Friday, February 22, 2013

Everyman, by Philip Roth

Everyman opens at the funeral of the unnamed protagonist; as the brother and children of the departed speak, we gain a basic framework of his life--born in 1933, the second son of a jeweler and his devoted wife, worked in an ad agency but harbored a desire to paint, married and divorced three times, the father of three.

After this somewhat clunky introduction, we enter the mind of the "everyman" in his last years, as he reflects on his life. He  recalls every medical crisis from his hernia repair as a child to a burst appendix misdiagnosed as "envy" to the recent spate of surgeries to keep his cardiovascular system working. Ironically, the recent frequent hospitalizations have led to envy of his brother Howie, whose robust good health the everyman resents so profoundly that he has stopped talking to Howie (who was in every apparent way an exemplary brother).

His alienation from Howie is hardly unique, as his daughter Nancy is the only real relationship in his life. The everyman (or everyroth as one reviewer dubbed the protagonist) also reflects on his sexual history, right up to his attempt to pick up a twenty-something jogger not long before his death; while he claims to be a "good boy," his sexual history suggests otherwise. His declining health and lack of human relationships contribute to increasing loneliness, a loss of interest in the activity he thought would sustain his retirement--painting, and a sense of deep humiliation about the indignities of growing old. When he considers options for moving from his Jersey Shore senior community to NYC or California to be near family, the lives of those family members make such a move impossible, stranding him in his isolation.

I do not consider myself a prude, but I have always found Roth's depiction of sex off-putting (the liver scene is all I remember of Portnoy's Complaint), and my squeamishness holds in Everyman. That is a minor complaint, however, as Roth's meditation on the cruelty of aging resonates deeply; everyman strikes the reader as a profoundly selfish man, but perhaps that is how we all end our lives.

Favorite passages
Nothing any longer kindled his curiosity or answered his needs, not his painting, not his family, not his neighbors, nothing except the young women who jogged by him on the boardwalk in the morning. My God, he thought, the man I once was! The life that surrounded me! The force that was mine! No "otherness" to be felt anywhere! Once upon a time I was a full human being.

Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris

The Unnamed has an interesting premise that draws the reader (or, in my case, the listener) into the early sections of the book. Tim Farnsworth is a successful attorney in New York City but, as the book opens, he is experiencing the second episode of a strange disorder that numerous medical specialists have been unable to diagnose:  he cannot stop himself from walking. He sets out and walks for miles, then collapses wherever he is--in a field, on a park bench, on the pavement behind a convenience store--to sleep. When he awakens, he calls his wife Jane and she comes to pick him up. The strain on their marriage is, understandably, severe, and the stress on their teenage daughter Becka is also considerable. They resort to physical confinement to stop the walking, but it does not stop the condition's negative effects--Tim loses his partnership at the law firm and Jane becomes an alcoholic.

When Tim goes into remission, they resume their lives, but in a changed way. Tim has a much reduced position at the law firm, Jane goes to rehab, they move out of their large suburban home into a apartment in the city, and they have sex in public places. Things go relatively well for several years, until Tim relapses again. This time, Jane declines to go out and pick him up after his first walk, and Tim does not return home. He suffers a psychotic break--some of the text in this section features stream-of-consciousness arguments between Tim's brain and "the other" (presumably his body). He ends up in a mental hospital and, when released, keeps walking (he will never enter remission again). Jane and Becka are essentially absent from this part of the book until Jane becomes ill with cancer, and Tim tries to walk his way back to her from the other side of the country; this is the first time he's tried to direct his walking in any way, and the process is grueling. He ends up in the hospital only a few miles from where Jane is being treated, but he eventually is released and reconnects with Jane. I'll leave a few plot elements undisclosed, just in case someone reading this post decides to read the book, but suffice it to say that the ending is not uplifting.

