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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Shirley Jackson and the Twilight Zone

I remember reading Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House back in college, i.e., many years ago, and being scared witless - not the kind of book I usually read, but it really was effective, and I've often wondered whether it would still have the same effect, and I'm a little afraid to find out, but I did pick up the Modern Library edition of Jackson's "The Lottery and Other Stories," apparently her only story collection (I don't know if she wrote many novels either - she died somewhat young). The Lottery is obviously one of the most anthologized of all American stories, and with good reason, but how's the rest of her work? Read the first three: the first is a quick toss-off, a reasonably good New Yorker type vignette about a guy rather drunk ("tight," in the lingo) at a cocktail party and flirting with the teenage daughter of the host - and nothing much happens. The next two are more in the style that established Jackson as a unique writer: they weirdly play with identity and with reality and illusion, one (The Daemon Lover) about a woman waiting for her fiance to appear and then trying to track him down and leaving us wondering whether he was a cad who deserted her or an illusion or ghost who never existed except in her mind; the other, Like Mother Used to Make, about a very domestic guy who invites rather slovenly girl in next apartment over for dinner and over the course of the evening essentially trades apartments (and lives) with her. Do these remind you of Twilight Zone episodes? If they weren't they could have been. The only drawback is that Jackson is a rather stolid writer, despite her imagination. These stories by their nature entail her going over a lot of tedious domestic details, and the writing in these lengthy passages is nothing but tedious. Still - we'll see how her style develops over time (The Lottery is the last story in the collection).

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Boot Camp: New Yorker article on a camp for Dickens devotees

Read amusing Jill Lepore New Yorker article about Dickens Camp at U.C. Santa Cruz, at which hundreds of (adult) fans of Dickens, from serious scholars to amateur enthusiasts, including people ranging from one of the actors who often plays Dickens characters (wish I could place her - I think she plays the rather frumpy old barmaids) in the millions of BBC adaptations to a guy who had to get the books on tape because, as it turns out, he is illiterate - they pick one novel a year, and have lectures, smart discussions, plays, films, all sorts of activities centered on the novel of choice - this year's Great Expectations, probably the perfect choice because of its excellence, maturity, and relatively modest length - reading this article reminded me of my enthusiasm for Dickens last time I read Great Expectations, about 10 years ago, and the discussion of the 2 endings made it clear that, to our taste today, the "sad" ending is by far the better - quite stunning and beautiful and true. Started Our Mutual Friend a few years back and let it go - it was confusing and odd, I thought. What other writers could be the subject of a camp? Not many: Shakespeare, obviously, and Jane Austen, though you'd rotate through her complete works kind of quickly. Other than that? Maybe Hemingway or Faulkner? But you'd have some really weak summers mixed in with a few great ones, right? Anybody else?

Skeleton Keys: Why The Thin Man feels like a relic

Post from August 29, 2011 - delayed by power outage:
Finished Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man” and at the, much as at the
outset, was very impressed by his ability to create a lead character,
or in this case 2 lead characters, Nick and Nora Charles, almost
entirely through smart dialog. These two proved to be his fortune, as
the made The Thin Man a popular success and led to numerous spinoffs –
according to the Library of America notes 5 movies and a radio series,
all of which brought Hammett revenue (and renown?). That said, the
novel itself is pretty lightweight entertainment – a rather
preposterous plot not credible even for a moment as a realistic
portrayal of any but the most perverse human behavior, and, even
worse, an extremely creaky narrative process. Huge tracts of the
novel, including the entire final wrapup, involve long expositions in
which Nick explains every nuance of the complex and far-fetched murder
mystery and it’s solution. Any editor today would quote the maxim:
Show don’t tell. Instead of having Nick give a long account of
[spoilers here!] the body found chopped up and sealed beneath the
cement floor, don’t you think he could make this discovery as part of
the solution instead of just figuring it out an telling about it? In
other words, Nick Charles is as cool a detective as they come, so cool
that he won’t even leave his luxury hotel to investigage a crime scene
- he doesn’t have to, doesn’t really want or need the work – but
aside from delineating his character, this makes the plot much more
talky and distanced than we expect or want today. A very influential
novel – established a certain tone and style that drives many crime
novels and reinforced the imprortance of a strong, distinctive, quirky
central character – but in some respects it’s an antique, like a 30s
roadster, cute and curious but a relic.

True West: David Means’s story about drifters and loners

Post from August 28, 2011 - delayed by power outage:
The David Means story, El Morro, in the current New Yorker is a pretty
good example of the Western drifter story – this kind of piece could
never work is set anywhere else in America, there’s something about
the wandering along the open roads of the West, aimless, escaping from
some unknown dreaded angst of the past, people shedding their
identities or concealing their identities, forming fitful alliances,
very American and very West – as in this story, in which a young
homeless girl gets picked up by an older guy with a car who drives her
through the desert and into Arizona, New Mexico, much of the time
keeping up a tedious monologue on, as she notes, 4 subjects, most
notably Indian lore (the Zuni tribe in particular) and on her life,
which he makes up for her as he goes along. This is the kind of guy,
charismatic and full of himself, who draws women, followere, or
acolytes for a short time till they completely see through him – as
this young woman is, but then they pick up another woman, working on a
road crew outside a major copper mine, and she makes them an odd trio,
as the guy gradually moves toward his new conquest leaving the waif
ever more isolated and lost. Strangely, it’s a tender story – she’s
kind of “rescued” toward the end by a park ranger who stops her from
vandalizing some old markings or petroglyphs – but it’s a story as
much about tone and atmosphere as anything, capturing the open a
mysterious landscape and the odd people moving through it.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

On book titles - why some work (and others don't)

