Archive for June, 2009

The back cover of my copy of The Likeness compares French’s novel to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, so when I realized that Dorothy had a copy (in hardcover, no less), I pulled it off the shelves and found myself immersed in one of the most odd, ambivalent, happy, and annoyed reading states ever.  I liked the novel a lot while I also disliked it a lot.  I’m not sure which side is winning, but as I think more about how the narrative is structured, and as I see what Tartt is doing (or trying to do) with time and the setting, I sort of want to reevaluate my response and see the problems as strengths, or at least as intentional authorial choices rather than flaws in technique.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The novel begins with a short prologue that lets us know that the narrator and the rest of his insular group of college students killed one of their own several years earlier.  Once this tantalizing tease is set up, the narrator jumps back to fill us in on his background and the events leading up to the murder.  Richard Papen is a native Californian who longs to get away from his working class parents and their sharply circumscribed lives, so he, on a whim, applies to Hampden College in Vermont (apparently based on Bennington, where Donna Tartt was an undergraduate in the 1980s).  Once in Vermont, Richard endures many of the typical fish out of water experiences that mark college novels, until he falls in with a strange group of undergraduates who are all studying classics.  The classics prof is a wealthy eccentric who tutors only a small handful of students, on his own terms, using his own private classroom, all while thumbing his blue-blooded nose at the college administration.  Professor Morrow exemplifies the classics, with his deep knowledge of ancient history, languages, art, and culture and a corresponding disdain of modern philistinism.  He is a complete aesthete, and probably completely amoral besides.

Richard fellow students are all immensely wealthy, or make a good, Gatsby-esque show of being immensely wealthy.  He nevertheless manages to fit in with the group as they lounge in overstuffed chairs and speak to each other in pithy Greek epigrams.  Soon, though, problems arise in the group as friendships show strain from unseen horrors.  Richard learns that four of the group had been experimenting with Dionysian ritual and had tried to tap into the ancient ecstasy recounted in some of their texts.  The ritual is successful, in a sense, but a sort of tragedy (more on the “sort of” later), and one of the friends not involved in the experiment, a blustery New England prepster named Bunny, begins to blackmail the students involved.  When the rest of the Greek students can stand Bunny’s increasingly unhinged threats no longer, they push him off a cliff.

This novel is not a mystery–there is no doubt who killed Bunny or why.  It is also not a mystery because the police do not suspect foul play.  However, the five remaining friends, with guilty thoughts tormenting them and straining their relationships to the suicidal limit, never feel safe despite the lack of police interest.  The psychological stress each undergoes provides the real narrative impetus, and in that sense it is a satisfying novel.  I found myself obsessed with their torment and Tartt’s narrative strategy to release small pieces of information at a time made me keep turning the pages.

But.  But, but, but.  For some reason I was frequently irritated by this novel.  Part of it was the tone, which felt all wrong.  It was fussy and condescending at times, lending an almost anachronistic air to things; I had trouble believing Richard would write this way.  It is true that he is writing years after the events, after he has become an English professor, but the tone still felt awkwardly posed, mannerist, and contrived.  The characters were also far too odd and eccentric.  Bunny, who comes from a New England banking family with a very expensive reputation to maintain, talked, I thought, too much like a parody of Fitzgerald.  Did any college student in the 1980s (when I presume this was set–the timeline is not clear, either, something else that annoyed me) call his friends “old boy” like a bluff, dense, country squire from a Dorothy Sayers novel?  And then there are the class issues.  Richard is very poor, but somehow immediately blends in with the rich preppy kids, wearing tweed suits and vintage ties (really?) around campus.  Furthermore, in their Dionysian experiment, the four rich kids accidentally kill an old Vermont farmer.  Because it is done in the spirit of aesthetic and intellectual curiosity, the murder seems like no big deal.  Their professor, when he hears about it, is more excited that they were successful in their attempts to reach some ecstatic peak than in the death of some poor farmer.  It reeks of noblesse oblige and makes me more angry the more I think about it.

It was a good, interesting story, but it has left me in turmoil as I fight myself about its final merits.

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Damned Spot

A while back I was chatting with a friend on Facebook when she recommended Ron Rash’s newest novel, Serena.  I immediately opened a new tab, found the book online, and ordered it (yes, I am such a technical kind of guy).  Although it arrived quickly, I had to set it aside until after classes and graduation were over, and then I was still finishing up my latest excursion through the O’Brian series.  I finally got to it early last week, and my friend’s recommendation was very worthy.  It is a very haunting novel that plays with many of my favorite themes; there is a strong ecocritical slant to much of the novle, and the prose is beautifully evocative in a very naturalistic way.

