‘Who is Rich?’ by Matthew Klam – A Tiresome Long Weekend in New England

 

‘Who is Rich?’ by Matthew Klam   (2017) – 321 pages

 

‘Who is Rich?’ is fun for the first twenty pages or so when our narrator is snide and cynical describing the students and the other instructors at the New England summer arts conference where he is an instructor in cartooning.  He easily demolishes all the pretensions and excesses and inadequacies of all these would-be prospective artists and writers and their instructors who are there to make a little extra money and have some hot fun in the sun away from their families.  Having attended a few of these arts workshops myself, I can assure you that all of us naïve but gullible participants are easy targets for derision.

The instructors are also ripe for over-the-top disparagement:

“In the big hall of the main building I heard Tabitha give the same speech she gave last year, about her spiritual journey beyond incest, into alcoholism, then past that, into group sex and casino gambling, ending in healing and forgiveness.” 

However after this sneering fun, the narrator begins to talk about himself.  Then this instructor/narrator in ‘Who is Rich?’ of a sudden gets all sincere.  He talks about his early success with a graphic novel only later to have to settle for a career as a magazine illustrator.  He talks about his exhausted wife who is at home taking care of their two little kids and also about his rich mistress who is at the conference. His voice and attitude change from cynical and snide to earnest and heartfelt. Our guy is self-absorbed and whiny and unhappy. That is when he gets real tiresome.  Unfortunately he goes on in this fashion for almost 300 pages.  This novel would have been much more fun if the narrator had applied to himself the same derisive cynicism he applies to all the other conference goers and instructors.

So for ‘Who is Rich?’, the first twenty pages sparkle and the last 300 pages drag.  This is one of those novels where I got sucked in by a strong beginning only to spend the rest of the novel debating whether I should just quit reading it.

The problem with self-absorbed narrators is that they focus on themselves at the expense of everyone else.  Thus the characterization of his wife does not go much beyond “frazzled”.  His kids are an adorable nuisance. His girlfriend at the conference is “hot and rich”. This is the second year of his affair with her, that difficult stage when his mistress begins to seem just as annoying as his wife.

‘Who is Rich?’ is the kind of novel that when the narrator contemplates suicide, the reader wishes he would just go ahead and do it and cut a hundred or so pages off the reading.

 

Grade :   D

 

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‘A General Theory of Oblivion’ by Jose Eduardo Agualusa – Life Goes On in Angola during their Civil War

 

‘A General Theory of Oblivion’ by Jose Eduardo Agualusa   (2013)  –  247 pages       Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

The southern African country of Angola had just achieved independence from Portugal when it descended into a protracted civil war that lasted from 1976 to 2002. Angola was a pawn in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.  However the Angolan Civil War was a real war that raged on and off for 27 years leaving 500,000 people killed.

“This wasn’t what we made our independence for.  Not for Angolans to kill each other like rabid dogs.”

‘A General Theory of Oblivion’ consists of 37 short chapters or vignettes that tell quirky stories related to Angola at that time.  Since there is a lot of white space between the many chapters, this is a quick read.

Many of the chapters center around a lady called Ludovica Fernandez Mano or ‘Ludo’ for short.   She was born in Portugal but is staying with her sister and brother-in-law in Luanda, Angola when this story opens.   One day the married couple does not return home, and Ludo is left in the apartment by herself.  Early on an intruder tries to break in, and Ludo shoots and kills him.  After that, Ludo bricks herself in.  She stays there for 27 years.

Stuck in that house, Ludo is alone and isolated.  However the reader does not really feel her claustrophobia, because the author scatters the story and includes pieces which are unrelated to Ludo but are about some other aspect of Angola during this time.   ‘A General Theory of Oblivion’ probably would have been more effective as a novel if it were strictly about Ludo and her confined plight, but that may not have been the author’s purpose in writing this work.

Instead Agualusa opens things up. He writes discursive sketches of some of the strange things that are going on in Angola.  Some of the chapters are about the native tribes of Angola such as the Kuvale who are prosperous in their number of oxen but still suffer food poverty.

“They are unable to trade their oxen for corn.  This apparent paradox – so many oxen yet so much hunger –is yet another way in which they are unusual.  But isn’t that true of Angola too? So much oil…?”

The above lines from Ray Duarte de Carvallo are quoted in the novel.

It seemed to me that Agualusa had a wider purpose in telling different facets of the story of Angola during this time rather than just focusing on this one woman Ludo.  That wider purpose may have been a detriment to the fiction but probably served the truths of Angola more effectively.

