Thursday, July 26, 2012

Menage, by Alix Kates Shulman

Mack, a real estate developer who has managed to profit from the collapse of the housing market, is attending the L.A. funeral of a woman he had been wooing when he meets Zoltan Barbu, an exile from an unnamed Eastern European country. Zoltan, the dead woman's long-time lover (their breakup may have prompted her suicide), was once a rising literary star--Susan Sontag wrote a blurb for his most highly regarded satiric work--who hasn't published anything in years. Instantly intrigued by the down-on-his-luck but worldly writer, Mack quickly invites Zoltan to live with his family in their eco-friendly New Jersey mansion. Mack knows his wife Heather, a part-time journalist with aspirations to write fiction, will find in Zoltan the intellectual companionship Mack cannot give her, especially when he is jetting around the country putting together deals and hitting on women. At the same time, Zoltan's presence in their home will provide Mack with the social/cultural cachet not usually granted real estate moguls. Indeed, Zoltan promises to teach Mack and Heather "how to live" in exchange for room and board.

Zoltan accepts Mack's invitation and, at first, the three spend long nights in soulful conversation. But it is not long before the relationship between Heather and Zoltan goes badly awry.  In Shulman's hands, the three characters, the New York publishing scene, and the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy "environmentally conscious" all take a satiric beating, revealed as self-centered jerks with no insight into themselves or others. 

Remembering Shulman for her early feminist writings, including the novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, I was surprised that Heather was depicted as being as despicable as her husband and would-be lover. Judging by this book, Shulman has become more of a misanthrope than a feminist (an evolution I unfortunately understand). As a reader with little connection to the social and economic worlds that Mack, Heather, and Zoltan populate, I found the satire more tedious than funny or illuminating. 

Favorite passage:
For her, reading was more than a pastime, like watching a movie; it was an elevating, intimate act. She read slowly, carefully, pencil in hand, marking the margins in a private code, lingering over certain passages, copying into a special notebook those words or phrases that touched her or that she thought she might like to use in her own writing, occasionally posting over her desk brief passages that spoke directly to her. Such physical acts of communion made the authors' words seem almost her own.

 (Okay, this is funny and a good poke at all of us readers who "claim" the words of the authors we read.)

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