Certain book titles seem to immediately strike a chord with readers, and it's not always obvious or predicatable why that is so. One example: what's with the word "bee" in book titles, and why is it so appealing? I can think of three "bees" offhand that were very winning titles that no doubt helped propel the popularity of their books: Bee Season, The Secret Life of Bees, and Little Bee. Interesting: note that "bee" has a completely different meaning in each of the three? A very popular title format or template is: The Noun of the Noun. There are millions of such titles (The House of Mirth, The End of the Affair, The Age of Innocence) but more recently writers use this template in a very abstract and evocative way: The Qualities of Water, being a great example. Literary references in titles - Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Jane Austen Book Club - seem to work, and for that matter so do title that references clubs: The Guernsey Potato Club, or whatever that was called, The Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Secrets(?) of the Traveling Pants - promising a sense of fun, kinship, insider-hood. Personally, I like one-word titles, which are much more rare and more difficult to work with than you'd think. Honestly, is Ulysses a good title for Joyce's masterpiece? Don't you think it makes us look too assiduously for the parallels that are ever-present but a secondary to the excellence of the story and the writing? Atonement - great recent book, rather foreboding title. Still, I think the perfect novel would have no title at all - just a number or a date or something, much Salinger's Nine Stories - it just is, on its own merits, a star arriving on the scene unannounced and unhyped.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The retro pleasures of The Thin Man

If Conan Doyle's detective stories (I don't think any would qualify as novels) are tight little Swiss watches of plot, Hammett's "The Thin Man" is a sprawling mess of a plot and the farther I get into it, I'm almost finished, the less I care about the crime that sets this rough beast into motion - it's all about the people, not only Nick and Nora Charles, truly seminal literary creations that had a long life in films after this novel and inspired other books and movies based on smart couples (Parker for one) but also the weird peripheral characters, Dorothy and her brother Gilbert who pathetically tries to make Nick his mentor, the thugs who run and hang out at the Pigiron Club, the high-society friends of the Charleses. It's not a great novel but it's a lot of fun and it's a template for many that followed in its wake. It's also a very retro story, very much in its time, of a world of hotels and taxis and room service and most of all of private detectives. Parker/Spenser was a throwback but it seems to me today that most crime novels involve either police detectives or often amateurs, often a reporter in fact (many journalists moonlight as crime writers) - but who hires a private detective today? Usually it's about divorce or custody or occasionally protection, but mostly kind of seamy stuff and not material that offers a ton of variety. I don't know - I don't read a lot in this genre and may be all off, but it seems to me that The Thin Man is of a different era.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Who dunnit? Doesn't matter. Crime novels are not about plot.

I kinda banged around Teju Cole's otherwise noteworthy debut novel, Open City, for its altogether absence of plot, and that may explain why after Cole I gravitated toward Dashiell Hammett because, after all, isn't that what makes a crime novel or detective novel - the plot? And the answer is, no. It occurs to me, reading Hammett's "The Thin Man" that the plot is really ancillary to the pleasure, maybe even a hindrance to the pleasure, of reading crime fiction. The plot is, in Hitchcock terms, just the mega-Maguffin, something to keep the novel moving along. As I'm reading The Thin Man I don't particularly care who dunnit, and I find the long expositions rather tedious, unnecessary, even quaint - style has evolved a lot since 1934 and few crime novelists today would indulge in long chapters in which one character basically explains everything to a less knowledgeable counterpart everything he knows about the story. Today, writers, more schooled in film, develop the plot through scenes and through action, not through chat - though Stieg Larsson is an exception to this rule (can't figure out how he got away with that). But with Hammett, it doesn't matter - the point of the plot is to illuminate the character, cool, suave, debonair yet brave Nick Charles (and equally cool Nora). The dangers of the story give him the opportunity to show he's sanguine. British crime novels, at least the classics (Conan Doyle) are much more about plot - we try to outsmart or out-think Holmes, but we never can, because Conan Doyle holds all the strings. In Hammett, I'm not trying to out-think Nick - more trying to outwit him, waiting for his next barb or quip.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Is Hammett a better writer than Fitzgerald?

Still enjoying Dashiell Hammett's last novel (934), "The Thin Man," about 1/3 of the way through it, mainly for the sharp dialog, particularly the repartee between Nick and Nora Charles, and the very retro, cool debonair tone, the evocation of a New York that is no more and maybe never really was, when people stayed in posh hotels and lived off room service, with waiters unfolding tables right in the room, and lots of drinking at every hour, and phone calls and visitors with calling cards and nobody seemed to have to work very hard at anything - except, think of the difference between this world that Hammett evokes and the very worthless world that Fitzgerald, in a slightly earlier era, evoked - see my recent posts in which I hammered day after day on Tender is the Night - and what's the great difference between Fitzgerald's Dick Diver and Hammett's Nick Charles? Diver does nothing but betray his wife and hurt people, Fitzgerald constantly telling us that he's a great psychiatrist, but never showing us - even the glimpses of Diver at work are weak and perfunctory, a great psychiatrist would have psychological insights (perhaps about everyone but himself) throughout the novel, but Diver has none; but Hammett's hero, a retired detective (rich now by marriage and doesn't have to work) is constantly thinking and acting like a detective and is drawn back, against his will, into a peculiar case of murder and infidelity. We really see what makes Nick's mind work and how it works. Line by line, page by page, the writing is sharp and serviceable and funny and not embellished. I would never say the writing is as fine as Fitzgerald's but Nick Charles is a stronger, more credible, more fully drawn character than Dick Diver because he has a place in the world and a professional life.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Not a lot of depth in The Thin Man - but a lot of surface

I don't read many mysteries or crime novels so who am I to weigh in but I did start Dashiell Hammett's "The Thin Man" last night, in the Library of America collection of his novels (read Maltese Falcon a few years back) - totally entertaining so far, in the way that very few novels, mystery, literary, or otherwise were then (1930 or so?) or now. It's not that we actually believe in the plot - a weird concoction of events, as a beautiful dame (of course) seeks out retired detective Nick Charles for help in finding her estranged father, and it turns out estranged mom looking for him, too, and then he's in the news as his mistress (maybe) is found shot dead, so why was everyone looking for him and who dunnit? The beauty is that March finds himself in the middle of the case and, unlike all other detectives or protagonists in crime novels, he really has very little interest in the case and no motivation to help - he's above it all, independently wealthy having married Nora (March) and now managing her money: working hard so that I don't lose the money I married you for, as he memorably puts it. The whole novel is built on and driven by the terrific, sharp interplay between Nick and Nora, quips and cocktails - and writing is very funny, and subtle - not the sledgehammer tough-guy dialog that Hammett developed in Sam Spade or that Chandler developed for Marlow (or Parker for Spenser, et al.), and that's much more familiar to us in many detective series (and is notably absent from the very popular Scandinavian detective novels, more cerebral and morose) - they're really what used to be called "high society" types, and the beauty of the story is in watching them deal with the various thugs and criminals, and never losing their cool. It's obvious that Hammett drew on the tone and style of repartee that he must have engaged in all the time with Lillian Hellman. Anyway, not sure how much I'll have to say about the novel going along - there's not a whole lot of depth, though that's made up for by a lot of surface.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Kafka's strangest story: The Penal Colony

