The Family Fang

Imagebook by Kevin Wilson

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Facebook brought me to THE FAMILY FANG. I’ve been fortunate to experience the acquaintance and generosity of some well-known authors, including Nick Hornby. He posted that THE FAMILY FANG was his favorite book of 2011. Since my mentor, Rob Roberge, recommended I read Hornby as I was writing my own comic novel, WRESTLING ALLIGATORS, I was curious to read Hornby’s recommendation. I was not disappointed. THE FAMILY FANG is a lot of fun. It also illustrates one of Roberge’s maxims: funny and sad go together in order to make funny work. 

A short digression… in college, I attended a theater conference in Los Angeles and within it some performance art pieces (and I use that term loosely). I sat next to David Antin as he apologetically passed me a pile of rabbit droppings on a silver platter. That was one “performance” without a point and even the lack of point wasn’t the point – it was just bad. Anyway, I attended my share of odd performance art and avant-garde plays in New York and L.A. and met people like Caleb and Camille Fang, the performance artist parents of the novel. Wilson nails it.

Camille and Caleb use their children, Annie (Child A) and Buster (Child B), in their pieces. Examples: Annie on guitar, singing with Buster as they sit on the street beside a guitar case with the sign, “Our dog needs an operation. Please help us save him.” As the “piece” develops, a man heckles her, ending in shouts and a smashed guitar. That man is of course her father, unknown to the “audience.” There are also pieces featuring Buster in drag to win a beauty contest and one with the children complicit in a fake shoplifting. Some pieces are innocent, some are exploitive, and some are cruel.

For the parents, “art, if you loved it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain. If you had to hurt someone to achieve those ends, so be it. If the outcome was beautiful enough, strange enough, memorable enough, it did not matter. It was worth it.”  Everything is in service to Art. The parents are oblivious to the effect of their lifestyle on their children, but mirroring them are two children who are oblivious to the gifts (awe, wonder) their parents have provided them in the midst of the pain. It is no surprise that though Annie and Buster try to create lives for themselves, they fail and return home. This delights their parents. “We’re a family again,” their dad cries. “This is what the Fangs do. We make strange and memorable things.” Their mother adds, “We distort the world; we make it vibrate.”  

The cycle of art begins again, but then the parents vanish at a roadside stop, apparently the victims of foul play. Or are they? Is it art or did something actually happen to them? This mystery propels the reader forward as Wilson explores the limits of familial relationships. The questions surrounding their disappearance that he sets up so well – well enough that the reader can imagine the book going either way – is something I want to explore in my own writing. I haven’t used the reader’s participation and curiosity to the degree that Wilson has here. He not only keeps ratcheting up the stakes, but creates tension in his use of our revulsion over the performance pieces even as we are sucked into fascination over what will happen, with the parents’ elation, and the children’s emotions over the outcome, good or bad. He makes great use of the small telling details that enhance a good story, “Annie felt her fingers snap into fists…then she felt Buster’s own hand slowly uncurl her fingers until they were straight and steady.”

Fine details, vivid characters, an outrageous yet realistic premise that builds over the course of the narrative with increasing stakes add up to an entertaining book that resonates more deeply – and ends with more impact – than one might expect from a comedic novel. Funny and sad indeed.

 

 

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

book by Jonathan Safran Foer

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Foer deals with loss through a number of characters in the aftermath of 9/11, primarily through the eyes of the nine year old protagonist, Oskar, whose father died in the attack on the World Trade Center. There was something that rang a faint bell beginning with the spelling of Oskar and about 100 pages in, the book reminded me strongly of Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, another polarizing book. Count me in the ‘admire the writing, didn’t care for the book’ group on both counts. I had a far more negative reaction to The Tin Drum, but it didn’t help my reaction to this book – precocious child wandering through a landscape of loss, tambourine instead of the drum, aftermath of devastating act of man’s inhumanity to man. After this realization, my opinion of the book was colored because it seemed not so much homage (except in the tip of the hat to Vonnegut’s Dresden) as derivative. Most of the writing is very good, the organization of material less so, with the bedtime story about the Sixth Borough seeming more like a stand alone short story than part of this narrative. Foer’s use of repetition was for the most part irritating – “I gave myself a bruise,” “heavy boots,” and “Jose” were not unbelievable for a bright nine year old, just wearisome for me as reader.

