Sunday, 16 March 2014

Arson bad, donuts good

Plunged recently into the alternating sweet and nightmarish American cityscapes of novelist A. M. Homes. Love her worlds or hate them - some are more extreme than others and, having been compelled to buy the entire oeuvre, J had to chuck the novella about a paedophile cannibal in the bin before it made him throw up - they're a racy read. The two I chose to follow in hot pursuit were the terrifying Music for Torching and the redemptive This Book Will Save Your Life.

I sense that by writing This Book... after Music for Torching Homes wanted to follow bad with good rather than present both facets in one volume, as Philip Roth does so devastatingly in American Pastoral. Here's another writer it was high time I started to read, and Simon Winder's declaration in the wonderful Danubia that Roth (Philip rather than Joseph, which might have been more appropriate for the context) was his own favourite author seemed like a good enough recommendation. Protagonist of this amazing Pulitzer Prize winner is Swede Levov, a genuinely nice guy and not even as limited as his sporting background and successful working life as family business heir might suggest. He's tolerant, liberal and utterly supportive to his only daughter. Yet it is she who, by one appalling action, 'transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral - into the indigenous American berserk.'

Most of the book is devoted to Levov's imagination working feverish overtime trying to work out where he went wrong, what he has done to deserve it. And the only enlightenment, it seems, is this:

How to penetrate to the interior of people was some skill or capacity he did not possess. He just did not have the combination to that lock. Everybody who flashed the signs of goodness he took to be good. Everyone who flashed the signs of loyalty he took to be loyal. Everybody who flashed the signs of intelligence he took to be intelligent. And so he had failed to see into his daughter, failed to see into his wife, failed to see into his one and only mistress - probably had never even begun to see into himself. What was he, stripped of all the signs he flashed? People were standing up everywhere, shouting 'This is me! This is me!' Every time you looked at them they stood up and told you who they were, and the truth of it was that they had no more idea of who or what they were than he had. They believed their flashing signs too. They ought to be standing up and shouting, 'This isn't me! This isn't me!' They would if they had any decency. 'This isn't me!' Then you might know how to proceed through the flashing bullshit of this world.

Married couple Paul and Elaine in Homes' Music for Torching have no idea how to proceed through 'the flashing bullshit of this world' either, though it's not because they're too nice. They're falling apart, and the novel begins, as it were, with the denouement, which comes in the first chapter where Elaine kicks over the barbecue grill and sets fire to the house (no spoiler notice needed here. Homes pictured below by David Shankbone).

Where is the novel to go from here? Can this pair get any worse, give each other any more pain in their Strindbergian hell? Strictly, no, though the damage to the kids moves on apace and mostly unnoticed. Once in a while, they unexpectedly inspire pity and tenderness in us and in each other:

For the moment they are fantasies of themselves, their very best selves, the people they'd like to be, and then just a minute later they are once again their more familiar selves - petty, boring, limited.

Why doesn't either escape, get out of there? Homes' answer is that this is the only reality they know, even if it's hell and they are in it:

Every day Elaine thinks of disappearing. She will leave and take nothing with her - 'You have yourself' is what people say, and that's what stops her. She fears she is nothing. Nonexistent.

So even the liberating philosophy of Shakespeare's Parolles - 'simply the thing I am shall make me live' - has no validity in this modern identity crisis.

How on earth, then, to finish? Homes' solution is stagey, unconvincing (to me, at any rate), as if she just didn't know what to do: a consequence of the odd and, initially, daring structure. Roth, I think, has parallel problems. We observe 'the Swede' throughout the first part of the novel through an old school acquaintance,  a familiar Roth alter ego (the author pictured below in 1973).

Who then disappears, leaving the author to retrace steps or rather go round in circles until we're stuck at a particular point in Levov's unhappy story where even more is about to go wrong. We know he survives it all outwardly because we've been told. But the ending towards the conclusion of a disastrous dinner party feels oddly inconclusive*.

