pioneers. Every time--every single time--Josshua and Lobsang stop on a planet, they have a near-fatal adventure. Malevolent humanoids, enormous predator carnivores, toxic insects, radiation poisoning--disaster after disaster. Meanwhile, 20% of the earth's population has wandered off to homestead or just be itinerants, and there is no panic. Even in 19th century Manifest Destiny, there were stories about Indian attacks. People died before reaching their destinations. Diseases, hunger, hostile natives, dangerous animals--these were all real problems for pioneers, and they knew it. There were also dangerous people who wandered west to evade criminal prosecutions, and who were desperate types who would steal, rape and murder homesteaders for what they could take.

Not in the Long Earth. In fact, we are assured (too many times) that once people are away from overcrowded cities, they all behave decently--no need for police or courts. With enough room and natural resources, people all live in harmony! Just like in Deadwood, right?

At the same time, there is a town far off the grid called "Happy Landings" which seems to be a place where inadvertent Steppers throughout human history have ended up. There are hints of Greek or Roman foundations underlying the buildings, an oral history of residents that predate the current colonization of the Long Earth. As described, it's like a sci-fi Lake Woebegon--practical people who behave well, don't call attention to themselves, are strong, good looking, and all above average. Yet Joshua doesn't like it. No reason why, beyond a form of "It's quiet here. Too quiet." So--no explanation for the inconsistencies. It's like Baxter (who I am blaming, since none of this is apparent in Pratchett's books) just tells us, so it must be so.

A lot of this book is like that--telling, not showing. Joshua has "special powers" and is "legendary" for his ability to step without a Stepper. But then it turns out that over one billion people on earth can also do the same thing (based on current population)--so how special is he? What can he do that Sally didn't do earlier and better? Baxter never tells us.

What is wrong at Happy Landings? What are the signs that Joshua sees that make him uneasy? Baxter never tells us. We just know that he does, and Sally confirms it--"You noticed it too?" Noticed WHAT??? I yell at the book, but I never get an answer.

Then there is the finale. We get one scene of a spittle-flecked power-hungry reactionary political wannabe, who objects to "your tax dollars" being used to support pioneers, and suddenly there's a nuclear bomb planted in Madison Wisconsin as--what? Domestic terrorism? A plan to end Stepping by destroying the supposed hub? Who is involved and why did they do it? How did they do it? What are the resentments that built up to lead to that sort of action--which is more a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face than any kind of savvy political move.

After all, what happens when a nuclear bomb goes off? Radiation. Who can easily escape radioactive fall-out? People who can step to another Earth. Who has to live (or die, really) of radiation poisoning? People who can't step. Why was this any kind of a good idea?

It wasn't. It wasn't set up well, it wasn't explained at all, and then it was stupidly executed as a storytelling device. And then--THEN what happens? Oh, well, Joshua and Sally hear about it from frickin' Helen Green, the Laura Ingalls Wilder of the 101K Earth. And then they panic, and have to quick-step all the way back to Earth because---

Now stop for a second and think about this. A nuclear bomb has been detonated near your home, where you haven't been for months and months. How did you hear about it--from somebody a long long way away from the bomb site. How did she hear about it? Well--we know that it takes 9-10 months for ordinary people to travel that far away, so can we assume that there was mail? Or maybe a messenger? So this bomb must have gone off more than 9 months ago. What the hell do you think you could possibly do, Joshua and Sally, once you got there, to handle a disaster that had to have happened the better part of a year ago?

Who would be left to save? Nobody--they all would have left or died by then, dontcha think? But of course, the J&S Brain Trust scurry back to view the wreckage, because there isn't any other character with a point of view who could show this to us. Because radiation poisoning is no big deal when you are the Hero and Sidekick--much more important to go see the emptiness with your own eyes. Instead of, for example, checking some of the surrounding areas for your family and friends to see if they survived.

And then--AND THEN--we just stick a period on the end of the sentence and pretend that this is the ending. At least, as much of an ending as readers have come to expect from a planned trilogy/quadrology/as-many-books-as-we-can-possibly-squeeze-out-ogy.

Honestly. How many Discworld books has Pratchett given us? Something like 35 already, and each one is complete in itself. Each one has a beginning, a middle and a frickin' END.