Foer has many missed opportunities with the book and it reads like what it is, a book by a young writer with more reading experience than life experience. One missed opportunity was portraying the height of the Twin Towers. He writes about burning jet fuel and the choice to burn or jump (something I spent probably an unhealthy amount of time contemplating as I watched it unfold on TV and since). Years ago, I went to the top of the Towers and it seems like Oskar would have at some point either with his parents or school. It was stunning to step off that elevator and see that view. Some people couldn’t get off the elevator – it was too much like stepping out into space –  and I missed the sense of that in the novel. Other missed opportunities included the grandmother, who could have been the emotional heart of the book, but ended up feeling disconnected. With regard to the grandparents, it would have been nice if Foer had mimicked the areas of Something and Nothing in his narrative in those sections involving the grandparents’ story. Also, there was no satisfactory pay off for hiding the answering machine. It felt like it fizzled away when his mother said she talked to Oskar’s father on her cell. The other glaring missed opportunity was the lack of response by others to Oskar’s relaying of his father’s death. It’s as if 9/11 only happened to Oskar. Even though he’s an unreliable narrator and taking into account the limited perspective of a child, it seems likely that at least one of the people he told his story to would have replied with their own 9/11 story.

I liked most of the pictures, especially in reference to the picture book Oskar collected along the way. He’s on a scavenger hunt he thinks was set up by his father. The rest of the pictures didn’t bother me, but I found them unnecessary, thanks to Foer’s vivid descriptions. By the time I reached the flip book at the end, I was not engaged with the story and it had no real impact on me. This might also be because I had just read Amis’ Time’s Arrow and reread Slaughterhouse Five so rewinding was familiar.

As with All Families Are Psychotic, Foer did not convince me with the character of the mother. She was two dimensional and her reactions seemed off, especially after losing her husband and a child with obvious marks all over him wandering around New York City day and night. The cursory reference to hospitalization and therapy was just that, cursory. The scene when he hides the answering machine from her was poignant, but later when he truly hurts her, while painful, did not have that same kind of emotional resonance and by that point, I was hoping for it, for more to pull me in. Even if the mother didn’t keep track of him (and the explanation that she kept a closer eye than he was aware of seemed like window dressing toward the end), one of the other adults along the way should have behaved, well, more like an adult.

All in all, the book had its moments, but overall was a cautionary tale warning against gimmicks under the sheen of good writing. The ‘look at me’ quality of the writing could have reinforced the character of Oskar. Instead, much of the writing felt forced. It will be interesting to see how Foer develops as a writer after the white hot attention he’s received as a literary wunderkind and the fact he’s already used the two seminal events in living history for his first two books.

The Conservationist

book by Nadine Gordimer

annotation by Diane Sherlock

The Conservationist is a South African novel of the early 1970’s before the end of apartheid that lays out in vivid landscape the contradictions and difficulties of that country and its tensions. It is both dense and lyrical as it follows the life of a wealthy white South African protagonist, Mehring. Mehring has a failed marriage, an estranged son, a dead body on the property he bought on a whim as a weekend getaway, and a mistress who must flee the country due to political messes. Gordimer explores the monotony of both farm life, a hobby for Mehring, as well as the monotony of the business world along with themes of death and rebirth.

For the most part, Gordimer does an admirable job of exploring her themes and painting a vivid picture of life on the veld, but it remains one of the coldest books I have ever read. Certainly the protagonist is one reason. Gordimer provides a fine tension between the way Mehring sees himself and the way he appears to others. He believes he has gained his position in the world entirely due to his own hard work, giving no quarter to luck, circumstance and privilege. By the end of the book, it’s clear he is small minded, both bigot and sexual predator. It is not an easy or quick read, requiring concentration and attention to the small details Gordimer includes. The physical descriptions are lyrical: “…it lashed around them, a furry tongue of fiery soft dust spitting stinging chips of stone.”