Metamorphosis is Franz Kafka's most famous story but "The Penal Colony" might be his weirdest (which is saying something) or even his best (saying a lot); in fact Shocken chose it, not Metamorphosis, as the title story their Kafka collection back in the '60s or so. It's really a horrifying story, so strange and gruesome and surreal: none of the characters is named, just the Officer, the Explorer, the Soldier, the Commandante, the Prisoner. The Explorer is welcomed as a distinguished guest at the Colony (where is this colony? who knows? - interesting that the character is called the Explorer and not the Traveler, for example); the Officer spends a good deal of time describing to him the horrifying machinery that the colony uses for executions - machine with a "harrow" or system of blades that "writes" the prisoner's sentence on his skin over and over till he bleeds to death. Horrifying just to think of this torture, and what makes the story so strange is the proud, yet matter-of-fact way in which the Officer explains this machine. Equally horrifying, the Explorer just listens, doesn't much react. Gradually, the Explorer becomes more discomfited, and then the story gets even weirder, as the Officer laments that the new Commandante isn't really sold on this execution machine, it's a legacy of the old, much lamented Commandante. OK, so what does all this mean? In part, it's Kafka's meditation on the intrinsic horrors of our social and political systems - not just capital punishment, but imprisonment itself, and even war and combat: if an "explorer" were to come to our planet and we would politely explain that when two nations are in conflict we arm one another and kill on the ground, the sea, from planes and rockets, until one nation submits - how crazy would that sound? It's also, like all of Kafka, some kind of surreal exploration of the psyche, of his own psyche - the sentence inscribed again and again on the body some kind of tortured sexual guilt perhaps? Also, for any one living after Kafka's generation it's an oddly prescient look at the systematic mass executions of Nazi Germany - the harrow-machine a version of the gas chambers, which the Nazis so scrupulously and grimly documented.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Two suggestions for Edith Wharton: How to re-write Ethan Frome

OK, I was pretty hard on Edith Wharton for her condescending introduction to "Ethan Frome," but it's only fair to say that Ethan Frome is a really a pretty great novella - and probably a very good choice for book group, as well. I was kind of fooled by the first chapter, in which Ethan surreptitiously watches Mattie Silver dance with the wealthy and smooth Eady (?); I suspected that when she walks home with Ethan she's just being kind and naturally upbeat and flirtatious - that, ultimately, as he develops his huge crush on her, she would disappoint him and be "not that into him," as we say today. In fact, the whole dance episode, and the later recurrance when Ethan sees Eady on a sleigh heading out toward his farm, is just a red herring - Mattie, oddly, shows no interest in an appropriate match and is totally smitten with Ethan - though they're in an impossible position and they both know it. It's a little bit of an early version of Double Indemnity or Brief Encounter, a doomed and tragic love, doomed in part because both Ethan and Mattie are moral and upright - he's not willing to abandon his insufferable, mean wife, Zeena, and Mattie isn't willing to be a home-wrecker. Zeena may be a horrible person, but she's no fool and she sees where this is heading if Mattie stays in the house - early version of Big Love? Everyone knows the dramatic climax, with Ethan driving the sled into the elm tree - it's never made completely clear whether he (or Mattie) made a last-second attempt to avoid the collision. Lots to think about in this short novel: Is Zeena presented fairly, or is her meanness just because we see her through the lens of two male narrators? Would Mattie really fall for Ethan (possibly - easy to forget that he's a healthy, if impoverished, 25-year-old)? Is Mattie as good as she seems - or is there something sneaky in her (her family history might suggest so)? How important is the poverty to this narrative - the subtle cruelty of the seemingly kind builder who blithely withholds payment to the far more needy and desperate Ethan? Let me play god here for a moment and edit this novel: First, I think it would be stronger if Zeena were not so horrible, if we could even slightly sympathize with her plight as well as with the plight of Ethan and Mattie. Second, Wharton misses a great opportunity for drama and surprise (giving the ending away here): The narrator should have seen in Ethan's farm an old, gray, hobbled woman sitting near-immobile by the fire, and we would have assumed that was Zeena, whom Ethan was burdened with thoughout his life. Then, at the end, Zeena appears, stronger and healthier - the strongest of the group - and only then do we realize that the old woman by the fire was Mattie. Don't know why Wharton didn't think of this - a film version probably has.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Wharton's view of rural life: Ethan Frome

Despite the absurdities of the Wharton introduction to her own novel, "Ethan Frome," as noted in yesterday's post, you can't help but be moved by the story once it's underway. Yes, it's not the most subtle thing Wharton ever wrote - again, part of her belief that these country people of the Berkshires are simple folk? - buut she clearly delineates the characters, or the main character, right from the start. In the preface, we're in (her) present day, circa 1910, as an engineer assigned briefly to the Berkshires (railroad work?) becomes curious ab out the lame and dour elderly man in town, the eponymous Frome- he hires Frome to take him by sleigh to various postings, and one night, snowbound, he stays over at Frome's much-neglected farmstead, and presumably at that time learns the story of Frome's life, and then we backtrack to chapter 1 as an omniscient narrator tells Frome's story: Frome is unhappily married to an unkind, invalid woman, and they bring her young cousin in to help care for her - she brings the spark of life and beauty into the drab household and naturally Frome falls for her, which is nothing but trouble - she's obvious nice to him like she's nice to everyone and would never even think of him as a romantic/sexual interest - this made clear in opening scene as Frome spies on her at a village dance, as she spins around the floor with the son of the town's wealthy merchant - obviously much more her type, but Frome goes into spasms of jealousy. This can lead nowhere good. We certainly feel sorrow and pity for Frome, and the strength of the novel, at least at the outset, is how he is presented as part of his society, he's not just an unhappy and naive man but he's stuck in a very small town, his aspirations (he studied engineering for a year) quashed by poverty and obligation - to her credit, Wharton does not sentimentalize rural life, she understands its harshness and demands, and she seems to see how poverty can crush a soul.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The hilarious and disturbing introduction to Ethan Frome