Look, I get the appeal of a travelogue--Pratchett did it with the Rincewind books, mostly, sending his terrible wizzard on tours through Discworld. I get the appeal of a "build a new world with only the most rudimentary of supplies." Pratchett did it with Nation. I get the appeal of an evolving story. Pratchett has done it in spades with his City Watch novels--the maturation of Sam Vines. He also included a lot of other things that this book is missing--plot, characters, humor, big ideas expressed thoughtfully and well.

This book has Terry Pratchett's name on it, but it is not a Terry Pratchett novel. Read it if you must, but you have been warned.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Oh man, was this a fun read! Yes, I know, I usually hate everything, or find it all so disappointing, so many books that just don't live up to their hype. Why did I take a flier on this one? I don't know, but I am glad I did.

This is a tart read, with sharp characters who reveal their layers slowly. Is it a thriller? Sort of, but even more, it's a biting look at relationships between people who are all too human and fallible.  Just go read it, and then come back and we'll talk about it in depth, complete with spoilers.

Go. I'll wait.

Back already? Yeah, it's a really fast read. And one that stings.

The book opens on Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth anniversary. It seems idyllic, but there is something off, something wrong. Nick wakes up to hear Amy downstairs in the kitchen banging around making crepes.

Amy peered at the crepe sizzling in the pan and licked something off her wrist. She looked triumphant, wifely. If I took her in my arms, she would smell of berries and powdered sugar.

When she spied me lurking there in grubby boxers, my hair in full Heat Miser spike, she leaned against the kitchen counter and said, "Well, hello, handsome."

Bile and dread inched up my throat. I thought to myself: Okay, go.

This isn't the first thing we learn about these people, but it's close. They met and married in New York City where they were working as writers in a magazine industry that is now dying. Both lost their jobs, and then Nick's sister called with the news that their mother was dying as well. With the arrogance and impulsivity of youth, Nick announces they are moving back to his small home town in Missouri. He assumes Amy will get used to it and everything will be fine. Two years into the move and it's obvious things are far from "fine." But how far? What is the particular misery of this existence? That's the territory when Flynn plays.

The first half of the book tells the story of basically ordinary misery, with the volume turned up a bit. Nick leaves after breakfast, returns in the middle of the day to find things overturned and his wife missing. Has she fled her unhappy existence? Has she been kidnapped? Murdered? In alternating chapters, we see Nick slowly reveal himself as a less than ideal husband as the investigation begins to focus on him and the most likely culprit of whatever happened. Meanwhile, Amy's story is told in diary entries dating back to the first time she met Nick, moving forward from their days of incandescent happiness in New York to the curdling state of their relationship.

This is writing with an enormous degree of difficulty. In competing first person narratives, we see Amy and Nick present their best selves, making their pleas for understanding, and we can see how they were attracted and how live stresses made those selves impossible to sustain. In Amy's chapters, we see how love can lose its luster, how financial difficulties, family illness, dislocation, unhappiness can create a corrosive drip that undermines a relationship. In Nick's narrative, we see how his desperate need to be likeable leads him into elisions, lies of omission, and active dishonesty as he attempts to cover up the flaws he can't bring himself to confront. Layer after layer peels off, and by the end of the first half, I was convinced that he was selfish enough and fundamentally weak enough that he could have killed his wife in order to avoid disappointing her.

That's when Flynn throws her first major twist. Amy isn't dead, and her diary isn't real. She is angry, as well as brilliant and more than a little bit nuts. She knows about Nick's mistress, a 23 year old college student, and affair that has gone on for well over a year, and she has carefully plotted her revenge. She has carefully stage managed the scene of her "abduction/murder" using everything she knows about Nick and how he will act to tighten the snare around him. Her thoroughness is unnerving--she cut her own inner arm and sat watching herself bleed. She then mopped up the mess, calibrating her cleaning to the precise level she knew Nick would have cleaned, counting on the police to find the blood traces and suspect her husband. The diary was a work of fiction she constructed to make her story look appealing, while making Nick look more and more dangerous. In an annual tradition, she has put together a treasure hunt of clues from their year together, leading to a final gift. This year, the clues are somewhat easier (since Nick is never able to solve her usual clues), but they have double meanings, each one leading to a damning clue for the police to conclude that Nick has murdered her. In important ways, the book is a treasure hunt for the reader as well, as we move from memory to incident, seeing how these two people have failed each other, over and over.