The main flaws in the book are a smattering of clunky transitions and occasional awkward turns, such as using coincidence to ill effect when Mehring reads about his friend’s death of a friend right after a chance meeting with the man’s daughter. Mehring’s moral equivalence sticks out: “But the children ignore him as he ignores them. What percentage of the world is starving? How long can we go on getting away scot-free? When the aristocrats were caught up in the Terror, did they recognize: it’s come to us. Did the Jews of Germany think: it’s our turn.” While it illustrates his mindset that the Jews controlled money the way the French upper class did, it didn’t feel seamless within the narrative. In fact, the fractured narrative is at times an annoyance.

On the plus side, Gordimer uses Zulu creation myths in her narrative, leaves conclusions to the reader, and her protagonist and the people around him are full of contradictions: he’s not a male chauvinist, yet he will risk his societal position in a high-risk clandestine fondling of a teen girl on a plane; his leftist mistress travels the world on his money and so on.

Mehring’s philosophy is summarized in a conversation/debate he has with his lover about the farm: “A farm is not beautiful unless it is productive. Reasonable productivity prevailed; he had to keep half an eye (all he could spare) on everything, all the time, to achieve even that much, and of course he had made it his business to pick up a working knowledge of husbandry, animal and crop, so that he couldn’t easily be hoodwinked by his people there and could plan farming operations with some authority.”

There were some problems with this particular edition from Penguin. The paperback cost fifteen dollars, seriously overpriced for such a cheap product. The type was difficult to read and there were only a couple of footnotes explaining that Witbooi = white boy, and Swart Gevaar = black danger. Those were the easiest to figure out. There should have been a dozen more footnotes for American readers, including the information that corn is referred to as ‘mealies’ in South Africa and vlei (pronounced ‘flay’) means wetlands. More problematic is that dialogue is set off with dashes and descriptions use the same device. It would have been less confusing if standard quotation marks had been used.

Gordimer’s facility with language and description alone show why she is held in esteem, as co-winner of the Booker Prize for this work and Nobel Prize recipient in 1991. Her lyricism was the most valuable element for my own writing. The Conservationist is also an excellent study for those exploring unsympathetic protagonists, particularly one as isolated as his country was before the end of apartheid.

Straight Man

STRAIGHT MAN is one of the funniest and most entertaining novels I’ve read. A professor, William Henry “Hank” Devereaux Jr., our straight man, is determined to apply Occam’s Razor (if you have two theories that arrive at the same conclusion, the simpler theory is the best choice) to every situation with hilarious consequences. There is excellent character development and complication of events grounded in a well-written narrative. Below the playfulness are serious considerations about life and missed opportunities. Russo knows the value of enhancing funny with sad, something I now keep in mind.

The novel begins with the literary equivalent of breaking the fourth wall in theater and whenever an author addresses the reader, it is often to achieve the familiarity and conversational tone to draw the reader into a kind of intimacy.

Truth be told, I’m not an easy man. I can be an entertaining one, though it’s been my experience that most people don’t want to be entertained. They want to be comforted. And, of course, my idea of entertaining might not be yours. I’m in complete agreement with all those people who say, regarding movies, “I just want to be entertained.” This populist position is much derided by my academic colleagues as simpleminded and unsophisticated, evidence of questionable analytical and critical acuity. But I agree with the premise, and I too just want to be entertained. That I am almost never entertained by what entertains other people who just want to be entertained doesn’t make us philosophically incompatible. It just means we shouldn’t go to movies together.

Richard Russo exemplifies a compassionate and complex view of humanity in his work and STRAIGHT MAN is no exception. Russo, in addition to David Lodge, taught me that when you put your characters through the wringer, you can maintain the sense that they had opposing dreams and intentions, that they didn’t wish to end up where they did. There is a stronger sense of that dynamic in NOBODY’S FOOL, but it’s here as well with Professor Devereaux. Russo is an excellent example to learn the art of creating very human characters who still are very funny.

This comic novel also illustrates the accessibility of writing like you talk, in this case, like an academic. Richard Russo uses it to great effect with deadpan humor. Because his main character is trying to distill events to the simplest explanation, the author simplifies his language and descriptions to mimic that action. When Professor Devereaux reads the “…cinematically inspired – that is, uninspired…” and repugnant story of his student Leo, he describes the process in a long paragraph that reports the content, concluding,

He wonders if the rape scene is overdone.  And he wants to assure me that the narrative is not finished.  Originally, he’d thought of it as a short story, but now he suspects it may be a novel.  Next to the query concerning the rape scene, I write: ‘Always understate necrophilia.’ Then at the bottom of the final page, ‘Let’s talk.’