Homes' This Book... follows a more comfortable trajectory, about a man in mid-life crisis who really does turn his world around with an honesty that would seem to have been alien to him up to the point at which the novel properly begins. Is it all too good to be true? Well, it's leavened with humour, irony and a surprisingly affectionate - when not scabrous - view of Los Angeles' looking-glass world. There's an unforgettable scene in which a horse gets stuck in a Beverly Hills sinkhole and has to be airlifted by the helicopter of a friendly neighbourhood movie star.

The arrivals on the scene of a housewife in meltdown and a reclusive Malibu writer warm the heart-cockles in an unexpected way; the hero's reunion with his son has 'feelgood movie rights' written all over it. Yet the exercise remains virtuosic, the unputdownable Homes pacy dialogue just as good as in Music for Torching, and above all it's creative donut shop owner Anhil who remains the good-angel constant. And that last photo? Well, we know that the French are turning against their own cuisine and so 'Les donuts, c'est la vie ' ought not to be too much of a surprise in central Lyon. Needless to say I didn't go in and buy one, but hived off to a patisserie in a sidestreet where I consumed...cannoli.

*With reason, it now turns out: see Sue Scheid's comment below.


Susan Scheid said...

Ah, Roth, ah, American Pastoral. A friend whose literary judgment I deeply respect recommended this book to me. On reading the opening pages, which feature Roth's alter ego (as I see it), I threw it across the room. But then, I wanted to know what my friend valued so much, and found that, forgetting those early pages, it was from there on out a compelling read. I went on to read the rest of the trilogy, all of which I found excellent. I haven't been able to make a connection with A. M. Home's work. Can't remember now the one I tried, but I recall it as too mannered, striving too much for its effects. There is, I think, in current US fiction, an enormous emphasis on being "edgy" over all else. I find it tiresome.

Amusing to think of you reading this Americana, while I now, also on the impetus of Winder, am reading (and captivated by) Stefan Zweig's Beware the Pity, just as I was by Joseph Roth's The Emperor's Tomb. Isn't it wonderful when a single author, like Winder, offers us so many rich trails to follow?

David said...

Well, you see, I did find faults but was engrossed in all three. And now you tell me American Pastoral is part of a trilogy, it makes sense of the radical open-endedness. Nothing in the literature tells me this. What are the other two, then? I had an even weirder experience trying to read Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, wondering why so many characters were introduced at seeming random and found out that it was the second instalment of an ongoing story. People who've taken it up in droves here after a radio serialisation don't seem to realise that.

Apparently, if you read my colleague Gavin Plumley, there's a war between pro-Zweigians and pro-Rothians (J, not R) who think SZ novelettish. I don't agree; why can't we enjoy both? The good thing is that there's plenty of works by each other in English translation at the moment.

Susan Scheid said...

The other two are I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. But they're not a trilogy in the sense of Grossman's Life and Fate (I didn't know that it was second in a trilogy, either, and never got through it . . . perhaps that's why!). It's just three tales of post-war Newark, with Zuckerman narrating each. It's been quite a while since I read them. I recall I Married as the slightest of the three, but still worth a read.

I'm more than a bit antediluvian in my reading habits, and I'm sure I'm not giving Homes the chance she deserves. Much the opposite of my excursions into contemporary music, with fiction, I made for the exits after Franzen's The Corrections and Eugenides's Middlesex. In each case, the writers, I thought, did a fabulous job of limning family relations and history, but then veered off into wanting to be edgy and clever territory, and in both cases, these portions of the novel went south. (In Franzen, it was the Central Europe gambits; in Eugenides, as my friend who runs the LGTB health center said, when it comes to his intersex main character, Callie, Eugenides doesn't know what he's talking about.

As for the Roth/Zweig divide, of course the Tippett/Britten debate comes to mind. Also, I gather that they were once lumped together as not modern enough. Yes, the good thing is we can enjoy both--and we can profitably spend our time reading while others waste their breath in these debates!

