‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’ by Herman Koch – Boorish

‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’ by Herman Koch   (2011) – 387 pages   Translated by Sam Garrett

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Pity us poor readers of ‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’.  First we are subjected to a disgusting discourse on the naked human body by the most cynical general practitioner doctor ever, our novel’s narrator.  We are continually subjected to the doctor’s self-serving wildly over-simplified biological theories about sex and preserving the human race.

 “A woman who is past her sell-by date is no longer desirable to us, because there is no reason for her to be.  She does nothing to promote the continuation of the species.”

 To be fair, this is not the doctor speaking. He is quoting his professor whom he quotes extensively.

Now we will let the doctor speak for himself.

 “I fought back the urge to grab her right then and there and toss her onto the sand without further ado.  To take the initiative.  A half rape – women always like that.  All women.”

 To call our doctor narrator crass would be an understatement.

Our doctor is a male himself acting out in the most sexist lascivious ways, tempered only by his concern for his 11 and 13 year old daughters.  So when his actor friend who is in his forties decides to parade around the swimming pool area completely naked, the father wonders what effect this might have on his daughters.

 “I wondered whether perhaps I was, indeed, narrow-minded. Whether it was my own fault that the sight of Ralph Meier’s naked dick so close to my young daughters seemed so filthy.   I couldn’t quite decide – and as long as I hadn’t decided, I continued to consider it filthy.”

Be forewarned – this is one crude novel.   Whereas the dinner in ‘The Dinner’ had a certain amount of charm amongst all the nastiness, there is nothing that could pass for charm in ‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’.  This new novel basks in its boorishness.

‘The Dinner’ was a huge best seller.  I doubt ‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’ will be as big, given its utter misogyny.  So wherein does the appeal lie for these nasty novels?  First the narrators of both of these novels are ‘unreliable’.  That is, they are fooling themselves.  Since they are fools stating crackpot biological theories, they are humorous.  The doctor here reminded me of Peter Griffin on Family Guy, not that Family Guy is all that funny.

The second appeal of these novels is that he makes us feel outrage and repulsion.  Feeling even these negative emotions is better than feeling nothing.

 

 

‘Euphoria’ by Lily King – A Love Triangle in the Wilds of New Guinea

‘Euphoria’ by Lily King   (2014) – 257 pages

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‘Euphoria’ is an exciting mix of the romantic, the erotic and the intellectual, a novel not to be missed.   The novel is inspired by the field work of Margaret Mead on the island of New Guinea in the early 1930s.  It is the fictionalized story of the real-life love triangle between Margaret Mead, her husband Reo Fortune, and fellow anthropologist Gregory Bateson.  It takes place in the remote region along the Sepik River where the tribes had never encountered western civilization before.  The anthropologists are there to study the social, family, and mating habits of the tribal people.

margaret_mead This adventure story just comes alive in Lily King’s hands.  If you have ever wondered what it must have been like for Margaret Mead and her associates to travel to these remote villages and to stay there and become friends and study the people in these tribes, this is the novel for you.

The love triangle starts as these things usually do with the wife Nell (the Margaret Mead stand-in) comparing her husband unfavorably to the other man.  Her husband Fen is highly talented in some areas, but he is just too sure of himself and too impulsive. He blunders into actions which might upset the natives. He also envies his wife’s early success and is abusive, a bully. The other man Bankson is more thoughtful and questions everything he does to make sure he doesn’t unfavorably influence the study of the tribe.  Basically Bankson is more subtle and intelligent, a better anthropologist, than her husband.  Also there is a chemistry between Nell and Bankson.

 “ You know you love someone when you cannot put into words how they make you feel.”  – Margaret Mead

 What makes this type of story so fascinating is that they are there to study tribal behavior, and at the same time their own behavior is just as much a subject of interest.  The sure-handed writing of Lily King makes observing this love triangle just as interesting and exciting as the field work these anthropologists are doing.  She puts us on the scene from the very first page, and we fly through this story without a moment’s hesitation.  This is one of the best novels I’ve read this year.  We feel passionately for the characters’ ideas as well as their personal lives.   It is refreshing to read a novel about characters who are smarter than you are.

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead

When the three anthropologists invent ‘The Grid’ of various human traits which describe differing societies, we are there.  Lily King  handles both the intellectual story and the emotional story capably.

‘Euphoria’ has been optioned to be made into a movie to be directed by Michael Apted, director of ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’, ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, and the TV series ‘Masters of Sex’.