The professor has pared down his comments, then Russo uses the professor’s last phrase, ‘Let’s talk’ to segue into the next paragraph, as well as the next action, by having another character answer, “Okay let’s,” thereby paring down the narrative, mirroring his advice to Leo.

Russo uses direct, first-person, present tense that is erudite and often hilarious. The narrative is marked with repetitions of words and phrases such as ‘needless to say’ and ‘indeed’ to achieve the tone of an academic:

Needless to say, we end where we began, unpersuaded. My argument, that comedy and tragedy don’t mix, that they must remain discrete, runs contrary to their experience. Indeed, it may run contrary to my own. These students have watched this very class begin in low comedy and end in something, if not serious, at least no longer funny.

In writing the literary comic novel, Russo includes touching moments in difficult relationships as in Professor Devereaux’ relationship with his father and problems as a father with regard to his daughter’s choices – something I keep in mind in order to add depth to comedy, even slapstick, laugh-out-loud comedy. He creates an entire world and just as you accept that this is a complex novel, Russo has another trick up his sleeve: pointing out just how simple life is. Touché.

All Families Are Psychotic

book by Douglas Coupland

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Coupland has written an occasionally entertaining, somewhat unsatisfying book that takes satire to dizzying heights. However, the characters do not have distinctive voices, the narrative point of view is inconsistent and although fun in places, became more of a negative example of a plot-driven book containing so many coincidences that it felt like a string of incidents rather than a story.

If the author had concentrated on the Wade character, having him live up to his name by wading in to the lives of his dysfunctional family, it would have improved the book. Far fetched doesn’t begin to describe it. The main problem I had with the book is that I didn’t believe any of the premises, beginning with a one handed astronaut. Tom Robbins would be able to pull this off but this reads more like warmed over Robbins with some interesting descriptions and pop culture references. I revisited Robbins to try to pinpoint the difference and found that style and voice are the likely culprits. Robbins uses a series of declarative sentences to comment on our culture such as, “The brown paper bag is the only thing civilized man has produced that does not seem out of place in nature.” He then follows it up with a very long sentence in the lyric register that begins, “Crumpled into a wad of wrinkles, like the fossilized brain of a dryad…” Coupland is a talented writer, capable of striking descriptions, “his face stressed and lined as a trussed-up pork roast,” but he also falls into using pastiches of imagery and there’s nothing that reinforces either earlier images or the theme. For example, he refers to Sarah as “a tiny fern among her two sequoia brothers – even with Bryan younger than her – but she was definitely the one running the show.”  There must be a more effective metaphor to get that point across. It might have worked if he was writing about a forest ranger or if ferns secretly dominated sequoias. Coupland also describes some of the families of astronauts, “They’re practically astronauts themselves – shoes buffed like mirrors; too many teeth; half of them are military and talk in barking Navy SEALs voices.” Yes, it’s clever, the play on barking seals, if he was discussing drill sergeants, not here.

I grew up with a man who became a real life astronaut, following a similar path to that of Sarah, the scientist astronaut in the book. Very little of her action or dialogue rings true, let alone her being cleared as an astronaut with one hand. If an author is going to create this kind of alternate reality where there are one-handed astronauts, he’d better be able to convince the reader why it is possible in that world. Robbins, Vonnegut, and John Irving were all successful at that kind of warping of reality to make a point. Part of it was establishing a consistent absurd tone, authority in their noun usage; the similes and metaphors used meant something to the larger work, and they didn’t write out of snark.

Coupland doesn’t quite get the character of the mother right and she’s a tent pole character for the book. She finds a talent for organizing group discussions late in life, but he’s already painted her as a well-organized mother with grown children. She was established as involved in their lives growing up and this so-called talent would not have come as a surprise.

Coupland strikes me as thinking up interesting situations, then cramming his characters into them. HIV, AIDS, and I know! let’s have a bullet go through one and infect another and just to really twist it, make it mother and son. There isn’t a strong enough world created for me to accept such things as anything other than artifice in the service of convoluted plot. Disappointing for a book with promise from a talented writer.

