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Books In Brief

Books In Brief

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Boris Akunin: The Winter Queen

Stanley Bing: Lloyd: What Happened

Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason: The Rule of Four

Thad Carhart: The Piano Shop on the Left Bank

Tracy Chevalier: The Lady and the Unicorn

Kathryn Davis: The Thin Place.

Deborah Eisenberg: Twilight of the Superheroes

Ariana Franklin: Mistress of the Art of Death

Eric Garcia: Cassandra French's Finishing School for Boys

Joshua Henkin: Matrimony

Carl Hiaasen: Skinny Dip

Chipp Kidd: The Learners

Scott Lasser: All I Could Get

Elizabeth McKenzie: Stop That Girl and Sam Lipsyte: Home Land

Steve Martin: Shopgirl

Stephen McCauley: Alternatives to Sex

Ethan Mordden: The Venice Adriana

James Schuyler: What's For Dinner?

Gary Shteyngart: Absurdistan

Darin Strauss: Chang and Eng

William Trevor: The Story of Lucy Gault

* Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

Katharine Weber: The Music Lesson

A. N. Wilson: London: A History

The Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin (Random House, 2003) 

A flurry of favorable reviews and the author's exotic identity have made The Winter Queen a minor sensation this spring. Writing under the name Boris Akunin, philologist Grigory Chkhartishvili - born in Georgia (USSR) in 1956 - appears to have made a mid-career decision to strike it rich. He invented a charming and clever young detective, Erast Petrovich Fandorin, and set him in the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Police, anno 1876. The only thing about The Winter Queen that does not recollect the great age of Russian fiction is its brevity, which may be an aspect of Mr Chkhartishvili's commercial objectives, since he has apparently written ten Fandorin novels already. This is the first in the series - it was published as Azazel in Russia, and I've no idea why the title was changed - and the first to appear in English. It's immensely satisfying to know that a reliable stream of highly polished entertainments will continue to flow as fast as Andrew Bromfield can translate them. 

There are detectives like Miss Marple who solve crimes without letting a hair get out of place, and then there are detectives who get into scrapes, and Fandorin very much belongs in the latter group. He is indeed something of a Hardy Boy, working his way out of potentially fatal situations with little more than sharpness of intellect. What's genuinely peculiar to the Akunin brand of detective fiction is the degree to which it suffuses the extravagantly expressed feelings so familiar from classic Russian fiction with absurd comedy.

"Count Zurov, is that you?" Fandorin wheezed, finally grasping the fact that all this was not taking place in the next world but in this one.

"Don't be so formal. Have you forgotten that we drank to bruderschaft?"

"But why did you do it?" Erast Fandorin began shaking and shuddering again. "Are you absolutely determined to do away with me? Did that cursed Azazel of yours offer you a reward to do it? Shoot then, shoot, curse you! You make me feel sick, all of you, worse than cold semolina!"

How cold semolina came to be mixed up in the matter was not clear - no doubt it was something from his childhood, long ago forgotten. Erast Fandorin was about to rip open the shirt on his chest - there you are, there's my breast, shoot! - but Zurov thumped him unceremoniously on the shoulder.

"Stop raving, Fandorin. What Azazel? What semolina? Let me bring you to your senses." And thereupon he delivered two resounding slaps to the exhausted Fandorin's face.

I will add only that scene from which this excerpt is taken occurs on the banks of the Thames; don't be surprised if Fandorin visits belle-époque New York in a future installment. 


Lloyd: What Happened, by Stanley Bing (Vintage, 1998/9)

Stanley Bing is the pseudonym of a financial writer, Gil Schwartz, who has produced a number of clever how-to-succeed business satires (or at least so I gather from Amazon). Lloyd: What Happened, his only novel so far, chronicles a year in the life of a senior manager at a corporation that produces unspecified popular products. During this year, the management of the unnamed corporation will attempt to take over the world economy, or at least to create the largest corporate entity ever. Since this is a comedy, not a Crichton thriller, the background details are vague throughout, but the details of executive-suite life - the décor, the food, the junkets, the purposeless of the meetings - are brought into sharp relief. Whether or not the novel, qua novel, is really enhanced by the parodies of Power Point slides that are slipped into the text, sometimes rather irrelevantly, is a question no more serious than the book itself, but they do add to the humor.

At heart, though, Lloyd is about Lloyd, not business.  Beginning the year with a terrible hangover, in Pittsburgh, Lloyd does not seem to be a very promising hero. But as he wakes up to the likely consequences of his firm's massive acquisitions - massive downsizing principal among them - Lloyd admirably sets about sabotaging the project. He undergoes other tests as well. He succumbs to the charms of a powerful colleague, Mona, even though he loves his wife and children very much. It's the kind of affair that the compartmentalization required of successful businessmen renders almost inevitable: what goes on at the office is entirely distinct from what goes on at home. Precisely because his wife, Donna, has come to feel somewhat compartmentalized, too, however, their marriage survives and becomes stronger. Lloyd also finesses the madness of his sociopathic assistant, the uncharitably-named Ron Lemur. Gradually, Lloyd's passive is-this-all-there-is angst is replaced by a more engaged existentialism that enables him to cut through the fog and bloat of businessspeak.

Like many business executives, Lloyd found the high concept of cutbacks to achieve operating efficiencies quite palatable. At the same time, the prospect of actually firing an individual himself filled him with a level of fear and disgust usually associated with the concept that a public surface on which was was about to sit was teeming with microbes.

In the final hundred pages of the novel, so are so action-packed that the book can't be put down, Lloyd makes theory accord with practice. (February 2003)


The Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason (Dial, 2004)

The Rule of Four is without doubt a better novel than Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. For one thing, its characters are three-dimensional and, unlike Brown's, more attractive than enviable. For another, its feet are planted firmly on the ground. Instead of the claptrap about the Holy Grail and the Templars that make the Code ultimately ridiculous, The Rule of Four draws its inspiration from the actualities of a once-famous book and a still-famous campus. The book, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili ("Poliphilus's Struggle for Love in a Dream), was printed at the end of the fifteenth century by Aldus Manutius, the first of the high-class publishers; its authorship, nominally attributed to Francesco Colonna, remains somewhat mysterious. The book is known now principally for its illustrations, woodcuts by an unknown hand that prefer humanist values of calm, elegance, and simplicity to more popular 'graphic' styles. Written in a farrago of Latin words and Italian syntax (complete with articles), the Hypnerotomachia is perhaps the epitome of amateurism, which doesn't get any better than this. That's a nice way of saying that, for all its ambition, it does not make a pro of its author. As Messrs Caldwell and Thomason point out, the book is "painfully, tediously difficult." I quite agree. Indeed, I read The Rule of Four only because I'd yielded to an impulse and bought Joscelyn Godwin's 1999 translation of the Hypnerotomachia at the Metropolitan Museum's bookshop. I had known about the woodcuts for years and was curious; what I discovered was the ideal book for reading someone to sleep.

It would be impossible to recreate the philological adventure recounted in The Rule of Four using my copy, however, for the true interest of the Hypnerotomachia, according to most of the novel's major characters, lies in its riddles, which lie concealed in a code that can be cracked only if you know how to map the text on a grid and count between letters - the untranslated letters. The apparent story, of Poliphilus's oneiric search for his beloved Polia, is simply a front, a capriccio of fantasies on architectural and liturgical themes. (That would be pagan liturgy.) The riddles, as teased out by two Princeton seniors, tell us what the author was really up to, and why the reformer Savonarola's bonfires of the vanities in Florence, in the early 1490s, scared him into taking extraordinary action. (The seniors, and presumably Messrs Caldwell and Thomason as well, take a revisionist view of Francesco Colonna's identity, according to which the writer was a Roman prince, and not a Venetian monk.) This may strike you as just as fanciful as Dan Brown's ideas about Mary Magdalene, but the utter absence of supernatural elements does a great deal to make the somewhat wish-fulling reading of the Hypnerotomachia digestible. It is in any case not the wildest aspect of The Rule of Four by a long shot.

Unlike Francesco Colonna, Mr Caldwell, Mr Thomason, or possibly both of them, may foreseeably acquire a truly professional command of fiction. But they have a good deal to learn. Their ear for and fidelity to youthful vernacular hobbles their ability to propel their action scenes by dialogue alone, and the incendiary climax lapses several times into mild narrative incoherence. (Having tried my hand at something along these lines, I know how very difficult it would be to fix either problem.) And to parallel the ancient uproars that the students unearth in their beloved book, Messrs Caldwell and Thomason have provided a rather creaky melodrama of theft, revenge, and murder. (This is the point of resemblance between The Rule of Four and The Da Vinci Code.) Motivations here are both sketchy and stereotypical. But they involve an older generation. The characters that we care about are all undergraduates at Princeton.

Your fondness for The Rule of Four will depend somewhat upon your ability to welcome Princeton itself into the fold of appealing characters. Several woodcuts from the Hypnerotomachia appear in the text (and titillating woodcuts they are, too), and even a map of Ancient Rome, but what's really wanted is a map of Princeton's campus. The authors are clearly - confessedly - in love with their alma mater, and having spent seven years on a very handsome campus myself, I understand their indulgence. But the unfamiliar reader will be buffeted by the almost incessant traversals, from building to building and in every direction of the compass. More problematically, . Princeton remains a singular institution. Just as Yale has 'colleges' in a quasi-Oxbridgean sense, so Princeton has 'eating clubs,' nonresidential and unaffiliated fraternities that can be more or less difficult to get into. The fact that the two avid decoders come from relatively impecunious backgrounds only serves to heighten the sense of class differences. The text is almost radioactive with a sense of the privilege of attending Princeton - a doubtful charm. Friendships made across class lines, however genuine, end up highlighting them. The superiority of this book to Dan Brown's cannot altogether excuse its reliance on some very dubious romantic mush. For example:

Gil was different from the rest of us, of course. In retrospect, I think he arrived at Princeton so used to the affluence of Exeter that wealth and the distinctions it imposed on life had become invisible to him. The only meaningful yardstick in his eyes was character, and maybe that was why, during our first semester, Gil was drawn immediately to Charlie, and through Charlie, to us. His charm always managed to smooth over the differences, and I couldn't help but feel that to be with Gil was to be in the thick of things.

Surely only Karen Hughes would be capable of swallowing this without a burp.

In the end, The Rule of Four is a book about college friendships, which, owing to youth, can be both intense and fragile. It certainly presents such friendships in a more optimistic light than, say, Donna Tartt's The Secret History, but it remains intelligent and sensitive. The Da Vinci Code taught us that a rippingly good read can still leave the reader in hungry discomfort; empty calories may be tasty to chew on, but they're neither filling nor nutritious. For all its weakness, The Rule of Four is a solid book, capable of being ranked (however adversely) against that magisterial intellectual thriller, The Name of the Rose. I do look forward to the movie, even if Princeton is once again the setting of a cerebral drama. That's as it should be, no? (October 2004)


The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, by Thad Carhart.

Although the author never addresses the topic directly (for all I know, he's not quite aware that it is his topic), this is a book about the sheer physicality of music. An expat living in Paris, Carhart is intrigued by a local used-piano workshop, into which, naturally, he's admitted only after he secures a recommendation from another patron (the parent of one of his children's classmates). Incidentally, he buys a piano and dusts off his childhood skills, taking lessons from a Lebanese woman who lives in a proche banlieue and herself is a pupil of Peter Feuchtwanger. (I've never heard of him, but I won't be surprised if you have.) It's a very different book from Noah Adams's 'Piano Lessons,' partly because Carhart already knows a lot about music and has at least an intermediate player's facility (he's more proficient than I ever was), and partly, of course, because of the Parisian setting, which is all the more resonant for him because of a few childhood years spent in Fontainebleau during his father's stint at NATO. Thanks to his friendship with the piano shop owner, Carhart gets to try out a lot of interesting pianos, and his joy in playing simple scales and chords, just to hear what the instruments sound like, reminded me - I'm inclined to forget this - that music doesn't come down to us from the angels but is made by men and women.