Risking another aside, just have to report that the Bard Conservatory, only 4 years old, by the way, put on a performance of Britten's The Turn of the Screw and Shawn Jaeger's new opera Payne Hollow yesterday that was excellent in every respect. The Edu-Mate said she couldn't believe this was a student performance, and I agree. Just top-notch. I'm really proud of our home team here.

David said...

o be fair, I do think that Homes continues exactly as she begins - just doesn't seem to know how to end in Music for Torching. But that's quite a start: a climactic moment doesn't usually hit us like that at the start of a novel or play, though talking to Harriet Walter last night after an amazing talk she gave at the Garrick, I realised that the first scene of King Lear is a big early climax, too, with very little back story on how he really feels about his three daughters.

So the history of 'Swede' Levov doesn't get picked up in the next two volumes? Odd for it to conclude where it does.

Both Roth and Zweig are honest chroniclers of their times (and earlier), one can't ask for much more though as for style, it depends on the translation, I guess.

And Screw was done in a double bill? Extraordinary - it's quite an exhausting piece by itself even if a one-acter would still only make three hours of total music-theatre. My very first acquaintance with TotS was as a Hesse Student pushing scenery around at Snape Maltings - again student players and singers. Lynne Dawson was the one everyone talked about, she went on to have a good career (and to sing at Diana's funeral).

Susan Scheid said...

For various reasons stated in the program, The Turn of the Screw was abridged for the performance (with Britten estate permission). I'm sure your hair would have stood on end (a la that wonderful drawing your student did), but I did think it was sensitively done. I'm eager to see the complete work performed live, though. I keep missing out on Britten performances in NYC, notably this year, Billy Budd. (I love your back story on your own introduction to Turn of the Screw, BTW.)

David said...

At the risk of prolonging our exclusive chat still further, I have to wonder what the cuts were and what the reasons? It seems to me that ToTS is an impossible piece to remove anything from because, like Wozzeck, it's structurally perfect. Of course my friend Susie took liberties by singing Quint herself (at pitch) and having a 20-something girl sing Miles. Someone from the publishers eventually took umbrage, but had no leg to stand on.

My student George has been achieving more artistry - the latest based on mishearing me saying 'Bernstein in a lather' and thinking I said 'Bernstein in a larva' - what, Lennie as a fledgling caterpillar? So next week came the artwork. I have to confess that there is no way I can escape a Glass piece or two in some Basel concerts soon, so I suggest he pictures me in advance as just a heap of smouldering ashes.

Susan Scheid said...

David: Sorry to be so tardy in replying both here and Over There (where I now have, on your question on the edits). I agree that, no matter how sensitively done, something is lost in abridging. I appreciate the reasons, but long even more now to hear the complete opera live. (I guess it can be said my appetite has been further whetted!)

You had me laughing out loud at the Lenny as a Larva and the pile of smoldering ashes. I will that drawing of your response to Glass. I do hope there are compensating works to hear in Basel. You are getting around quite a lot!

David Damant said...

Indeed an opera cannot be cut if the whole thing is a coherent whole and " structurally perfect" - that is, where to take out any cog destroys the efficiency of the whole machine. Then the cutting is disgraceful and difficult to understand. But if the opera consists in part of arias ( however magnificent) simply slotted in - well, one can cut Don Giovanni down to three scenes

David said...

And well we know, from your Garrick ventures, which three scenes you think they are, Sir David. But if aria is characterisation, then you are seriously short of arguments for the good (which I seriously believe Donna Anna and Don Ottavio to be).

I can see in Sue's example - which she amplifies so enticingly over on her blog - why a shortened TotS might work in tandem with the new 'ghost' opera at Bard. But I still don't think a single note of those incredible interludes should go, especially as they're nearly all different from the scenes they punctuate.