Nick is not as brilliant as Amy, but he does realize that he is being framed, and that Amy isn't dead. Now his story is the race against time--can he find the clues before the police do? Can he convince the cops that Amy isn't dead? During this period, Amy's story is a bit slow--she's hiding in a run-down Ozark resort and the only question is whether she can be patient enough to allow all her traps to spring, or is she going to become impatient and out herself with calls to the police tip line.

It turns out that the answer to that is "neither." She's a little too deeply immersed in her role and gets all her money stolen by two of the other residents. Now she has to come up with another plan on the fly, and she turns to a man who has idolized her for decades. He's conveniently close, he's fabulously wealthy, he adores her. She thinks she can use his adoration to regroup and relaunch. This turns out to be a major miscalculation. Desi squirrels her away in a lakeside mansion, but she's actually a prisoner--she can't operate the security gates, she has no car, no money, only his gentle (and genuinely creepy) insistence that he will give her everything she needs. As the days go by, Desi makes Nick look ideal in comparison. Nick let her do what she wanted. Now she has to come up with a plan for escaping this gilded prison.

Meanwhile, Nick has decided that the only way to save himself from capital punishment is to flush Amy out of hiding. He has started posting videos and interviews of himself saying what he knows Amy wants to hear: I love you, I was wrong, I want to make it up to you, Please come home. We know the extent of his fury at her, how much of an act this is, how making these making these videos makes him want to kill her. Each one increases his fury and hatred, even as we see her falling in love with "this Nick," the Nick she thought she marrying. The Nick who was no more real or sustainable than the Amy she was when they first met, the spontaneous Cool Girl. She comes back dramatically, spectacularly, appearing on the doorstep of their home in front of the camp of paparazzi, bruises and twine ringing her wrists and ankles, bruised, cut and damaged, but alive.

Here is the place where Flynn's storytelling reaches meta heights. Nick knows the narrative that will keep him alive, and so he has to play the stunned and grateful husband, while at the same time he knows that living with Amy is life-threatening. After all, she murdered Desi, cutting his throat and watching him bleed out in order to return. Any time Amy becomes convinced that Nick is insufficiently devoted, she could easily kill him as well. So Nick has to play a devoted husband for the public as well as for Amy, while keeping eternally alert to signs that she is plotting against him again. Meanwhile, Amy sees that Nick doesn't really love her the way he portrayed in the videos, but he comes close enough for her--most of the time.

And then we see the final twist of this twisted book: neither one can really leave the other. They are caught up in the challenge of dominating the other one. Nick realizes that a normal life with a normal girl would quickly become boring--he is increasingly addicted to the challenge that Amy poses. She makes him smarter, faster, she pushes him to do more than he would without her. Sure, it's a dangerous and sick method, but it's something he can't actually give up. So as Amy attempts to remake him into the kind of husband she wants, he's engaged in a counter effort to expose her as a murderess, to get her locked up so he's safe, but he can still engage with her. Physically safe, but mentally challenged. (Not unlike what Desi had already done to her.)

Then Amy outmaneuvers him by becoming pregnant. Now he's trapped by his desire to save his son from her machinations. The two of them a dangerous, toxic mix, each getting just enough from the other to be locked and unwilling to let the other one "win."

This is not a story that will end well, for Nick, Amy, or their yet-unborn child. There will be collateral damage as well--mistresses, family members, neighbors. It's a sickly heightened reality they are constructing for themselves--it's dangerous, it's heady, it's addictive.

Unqualified recommendation from me.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Are You My Mother, by Alison Bechdel

Honest disclosure--not much of a graphic novel reader. I've spent most of my reading life around words, the finicky English language, and illustrations have always seemed like --like what, really? Sprinkles on an ice cream sundae? You know, festive and a lovely touch, but not really adding all that much to the substance. Not something I would necessarily notice if it weren't there.