 

Grade :   B

 

‘Two Serious Ladies’ by Jane Bowles – Two Outrageous Ladies

 

‘Two Serious Ladies’ by Jane Bowles  (1943) – 221 pages

Having read a ton of literary fiction, I look out for the distinctive and the unusual, fiction that no one else besides that author could possibly have written. However I fear I may have met my match in oddness and strangeness with ‘Two Serious Ladies’.

The two main characters here often act in ways that are incomprehensible to me, and they offer no justifications for their actions.  Originally this opaqueness of behavior was offputting to me but ultimately these ladies’ waywardness becomes part of the curious beauty of the story.  In ‘Two Serious Ladies’, these two women do these unexpected offbeat things all the time.  However the scenes in this novel stay etched in my mind, and I expect they will stay there a long time.

The first lady is Christina Goering.

“As a child Christina had been very much disliked by other children. “

 “As a grown woman Miss Goering was no better liked than she had been as a child.” 

Who says a main character must be likeable?  Christina has a way of hooking up with not very nice men she meets in dive bars.  Several times she goes to strange men’s houses in order to prove something (I don’t know what) to herself.  She doesn’t like any of these guys, but she has a “sickening compulsion” to go to their house and even stay there for days.  The last guy is a particularly rough sort and there is some menace for the reader fearing what he might do to her.  It is like she is on some degenerate spiritual quest.

“In order to work out my own little idea of salvation I really believe that it is necessary for me to live in some more tawdry place.”

Christina incidentally meets the other serious lady, Mrs. Frieda Copperfield, at a house party.  That is nearly the only interaction between the two women.  Otherwise their stories are totally separate.

The 33-year-old Mrs. Copperfield goes traveling in the Central American country of Panama with her businessman husband.  He finds a respectable dull hotel for them to stay in.  However as they are walking around the shady “red light” side of town, they come upon a sleazy place called the Hotel de Las Palmas, and Mrs. Copperfield is immediately captivated. The hotel is run as a place where prostitutes can rent rooms to bring their clients. Mrs. Copperfield becomes enchanted by one of the prostitutes, Pacifica, and also by the owner or Madam of the hotel, Mrs. Quill.  She decides to stay there on her own in one of the rooms near Pacifica.  Guys have these kinds of risqué adventures all the time.  Why not women?

I guess this novel is autobiographical but in a thoroughly outlandish way.

“There is nothing original about me except a little original sin.” – Jane Bowles

Jane Bowles was married to the more famous novelist Paul Bowles whose most acclaimed novel ‘The Sheltering Sky’ I have also read. Paul chose mostly men for his sex partners; Jane chose mainly women as her sexual partners.

“Men are all on the outside, not interesting. They have no mystery. Women are profound and mysterious—and obscene.”  – Jane Bowles

Paul and Jane were devoted to each other.  They threw rowdy parties to which they invited many of the literary stars of the time including Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal.  Jane was the wild charming “life of the party” type, and she drank heavily.  That may explain why she wrote only this one novel at the age of 24, though she did write a play and some short stories later.  She viewed writer Carson McCullers as her main female fiction writing competition.  At age 40 Jane had a massive stroke, leaving her totally dependent on Paul, and she died at the age of 56 in 1973.

I have decided that I will not give a grade to ‘Two Serious Ladies’.  This is the first time that has happened since I started grading.  I just cannot make up my mind whether it is a work of genius or just outlandish, ridiculous, and baffling.  I will let you make up your own minds.

 

Grade :   ???

 

‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors – An Amusing Drive through Copenhagen

 

‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors  (2016) – 188 pages   Translated from the Danish  by Misha Hoekstra

Don’t expect any thrilling or suspenseful plot in ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’, because there isn’t any.  The novel is pleasantly inconsequential, and that is a good thing.

It is mostly the viewpoints and reminiscences of a single Danish woman in her forties named Sonya as she goes about her daily life. She had a boyfriend who left for “a twenty-something girl who still wore French braids”, so she lives alone now and that is just fine with her.  Nothing spectacular or even very noteworthy takes place in this story. It is her deadpan way of looking at things that makes the scenes humorous. This is a novel that goes its way on its attitude.

