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Him  Her  Him Again

The End of Him

Patricia Marx's Him  Her  Him Again  The End of Him (Scribner, 2007), is, I concluded, about as funny as it can be. Because how funny, in the end, can it be to read about a chronic slacker who's in love with a narcissist? Ms Marx is a deft exaggerator, but it must be acknowledged that she has learned a great deal from women's writers from Erma Bombeck to Fran Liebowitz, with a big debt to Phyllis Diller.

The following passage comes at the end of the unnamed American heroine's one and only recorded meeting with her Cambridge University thesis adviser, Geoffrey Guppy.

"Jolly good. Carry on. Now. When you write 'in 1934,' do you mean 'in the year 1934'?"

There is nothing else in the English language that "in 1934" could possibly mean, but I kept that to myself. A week later, Geoffrey Guppy departed for Guinea-Bissau to do research and I was given a stand-in, Sean Shanahan, a scholar of revolutions, who liked sherry and gossip. He believed that students were adults and should be treated as such, which meant that he had affairs with some of them, though not with me. It also meant that he never broached the subject of my thesis. Geoffrey Guppy never returned to Cambridge, so don't worry about keeping track of his name. Sean Shanahan remained my temporary adviser forever. He will prove to be of only minor significance in this story. If you forget his name, I'll remind you the next time it comes up.

Some readers will find the first section of the book, "Him," to be the funniest. I'm afraid that I found it the most familiar. This surprised me, because the Patricia Marx that I know from Spy and The New Yorker has a much edgier view of things. There's some very good stand-up material in the thumbnail of Sean Shanahan, but the adviser - who does recur now and then - never resolves into particularity; he's just another lecherous English don who would die than be seen to be working. While I am sure that such Oxbridge dons do exist, I must hope that they are egregiously overrepresented in literature. Shanahan just comes off as a Butley who hasn't found himself out yet.

Ms Marx describes her heroine's obsession with the increasingly unworthy Eugene Obello, a fellow American whom she meets at Cambridge. Eugene is that rare bird, the industrious narcissist. There's good reason to believe that men like Eugene are as common in America's executive suites as lecherous dons are supposed to be in Oxbridge, and I wonder at Ms Marx's decision to propel him from graduate philosophy into high-end clinical psychology. The book would have been funnier - more satirical, anyway - if Eugene had gone into hedge funds, into something like Long Term Capital Management, a firm run by hypercredentialed brainiacs who didn't, in the end, know what they were doing. But then Ms Marx is not very interested in Eugene when he is not mistreating her heroine - reflecting perhaps a corresponding narcissism on some level.

Eugene has a stilted manner of speech that will tickle some readers more than others. He does not address a woman without inserting an amorous epithet. Here's a gem from the climactic scene of the book:

Eugene looked up from the book. "Whatever happens," he said, "I will always feel a great deal of agape toward you, O my everlasting."

Feeling a great deal of agape - or perhaps it's eros - comes naturally to Eugene, who is a world-class philanderer. Not long after he offers himself to the virginal heroine, he takes up with Margaret, the girl whom he marries. Ten years later, when his racket comes undone, and Margaret leaves him (not that she hasn't been unfaithful, too), the heroine is still capable of expecting Eugene to come to his senses and return to her. And there's every indication that he will return to her, just as he has over the years of their acquaintance - periodically, for one-night stands. It is not so much to confront him about several weeks of dereliction that she shows up at his office one fine day, but rather to refresh his interest in her for good. Even so, the ground is giving way, if not under her feet, then under her masochism.

If the world can be divided into people who would have signed the Munich Agreement versus those who would have stood firm against Hitler - and who says it can't? - I would definitely have been in the former camp, giving away the Sudetenland with a smile and a cookie. I might even have offered the Führer a signing bonus, for example the mineral rights to South Dakota. As you know, I am not big on making trouble. But that morning, in Eugene's office, I had not been myself (which, in my case, is not generally but sometimes a very good thing not to be). And that is why, after Eugene said à bientôt, I stood up and said, "I think it is time to terminate."

At that point, I still had hoped for a nonfelonious solution, though I could not imagine what it would be. At that point, I still had thought there was a one in a million chance that it might have been [Eugene's son] Perseus on the other end of the line. At that point, I still had faith that Eugene could not turn his back on almost ten years of us. At that point, I still had believed I would somehow get around to finishing my thesis. At that point, I was still young. At that point, I had been about to march off in a huff but first I had to look under the armchair to see if that was maybe where I had misplaced my sunglasses.

At the next point, the receptionist knocked on the door and simultaneously slipped inside. She looked at me and said to Eugene with an edgy urgency, "Are you okay?" What had she been thinking? That I was down on the floor looking for a handgun? Of all the ways to knock someone off, shooting would not be my choice. I'm no good with mechanical things. 

By this end of the book, Him  Her  Him Again  The End of Him had built up reserves of good will that made me, at least, more willing to appreciate the excellent writing. I was also rallied by the heroine's parents, who manage to do new things with quasi-Jewish stereotypes.

"Walt says analysis can make you crazy before it cures you, but that's a lot of hooey," my father said.

"We could do a family session," my mother said. "Is that something we should think about? That is, if would help. But I couldn't do it until after five. I've got to keep my eye on the contractor."

"I see no reason to sit around and rehash the past together," my father said. "What's done is done." Even my father must have known that this position did not exactly capture the spirit of analytic inquiry.

"Yes, but you know how everyone's always talking about dysfunctional families," my mother said.

"That's baloney," my father said. "Dysfunctional families work just fine."

A friend of mine had once told me that what you realize after a hundred thousand dollars' worth of therapy is that the parent you thought you had a problem with is not in fact where the problem lies; it is with the other one. I could not work out what this meant in my case.

And then there is the very dissonant chorus of friends whose opinions of Eugene, whether solicited or not, are always negative. There's in particular a good friend named Ann who can never remember who Eugene is. The "Note on the Author" at the end informs us that Patricia Marx teaches "sketch comedy" at NYU; she can certainly write it. In the end, though, I thought that a novel in which a bright woman is willing to confess that the attentions of a man as brilliant as Eugene "is getting an A" ought to penetrate what amount to the heroine's self-deprecating evasions. There is something wrong with her, but its not one of exaggerated personal failings ascribed to her. Ms Marx's comedy is an iron mask.

For all my complaining, I read Him  Her  Him Again  The End of Him in an afternoon, always curious to see what was coming. I especially wanted to know what the End of Eugene would be. All I will say about the matter is that it is forcefully reminiscent of an E M Forster classic. The novel is worldly and knowing, with plenty of allusions to gratify the compleatly educated. And it is very funny. But funny isn't everything. (January 2007)

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