Started Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome" last night and yes I know every high-school honors English class reads it our used to read it - though I never did till much later in life (my college and grad school barely acknowledged the existence of American lit) and I remember liking it, dark, gloomy, a sled accident - I don't remember much else so that's why I'm re-reading it - also, it's our September book group selection. Anyone coming at it today will find Wharton's introduction hilarious at best and disturbing at worst. She says she rarely writes/wrote these things but was prevailed upon by a publisher - and she tries I think to sounds like (her friend) Henry James, ruminative, complex, analytic - writing mostly about her narrative decisions as an author, the problem she faced in trying to tell a story about an event whose climactic moment happened many years in the past. Writers will identify readily with some of her thoughts, about how ideas arise, entice us, sometimes totally deceive use leading to years of waste and suffering. But most striking are her comments about her characters: what a challenge she faced in writing about these rural dolts! How difficult it was for her to capture their simplicity! Can you imagine? These country bumpkins actually have thoughts, feelings, memories - even intelligence. What a novel insight! How brave of Wharton to pioneer this territory and to explore the minds of this alien tribe. I know she lived for several years in the Berkshires - have visited her estate there - but she seems to have brought to her time there nothing but a European snob sensibility of the worst kind, a self-doubting, self-loathing American inferiority complex. Her introduction would totally make me not want to read the book - but, fortunately, she's a better writer than (self) critic, perhaps a better writer than person.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The wholly unconventional Teju Cole

Okay, I won't give anything away, but in the next-to-last chapter of Teju Cole's "Open City" one of the characters makes a startling accusation about the rather cerebral and passive narrator, Julius - this could be the dramatic highlight of this novel, and most novelists would introduce the element much earlier and the plot of the novel would largely concern the narrator's efforts to refute the allegation or come to terms with it - and yet - Cole is different from almost every other novelist, so what does his narrator do after this allegation is raised? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Doesn't respond to it at all, much less try to defend himself, so where does this leave the readers of Open City? It left me very puzzled, except to think that, yes, Cole is not interested in plot - but perhaps he's more interested in character than I'd thought, because the very passivity of Julius is further evidence that he is among the most isolated, alienated narrators since The Stranger. He feels nothing, does nothing. There are a lot of puzzles here - his frequent references to his "friend," whom we barely meet in the novel, yet whose singular identification - my friend - makes him seem the most important presence in Julius's life, and maybe he is. Is Julius gay? He would certainly have to say so at some point in this novel, where he confesses much else. Is he repressed? Emotionally, yes; sexually, I don't think so. The last chapter is almost entirely on the level of symbol - as Julius takes a boat ride past the Statue of Liberty, and reflects on the days when it was a working lighthouse and birds would die crashing into the crown - laid on a bit heavy here, I think, and the book ends very suddenly, with the mysteries of Julius's life barely explored, let alone resolved. Despite my quibbles and concerns, I'm hugely impressed by Cole's writing and his intelligence, page by page, and though I hope he always retains his unique style and sensibility, I hope he continues to write and as he grows will become at least a nodding acquaintance with the conventions of literary fiction. Readers like plot, and though we also like mysteries we don't like mysteries that are never resolved.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The loneliest narrator ever?: Teju Cole's Open City

The alienated narrator: Isn't Julius, in Teju Cole's novel, "Open City," among the loneliest people in fiction? It's odd, because he has a good job, he refers frequently to "my friend" (as if he's his only friend?) with whom he shares information about jazz and other arcane topics, at one point in the novel he has lunch in Central Park with some friends, he has an ex-girlfriend and has one strange but successful sexual encounter - and yet, and yet - I have the overwhelming feeling that he doesn't know anybody but himself, with his finely tuned sensibilities and acute observations. He's in one of the largest and busiest cities in the world, and he spends much of his free time (and most of the novel) walking about, encountering people from time to time but often just observing, witnessing, and he seems alone in the crowd. In a more dramatic novel, he would be a dangerous character, perhaps a terrorist or (thinking of Camus again) a killer, but Julius seems to be a peaceful, reasonable content young man. Yet what are we to make of him? He gets mugged - doesn't tell anyone. His beloved teacher/mentor dies - he doesn't call for weeks, doesn't follow up when he learns of the death. His ex-girlfriend tells him she's engaged. He has no reaction whatever. He's emotionally, psychologically numb. We meet all kids of characters in fiction - that in part is why we read fiction - but Julius is a character to whom we have no key, no clue. He's a blank: solitary, personable it seems, super smart - but we don't know what makes him the way he is. His loneliness is enigmatic, not necessarily emblematic.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Teju Cole's "anti-novel," Open City

In part 2 (second half) of Teju Cole's "Open City," his narrator, Julius, returns to New York after a month in Brussels spent doing - basically, nothing. I don't mean this as a put-down in that there are many things I love about this book, but it's really what you might call an "anti-novel": it wears the accoutrements of a novel, beautiful writing, trenchant observations, a wide range of literary and cultural references, beautifully rendered scenes and places and climates and seasons, occasional profound psychological insights, and the slight strangeness, the minor displacements of sensibility, that make a work literary and unique. But, as I've noted in previous posts, it has no real characters, other than the narrator, no plot to speak of, and no back story - so what have we? Julius, the narrator, is intriguing and potentially a good or even great character, but even approaching the end of the novel I'm not sure how to judge him: we know quite a few biographical facts about him, but these facts do not really cohere into a character because there is no story line to him, no arc of narrative that embraces his life. To the extent that he is a character, he is, as earlier noted, as alienated as a Camus hero: he feels nothing, has no relationships (toward the end he grows tender toward his old professor, now dying), estranged from family - I don't honestly know if Cole thinks of him as alienated and wants to portray him as such, or if he, as a writer, doesn't know how to or doesn't care to build the web of connections that usually hold a novel together. I am constantly amused by Cole/Julius's arcane references: Julius will be in a church and hear some music and it will remind him of some 20th-century piece or opera that, believe me, you've never heard of - maybe some of these references are made up, but some of the literary ones do check out. Julius spends an evening reading Piers Plowman, which makes him (or Cole?) without a doubt the only person in the world outside of a English grad student medievalist to read this book in 20 years.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Why did the New Yorker publish this story?