The Lady and the Unicorn, by Tracy Chevalier (Dutton, 2004)

The Lady and the Unicorn is, I'm sad to say, the novel that critics who don't want to take Tracy Chevalier seriously have been waiting for. What might have been a intriguing story about the creation of the famous set of tapestries, probably executed in the last decade of the fifteenth century, that hang at the old Musée de Cluny in Paris, is, instead, an enervated exercise in avoiding anachronism. Everything that's not right about the novel owes to a serious miscalculation. As in her last book, Falling Angels, Ms Chevalier tells her story through several first-person narrators. But where this device worked very well in an early 20th Century setting, it could not possibly do so in the voices of 1490. This is not because we don't know much about that period, but because we know too much, far more than the people of 1490 themselves knew. We know not only where everything was headed but how the ideas of that time would break down and multiply into the complexities of modern consciousness. The watershed of our view of things was the Protestant Reformation, which engendered our ideas of personality and the individual. It hardly needs saying that fiction has, for centuries now, concentrated on the exploration of these ideas, and their manifestations in the world. It can't breathe in earlier air. The people of 1490, were they to spring to life right now, could not tell us what we'd want to know about them, because the ideas behind our questions would be unknown to them. It's for this reason that the figures in The Lady and the Unicorn have very little to say that's interesting. They report on the world about them, of course, and they tell us what they've been up to - and here, I must say, Ms Chevalier has done a good job of keeping their heads clear of latter-day notions - but their feelings and responses range between mystification and dimwittedness. They don't get it. Had she written the book in her own voice, their creator might have produced an exemplar of historical fiction. Writing in the first person obliged her to not-say too many things. 

Considered as a pendant to the tapestries, as a reasonable reconstruction of the circumstances in which they were produced, The Lady and the Unicorn has great charm, and anyone attracted to these intriguing masterpieces will find the novel thoroughly absorbing, even thrilling at times. But the lightning that bonded the story of a fictional maid and her employer to the actual picture that we know as 'The Girl with the Pearl Earring' never flashes. Its energy is dissipated throughout the book, putting a spark on many small moments but never quite animating what might have been a charming fairy tale if only the unicorn could have been persuaded to prance across its pages. (January 2004) 


The Thin Place, by Kathryn Davis ( Little, Brown, 2006)

In beginning this note with the observation that Kathryn Davis's The Thin Place offers both too much and too little for me, I'm signaling that I don't fault her for having written a book that's not really for me. I want to leave the door open, as well, to the possibility that The Thin Place will haunt me, as books often quite unexpectedly do. Certainly this is the sort of book that any reader might find "haunting."

We find ourselves in Varennes, a New England town within sight of Mount Washington. Ms Davis declines to be more specific. No doubt she has her reasons, but it's the sort of reticence that I almost always find irritating: why tell me this much and no more? Locations are not like faces, best left suggested to the reader's imagination. They are fiercely specific, both in their features and in their relation to or distance from other locations. As a besotted cartophile, I started The Thin Place on the wrong foot, and never regained my stride.

We also find ourselves in a world that is porous to the consciousness of dogs, cats, beavers, and even insects. Ms Davis handles this sort of thing with amazing grace and tact - I doubt that it could have been done better - but her purpose in taking us into non-human minds seems to be to widen the canvas of fiction's range. A moose may not remember having mated twice earlier in the spring, but he's blessed by the same sense of well-being that human males are familiar with, and might enjoy all the more deeply if they, too, could forget the cause. But if Ms Davis is ready to place human consciousness on a continuum that runs through all of life (and perhaps beyond), I am not, especially when passages such as the following - one of several about Margaret, a Malamute - come at the expense of human exposition.

Margaret got home before the other dogs because she had the least distance to go, straight down Bliss Hill and across the Dump Road, but also because she was the fastest. She had eaten two chickens and killed two more. Despite the driving rain, her beautiful muzzle was still streaked with blood and had a few soggy white feathers clinging to it. "Margaret," Mees said. "Oh, Margaret, where have you been?"

Margaret lay on her side in her favorite corner, with her head on the wood floor and her body on the rag rug. A little like a wolf except not quite so rangy, she appeared blissfully happy. But she couldn't stop panting, her dark almond eyes staring oblivious out of her sleek white mask, and her elegant plumed tail streaming behind her across the rug like a boa. The trip down the hill had been difficult for her. A northern dog's eyes are angled skyward in the brow, inviting rain instead of keeping it out. Mees wrapped Margaret in a yellow beach towel and began to rub her dry. She smelled terrible and her stomach was rumbling loudly.

The Thin Place is loaded with interesting characters, and its carefully elegant plot could have been made to hold a great deal more of their stories, but Middlemarch does not seem to figure among Ms Davis's models. On the contrary, her book seems to want to be shorter, more like a fable. It wants to connect modes of existence that don't usually show up on the same page, but it is also rich in reference to purely human culture. At times, Varennes is a town like any other, full of people who take their surroundings for granted. At others, it is a site on which humans are squatting, perhaps more provisionally than they think. Ms Davis's fluid passing from one view to the other is masterful. What she does, she does very well. What does not do is persuade me that The Thin Place is fully adult fiction.

This is not to say that the book would make appropriate reading for a young person, even a teenager. The ambivalences of mature, not to say geriatric, sexuality are closely examined more than once, as are the rationalizations and displacements that, when young people do read about them, they always conclude that they'll be able to avoid when they themselves grow up. But the double take on human society - it is what we think it is, but it is also just another kind of animal society - sounds like the important message that a book for thoughtful younger readers might hear with mind-opening consequences. For doddering old me, the duality is a highly complicated confusion of meaning and abstractions that our brains are not quite up to resolving. Ms Davis's suggestion that we might understand our world better if we tried a little harder not to think about ourselves all the time drains her novel of the richness that it promises on almost every page.

It remains, then, for me to see how deeply the people in The Thin Place will sink into me. (The title seems to me to refer to the point at which life and death almost connect.) Ms Davis dilutes their interesting lives by hinting at and sometimes explicitly announcing ultimate outcomes - who will die of what, where, and when. But Kathy Crockett will always have "that penchant for order and niceness that had so far served to distract almost everyone from her overwhelming, and anything but orderly or nice, appetite for power." Helen Zeebrugge will always be ninety-two, a little tired of life not least because she's still sharp as a tack.

Johnny would be ninety-six years old today, and the altar flowers at church were to be in his memory. Helen sighed, a sound she profoundly disliked. As if being helped into one of the pastel garments Crockett bulk ordered from a catalog weren't indignity enough, and having to inch along on Piet's arm down the hall past the kitchen and out the back door of the Crockett Home and then to be shoved into the passenger seat of his car only to be yanked forth moments later into the blazing sun like a reluctant newborn and once again to suffer the indignity of inching along, this time across the gaping crevasses of the church parking lot and up the handicap-access ramp and into the dark church. You couldn't order flowers and not show up for the service. 

Lorna Fine will always stand on the verge of seventh grade, precociously having figured things out.

Lorna used to envy adults their freedom, but after last night, she thought she knew better. Who was free? Babies? Yes, right, Lorna - not to mention the whole diaper thing. Maybe old people, though by the time you got to be so old you didn't have to worry about other people, your body fell apart.

I hope that these paragraphs will have recommended The Thin Place to readers who will surely delight in it. (October 2007)


Twilight of the Superheroes, by Deborah Eisenberg

The purpose of this paragraph is to remind myself why, in future, I ought not to allow widespread praise for a writer's marvelous gifts to tempt me to overlook my own vague misgivings, shaped, in this case, by some prior experience of the writer's work. Now the misgivings won't be vague. I don't mean to go on at length about Deborah Eisenberg or Twilight of the Superheroes, her recent collection of stories. Ms Eisenberg is a vivid and gifted writer, and her narration can be wonderfully surprising. Sadly, however, her atmosphere is a disagreeable one. It is a disappointed, condescending compound of essentially adolescent attitudes and prejudices.

So, marvelous. Humans were born, they lived. They glued themselves together in little clumps, and then they died. It was no more, as William had once cheerfully explained, than a way for genes to perpetuate themselves. "The selfish gene," he'd said, quoting, probably detrimentally, someone; you were put on earth to fight for your DNA.

Let the organisms chat. Let them talk. Their voices were as empty as the tinklings of a player-piano. Let the organisms talk about this and that; it was what (as William had so trenchantly pointed out) this particular carbon-based life form did, just as its cousin (according to William) the roundworm romped ecstatically beneath the surface of the plant.

I found this sort of "existential" dejection tedious when I was in high school. It is so willful! First, you presume that there must be "meaning" - something to explain the vagaries of existence, and somehow justify the terrible things that can happen while showing just why it is that joy is always impermanent. Then, you fail to find this meaning. You have been let down, but you don't know whether it's the fault of the world or your own inadequacy. Both, probably. You live out your days at a comfortable, perhaps privileged, address, and try to keep your sighs from etching wrinkles in your face.


Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin (G P Putnam's Sons, 2007)

Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death (G P Putnam's Sons, 2007) is a skillfully contrived historical thriller that is entertaining enough to sweep its monumental implausibility aside. This implausibility lies wholly in the way in which the characters think and converse. It is unlikely, however, that a modern reader could sustain novel-length contact with a genuine twelfth-century narrative even if one could be contrived. If the written records are any indications, the people of the middle ages had a great deal less to say than we do, and they took at least twice as long to say it. Once Ms Franklin resolved to open a window on a long-vanished England, she was more or less obliged to craft a language that would not repel the reading public.

There is a minor implausibility in the plot. The action is set at Cambridge in 1171. There was no University at Cambridge at the time, and Ms Franklin doesn't fall into the trap of assuming that there was. But I think that she's a little hasty with the Canterbury pilgrimage racket. Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury whose cult was the focus of the pilgrimage, was assassinated at the end of 1170, and although his canonization occurred with breathtaking alacrity, it did not do so until 1173. If I had been Ms Franklin's editor, I'd have urged her to move the action to 1174. She would still have been able to have Henry II show up, in relatively good shape. (Of course, he may not have been in England that year.)

Now that I've dealt with my pseudo-scholarly cavils, let me make it clear that I was most agreeably gripped by Mistress of the Art of Death. I can only tell you so much about it, of course, because it is, after all, a thriller. I can tell you that the star of the show is Adelia of Salerno, a lady doctor who would probably be burned as a witch if the English were to discover her skill-set. But what is she doing in Cambridge?

There is a monster in Cambridge, a sick soul who is kidnapping, torturing, and murdering children. Unfortunately, circumstance and misjudgment lead the good people of the town, which is already a mercantile hub, to suspect the town's Jews of ritually sacrificing the children. A Jewish couple are murdered by the mob, while the authorities manage to relocate the rest of the town's "Jewry" into Cambridge Castle. Effectively out of business, the Jews stop paying their customarily substantial taxes to the king. The king, who is also being pressed to expel the Jews from England, is unhappy. He wants to prove that the Jews have had nothing to do with the murders. He asks around, and the next thing you know, his cousin, the King of Sicily, has unearthed a forensic pathologist avant la lettre: Adelia of Salerno. He does not ask Adelia if she wants to travel to England; he commands her. Accompanied by a nurse (who dies en route, before the story gets going - but who has conveniently taught Adelia her native English), a Jewish fixer, Simon of Naples, and Mansur, a Moorish eunuch who is Adelia's devoted bodyguard, as well as her puppet (he has to pretend to be the doctor in the troupe) Adelia makes her way to Cambridge; in fact, she has nearly arrived in the opening pages.

