Dilettante's Diary

May 20/12

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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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How Fiction Works
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Psychopath Test (Science); When Skateboards Will Be Free (Memoir); The Proxy Marriage (Short Fiction); The Five-Year Engagement (Movie); How It All Began (Novel); 11/22/63 (Novel)

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (Science) by Jon Ronson, 2011

It takes a while to figure out what this book’s about and where it’s going.

We start with a mysterious case of a strange book that’s being mailed to a number of prominent people. There seem to be some ominous portents, some secret messages intended in the mailings, but nobody can figure out what’s up. Jon Ronson explains that he was brought into the case because of his reputation as a journalist who likes probing mysteries. His previous books were The Men Who Stare at Goats and Them: Adventures with Extremists, both of them treating way-out-there subjects. Eventually, he does track down the kook who has been sending out the weird book that launches the quest that’s the subject of his first chapter here.

Then we’re involved with some Scientologists in Britain and we learn how much they despise the profession of psychiatry. (Makes you wonder if L. Ron Hubbard got a particularly rough going-over on some psychiatrist’s couch.) But the whole point of this chapter is that the Scientologists take Mr. Ronson to Broadmoor, the British prison for really bad offenders, where we meet a guy who faked insanity, thinking it would lead to a lighter sentence for a crime. Now the guy’s trapped in a Catch-22 situation: no matter what he does to prove that he’s not insane, it’s taken as proof that therapy is helping him and that he therefore really does have serious mental problems. If, in frustration at his futile attempts to prove his sanity, he lashes back – presto! – he obviously needs more therapy.

As Mr. Ronson takes us through these interesting cases, you begin to wonder about the relevance of the book’s title. This is one of those cases, then, where a reader might have been well advised to pay more attention to a subtitle (something I usually ignore). Mr. Ronson has subtitled his book: "A Journey Through the Madness Industry." So we’re not concentrating only on the psychopath test here. We’re looking at lots of different issues that impinge on the treatment of mental illnesses in our culture. It’s one of those books where you’re asked simply to accompany the writer, hopping all over the place, on a somewhat idiosyncratic exploration of a subject.

As such, the book works very well, much better than, say, In Pursuit of Silence, which was reviewed on the DD page titled "Summer Reading 2011." What seems to make Mr. Ronson’s book better is that his voice is more engaging; his interest so keen that he makes you want to tag along. Mind you, it might be fair to say that, in any writer’s hands, the quest for criminal insanity could likely be a bit more grabby than a report on the effort to find quiet places in our society. In terms of organization, Mr. Ronson’s book has something of a patchwork effect, short snippets alternating with long passages, and the writing often employs what I call the "hesitation step": a couple of steps forward, then a step backward. The chronology can be jumbled, but Mr. Ronson knows how to plant premonitions and narrative hooks that keep you reading.

We do eventually get to the psychopath test, and you could say the exploration of the subject forms the heart of the book. The intensity of the author’s interest in the test radiates through the rest of the material. The psychopath test was invented, as it happens, by a Canadian, Bob Hare. He was working with prison inmates and couldn’t help noticing that liberal and well-meaning attempts to rehabilitate certain violent offenders tended to backfire. So he came up with a test for determining which inmates might be incorrigible because of their being psychopaths.

The test consists of a number of questions aimed at assessing the quality of the subject’s attributes and feelings. Things come up like: glibness, charm, grandiosity, proneness to boredom, lying, lack of empathy and remorse, promiscuous tendencies, etc. A person who scores highly on several of them is a good candidate for being considered a psychopath. It’s estimated that about one in every hundred people qualifies. Thankfully (I’m happy to say), Mr. Ronson offers a certain reassurance to readers. If, as you go down the list, if you’re finding that you seem to have a disconcerting number of the reprehensible traits, then that awareness is a sure sign that you’re not a psychopath. The true psychopath’s response is more like: Who me? They can’t possibly be talking about me! I have no such flaws!

