Tuesday, July 31, 2012

July Cultural Roundup

Statue of Nike at Frank Lloyd Wright's 
Martin House, Buffalo, NY
Take This Waltz (Can., 2012) directed by Sarah Polley
Moonrise Kingdom (U.S., 2012) directed by Wes Anderson
To Rome with Love (U.S., 2012) directed by Woody Allen

I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley (review here)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker (review here)
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, July 9, 2012
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, July 29, 2012
Martin House, Buffalo, NY, July 30, 2012

Friday, July 27, 2012

Bad News

Bad News (1992) 164 pages in the omnibus edition of The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn (Picador, 2012) 

In the second book of the quintet, Bad News (Please see the review of the first book Never Mind), Patrick is now 22 years old and has gone to retrieve his father's recently deceased body from New York. As you can imagine, Patrick is a very unhappy, alienated young man. Here, he presages, a little bit, that other Patrick, an American, not a Brit, from American Psycho, not in the violent sadism of his actions but in the casual cruelty, alienation and the obsession with high end brands and looking good.

Patrick is hooked on Quaaludes, heroine, cocaine, alcohol. It's a very tough read. He is immensely unlikeable. And his wild thoughts while high are neither pleasant nor entertaining. I think if St. Aubyn is trying to give us a sense of Patrick's psychological state while high, he fails somewhat. Not so much that it is not effective but Patrick is so caustic, so misanthropic, that the reader is repelled by Patrick. Perhaps that is his goal?

Trolling for drugs from dealers in rough neighborhoods in New York, picking up women that he openly loathes in bars, merely tolerating the company of his father's friends while awaiting a flight back to England, surreptitiously coveting his girlfriend Debbie's friend Marianne ... all leave the reader wanting a quick shower after reading these passages. Patrick's self-loathing and, implicitly, the author's, are hard to take.

 Someone should advise the author that it is no longer acceptable to refer to someone as a "Chinaman" or a "negress", not the main character, but the author. Even twenty years ago that language was unacceptable. Then again, if he is racist (Patrick), he is also absolutely caustic and misanthropic towards everyone else - his girlfriend, her desirable friend, his father's sympathetic friends, and any poor soul he encounters in New York as he makes his way.

Unfortunately, the ending of both books fail to satisfy somewhat, perhaps because St. Aubyn saw this as part of a longer narrative in the quintet where the denouement may be down the road (we shall see); these endings, however, lack dramatic impact or resolution. But, I do admit, Patrick forgetting his father's ashes in the hotel until the last minute before he goes to the airport does give the reader a tiny scintilla of satisfaction. How rightful it would have been to have the old bastard's ashes thrown into the waste of New York.  

Soon to come: Some Hope the third book in the series.  

Edward St. Aubyn

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Wedding Betch

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker (Originally published by Contemporary Fiction - Victor Gollancz, 1964; republished by NYRB Classics, 2004) 226 pages

Who here has not had their wedding plans, if not spoiled at least, soured by a wedding betch? Who here has not been a wedding betch? Ahem ... I recall two or three who did their best to make me feel guilty about every detail, from the cost of the dress, the choice of items on the menu, the invitation list, the overall preparations and their complete lack of interest in the flower arrangements (the unmitigated gall of such indifference!) or, even worse, saying they'd come and then not showing up, without explanation? That last bit still rankles quite a bit ...

I get it ... weddings are boring for most; brides are especially boring. I am certain that I was a boring bride to be. But a little forbearance from my loved ones would not have gone amiss during a difficult time. R's father had just passed away five months before we married and no one on his side of the family was vaguely interested in the wedding. I had challenges on my side too. The timing did not appear to be good and people did not behave nicely.

On the other hand, and this is why karma sucks my good people, I remember being an unenthusiastic participant in the wedding of a person close to me and being rather prickly about it as it seemed to dredge up a certain amount of unpleasant female rivalry and emotion between us. I could not have named my anxiety then and I'm betting neither could our young protagonist Cassandra Edwards. Her name hearkens back to Greek mythology and another Cassandra who had prophetic powers ... and it didn't end that well for that chickie either I'm afraid.