Getting Mother’s Body

book by Suzan-Lori Parks

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Getting Mother’s Body is an entertaining novel about Billy Beede, sixteen years old, pregnant by a man whom she discovers has children and is married to someone else. She travels from Texas to Arizona with the objective of digging up her mother’s grave to claim the jewels believed to be buried with her mother. Each chapter is told from the first person POV of one of the characters, with everyone having more than one turn. Even the dead mother, Willa Mae Beede, has chapters, mostly consisting of blues songs. We get to hear different perspectives on the same events and varying opinions of the cast of characters. It also solves the ever-present problem of exposition and backstory, allowing bits and pieces to emerge without overwhelming the narrative.

Parks writes with authority. She uses unconventional spellings, such as “yr” for “your” and “wichu” for “with you.” This device conveys the language patterns of the characters. Parks clearly thought a lot about the spellings which could have undercut the 1963 time period and looked like text messages, but the author seems aware of this danger and avoids it. The unconventional spelling did not make the book difficult to read and added authenticity to the dialogue.

Even though there were clues along the way, I did not know what to expect at the end. Parks is expert at narrative sleight of hand, redirecting the reader’s attention while laying the groundwork for a satisfying and realistic plot resolution. For one thing, she knows that there’s no such thing as absolute silence in a story. In Little Walter Little’s barbershop, “We go quiet. Just the sounds of the scissors going around our heads.” She incorporates small moments of sensory detail like these throughout the narrative, allowing the reader to get lost in the world she creates. Meanwhile, she’s building a credible sequence of events about incredible acts.

The most helpful element for my writing was on page 37. Parks has a character let us know that the mother’s jewelry was never buried with her. Normally, I’d expect to find that at the end, but she slaps it right up front in a chapter from the POV of Dill Smiles (how great is that name?), one of the dead woman’s lovers, who not only took the jewelry, but sold most of it. All of this information is repeated again at page 116, “I took them and I sold the pearls one by one, for a hell of a lot more than ten dollars a piece, to keep myself afloat and I weren’t wrong to sell them. And when I need to sell the ring, I’ll sell it.” I wasn’t sure about the repetition of information, but my best guess is that Parks tried the book with and without this reinforcement and found that she needed it in order to make the end work. It turns out to be half true. Dill did take the jewelry, but only half of that jewelry was real. There’s a great image at the end of her checking the ring, narrated by Billy, “When we rode back from LaJunta, Dill rode in the truck bed. She didn’t want to drive and she didn’t want to talk. Every once in a while she would take something out of her pocket. She reached up and ran the thing across the back of the truck cab window. It didn’t cut the glass. Teddy and June didn’t see but I seen. It was a diamond-looking ring Dill had. Then I knew Dill had tooked it from Mother and if Dill and tooked that ring then she had tooked the pearls too. Maybe real pearls maybe not real pearls, we never did find no kind of pearls at all, but I wasn’t gonna ask Dill about them while we was riding back home. I wasn’t never gonna ask her.” Amazing image, beautifully done and through action. The reader can see Dill testing the stone in the ring and, from Dill’s earlier chapters, imagine her body language and expression. Parks has laid all of the groundwork and earned every pay off for her conclusion. The reader believes that there are no jewels to be had, and thanks to another setup of the mother’s past behavior sewing valuables into hems, Billy finds the real ring and it’s a surprise, believably executed.

Parks also sets up multiple tensions that I found helpful to study. There is the tension of whether or not Billy will get an abortion, whether it’s too late – the choice of ‘it’ or baby – and how she would cope if she does have the baby. Parks sets up a number of obstacles to Billy getting the treasure: whether the jewels are there, that Dill seems to have them, whether to go dig up the mother, how to get to the gravesite, the reality of looking at the corpse – all very well drawn. It’s utterly believable that Billy’s perspective on life and on her mother would change when she sees the skeletal remains of her mother. Death becomes real and sharpens decisions she makes about her life. There’s the added tension throughout the book of whether or not she is her mother’s daughter. She desperately does not want to be like her mother and yet there are many ways Billy does follow in Willa Mae’s footsteps, even literally as a child in wet sand walking behind her mother. “Once, when me and Billy went to Galveston, we had our shoes off and was walking in the wet sand. Billy walked behind me putting her feet prints where my feets had already made a mark. Good Lord, I thought, my child’s following in my footsteps. But I tried not to worry. The way I see it, you can only dig a hole so deep.”