Author named Yosef Yerushalmi, unknown to me, has a story in the current New Yorker - bio note says he is recently deceased and was a professor of Jewish studies at Columbia - perhaps this posthumous publication is his first fiction and first appearance in the New Yorker, and I would say he's been recognized too late to do him any good, but his story, Gilgul, is about reincarnation of the soul, so who knows? I want to be charitable toward this story, but honestly, my patience is strained here. I'll tell you the plot: A middle-aged scholar visiting in Tel Aviv goes with a friend to see a fortune teller "witch" and she pronounces some banalities and then indicates she can foretell his death - but he doesn't want that information. A few years later, post-divorce, clinically depressed, he feels compelled to return to Tel Aviv (Jaffa, actually) and find her again; she remembers him, and this time gives him a long story about a soul that has wandered through many lifetimes, and some spell that would release the soul from its wanderings. She tells him he is not the wandering soul, however. Then she leaves him alone in her apartment. He leaves, walks on the beach, wonders what it was all about. Hey - me, too! I can accept a story about a prophet or seer, though it's a pretty cheap device - the author is of course the "god" of the story and can make the prophecy come true, or not. The quality of the story depends on surprise, wonder, on how the prophecy informs or dominates the person's life - think, in a way, of Beast in the Jungle (self-imposed prophecy, but still) or the story of Appointment in Samarra, or most powerful of all of course: Macbeth. In this story, the prophecy has no particular bearing on his life, it doesn't change the main character at all, at the end, he wanders along a strand of beach. Why did they publish this story? Is it some editor's homage to a favorite professor or something? There's nothing especially wrong with it on the literal level - his writing is excellent - but I kept hoping, waiting for, expecting something more, and all I get here is a rambling monologue from a seer who may or may not have psychic powers - we never know because the story contains too little information.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Why John Updike preferred to read from his poetry

Apologies if I've posted on this before, but last night Bill S and I talking about our writing or our plans for writing; I told Bill that I don't think I will write any more fiction but might be drawn someday to write poems. How come? Because writing fiction and writing poetry serve very different mental functions for the writer (not necessarily for the reader, but that's another topic). And I told Bill about the one conversation I was fortunate enough to have with one of our mutual literary heroes, John Updike. RISD used annually host a President's lecture - visiting author, followed by dinner. One year Updike was the guest and I (as Journal books editor) was invited to the dinner, and seated next to JU (obviously the president had nothing to say to him and wanted to sit him next to someone who did and would). Surprisingly, at his reading, he opted to read from his poems, not his fiction, and afterward I asked him why. He said that when he has a book to promote for his publisher (Knopf), he will obviously read from that, but otherwise he really preferred to read his poems rather than stories or novel excerpts. "I'm not sure why," he said. I offered: maybe it's because when you write fiction your organizing thoughts and ideas and memories in your mind and to write them, to express them in fiction, is to expel it: once you write it, it's gone. Whereas poetry is an attempt to capture an elusive thought, image, idea, observation that's passing by you, and when you capture it in a poem you have it there forever. He looked at me and smiled and said: Exactly! Obviously, he was being unduly modest when he said "i'm not sure why" - he had had these exact same thoughts, and didn't want to sound pretentious in expressing them (I didn't mind sounding pretentious). It was great to know that at my very low and amateurish level of writing I shared this perception with Updike, and I believe with many other fellow writers as well.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Camus, Cole, and the alienated hero/narrator

As noted yesterday, though it takes a while (finished part 1 of the book) to realize this, the narrator in Teju Cole's "Open City" is a very sad and alienated young man - he seems at first quite engaged in life, has a good and promising medical career, he is very observant and thoughtful, friendly relation with neighbor, warm relation with his mentor professor, girlfriend recently moved away but still seems to have a relationship with her - but over the course of the novel it becomes ever more apparent that he has no relationships of any note with anyone - these characters appear and then disappear, he doesn't particularly think about or care to know any people - as becomes evident in his trip to Brussels, undertaken allegedly in part to try to find his German grandmother from whom, for some reason, he is estranged, but in fact after apparently weeks of rambling around in the city he makes no effort to find her at all. He has a sexual encounter (with a woman about twice his age, after rejecting overtures from someone his own age), and makes no effort to see her (or anyone) again. I noticed at one point that one of the blurbs (which I rarely read, by the way) compares Cole with Camus, which by and large I think is ridiculous, in that his tone and affect could hardly be more different - but now I do see the connection, in that his narrator is a lost sole with no place in the world. In the hands of another author, Julius (the narrator) would be an outsider and a threat, but Cole's style is far more cerebral and Julius seems lost and lonely, but not disaffected or angry in any way. About to start part 2.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The four dimensions of literary narrative : Open City

Reading Teju Cole's debut novel, "Open City," makes me think about narrative styles or what I'll call for the moment narrative dimensions. Most novels involve a plot that is for the most part linear - moves from point a to point b in time and often in place: a day in the life in one city (Ulysses), a journey from one point to another (The Odyssey) - even though these narratives sometimes are told out of sequence - we build the linearity in our minds a we read and when we complete the novel. What makes a narrative into a novel is generally the inter-relations among the parts of the narrative; the narrative is not only a straight line but also a geometrical construct: 2 dimensions (relations among the characters, much like a family tree), three dimensions (interactions among the character or between characters and the protagonist); 4 dimensions (character and their relations to one another are dynamic and change or evolve over time). Cole willfully breaks with many of these conventions. His narrative is relentlessly one-dimensional: a line, following one character, the narrator, Julius, from point A to B through time. The characters and the episodes have astonishingly little inter-relation. For example, in the first chapter a key moment is Julius's visit to his aging mentor professor, and we learn something of the professor's past as a Japanese-American held prisoner during WWII. We would expect, as experienced readers, that this man would play a large role in the book, but except for one (I think) passing reference he does not appear again - at least through the first 2/3rds. This is typical of Cole's style and technique - random characters are introduced, but he willfully makes no further use of these characters. None of this is necessarily bad or wrong, but it makes Cole's book frustrating at times and, at the same time, establishes his narrator, Julius, as an extremely lonely, isolated man. More on this later.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Teju Cole and the wilfull rejection of the devices of fiction