Sonya is learning to drive a car (thus the name of the novel), and her driving instructor is a forceful woman named Jytte who tends to often get hysterical and does not trust Sonya to switch gears.  Jytte does all the gear switching with her remote device, and Sonya never will learn to switch gears from Jytte. So Sonya asks to change driving instructors behind Jytte’s back, and is assigned a man named Folke.  The only problem with Folke is that she fears this married man has wandering hands.

I just want to learn how to drive, okay? I don’t want to have my hand held, I don’t want to be massaged, hugged, or interrogated, to be hit on or coochie-cooed.  I want to learn how to drive that car so I can drive over there.”

‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ contains many hilarious scenes of Sonya interacting with the people around her.

Sonya translates the crime novels of Swedish crime writer Gösta Svensson for her living, and she jokes about all his gory victims.

 “These days what she knows most about is how to cast bodies in ditches, the deep woods, lime pits, landfills.  Mutilated women and children lying and rotting everywhere on Scandinavian public land.”

 Although Sonya now lives in the metropolis of Copenhagen, she often remembers her childhood in Jutland on the farm.  She has frequent flashbacks to her rural childhood, her farm family and the whooper swans and the large herds of deer.  She writes a too-honest letter which she never does send to her sister Kate who still lives there.

‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ is light and amiable and amusing, a pleasant interlude from all the more vexing problems of today.

 

Grade:    B+ 

 

‘One of the Boys’ by Daniel Magariel – The Father from Hell

 

‘One of the Boys’ by Daniel Magariel   (2017) – 165 pages

‘One of the Boys’ is an ultra-realistic fictional account of a monstrous family situation told from the younger twelve year-old son’s point of view.

A married couple from Kansas is divorcing, and there is the question of who gets custody of the two boys.  The mother had hit the younger boy, and the father has this idea to make the damage to the boy’s face look a lot worse than it actually was, so he would get custody.  The younger son goes along with the father’s scheme. They “enhance” the marks on the boy’s face and take some pictures so it looks like the mother has really beat up on the younger son.  Child Protective Services rules in favor of the father, and soon he and his two boys are off to Albuquerque, New Mexico where they stay in a singles apartment complex.  The father is quite well off working as an independent contractor doing accounting jobs for small businesses.

However soon after they move into the apartment, the father locks himself in his bedroom, and the boys know he’s doing drugs in there.  Sometimes the father just stays in the bedroom for a week at a time, and the boys must fend for themselves.  Occasionally the father sends the boys out to do business with his drug dealers.

When the father does come out of his bedroom, he is subject to sudden violent mood swings.  Sometimes he feels guilty and vows he will be a better father, but other times he goes into a rage. At one point he threatens his older son with a knife, and from then on the two boys plot ways to escape from their abusive situation.  They make arrangements with their mother to go back to her, but that falls through when she decides to “reconcile” with their father.

This terrible family situation is taking place in Middle America, in Kansas, among the fairly well-to-do.  The novel is a case study in how drugs can tear a family apart.  However family dysfunction is not the only hazard these boys confront living in the singles complex.  In one scene the younger son wanders into an ‘adult’ party involving a man and two women out by the swimming pool.

‘One of the Boys’ paints a vivid first-hand picture of these boys’ desperate lives.  The boys undergo a harrowing plight, and there is no redemption.  I would have perhaps preferred to have an epilogue from this boy as an adult telling us what happened later and giving us readers some perspective on their appalling predicament.

 

Grade :    B+

 

‘Red Cavalry’ by Isaac Babel – The Insanity of War

 

‘Red Cavalry’ by Isaac Babel   (1926) – 204 pages       Translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk

War is terrible. It is a long-standing fact of human life.  On frequent occasions humans go to war and murder and maim each other in large numbers. Now that there are weapons than can murder millions of people in one stroke, there have been efforts to prevent wars from happening.  However can anyone or anything change human nature which has been deeply embedded in society for thousands of years?  There is always the chance that some mad man will rise to power anywhere in the world.  Even without a deranged man in power, the chances for a war to develop are quite high.

‘Red Cavalry’, a collection of short stories, paints a vivid picture of the madness of war.  War gives individuals an opportunity to go insane. During the Russo-Polish War of 1920, a war I had never heard of before, journalist Isaac Babel was assigned to a Cossack unit on the Russian side.  He was an early embedded war reporter.  After this war ended, Babel wrote a non-fiction book about his war experiences which he later rewrote into fictional stories for ‘Red Cavalry’ in 1926.