The royal thinking is that Adelia will be able to examine the bodies of the murdered children with a view to establishing the identity of their murderer. All right, that's a bit implausible, too. The Twelfth Century was not the darkest of ages, but even the most expert problem-solvers of the day were not endowed with such a faith in scientific methods.

Once you shut up, however, and allow yourself to enjoy Mistress of the Art of Death, the story becomes great fun: a gifted Brearley girl travels in a time-machine to the time of Henry Plantagenet and is stuck working with the local limitations. No computers, &c. Widespread superstition. What would it be like? This is the book that answers that question - which is really the only question that we all want to ask of history, even though we know it's improper. We're supposed to ask, what was it like? But we really want to know what it would be like to find ourselves back there and then. The only way to propose an answer is to take immense liberties.

Ms Franklin takes as few liberties as she can manage, and she is very consistent with them. Adelia and her confidents talk in something very like modern English. With others, a more self-consciously courtly and archaic English slips into place, although it is never remotely unfamiliar. We are told only as much about social arrangements - convents, castles, and crossroads - as we really need to know; Ms Franklin is particularly efficient about filling us in on these matters.

I feel obliged to report that romance buds, burgeons, and flourishes.

The anger the tax collector always inspired in her came hot and shart. "One of the beaters? I am qualified, qualified, and chosen for this mission by the King of Sicily, not by Simon, and certainly not by you."

"Madam, I am merely concerned for your safety."

It was too late: he would not have suggested that a man in her position go home; he had insulted her professional ability.

Adelia lapsed into Arabic, the only tongue in which she could swear freely, because Margaret had never understood it. She used phrases overheard during Mansur's frequent quarrels with her foster parents' Moroccan cook, the one language that could counteract the fury Sir Rowley Pico ever inspired in her. She spoke of diseased donkeys and his unnatural preference for them, of his doglike attributes, his fleas, his bowel performance, and his eating habits. She told him what he could do with his concern, an injunction again involving his bowels. Whether Picot knew what she was saying or didn't was irrelevant: he could get the gist.

Yes, there's even a screwball element. Why not?

Ms Franklin is to be commended for bringing to life a world that was far more cosmopolitan than we're inclined to think it was. People traveled great distances to do business in hundreds of products and commodities. Others went far from home on pilgrimages. The Crusades introduced several generations of aristocratic Europeans to the sophisticated refinements of their Arab counterparts. And England, remote as it was, was showing the world the first glimmers of the modern secular state. At the same time, Europe was Christendom. Even if Ms Franklin puts words in the mouths of her characters that they couldn't have known, she does a good job of showing how people understood their world.

If Mistress of the Art of Death does strike one dispiriting note, it's to do with anti-Semitism. We all know that anti-Semitism is at least as old as Christianity, but it stands out as the most familiar thing about 1171. We don't have to ask what it would be like - to be Jewish then. (April 2007)


Cassandra French's Finishing School for Boys, by Eric Garcia (Regan Books, 2004)

For an intelligent beach read, this novel can't be beat. It's unfailingly amusing, and sometimes even funny. You will not wish that you were in the heroine's shoes, but you won't worry that she's going to come out badly in the end, improbable as that confidence might seem, given the bed that Cassandra French has made for herself - or, rather, for her three pupils in the basement. The only thing you really worry about is how good the movie will be.

Cassandra French is in the movies herself, sort of; she's a lawyer in the Business Affairs Department (not to be confused the the Legal Department of a major Hollywood studio. Here she does - nothing. Her sexist boss (not an attorney) has put her in his doghouse ever since she stopped wearing heels to work. But if he doesn't give her any work, he hasn't seemed to consider taking her off the payroll, and Cassandra's problem is basically one of underutilization. With nothing to bend her mind to at work, she must find another project - shopping doesn't count (it's more like eating) - and when a big but not unattractive guy falls all over her at a ball game before simply falling over in the parking lot, Cassandra has a vision.

I'm not sure what made me do it, but I drove into a residential area, pulled over onto a side street, and parked beneath a sycamore tree. Leaning over the front seat, I took a good look at the boy in the back, lying there peacefully like a kid who'd fallen asleep after a hard day at the park. He was handsome, of course, and strong - nothing new there. Funny, certainly. Bright, without all the alcohol in him. We'd shared a connection back at the stadium, something I hadn't felt for a boy in quite some time.

He seemed so perfect, I thought to myself. For once, I thought I had a shot at something special. But in the end, he's just a boy, like all the others. It's their nature. There's no way to change it.

That's ridiculous, said a deeper, different voice inside my head.

Now, it had been a while since my father and I had spoken. He died when I was thirteen, and though we'd had occasional postmortem conversations through my adolescence, their frequency had dropped off as I grew out of my teens. But that day, he came through loud and clear. As I stared at Owen, something inside me perked up, and I distinctly heard Daddy say:

"Help him, Cassie."

"Help him?" I said out loud. "Help him what?"

"Help him to become a better man."

When Owen comes to, he's chained to a cot in a dark basement. He's not very happy about this, of course, but ... by the time the book begins, a year or so later, that's all in the past. Owen has come around, accepting the need for tutelage, and is actually quite sweet. Aside from the question of false imprisonment, Cassie has helped him to develop, for example, a sure grasp of wardrobe coordination, and many other skills not heretofore regarded as absolutely manly, without resorting to torture. She has two other pupils as well.

The thot plickens when Cassie selects her fourth student. He is a world-famous hunk, and might well have been played by Keanu Reeves ten years ago. With Jason, however, there are complications. You are presently wondering how on earth Cassandra Susan French is going to get out of a very big mess. Eric Garcia's solution is just right - hardly more probable than anything that has gone before but completely of a piece with it. As Hitchcock demonstrated decades ago (in The Trouble With Harry), farce and corpses are not necessarily incompatible.

I could introduce Cassie's friends, and a few of the Hollywood types whom she has to deal with, but you already know them. Inventive characterization is not this novel's strong point; it would only get in the way of the fun. Literate and sharp, Cassandra French's Finishing School for Boys is a treat. Consumed appropriately, it will give great, if altogether evanescent, pleasure. (August 2004)


Matrimony, by Joshua Henkin (Pantheon, 2007)

Joshua Henkin's Matrimony reads like a great movie. The characters are attractive, the situations poignant, the settings classic, and the atmosphere is a haze of the gentlest nostalgia. Matrimony does not, however, read like a great novel, littered as it is with annotations that won't be needed when the cameras start rolling. For example, in the following scene from the end of the novel — the heroine, Mia, having just lighted a jahrzeit candle in memory of her mother, sits with her widowed father in Montreal — everything after Mia's announcement will be snipped when it comes time to write the screenplay:

"We found out it's a boy," she told him. The night before the amniocentesis, she hadn't been able to sleep. She had almost decided not to find out the sex, but the prospect of not knowing seemed worse. When she got the news, she started to cry. She'd prayed for a boy; she'd practically begged for one. Because though a man could develop breast cancer, the odds were so much worse if the baby was a girl.

I'll come back to the breast cancer. For the moment, I want to complain about the narrative structure on display here, because, over a long life of reading fiction, I have come to dislike it intensely. For reasons known only to the author, the bundle of hopes and anxieties surrounding Mia's amniocentsis, together with mention of the event itself, have been reserved for a discretely later moment, in another city even. Hearing Mia tell her father that she is carrying a boy, it seems that we have to be brought up to date.

It is difficult to name this technique, or even to think of it as a technique, but I have provisionally settled on "annotation." When an observation or statement seems to require explanation, the narrator simply inserts it on the spot — but not before the need is felt. In the making of a film, any competent actress will know how to project Mia's fear of knowing — malignant tumor? breast-cancer gene? healthy baby? — with an instantly readable facial expression. But we can't see Mia's face on the page, so the author must work in some sort of substitution, which is exactly what the bulk of the paragraph feels like. It is a substitution for the foreshadowing, for the delicate, thought-out preparation, that natural storytellers weave into their work as irrepressibly as they breathe. Annotations, on the other hand, always appear to be preceded by an understood apology: "Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you..."

The plain fact is that Mr Henkin is not really telling a story. That is why his novel will make such a good movie. Having introduced us to two appealing young people, he proceeds to hand out cute photographs of their lives over the next fifteen years. Next to nothing happens. In the middle, Julian, by this time Mia's husband, has conniptions when he discovers an ancient and, in my view at least, quite understandable infidelity; astride his high horse, he is not so attractive, and Mr Henkin has the good sense to dismount him. Somewhat later, Mia discovers a lump in her breast. Aside from these incidents, Matrimony is a series of everyday scenes, most of them charming but none of them revealing. For all that we see of Julian and Mia, they remain as resolutely "other" as the people we know in real life. Last time I checked, the principal purpose of fiction was to breach the very moat by which the gifted characters in Matrimony are surrounded.

Now, as to Mia's brush against breast cancer (her lump turns out to be benign): novels in which a specific disease plays an important role ought to be stamped "science fiction," because the whole point of such narratives is that we know little more about tumors and viruses than we do about Martians. Disease, when it is mysterious — when death is a possible outcome — is gripping in the same way that science fiction is gripping. Unseen marauders who do not speak our language stalk the corridors — or, at any rate, the blood vessels. It is awful to endure the menace of disease, but it is not interesting; matters of life and death never are. Insofar as our response to disease is interesting, the disease itself must be overlooked, which is why the principal characters in better fiction, surrounded though they might be by mortality (as, for example, in a novel about war), rarely die themselves: for if they die, they can no longer have anything interesting to think about death. The healthy reader will balk at the prospect of identifying with a corpse.

This is not to say that Mr Henkin does not know how to write arrestingly about cancer. He does, and with the kind of sure grasp that suggests unfortunate personal experience. But although he writes about it well, he does not write about it novelistically. There were more than a few moments when I felt that something like a general dumping or downloading of information was filling up the pages. It was — interesting. But was it fiction? From their inception, novels have been full of news about the world, but, once again, standards and expectations have evolved, developed by the best novelists. Too much detail tends to choke the undercurrents of significance, and the touch of travelogue can be as chilling in a novel as it is in a slide projector. The careful reader of Matrimony will be equipped to rattle off the names of enough buildings at several famous campuses to pass muster, at least with the unsuspecting, as an alumnus.

Matrimony, in short, is written for lazy readers and for dampered imaginations. The wealth of well-wrought surface detail that takes the place of insight into character is pleasantly collegian: if nothing else, the novel captures the élan of inquiring minds at demanding universities. Poised on the threshold of adulthood, these bright young things are positively beset by flashes of understanding that seem to light up the murk right to the very bottom of things. Matrimony is in many ways an admirably composed commonplace book of contemporary aperçus: I wish I'd said that. Every now and then, though, Mr Henkin's endeavor to write comfortably throws one of these interesting observations into acute dislocation. Just try, for example, to find the topic sentence in the following paragraph.