Can there be any doubt regarding the influence of W.G. Sebald, particularly "Austerlitz," on Teju Cole's debut novel, "Open City"? Aside from the very similar, striking, and beautiful tone and sensibility, uncovering lawyers of the past through wanderings, study of arcana, and encounters with (voluble) strangers, now at the half-way point in Open City the narrator, Julius, flies to Belgium (Brussels) in part to try to find and reconnect with his estranged German grandmother - and readers or Austerlitz or of this blog may remember that A began (and ended) in Belgium and the central episode was A's journey to eastern Europe to try to learn about the disappearance of the mother he'd been separated from in early childhood. I don't say this to criticize Cole - he has chosen an excellent model to emulate. I am enjoying Open City passage by passage, page by page, but I any reader has to recognize that this the antithesis of a page-turner. The plot such as it is never develops and I continue to be frustrated at how little the narrator reveals about himself, He's not an opaque narrator in that he does tell us some of the essential facts of his life and alludes to various family and romantic dramas, but Cole intentionally leaves these matters rather skeletal - his interests as a writer lie elsewhere. I see enormous promise in Cole's work, but I hope that as he matures - and maybe even as this novel matures - he will pay some homage to the more conventional devices of (even literary) fiction. As someone (C.Calbert) wisely said in a writing group I was a member of: Readers like plot. Yes. I can live without plot at times, and to a degree, but the willful rejection of plot pushes readers away from a work that many might otherwise discover and love.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A novel without plot? characters? - not for everyone, but many will love Open City

As we read along further in Teju Cole's debut novel, "Open City," we learn somewhat more about the narrator and his life: his name is Julius, he was born/raised in Nigeria of a Yoruba father and German mother, went to military high school in Nigeria and then to "Maxwell" college in the U.S., is estranged from mother's side of family now living in Europe/Belgium, was involved with a woman named Nadege(?) who has moved to SF. These are the facts of the novel, but not what this novel is about. The novel is about the narrator's (and hence the author's) mind, about his wide range of knowledge, the way he thinks and observes, and the way he listens and gathers up the stories of others. The narrator's personal history and his own story line are incidental - as noted in previous blogs, much like the work of Sebald, particularly "Austerlitz," which I posted on recently as well. Julius, as he tells us in the first paragraph, gains knowledge, insight, and solace by wandering the streets of New York, and the novel takes us on many of his wanderings, including a long walk from the upper West Side to the site of the World Trade Center, with stops on Wall Street and along the Hudson, and much meditation not so much on 9/11 but on the way black water surrounds Manhattan, like the nothingness that surrounds our short spans of life, and other smart and weird insights - the smell of salt air, the graveyard in the middle of Wall Street, people herded like animals on way to slaughter as they cross highways on pedestrian overpasses or walk between cyclone fences, and many others. There is also a rather long section in which Julius visits an immigrant detention center in Queens, terrific description of the distrct with repair shops and barbed wire, and he listens to a Liberian refugee tell his story - visit came about because Nadege(?) volunteers for her church group. As is typical of Open City, we learn virtually nothing about her or about their relationship - their relationship is the key that opens the door to these other observations. This novel definitely not for everyone in that it has none of the elements - character, plot - that usually propel fiction or draw us to fiction, but it's a near unique literary feat and admirers of Proust, Sebald, Dreams of My Russian Summer - novels that border on literary memoir - should read Open City. Upside to Cole's talent is enormous.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Why Teju Cole is like W.G. Sebald

The more I read in Teju Cole's "Open City," the more clear it is to me that Cole is not interested in plot and character development in any traditional sense. As I started to think from the first chapter, he's very much in the tradition of Sebald; he introduces many characters and plot strands and, at least so far (about 3 chapters or 50 pages in) he has no desire, or perhaps no capacity?, to pull these strands together. Like Sebald, he is full of arcana, and he has a penchant for speaking with strangers and hearing out their stories - he, the narrator I mean, is a resident in psychiatry, so that would make sense - and he will sometimes go off on what seems to be a tangent as he gives almost a miniature essay or lecture about a bit of history, landscape, architecture, or, with Cole in particular, works of art. Open City includes a rather lengthy section on a visit to an exhibit of the deaf Colonial artist Brewster - I, too, have been very moved by Brewster's works and by his story (I saw the same exhibit, though I saw it in Cooperstown I think). Also, Cole and Sebald share an Asperger-like fascination, or fixation, on modes of transportation - subways, mostly, in Cole's case (trains for Sebald). The novel continues to hold my interest and attention, but not sure how well he can maintain this mood over 300 pages or so without further depth of character. We do, in chapter 2, at least learn a little about who the narrator is: A native of Nigeria (like Cole) who settles in the U.S.; hints of some time in Europe and England, and also of possibility that one of his parents/grandparents is European? Some discussion of a girlfriend who'd moved to San Francisco - but all this is mostly by nuance and inference - there is no real conflict or dramatic element to the novel at all, not in the least, in the first 50 pages or so. Can he sustain this?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Very promising start to Teju Cole's Open City

Last night began Teju Cole's very promising debut novel, "Open City": From the first paragraph yu know you are definitely in the hands of a writer who cares about language and about style, a writer with copious intelligence and a broad and interesting band of knowledge, a writer well versed in the tradition of literary fiction. A great opening paragraph about wanderings on the streets of New York and some fine wrriting throughout the first chapter as the narrator, whom we eventually learn is named Julius?, wanders downtown during a NYC marathon, walks a few blocks with one of the runners post-race, stop sin to see his very aged mentor professor, talks briefly about jazz with one of his (few?) friends, and remembers learning that the woman in the apartment next door died months back and he'd never noticed or realized. Cole as noted is a very talented writer, and his style (and subject) will inevitably remind many readers of Joseph O'Neil's Netherland: the polymath narrator with a range of quirky instincts, the deliberate accumulation of observed detail and reflection, the attachment to the streets of New York, though I would say in Cole's case the polymath comes off at times as show-off or even parody (I'm not sure, for example, if the French philosophers or some of the books on his reading list are so hip and cutting edge that I don't even know them or if they're made up, as are some of the academic names). Bigger concern, and I'll see how this develops, is tendency to eschew traditional plot and even character development: he is in no rush to put the bone in the throat, so to speak; we have no idea, after first chapter, what this novel is about (O'Neil was very direct in building the element of suspense). Even the character - we learn a lot about what interests this narrator and how his mind works, but so far virtually nothing about who is he, where he's from, what brought him to this point in his life. Cole also reminds me in some ways of Sebald - the wanderings, the befriending of strangers, the odd observations about the passing and the ruins of time. We'll see how it develops from this very promising start.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

American Outsiders in the short story: What have you done?