Not really the model reader for a graphic novel.

But the world is changing, and visuals are much more integrated into content generally, and frankly, this myopic concentration on English language means that I miss so much of what else is possible in narrative. I know this, but I don't necessarily know how to train myself to do otherwise.

So I pick up the occasional graphic novel and try to learn broader reading habits.

This is one I really wanted to read--and really wanted to love. I am, I think, slightly younger than Bechdel is now, which means I must be about the age she was as she started this book. I am entering a new phase of relationship with myself and my own mother; a classic case of seeking to understand my own situation through books.

Which is fair, since that is exactly what Bechdel is doing--she is seeking to understand herself through reading a lot of psychology, some fiction, undergoing therapy, and writing this book. Books as paths to understanding of the self--Bechdel and I have this in common.

The key difference between us is that she turns to non-fiction: Donald Winnicott, Alice Miller, Jungian and Freudian therapies. She also has much more faith in the value of those works than I do, based on reading this book. In the end, I am pleased she seems to feel helped by the process, and I am delighted she is having such success with the book, but I don't think it has really been all that helpful for her.

To summarize the book: Bechdel is a successful comic artist. Her series Dykes to Watch Out For has made a big enough cultural impact that even I have heard of it. She is the source of the eponymous "Bechdel Test" which become an insistent presence in my own cultural life over the past year. Bechdel also had a very successful book, Fun Home, a graphic novel memoir about her father, a closeted homosexual who was killed by a truck in what may have been a suicide. (I have not read that book either.) Are You My Mother has been billed as a companion to Fun Home, the story of Bechdel's mother, to complement the one about her father.

This is not strictly true: in fact, I would characterize this as a book about Bechdel's own search for herself, with her mother playing no larger role than Virginia Woolf or Adrienne Rich do. Her mother certainly plays less of a role than Donald Winnicott does.

And here is where this becomes difficult for me to summarize. Bechdel puts a great deal of faith into the works of this early-to-mid century child psychologist, and specifically his ideas of the "good enough mother." She tries mightily to map her own memories of childhood and her emotional development onto Winnicott's theories, while detailing some of the history of Winnicott's own life and work. I can't really say that Bechdel is successful in this effort, although she does offer some facile resolution at the end, and perhaps that amounts to finding her own peace. I just can't get behind the project, so too much of the book also feels facile and superficial. Not Bechdel's struggles, mind. Her struggles to figure herself out are poignant and important. It's the "resolutions" that feel insufficient to really address the struggle.

For example, Bechdel starts each section with a dream she has, and then she works out the (usually Freudian) meanings of the dream. In one, her therapist offers to fix a rip in Bechdel's pants. In the next page, Bechdel reports this dream to the therapist, and makes the connection "You fixed my tear [the rip in the pants], but you also fixed my tear [crying, emotional pain]. You are healing me!"

Later, Bechdel puts pages of her manuscript into a re-used folder, which turns out to be where she had taken some notes during a particularly productive therapy session, and she ascribes psychological meaning to that as well. To which I say: No. The universe and your subconscious are not talking to you in puns and meaningful coincidences. They are just coincidences.

Nor do I think her application of Winnicott's writings are well-thought out. The biographical information she gives us about him is not confidence-inspiring. He had no children of his own, he had his own issues with women, including a sexless marriage that lasted almost 30 years before he divorced and remarried. His work on how mothers and infants interact is mostly descriptive, based on observation similar to the way Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees. It smooths out individual variation and presents broad generalizations of how he observed the interactions between mothers and infants, in his own society, in his own time.

At least within the limited scope of the book, Bechdel doesn't deal with the generic character of Winnicott's work. Instead, she presents it as a road map to the mother-child relationship she feels she should have had. That where that relationship has been frustrating, it is her mother's shortcomings that cause that unresolved relationship. So she reads Winnicott as prescriptive, rather than descriptive, and she attempts to find the moments that her mother failed to be quite "good enough," using Winnicott's books as though they are unquestionable and perfectly applicable to her individual experience.