She didn't want to look at the photo albums — where could she begin? — but there were a few loose photos of her mother as a girl. Mia was astonished by how much she resembled her mother. Babies were said to look like their fathers, evolution's way of encouraging men to stick around, but she had done things in reverse: she had looked like her mother when she was a baby and now, years later, she resembled her father. The clump of curls, the long, narrow face, the cleft like a brand on her chin. Though some people thought her parents looked alike, and she supposed that over time they had started to.

Matrimony ought to make a very successful motion picture, and I say that without a shred of disdain. This is an excellent property, and Joshua Henkin may be justly proud of dreaming it up. But it is not really a novel, and readers who take unalloyed pleasure in it cannot really care for written fiction. Reader who do care will regret Mr Henkin's reluctance to explore the characters whom he seems to take such delight in looking at. He captures the outside of things very well, even the appearance of penetration. I hope that he finds a more suitable outlet for his very considerable writing talent.


Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf, 2004)

Carl Hiaasen has worked an interesting variation on the crime serial, one that dispenses with the recurring detective while infusing a truly huge amount of fun into the proceedings. And the only mystery is how the bad guys get their comeuppance. As formulas go, Mr Hiaasen's is extremely roomy. The only fixed element is the South Florida landscape, an uneasy strip of sprawl alongside the vast Everglades Swamp. Mr Hiaasen is a native, and he's not fond of outsiders, who usually, in his view, come to the neighborhood with nefarious objectives. Readers of his delightful pamphlet, Team Disney, can only imagine what a regular thrashing the Magic Kingdom would take if it were situated in the northern latitude of Orlando.

Just when a rereading of Stormy Weather seems timely, given its now sadly predictive take on the predatory scum who swarm in the wake of destructive hurricanes, along comes Skinny Dip, and indeed it joins the earlier novel in a tie for top marks. I read the book in a day; its narrative momentum was as steady and sweeping as a powerful motorboat's. From first page to last, there was never a drop in the pace - a genuinely remarkable achievement, when you think about it.

The story plows straight through the large cast. On the first page, the beautiful Joey Perrone falls into the Atlantic from the deck of a cruise ship, having been heaved overboard by her husband. A daring start, indeed! Seasoned readers won't be overly anxious on Joey's behalf; she's clearly the heroine, and the author isn't going to kill her off in the first chapter. Nonetheless, the uncertainty of her ordeal and the account of her rescue make for somewhat breathless reading. By the time she's safe and sound, we've gotten acquainted with her sleazoid husband, Chaz. Chaz Perrone will doubtless always figure among Mr Hiaasen's skankier creations. A lazybones who thinks no further ahead than the next screw, an oaf altogether without principles or ambitions - Chaz doesn't care about success, only about what success can buy - this unredeemable slimebomb has talked his way into a job as in the environmental field. If there's one thing Chaz has no use for, it's nature, and he cheerfully uses his job as a cover for damaging the environment on behalf of a black-hearted agronomist. This he does by falsifying phosphate levels in the good old farmer's vicinity. It almost goes without saying that the farmer employs, or perhaps it would be better to say that he enslaves, migrant workers, and keeps them in line with the help of a hirsute Neanderthal called, simply, Tool.

Like Sleeping Beauty, Joey is not long in falling in love with her rescuer, a retired detective named Mick Stranahan. Mick lives on an island not far offshore, but far enough offshore to leave women bored to sobs after a few months; he's conveniently single at the moment. But what makes this love story different is Joey's determination to find out why her husband tried to kill her, and, if possible, to get even. Who could be more helpful than a former detective.

While Joey remains unrecovered, as it were, the detective officially assigned to clear up the case of the missing wife is a Minnesotan named Rolvaag who longs to return to cooler climes; he has in fact secured a job with the Edina police force, and will be leaving as soon as he gets to the bottom of Chaz's story, which rather unpersuasively points to suicide. This is a new twist: a sympathetic character who hates Fort Lauderdale. Rolvaag's gentle persistence soon has Chaz in a lather - and Chaz in a lather is not the brightest bulb in the box. Also fueling Chaz's paranoia is the series of pranks that his supposedly late wife pulls on him.

I won't divulge which bad guy turns out to have the heart of gold, but it's all but a given that one of them will. Nor of course will I tell you why Chaz pushed Joey into the ocean, or what becomes of the agronomist. Mr Hiaasen's ability to find genuine humor in the plight of a terminally-ill cancer patient is a testament to one of literature's sunniest natures. But don't think he lets anybody off. (September 2004)

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The Learners, by Chip Kidd (Scribner, 2008)

Chip Kidd's The Learners (Scribers, 2008) proclaims itself as the sequel to a book called The Cheese Monkeys (2001), and I gather that an impressive character who makes a brief appearance in the new book, Himillsy Dodd, was something of a main attraction the first time round. With a manner that suggests a Gloria Upson who has been force-fed smart pills and brainwashed at the Mame Dennis Spa, Miss Dodd poses a certain kudzu-like menace to the pre-eminence, for narrative purposes, of Mr Kidd's hero, a young man called Happy. It is no surprise, then, that she is made a martyr to the plot.

Chip Kidd is perhaps the most celebrated graphic designer working today, at least outside the world of graphic design. He is also a fluent writer, if a slightly derivative one — which is also understandable, as he has set the novel several years before his birth. What's important about the date seems in part to be its innocence of the panoply of professional aids that the computer has brought to the designer's assistance; at the New Haven advertising firm where Happy has sought work in fulfillment of a near-mythic quest, our hero and his boss, a brilliant underachiever named Sketch, do things the old-fashioned way, with pen, ink, and a sure hand. This somewhat static aspect of The Learners gets the lion's share of Mr Kidd's attention.

An advertising agency in New Haven? I'm in no position to assess the likelihood of this important details, which brings Happy within close proximity to Stanley Milgram, the Yale University psychology researcher whose famous, or infamous, experiment, Obedience to Authority, has risen from academic obscurity in recent years into the troposphere of Stuff that Everybody Knows, where Stuff is "cool" and Everybody went to college. Milgram, then at the beginning of his career, want to put a legacy of the Holocaust to the test: just how plausible was the statement, But I was only following orders," as a genuinely sincere excuse? The experiment suggested that it was extremely genuine — terrifyingly so. Told that they were not responsible for the consequences of their acts, but instructed to follow orders without reservation, subjects inflicted massive electric shocks — or thought that that was what they were doing — to recruits who couldn't manage to answer simple questions correctly. These latter recruits were called "learners," and the irony of Mr Kidd's title is that there were, in fact, no "learners" — except for the "teachers," the subjects pulling the levers.

Filled in on the facts after their sessions were over, and exposed at the same moment to dark truths about human nature and to the awareness of their own exploitation, at least some teachers "learned" that they could barely live with themselves. Others were wonderfully capable of compartmentalizing the experience. In Mr Kidd's absorbing re-creation of Obedience to Authority — the great appeal of The Learners — we're given an example of each response, and the pleasant matron who is only slightly troubled by the debriefing strikes a far more disturbing gong in the reader's mind than do more haunted teachers. This kernel of great fiction might in another writer's hands have been encouraged to expand on the suggestion of a second Holocaust, this one without corpses, but Mr Kidd is content with heavy, if well-shaped hints.

The Learners is too suave to outline gross parallels between advertising and behavioral psychology, but it is just possible that Mr Kidd has left too much to the reader's imagination. Happy is one of those characters who seems fully present only while the story is ongoing. Put the book down, and he begins to feel synthetic or incomplete. His sexuality, for example, is either extraordinarily sublimated or simply shoved to the side. His adoration of Himillsy is chummy rather than romantic, but of the wretched complications of gay identity in 1961 there is not an explicit whisper. Given these limitations, The Learners might have been stronger as a novella.

So much for strictly literary assessment. As a designed object, The Learners is a handsome and intriguing artifact, and it has a better claim to shelf space than most hybrids. Most fans of the genre will probably resist thinking of The Learners as a graphic novel, but it is as purely graphic in its text-centered way as are the sophisticated offspring of manga that dispense with words altogether. (March 2008)

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All I Could Get, by Scott Lasser (Vintage, 2002/3)

By the time this novel was published, the financial markets in which it is set had passed into history, but because the end of the boom market of the late nineties, and of the 'new economy' that many credulous investors thought it heralded, are never mentioned, the atmosphere of All I Could Get is weightless rather than timeless. When, at the end, his hero, Barry Schwartz, forsakes government-bond trading on Wall Street for a 'Plan B' that he has yet to develop, it is in the teeth of an invitation to take a job much like the one that he had at the beginning of the story, perchance to make another attempt at mastery of the universe. Why the author failed to nail home the structural instability underlying his otherwise neat cautionary tale is beyond me. The universe was about to collapse, and its former masters are howling still. Barry's exit, however, is virtuous rather than shrewd. He does not like what trying to succeed has done to him, particularly as he hasn't really succeeded. Having betrayed his colleagues (albeit in the totally legal manner of workplace treason) and cheated on his wife - managing, in one coup, to do both at the same time - Barry gets the Big Job, only to find that he can't cut it. Barry is not a bad guy; he only came to Wall Street to make enough quick money to return to the Colorado slopes where he and his wife would have been happy if they hadn't been so very poor. But this quick-money idea is utterly chimerical, because it costs too much to live anywhere near Wall Street, and, stuck in their cottage near the Croton Reservoir, Barry and Rachel feel almost as poor as they did in Colorado, even though Barry's making six or seven times more. Barry gradually decides that the only way to make the scheme work is to play rough, and the book chronicles his descent into cutthroatdom. What makes All I Could Get an intriguing read is the author's keen attentiveness to the macho draw of Wall Street life. Although the men - all but one of Mr Lasser's players is a man - dress sharply, they are brawlers underneath their fine wool suits, with backgrounds in rough sports or the military or both. Of the vast trading room in which so much of this novel takes place, Barry remarks at the outset, "Later in the day, it will take on the stench of a locker room." Not much later, he recalls the thinking that propelled him from Aspen to Wharton: "And when I read about the trading floor, it reminded me of a locker room. I'd been in a lot of locker rooms, and I knew I could do well there." Financial expertise is not required - which perhaps explains the demise of the 'new economy.' As if to compensate for the bluffery that Barry's job boils down to, Mr Lasser peppers the dialogue with arcane-sounding broker's bids, but it's clear that this jargon is hardly different from that of the football huddle, nothing but extreme abbreviation. Remarkably, Mr Lasser managed to convince me that Barry's love for his wife and children remain his governing passions throughout his decline, fall, and glimmering resurrection.  (May 2003)

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Stop That Girl, by Elizabeth McKenzie and Home Land, by Sam Lipsyte

A few weeks ago, I read two novels by new authors, both recommended by Patricia Storms at Booklust. I liked one and couldn't make up my mind about the other. But they belong together, I think, in being unconventional, non-novelistic works of fiction that use coming-of-age stories to suggest problems with American society. These problems are not positive social ills (such as racism or commercial fraudulence), but rather lacks, shortfalls. The world hasn't provided either book's principal character with enough of some essential ingredient. They don't complain; these aren't books about resentment and entitlement. That only makes their plights the more affecting.

Home Land, by Sam Lipsyte (Picador, 2004), is ostensibly a series of "updates" submitted to a high school alumni newsletter. The writer, Lewis Miner, has good reason to doubt that his submissions will be published, but he keeps writing them even when that doubt turns into certainty. There is something pathetic about this maneuver. But then Lewis is pathetic. He appears to have no attractions beyond a sarcastic intelligence that while funny to read would be insupportable in person. He is personally unprepossessing. The writing projects an unpleasant physical presence, a scuzziness that comes right through the page - unfortunately. Lewis has embraced loserdom. This is not to be confused with accepting a humble life or a less than stellar career. Embracing loserdom means taking great pains to avoid looking healthy or successful.