But this really isn't about a wedding, it's about women and the constrictions that they felt they were under in a specific time period about their life choices.

At least Cassandra has some sort of excuse for being so vile to her twin sister Judith as Judith prepares to marry. It's 1962 ... a period of pre-Second Wave feminism where for a young woman not to aspire to marriage was seen as sort of strange mental malady. Cassandra is definitely feeling the constrictions of being an upper middle class girl, well educated at Berkley and working on her Ph.D., who feels that she has few options and that her sister is deserting her and the life that their hermetically sealed family has always pursued.

Cassandra alludes to the special relationship between the women as sisters, as twins, referring to "our stars". They are " ... Castor and Pollux, inseparable. They stay together all year round but they go to China or someplace in the summer. Together, of course. And come back home in the fall." This is what Cassandra hopes for - that they will never be separated, that their life together should not change. She even offers to drive to the airport and tell the groom John exactly that ...

Perturbed by her twin Judith's wedding plans, Cassandra consciously, or subconsciously, tries to ruin the wedding when she arrives back at the family home from Berkley University where she is completing her Ph.D. She doesn't respond to Judith's phone calls; she refuses to talk about the wedding or the groom; she purposely misnames him; she lies to Judith about their father and grandmother's impressions of John; she purchases (uncannily) the exact same dress her sister purchases for her wedding and then refuses to exchange it but offers to cut it up into little pieces. She insults Judith's taste in the dress saying that she expected something more conventional. She refers to the dress (hers or Judith's?) as "the white snare. The pure silk booby trap that caught me out."

Cassandra is in revolt against her (and Judith's) fate and she doesn't even understand why. She vehemently objects to Judith's marriage and to her perception that Judith will become a conventional, suburban housewife. She's a quirky, angry person who reminds me in a way of Holden Caulfield, the 17-year-old protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye - misanthropic, unhappy in a very unspecific way and unable to assimilate into mainstream society because of some dearly held moral principles that they believe are superior to others'.

The anticipated separation and emotional dissonance between the sisters is so great that it pushes Cassandra into trying to harm herself when she learns that Judith has left to pick up her fiancee at the airport.

The mythological influences abound ... the sense that we are in the midst of a Greek tragedy. When Judith says that she feels as if she has just swum the Hellespont the reader recalls that the Hellespont features in the legend of Hero and Leander where Leander swam the Hellespont to tryst with the priestess Hero, his beloved. Presumably the horrific night with Cassandra represents the Hellespont.

Baker cites Hemingway as an influence and I see it clearly. The clipped sentences, the simple sentence structure and plot line. But it is much more psychological in nature. Baker is very effective in demonstrating Cassandra's torment. We may not fully understand it but we feel for her intensely.

There is an unspoken sense that Cassandra is possibly gay (Baker has tackled this theme before to great controversy in her other works) but it is never explicitly mentioned. One can imagine the shock waves that a more graphic revelation would have made in that Mad Men age. But the psychological conflict and anxiety in Cassandra is explicit - the continuous drinking, the pill taking, the analysis, the aversion to marriage ... the coy manner in which Cassandra asks her grandmother if she really believes that her "prince" will come one day as Judith's has come. If my gaydar was a bell, I, and it, would be ringing ... Here is Cassandra reasoning to herself after her attempted suicide:
You've blundered into high grade stuff here. You can't get away with it. Nobody's going to like it - not even God. It's not his plan, as everyone knows. His plan is for somebody from California [Judith] to run into somebody from Connecticut {John}, opposite sex and altogether fitting. And the, Lord, can the receiving line receive and the hosannas bounce off the back wall.
Fortunately, a wedding ring no longer means a sort of enslavement as it did for some women at that time. But it did for some. And Baker was infinitely brave to suggest that all that glitters (like a diamond engagement ring) does not represent gold for all women.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Humorless Feminist

I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley (Penguin Group, 2008) 228 pages

Hello, my Name is A Lit Chick and I ... am ... a ... humorless feminist but, hey, I come by it honestly. I have been a humorless feminist since the age of eleven. Yes, I do recall the exact date of my epiphany (a long story that I will share another time). Since that age, I have struggled to find humor in the written works of contemporary comedic writers.