Among likely candidates for the label of psychopath, Mr. Ronson visits Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, the man credited with responsibility for massive killings, rapes and torture in Haiti in the 1990s. Because of various legal complications, he is now living in relative safety and security in the US. Mr. Ronson figures that if anybody can be fingered as a true psychopath, then this is the one. What struck me as somewhat more intriguing was Mr. Ronson’s suggestion that there are many psychopaths running governments, religions and corporations. In the latter context, he visits Al Dunlap, the CEO widely championed for having brought the Sunbeam corporation back from the brink of bankruptcy by his ruthless methods. The man seemed to enjoy firing people and apparently feels no regrets about destroying the town of Shubuta, Mississippi, by his actions. To him, life is a game and it’s a matter of winner-take-all. He now lives in a mansion surrounded by life-size works of art depicting ferocious predator birds and animals. After interviewing the man, however, Mr. Ronson decides that perhaps he doesn’t really fit into the category of psychopath.

It’s in his approach to Mr. Dunlap that some of the most interesting aspects of Mr. Ronson’s writing emerge. He takes off the mask of the objective journalist, so to speak, and lets us feel his trepidation as he negotiates tricky terrain with this difficult subject. Is Mr. Ronson going to get in deep trouble as a result of some of the highly-charged questions he’s asking the man? "I was in over my head. What did I think I was doing? I’m not a licensed medical professional or a scientist."

Another place where Mr. Ronson gives us an intriguing peek into the inner world of journalists is his conversation with a fellow writer about their profession. Is it possible that journalists are guilty of grabbing at tag ends of facts, seizing on tidbits of the extraordinary or the bizarre, and trying to weave together a story from these random scraps where there really isn’t a story?

In a similarly skeptical mode regarding his profession, Mr. Ronson notes how the media exercise a sort of gradient scale when it comes to estimating the public’s interest in a stories about madness. A case in point is David Shayler, a well-respected British spy who first began to show signs of incipient weirdness when he joined a group that claimed the July 2005 bombings in London were staged by the civic authorities by way of a distraction from their own incompetent management. When Mr. Shayler went on to espouse the theory that the planes in the 9/11 attacks in the US were holograms, the media were all over him. But when his madness drove him to the point of proclaiming himself to be the Messiah, the media dropped him, finding him too crazy to be of interest any longer. Mr. Ronson provides an actual graph to show how media interest peaked then plummeted, according to the development of the man’s insanity. The conclusion: you have to display just the "right sort" of madness if you want the media to be interested in you.

Among other related and startling subjects, we look at how British psychiatrist Paul Britton’s "expert" evidence about the presumed psychopathic tendencies of a murder suspect nearly ruined the life of Colin Stagg, an innocent young man. And then there’s the business of the over-diagnosis and, hence, the over-medication of children, especially when it comes to things like supposed cases of bipolar affective disorder. (My understanding of the author’s position is that it’s impossible to spot any such condition in a young child.) We also get an overview of the controversies surrounding the evolution – and expansion – of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

One of the most worrying episodes in the book – if you’re keen on psychiatry – is the story about David Rosenhan, a psychologist who sent seven fake "patients" to various hospitals for psychiatric assessment. Each of them was instructed to report, by way of symptoms, only that they kept hearing the words "empty," "hollow," and "thud" in their minds. Otherwise, they were to present themselves as perfectly normal. Of the eight (including Mr. Rosenham), seven were told they had schizophrenia, one depression. They were kept in hospital an average of 18 days, although they all acted normally, apart from the presenting "symptoms." When the hospitals were informed of the hoax, the staff at one of them challenged Mr. Rosenham to send them some more fakes to discover. He agreed. The hospital staff subsequently announced that they’d unmasked forty-one fakes. Only problem – Mr. Rosenham hadn’t sent anybody.

A reader might be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Mr. Ronson’s apparent motive is to make psychiatry look bad. But I don’t think it’s that simple. My impression is that he’s trying to show that the process of psychiatric studies is not by any means as clear-cut as some would like it to be. He makes the very important point that a diagnostic label does not define a person. And, near the end of the book, he reminds us:

There is no evidence that we’ve been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal. And in fact our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects of our personalities, are quite often what lead us to do rather interesting things.

This reader can’t quarrel with that humane and open-minded conclusion. www.jonronson.com


When Skateboards Will Be Free (Memoir) by Sad Sayrafiezadeh, 2009

Some remarkable pieces of short fiction in The New Yorker drew my attention to the writer Sad Sayrafiezadeh. (You can find comments on the stories on the DD pages dated July 28/11 and Jan 23/12.) What made the strongest impression on me was his under-stated way of conveying some complex, difficult things. When I heard that he’d published a memoir (before the cited pieces of short fiction, actually), it immediately went onto my must-read list.