What Lewis's mind lacks completely is an internal discipline, and also any sense of objective priorities. He ekes out a meagre living writing "fun facts" - unfunny untruths - for a soda company's in-house newsletter. That it is impossible to imagine anyone paying for the output that Lewis shares with us suggests that Mr Lipsyte has written Home Land as a "What If?" What if one of a given high school's biggest shlemiel/shlemazel were to step forward and deconstruct the self-congratulatory air of a fifteenth-year reunion. Presumably, the appeal here would be to let those of us who didn't make the in-crowd identify with a little venting. It's an interesting premise, but Home Land lacks the structural rigor to carry it off. The reunion, when it comes, is a very unlikely, fizzly guignole.

And yet the book is often very funny. That's why I can't make up my mind about it.

Catamounts, as the hall began to fill it was hard not to notice how gladly you all groped for name tags at the reception table. Maybe some feared mistaken identity, so many slack bellies and hairless heads in the room, faces filigreed with worry, shame, capillary burst. Time had done an odd thing aside from the individual rot. Some alums seemed morphed into startling amalgams, especially the men. Don't be insulted, Catamounts, and I don't exclude yours truly, but only the pistol budge in Special Agent Brett Meachum's suit, for example, set him apart from his old football line mate Stan Damon. Their identical pug-nosed swaggers were intact from the old days, their hairlines in a match race to oblivion.

Once upon a time, the age of constant measurement, I'd known the ear jut, the nasal flare, of each and every Catamount. I could have sketched the pimple distribution on the chins of boys whose names I barely knew. Now features seemed smeared, indistinct. The joggers looked like other joggers. The boozers looked like other boozers. The rich loosed the same guffaws in coded bursts. The Moonbeam seemed full of types, hugging, kissing, pointing to each other's tagged lapels in disbelief.

But I don't expect to read this book again anytime soon. Please don't think I'll mind if my reasons for disliking Home Land make it seem appealing to you. Breezy unseemliness turns me off, but I know that lots of other readers like it.

Rather more to my taste was "a novel in stories," Elizabeth McKenzie's Stop That Girl. The title comes from the end of the first story, where eight year-old Ann Ransom tears her newborn sister, Katherine Weeks, out of her pram and runs off for a private moment. We are not surprised by Ann's rambunctiousness. At the beginning of the story, Ann's life is upset when her mother remarries, and gives up picturesque near-poverty for Valley suburbia. (Just as Home Land is New-Jersey-bound, so is Stop That Girl unmistakably Californian.) Ann doesn't like her stepfather, Roy (although that will change over time), and goes in for a lot of acting out. As a result, she's sent off on a trip to Europe with her maternal grandmother. To say that mother and grandmother don't get along is putting it mildly. One suspects that it is the rebellion of a passionate girl against her mother's almost institutional impassiveness - an attempt to break through it that is weirdly doomed. But the relationship is never unspooled for reflective consideration; nothing in these stories is. What we have in Stop That Girl is expertly-handled action and assured dialogue, but none - or as little as possible - of the expository integument in which novels and even short stories are bound. Insofar as Stop That Girl has a failing, this is it, although I daresay that many readers won't mind, preferring to fill in the background for themselves. My objection to that is that readers don't learn much from such exercise. Learning to make imaginative connections is one thing; supplying backstories and likely analyses from one's stock of reading is another.

In the course of nine stories, Ann grows up through a series of episodes, She ends as a single mother herself, with a delightful boy named Will. (For what it's worth, one of the few truly nice characters in Home Land goes by that name as well.) She develops a fullness of character offstage; For example, she has a career of sorts in publishing in New York - but she seems unhappy living anywhere but in California and eventually returns, somewhere between the seventh story (in which she has an hilarious escapade with Allen Ginsburg) and the eighth, which exposes her to some truly creepy people. In the final story, we have the only extended flashback in the collection, and it works very well - so well, in fact, that one regrets other opportunities for rich recursiveness in the earlier material. In the end, I wasn't much happier with the undernourished frame of Stop That Girl than I was with the watery pudginess of Home Land, but Ann Ransom is a vastly more appealing character than Lewis Miner, and what Ms McKenzie does, she does very well. She needs to do more. Mr Lipsyte, I think, needs to do a little less.

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Shopgirl, by Steve Martin.

The only thing wrong with Steve Martin's literate novella is its catchily humdrum title. Mirabelle Buttersfield may, when we meet her, peddle gloves to infrequent customers behind a counter at Neiman's in Beverly Hills, but her vocation lies in the arts, and this story is not about her career anyway, but about her love life. If it had been called something a little more sophisticated - 'Faute de Mieux' comes to mind - then you wouldn't arch your eyebrows when I say that Mr Martin makes you care very much for his heroine's love life. He brings Mirabelle to life with a tart tenderness that's only occasionally punctuated with the jolly sarcasm for which he is more broadly famous. Three supporting characters, who together with the ghosts of her still-living parents constitute Mirabelle's emotional milieu, further illuminate Mr Martin's thesis, which is that the victims of arrested development are almost always mistaken about their objectives and the means of attaining them. 

In ten years or so, long after I've forgotten the names of the supporting characters - 'Mirabelle,' the artifice of which, as applied to a WASP from Vermont, I'm happy to forgive - and long after the Mr Martin's cache of jewel-cut observations about lust and luxury have dropped through the sieve at the bottom of my brain, the dim recollection of the following passage will inspire me to re-read Shopgirl

Ray Porter's quest for the right woman is not going well because he is living in the wrong eternal city. He is still in the city of his youth, where women in their twenties frolic like bunnies, and speak in high tones, and cajole him and panic him. He still believes that here he will find a china-skinned intellectual who will dazzle him with a wild laugh and a sense of life.  A bridge is being built in his subconscious. The bridge is to span from this eternal city to a very different eternal city. This new city is where is true heart will live, a heart that bears the marks of his experience, that knows how and whom to love. But the bridge is several powerful and painful experiences away from being finished, and right now he sits in his Seattle house with a woman he has no idea he isn't interested in. 

I know that I'll enjoy Shopgirl even more the second time around. I might not wait to forget it. (December 2000)


Alternatives to Sex, by Stephen McCauley

Stephen McCauley completely cracked me up on page 5 of his new novel, Alternatives to Sex.

As I was going over my shirt for the second time, I figured it would be easier to stick to my sex resolution and break a bad habit if I kept myself busy. I'd recently turned forty - and more recently than that had turned forty-four.

Mr McCauley is a master of comic timing. It isn't that what happens in his novels is so funny; it's his narration that's side-splitting. He doesn't go in for the outrageous behavior that one finds in Patrick Dennis's novels, but then he doesn't have to: he has taken Dennis's comic voice and made it his own. Consider this masterful introduction:

Marty was Edward's friend, someone I'd always disliked and felt in competition with. Marty exerted an unhealthy degree of influence over Edward. Edward was susceptible to the influence, not wholly benign, because Marty was his idea of rugged, strutting masculinity: a retired marine who'd served in the first Iraq debacle in the early 1990s and then started a business that Marty (and Edward, Marty's mouthpiece) claimed was raking in several hundred grand a year. In terms of domineering personality, unapologetic machismo, and bulky muscularity, Marty would have been a perfect lover for Edward. Unfortunately, for the sake of Edward's romantic prospects, Marty was a woman. Martine, in fact. A stocky African-American woman from Arkansas with the captivating voice and precise articulation of a Shakespearean actress.

Behind the surprise of Marty's gender lies a world of information and attitude. William, the narrator, doesn't like competing with Marty for Edward's attention. Is there a message here that perhaps the narrator himself isn't picking up? As a put-down, "mouthpiece" is tinged with an affection that amplifies William's labile ambivalence about his friend. And William is just a bit too sure of what Edward is looking for in a lover when he insists that Marty, who is everything that William is not, would be perfect if only she were a man.

Two stories are entwined in Alternatives to Sex. Edward's plan to move from Boston to California, which upsets William without lighting any bulbs in his head, is a thread woven through the novel that never takes the spotlight for very long. The richer story tells of Sam and Charlotte, real-estate clients of William's. Samuel Thompson is a lean and handsome patrician who manages money; Charlotte O'Malley, somewhat plump and direct, comes from the kind of people who used to serve Sam's ancestors. They live in Nahant - a near-island jutting out from the coast just north of Boston - but now that their twin sons have gone off to college, Charlotte wants a pied-à-terre in town. It's clear that Sam does not share her enthusiasm, and as the novel goes along it becomes apparent that he envisions a move of a different kind. Mr McCauley does everything than he can think of to give Charlotte's story poignance, but something more is wanted if this failed marriage is to be distinguished from all the other failed marriages in American literature. Perhaps my expectations for this strand of the novel were misguided; in the end, Charlotte resolves to stay with Sam (whether he likes it or not, one might say), and turns her attention on William, whose extensive and personal notes about his work for Sam and Charlotte have fallen into Charlotte's hands.

"What are your plans? You need plans. I don't think you can just go on like this forever. There's as much about you in those notes you took on us as there is about our marriage. Even if the bulk of it is wedged unconsciously between the lines."

Indeed, the unconscious first-person narrator is a tricky and expensive proposition. It's tricky because of the smudged consciousness: with which consciousness - then's or now's - does the narrator comment on his or her actions? In effect, the two are merged, and this hugely diminishes dramatic possibilities of growth and understanding. In the end, William is the last person to realize that he and Edward are in love with one another. Instead of the momentous shift that ought to accompany this awakening, we have nothing but an "oh, silly me." I attribute the lack of heft to Mr McCauley's windup to a short-circuiting of development that's all but inevitable in first-person work.

First-person narration is expensive because it rules out all sorts of insights. All the other characters are refracted through the narrator's point of view, and we rarely get to see what they're like when the narrator isn't around. Mr McCauley's very winning self-deprecatory voice obviously works more naturally in the first person, but for his fiction to put out stronger roots in the reader's imagination, experimenting with alternatives to the first person might be a good idea. Alternatives to Sex is composed of elements that deserve a more powerful dénouement. (August 2006)


The Venice Adriana, by Ethan Mordden (St Martin's/Stonewall 1998)

This book isn't new, but I came across it when I was thinking of how well Ethan Mordden writes about American film, classical music, and, of course, opera. I frankly wondered what he'd been up to lately, and the prospect of a novel about Maria Callas, once advanced by an Amazon screen, sounded like fun. I am not a Callas enthusiast, but I like to hear the occasional aria sung by her dangerous-sounding voice.

The Venice Adriana is the book that the narrator, Mark Trigger, was supposed to write. An assistant editor at a New York publishing house sent out on a total fantasy job - living with a singer whom he idolizes while coaxing her toward writing her autobiography - Mark is also a gay man who has not come out. Which is no surprise, for a young American in 1962, a man who has never been in love. We know almost immediately that we are in for a coming-of-age novel, and we have reason to expect that it will be told well. With the exception of a climactic scene that I found hard to believe, the story of Mark's advance into honest, self-accepting adulthood is both interesting and sound.

