A Door is a Door is a Door

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PURITY: A Review

SPOILER ALERT

Purity CoverI finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, weeks ago. I didn’t hate it, but found it mostly forgettable. No character resonated; no conflict compelled me to keep reading. The only other work of Franzen’s I’ve read was The Corrections. That was several years ago, but I remember how I felt as the family disconnect played out. I could see the basement with its chair and the urine filled coffee cans. I remember how Alfred’s rejection of his wife and children fueled the dysfunction. Despite the problems generated by choices made by the three grown children, the book wasn’t about them; it was a portrait of a family and the misery of each member. In my opinion, Alfred was the root of the family’s disconnect, his role made overt by the onset of his dementia. I understood the way each family member defined his or her self and though disconnected, they were still a family.

Despite Purity’s lengthy back-stories, it never rang true. Pip, the main character, reminded me of one of my college roommates—the one with the freckled toes. Roomie never raised her voice, seemed very meek and accommodating but got an A in Passive-Aggression 101. She had a cow (didn’t appreciate) when I used a sprinkle of her nutmeg on my French toast. Henceforth, the nutmeg was hidden. Probably where the moon don’t show.

Purity is entertaining and witty. It captures the way the Internet has changed the world and Franzen’s take on millennials rings true. Pip’s search for identity and the identity of the one she hopes will sponsor her ambitions does recall Dickens’ Pip.

But for all the plot twists, witty observations and improbable coincidences, in Great Expectations, Dickens invested his Pip with something more—a reflection on what it means to be human.

The vagueness of her origins (Pip’s mother won’t tell her who her father is, not even her real last name) has given Pip identity issues. Didn’t we all have them at that age? Like the spinster Miss Havisham, Pip’s mother, Anabel is a real head case, as are all the mothers in this book, which makes me wonder about Jonathan’s Franzen’s issues. Anabel is a feminist to the nth degree of the nth degrees. Ex.– Anabel’s long ago student film project entailed filming every square inch of her body and she suffered nervous exhaustion by contemplating each little piece. That’s one way to find yourself. In addition, Pip has massive college debt and Mom is dirt poor. Or is she?

Problem solver that she is, Pip decides to look for her dad. Or maybe “a” dad. She tries to seduce an older man, a fellow squatter in the house of questionable ownership where she resides. The move doesn’t go well and Pip is humiliated. When a houseguest urges Pip to take an aptitude test that will determine if she has what it takes to join an elite organization, lo and behold, Pip is the perfect candidate! This results in her agreeing to join an all girl cult down in Bolivia. In reality, it’s an all girl “expose the truth by hacking” group lead by a Julian Assange type, Andreas. While waffling over her decision, Pip begins an email exchange with Andreas. Andreas is charmed and amused when Pip releases her inner snark. You wonder why he bothers. Andreas has his reasons. Recruiting Pip was no accident.

The novel then divides into the stories of Pip, Andreas and two other characters, Tom and Leila. Tom and Leila are fifty-something investigative journalists who produce an online newspaper. They live together.

We learn that Andreas, born in 1950’s East Germany, was the precocious son of a Stasi (secret police) bigwig. His seductive, intellectual mother had fits that immobilized her. At twelve, little Andreas began to act out (excessive masturbation, drawing pictures of naked women and general weirdness). Not only did his mother get on his nerves, he was dealt another blow when a homeless man informed him that he, not the Stasi guy, is his father. That did it. While attending college he began writing politically incorrect poetry, not a wise choice in Communist East Germany. To escape prison, he hid in a church where he became a youth counselor. He “helped” young girls by seducing them. What a prince.

When he fell in love with the wrong girl, he protected her by killing her abusive stepfather. Guilt and the fear of getting caught continue to press on him. His angst reminded me of the movie, SHUTTER. At the end, a Japanese girl ghost sits, perched, with her arms wrapped around the neck of her murderer. Andreas never shakes it. When the East Germany Communist Party collapses, Andreas frantically searches Stasi headquarters for his file. The nightmarish search recalled 1984 and the feared Ministry of Truth. Before he can be arrested the Berlin Wall comes down. Andreas seizes the moment and his talent for bullshit helps him become a media star when he announces a new world order. Soon after, he meets Tom, an American student who is researching his German roots. When Tom describes his wife Anabel and his unresolved feelings for her, Andreas unburdens himself to Tom and persuades him into helping him rebury the murder victim (the stepfather). This leads to a lifelong fear that someday, Tom is going to rat on him.

