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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

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Unlikable characters in a fine New Yorker story and some great moments in The Day of the Owl

Notes on two pieces I've been reading, first Emma Cline's story in current New Yorker, Northeast Regional, about a 50-year-old man who's summoned by his ex-wife to travel to their son's prep school in order to meet w/ the dean about some trouble that's involved the boy. Cline, whom I'd never read, shows immediately that she's great at building narrative tension and maintaining a narrative pace; she also does a terrific job w/ telling the story by indirection: We never learn precisely what the kid (Rowan) did to get booted from the prep school. She gives us a glimpse of a young man, as she describes him bulky not from exercise but from meds, who has obviously been bullied if not tortured in some manner, involving Rowan - and maybe others. We don't need the details - the sketch is enough. She's also terrific at building characters, especially the central character in the story, Rowan's father, Richard. And this - I hope! - is truly a story and not a piece of a longer work, because every one of the characters (possible exception, the headmaster) is unlikable, spoiled, despicable: Richard, who is involved in a relationship with a married 30-year-old; the 30-year-old herself, Rowan the spoiled self-centered brat; his anorectic girlfriend also spoiled a sick of mind; even to a degree the headmaster, kicking the kid out of school but not without assuring Richard that they won't notify the unnamed good college that's already accepted the kid for the fall. It's a great story, in its way, but we sure don't want to spend any more time with these worthless people. Second: finished Leonardo Sciascia's short novel, The Day of the Owl (1961), about a mafia killing in Sicily and the police captain (from Northern Italy) who takes on the impossible task of investigating the death (2 shootings actually). It's actually on one level a very difficult novel to read, w/ many characters, all of them with names, nicknames, and titles, really hard to keep everyone straight. But as you read, you realize - or should realize, I think - that we're not meant to track all of these plot lines in detail; the whole point is that the police captain has stepped into a maze, and underworld, where the facts are obscured by numerous obfuscations and cover-ups. Some of the scenes in which her interrogates a suspect, to no avail, are hilarious. As you can imagine - nobody ever sees anything, everyone's got an alibi, no crime in Sicily is ever solved. The novel includes a scene in the Italian parliament, in which the representatives scream oaths at one another but little else happens, any many other fine moments - including Sciascia's afterword in which he says with, we imagine, straight face that any resemblance between anyone one or anything in this novel is strictly coincidental.

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