The title has two meanings. Aside from referring to Adriana Grafanas (as Callas is renamed here) in Venice, where she occupies a small palazzo with a secret garden, it also points to a recording, as in The Lisbon Traviata. Throughout the book, Mark is in pursuit of a tape recording of the famed (but fictional) performance of Adriana Lecouvreur, the Cilea opera about the eighteenth-century actress who was killed by a rival's gift of poisoned violets (or so the legend goes), that Adriana Grafanas sang at Venice in 1949. Adriana happens to be Mark's favorite opera, which says something not quite so great about his taste, but the performance, which was broadcast (and therefore presumably taped by more than one listener) is legendary. Pricelessly rare recordings are rather uncommon nowadays, but they were once objects of relentless pursuit - interior safaris, really - and the the savor of the hunt is well evoked.

Meanwhile, Adriana Grafanas is busy not writing her book. Her voice already in tatters, she is planning not only a studio recording of a role that she never sang on stage, Carmen (as was the case with La Callas) but also a debut in film, as one of the stars in a forthcoming intellectual blockbuster entitled The House of Atreus. She is to play Clytamnestra, and when the shooting starts, she finds that she and her director, a stand-in for Pier Paulo Pasolini, have quite contrary views about how the role ought to be played. So contrary, in fact, that the disputes precipitates first Adriana's crisis, and then her agony. Clytamnestra would be a daunting queen for anyone to undertake to portray, but with Adriana she is fatally reverberant; given the circumstances of her own upbringing, it would really have been far more suitable to cast Adriana as Electra.

I found that I could not get enough of Adriana in Adriana. As a character, she is somewhat shortchanged by all the other goings-on in what is at heart not a book about her. One imagines that she would rather have withdrawn entirely from the action rather than accept a supporting role. What's more problematic is the cloudy prism of Adriana's passion. Does she really love the lover who leaves her in the course of the novel? Or is she more devoted to the opera fans whom she can no longer transport into ecstasies? She appears to be deeply confused by these parallel passions, and as her fate threatens to become that of a person de trop, Mr Mordden perhaps mercifully saves her from the long and somewhat funereal retirement in which Maria Callas languished until her death, at 53, in 1977.

Maria Callas is certainly a front-running contestant among twentieth-century celebrities ripe for apotheosis, and one of the great pleasures of The Venice Adriana is the assurance with which Ethan Mordden spins and spools her mythology.

"She was her own revolution. She made them accept her. Oh, sure, there's a price to pay - a loss of love for a return of power. But she freely chose, no? She took power and made them cheer. Yes, she was hard. Limited. Self-absorbed. Yet Western music would be incomprehensible without her. She stands at the center of something..."

But Mr Mordden is even more interesting about the disputed place of a singer such as Maria Callas in the operatic pantheon. For is this world an artistic one, or a spectacular one? Does beauty reign, or panache? In the fourth chapter of the novel, Mark Trigger has a conversation with an august critic who insists that Adriana's career began to unwind almost as soon as it had begun. When the critic mentions a soprano capable of singing Turandot with Adriana's power, but also with great beauty, Mark counters,

"Adriana is lovely, too - because she determined that she had to be and transformed herself."

"A ridiculous American idea. One does not become lovely - one does not become anything. One is. Otherwise, we are not speaking of talent, but of cosmetics."

The discussion is compelling and inevitably inconclusive, which is why I think I'll hold on to my copy of The Venice Adriana - at least until (as is not very likely) the chapter is excerpted somewhere else. (November 2004)


What's For Dinner?, by James Schuyler (NYRB, 1978, 2006)

James Schuyler (1923-1991) was a core member of the New York School of poets, but he also wrote a few novels, and one of them, What's For Dinner?, originally published by the Black Sparrow Press in 1978, has been re-issued by NYRB Classics, with an Afterword by James McCourt. It's delightful, engrossing, and deeply naughty.

It's also the work of a poet who attends to the weight of every word. To what extent Schuyler was influenced by Ivy Compton-Burnett, I can't say, and it's possible that there was no influence at all - that Schuyler simply hit on the same dry exchange of conversation between the hyper-sensitive and the hyper-articulate. To an American ear at any rate, Schuyler is a lot funnier than Compton-Burnett, if only because he is not wreaking revenge upon repressive Victorians. Indeed, although his book is set in an unnamed town that seems largely suburban, and its time appears, despite the copyright, to be about 1966, there is very little repression of any kind on view here. That's not to say that there isn't enough polite hypocrisy to keep us smiling guiltily.

In the first of the novel's twelve chapters, we are introduced to all but one of the principal characters and such vices and virtues as they possess. Lottie and Norris Taylor are entertaining Maureen and Bryan Delehantey, together with Bryan's mother, Biddy, and the Delehantey's teen-aged twins, Patrick and Michael. Schuyler lets them reveal themselves in artless self-expression. Here is the first, and half-hearted, stab at saying good-night and good-bye.

    Lottie stifled a yawn. "Excuse me," she said, and went out to the kitchen. Norris got up and silently followed her. They returned shortly. Lottie stumbled slightly on the edge of a carpet. The others took no notice.
    "We really ought to be running along," Maureen said.
    "Oh no," Lottie said. "Bryan hasn't begun to finish his cigar."
    "Yes," Norris said, "what's all the rush?"
    "It's partly the boys," Maureen said. "What with school and training and their music they seem to need a great deal of sleep."
    "Slug-a-beds," Bryan said. "They can't sit down to study without falling asleep over their notebooks."
    "I ran two miles before breakfast," Patrick protested.
    "Yes, it's Michael who's in love with his pillow," their mother said fondly. "Sometimes I still have to pull the covers right off him."
    "You ought to give the job of rousting them out to me," Bryan said, carefully knocking the ash off his cigar. "This seems too fine an object to be used as an ashtray."
    Lottie shrugged. "That's what my great uncle used it for, and I certainly haven't any other use for it. I'll leave it to you in my will." This was greeted by some rather hollow chuckles.
    "I hope we're not keeping you from any of your favorite TV programs," Biddy said.
    "We hardly turn the thing on," Norris said, "except for the news, and the odd special event. Like the President's speech."
    "Oh, did you catch that too?" Maureen said. "I thought he made some telling points." Norris let this pass, as the two families voted different tickets.

Lottie stumbles on the carpet because she has been takings slugs from a vodka bottle in the kitchen all evening, and Schuyler notes that "the others took no notice" only as a signal for the post-mortem, when the respective families are home alone.

    "I wonder what gives a person the idea that you can't smell vodka," Bryan asked as he shed his garments. "Did you catch her breath?"
    "Secret tippling," Maureen said. "It never ends well. It went to my heart when she almost fell over that rug. I must say, Norris puts a good face on it."
    "Norris isn't a lawyer for nothing."

Lottie's drinking problem, however, does come to a good end, even if it is via the psychiatric wing of the local hospital. Schuyler, himself the victim of several mental breakdowns and the author of The Payne Whitney Poems (named after Manhattan's most prestigious psychiatric facility), sets much of What's For Dinner? in the commons room at the hospital, but you mustn't let yourself worry that this makes for glum reading. The patients, who are usually seen in group therapy, together with assorted family members, chatter away with much the same empty politeness as we have seen in the Delehantey's farewell. Their petty complaints, thoughtless insults, and pious hopes are presented in a lucid drypoint that quite transcends "social criticism." Schuyler eagerly avoids every temptation to suggest that he has captured a slice of "what's wrong with America." It's not really clear that there's anything wrong with anybody. One of the patients, for example, is a Mrs Judson, who when she arrives is deferential and mousy. Then she goes through a paranoid, semi-psychotic phase, during which she construes every remark, no matter how directed, as a pejorative comment upon herself. Eventually, however, she comes to see that her fears are groundless. Whether she reaches enlightenment all on her own, with the help of Dr Kearney, the shrink who runs the sessions (and who is the only character in the book whose ears I'd like to box), or thanks to some magical medication is never made clear. We never do find out what was wrong with her.

If we know all too well what's wrong with Mrs Brice - whose husband actually calls her "Mother" - we're never told what took her beloved son, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren from life amongst us. Were they in a plane crash? Did they eat contaminated food, or perhaps suffer the fate of the Clutter family? Not the faintest hint is dropped. This leaves us with a Mrs Brice who is sick with a sadness that she, too, eventually overcomes. Even nasty Greg Mulwin, the owner of three or four drugstores who has overworked himself in the conviction that he can't count on any of his employees, turns from nasty to nice - or at least to mordant. 

When the patients aren't in group, they're in crafts, making moccasins and knotted belts if they're not more aesthetically inclined toward drawing and sculpture. During one session, late the novel, Mrs Brice gets some good news.

    "Guess who's going to released," she said.
    "Oh, Fanny," Lottie said. "I'd give you a hug only I'm all over paint. That's the most marvelous news."
    "Congratulations, Mr Carson [a patient who has slit his wrists] said. "I wondered what you were doing here anyway. You seem quite rational and capable to me."
    "I wasn't when I came here," Mrs Brice said. "In my own way I felt almost as low as you do. Oh, dear, I feel all a-twitter. Do you think I'll really be able to cope? And not slide back?"
    "I'm certain of it," Lottie said. "You've regained your natural equilibrium. It was temporarily shaken, but now you've got it back. We must promise to keep in touch."
    "I'll be coming back for our evening sessions for a while," Mrs Brice said. "And to see Dr Kearney. An easing-off process."
    Mr Mulwin, Mrs Judson and Miss Pride joined in the general congratulations.
    "It hardly seems worth while going on with this belt," Mrs Brice said. "Still, if I knot away today and tomorrow morning - I'm not leaving until tomorrow afternoon - I might get it finished." She seated herself and went on with her deft handiwork.

The absurdity of the psychiatric wing may be happier than most, but it is still absurd. And yet it is also liberated. Lottie more or less cures herself of her dipsomania by talking about it incessantly, never failing to announce her longing for a whiskey sour. This turns out to be her odd way of keeping the consequences of her drinking problem fixed firmly before her, and never, in the event, does a drink seem attractive enough to risk revisiting them.

Meanwhile, on the outside, surreptitious corruption is on the march, although, again, Schuyler isn't the least bit judgmental about it. The Delehantey twins, amiable jocks who are almost innocently dishonest, smoke some marijuana and try to score some more. Patrick steals the odd five-dollar bill and Michael creeps into his bed for some unwelcome mutual masturbation. Bryan and Maureen treat the twins like little boys, but they're also aware that their sons have grown too big to take a thrashing lightly. They'll probably grow up to be as self-righteous (and lazily virtuous) as their father, but right now they are going through a sweetly rotten phase of adolescence that clearly captures Schuyler's prurient imagination. He is much cooler about the affair that Norris Taylor conducts with Mag Carpenter, a recent widow. Norris is very good in bed, and he mouths sweet nothings from time to time, but his investment in the relationship is as heartless as Mag's is totalizing. The lovers think that their attachment is discreetly hidden, but not only does Maureen sniff it out (and confront Mag with it - for her own good, of course) but Lottie divines it as well. You could say that Schuyler is unsympathetic to Mag's neediness, or you could complain about his man's-world misogyny - a bond that few straight and gay men seems to be aware of sharing. 

Just as Schuyler has the nerve to call one of his patients "Fanny Brice," so he calls Bryan Delehantey's mother, "Biddy." That's just what she is - an old biddy. She may be hard to dislike, but everything that she has to say was digested and packaged decades ago, to be produced as needed like a patent medicine. While she and her daughter-in-law and Mag Carpenter are having tea (an early scene), Patrick galumphs in.

    "Are you two on the outs again?" Biddy asked. "I can always tell. You can't fool your old gran."
    "Look at you," Mag said. "First you shot up like a bean pole, and now you've filled out.
    "Why is your hair wet?" Biddy asked.
    "I took a shower after practice. I always do."
    "We never went out with wet hair. It's a wonder to me you all aren't dead of pneumonia. Then where would the football team be?"