In brief, the novel is set at the beginning of the Depression and is about the scion of a timber family named Pemberton who returns to the logging camp in North Carolina with the new bride he acquired in Boston.  I use the rather loaded and paternalistic term “acquired” very advisedly, and very ironically.  Serena is, after all, not the sort of woman who would let herself become the property of any man, and it soon becomes clear that Rash has a copy of Macbeth sitting at his elbow as he writes.  The opening scene is as bloody as the “fair is foul” introduction to the Scottish play.  The newlyweds step off the train and are quickly confronted by a tough mountain man, fortified with some Dutch courage, and his teenaged daughter, who happens to be very pregnant.  With Pemberton’s child.  The mountain man brings out his big pigsticker of a knife, Pemberton takes out his Bowie (a wedding present.  From his wife.) and the two duel.  Dueling is too nice a term, though, for something that ends with one thrust.  The old man crumples in the dust and Serena, who seems oddly aroused by this, takes the man’s knife (a rather nice one) and hands it to the girl, telling her to sell it for money, because she’s never going to get anything from the Pembertons.  In other words, Serena makes the average black-clad femme fatale look like a pale weeping Nellie with a bad case of the vapours.

So the Pembertons set out to build an empire on chopped-down trees.  When all of the trees in North Carolina are gone, they plan to move to Brazil to cut down all of the trees in South America.  Their hunger for trees is frightening, and their ever-more rapacious greed becomes all-encompassing.  They are violently opposed to plans, partly funded by the nearby Vanderbilts (Biltmore is just down the road from the logging camp) to buy up huge tracts of the Pisgah Forest and turn it into a National Park.  They begin to oppose the park plan not so much because of economic reasons but because they just want to chop down more trees and that just for spite.  The fight between the park and industry is really more about the fight for their individual identities.  Without the logging, the Pembertons cease to exist.

Rash presents an interesting dilemma here.  While he is clearly on the side of the park, he is also very sympathetic to the men who work in extremely hazardous conditions (it seems a logger dies on almost every page, either from a falling tree or some other disaster) and to the hundreds of desperate and hopeful men who arrive on the trains looking for a job in the camp.  He seems to be trying to find a way to achieve a balance between our need and desire for nature and our need and desire for economic stability.  When the Pembertons finish logging an area, they quickly move on to a new spot, leaving many of the old loggers behind, so their model is clearly not sustainable.  On the other hand, the government’s heavy-handed and bullying arguments about eminent domain ring hollow to the hollow-eyed men hungry for work and who see the logging camp and the only thing that could possibly save them from utter annihilation.

The land eventually becomes a hellish wasteland.  The hills and mountains are stripped bare, and the slash wood, the trees no good for logging, are torn down, piled up, and burned.  In Rash’s descriptions I see a Dantean landscape, inhuman, inhumane, fit only for the otherworldly queen of death riding on her white horse through the smoldering ash.  As the novel progresses, the normal, recognizable world becomes twisted and freakish.  Serena had ordered a Mongolian eagle, which she trained to the glove; the image of her riding through the smoky haze with this huge bird perched on her fist is surely the thing of nightmares.  Her sidekick is a nearly speechless man who lost his hand in a freak accident; Serena had saved him from death by quickly whipping a tourniquet around his wrist and now he follows her like a mute and fiendish hound, killing her enemies for her without even hearing her explicit wish that they die.

The only serious problem I had with the novel is its unrelenting bleakness, which may sound like a strange criticism coming from me, the fan of Cormac McCarthy.  However, it was not so much the bleak tone but the single-dimensional qualities that unnerved me.  Serena is powerful and even noble in many ways, but she is unhesitatingly, unstintingly evil.  There is no compassion anywhere.  With Lady Macbeth, on whom she is modeled, I get the sense that she feels remorse, and her “Out, out–” speech pretty clearly points to some regret or conscience.  Serena never has her damned spot moment, and that is to her detriment.  She would have been a more interesting character for it.

Nevertheless, read it.

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Operation Mirror

Last year I read Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods, upon the recommendation of a friend.  I liked it quite a lot, and found it to be a good, tautly written, psychologically complex murder mystery.  It combined the exacting detail of the police procedural with some dark hints of the uncanny, all presented with sharp, fluent prose.  When I saw French’s sort-of-a-sequel, The Likeness, in my birthday bookstore crawl, I grabbed it.  The verdict is in, and it is very, very clear: although In the Woods was a great novel, The Likeness is exponentially better, perhaps one of the best mystery novels I’ve read.