 

‘Mr. Mercedes’ by Stephen King is Not a Literary Novel

‘Mr. Mercedes’ by Stephen King   (2014) – 449 pages

 

Mrmercedes-200x303‘Mr. Mercedes’ will be a best seller selling millions of copies.  A hugely popular movie will be made based on ‘Mr. Mercedes’, if they can find a young actor willing to risk his career playing an evil loser.  But ‘Mr. Mercedes’ is not very original, surprising, or deep. Haven’t I read this story before, even though I haven’t?

A couple of weeks ago I read a review of ‘Mr. Mercedes’ which said that maybe today our two finest novelists might now be Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King.  I’ve had my problems with Joyce Carol Oates over the years, but I do consider her a major literary figure.  But Stephen King, Mr. Best Seller?  I’ve never considered the possibility that King might be a major novelist and have not read any of his novels or stories. On the chance that I may have missed something, I decided that I would read ‘Mr. Mercedes’.

In this novel Stephen King has written a detective thriller which tackles demented acts of violence.  Like so much of what happens today, the acts are done for no other reason beyond the severe personal problems of the perpetrator. Oh, yes, ‘Mr. Mercedes’ is a rouser, a roller coaster, just what you would expect a best seller and future movie thriller would be.  We have Bill Hodges, our old recently retired detective who is at loose ends since he left the force.  Only when one of the few criminals he didn’t catch, Mr. Mercedes, contacts him does our old detective perk up.  His only pal is Jerome Robinson, a black computer-savvy teenager in the neighborhood who mows his lawn and whom Hodges recruits to help capture Mr. Mercedes.  Later Hodges meets a younger woman who of course is all too eager to go to bed with him.

A rush of older actor leading men will be trying out for the role of Bill Hodges in the movie as well as young black actors trying out for the role of Jerome Robinson.

Our villain is a dastardly villain indeed.  Mr. Mercedes is young computer geek Brady Hartsfield who lives with his mother.  Besides working for an electronics shop fixing computers, he drives an ice cream truck.  He is portrayed as sick, twisted, and evil enough so that no one would want to emulate him. In true thriller fashion, the novel alternates between sections with our hero detective and sections with our creepy villain Mr. Mercedes.

A lot of the novel consists of trying to figure out people’s computer passwords in tense situations.

‘Mr. Mercedes’ is not any kind of literary work.  The characters are all clichés, and the thrills are all stereotypical.  There is no depth here, nothing really involving or challenging.  It is a thrill ride, nothing else.  It would be a shame if Stephen King were actually one of our finest writers.   Fortunately there are quite a number of United States fiction writers with more originality and depth than King, and at the world level there are dozens. ‘Mr. Mercedes’ is like the new Batman or Spiderman movie. For a few days it captures all the hype and the excitement, but after it leaves town no one really cares.

An encyclopedic recall of product names and show names does not a literary writer make.  A clever mimic of another writer’s style does not literature make.  A deadpan pastiche of a hard-boiled detective procedural is hardly literature.  Enjoy the movie.

 

‘The Death of the Heart’ by Elizabeth Bowen

‘The Death of the Heart’ by Elizabeth Bowen   (1938) – 418 pages

 

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I am happy I listened to ‘The Death of the Heart’ on audio because the dramatic and comedic qualities of the dialogue are clearly apparent that way.  Each of the characters comes vividly alive as they interact with each other.   It is the talk which makes ‘The Death of the Heart’ an exceptional novel.

This is a coming-of-age story that takes place in the England of the 1930s between the wars.  It centers on sixteen year old Portia Quayne, recently orphaned.

First there is the entertaining back story of Portia’s upper class father Mr. Quayne who in his late fifties has a dalliance with young woman Irene – ‘Irene, you know, was not what anyone would want at all’ – and gets her pregnant.  Mr. Quayne’s wife forces him to do the right thing in divorcing her, leaving his settled life much to his chagrin, and marrying Irene.  Portia is the outcome of this affair.  Mr. Quayne dies when Portia is only four years old, and Irene and Portia move from hotel to hotel for the next twelve years at which time Irene dies.  Then Portia has nowhere to go so her much older half brother Thomas and his wife Anna agree to take her in for a year.

During that year Portia meets ‘the astonishing cad’ Eddie, a 23 year old friend of Anna’s, and falls hopelessly in love.