Seen in a certain light, a better name for What's For Dinner? would be Modern Scream. But Lily Tomlin, it appears, had made use of that name three years earlier. Too bad. (October 2007)


Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart (Random House)

Regarding Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart's second novel, I'm speechless. I liked reading it far more than I expected to, and always found it easy to sink back into the novel's louche rhythms, suggestive of a drunk's staggering across a field of pillows. but it didn't tell me anything that I hadn't already learned about post-Soviet Russia (and outlying areas) from the books of Thomas Goltz. Mr Steyngart's satire is deeply Russian; I was often reminded of Dostoevsky's The Devils. But what was dark and shattered there is comic here. Mikhail Borisovich Vainberg wants only to take the fortune that he has inherited from his father and return to his loft in Manhattan and his black girlfriend in the Bronx, but because, prior to being blown up himself, Boris Vainberg shot an American businessman from Oklahoma, the State Department has canceled Mikhail's visa. Absurdistan is basically a shaggy-dog story about Misha's attempt to get out of the former Soviet Union by one means or another. When he learns of a bribable Belgian official in Sevo City, the capital of Absurdsvani (read "Azerbaijan"), he heads to the shores of the Caspian, and the novel becomes a protracted satire on the freakish graft of the twenty-first century onto the ageless, riven capital. The humor of Misha's story lies in the contrast between his vast wealth and his utter impotence. This is strictly a political impotence, mind you; Misha is a volcano of gratified lusts. He is also something of a volcano, "a grossly overweight man." His gangsta-operatic tone of voice is established immediately.

For many of my last years, I have lived in St Petersburg, Russia, neither by choice nor by desire. The City of the Czars, the Venice of the North, Russia's cultural capital ... forget all that. By the year 2001, our St Leninsburg has taken on the appearance of a phantasmagoric third-world city, our neoclassical buildings sinking into crap-choked canals, bizarre peasant huts fashioned out of corrugated metal and plywood colonizing the broad avenues with their capitalist iconography (cigarette ads featuring an American football player catching a hamburger with a baseball mitt), and what is worst of all, our intelligent, depressive citizenry has been replaced by a new race of mutants dressed in studied imitation of the West, young women in tight Lycra, their scooped-up little breasts pointing at once to New York and Shanghai, with men in fake black Calvin Klein jeans hanging limply around their caved-in asses.

The good news is that when you're an incorrigible fatso like me - 325 pounds at last count - and the son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, all of St Leninsburg rushes out to service you: the drawbridges lower themselves as you advance, and the pretty palaces line up alongside the canal banks, thrusting their busty friezes in your face. You are blessed with the rarest treasure to be found in this mineral-rich land. You are blessed with respect.

There you have the gusto that will carry you through Absurdistan. The dysfunctionality will never let up. Countries whose traditional ways of life have been violently suppressed for seventy years spring back into ancient hatreds, but with modern weapons alongside the modern conveniences. Absurdistan is possibly too funny to be genuinely cynical, but it is too cynical to be genuinely literary. (July 2006)


Chang and Eng, by Darin Strauss (Plume, 2001)

It was so long ago that I don't remember when it was that I learned that we call conjoined newborns Siamese Twins because of Chang and Eng Bunker. The Thai brothers, born on the banks of the Mekong River in 1811, were joined at the sternum by a flesh-covered strip of cartilage. Modern surgery, we are assured, would be able to separate them easily, but this was beyond the medicine of their own day, even in the Western capitals that they toured as, basically, acrobatic freaks, working for PT Barnum and others (and, toward the end, for themselves). The curious part of the story is that the twins wound up not only settling but marrying in the Piedmont of North Carolina, where their traces and, for all I know, their descendants remain to this day. (They took their name, in the spirit of their adopted patriotism, from the Revolutionary skirmish.) Perhaps it was my youth, but I was put off by the marrying part. Having sex with your wife while unable to extricate yourself from contact with your brother was far too painful a prospect for me to contemplate with any interest. I closed the book on Chang and Eng.

So, when Darin Strauss's novel, Chang and Eng, came out a few years ago , I gave it a subject-matter pass. I have always had a high resistance to fiction that is rooted in improbable predicaments, because what I love about fiction is the likelihood that I might take the place of this or that character, or that this or that character might slip into my own life. In short, I treasure the fundamental ordinariness of fiction. I did not think that the story of Siamese twins (1811-1874) who migrated to North Carolina (why the South?) and married sisters there could possibly be ordinary. But when the novel found its own way into my library, I discovered that Mr Strauss had hit on a way to make it so. 

There can be no such thing as a novel about a freak, except perhaps in the marches of Science Fiction that stretch between the world we know and the imaginary worlds that some people find more satisfactory (or interestingly less so), because the whole point of fiction is an ongoing demonstration that no human being is a freak. Mr Strauss, who advises us that the story as he tells it is "both true and not," his imagination's having picked up where the record left off, appears to have decided that best way to engage the humanity of these men from around the world would be to allow one of them - the more literate, as it happened - to narrate the book, and to do so as a backward glance. We begin in the middle of things, in North Carolina in 1842, with the signal discovery that Eng, our storyteller, and his brother are not at all alike. Perhaps it would be better to say that they are uncongenial. There is a deep fraternal bond in addition to the superficial one that ties them together, but their personalities have differed markedly since they were first taken away from their native houseboat to be exhibited before, and possibly sacrificed by, the King of Siam. Chang, it turns out, is a born entertainer; he loves the attention. Eng, in contrast, becomes a reader of Shakespeare and the Bible - a man who would prefer to be alone. When the brothers leave for America and Europe, Eng makes a point of learning to speak educated English, while Chang remains content with subliterate pidgin. As a result, the reader has to be reminded, again and again, that the brothers are literally inseparable.

The author has made one other wise decision. Instead of focusing on the twins' showbiz career, accentuating the glitter and the bombast of mass entertainment as it took shape against the backdrop of increasingly hypocritical Victorian respectability, Mr Strauss turns his back on all of that (for the most part), and centers his book in the domestic lives that begin when Chang and Eng encounter two hitherto unmarriageable sisters, Adelaide and Sarah, who are not squeamish about what I, as a young man, found so rebarbative. Notwithstanding the chapters that fill us in on the twins' early life, Chang and Eng is the story of a dual marriage. Mr Strauss's great accomplishment is to present the improbable and the extraordinary as the everyday life that Chang and Eng and their wives passed together. There are difficulties, but most of them are surmountable, just as difficulties usually are for all of us. When one of the marriages grows cold and loveless, the husband's unusual anatomy is not much of a contributing factor. There have been hints of trouble all along, ever since Eng, the reluctant spouse, warned the innkeeper's daughters that he and Chang are inseparable. Sounding rather like Waldo Lydecker in Laura, Eng interjects,

"We have decided," I said angrily, "that we would rather simply look upon pretty girls, chastely, than take up residence in a graveyard." I cleared my throat. "So the answer is no, we cannot be separated."

Atop all of this, Mr Strauss has the wit to balance a final fillip.

It was impossible for us to travel away from the Confederacy for any amount of time, and few people in the South were interested in seeing Siamese twins, attached at the chest; the populace had more important concerns. We managed to tour only once in the last three years of the war, and that tour was not lucrative enough to justify its expense.

Nothing that was made outside of the South could be obtained easily, thanks to the suffocating blockade. And Lincoln had declared all slaves in the rebellious states free. In practical terms, this proclamation had no direct impact. Lincoln was sly enough to free slaves only in the Confederate states. Still we now knew that if the Union won, the abolition of slavery would follow. And after the Battle of Antietam, it looked more and more like the Union would win eventually.

This meant we were certain to lose our slaves, either by governmental decree or simply because we would not be able to afford them for long. And to add insult, the final Emancipation Proclamation sanctioned the recruitment of blacks into the Union army's United States Colored Troops, which gave the uncomfortable impression of slaves fighting their masters. Thom, who tended to our children, never mentioned the proclamation, and neither did any of our other slaves. But everyone knew both slavery and the rebellion were doomed.

A page or so later, the faithful retainer, Thom, walks off with the other slaves, without so much as a "goodbye." It is a difficult moment for the reader. Mr Strauss invests the desertion with sympathy for Eng, knowing perfectly well that his readers will recognize - but perhaps less emotionally - that, for the slaves, this is a moment of liberation, not desertion. It is the sort of morally delicate complication that Mr Strauss handles with a master juggler's aplomb.

The struggles of small farmers in the rural South of the Nineteenth-Century may not make for the interesting backdrops that Thailand's royal court and New York's hippodromes provide, and there were a few somewhat suffocated moments when I wished that Chang and Eng had settled somewhere that I'd find more attractive. Mr Strauss's narrative skill, however, held my interest and attention. Utterly without pretension, Chang and Eng raises hitherto unguessed-at complexities of personhood. I was never sorry that I had changed my mind about reading this fine book. (November 2007)

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The Story of Lucy Gault, by William Trevor (Viking, 2002)

William Trevor, born in 1928, has probably earned a permanent eminence among the short-story writers of the second half of the last century. His work in novel form is not so accomplished. The Story of Lucy Gault is really the story of a simple, but terrible mistake, and would have made an extraordinary tale had it stopped at the end of the first of its six parts. Lucy Gault is the eight year-old daughter of an Ascendancy couple who resolve to leave their seaside Irish estate during the Troubles of 1921. Preternaturally attached to her home, Lucy resolves to stay, a plan that she effects, with the paradoxical cleverness of children, by running away. Stumbling in the dark and injuring her foot, she takes refuge in a ruined cottage and subsists on berries, while her parents conclude that she has has drowned in the sea, and leave Lahardane without her. Extraordinarily, they can't be reached in their Italian exile when Lucy is discovered and brought back to the house, to be cared for by devoted servants. What follows this remarkable romance is an after-story that gives the balance of the book more than a whiff of the tale of patient Griselda. Courted by a charming and worthy young man, Lucy feels that she cannot marry until her parents forgive her for having run away - that they left without her signifies, to her, their just anger. So the young man marries someone else, and only then does Lucy's father return, his wife's having died abroad. By this point, The Story of Lucy Gault is about the prolongation of diminished lives. Although Mr Trevor's writing is always lyrical and engaging, and notwithstanding a subtle account of the transformation of the old, divided Ireland into the new and peaceful country (I speak of the Republic), it is difficult to find satisfaction in the book's outcome.  (May 2003)


Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, by Winifred Watson (1938; Persephone, 2000)

Although I enjoyed Bharat Nalluri's film adaptation of Winifred Watson's 1938 comic novel, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, as much as anybody, I felt that something was off. There were notes that wouldn't have been sounded by an English novelist in 1938 — not if the novel was meant to amuse. I got hold of the book right away, and read it in a great gulp. Sure enough, it's lighter than the film in every way save one. The way in which it is more serious than the film is, of course, the handling of Miss Pettigrew's status as a lady. Watson's Miss Pettigrew is poor, hungry, and desperate; and it's clear that she was not put on this earth to oversee children. But she's in full possession of the well-bred woman's clarity of intellect. She is not, as Frances McDormand understandably plays her, someone whom ill-fortune and an unappreciative world have slightly deranged.