Which is, I think, asking more than a bit too much from an early work of infant psychology. Winnicott was apparently working in the early years of child development research, and in addition to the actual "science" contained in his books, he was also working to establish his theories in the framework of other influential theories of the time, and really, the whole undertaking was really not designed in any way to be a personal road map to a single mother-child relationship. Perhaps Bechdel herself understood this and managed to accommodate it; it is far from evident from Are You My Mother? that she did.

I also find it hard to believe that her own therapists didn't caution her against such an individualized reading. In fact, I assume that they did, and that Bechdel just edited those portions out as distractions. Which they would be--and there is not a lot of room for distractions in a graphic novel. Pictures take up space, and the words have to be carefully selected in a way different from a non-graphic format. In a straight memoir, there would have been plenty of room for the digression into Bechdel's evaluation of the appropriateness of using Winnicott as a personal life coach. I get that, and I don't think she could have added such a thing to this book. But I am left uneasy, almost queasy, by her near religious acceptance of the dictums of a writer that doesn't seem to me to merit that kind of reliance.

Part of the problem is that Bechdel has never had children, and so in personalizing Winnicott's writings, she can only consider the child's side of the issue, which inevitably skews her understanding of what he reports. She can only personalize one side of the equation, and she really can't see her mother other than as the mythic care-giver of her own infancy.

But women are not suddenly imbued with goddess-like powers of compassion and care-giving simply by virtue of giving birth--although we like to think so. We as a culture promote mystical and frankly rather silly ideas of "instantaneous bonding" and "mother-child" relationships, innate understanding of the baby by the mother that are possibly only equaled by bad YA novels about girls and their horses. The insight that Bechdel struggles and fails to achieve is that her mother isn't Mother in a mythopoetic, archetypal fashion. She is just a woman who had kids and had to learn new ways of being in order to care for those kids. Because Bechdel has only ever been on the one side of that equation, she doesn't gain any real perspective on the way parenting is a dynamic--we become the parents are children make us as much as the other way around.

Perhaps the clearest epiphany Bechdel achieves comes before the end of the book, indicating that she doesn't really see it as momentous as I do. Bechdel has sent pages from her book (either this one or the one about her father--I don't remember which one) and after a long time, gets them back from her mother. Her mother has made scores of notes, which Bechdel admits are excellent suggestions and legitimate and helpful. However, Bechdel wanted something different--she wanted her mother's acceptance, approval, and a personal response to the content of the book, not a disquisition on its mechanics. At that point she realizes "I can stop knocking on that door, because what I want isn't there." She realizes that what she wants from her mother isn't something her mother has to give, and it is foolish for her to keep looking for it there.

This is really huge, and something that reinforces my sense that she is mis-reading Winnicott. Mothers, just like all people, are not equally good at everything. No one person can meet all of another person's needs. Bechdel was trying to make her mother be something she wasn't, and she was using Winnicott to justify her demands. After all, Winnicott says that mothers should behave certain ways, and so Bechdel was right, she was justified in demanding those things from her own mother. But the reality is that her mother couldn't provide those things, and it didn't matter how hard Bechdel asked for them, or how justified such requests were--they couldn't be met. Not there. Not by her mother.

And let's go back to what I said earlier--women learn  to become mothers, and their primary teachers are their own children. The relationship may feel like a hierarchy, with parenting coming down from above, being passively received by the child, but that's not how it actually works. Mothers--parents--only learn to do what they understand their children need. It is really a two way street. And look at how Bechdel approaches her mother--through the distancing mechanism of a manuscript. What she wants from her mother (or at least what she tells us she wants) is a personal connection, where they take the incidents from the manuscript and compare memories. But look at how she asks for that connection--by sending off a manuscript in the mail.

I would think that as skilled as she is at Freudian analysis of random events, she'd see the degree to which this was a very arm's length request for intimacy. In fact, it is so arm's length, that it isn't really a request for intimacy at all. If Bechdel is really trying to get closer to her mother, this is a very guarded, highly coded way to do that, and frankly, I think her mother has done a lot to demonstrate her keen interest in interacting withe Bechdel on the terms it appears Bechdel has dictated. The social cues that Bechdel is delivering are not easily translated as "Tell me your story, Mom." "Here's my book, what do you think of it" is a clear message that Bechdel doesn't want her mother to come too close, and so that's what she does. She pours  herself into praise and specific acknowledgement of Bechdel's writing--as a way of demonstrating her continuing love and attention to her child. On the terms dictated by the child. Without getting too close, or too personal, or challenging Bechdel's apparently preferred method of interaction.