David Sedaris leaves me cold. Woody Allen ... meh. Fran Liebowitz ... sister please. The two Daves: respectively, Barry and Eggers. Bleh. Sarah Vowell, okay she makes me laugh. She's odd, quirky and smart. I love to laugh as much as the next gal, possibly more. I love funny people, they are my favorite kind of people but humor in the printed word is so elusive for me. So what is my problem besides the fact that I am a humorless feminist? 

I picked up this book in New York at the Strand Bookstore last month because I loved the title. And I like reading thoughtful essays. So why does Ms. Crosley's brand of humor irk me so much? Because it is about nothing ... not the funny "It's about nothing" Seinfeld kind of humor, it's just about nothing. 

She has a trash mouth, which does appeal to me, but she wastes it on the trivial. She is charmingly insecure about her looks and hair. But what gal isn't? Look at her face ... sniping at her would be like yelling at a kitten. However, one must screw your courage to the sticking-place in reviewing ...

A sample of the personal essays, albeit, I'll admit she has a talent for snappy titles ...
  • My collection of toy ponies ("My Pony Problem").
  • I got locked out of my apartment not once, but twice, the day I moved apartments. I'm such a flake! ("Fuck you, Columbus")
  • I'm a vegetarian and it pisses off my friends and family ("Lay like Broccoli").
  • At summer camp, they made all the kids (even the non-Christians) participate in Christmas celebrations ("Christmas in July") and even though I'm Jewish I liked it!
  • I pissed off my friend's boyfriend one night and I think he left me an ugly surprise in my bathroom ("Smell This").
Say something meaningful I want to scream, stop being so glib and frothy.

The closest we get to any honest emotion is in the essay "You on a Stick" about being the maid of honor for a high maintenance friend from high school whom Crosley has not seen since high school. A lot of the expected humor is at the expense of the bridezilla who mercifully has had her name changed in this piece. But Crosley hits a nerve about female relationships and the married state. Not everyone gives a damn about weddings or bachelorettes or the size of the ring he bought you. There is an ugly, largely unspoken of tension here ... implicitly, for some, a woman's value and self-esteem is tied to the size of the wedding celebration and the cost of the Vera Wang dress. It's one of the few places where we see a glimpse of honest anger and  truth. The page practically crackles with heat and rage.

The wedding industrial complex is obnoxious; it does do something to women who get sucked into it. Otherwise rational, intelligent women start bullying and terrorizing everyone around them to achieve that most ephemeral of things - the perfect wedding.

The essay on Crosley's first boss being an unbearable harpy ("The Ursula Cookie"), despite her initial positive impression of the woman, was poignant but lacking in something. Crosley resigns the day after 911 after being treated horrendously by her seemingly sociopathic boss - not specifically because of 911 but it just happened to work out that way. There were so many ways she could have handled this episode: perhaps an examination of a thwarted expectation that maybe Ursula would change her ways in a post-911 "we're all in this together" New York sort of way; the realization that she likely wouldn't change; exploding the myth that publishing work in NYC, even entry level work, is glamorous. Instead we have the depiction of a very immature person just disintegrating in front of her vicious employer (very understandable but interesting? I'm not sure). Who has not dissolved before an intimidating boss who thought you were a complete fool?

Or take for example the essay "Sign Language for Infidels". Crosley, or a reasonable facsimile of her fictional self, volunteers at the American Museum of Natural History in the Butterfly Room. It reveals a bit about volunteerism and self-delusion. We want to "appear" to be good people by volunteering but often don't have the wherewithal to follow through and often dislike what we have to do and whom we have to do it with as volunteers.