I said above that it’s a sort of sequel.  In the first novel, the action revovles around Rob Ryan and, to a slightly lesser extent, his partner Cassie Maddox.  We learn a little about both detectives’ backgrounds, with the tantalizing hint that Cassie had worked in Undercover, where she was stabbed by a suspect.  This sets the stage for the new novel, with Cassie taking over the duties of the narrator and playing a multi-layered role as undercover cop, murder investigator, and bait.  In her days as an undercover agent, Cassie posed as a Dublin college student named Lexie Madison; in her dealings with drug dealers and users, she had been stabbed by a pathetic suspect, and, on the strength of her undercover work, she got herself transfered to the Murder Squad, where we find her in the first book.  In the sequel, she has transfered to Domestic Violence, almost entirely because of the trauma caused by the investigation featured in the first novel.

She is quickly dragged back into the world of murder and undercover by an early morning phone call from her boyfriend, a detective in the murder squad.  He is frantic, and asks her to come down to a murder scene as soon as she can.  When she arrives at the old cottage she is startled to find her old boss from her undercover days, Frank Mackey, there as well.  His appearance is explained when she sees the murder victim: a young woman named Lexie Madison.  Not only does the young woman bear Cassie’s old undercover name, she also looks almost exactly like Cassie.  Mackey, who loves to play rough with the rules, sees this as the prefect opportunity to resurrect Lexie the undercover agent, using Cassie to flush out the murderer.  Although Cassie is at first horrified at the idea, she soon finds herself oddly drawn to it, and agrees to the outrageous plan.

Lexie–the murdered girl–had been a graduate student at Trinity, and she lived in an old Georgian mansion in the village of Glenskehy with four other graduate students in a strange, idyllic intellectual commune.  Daniel, one of the graduate students, had inherited the mansion from his eccentric old uncle, and he immediately shared his new home with his friends, making them co-owners.  There the five stayed, cooking together, reading together, living a completely isolated but apparently satisfying life.  The scenes of this life are some of the most remarkable in the novel.  In many ways, it sounds like the graduate school dream that many of us had: the students are free from worry about their living arrangements, and they move from their classes to their tutorials to their quiet, studious home life as if enchanted.  Their evenings are filled with books, intellectual discussions, card games, gentle teasing.

Outside the house, though, the world lurks.  Whitethorn (the name of the house) had been the home seat of the March family in the days of the Anglo-Irish landlords, and the locals in the village (which is presented as an almost primitively isolated and insular community) still detest the house and all it stands for.  This leads to a number of suspects.  Was Lexie murdered by an angry villager who had had enough of the Big House persecution?  Was she killed by a real estate developer who wanted to turn the house into a luxury golf resort?  Was she killed by one of her housemates?

The plot is never obvious, and although I suspected the killer early on, I never had quite enough reason to believe my suspicions, and I was easily led to suspect others along the way.  The entire time Cassie is playing Lexie and living in the house, French slowly but mercilessly turns up the tension until the final dramatic confrontation and resolution left me worn and twisted in agitation.  I read the last two hundred pages at a feverish pace, turnign pages as quickly as my eye could scan the words, needing to find out what was going to happen.

The novel, though, is not just a good page-turning yarn.  The prose is crystalline, and Cassie’s voice as she gradually falls in love with the house and its inhabitants is immensely seductive.  She comes across as clear-headed and analytical but also deeply passionate and alive.  French also deals with the history of Ireland and its harsh conflicts with honesty and heart.  The cottage where Lexie’s body is found is one of the many “famine cottages” found across the countryside, a cottage abandoned in the 1840s when its inhabitants either starved to death or immigrated.  The relationship between the big house and the village is eerily recreated in the relationship between Daniel and his friends.  Always lurking in the background is the Celtic Tiger, the loud, vibrant, electrified European hotspot that Ireland had become early in the millenium, an identity that threatens to overwhelm and destroy an older culture.  The older culture, however, is not sentimentalized, but is shown with all its flaws and violence.

I can’t wait to read what Tana French has planned.  This is a great book–read it.

