Wednesday, October 1, 2014

About desire, unrequited and otherwise

People are more than you think they are. 
And they're less as well. 

The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham (Harper Collins, 2014) 255 pages

In many ways this is a book about desire, unrequited and otherwise. Cunningham glides easily, and deliciously, between depicting heterosexual and gay desire in an effortless manner ... a talent he demonstrated in the celebrated novel The Hours and the more recent By Nightfall both of which I enjoyed a great deal.

This is a tale of two brothers and how, and why, they love. The book begins on the cusp of the 2004 Presidential elections (the election's significance is unclear except it perhaps demonstrates Tyler's rabid dislike of Bush and his ilk). Barrett, the younger one, is more cerebral and unsuccessful in love. Tyler is older, in love with Beth who is on the verge of death with a terminal illness, and he is a closeted drug addict hooked on coke. 

Both brothers are unlucky in various ways. Yale-educated Barret works in a high end retailer as a sales clerk and is so broke he is forced to move in with his brother and his fiancee in Bushwick, a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. Tyler, an unsuccessful musician with an on again off again musical career, struggles to write a love song for his bride to be at their wedding. 

Tyler is dream-filled, romantic, passionate about politics and his feelings for Beth who appears to be recovering from a serious illness for a brief time but then succumbs. He's intense, demanding, politically astute, somewhat lost.

Barrett is smart but intellectually and financially under-employed and at loose ends. He is haunted by a vision of a green light he spotted above Central Park as the novel begins. He doesn't know what it means (nor do we - does it hearken back to Gatsby's green light at the end of Daisy's dock?). He is unnerved enough by it that he tells very few what he saw. It haunts him but it also haunts the novel - what can it signify?

Into this circle of friends enter Liz and Andrew, a May/December romance with the 50 something Liz, a successful businesswoman who owns the shop that Barrett works in, managing the relationship and the 20 something Andrew with one eye to the inevitable end of the affair. Liz desires Andrew but see no long lasting relationship in the future.

Barrett, too, covets the glamorously young Andrew surreptitiously but the closest he comes to Andrew is snorting Tyler's hidden stash of coke at a New Year's eve party with Andrew.
And, not surprisingly, there is a sort of unrequited love that a younger brother (Barrett) feels for an older brother (Tyler), whom Barrett perceives to be superior. Barrett yearns for his brother emotionally and possibly physically. Tyler is unattainable in many ways, the object o of love and some resentment.

Beth does not survive (spoiler alert) and the brothers move out of their shabby apartment once Tyler makes a minor splash with an indie hit on YouTube. Liz breaks up with Andrew. Both Barrett and Tyler find love, or lust, of sorts. But the circle is broken and will not be formed in quite the same way again.

Surprisingly, I found at least three spelling errors in this book - I say surprisingly because Harper Collins is a publishing giant and Cunningham a major American writer. 

Literate, witty, passionate, what's not to love about Cunningham? But I am unsure what to make of this novel. Cunningham is a beautiful writer; however, his intent is obscure here despite the beautiful prose. Sometimes that works for the reader, I'm not sure it does here.

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