The book tells about Mr. Sayrafiezadeh’s growing up in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh in the 1970s as the son of committed Communists. The title comes from an incident when he asked his mother to buy him a skateboard. Envisioning the ultimate fulfilment of the socialist ideal, she told young Sad to wait until the day when skateboards would be supplied free of charge to all worthy youngsters. To say that his parents were "committed" to such ideals, though, would be a bit like saying that Pope Benedict XVI has a yen for Catholicism. Young Sad spent much of his childhood being dragged by his mother to meetings where comrades lectured each other at length while he fooled around on the chairs at the back of the room. On occasion, somebody would slip him some money so that he could make a big show of marching up and making a donation, thereby impressing everybody with the fervour of such a young comrade. Not that he didn’t feel a certain loyalty to the cause:

And since my mother never directly addressed the actual content of our existence, never ventured to acknowledge those things that by their very absence resounded so loudly each day, there was something alluring about being in the presence of men and women who had committed their lives to uncovering the hidden, unspoken secrets of the world. Secrets that had been buried by the sediment of years and that, if not for the mighty effort of the comrades – including my mother – would be gone forever.

Mr. Sayrafiezadeh’s mother had given up her hopes of being a novelist and had taken a job as a secretary because that was thought to be a more fitting occupation for a serious comrade. Success – whether in the arts or any other field – was looked on as something for the corrupt and compromised. If you weren’t experiencing suffering and hardship, you probably weren’t a worthy human being. Somehow, however, it wasn’t considered quite so suspect for young Sad’s dad to carry on with his career as a math professor. Some years earlier, he, an Iranian Muslim, had immigrated to the US, where he’d met Sad’s mother, an American Jew. They had two other children, a boy and a girl, who were much older than Sad. However, they were less like siblings to him than like cousins whom he saw now and then. That’s because their parents had split up when Sad was quite young and the sister and brother had chosen to live with their father.

From that point on, the dad appeared sporadically in Sad’s life. Always ebullient, encouraging, and charismatic, he was anything but a stable paternal support that a boy could rely on. Much of the book, then, is about what life was like for Sad and his mother on their own. A bleak sadness permeates the scenes of the two of them in their rented rooms. The drabness was all the more striking when they’d come back from visits to her brother, Mark Harris, the successful author of the acclaimed Bang the Drum Slowly, who lived in circumstances that seemed opulent compared to those of Sad and his mother. Here’s his comment about the feeling in their flat after they’d attended a Communist convention:

Weeks later, months later, after the memories had begun to fade, I would sometimes crawl onto my mother’s lap when she returned from her secretarial job, tired and unhappy, and I would sit with her quietly, just the two of us. Her arms would enfold me and she would press me against her and I would feel her breathing, her chest rising and falling.

Sometimes, late at night, when Sad was supposed to be asleep, there would be phone calls from his father. Sad would hear his mother trying to sound cheery, upbeat and nonchalant during the conversations. When the phone call ended, there would be her inconsolable sobbing. I kept thinking of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Although there couldn’t be more difference between the characters of the two women – the one fey and flirty, the other strong and serious – there’s a very resonant commonality in the situation of the woman abandoned by the man she still loves.

What makes the poignancy all the more touching for a reader is the fact that Mr. Sayrafiezadeh never makes an obvious attempt to pull at our heartstrings. He describes these scenes of desolation, not without sympathy, but without laying on the sentiment or the purple prose. You get the feeling that he’s telling it just as it is/was, and that’s far more meaningful than playing up the melodrama.

Not that he can’t get the adrenalin pumping when he wants to. There’s the situation when he’s been left at home, around age three or four, in the care of a visiting comrade, while his mother attends a meeting. Mr. Sayrafiezadeh inter-cuts scenes at home, where something awful is about to happen, with scenes of his mother rushing to her meeting. The technique makes for urgent, compelling reading. So does a torrential one-page account of his terrified dash to escape getting caught for shoplifting. That incident and a few others like it help to correct the impression that Sad might have been something of a stay-at-home wuss. He and a pal, in fact, once pulled off a stunt that only occurs to me in my worst nightmares: invading the home of some strangers and prowling around in the basement while the homeowners are sitting upstairs.