The novel is funny, wise, and heartbreaking in its sadness. Parks manages to include social commentary through an expertly woven narrative that provides a sense of justice and a satisfying conclusion. The end is not over the top, but a quiet conclusion of the twin realizations of Billy and her uncle, both transformed as they both come face to face with the decay of old ghosts, he with the obliteration of his old church and she with the reality of her mother’s death.

Lucky You

book by Carl Hiaasen

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Hiaasen opens with a great device for character backstory in LUCKY YOU: JoLayne Lucks buys a lottery ticket. “The significance of her Lotto numbers was this: each represented an age at which she had jettisoned a burdensome man.” It tells the reader so much about her history in a compact and amusing way. He ratchets up the tension from the beginning by painting antagonists Bode and Chubb as not only racists, but major trouble, with the potential for violence; protagaonist JoLayne is characterized as beloved, with an altruistic plan for her half of the $28 million jackpot. The three are set on a collision course that occurs on page 51 of a 449 page book, “She was sitting at the kitchen table, working up the numbers on a pocket calculator, when she heard a sharp knock from the porch. She figured it must be Tom, the newspaperman, giving it one more shot. Who else would be so brash as to drop by at midnight? The screen door opened before JoLayne got there. A stranger stepped into her living room. He was dressed like a hunter.” It’s chilling, but then Hiaasen draws back from the violence – though not its aftermath – to preserve the comic structure.

Hiaasen balances a number of improbable stories, weaving them in and out of each other in a novel that is both caper and farce. The writing is solid and mostly straightforward. He creates a cast of bizarre characters, types that are easy to ridicule, from wannabe neo-Nazis to avaricious religious shrine builders. The main challenge he sets for himself is keeping all his balls in the air. He doesn’t fully succeed, but it’s not a distraction thanks to the pacing. The character of the spineless editor, Sinclair, could have been cut, as well as the subplot involving the Mob. Neither add to the story and, at times, detract. Hiaasen is good at creating bad guys and Chub and Bode are no exceptions. They are despicable human beings and it’s a relief to see their demise. It did bring up the question of whether if it would have been a more interesting challenge to find a way not only to punish them, but to find some kind of redemption. Hiaasen may also have missed an opportunity to throw in a real miracle more closely tied to the man-made frauds to bring more warmth to his humor. He has a character who drills holes in his hands and feet to collect stigmata money from tourists. For a book containing the warning headnote that “there is no approved dental use for WD-40,” it is clear that pushing the envelope is not a concern. It would have been funnier to have the stigmata man healed overnight from his self-inflicted wounds. This, however, does fly in the face of what is essentially a jaded authorial viewpoint that parallels that of his journalist/protagonist, Tom Krome.

In terms of my own writing, Hiaasen taught me not to toss too many balls in the air. He also provided a model for a credible happy ending. His descriptions are vivid, as when he describes what happens to Chub after sniffing glue. “He was completely unaware that his wounded mitt hung so tantalizingly in the water, just as he was unaware of the cannibalistic proclivities of Callinectes sapidus, the common blue crab. In fact, Chub was so blitzed that the sensation of extreme pain – which ordinarily would have reached his brain stem in a nanosecond – instead meandered from one befogged synapse to another. By the time his subconscious registered the feeling, something horrible was well under way. His screams ruined an otherwise golden morning.” He paints a convincing portrait of a low-life passed out with an injured hand in the water and a giant crab fastens on and won’t let go. It’s a satisfying piece of revenge. Hiaasen also teaches different and creative ways to satisfy the reader’s innate sense of justice throughout. He goes over the top more than once, but his novel is so entertaining, that its flaws are quickly forgiven.

Alive and Kicking

book by Michael Levin (out of print)

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Michael Levin has written an engaging farce drawing on his legal expertise as an attorney to tell the story of a contested will. The Gaines family has been suing each other for decades with the help of two contentious law firms, Shapolsky & Shapolsky versus Shapolsky and Shapolsky. The character names are provided in charts at the beginning of the book which is one of the first problems with the novel. While the charts are helpful, they would not have been necessary in a 347 page book had the author not resorted to cute and redundant names. There are several Sam Gaines and other characters have combinations like Woodrow Wilson Gaines and Charlie Chaplin Gaines that are more silly than useful. To add to the confusion are inconsistent abbreviations such as Sam C, Grover Sam and so on.