Maybe I just have an odd sense of humor. I think the following personal anecdote that I have written about in this blog is funny: a (presumably) homeless person sniping at me while I am serving food at the local soup kitchen during my stint as a volunteer in the winter during a particularly trying night because a) it explodes the little liberal fantasy I have that the homeless are sweet, beleaguered people who are grateful for my volunteer work. b) I can freely admit that he looks like a jerk for being rude to me and I'm a jerk for expecting that a potentially mentally ill person of limited means is not going to feel stressed and angry when he can't get his meal in what he perceives to be a timely fashion. Now, for me, that's funny because it says something about him (he is human, very much so) and me (a deluded liberal stripped of her expectations) and society (we think passing out some meatloaf to an impoverished person with possible mental health issues will make things better in our city). 

Ms. Crosley
So I wanted Crosley to say something about her 20 something life in New York. Something about the experience of being young in one of the greatest cities in the world. There is virtually nothing about 911 or life after it. Nothing about the diversity or class differences or proximity to some of the richest people in the world in that city.

So ... do you want to sound like a smart-assed, trash talking Westchester bred brat from a privileged background? Or do you want to say something meaningful? Okay, we're waiting Sloane. You can do it ... "My name is Sloane Crosley and I want to write comic pieces ..."

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Never Mind

Never Mind (1992) in the omnibus edition of The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn (Picador, 2012) 

Edward St. Aubyn has a vitriolic but eloquent disdain for the British upper class that he is eager to impart to his readers. His contempt is not confined to the aristocracy, that he captures so brilliantly, but also the wannabes and hangers-on that populate his novels.

His contempt seems well founded. They are (variously, as they are portrayed here) vain, snobbish, obsequious towards their "superiors" and contemptuous towards their "inferiors". They are alcoholic, promiscuous, mooching, impossibly self-obsessed. Virtually, only the five year old Patrick Melrose, the main character who is loosely based on St. Aubyn himself, remains pure, tainted only by this father's horrendous abuse and his mother's maternal incompetence.

When David Melrose, Patrick's father, meets his prospective bride Eleanor we immediately understand the parameters of their relationship when he requests that she eat the Moroccan chicken he has lovingly prepared as if she were a dog ... no cutlery, no hands, on all fours, on the floor. The pattern of dominance/submission is set. It's an absolutely chilling scene.

This is a nasty trick he repeats when he compels Eleanor to consume all the fallen figs from a tree on their property that she has mildly complained are being wasted. Thus, we meet Patrick Melrose's parents.

But David's cruelty is not restricted to Eleanor. Even more explicit horrors await little Patrick. David approaches Patrick as if he is a subject in a scientific experiment, exhibiting sadistic, and horrifically immoral, behavior to see how much the little boy can take before he breaks. 
Edward St. Aubyn
Eleanor, completely subjugated, alcoholic, addicted to pain-killers, watches helplessly from the sidelines, unaware, or unable, to act.

The circle of "friends" who surround the Melroses (Victor Eisen and Anne Moore, Nicholas Pratt and Bridget Watson-Scott) who have gathered for an informal dinner at the Melrose home appear to not so secretly despise the Melroses, their own partners and even themselves. And who can blame them? They cheat on each other, suck up to the monstrous David to enjoy the luxuries of his home, gossip about Eleanor's alcoholism and subjugation even while they enjoy the fruits of her inherited wealth.

One other person comes off fairly well in the novel, his mother Eleanor's friend Anne Moore who tries to console the wretched boy after he tumbles down the stairs and cuts himself. He remains marooned on the stairwell outside the party waiting for his mother to appear (she does not). A sympathetic Anne resurfaces in the next book to console Patrick about his father's death. 

If the author sounds wounded and bitter it's likely because he is. Much of the material regarding Patrick's early experiences is said to be autobiographical.

The language is beautiful and St. Aubyn displays wit and sharp insight into his class but the story feels abbreviated and open-ended. Perhaps St. Aubyn already envisioned the four novels that were to follow?

On to the next book in the quintet called Bad News ... look for the review shortly.