When he is assigned to his unit, Babel is a subject of derision by the Cossack cavalry soldiers.  He wears thick glasses; they call him ‘four eyes’.  He is more an educated journalist than a soldier.

“I was alone among these people, whose friendship I had failed to win.”     

Worst of all to the Cossack soldiers, he is a Jew.  Both the Cossacks as well as their foes, the Poles, detest the Jews and treat them horribly. In one of the stories, Babel predicts the Holocaust about twenty years before it actually occurred.

The peasant made me light his cigarette from his.

“Jew’s guilty in everyone’s eyes,” he said, “yourn and ourn. There’ll be mighty few of them left after the war.  How many Jews are there in the world anyway?”

“Ten million,” I answered and began to bridle my horse.

“There’ll be two hundred thousand left,” the peasant cried out and touched my hand, afraid that I would leave.

But I climbed into the saddle and galloped off toward the staff. 

One thing that most war correspondents miss that Babel gets is the glee of soldiers when they wound, kill, or defeat the enemy soldiers.  The killing of an enemy soldier is a joyous occasion for a soldier.

In the story “Afonka Bida”, Babel captures the anguish of a Cossack cavalry soldier when his horse is shot out from under him.  The soldier expresses more grief for his dying horse than he would ever have for a dying fellow soldier.

These early days after the Russian Revolution were a time of optimism for many of the Russian people including Isaac Babel.  In many towns and villages the peasants rose up against local tyrants who had been oppressing them for decades.  However this optimism did not last long because in less than ten years the Soviet Union installed an even worse tyrant, Joseph Stalin, to rule the entire country.  Stalin and his lieutenants wound up murdering Isaac Babel in 1940 on trumped up charges.

Even though the stories are fiction, they are more like powerful journalistic vignettes rather than well-crafted stories. The stories are crude and raucous with too many characters who are underdeveloped in these very short stories.  The transformation from journalism to fiction seems incomplete to me.  I found these stories difficult to digest.   Between Isaac Babel and Anton Chekhov there is no comparison; Chekhov is much the better story writer.  However Babel does capture the intense feel of a battle and the scenes he has created are crucial.

 

Grade :   B

 

‘Based on a True Story’ by Delphine de Vigan – The Mysterious Lady L.

 

‘Based on a True Story’ by Delphine de Vigan   (2017) – 374 pages      Translated from the French by George Miller

In ‘Based on a True Story’, Delphine de Vigan deals with the notions of reality versus fiction.  It is brilliant, a novel for our time.  Should a writer write only memoirs about their own personal real experiences? Take these words from the mysterious woman L. who invades Delphine’s territory:

“People have had enough of well-constructed intrigue, clever plot hooks, and denouements… Take it from me, readers expect something different from literature and they’re right: they expect the Real, the authentic.  They want to be told about life, don’t you see? Literature mustn’t mistake its territory.” 

Actually ‘Based on a True Story’ is a horror story with an atmosphere of menace with a malevolent undercurrent.  The mysterious woman L. takes over Delphine’s life after Delphine has published her first successful novel.  L. makes impassioned pleas to Delphine to write a memoir instead of fiction, that nowadays people only want what’s real.  These pleas only leave Delphine with a severe case of writer’s block.  L. even takes over Delphine’s personal computer sending out an email to all of Delphine’s friends begging them not to contact or bother Delphine because she is busy writing.  She even signs Delphine’s name to the email.  This email leaves Delphine virtually isolated and unable to write.  There are certain traits of the obsessed fan in ‘Based on a True Story’ that remind me of Stephen King’s ‘Misery’.

Delphine does fight back:

“Listen carefully.  I’m going to tell you something: I have never written to please anyone and I have no intention of starting now…Because deep down writing is much more intimate and much more commanding than that.”

My best guess as to who is this mysterious woman L. is that she is a double, a doppelgänger, of Delphine.

‘Based on a True Story’ is exceptional because De Vigan has created a fiction, a clever haunting story, with herself as the main character.  Director Roman Polanski has made a movie from ‘Based on a True Story’ which also won the 2015 Prix Goncourt.

I have thought a lot about the Reality versus Fiction debate and have come out strongly on the side of Fiction (no surprise there).  I rarely read memoirs, finding them usually self-serving as is especially true of political memoirs.  Nothing on television seems so fake to me as reality TV shows. My view is that fiction gives writers the necessary distance to tell the larger truths about themselves and their characters.  I read fiction not for escape but to better understand the world and the people in it.

 

Grade:   A  

 

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