Reflections: The Comfort of Strangers

Ian McEwan's short novel The Comfort of Strangers reads like an exercise in suspense-creation. The book opens with a liberally minded couple on holiday drowning in the lazy pleasures of taking one another for granted while disengaging from all social interactions except for with one another. They stay in bed napping and making love until driven from the sheets by hunger. Then, they walk together, dine together, and return to the room together, following the form of the perfect romantic getaway. Their relationship rests on the foundations that most modern readers will find familiar: they share ideas, bury disagreements behind the assumption of agreement, and take pleasure in discussing the strength of their bond, especially comparing it to that of other couples they know. The seemingly pointless length of the descriptions of their days foreshadows an impending end to them.

Wandering the streets of an unnamed foreign city (presumably Venice, or some fictional approximation of it), they meet a local couple whose perverse attachment to one another provides a carnival mirror reflection of their love, exaggerating the grotesque consequences of the social isolation that is normal to holidays but dangerous as an everyday practice. Drawn out of their isolation and into this couple's orbit by the rules of polite society, they make themselves vulnerable to a blood-chilling attack on their relationship and on their assumption that immoderate love is a boon.

McEwan allows no escape from the story's horror, and no redemption from its persistent and lingering misanthropy. He paints a portrait of human nature at its worst, and at its most self-indulgent, and asks the reader to decide on which she can pin her sympathy.


Reflections: The Woman and the Ape

Peter Hoeg's The Woman and the Ape flirts with many complex social issues, and yet at every turn dodges the  responsibility of turning social critic. Hoeg is, first and last, a storyteller. In this tale, Hoeg introduces us to Madelene, a woman who escaped her family through marriage, and her marriage through drink. Only when her husband, a behavioral scientist, starts experimenting on a curiously man-like ape, does Madelene find reason enough in the world to push through her alcoholic haze into the depressing realities of post-industrial London.

Madelene is an extraordinary character. She can never be pinned down by simple adjectives, as she changes dramatically--and yet never unrealistically--from page to page. Mistress when we meet her of the craft of hiding behind artfully applied make up, she masters as we get to know her the craft of hiding behind the expectations and assumptions of others. She sneaks into office buildings, terrorizes veterinarians, crashes exclusive galas, and passes a shaved ape off as her ailing grandmother all because those around her believe her to be utterly incapable of doing anything at all besides artfully applying that make up.

Hoeg's writing is as nimble as his heroine, and one's emotions are wholly involved in the story telling. He shares Carl Hiaasen's outraged sense of humor and brisk narrative style.

While this book does have an almost fatal flaw (which a distaste for spoilers won't allow me to go into), it remains an example of smart, imaginative fiction, and an enticement to look into more of Hoeg's novels.


With Thanks

The book blogging world is peopled with lovely inhabitants. Members of the community united to create a 400 person secret Santa gift exchange. My secret Santa sent me a book I've long been looking forward to reading: Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country. I raise a glass to my Santa, and wish her and all readers a wonderful holiday season.

Reflections: A Short History of Women

Writing honestly about Kate Walbert's recent novel, A Short History of Women, presents a challenge. Because the novel deals with such a politically charged issue, comments about the novel may be interpreted as comment on theme rather than on the story. The novel, whether intentionally or no, confronts the reader with a defensive posture which suggests that if you do not like it, you are actively contributing to the thematized impotence of women.

And yet, defensive  impotence itself is precisely what is at issue in the story. Walbert has crafted a world in which not a single woman finds a happy life; personal and social expectations, in numerous forms, have conspired to keep five generations of women from becoming fully functional people. The representation of such a world is neither accurate nor empowering as a representative history of women. However, the story lays no claims to being representative; novels, after all, deal in particulars. This is not the history of women so much as the history of a family of women.

Each generation of Townsend women confronts its era's own peculiar responses to gender difference. In each case, the women react (or over react) with self-defeating gusto. The first in a long line of disgruntled women starves herself to make a public statement about women's right to vote. Another makes herself miserable by buying in to the second-wave cant that a woman who dedicates herself to raising children has been used by her husband and by society. Looking for meaning, she throws off all responsibility for family, alienating her children and causing the death of her husband. This woman's daughter, by contrast, finds herself miserable and alone after having followed the path of fulfillment laid out by her generation's wisdom of female empowerment through career advancement.

By creating a genealogy of painful attempts at female self-actualization, Walbert passes over a conventional and easy interpretation of women's history (women are oppressed by men) and instead seems to ask whether the women in the story create their own misery by giving in to unhappiness as the lot of woman, a perception passed down to them through the pointless suicide of their much discussed suffragette ancestor. Hovering over the entire narration is this stark question: is the family pride in its self-sacrificing women's rights activist the cause of its members lack of much sought fulfillment?

For all that the novel raises an interesting question about to what degree the explicitation of women's concerns has hampered rather than furthered the happiness of individual women, it lacks the technical suavity necessary for a truly pleasurable read. The prose has a precious quality, as though Walbert is making a half-hearted attempt at bringing together form and content by writing in Woolf's stream of consciousness mode. Furthermore, the content doesn't justify the non-linear form, and the characters fail to incite sympathy.


Reflections: Galatea 2.2

A thirty-something man on the rebound falls in love with, in quick succession: the shadow of a colleague, a machine, a young graduate student, and the machine again. His vampiric id uses the privacy of his mind to drain the objects of desire of their individual qualities and assign to them qualities he loves, wants to love, or has loved about himself. Richard Power's Galatea 2.2 is a modern myth of Narcissus, as it would have been written had Narcissus been the narrator of his tale and known the power of words to veil faults.

In his fifth novel, Powers captures the beauty of, and nostalgia for,  one's first romantic relationship.  What he reveals is that when it ends, one misses the lover largely as the receptacle of formative experiences; it is hard not to mourn the loss of someone who made you into who you are. The main character, named Richard Powers, finds himself lost after C., the partner of his early years, leaves him.  C. breaks up the relationship because she cannot build her own life with his constantly at center stage. Stunned, Richard fails to take the next step in emotional development. Instead he wiles away a year in arrested development repeating the mistake of not allowing others around him the space to be anything other than what he has imagined them to be. Now, however, he is in an environment where others are already developed, thus his own ego-centrism makes him the target of ridicule from students and of experimentation from his new colleagues at the scientific think tank where he takes a visiting writer in residence position.

Reflections on his past with C. take up about half the narrative and are interwoven with the present-day plot of the novel; at the think tank, Richard has been recruited to train a computer to read literature. This is the side of the narrative that has received praise and raised interest in this novel. It does seem to have all the trappings of an AI narrative. However, to read it in this way is to dismiss (if not ignore) the simultaneous narration of the C. co-plot. The story line about Helen, the eighth version of the trainable computer network, receives its meaning from the framing romance. Reports of Helen's development are manipulated by the character Richard to the point that the reader can get no real insight into the "science" theoretically transpiring. Instead what we see is Powers projecting cognition, consciousness, and emotions onto the super-computer in his search for a replacement for C. Where C. finally rebelled from having her world seen and written by Powers, Helen has no other choice. Her limitations (no body, limited visual capacity, immobility) make her the perfect replacement figure for a human partner for the pathologically narcissistic writer. The center's scientists provide nothing except brief insights into the plodding nature of Helen's actual development and the increasing obsession of Powers. The reader can be fooled into believing Richard's version of the story because of the writer's literary training and the seductive way he has with words on the page. Thus the reader experiences the power that C. escaped.

This is not a work of science fiction; it is a worst-case, mock-autobiography about the ravages of love and ego. It is also both warning and celebration of the power of literature.