The prose itself is average and workmanlike, and although Levin knows how to ratchet up tension within a scene, he does not do so consistently and often undercuts his efforts with look-at-me cleverness. He has no consistent POV character or group of characters who might serve to ground the narrative. The result is that the reader is not aligned with any one particular person in each moment of the text and the narrative takes on the quality of forgettable pop music. The closest character to a grounding presence is Amelia Vanderbilt, the trust officer at the bank that oversees the case at the heart of the book, the $60 million estate of former vaudeville star 92 year old Harry Gaines. Harry left a will with the provision that his family will only inherit his $60 million fortune if they can get along for one month. This situation is full of opportunities for great dialogue, for characters saying no to each other until that no is final, but these opportunities are squandered for the most part. Amelia is not a fully realized female character, reacting out of character and superficially to cheating on her fiancé so that the act becomes just one more plot point rather than fully formed scene.

An authoritative narrator begins the book, but fades in and out of the narrative, mostly out. But the first paragraph is promising:

It is bad form to come right out and express one’s desire than an elderly relative should stop wasting everyone’s time already and pack it in. Those favored with elderly, wealthy relatives, especially if those relatives are perceived in the family as difficult or uncaring, might confess, if they were thoroughly honest, that such uncharitable thoughts have crossed their minds more than once….

Levin comes right out with what’s been going on in the minds of Gaines family members for generations, but his failure to use this voice regularly throughout or as bookends misses another opportunity for a cohesive and powerful story that makes the most of its farcical elements.

Levin’s other big problem is dialogue tags. He not only tells rather than shows throughout, he hits the reader over the head with such tags as ‘he told her matter-of-factly,’ ‘Morris exclaimed,’ and ‘Harry retorted.’

Levin structured the book into thirty-seven chapters in four sections. The sections are titled, Intimate Relations, Undue Influence, Lucid Intervals, and Absolute Dominion. Here again he misses an opportunity to either use consistent probate terms, legal jargon or most appropriately, vaudeville cards as a nod to his opening character and leading decedent. However, he does use a number of old Gaines family letters and many legal documents from decades of lawsuits as his device to reconstruct the family feuds and these are effective tools.

Reading “Alive and Kicking” helped with my current novel in that the legal approach is not appropriate to my material. There is the additional benefit of learning from negative example to beware of excesses in characters names, dialogue tags, and a thick underbrush of modifiers. Despite its flaws, the book has a breezy charm. It is fun and most of the humor comes out of long-standing family feuds and misunderstandings. The other valuable lesson here is that Levin knows when to retreat from acrimony and bitterness in order to allow the reader to enjoy his spoof in which the lawyers, refreshingly (to use one of his numerous adverbs), do not come out ahead.

That Old Cape Magic

book by Richard Russo

annotation by Diane Sherlock

What a disappointment. That Old Cape Magic is not nearly as well crafted as Russo’s Straight Man, Empire Falls or Nobody’s Fool. It also lacks their heart and complexity, preferring to shorthand minor and tangential characters as uninteresting types (left wing professor, evangelical, Republican), rather than finding the telling detail. The humor, too, is off and there is way too much pop psychology about the parents’ intrusion and effect on the marriage at the center of the narrative.

The prose is workmanlike and does little to evoke a sense of place in either the Midwest, Cape Cod, or Maine. There is no lyricism here and, again, the finely observed details of, say, Nobody’s Fool are missing. The sense of place is fine, but that’s all it is. Fine. The worst of it comes with inane observations, “Fynch was a tall man, and his suit was well tailored and expensive looking. He seemed comfortable in it, as men who wear suits every day often are.” (189) Sigh. This is more of a problem if you’re familiar with the author because he’s capable of so much more.