While I liked the first section of the book and thought the premise was intriguing, most of the book was a bit of a mess: Tim's philosophical ramblings make little sense (to me at least); there is a mystery having to do with a case Tim is working on early in the book that reemerges from time to time but never goes anywhere; the depiction of Jane's response when Tim returns is unbelievable. And the writing has problems--the tone and style are uneven and there are inconsistencies: for example, at one point, Ferris says that Tim had never observed the landscapes he walked through--yet there had been many descriptions of those landscapes and the places he wished he had been able to stop but was prevented from doing so because of the compulsion to walk. Ferris reads the audible version of the book himself, and I found his narration flat. In fact, near the end, I fell asleep several times while listening.

Favorite passage:
He stood in the doorway, a nostalgic stranger.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Surrey State of Affairs, by Ceri Radford

Constance Harding is a clueless 53-year-old English housewife who has started a blog at her children's suggestion--they are hoping the blog will relieve the pressure on them to listen to her prattling on about bell-ringing, flower arranging, and the flaws of her Lithuanian housekeeper Natalia. The novel presents a year's worth of blog entries, in which she learns that her son, for whom she has been relentlessly attempting to match-make, is gay; her daughter has a variety of misadventures including running off with her father's obnoxious Russian friend; and she learns her husband Jeffrey has had an affair with the aforementioned Natalia. But some time on her own in Argentina leads to personal transformation and a happy ending.

A Surrey State of Affairs is a satire on upper middle class British women of a certain age, exposing their prejudices, vapidity, and essential silliness, but the satire would be more effective if Constance weren't such a total idiot. Furthermore, while the author is attempting a "trendy" form, the blog is in fact no different from a diary, as there is no interactivity. In fact, until the end of the book, we have no idea whether anyone at all is reading Constance's blog.

Suitable for beach or ski lodge reading.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles is a coming of age story that takes place in a dystopic future. Earth has suddenly started rotating more slowly, causing days to be longer. At first the day is only an hour or so longer, but the slowing continues until long periods of sunlight are followed by long periods of darkness. The effects on the environment and on people's psyches are severe.

The story is told in retrospect by Julia, who is a middle-schooler at the time of the initial "slowing" (and 23 at the time she is telling the story). Julia is an only child and something of a misfit when the story opens, but she has one good friend, Hanna, and therefore feels at least somewhat secure in the social hell that is middle school (ironically, "The Age of Miracles" of the title refers to the middle school years, when young people go through incredible physical changes). Then, when the slowing begins, Hanna's Mormon family heads to Utah; when they return, Hanna no longer wants to be friends with Julia. Julia's life is not fun--she has no friends, her mother--always a worrywart--is suffering from a new illness caused by the rotational slowing, and her father is having an affair with Sylvia, the piano teacher who lives across the street. Sylvia is a real-timer, rebelling against the government's demand that people's activities continue on "clock time," even if that means sleeping in broad daylight and going to school in total darkness. Real-timers are ostracized; many move to remote colonies in the desert or mountains. 

Things get marginally better for Julia when Seth Moreno, a classmate she has had a crush on for some time, befriends her. The two spend many hours together talking about such uplifting topics as whether they would rather die from disease or in an explosion. They risk radiation poisoning (and devastating sunburn) by sneaking out during daylight hours, which have become very dangerous, to spy on Sylvia. 

The book fizzles somewhat at the end--characters disappear, others live on. No one knows what caused the slowing or how long human life can endure on the changed planet. Yet Julia has decided to try to become a doctor--a note of hope, perhaps.  The Age of Miracles isn't a great book, but it's a quick read with an interesting premise. I think Novel Conversations will find plenty to discuss!

Favorite passages:
I had grown into a worrier, a girl on constant guard for catastrophes large and small, but the disappointments I now sensed were hidden all around us right in plain sight.