At the beginning of the film, Miss Pettigrew is reduced to seeking food at a soup kitchen. Her meal is interrupted by the sight of a fashionable woman behaving — well, perhaps too fashionably. Later in the film, she will steal this woman's man for herself. In the meantime, Miss Pettigrew pilfers a job lead from her employment agency. All such situations and adventures would be absolutely beyond the pale for the novel's Miss Pettigrew, and it's difficult to know why the filmmakers thought it necessary to invent them. Miss Pettigrew does wind up with a man, but he's free; and, more to the point, she lands a job that, once again, the screenplay unaccountably writes out. I can think of no better (or worse) description of the film's improvements than "sexing up." A good deal of the book's fine-grained humor is squashed in the enhancing.

Here is Miss Pettigrew's first conversation with Joe Blomfield, the corset maker (played by Cioran Hinds in the film), at the night club to which Miss Pettigrew's new employer, Delysia LaFosse, insists on taking her. Joe has just asked Miss Pettigrew to dance, only to be relieved when she lets him off. They sit companionably and chat instead, while Joe's date, Angela (not Delysia's friend, Edythe Dubarry) glowers.

"Corsets!" said Joe. "There's a lot of money to be made in corsets. If you can get in touch with the right people. I did. If you can take an inch off a woman's ... well, I won't mention the place, but you can guess ... you can make a fortune. Talk about the age of corsets being gone! My eye! You've no idea how these society women fly to me to give them the perfect figure they lack naturally. Do you think Julian's gowns would look the way they do without my groundwork underneath? No, sir, they wouldn't. A protruding, well, dash it all, you can guess ... back or front, could ruin the look of any creation."

Miss Pettigrew sat fascinated. This was an amazing topic of conversation between a man and a woman meeting for the first time, but she found it a thousand times more interesting than discussing the weather. It was not indelicate. It was Big Business. Who would have dreamed yesterday that to-day she would be sitting talking on equal terms with Big Business! Her gentle mouth was tremulous with interest and sympathy. Joe expanded. Angela loathed discussing corsets. Miss Pettigrew loved it. No mistaking real interest. He eyed her professionally.

"Now, you've got a splendid figure for your age," said Joe earnestly. "I don't think even 'Blomfield's Correct Corsets' could do anything more for you. How do you do it?"

"Short food and continual nervous worry," thought Miss Pettigrew. But to-night she was Cinderella and refused to contemplate her shabby background.

"Oh!" said Miss Pettigrew negligently. "Nothing at all. I assure. It's just natural."

"No children," said Joe brilliantly.

"I am not married," said Miss Pettigrew with dignity.

"Men are blind," said Joe gallantly.

Note the author's sly way of introducing Guinevere Pettigrew's thoughts as if she were speaking them; the hasty reader might well read said for thought. One of the great charms of the novel, in fact, is the richness of Miss Pettigrew's "thoughts" — her reactions to the day's madcap events, which are madcap only because she's on hand. Ms McDormand, second to none for understated eloquence, never fails to give a good idea of what her character is thinking, but in the novel there is more to savor. Here, for example, is how Miss Pettigrew decides to protect Miss LaFosse (as Delysia is referred to throughout) from the wicked Nick.

Miss LaFosse's hand was lying along the arm of her chair. He leaned forward, closed his hand on her wrist and stood looking at her. Miss LaFose raised her eyes to his and they remained silent.

Miss Pettigrew felt a fainting sensation inside and a queer feeling, that was almost pain, right in the pit of her stomach, precisely as Miss LaFosse had once said. The look was not for her. No one had ever looked at her like that, but she knew exactly what Miss LaFosse was feeling: breathlessness, terror, ecstasy; a slow melting of all her senses towards trembling surrender. And the look on Nick's face made one want to give him anything he asked. Even Miss Pettigrew felt the effect, knowing what she knew. To an outsider it was two lovers for the first time catching a glimpse of innocent, earthly paradise; to an insider, like Miss Pettigrew, it was a very wicked man seducing a darling lady to her damnation.

Yet only by an effort of common sense could Miss Pettigrew keep in mind that Nick was really an evil, selfish man, who a year to-day might be looking at another woman with the same compelling urge, while poor Miss LaFosse might be ruined and broken-hearted. Miss Pettigrew could never forget the cocaine and she was not an ignorant fool.

By the rapt look on Miss LaFosse's face and air of defenceless submission, Miss Pettigrew knew she was wavering: knew she had wavered, but before she could speak the fatal words of surrender, Miss Pettigrew came into action like a howitzer.

She thudded across the room with the Brummegan stalk. The sherry bottle and glasses were sanding on the tray. She splashed out another drink and lifted the glass negligently in her hand. Through years of endurance she knew to a calculated nicety the demolishing effect of a negligent gesture.

"Young man," said Miss Pettigrew in the most strident voice her throat could compass, "you can come back for a drink it you like, but no late hours, I warn you. I'm not as young as I was and I will not have my short stay ruined by disturbed nights leaving me half-dead next day. I sleep with Miss LaFosse and while I'm here she comes to bed early, and I'm not having you hanging around at all hours. I'm too old a friend of Miss LaFosse and too old myself to pretend to be polite, and that's that."

Nick's hand sprang from Miss LaFosse's as from a hot poker and he spun round.


"What what?"

"Are you staying here?"

"You know that I'm staying here. I said so. Until to-morrow the invitation was and until to-morrow I stay, and what's it got to do with you, pray?"

"???... !!! ... ??? ... !!!" exploded Nick again.

We can't tell from the film that what motivates Miss Pettigrew isn't prim disapproval at all, but rather a full-throttled sympathy with her new friend, pinioned in the man's gaze. Sympathy, in fact, is the key to Miss Pettigrew's success. She understands only too well the discomforts of others.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is, as the title character herself recognizes, a Cinderella story, in which a deprived woman finally experiences the ease of sophisticated life at first hand, and not from the back rows of a movie theatre.

In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify, harry her every waking hour. In real life she had never seen any woman arrive to breakfast in a silk, satin and lace négligé. Every one did on the films. To see one of these lovely visions in the flesh was almost more than she could believe.

Miss Pettigrew is not a scold; she is not remotely (as I'm afraid Miss McDormand's interpretation was) like Mary Poppins. For the Cinderella story really to work, Miss Pettigrew must really be, beneath her dumpy coat and frowsty hair, a delicate creature, ready to bloom in the first congenial environment. That's what Winifred Watson's book is all about.

Nothing that I've said here is to be taken as a criticism of Mr Nalluri's film. There's plenty of room for the book and the movie. Fans of English comedies of manners, however, are likely to take a deeper pleasure in the original novel. All I mean to suggest here is that the book is different enough in tone to merit a fresh reading. (June 2008)


The Music Lesson, by Katharine Weber (Picador, 1999)

Katharine Weber's The Music Lesson is an agreeable read, short enough for an evening's pleasure. The narrator, at least for the first two-thirds, is very engaging, an intelligent American of Irish extraction who finds herself actually in Ireland for the first time at the age of forty-three. We know that she is involved in some sort of excitement - some plot, perhaps a heist - and the details are intriguingly slow to emerge. But once we know everything (and we know it somewhat sooner than the narrator has finished telling us), the novel begins to seem both slight and contrived. Our narrator hasn't been so smart, after all. That would be all right if her lack of foresight hadn't seeped into the book itself, as if drawn, in the manner of opposites attracting, by the presence of an ineffable masterpiece of Western Art, the picture by Johannes Vermeer whose title Ms Weber has taken for her book. This presence, we realize, has effectually promised us that nothing incongruously gross or slapdash will occur in the course of the story. When the narrator finally figures out the nature of the man with whom she has been dealing, however, the change in her voice is gross and slapdash. Surely she ought to have foreseen the possibility of this shattering denouement - and taken steps to assure herself that it would not befall her. Excellent as Ms Weber's writing might be, the "Well, duh," with which we cover the final pages represents an inordinate letdown.

I tend to stay away from books about the persistence of Ireland's "Troubles," and The Music Lesson reminds me why. Although raised entirely in Boston, and currently living on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the narrator has absorbed a full measure of the Irish South's rage against the Protestant British. It's impossible for me to be anything but impatient with such obduracy. (December 2006)


London: A History, by A. N. Wilson (Modern Library Chronicle Books, 2004)

A. N. Wilson's London: A History (Modern Library Chronicle Books, 2004) is an attractive little volume, packaged with a dreamy image of Big Ben, that promises pleasant reading. A history of London in fewer than two hundred small pages! And by A. N. Wilson, too! Now, Mr Wilson is a very subtle, very probing English writer whose books on Jesus, St Paul, and God's Funeral manage to be extremely interesting without ever quite disclosing the author's personal convictions. His novels, which often feature a parsonage, or manse, make for very good reading, although I must confess that it has been a while since I've read one. His big book of shortish chapters on the Victorians has been favorably addressed elsewhere.

The London book, it turns out, is really about Mr Wilson himself. Which is as it should be. How could a great city's past, from the Romans to Ken Livingstone, fit honorably in so short a space? Better that it should serve as a stimulus for Mr Wilson's very dry wit.

Happily for me, A. N. Wilson's nonpareil outlook was captured twenty years ago in a Spectator essay, by Alan Watkins, on "The Young Fogeys," according to which Mr Wilson exemplified the type: He

is libertarian but not liberal. He is conservative but has no time for Mrs Margaret Thatcher and considers Mr Neil Kinnock the most personally attractive of the present party leaders. He is a scholar of Evelyn Waugh. He tends to be coolly religious, either RC or C of E. He dislikes modern architecture. He makes a great fuss about the old Prayer Book, grammar, syntax and punctuation. He laments the difficulty of purchasing good bread, Cheddar cheese, kippers and sausages.... He enjoys walking and travelling by train. He thinks the Times is not what it was and prefers the Daily Telegraph.

London: A History is basically an exposition of these characteristics, which may be puzzling for an American reader to place because everybody on this side of the Atlantic who's fussy about the Prayer Book, grammar, syntax and punctuation has forsaken cool religion for hot and is only too ready to worship Mrs Thatcher (who was coolly what, by the way? C of E? Mammonite?). That alone ought to make Mr Wilson attractive. His love of London's old buildings (Georgian in the widest sense) always elicits pungent prose.

St Pancras Paris Church by H. W. Inwood and W. Inwood, with its imposing caryatids overlooking the porch, Decimus Burton's Athenaeum Club, adorned with its frieze and its great gilded statue of the goddess Athene over the porch, and his Ionic screen at Hyde Park Corner; Smirke's Royal Mint; and Philip Hardwick's great arch at Euston Station (unforgivably demolished by British Rail in 1964) - these were among the great expressions of British Hellenism. When they looked back at Athens, a small city-state in the fourth century B.C., dominated by an oligarchy of bookish, intelligent men and protected by heroic soldiers and sailors, they saw a reflection of how they would like to view themselves. The center of London's wealth and the symbol of its its independent status, the Bank of England itself, was rebuilt by Sir John Soane in his own highly distinctive, not to say eccentric, version of the Greek style, though we know its great interiors, its dome, and caryatids only from photographs since it was vandalistically rebuilt in 1925-39. (Soane's own house, however, survives as the Sir John Soane's Museum at Number 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, one of the great monuments to human eccentricity that London can provide. Were I to to show a tourist one thing in the capital, it would be this.)

Trying to think of something to rival Mr Wilson's choice, and coming up with nothing but the Tower, I reflect on the exterior nature of London, the centrality of its public places and thoroughfares. More than Paris or New York, London is a city that showcases people. The same humanism informs Mr Wilson's dislike of very tall buildings and brutalist terraces. It people his pages with fine thumbnails of Chaucer and Milton, Handel and Johnson, Marie Lloyd and Tony Blair. London: A History will be just the right book for any reader recovering from a great fatigue. (January 2005)

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