MAJOR SPOILERS!

Through facial recognition software, Andreas finds Anabel and discovers that she has a daughter. One more thing: Anabel is an heiress who rejected her family and the billions she inherited. After determining that Tom is Pip’s father, Andreas sends Pip to spy on Tom. One thing leads to another and Pip ends up living with Tom and Leila. Tom wasn’t aware that he had a child. Anabel, as a parting gift, tricked him into fatherhood before disappearing for good. Struck by her resemblance to Anabel, Tom realizes that Pip is his daughter, however, Pip is unaware that Tom is her father. Tom doesn’t enlighten her. When Leila an accomplished journalist and self-assured feminist, misinterprets what’s going on, Tom tells Leila the truth but keeps Pip in the dark.

So—where was I? Tom is a dedicated newsman.

His story details his fatherless upbringing by a neurotic mother who suffered lifelong stomach problems. The saving influence was the care of his normal half-sisters. His relationship with Anabel was a nightmare of narcissism masquerading as extreme feminism. Anabel’s libido was governed by the Moon and her mood swings were right out of Mommy Dearest.

When Pip meets them, Leila and Tom are a content middle-aged couple.

After taking Pip under her wing, Leila invites Pip to live with them. Leila is still married to another man, Charles, a paraplegic. Charles is a one hit wonder novelist struggling to produce another masterpiece. Embittered and sarcastic, Charles riffs on the competition—all the literary “Jonathans.” I’m sure Franzen meant to be self-deprecating, but what I heard was “It’s tough to be me.”

When it seems that Pip and Tom are getting along too well, and before Tom explains who Pip is to him, Leila panics, remembering how years before she had taken Charles away from his first wife. Pip tells them Andreas sent her to spy and returns to Andreas whom she torments sexually, channeling her inner Estella by running hot and cold, never giving up the goods. She plays with him like a kitten batting a squeaky toy.

Andreas’ guilt results in an “other self” he calls “Monster.” Monster would like to hurt people.

Out of spite for Tom’s and Pip’s rejection, Andreas reveals the truth to Pip. When he learns of Andreas’ role in Pip’s deception, Tom, who has repeatedly rejected Andreas’ offers of friendship, decides to confront him and accepts an invitation to visit the compound. Trying to provoke Tom into attacking him, Andreas taunts him with detailed descriptions of his sexual encounters with Pip. Tom doesn’t take the bait so Andreas invites him to take a walk. Andreas stands on the edge of a cliff, but for Tom, the view’s fine from several feet away. All revved up and no one to kill, Andreas/Monster jumps to his death.

Now that Pip knows who she is and how much money her mother has, the fog of indecision lifts and she sets to tidying up her life.

Visiting the man in charge of her mother’s trust, she persuades him to buy the house her squatter friend is in danger of losing by promising to tell him her mother’s address. She convinces her mother to sign off on it and to acknowledge Pip’s identity as an heir. Anabel is childlike. Pip becomes the mother. Rejecting the lifestyle of the rich, Pip becomes a well-adjusted barista and starts a relationship with a boy she had once rejected. It’s a Victorian ending, until Pip talks her mother and father into meeting. All goes well at first. Later, Pip listens while her parents scream at each other. Finally, something I believe.

As I mentioned earlier, this novel lacks a true humanity.

In Great Expectations the character of Pip remains one of my favorite Dickens people. When he discovers that his benefactor is not the crazy but respectable Miss Havisham, but the old convict who swore he would never forget Pip’s kindness, I could relate as Pip struggled to let go of the fantasy and honor the truth. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens wonders at all the doors in Paris. Each door hides a story. Different in detail, coincidence and outcome, each story is the same. We all struggle to find an identity, while realizing that we’re just another story behind another door.

Purity is a story about a girl’s search for identity. She finds a name, nothing more.

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David Mitchell’s Slade House: Soul Food for the Average Reader

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SLADE HOUSE: A Review

***SPOILER ALERT!***

Slade House imageI have read three novels written by David Mitchell, including Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks and Slade House. A while back, I posted a review of Cloud Atlas, expressing my frustration with the novel’s lack of cohesiveness. What really connected these different stories and characters? The implication was that these characters in six different stories were the same souls. Many of the souls we engage in one life, we engage in the next. Mitchell ties them together with chance discoveries and birthmarks.

Despite a hasty explanation in the last few pages, the Cloud Atlas was all sizzle and very little bacon.

The Bone Clocks, his 2014 novel, showcases Mitchell’s prose. It is dazzling shorthand, a clever first person narrative that lets you know right away who these characters are and what’s important to them, but nothing goes deeper and for me, they’re all rather flat. The Bone Clocks begins in the 1980’s and ends in the 2040’s with the last of humanity struggling to survive on a polluted Earth. A runaway teen, Holly Sykes, connects several stories. She’s a bystander in the war between the Horologists and Anchorites.

Horologists are immortal beings who share the minds and memories of human hosts.

Horologists often choose to enter the mind of a dying newborn and they become that child until it’s time for the next host. Any human who is capable of consent must agree to be a host.

Anchorites are humans who practice dark magic in order to continue to exist.

Though, like Horologists they can share space and thoughts within another human, they choose to end human lives to extend their own physical existence. As the novel continues, Holly transitions from bratty teen to mother, then to widow. The last segment shows Holly at the end of her life living on an island, struggling to protect her family from the brute forces that arise when our sick planet can no long sustain life as we know it.

So why am I reviewing Slade House instead of The Bone Clocks?

I think that Slade House was written for readers like me, rather than for critics and academics. Yes, I know there are plenty of readers who adore Mitchell’s work. I enjoyed reading The Bone Clocks. His prose keeps you skipping along, but despite the supernatural battles, there’s little in the way of conflict resolution that builds satisfactorily. The most invested I became was when Holly’s daughter was missing, only to turn up after a frantic search. Like my response to reading Cloud Atlas, I found it difficult to care; nothing in The Bone Clocks touched me. In order to refresh my memory (sorry, much of that brilliant prose was utterly forgettable) I read several reviews and a synopsis.

One distraction common to both novels was the way Mitchell caters to the publishing world with characters like Cavendish (Cloud Atlas) and Hershey (Bone Clocks).

I found the insiders’ quips and snide observations about writers and writing annoying. In a review of The Bone Clocks (THE STAR online, 9/28/14) Priya Kulasgarian writes of the “caustic rendition of the literary scene” and how “high minded” readers would find this “self-indulgent . . . if you’re a little lowbrow like me . . . Crispin’s acidic cynicism is a delight to read.”

Then why did I hate these insider meta-jokes—this ripping away of the “fourth wall?

Maybe my brow is lower than Kulasgarian’s. After reading a number of sophisticated reviews of Mitchell’s work, I am confident in saying my brow is not higher.

I did learn of Mitchell’s plan to connect all of his novels into one humungous work of fiction, with characters from one title popping up, however briefly, in subsequent books.

I haven’t read all of his books. I’m positive that readers who have read them all are big fans. What matters to me is a story well told, with characters that resonate–a story that I can remember longer than a day.

Nifty prose, innovative structure and grand design are entertaining but beside the point unless I care what happens and why.

In Slade House, Mitchell gives us a short novel (239 pages—The Bone Clocks is 624 pages) with a simple structure of five first person accounts of characters falling victim to a pair of supernatural predators, the Grayer twins. Born in 1899 England, the Grayer twins, Jonah and Norah, are telepathic and determined to live forever, a goal that becomes reachable when they learn the arts of the “Shaded Way.”

As in The Bone Clocks, the Shaded Way involves Horologists (see this post’s second paragraph) and Anchorites.

The twins are antisocial Anchorites. Since Horologists tend to dispose of any soul-sucking Anchorites they encounter, Jonah and Norah hide out in Slade House.  Built in the 1930’s for the purpose of luring and trapping victims, Slade House is a place tucked away in a secluded London alley. Though the house was destroyed when German bombs took it out in WWll, time stopped in the 1930’s when the twins created an “orison,” a place outside of time and space. They want their physical selves preserved. To do that requires lots of tricks and the right kind of nourishment.

They must eat a soul every nine years. Not just any soul—it’s got to be the soul of an “Engifted” (psychic) human. And so with their bodies stashed in the orison attic, they go grocery shopping every nine years by commandeering the bodies of various humans, when out of a mist, like Brigadoon, Slade House appears. Through various maneuvers, the intended victim enters the “lacuna” (the space where Slade House used to be and the site of their power). A variety of illusions take place until the victim eats or drinks the “banjax,” something that loosens the soul from the body. Then dinner is served.

The twins are a nasty pair, making unkind jokes about their victims.

Each victim becomes the first person narrator of his or her demise.

In 1979 it’s awkward and peculiar eleven-year old Nathan, a Valium user and reluctant escort to his mother, a social climber.

Next is the 1989 victim Detective Edmonds, who looks for clues on what happened to Nathan. The seductive widow he encounters is really Norah, and when he climbs the stairs, portraits of prior victims line the walls. He recognizes Nathan and hears the boy whisper that he should look for things in the cracks, things that might be used to beat them. “Too late for you,” the boy tells him, “but pass it on to the next (victim).”

The passage where Edmonds describes seeing his soul has stayed with me:

“It’s almost see-through. Like gel, or egg white, and filled with shiny grains of dust, or galaxies, or… God it’s beautiful. Jesus, it shimmers. It’s alive, it’s mine . . .”

In 1998, the victim is Sally, a college student with a weight problem, a beautiful, supportive but distant sister (Freya) and a romantic nature.

Sally is a member of a paranormal investigations group. Sally is also “Engifted,” a fact that brings her and the group to Slade House. Soon, Jonah and Norah dispatch all of the group but Sally and then impersonate the others while playing cat and mouse games, a way to “season” Sally’s soul for good eating with “a sprinkle of last minute despair.”

As poor Sally tries to figure out what’s going on, she encounters the ghost of Detective Edmonds.

Edmonds gives Sally something he found in the “cracks.” It’s a six-inch needle. As Sally observes her soul being eaten, she warns the twins: “someone’ll stop you one day…”

I would hope so. Is that someone Freya, Sally’s older sister?

It’s 2006 and the loss of her sister Sally haunts Freya, now a New York journalist. She interviews Fred, a witness to the disappearance of Nathan and his mother. Fred describes the history of the Grayer twins and their unsavory magic. Alas, Fred isn’t really Fred and the barkeep isn’t a barkeep.

You guessed it. It’s the Jonah and Norah show.

Soon, Freya finds herself immobilized, her soul emerging as the twins prepare to chow down. Then the needle (found in the cracks) that was shown in Act Four appears again. Sally’s ghost makes good on that promise of “someone” to make the pair pay.

Score one for humanity when Sal plunges it into Jonah’s neck. How’s that for “seasoning,” bitches!

Freya still dies, but her soul remains hers. Not only is Jonah incapacitated, but also dinner plans are cancelled.

The next one is nine years away. What to do?

The answer is nothing until 2015. Dinner-to-be is Iris Marinus-Fenby, an academic specializing in paranormal phenomena. Mitchell fans know that Marinus is a character appearing in numerous Mitchell novels. In The Bone Clocks, Marinus is a Horologist.

Jonah is weak and fading fast; Norah is desperate for a hearty meal to power up the orison, save her brother and herself from certain death.

This time we know something they don’t. Iris seems an easy, juicy target, but things keep going wrong. Norah improvises and all is going well until Iris reveals her true nature. Jonah becomes a pile of ash. Just as Norah begins to die, she spots a pregnant woman and takes up residence within the fetus. Norah vows revenge and we have the setup for another Mitchell soul sucking tale.

I wish Mitchell would give his human characters in The Bone Clocks and Slade House more power.

The conflict was much easier to follow in Slade House because when we listen in on the twins, they spell out who they are and what they want; however, the humans remain clueless. In Dracula, Van Helsing explains the nature of Dracula’s evil. Jonathan knows what he’s up against and chooses to fight.

In the war between the Horologists and Anchorites, we’re collateral damage, seen as pets or a natural resource.

Horologists are the SPCA and the Anchorites are Kentucky Fried Chicken. Mitchell is very good at rendering character types, but for me, with the possible exception of Holly Sykes, there is no soul to eat.

Regardless, Slade House was a very good read, easy to follow and understand, though it abruptly ended when it should have been just starting.

Okay, Mr. Mitchell, I’d like some more, please.

 

 

McCammon’s “Swan Song” — Apocalypse Then

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Colliding worlds, epidemics, vampires, aliens, zombies–writers just love ending the world and we just love reading about how it all goes down.

Everyone dies, except us–or those characters who are our surrogates. One particularly gruesome ending has fallen out of favor–World War III with its mushroom clouds and the President in the War Room agonizing on whether or not to take Imagethe Ruskies with us into that bad night of a nuclear winter. He always does.

Because the world is different now from the world of the mid-eighties when McCammon wrote Swan’s Song, what limited appeal this novel possessed has all but evaporated.

I’m a boomer and all boomers relate to the fear of global nuclear war; we grew up with it.  McCammon renders the nuclear nightmare in vivid detail, focusing on characters struggling to free themselves from environments that saved their lives but now threaten to become tombs. One particular bit of irony is a survivalist enclave dug into a mountain. There’s a gym, a movie theater, apartments, etc. and as always happens–the best laid plans go down. A whole mountain collapsing on you–take that survivalists. No control of your fate–all luck of the draw. Unlike Stephen King‘s The Stand, another end-of-the world scenario, we’re not invested in McCammon’s characters. I think that’s because he devotes so much of the novel to showing us how devastating an all out nuclear war would be, not just to humans, but to everything.

It’s hard to say who the protagonist is.

I guess it would be Swan–a young girl who can talk to plants and it is Swan who will save the world by giving pep talks to trees, grass, crops etc, spreading seeds and re-growing where ever she goes–a kind of “Swannie Appleseed.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The antagonist, similar to The Stand‘s Randall Flagg is a devil with a small “d.” The devil keeps whining about how it’s now “his” party and he gets to decide what happens, which is everybody and everything dies. I kept wondering–if he gets his way, what will he do for entertainment when everyone is gone? Of course he doesn’t win–Swan has his number and puts him in his place.

This novel was long–way too long–over 800 pages. McCammon could have carved out at least two hundred pages of that fruit-and-nut ingredient necessary to every apocalypse mix–the military mad men, the crazies and the religious zealots.

The battle scenes were detailed and endless. In terms of characters–there’s lots of pat psychoanalysis but not much in the way of real people to care about. Like King’s The Stand, McCammon’s Swan Song indicates he doesn’t care a lot for the military or much in the way of government.

I know McCammon can write–I read Boy’s Life years ago and it was such a pleasure. I intend to read some of his other novels and expect I’ll enjoy them. One thing–I’m glad that threat of a nuclear winter is diminishing. On top of everything, there would be nothing to eat–unless of course you’re a zombie.

Fly me to the DUNE The House Atreides

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ImageI loved the prequels but not the sequels.

Like many sci fi lovers I read Frank Herbert’s Dune–a book I loved for its richness and detail with all of the subcultures, traditions and intrigue centered on the spice–the eye-blue-ing, mind-altering and space-bending drug of drugs. Add the aristocracy and royal “Houses” murdering, betrayal, plots within plots and I did little else but read for days. It seemed that sequels were not as compelling and when Herbert died, I assumed a grand story was finally done. Then the “prequels” came out and I was delighted with how engrossing they were. Each House has its own saga leading up to Dune and then, more in prequels to the prequels with three novels detailing the machines. House Atreides was the first Dune novel other than the original that I really liked. Now if they would just come out with a decent DUNE movie . . .  You’d think if they could do justice to The Lord of the Rings that someone could figure out how to bring DUNE to life. The first film was a big mess and the TV miniseries was pretty icky. In the meantime, if you haven’t read DUNE, I hope you’ll take a look.  It grabs you on the first page and like all good fiction transports you to a different realty and DUNE is a really different, layered mystical place. Peter Jackson, fly me to the DUNE please.