Sometimes the saddest stories take the fewest words.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The McSweeney's Book of Politics and Musicals, edited by Christopher Monks

Politics and musicals may not seem like a natural pairing, but in this collection, they are. Among the more than 100 pieces in the collection are "fragments" from such musicals as "Weiner! The Musical" (as disgusting as you night expect), "Palin! The Musical," "Hot Planet! The Musical"(in which Al Gore rues the day that, as a teenager, he wished the ocean were warmer so he could follow a girl in a low-cut bathing suit into the water). These fragments include such lyrical gems as "And also I will go fight Newt/He's always up for a dispute/At any time, in any forum/And so am I. I'm Rick Santorum."

The non-musical pieces are varied, including many written written from the perspective of historical figures. Among these was my favorite, "Starting Over with Pat Nixon," in which Pat describes writing to Ann Landers for marital advice, wonders when the romance went out of her marriage, and imagines spilling the beans about her imaginary son (and other oddities) to David Frost, Dick Cavett, or Barbara Walters.

The book also features numerous lists--Republican S&M safe words and subject lines from Obama campaign emails to name but two. My favorite among these was "Crate and Barrel Tableware Style + American President = Fictional Delta Blues Singer." Examples: Faded Rose Jefferson and Chowder Bowl Pierce.

With a collection of satirical writings by more than 70 different authors, there are bound to be pieces that a single reader will not find funny--perhaps especially if that reader is over the age of 50. In fact, by the time I got to the last 50 pages, the humor was wearing thin. But I did get a few guffaws and a number of grins from this collection of political humor.

Favorite passages:
. . . the only reason we have an enemies list is because we tried to make a list of friends and found we had none.  (Obviously from the aforementioned Pat Nixon piece by Tom Gliatto)

For all the unhappiness about the country's direction, most citizens would still rather be in prison here than anywhere else. Whether the prison is a literal one, like the famed Sing Sing in upstate New York, or more figurative, like junior high, compulsive behavior , a bad marriage, or a dead-end job as a poll analyst, America is still the gold standard in incarceration and hopelessness by a whopping four-to-one-margin. (From "How You Voted" by Jonathan Stern)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Signs and Wonders, by Alix Ohlin

Signs and Wonders is the third collection of short stories I've read recently, and it is by far my favorite of the batch. Ohlin does not rely on plot twists to make these stories work (although she does throw in an occasional twist); her tools are graceful writing, strong character development, and the ability to capture a situation succinctly.  Her subject matter is the development of identity, as an individual, a friend, a lover/spouse, and a parent.

The people who populate Ohlin's stories face difficulties, both self-inflicted and the result of circumstances beyond their control. Some of the difficulties and the ways people decide to navigate the troubles produce disturbing results (e.g., the music teacher whose husband cannot make her pregnant and therefore chooses to sleep with one of her orchestra students, the family that blames the new stepmother when a child disappears on vacation)--but those disturbing stories do stick with me!

Of the 16 stories in the collection, one of my favorites was "Bruno," in which a French teenager comes to visit his father in New York. The child was conceived on a vacation fling and has been raised by his French mother, with summer visits from his American father Art. But Art has missed several summers while undergoing treatment for testicular cancer. While Art thinks Bruno is coming for a visit, in fact Bruno and his mother have hatched a plot for him to stay in New York. As Art transitions from "vacation Dad" to parent, both child and adult change, inevitably and not necessarily for the better.

Another story I liked a great deal was "The Only Child." After her first year in college, Sophie's parents inform her that she is not an only child: they had a child before they were married. The child--a boy--had been placed for adoption but had recently reached out to his biological parents. As Sophie gets to know Phillip and his fiance Fiona, she reexamines what it means to be part of a family.

While not all the stories drew me in, I still think the collection is worth reading.

Favorite passages:
He'd worked at ICS for five years, and the line between it being a day job and a regular job had blurred to invisibility.

That's what marriage is, Tori's mother explained to her, a blame game. . . . This is why she doesn't usually confide in her mother because she makes these depressing pronouncements about life that all too often turn out to be true.

How long can always be to an 18-year old? Since you were 14? 16? since last week? . . . She seemed so happy, as if she'd proved something to herself, passed the test that only she knew the contents of, that she was grown up, he guessed. That she was allowed to make mistakes.