Pretty much liked at least admired Ben Marcus's story "What have you Done?" in current New Yorker - don't know too much about Marcus but believe he's a Brown grad, first novel or collection a bit post-modern/experimental, like the first fiction of many writers, especially Brown grads, and now, like most maturing writers, he seems to be edging closer to the mainstream. This story - I think it's a story, though it could be part of a longer work - fits tightly in with the long American tradition of stories about loners and losers - so much of American literature is about the aliens and the misfit outlaws, but in novels they tend generally to be more heroic (even comic-heroic, as in Confederacy of Dunces) whereas in short stories they tend to be just plain outside the pale. Marcus's hero is a 30ish guy heading back to family in Cleveland for some kind of family reunion. Evidently he has not been back to home town in many years, and also we learn right away that there are extremely disturbed and troubled relations between him and his kin - it's entirely clear why that is, but it is clear that young man is a great life and career disappointment and that he is perhaps prone to fits of violent rage, clearly a troubled young man who is bitter and cynical. Marcus goes out of his way to make this character dislikable and pathetic: emphasizing the grotesque (his overweight body, his body stench), the juvenile sexuality (as soon as he gets home he downloads some porno and masturbates), his fixation on his sister's sexual life, and so on. What's really the oddity in this story, however, is that we learn quite a ways in that the character is married and has a son - he has never told his family this. When he does, they don't believe him, they assume it's another one of his pathetic attempts to fit into their expectations by lying to them. Is this credible? I suppose anything can happen, but it's hard for me to believe that someone could or would keep this secret from parents/sibling whom he has any relationship with whatever, whom he has any desire to please. It's that contradiction at the crux of this story: character's need to please his family but unwillingness to reveal to them, over a long period of time, the one thing that would best enable him to do so, that puzzles me and makes the story feel more like a set-up, either the author's concoction to build drama and mystery or something pointing toward a larger work that will explain this anomaly. Quibbles aside, the writing is very strong, the descriptions of Cleveland, the airport, the hotel where the family holds its reunion; some of the dialog, painfully cruel, also seems very smart and apt.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Why Tender is the Night failed with critics - and readers

Read the Malcolm Cowley intro to the (fairly old) Modern Library edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night" and you'll think the only reason this novel was poorly received by critics and readers, not nearly as popular, then or today, as The Great Gatsby, was because Fitzgerald made the wrong decision regarding chapter orders - he began with the scenes on the Riviera beach when Rosemary first encounters the Divers and their entourage and then later stepped back to the chapters explaining how Diver met Nicole, when she was teenage abuse victim and psychiatric patient, and married her (not his own patient, but almost). In the final edition, which Cowley edited from Fitzgerald's own notes and personal copy, the story is straight chronological. I don't know which way is better - probably the final version, as the novel is fairly difficult to follow and it helps to establish the two main character at the outset, the order of chapters is not the problem - it's the general, near total unsympathetic nature of these characters. Fitzgerald may have thought of them as the brightest and the wittiest, but to most English-language readers they seem to be selfish, cruel, egocentric creatures. By the end, Fitzgerald may establish some sympathy for Nicole, and he shows that she is the stronger character, that Dick Diver is weak and heading for self-destruction - but he totally fails in any effort to make Dick Diver a tragic hero. He's not - a tragic hero, in addition to eliciting terror and pity, is also brought to his ruin through a great struggle with forces outside of himself, with fate, with politics, with love, with great choices that prove to be ruinous. Dick makes no choices. He drinks himself to oblivion, wastes his life, and harms many along the way. Cowley suggests that Tender is the Night grows on readers, that it improves in the memory as it ages. We'll see. It's possible that it could also rot.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Dick Diver gets just what he deserved, in Tender is the Night

Ultimately, I was a little surprised - I'd remembered, from first reading quite a few years ago, that F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night" was primarily about Nicole's mental breakdown - but I think in memory I must have superimposed too much information about Zelda Fitzgerald and her well-known hospitalizations; in fact, in Tender is the Night, Nicole has very few - maybe only one significant - episodes of mental instability, but the novel begins with her in a psychiatric hospital, where Diver breaks all appropriate boundaries and falls in love with her, marries her. Her instability is tragic for her in that it lets Diver control her throughout the course of their marriage: she's frail, sickly, has to be watched over all the time, and he's the one who cured her, the brilliant psychiatrist, etc. In the last section, devoted to Nicole's point of view, we see that ultimately she is by far the stronger. She comes to see what (most) readers (today) would have seen long ago - that Diver is an egotistical, lazy, alcoholic bully who is essentially living off her family money. As he ages, and as he removes himself ever farther from his profession, this becomes obvious to anyone - he fights with friends, is crude in social settings, bumblingly flirtatious with the actress, Rosemary (he was charming when she was a kid, but now that she's matured he seems, at least to us, like a dolt), finally he's totally foolish when trying to perform water acrobatics far beyond his ability. Ultimately, Nicole throws him over as she starts an affair - and later marries - one of their old cohort, Tommy. He's probably no prize either, and in some circumstances we might blame Nicole for her infidelity, but not here. Good riddance, Dick Diver! In a very odd last chapter we learn that Diver moved back to the U.S. and had a medical practice in upstate New York in a series of ever-smaller communities - Buffalo, Lockport, Geneva, can't remember the last but it was some tiny N.Y. village. What to make of this? Our last image of him is of an anonymous fade into the smallest of small-town American life - as if, for Fitzgerald, that is a tragedy greater than none other? Or is the tragedy really Nicole's? This novel may have been more effective in an earlier time, when people were truly interested, or fooled by, the glamor of the Riviera and the expatriate American life, but I think readers today will have no patience with or sympathy for Diver's behavior and personality and will not feel that the conclusion is tragic at all, just inevitable, just what he deserved.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

More thoughts on characters in Tender is the Night: Is Dick Diver the model of Don Draper?