For the most part, though, Sad comes across as a polite, undemonstrative kid who doesn’t make much of a fuss about things. You can see how that tendency to self-effacement carries over to the author’s adult years when he describes a moment on his thirtieth birthday. Expecting his father to hand him a gift, he says: "...I look away and then down at my hands, because to look directly at someone when he is preparing to give you a gift is coarse, unmannered, and above all presumptuous." (To me, that comment also shows the observational acuity of a budding novelist.)

The author’s emotional reticence becomes especially notable in the way he talks about some bullying he experienced, around the age of ten. Until that point, his Iranian heritage hadn’t meant much vis vis his American peers. But then came the taking of the US hostages in Iran. Suddenly, everything Iranian was evil in the eyes of Sad’s chauvinistic classmates. Unfortunately, when one of them asked his opinion of the hostage situation, he spouted a sample of the anti-US-imperialism rhetoric that he’d been hearing at home. Not only did his playmates shun him completely after that, but they publicly humiliated him in an extremely personal way that’s so hurtful that the matter-of-fact telling of it makes you cringe.

But Sad took it stoically, enduring his banishment as inevitable – until his mother decided that he should switch to another school, where he made new friends. He doesn’t say much about his own wavering on Communism but you can see what’s coming when he responds with less than fanatical enthusiasm to an awareness trip in his teen years to Cuba, that great and glorious epitome of socialism. The highlight of the trip for Sad was getting back to a clean washroom in the good old U.S. of A. It’s not too surprising, then, to find out that, at the time of the writing of this memoir, Mr. Sayrafiezadeh is working as a graphic designer of labels and other packaging elements for the Martha Stewart corporation in Manhattan. Occasional vignettes of this very different life are interwoven adroitly with the childhood memories. A bit of an on-going plot emerges in Mr. Sayrafiezadeh’s fumbling attempts to establish a relationship with a pretty co-worker in the Stewart corporation.

Meanwhile, you’re getting hints that his mother’s life isn’t building towards any sort of victorious culmination. Short as the book is (287 pages), I found myself reading more slowly towards the end, for fear that it was coming to a sad conclusion. And does it? Well, let’s just say that a bittersweetness prevails. Anything else would seem out of keeping with Mr. Sayrafiezadeh’s temperament and his world view.



The Proxy Marriage (Short Fiction) by Maile Meloy, The New Yorker, May 21, 2012

Ordinarily, one hesitates to say too much about a piece of short fiction for fear of giving it all away. But I think we can mention the premise of this piece, not just because it comes right at the top, but because it's so unusual. Bridey and WIlliam are teenage pals in Montana, which happens to be a state that allows proxy marriages. Bridey's dad being a lawyer, the young pair are often asked to stand in for couples who are being married by proxy, usually because the groom is overseas in the army. It's all a bit of lark as far as Bridey's concerned, and it brings in some cash, but it's hard on William because he's hopelessly in love with her. He can't tell her that because she once told him, in a scoffing way, about a guy who took her too seriously.

The odd thing about this story is that it started off looking like not very good writing to me. There's a lot of rather prosaic telling, as in: "William was tall and thin and shy and awkward in school." It isn't the kind of story that leaps off the page with an immediacy and a life of its own, partly because there isn't much dialogue. And yet, the author, in her cool, rather detached way, puts together a picture of a situation in which the feeling is as deep and convincing as the ending is powerful. www.mailemeloy.com


The Five-Year Engagement (Movie) written by Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel; directed by Nicholas Stoller; starring Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Chris Pratt, Alison Brie, Laureen Weedman, Dakota Johnson, Mimi Kennedy, David Paymer, Rhys Ifans

When you stop to think about it, a movie about a long engagement should start with a great engagement scene. Which is what we get here.

Tom (Jason Segel) has an elaborate scenario planned for his proposal to Violet (Emily Blunt). But he’s so nervous on the drive to the chosen setting that he blurts out his plans. Still, she wants him to go through with the stagey setup on the rooftop patio of the San Francisco restaurant where he works. So he takes her there and the rest of his co-workers try to carry through with their assigned roles. When one of the workers makes an angry intrusion on the scene, we don’t know whether or not this was part of Tom’s script. We thus find ourselves in a mind-spinning conundrum: what-is-real-here-and-what-isn’t?