There is a set piece late in the novel, built around an improbable event with an old man, a wheelchair and a tree. Hilarity does not ensue. It’s a piece of intended slapstick that feels like it is stuck in for comic effect. There is not the inevitable tension-building that the device of Occam’s Razor provides in Straight Man. There’s just an unfortunate accident coupled with overreactions and misunderstandings. Perhaps if Russo had honed in more on the parallels with the protagonist’s short story and his own parents or the weddings that bookend the narrative with the protagonist’s marriage, there would have been something more compelling here, but overall the narrative came across as unfocused and ineffective. In the last pages, Griffin, the main character observes, “Late middle age was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.” The same cannot be said of this novel: the reader will not fail to see any of it coming because That Old Cape Magic has none of its own.

A Mercy

A Mercybook by Toni Morrison

annotation by Diane Sherlock

A Mercy is a novella comprised of six narrative voices, each giving their account of 1690 Virginia, Maryland, and their surrounds. It is not historical fiction in the sense that it does not recreate the linguistic patterns and mindset of the late 17th century. Morrison creates her own idiom and her fictive dream is more fable than history, more incantation than representation.

In an unplanned bit of synchronicity, I read Gordimer and Morrison at the same time. As in Nadine Gordimer’s A Conservationist, the white man here, Jacob Vaark, thinks more highly of himself than do his servants and slaves. Landscape is significant in both books. Morrison’s landscape, containing more than a hint of Eden and thereby framing subsequent events, overwhelms the characters. In Gordimer, that is not the case. There is no illusion of Eden and her characters hold their own.

While I appreciate the power of Morrison’s writing, I find she misses a number of interesting opportunities to shed light on the slave trade while enhancing her characters. For example, the Portuguese family in Maryland was at the end of Portuguese dominance of the slave trade. That would have added dimension and pathos to their interaction. It is unlikely their slaves came from Angola; most came from the Bight of Benin on the west coast of Africa (modern Ghana, Benin, Togo). There was also a lot of cooperation between the Dutch and the Portuguese. While Vaark may well have found his host abhorrent, it is odd that there isn’t some kind of nod to their culture of cooperation at a time when men in the colonies felt ties to their ancestral countries more strongly than after 1776. There is also the matter of the starlings, not introduced to America until 1890, noted in Harper’s review of this book as well as my own research (Ornithological Lab at Cornell) for my novel. The reason historical inaccuracy bothers me, particularly when unlikely events are substituted, is that it indicates a modern agenda that goes beyond storytelling. Then I read this about Salman Rushdie’s Enchantress of Florence and it resonated:

“Historical fiction is better, much better, when it teases out the themes of a period holistically, in all their complexity, and allows parallels with our contemporary experience to develop on their own. This ensures that the novel has a philosophical integrity beyond proselytisation.”

Again, I found Gordimer allowed the reader’s experience to develop.

But back to A Mercy. Since minha mãe is Portuguese for mother as well as an orisha or spirit in an animist religion, I took notice of passages where Sorrow opines that Mistress has more of a relationship with God than the servants, as in Sorrow’s reaction when Mistress attributes healing to God, “’Ninny, she answered. ‘God alone cures. No man has such power.’ There had always been tangled strings among them. Now they were cut.” Taken together with Lina’s anger that anyone would listen to God over her, it etched away the fictive dream as the author (and take note of that bit of etymology) overtook the narrator. As with Beloved, a book I liked less (understatement), there are passages that linger with me. That’s the thing. She can write with power, but I did not wholeheartedly enjoy the book, and that undoubtedly goes back to the comment above that holds true for Rushdie as well.

In terms of the writing itself, I find that I quickly grow tired of Morrison’s extensive pattern of changing adjectives into abstract nouns, verbs as nouns, and meandering verb tenses and endless use of progressive verbs (“What I am wanting to tell” and so on by Florens). However, her use of truncation works when it is confined to sentence pattern or imagery and her prose can be very evocative. What Morrison has taught me is that truncation is a tool for the micro rather than macro level. Truncating the paragraph structure, including a character whose morals are truncated, or curtailing an image, especially after a series of images, are all powerful in context. When the technique is used on the macro level, that is, applied to the book as a whole, there tends to be too much summary and/or underwriting. At the end of the book, Florens’s mother states, “to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.” No kidding. Morrison is capable of containing this thought more powerfully within the narrative without summarizing it in the mouth of a character at the end. A Mercy ends up too truncated for the story it is wanting to tell.