Abandonment Issues: Lois Battle, War Brides

Have I mentioned before that historical fiction isn’t my bag? It’s hard enough for authors to say something original and striking about their own era, which they live in and know well; very few can do so with an era they encounter in archives.

I picked War Brides up because I’m doing a Foyle’s War binge rewatch (and because it was on the clearance shelf at Half-Price Books). It seemed a good complement. But within the first seventy pages, it has fallen prey to all the faults of the genre. Too many characters, too little investment in the small story, too much fascination with the tired tropes and types of pop history. (This is odd, because word on the street is that Battle is herself the daughter of an Australian war bride.) You get a bunch of Australian women, their backgrounds and home lives curated for maximum contrast, and attach them to a bunch of indistinct GIs. What are their lives going to be like? How will they get along in this strange new land? Will they like their in-laws? Were their whirlwind romances really love at first sight?

The story isn’t compelling, and Battle isn’t a good enough prose stylist to make this worth my time.

Fiction: Eden’s Trees Falling, Chapter 5

How much whiskey could one man drink? And why did he have to throw it all back up?

Dave Miller knew the type. Afraid of trying to be something, only to find out they weren’t Matt “Bourne” Damon or Patton. Romantics, sentimentalists, believers in reality rather than makers of it. People who would allow their adult children to major in art history and live at home after Metro State, rather than setting them on their own two feet. Sometimes they were the drunk brother; if not, they had a drunk brother who bled them dry, whom a sane person would disconnect, whom they never disconnected.

The new assistant, a young bohemian not worth ruining his marriage over, poked her head in. “It’s the missing guy’s father. Should I…?”

“Just get rid of him.” Unlikely. She had the same look.

He opened his Paper app and scribbled a few bullets. The firm hadn’t released a statement (what to say if no one asked?) and Dave still wasn’t sure what the statement should be. Remorse of course (of course), but – emphasize the family nature of the firm, or the missing man’s dynamic contribution.

The oddest of things was the man’s name. It was not unusual that Dave didn’t remember it at first query. The man was an anonym, a digital menial whose job required a bachelor’s degree to help weed the applicants. The police had used a name and he had scribbled it on a maxi-Post-It by his phone. But when he sought it, all he found were blanks. He had it emailed and texted; his assistant must have deleted the messages. The name could be stored, but could not remain known. The man had found more than one way to disappear.

It Made the Shelf: W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge

If W. Somerset Maugham were alive and writing today, he’d be Cheryl Mendelson. If he wrote nonfiction, maybe David Brooks. At least that’s what I think of him based on The Razor’s Edge. (I’ve also read The Painted Veil, and taken an abortive stab at Of Human Bondage; I liked the former and was exhausted by the latter.) It’s a light literary entertainment spanning the Jazz Age, the Lost Generation, and the Great Depression, and it features deeply conventional, well-heeled people doing what they do best.

It’s pretty embarrassing that Larry, like so many white Westerners, finds his long-sought enlightenment in India. But then, to be fair, The Razor’s Edge was published in 1944, when Alanis Morrissette hadn’t even been born yet. So maybe it wasn’t completely risible to encounter an Eastern culture and chant and pray and return to the United States and vow to give away all your money. And Larry, at least, really does give away all his money. His conviction can’t be doubted.

The early scene in which Larry and Isabel break their engagement – he wanting to tramp the world earning wisdom, she wanting him to settle down earning money – germinates the double spine of the plot. Isabel, born into American affluence like Larry, Gray, and Sophie, marries the millionaire-in-training Gray, only to share his ruin on Black Tuesday. Larry does the vagabond thing, working mines, farms, and ships (you know, Hemingway stuff), until he finally makes his pilgrimage and discovers whatever he was looking for.

The book is limited, but also saved, by Maugham’s decision to insert a version of himself as the narrator. This Maugham watches all the action at a remove (save for his presence at Elliott’s death), at most inconvenienced by the Depression, while receiving occasional dispatches from the others. Those dispatches periodically revive the characters in the manner of Facebook updates from that high-school acquaintance who parlayed excellence in physics into an average office job and a passion for Mad Men, and whom you haven’t seen since the summer after your first year at college.

“Maugham”‘s narration-at-a-remove flattens and clinicizes the action, so that I analyzed Isabel, Larry, et al. more than I understood them. If we had seen the Great Depression through Isabel’s eyes – as she and the broken Gray struggled to keep their heads above water – the book would have gained immense depth. But if we had followed Larry to India – if there hadn’t been those quotation marks around his spiritual journey – the book would have been insufferable (here in the manner of that high-school acquaintance who discovered nonmonotheistic religions and wouldn’t stop telling you about it). If I had lived through Larry, I wouldn’t have been able to laugh at him.

The real Maugham’s Wikipedia page includes a section titled “Grand Old Man of Letters.” The Man of Letters is among my least favorite characters on the literary scene. He could be renamed Didactic Crank with no alteration to the underlying type. Nonetheless, it’s “Maugham” and his presence as a Man of Letters that make The Razor’s Edge work. Maybe it’s nice after all to have a renowned, informed arbiter of taste in your circle. At least, as “Maugham” did with Sophie, someone can carry your story forward when you die.

Fiction: Travel On, Rider

“Placed a knife under the pillow.” The line from the Scrawl song that he had heard only once, late at night, in a bed with a knife under the pillow.

The resting weight of his head depended on that knife. And on the bar of light under the door. It could glow or not glow, just as long as it wasn’t interrupted. And yet pleasure surged, magma-like, at these interruptions. To know that his vigilance was wise and rewarded and the knife, ever unused, was nonetheless necessary.

He dreamed all that time of no life. It was a neurochemical inertness, sleep with the longest E. Death was a different beast, requiring stark punctuation and a terrorish fall from the blue. No life would be a locking door and a grandma light under the bed, a dreadless eight hours horizontal and the knife in its home cupboard.

Sound carried, touched. Words were literal, faces invasive. The tone keyed a mood, killed the ignition, set the chemicals to rest. It made the words mean not what they meant, but what they meant to the wordsmith. They slipped into a form of his own.

It Made the Shelf: Adam Mars-Jones, Fabrications

Any story where a British royal dies of rabies is okay by me. But Elizabeth II’s demise isn’t the only attraction here. Fabrications comprises two longish stories/short novellas, Hoosh-Mi and Bathpool Park. They’re unrelated on the surface, but both deal with how to behave when the expected order of things breaks down.

In Hoosh-Mi, the primary antagonist, if there is one, is a bat who bites the Queen’s corgi. The corgi bites the Queen, and: commence rabies. Mars-Jones is mostly interested in the Queen’s family and entourage, the way they handle their liege’s sudden ungovernability and inconvenient death. The sequence about the ruses used to vaccinate unsuspecting Australians who have had contact with the Queen is hilarious, as is the question of whether the Queen’s public double should simply assume the role full-time post mortem.

Bathpool Park, about a kidnapping gone wrong, is intentionally less hilarious. Donald Neilson doesn’t really want to kill anyone. He just wants to feather his nest with ill-gotten gains, but people keep declining to cooperate with his plans. His One Last Job will be kidnapping the daughter of a scarcely wealthy family for ransom. Mars-Jones covers the full police scramble (familiar to anyone who followed the Natalee Holloway case), and procedural justice akin to a British Law & Order abounds, but of greater interest to me were Donald’s attempts to refine his schemes to the point of inviolability. “He would drop the accident-prone shotgun in favor of the .22,” as if the shotgun were going off-script of its own volition.

Mars-Jones keeps a tight rein on his prose, which allows the loopiness, unforced, to spiral out of control. He also doesn’t ride his concepts into the ground; the brevity of both fictions allows him to avoid repeating himself. I liked it enough to want more, which brings me to the best part: the list of Mars-Jones’s other books is extensive, which gives me something to look forward to.


Fiction: Eden’s Trees Falling, Chapter 4

Mercy of March, the sky no longer darkened at 4. Anyway, there was no need to practice the fine art of haunting the office. Mr. Miller only worked from 10 to 3. The detectives had kept him until 3:30 that day; he had followed them out the door.

At Mississippi Market on Sale, Lauren eyed the panini grill, then called up her banking app and checked the balance. She decided a premade wrap would be just as good a dinner at half the cost.

Goodwill had a traffic jam at the garage. The first hint of spring and Minnesotans scoured their closets for giveaways. Her looped mp3s – mostly songs she had loved at Gustavus – kept her fingers tapping on the steering wheel. Finally her old sweaters, themselves bought at Goodwill, were away. Why did they ask if she wanted a receipt?

Her DVDs were overdue at the library: another fine. She had no cash. Shame, because the latest critically reviled Jennifer Weiner novel was on hold for her. It would be another Netflix evening instead.

Down on Ashland, she found street parking and keyed into her building. The first-floor, alley-facing unit had been hers for five years. When second-floor units opened up, the manager kindly offered them to her, the building’s longest-term tenant, first. She balked at the rent increase that was unmatched by any salary increase.

So she stayed in the apartment with the collapsing bathroom wall that the landlords swore, swore, they would fix, just as soon as they had finished fixing the apartments that still had to attract renters. And because she was not an engineer or a financier, able to build web apps or rejigger investing algorithms, she “coordinated” and “managed” for the Silicon Valley left-behind who sought electoral office as revenge against Zuckerberg and Brin. And because she was underwater on her college loans, her car, her internet and iPhone, she counted food as her one luxury expense and kept $57.14 as her savings toward the trip to France she had promised herself at graduation, five years ago.

Was that, she wondered, why Jacob had disappeared? Because there was nothing left to look forward to?

It Sucks: Charles Palliser, The Sensationist

I haven’t read The Quincunx, which is much better known than The Sensationist but which didn’t turn up on the clearance shelf at Half-Price Books. So it’s possibly not fair to judge Palliser by a product that is lesser in probably every way. But I’m so burned out on Victorian literature, and even quasi-Victorian literature (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, ugh), that I would never have made it through an 800-page imitation.

So instead there’s this plucky little book, 150 pages of pure American Psycho - which I’ve also never read, so maybe I’m wrong. But it is replete with coke, sex, stock trading, and death. David, the protag, is a self-centered heel with an aspirational job and a chilly, infested apartment. He doesn’t make any friends and is always sleeping with someone new. I guess he’s really unhappy and stuff. Comparing The Sensationist to (descriptions of) The Quincunx, I’m reminded of Stephen King’s comment that he blew out each of the novellas in Different Seasons just after finishing a much longer project. I could see The Sensationist being the 1980s residue of an 1850s dream. As with Dickens, there’s a mastery of odd corners of the city coupled with a sense of that same city as a malevolent grinder chewing up everyone who stumbles before it.

Novels of urban alienation aren’t all that hard to write: just leave out the names and the parents, describe the office walls as beige, add sex and stimulants, and boom. But they’re very hard to write well. I’d put Jean Rhys up as my beloved master because the pervasive unhappiness at the core of her writing is rooted in an understanding of how people work. Her novels aren’t about the depresso circumstances of the slums; they’re about how people fall into those traps, and how much they want to break out. Charles Palliser, like writers of sci-fi dystopias, is instead seduced by the drag aspects of his world (coke, sex, beige). That’s cool, but it means he can’t put across how or why his character chose that world. I put the book down feeling as if I’ve overdosed on David’s Valium.

Palliser is probably a good writer in other respects. His ability to turn out two such different books in succession shows an interest in experimentation that does him credit. But really, if you want to read about self-absorbed jerks in the Modern City, you might as well stick with Bret Easton Ellis. He seems to be the market leader.