Overall, it's a rather difficult book to read, much harder than you would think given the format. I mean, it's a comic book in format, but the content is heavily weighted toward esoteric snippets of turgid psychoanalytic concepts: false and true self, transference objects, and the like. Bechdel has a somewhat distant mother, and she hasn't really got any handle on how to understand that relationship. She has some maternal-like relationships with two (female) therapists--which is its own doomed effort, since there are strict limits to the therapist-patient relationship that are inherent its very nature. Bechdel also says she wishes that Winnicott was her mother--a man who has been dead for over 40 years. There are patterns here, repeated with her partners as well--she is drawn to a certain level of intimacy, one that is strongly girded by distance. She doesn't really want more intimacy, she keeps picking important relationships that don't allow for more closeness. Perhaps that preference was enforced by her mother, or perhaps it was genetically determined at birth. Either way, it would be healthier for her to recognize the pattern, analyze her dissatisfaction with it, and then go amend her own ways, rather than obsessively comb Winnicott for proof that it's all her mother's fault.

Several reviews have mentioned that this book is less satisfying than Fun Home because Bechdel's mother is still alive. Her father's story could be shaped, because it had ended; her mother is not only still living, but she continues to shape Bechdel's own life and even this book. As a result, there is no real closure or finality to Are You My Mother? I think that is probably only true if you assume that this is a book about Bechdel's mother and that it should be a companion to the earlier one. I challenge both of those assumptions.

A book about Bechdel's mother would actually be a book about her mother, not about Bechdel trying to figure out herself with her mother as backdrop. A book about Bechdel's mother would try to understand her feelings about marriage, motherhood, acting, what it meant to be married to a closeted homosexual. How did that knowledge affect her own gender identity and self-worth--as well as her sexual identity? What decisions did she make about staying married, raising children, helping her husband through graduate school, military, funeral home directing? How does she really feel about Bechdel being lesbian, and semi-famously so? How did she raise the boys differently? Where are those boys now?

Are You My Mother? doesn't really address any of these questions, nor does Bechdel really want to know the answers. Arguably, this is a book which explores why Bechdel doesn't want to get close to her mother, why she doesn't want to ask any questions or approach her mother directly. That would have served to give the book more closure than it has. A truly internalized understanding of what she is looking for, from her mother, from her therapists, from her lovers--that would be closure. As it is, Bechdel is still doing the work, and the book reflects that. Later, perhaps, she will write a book that finishes the work started in this one. That's one I would read, too.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

I wanted to love this book. Its own story, detailed in an extensive Vanity Fair long-form article (now available as an ebook) is compelling enough: Harbach spent years working and honing the story, the language, his own life apparently on hold as he dedicated himself to the novel. It's hard not to imagine Harbach as Henry Skrimshander, the preternatually gifted shortstop, whose only wish is to work toward perfection:

All he'd ever wanted was for nothing to ever change. Or for things to change only in the right ways, improving little by little, day by day, forever. It sounded crazy when you said it liek that, but that was what baseball had promised him, what Westish College had promised him, what Schwartzy had promised him. The dream of every day the same. Every day was like the day before but a little better. You rant the stadium a little faster.  You bench-pressed a little more. You hit the ball a little harder in the cage; you watched the tape with Schwartzy afterward and gained a little insight into your swing. Your swing grew a little simpler. Everything grew simpler, little by little.  You ate the same food, woke up at the same time, wore the same clothes. Hitches, bad habits, useless thoughts--whatever you didn't need slowly fell away. Whatever was simple and useful remained. You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way. Forever.

Can't you see Harbach developing this routine for his writing? Every day a little more of the book is written, every day he polishes the language, sharpens the character, simplifies the plot, all the work pointing to this, the novel that tries to speak to what it takes to live and love, to become who you are.