In keeping with that brilliant opening, the script follows up with many clever bits, several of them offering delicious touches of satire on contemporary mores and fads. Just a few of them:

  • a groom who’s a bit of a dork starts to sing a lovesong to his bride at their wedding and – guess what? – it turns out to be very sweet and well-sung
  • a mom complains about her son taking up with a woman who’s too young to know who the Beatles are
  • a running gag about the experiments in a university psychology department sends up academia and the fatuous types therein
  • a San Francisco lesbian explains that she doesn’t approve of spouses sacrificing their own careers for their partner’s: "Which is why I didn’t vote for gay marriage – but don’t tell anybody!"
  • a guy who doesn’t seem very upfront about his Jewishness protests that, yes, he does have lots of yarmulkes: "They’re in my Jewish drawer."
  • two women fall into playing Elmo and the Cookie Monster while arguing about their life choices, with the Cookie Monster insisting that "C is for condom."
  • when a young woman keeps running her finger seductively over the features of a man, he tells her: "Please stop doing that to my face."
  • one reference to male genitals (among the many, as to be expected in any  movie with Judd Apatow on the producing team) has a guy accusing another guy of shooting "telepathic wiener missiles" at a woman he's flirting with

When a movie has so much going for it – and lots more than we’ve mentioned above – a critic feels a bit sad about having to say there’s anything wrong. But there’s no denying that, towards the middle of this one, something wasn’t working for me. By this point, Violet has accepted an offer to do her post-doc work in psychology at the University of Michigan. Tom has left his job as sous-chef at an up-and-coming San Francisco restaurant and accompanied her to Ann Arbour. So the wedding is on hold.

There’s the first problem for me: why hold the wedding? Lots of people get married when they move to a new place for the sake of one partner’s career. I don’t get the point of postponing the wedding. And what’s the big deal about the wedding anyway? Call me an unsentimental, hard-nosed curmudgeon, but I don’t see that it matters much whether or not those wedding bells ever ring. Tom and Violet are a de-facto couple. It’s not as if they’re waiting for any big culmination come their wedding day. So the long engagement doesn’t strike me as much of a dramatic issue. The movie seems to assume that I buy into some big investment in those societal rituals of engagement and wedding without ever convincing me of the significance of them.

It could be, though, that the title has misled me. Possibly the promos too, with their promise of a light-hearted romp. What emerges as the important question is whether or not the relationship is going to survive. These two people, married or not, find themselves faced with the problems that plague many couples when divergent careers threaten to drive them apart. What we’re getting, then, in spite of the comic elements, is a situation where there’s some pretty serious stuff at stake. Not exactly an Igmar Bergman study (although the length of this one, at more than two hours, made me wonder if we were heading in that direction), but not Neil Simon.

Maybe you’d be carried along by the movie without getting the feeling that things were bogging down if you could feel more chemistry between Mr. Segel and Ms. Blunt. There’s a certain icy detachment about her. And that’s not meant as a criticism of her acting; it’s just a question of the way the camera sees her. She comes across as too perfect in her porcelain beauty. That's fine for movies like The Young Victoria but not so suitable when we’d like to have somebody more like the girl next door. Then we might feel that the relationship between her and Tom was a bit warmer.

Although the pairing of Ms. Blunt and Mr. Segel may not be a match made in cinematic heaven, he doesn’t let that get in the way of some fabulous acting. Mr. Segel has perfected the role of a certain kind of contemporary hero: the guy who’s a total man but who doesn’t lose his cool about having a certain femininity projected onto him.. If we need any proof of the manliness of Mr. Segel’ character here – and I don’t think we do – there’s his attempt to fight a guy he takes to be a rival for Violet’s affections. But he doesn’t bat an eye when Violet tells him that her mother was very frustrated about the fact that she had denied herself for her husband’s career, "and I don’t want to turn you into my mother." At one point, Tom offers to take over their wedding preparations, and Mr. Segel can even convince us of a certain enthusiasm about sample invitations he brings home. When another "male faculty spouse" befriends him, you can see Tom trying to be ok with the other guy’s knitting sweaters for him. And yet, when these two faculty husbands go hunting, Tom’s the squeamish one.

Mr. Segel’s greatest moment in this role comes at one of the lowest points of Tom’s relationship with Violet. Standing in the busy kitchen of a restaurant where he works, he hears Violet tell him, by cell phone, that he had failed utterly a psychological experiment that had something to do with proving strength of character. The hurt and humiliation in his face make you wish you weren’t watching. But then he rallies with a self defense and a putdown of the psychology department’s pretensions that has you cheering for him.

Another actor makes such a great impression as a psychology professor that, when I first saw him, my thought was: this can’t be an actor; it’s got to be some quirky, well-known celebrity prof that they dragged in just for this cameo. But, as the movie rolled on and it became obvious that this was no cameo role, I realized that he must be an actor. And what a good one! (The well-known Ryhs Ifans, it turns out, with a long list of movie roles to his credit.)

Capsule Comment: Good enough to make you wish it were a bit better.


How It All Began (Novel) by Penelope Lively, 2011

So here’s how it all began....Charlotte, an elderly Londoner got mugged and knocked over. She suffered a broken hip in that attack, so her married daughter, Rose, had to come to her aid. That meant that Rose couldn’t accompany her boss, a retired professor, on a speaking engagement. That meant his niece, Marion, had to accompany him. That meant she had to cancel an assignation with her lover. That meant his wife found out about the affair....

Yes, it’s the butterfly effect. You know, the thing about the chain of causality – how a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and further down the line war breaks out somewhere. But that phenomenon isn’t the point of Penelope Lively’s novel; it just provides the supporting structure. The meat of the novel is the author’s reflection on the inner lives of the characters who happen to be caught up in this concatenation of events.

In its fascination with her characters’ thoughts and moods, Ms. Lively’s novel is much like the minimalist work of some of those other great British lady novelists: Anita Brookner, perhaps, although not as bleak; or Barbara Pym, if not quite as wry. It seems to me that those of Ms. Lively’s previous novels that I’ve read followed along the same lines. But I can’t be completely sure about that, since I read them before the inception of Dilettante’s Diary, which means that the world – and my memory – now have no detailed record of my impressions of them.

At times while reading this one, I found myself wondering if maybe Ms. Lively is prejudiced in favour of her women characters, given that they seem to be generally more sympathetic than the males. However, there’s one male whose life Ms. Lively creates very endearingly. Anton, an immigrant from eastern Europe, has been taking an adult literary course with Charlotte as instructor. Now that she’s convalescing at her daughter Rose’s, he comes there for private lessons. His spoken English, although imperfect, is relatively fluent but, for some reason, he has trouble reading the language. Ms. Lively conveys exceptionally well the man’s nervousness, his hesitancy, his hopes and frustrations and, best of all, his gradual warming up and blossoming under the fond attentions of Charlotte and her daughter.

The fact that Anton’s fractured English sounds remarkably true helps to allay one concern that cropped up at times: could it be that Ms. Lively writes so much about people’s thoughts because she doesn’t have much of a gift for dialogue? In some scenes between Rose and an old friend, the conversation is dull. But maybe it’s just that Ms. Lively doesn’t find Rose’s friend very interesting. Ms. Lively can obviously provide very good dialogue when she cares enough about a character, as she clearly does about Anton.

But it’s Charlotte she cares about most. (A person might be forgiven for thinking that maybe Ms. Lively’s affinity for Charlotte has something to do with the fact that there may be a certain overlap in terms of demographics regarding the two of them.) It’s Charlotte who’s the heart and soul of the novel. None of the undertakings of the other characters would have nearly as much interest if we didn’t have Charlotte watching them from her compassionate, wise point of view. As for her view of herself, a lot of it’s about coming to grips with ageing, responding with some surprise to the state she finds herself in, trying to assess what it all means ultimately.

But her thoughts are often of the past. That evanescent, pervasive, slippery internal landscape known to no one else, that vast accretion of data on which you depend – without it you would not be yourself. Impossible to share, and no one else could view it anyway. The past is our ultimate privacy; we pile it up, year by year, decade by decade, it stows itself away, with its perverse random recall system. We remember in shreds, the tattered faulty contents of the mind. Life has added up to this: seventy-seven moth-eaten years.

One of the things about Charlotte that Ms. Lively appears to find most interesting is her fondness for reading. In the sessions with Anton, many writers are mentioned: Maurice Sendack, E.B. White, P.G. Wodehouse, Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, Dan Brown, John Updike, Carol Shields, Ian McEwan. I can’t think of another novel that mentions so many. The number of them seems to be an indication that Ms. Lively wants us to consider the place of literature in our lives. Indeed, she makes us think about our own reasons for reading when she gives Charlotte’s:

Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction, even. She has read to find out how sex works, how babies are born, she has read to discover what it is to be good, or bad; she had read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her – then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing.

In the context of the discussion about reading, intriguing ideas are raised about amgituity, endings and the meanings of stories. One of the meanings that a reader may find in this novel – and this comes by way of inference rather than in any direct telling – is that Ms. Lively finds that people are decent, on the whole, and that they can work through their problems in reasonable ways. It might seem damning to a book to sum it up with that overworked adjective "nice", but it seems to me that the word helps to describe the feeling that pervades the book’s ending. Not to say that there’s anything Pollyanna-ish in the author’s attitude. Her characters genuinely struggle with their troubles and whatever contentment they achieve is well earned.   www.penelopelively.net


11/22/63 (Novel) by Stephen King, 2011

You might not have thought a Stephen King book would appear on our reading list here at Dilettante’s Diary. I wouldn’t have thought so either. But I heard Mr. King talking about this one on a radio interview and the premise got me. Suppose you could go back to 1963 and stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. How would that change the history of the latter part of the 20th century? If I remember correctly, Mr. King said something to the effect that he wanted to see if it might somehow have prevented the degeneration of American politics into the rancorous partisanship that now prevails. That sounded promising. After all, other authors had taken a very successful "what if" approach to known history. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, in which he imagines Charles Lindbergh becoming the President of the USA, is a terrific read. (See review on DD page dated Oct 24/05)

A couple of other things helped make me receptive to Mr. King’s work. His self-deprecating humour in the radio interview, for instance. Admitting that he’d like to have garnered more critical praise than he has, he noted that the National Book Foundation had given him a medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He spoke of that as something like the "Miss Congeniality Award." And quite another side of him had shown up in some serious writing following his near fatal roadside accident some years ago. It may have been in The New Yorker that I’d seen his riveting piece about that trauma.

So it seemed like Mr. King’s venture into the genre of the "What If" historical novel might be worth looking into.

Unfortunately, I didn’t anticipate the science fiction mechanism required to enable the narrator to get back to 1963. An old friend of his who runs a diner and who is dying of a cancer lets the narrator in on a big secret: he has discovered a stairway in his diner that leads, la Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole, back to the US of the mid 20th century. By way of a test run before the big JFK challenge, the narrator goes back to see if he can prevent a tragic event that scarred the life of someone he knows. The attempt at revising that particular history works, more or less.

At this point, I’d reached page 230 of the total 842 pages and could go no further. This commentary on the book, then, can’t, in fairness, be considered a review. More like a report on my experience with the book. I found the writing hokey and laboured. Pages and pages of backstory and explanation that were neither interesting nor entertaining. Long digressions into stories that didn’t have anything pertinent to add. Not to mention the plethora of details about US culture back in the day: the most popular movies, fashions, foods, songs, cars, etc. Instead of just the significant morsel that gives your imagination something to build on, you get swamped with reporting that looks like it’s supposed to impress you by its sheer quantity.

There were, admittedly, occasional flashes of a sardonic wit that appealed to me – as in this case where the narrator, on encountering a deadbeat drunk back in the US of the 1950s, comments:

There’s really nothing in the world that can match the glamour of a late-stage alcoholic; I can’t think why Jim Beam, Seagram’s, and Mike’s Hard Lemonade don’t use them in their magazine ads. Drink Beam and see a better class of bugs.

And there was one point at which I could kind of – almost – get with the premise of the piece. It was when the narrator suddenly begins to wonder which is his real self: the one that exists in the 21st century or the one who is prowling around back in the US of half a century earlier. Something along the lines of a parallel universe – I could nearly go with that. Despite my best attempts, though, my mind turned out to be incapable of going with the time travel. I simply don’t get it: if you go back and change what happened in the past, then what happens to everything that we know to have happened since but that now hasn’t happened (supposedly) because of what you changed? All of which, to state the obvious, simply proves that I’m far from being your ideal sci-fi reader. But I’m sorry that I couldn’t bear to read any more of Mr. King’s book than I did. I would really have liked to see JFK live on.


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