Here we are in the home of Thomas and Anna, an upper class mansion with three maids.  Anna feels stuck with Portia, doesn’t really want her in the house.  Thomas just wants to withdraw from any emotional scene.  There is cruelty just under the surface of the polite genteel conversation.

For those minutes of silence, Thomas fixed on her (Anna) his considering eyes.  Then he got up, took her by one elbow and angrily kissed her.  “I’m never with you,” he said. 

“Well look how we live.”

“The way we live is hopeless.”

Anna said, much more kindly: “Darling don’t be neurotic.  I have had such a day.”

He left her and looked round for his glass again.   

 Can we speak of the comic energy of a novel with the melodramatic name of ‘The Death of the Heart’?  Each of the characters except Eddie is portrayed in a somewhat positive light, but that doesn’t stop Elizabeth Bowen from exposing each one’s flaws in the full light of day.   Mainly through the back-and-forth of sharp dialogue, Bowen nails each one of these people.  You laugh at them even as you loathe them.

This is a story of the betrayal of an innocent girl in a mad scene in a movie theatre while on holiday.  It is also the betrayal of an adult reading her secret diary.  The betrayals seem rather tame compared to the betrayals possible in modern-day romances, but they are devastating betrayals for Portia nonetheless.

As in so many of the great novels, there is an energy in the writing, both tragic and comic, that sets this apart from lesser works.

 

‘Wonderland’ by Stacey D’Erasmo – The Comeback Tour

‘Wonderland’ by Stacey D’Erasmo   (2014) – 242 pages

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‘Wonderland’ is the perhaps too authentic story of the comeback tour of 44-year-old indie rock artist Anna Brundage.  Her first album ‘Whale’ was a monster hit, her next two not so much.  She dropped out of the music business for seven years, and now she’s back touring Europe with a new band.

The rock performance life is all here.  The shows where the band is hot, the bad scenes, the casual hookups, the drinking, the all-pervasive drugs.  For most of us the Sixties and Seventies have long been over, but these musicians and their entourages are still living the life.

This is the first novel by Stacey D’Erasmo that I’ve read.  I think she was faced with two ways she could have portrayed the rock life. One way would have been to portray these musicians as sincere serious artists who are attempting to create and perform valuable work that will last.  That would be the Rolling Stone magazine approach, that rock musicians are real artists.  The other way is that D’Erasmo could have presented the rock-and-roll life as an outrageous scam with everyone in it for the drugs and the adulation and the casual sex and the money.

It would have been much easier for D’Erasmo to take the ‘serious artist’ approach, but she took the more complicated route where the musicians, including the main character, are somewhere between artists and shams.

My problem with ‘Wonderland’ is that I did not like any of the characters in this novel.  I had an active dislike for most of them that never went away.  Throughout the novel we see Anna Brundage hooking up with one loser nonentity after another, all of them on a rather casual basis.  Her father is a world-famous artist all because he sawed a train car in half.  This kind of stunt was big in the art world at one time, but it is difficult to see it as anything but a scam.  So this father, though famous and loved by Anna, was an obvious fake and a phony.  He also is a cliché, and he pretty much undermined any appreciation I had for ‘Wonderland’.

And the other characters aren’t better.    The dialogue in ‘Wonderland’ is terrible, mainly because they talk like musicians talk in real life.  ‘The vibe was kind of weird.’  ‘I’m being such an asshole.  Let’s rock this thing.’  Verisimilitude is not always a good thing in a novel.

There have been novels where all the main characters are unlikeable, yet the élan and the spirit of the writer wins us over.  I felt that in ‘Wonderland’ D’Erasmo didn’t realize how detestable her characters really were, and she expected us to like them anyhow.

On the cover of ‘Wonderland’ there is the following quote from Michael Stipe of the band REM: “The world of Wonderland is authentic, vibrant, and genuine.  D’Erasmo explores the delight and terror of second chances.  A great read.”  Michael Stipe is a rock hero of mine, but we kind of disagree on this novel.

 

‘With A Zero at its Heart’ by Charles Lambert – A New Way to Tell Your Life Story

‘With A Zero at its Heart’ by Charles Lambert   (2014) – 147 pages

 

GetImage (1)In ‘With a Zero at its Heart’, Charles Lambert has come up with a powerful new way for each of us to describe his or her life.  There are rules to the method; let me explain the rules.