It comes very very close. Hell, it might even be the wise, luminous, great-hearted novel its supporters claim it is--it is certainly a very very good one. Maybe I am just too old to be pierced by this story of college aged men (mostly) finding their way. Maybe my own life has a little too much of its own turmoil, and so I'm a little too calloused to be appropriately vulnerable to this book's charms. It has enough humanity that I am more than a little ashamed of my inability to fall entirely into its spell--and maybe that's enough to prove its worth.

To say that this book is about baseball is misleading. It's like saying that pizza is "about" oregano--baseball gives this book its seasoning, its distinctive taste, but its not "about" baseball the way that The Iowa Baseball Confederacy is. Instead, baseball is the organizing principle--maybe even the excuse--for the book.

The baseball plot shapes itself around Henry Skrimshander, a scrawny kid from South Dakota with no visible future beyond high school. He's a gifted shortstop, and he gets spotted by Mike Schwartz, a freshman baseball player from the fictional Westish College in Wisconsin. Mike convinces his coach that the team needs this kid, and the story is in motion. Henry lands at Westish and meets the rest of the characters. His roommate: "Owen Dunne. I'll be your gay mulatto roommate." Owen also plays baseball, in an elegant and refined way that earned him the nickname "Buddha." Unflappable, calm, Owen ends up having an affair with the flappable Guert Affenlight, president of Westish College. Affenlight's daughter Pella also arrives on campus, fleeing an ill-advised marriage to an older architect in San Francisco--she met him when he came to lecture at her college? Prep school? At any rate, hers is the cautionary tale of faculty-student romance that sets itself against the Affenlight-Owen affair. And while the story seems to take place over the three years of Henry's college career, there is little sense of passing time. Sure, Henry arrives as a new freshman, and has to orient himself around a new life, but the book itself mostly seems to take place with the kind of timelessness of a baseball game.

Unlike many sports, baseball is not ruled by the clock. The game is determined by incident--have there been three outs? Have there been nine innings? Until those things happen, the game isn't over. You run through the batting order as many times as it takes until all the necessary events have occurred.

This book is also kind of like that. We get glimpses in turn of the main characters; alone, in pairs, or grouped. We see relationships form, we see lives change shape, we get death, we get a championship game, and they all seem to take place in a sort of never-ending now. Sure, Mike Schwartz also plays football, but we never actually see a football season. Presumably all these kids take classes, have finals, write papers, but mostly they seem to float around suspended in a medium of gentle bookishness, a sort of environmental erudition that doesn't require actual schoolwork. The days are mostly the same--the boys train, or they play a game, games that differ from each other mostly by being labeled either "home" or "away." There is an ethereal sameness to the book, just like a strike is different from a ball only in details, not usually in a fundamental way.

The largest incident of the book is the wild throw that launches Henry Skrimshander into a spiral of doubt. Usually a perfect player, the Platonic ideal of a shortstop, Henry knows where the ball is going to go before it even hits the bat. He is racking up an impressive collegiate record, tying the longest error-free streak of his personal idol, Aparicio Rodriguez, baseball Hall of Famer and author of the eponymous "Art of Fielding." (This was the one book Henry brought with him to college, and apparently the only book he read the entire three years.) After tying that record, however, Henry throws a ball that impossibly, inexplicably, fails to fly to its target and instead sails into his team dugout, hitting Owen in the face and knocking him out cold. This is what precipitates a number of changes for everybody.

Henry, predictably, begins to second-guess himself with every throw, and the situation simply worsens until he walks off the field mid-game and withdraws from life entirely, refusing to even to eat. Guert Affenlight visits Owen in the hospital, slowly coming alive to his attraction to another man, but having to face professional and personal destruction when the affair is reported. Schwartzy faces his own black pit of despair, having failed to get into any one of the six top-tier law schools where he applied--he tried to launch his post-sports career without a safety net, and now he has nowhere to land. Pella Affenlight (who doesn't actually seem to be four years older than everybody else) has to confront the emptiness of her own life, breaking down her self-conception and rebuilding it from the bottom up--auditing classes and washing dishes in the school cafeteria.