As notes in the edition I'm reading (Malcolm Cowley, ed.) of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night," the last section 50 pages or so, is largely from, maybe entirely from, Nicole's point of view (still 3rd person, though) - so if we had for some reason seen Dick Diver as some kind of glamorous hero for the first 280 pages of the novel, now we even more clearly see him for what he is, an (occasionally charming) drunk and bully. Toward the end of the novel, he returns to his clinic where a young man withdraws from treatment, his somewhat idiotic father outraged that he smelled alcohol on Diver's breath - to his credit, after hesitation, Diver confesses this to his business partner. This leads to some serious discussion, and Diver agrees to leave the practice. Don't worry, though! The Divers have even more money than at the outset, thanks to fabulous investments of Nicole's wealth, so now they continue to tour Europe with an entourage of servants. Again to his credit, Dick for the first time takes an interest in the children. Presumably, he's trying to work, too, but there's no evidence of that. We do see him as a mean and nasty drunk - in a visit to the newly remarried Mary North (now a fake countess of some sort) and on a jaunt to a yacht of some wealthy American. He repeatedly insults and bullies people weaker than he is, and Nicole can do nothing but cringe. She's warned about his drinking, but she's no angel herself. I'm not sure whether her mental illness will play any further role in this story - it never developed into a plot element as much as I thought it would or remembered (perhaps I'd interposed Zelda Fitzgerald too much on the plot of this novel). Does anyone else think that Don Draper of Mad Men is closely modeled Dick Diver? Would anyone doubt that John Hamm and January Jones could play the lead in the movie if it were filmed today?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Could these characters be any more nasty?: Tender is the Night

Could these characters be any more nasty? Dick Diver, traveling at leisure through Europe, in Rome, while sick wife, Nicole, is stuck back at the psychiatric clinic in Zurich with the children and with her own maladies, gets roaring drunk (not totally clear why, probably because of a lingering guilt for the affair he's started with young movie star, Rosemary) and ends up assaulting an innocent guy (cab driver) in the police station - the cops beat him up and haul him to a cell, where he obviously belongs. He manages to get a message out to wife's sister, Baby, who shows up to bail him out. Horrified at his bruised face and general condition, what does she do? I must see the ambassador at once! She shoots off to the embassy, bullies her way inside, wakes the ambassador, threatens him in various ways (We are a powerful family!), he gives her the address of the consulate, which actually handles such matters, she's outraged that nobody's there (it's 6 in the morning), wants the home address of the consul, and so on. One of the notes to this edition of "Tender is the Night" indicates that F. Scott Fitzgerald got into some kind of similar scrape and worked the material through several stories and drafts. So be it. But what is his attitude toward these bullies and idiots? Perhaps he thinks Baby Warren is wrong in the way she tries to help Dick, but if he so it's probably, in his view, because she's inelegant and almost comic in her frenzy - she's not "cool," like Dick, like a true Fitzgerald hero. I don't think he stops for a moment to realize how cruel these people are, how their misbehavior hurts others. In Gatsby, his narrator does refer to the Buchanons as "careless people" and as cruel (a "cruel body," I remember), but by this stage in his writing, or at least in this dangerously close to autobiographical he has lost all perspective.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Why Tender is the Night is not a tragedy

Yesterday I noted that F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night" takes a positive turn about 2/3 of the way through as Dick Diver establishes a psychiatric clinic and settles there with Nicole and kids: we actually see him at work helping people, he spends some time with the children, as Nicole's mental health deteriorates he seems to care about her and tries to help her - he's becoming for a moment not only a more sympathetic character but also a more complete and credible character. Spoke too soon. No sooner does Nicole have her latest hysterical breakdown, Dick learns that his father back in Buffalo has died - fathers in Fitzgerald another intriguing topic, they're either vague sources of a few pearls of wisdom, as with Diver and Carroway in Gatsby, or Gatsby's dad himself, the man the son had to flee from and reinvent himself - in any case, though Dick's father has been no more than a cipher through this novel, Dick dos go back and then, hey, why not take six months roaming through Europe, leaving the crazy Nicole alone with the kids - what's the rush? During his wanderings, Dick gets into various fights and drunken messes, learns the sad fate of several of his supposedly glamorous and talented friends, then crosses paths again with starlet, now young star, Rosemary, he visits her on the set of her movie (some of the more interesting passages in Fitzgerald, he was really quite knowledgeable and observant about film), and at last they have sex. So now Diver is not only a drunk and a cad but also unfaithful to his wife and family. Is this story really meant to be a tragedy? In a tragedy, we feel pity for the sufferings of the hero. Yes, Dick Diver is handsome, intelligent, cool. But he has brought his sufferings upon himself, and we feel (or should feel) nothing but contempt.

Monday, August 1, 2011

What everyone remembers about Tender is the Night : the crack-up

After banging on F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night" for a few days now, let me note for the record here that this novel actually gets quite a bit better - more moving, more thoughtful - in the 4th (?) section, The Escape, as Dick Diver joins with old pal Franz to set up a psychiatric clinic in Zurich. At last, for the first time in the novel, we see Diver do something useful in his life and actually justify the repeated assertions that he's a great and famous doctor - now we see him with patients, and we get a sense of what life was like in a Swiss sanatorium in 1925 or so - comparisons with The Magic Mountain are obvious and appropriate, and in the hospital in Tender is the Night we see much more hopelessness and despair, and we get a better sense of the frustrations of the doctors, working in the early years of psychoanalysis. This really should have been Fitzgerald's subject through the whole novel, in my view, and if he felt it was necessary to build all this up through the long sections of what he describes as the leisure class at the height of its wit - I would say at the depths, personally - I think he was wrong. What all of us remember of Tender is the Night is Nicole's mental illness and crack-up and how Diver does or does not help her - with the obvious poignant and painful autobiographical elements. This element of the story really doesn't take shape at all till the Escape section - Nicole's mental instability described in first section but then more or less ignored for 150 pages or so as we follow Dick and his flirtations and insecurities. In the Zurich section we see Nicole have a true almost homicidal/suicidal breakdown, and we begin to comprehend the gravity of the family situation. Interesting, the children begin to emerge as actual characters in this section as well. The novel is at last on track.