First he chose twenty four different aspects or subjects from which to view his life including ‘Clothes’,  ‘Money’, ‘Work’, ‘Home’, ‘Sex’, and ‘Language’.  For each category, he posts exactly ten items that have meaning for him.  Sometimes these are early memories from childhood.  For example for ‘Clothes’ he tells how as a young teenager he wanted for Christmas a velvet frock coat just like the ones worn by the music group the Kinks.  Instead his parents bought him a dark green corduroy double-breasted jacket “which he hangs in the wardrobe that evening and will never wear again.”  In ‘Animals’, he remembers the three white mice in a plywood box he was given as a child and their tragic end.

We all have these very early memories, memories that sometimes go back from even before we started school.  My very first memory was when my mother took a picture of a few kids including me when I was four years old sitting by some of her tulips which had just come into full bloom that spring.  I vividly recall those bright flowers, or is it the photograph that I remember?

My mother told me that even when I was three or four I memorized the song names that were on each of their records and could recognize the record associated with each song, so would yell out, “Play this one, ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window’, again!”  I don’t recall this at all.

In Charles Lambert’s book, an item can deal with any part of his life, young or old.  Each item must be about 100 words long.  Why this limit of 100 words?  The limit has several beneficial effects.  First this rigor keeps the writer from getting too long-winded on certain subjects which is always a danger in autobiography.  Second each item at 100 words has equal weight so that no single item is given a disproportionate weight.  That becomes important because of the next unstated rule.

The unstated rule is that one must be honest.   One item in ‘Sex’ shows Lambert’s early disinterest in girls.  An item in ‘Danger’ tells about his wild sex “with men whose names he doesn’t know and doesn’t ask.”  For each of us, our items would surely be of a different nature, but all the items together would hopefully achieve an accurate picture of our life.

I found this a brilliant method of autobiography, a rigorous honest approach to conveying a life, the bad stuff as well as the good stuff.  It approaches what we do in our own minds when we look all the way back to our earliest memories up to our current situation.  Each of our life stories would be different, perhaps not unique, but with tremendous variety.

The best method for understanding the items is to read each item – a paragraph – twice, first to get the main idea and second to fully appreciate it.

In the afterward to ‘The Zero at its Heart’, Charles Lambert thanks his publisher for taking an enormous risk in publishing this book.  No risk, no gain.

 

‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones – A Great Novel from Early in This Century

‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones (2003) –  388 pages

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Of all the novels that were published in the early 2000s, the one I have most regretted not having read was ‘The Known World’.  I have read both of his two spectacular collections of stories, ‘Lost in the City’ and ‘Aunt Hagar’s Children’, so I knew how profound and moving a writer Jones is.  ‘The Known World’ won both the Pulitzer Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, so it was way past time that I read this novel.

‘The Known World’ recreates the rural world that included slavery in the state of Virginia in the 1850s.  Slaves – humans – were the property of slave owners and were bought and sold.  In Virginia a few of the slave owners were black, and that is a situation that is dealt with in this novel.  By this time Great Britain had already outlawed slavery throughout the entire British Empire.  The nearby state of Pennsylvania passed a law in 1780 that gradually abolished slavery so that by 1860 there were no slaves in the state.  The American South was one of the few last places in the world that still allowed slavery.  The Civil War was still a few years away.

There were the slave owners, the slaves, and those people who neither owned slaves nor were slaves.  Up to three quarters of the white people did not own slaves.  As opposed to the slaves who had a specific property value, these white people had no recognizable value to the slave owners.

The slaves were either field slaves or house slaves.  The house slaves sometimes grew quite close to the owner and the owner’s family due to proximity.

Since the slaves had a property value to the owners, most owners would take care of their property.  There were some vicious owners who did not and would usually wind up with their farms foreclosed.  This only caused more devastation for the slaves as they would be auctioned off, their families split up.

Slaves who attempted to run away and were caught were often hobbled by having their Achilles tendon cut.  Then they could never run away again and would walk with a hobble for the rest of their lives.

By focusing on a black slave owner, Edward P. Jones avoids turning this re-creation of the days of slavery into a morality play of good and evil.   There is no one preaching in this novel.  The matter-of-fact tone of this narrative only intensifies the reader’s reaction to the events in the story.

edward jonesJones’ strong story-telling skills are on full display here.  We care what happens to all of these characters.

I’m happy that I went back and caught one of the big novels from the early part of this century.  Now that I’m caught up with the work of Edward P. Jones, all I can do is wait for his next novel or collection of stories.

 

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