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Not the Best Week

Last week in the Wednesday Night World Championships (formerly known as the Tuesday Night World Championships), I actually had a teammate in the race to help out.  It was a points race, and he gave me a textbook perfect leadout for the first sprint, where I managed to take third.  I spent some precious energy chasing a couple of breaks, timed the next sprint wrong and ended up fifth (only the top three scored points).  A couple more dangerous-looking breaks formed, so I felt obliged to chase again.  The third sprint began with another perfect leadout, but I exploded, very badly and dramatically, about halfway up the hill.  The peloton passed me and I dropped off the back.  After chasing while trying not to hyperventilate for a lap and a half, I was shot.  I had my head down, trying hard to stay on pace to catch the group.  When I looked up, I saw myself heading straight for the curb.  I managed to hit my brakes and turn slightly so I hit the curb obliquely, but I nevertheless flew gracefully over the bars and did two or three neat somersaults on the grass.

After picking myself up and checking my bike for damage, I slowly pedaled back to the start/finish line.  My side was hurting, and I thought I may have bruised the rib I broke last August in another crash.  I sat down to watch the rest of the race, but I soon began to feel very bad.  My head hurt horribly, and I started to see the small auras I usually associate with a migraine.  Everyone was telling me I looked horrible (thanks, guys!), so Dorothy decided I needed to go to the ER.

The ER was very crowded for a Wednesday night (it wasn’t a full moon, either: not until Sunday), but I soon found myself strapped to a back brace and bound with a cervical collar.  After some waiting around, I was wheeled into another part of the hospital for a CT scan. Back to the room.  Then, they needed my room, so they wheeled me out into the hall.  Behind a curtain, a man screamed “Ow, ow, ow ow!” at the top of his lungs, over and over again, very monotonously.  The doctors and nurses in his room sounded out of patience with him and I thought they were inches away from smacking him silly.  Or sillier.  (I thought I might have overheard “PCP” as an explanation of his problem.)  Then the radio in the nurses’ station crackled into life as an EMT called in a patient.  In the background I could hear the ambulance siren.  I heard “GSW” and “forty caliber.”  Soon all of the doctors were tossing on gowns and gloves and running to the ambulance bay.

Eventually the excitement died down enough for my doctor to come back with the diagnosis: no brain bleeding, but a mild concussion.  I was advised not to do it again.  The nurse handed me a few percocet tablets, and we were off.

Despite the concussion, I decided to go ahead with my race on Sunday, especially because this race was on my home course.  Although our spring weather here in southern Connecticut has not been all that great, Sunday was one of those picture postcard days.  Highs in the low 80s, low humidity, a light breeze, a perfectly blue sky.  It’s the kind of day that shows up in the dictionary next to “Summer.”  I dragged out my folding chair and settled in to watch the races before mine.  Dorothy’s race was particularly fun to watch.  She did a great job, finishing right in the mix, taking 7th.  The masters (over 45, so I couldn’t do it) raced with the juniors, and this race proved to be unexpectedly exciting as two juniors took off from the whistle and lapped the field.  Finally, my race came up.

I was slightly nervous, but felt confident.  When the whistle blew, I stayed near the front, watching as the inevitable first lap solo attack went down its doomed road.  We caught him before the end of the second lap.  There were a couple more attacks, and I chased some of them before realizing that no one was going to be allowed to get away today.  Once I realized this, I settled back into the pack and took it easy, with my heart rate resting well at around 145.  As we got close to the end of the race, I started to move my way forward, slowly and carefully.  At two laps to go, I was about 15 back, which felt about right.

Halfway through the second to last lap, I felt a sharp sting in my hamstring, an electric zinging pain that radiated up and down my muscle.  I ignored it, though, and kept going.  At the bell, I started watching everything very carefully and set myself up for the sprint.  Although I started the sprint from a little farther back than is ideal, I still managed to pass many of the racers and finished in 6th place, which made me very happy.  I started this race with the goal of a top ten, and I got it.

The pain in my leg, though, was bothering me, and this, in combination with some other odd discomfort caused me to drop out of the next race (the pro-123 race) after a half dozen laps or so.  As we drove home, I started to itch everywhere, and in the shower I noticed that I had a horrible rash over half my body.  I downed a dose of Benadryl to quell the itch.  The next morning, Monday, the rash had spread to cover my entire body.  When I called my doctor and started to explain, I got all the way to “I got stung by something and now I have a rash–” before she cut me off and told me to come in.

Diagnosis: moderate allergic reaction to an insect sting but no anaphylaxis.  I do, however, have to carry an epipen with me now just in case.  Apparently the allergic reactions can grow more sever over time and repeated exposure to the allergen.  So, the next sting could be even worse.

As I said, not the best week.

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