The prose is confident, the book encompasses a lot of different character arcs, but it never really conveys the emotional peaks and valleys. Guert Affenlight is confronted by two members of the college administration and board of trustees--his affair with a student will not be made public if he resigns effective the end of the school year, a matter of days (weeks?) away. Instead, he manages to smoke himself to death that evening, with a kind of beatific calmness that defies belief. Maybe it's supposed to be metaphorical; maybe Harbach doesn't yet have the tools to confront the situation he's set for himself. Either way, Guert's death is symptomatic of the kind of smoothing over of emotional extremes I felt. Discovering previously unsuspected homoeroticism in your sixties? Turns out its not unsettling, forcing Guert to reconstruct his self-conception--instead it's kind of like being anesthetized or stoned. The relationship consists more of cuddling on a sofa and reading poetry to each other--with the occasional (and tastefully rendered off-screen) hand- and blow-jobs.  There's no ickiness--no need to handle lubricants or condoms, no worries about transmitting fatal diseases, no heart plummeting fear when the affair is discovered. It's all single-malt scotch in clubby leather chairs and 19th century literature.

Owen is the single "exotic" and boy is he. He floats through life well shaped, fastidiously groomed, academically flawless, infinitely wise and understanding. His gayness never discomforts anyone, his racial identity never provoking anyone in the provincial small town or the college. None of the jocks ever mocks him, there is never the slightest hint of racism or homophobia, not even when the administration confronts Affenlight with the affair--it's more about the faculty-student aspect than any of the uglier issues that would probably have been at least raised.

Pella Affenlight is a good try, and I'm glad Harbach took on trying to articulate a female experience. And Harbach did make her more than an adoring fan, or a trophy girlfriend. But her story never really coalesces either. She made a bad marriage, and her arrival at Westish looks like an arc of self-discovery. In theory, she breaks herself down to her components in order to build herself back up--the way Schwartzy breaks down Henry's batting in order to make him a better hitter. But what really happens is that Pella leaves her undermining husband and returns to her father--with whom she rather predictably regresses into sullen adolescence. She quickly becomes Schwartzy's girlfriend, but also uses her magical vagina to rescue Henry. Even her job at the cafeteria is all about gaining approval from the male chef. Harbach makes some gestures toward her developing relationships with some females--she lives for a few months in a house with two other girls--although that situation is completely overshadowed by the fact that Henry has attached himself to her and lives like a cockroach in her room. There is the promise of coursework to be taken with a female professor Pella admires--but for the most part, her world is entirely defined and dominated by men. The situation could be worse, of course, but it should be better than it is. I'm not sure this book passes the "Bechdel Test"--does this book have two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man? Pella does have a conversation with her father's housekeeper (who does have a name, but I can't recall it right now), but they talk about Guert, so no. And as far as I can recall, that's the only conversation two women have at all.

And then there is Schwartzy. Again--preternatually gifted, prematurely grizzled, this is not a college student , unless Westish has an affirmative action program for AARP admissions. Nominally Jewish, Mike Schwartz is the adult of the book, the one who gets Henry into Westish, who develops Henry's training program, the guy who seems to run the baseball program starting in his sophomore year. If this book owes anything to Bull Durham it is Schwartz: he is the Crash Davis of the book. I can accept his physical breakdown--playing football and baseball has ruined his knees, he's already a large man, he's pushed himself past his own physical capability. But where did he learn enough physiology, biology, kinesthesiology to take on the entire rebuilding of Henry's batting? And why does anybody let him? Where are the coaches? This made me wonder why nobody looked at a physical cause for Henry's inability to throw. After all, they took a scrawny kid of 18, and entirely rebuilt his body--he was constantly eating supplements to put on pounds, he was running with weights, he was doing extreme strength training, running until he puked, Schwartzy even took apart his entire swing and rebuilt that through training. By his junior year, Henry was literally in a different body than he started with. No wonder it didn't work the way he was used to.

But that's not what makes a novel--it has to be a spiritual/emotional/mental/existential crisis. Sure--and of course it would be when it happened. It just seems like the book overlooked a glaringly obvious issue that is emblematic of the book's general failure to really address the physical reality of the lives it chronicles.

Not a bad book by any means, and definitely worth reading. I just wanted to fall in love with it, and I couldn't.

By the way--the cover of the book consciously mimics the "font" of a Rawlings baseball--check it out: