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|Leave It To
The Underground Man
My Lucky Face
Starting Out In the Evening
ISSUE 4 December 1997
It To Me by Bharati Mukherjee : Chatto & Windus 1997
Indian American Mukherjee, whose novels never fail to fascinate, now offers the enigmatic tale of Debby DiMartino, adopted as a baby from an Indian orphanage by an Italian American family in upstate New York. All she knows of her bio-parents is that her father was Asian and her mother, listed on the records as Baby Clear Water Iris-Daughter, a California hippy of the 60s on the Asian Path of Enlightenment. On one level this is a quest novel, which, like so many Indian American novels, centers around the protagonist's search for her roots, in this case her biological parents. But it is much more than a quest. Mukherjee is trying to say something about America, especially the now dominant age group (the "baby boomers") who came of age in the 1960s. Unfortunately, she delivers her message in a fantastical, apocalyptic narrative that puzzles more than illuminates. Consider: at age 23, with a degree in marketing and destined for a career in Manhattan, Debby suddenly decides to head to San Francisco to find bio mom. On a whim she changes her name to Devi, who we know from the prologue is a destructive Indian goddess. Debby/Devi ends up living in her car in the Haight Ashbury district surrounded by a brain-fried Vietnam vet and other stereotypical street types, but is soon involved in a relationship with the handsome, forty-something film producer, Ham Cohan. Devi is obsessed with trying to understand the boomer generation which she sees as either used and burned out like the vet or like Ham and his friends - ex-Berkeley protesters, world travelers and pleasure seekers of the 60s who now seem to have formed an elite circle that no one can crack who has not shared their experience. What springs (not grows) out of this obsession, however, is an anger that develops into full-blown psychosis. An earlier episode involving a relationship between Debby and a wealthy Asian hints at a crack in Debby's psyche, but nothing prepares us for the rage. What the hell happened to this nice girl from Schenectady? Why is she so pissed off? These are important questions as the novel spirals off into surreal territory with bizarre murders and preposterous coincidences and episodes that end in fiery apocalypse. Leave It To Me, better titled Devi Does San Francisco, is an entertaining read, though clearly Mukherjee is after more. But the rich potential is never realized, as the novel suffers from its many stereotypes, Debby/Devi's unconvincing rage, and, to me at least, the author's wholly unaccountable intent. J.A.
|Inheritance by Indira
Ganesan : Alfred A. Knopf 1997
Here we have another young Indian woman's quest. This time the setting is India during the 1960s and the quest concerns the young girl-maturing-to-woman's search for her father and, more importantly, an understanding of her disturbed mother, who has had one husband and two lovers and a daughter by each. Our protagonist, Sonil, "a name with no definite roots," is the daughter of one of the lovers, an American whom she has never met but always pictured as a "cowboy." Sonil's beautiful mother and grandmother live on the paradise island of Pi. Because her mother rarely talks, virtually ignoring her daughters while dressing flamboyantly and strutting about town or lounging at home and being catered to by her mother, Sonil was sent off to the mainland to be brought up by her guardian aunts in Madras. She periodically spends time at Pi, however, and at age 15 she returns for a long stay due to health problems which hopefully the island can cure. She hopes as well to unlock the mystery that is her mother, but this, alas, is never resolved in any meaningful or satisfactory way. Of more interest is 15-year-old Sonil's secret love affair with a 30-year-old American on the island, an affair that comes to an end when his mother moves to Pi, joins an ashram, and "threatens his space," at which point he leaves for Ethiopia. Supposedly, this sobering experience has helped young Sonil come to a better understanding of herself and, by extension, her mother. As for Dad, Sonil eventually meets up with him in the States and a bit more of her parents' history is revealed, but precious little besides the obvious ever develops. Sonil concludes: "I had to stop trying to figure them out . . . I had thought for so long that they defined me, that I would be a repetition of them. I had thought inheritance was inescapable. It is, but not in ways I had imagined." Author Ganesan offers some exquisite descriptive passages, but the inheritance theme around which the novel is structured is hardly memorable. J.A.
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| Deadmeat by Q : Sceptre (Hodder) 1997
Author Q used to peddle installments of Deadmeat round London clubs until Hodder UK put the whole thing together and published the book with a staggering 17, 000 copies already on order. With that amount one can only guess that Hodder overlooked the fact that Deadmeat is ..er...rotten. Hype and Q's own ego are the driving force behind this very laughable book. There is a story as ex-convict Clarkie attempts to find the murderer of a friend left drunk and stoned in a car. But to get to the truth Clarkie has to meet loads of cartoon characters who all speak in odd accents, mostly West Indian vernacular and actually the strongest part of the book. 1st person narrator Clarkie has another card up his sleeve by delivering some of the worst rap you're ever going to hear, undoubtedly leaving some O.Gs spinning in their graves. Page 8 is an early and excellent example: "The ropes are blue and red, the seats yellow. She smells like a summer meadow. Fresh from the dew a dream come true.......We're not wearing gloves, our hearts are coated in love." Surely he means a spring meadow? But let's not be pedantic. When he is not doing puerile rap he manages to dig up every cliche that you thought was dead and buried. So, if you know one of the 17,000 who forked out hard cash , don't hesitate/before it's too late/ask them/Hey mate/Can yer read me page 8./I need a laugh/and then a hot a bath/and something to read. M.G.S.
| Starting Out In The Evening by Brian Morton : Crown Pub. : U.S. 1998
Widower Leonard Schiller, novelist and old-school, New York intellectual, is a physically wrecked 72-year-old, survivor of two massive heart attacks and victim of many of the ailments of the aged. He has produced four novels in his lifetime, all out of print, and with the remainder of his time he wishes only to complete his fifth and last novel. His 39-year-old, divorced daughter, Ariel, is hardly the intellectual that he or his friends are: she watches Oprah, teaches aerobics, and is obsessed with her ever-ticking biological time clock. Despite these vast differences father and daughter have a warm and mutually supportive relationship. Then, into his life walks the vivacious and arresting 24 year-old Heather Wolfe, a bright graduate student who has decided to devote her thesis (and possibly a book) to the minor novelist whom she fantasizes resurrecting to the stature of Faulkner. Through a calculating manipulation, involving discreet flirtation and "half-true" words of flattery and adulation, she convinces the aging Schiller, against his better judgment, to cooperate with her project. He is no fool, but neither is he immune from the young girl's charm and much to his distress he soon becomes enamored of her. Daughter Ariel is flumoxed by Heather's interest (sexual as well?) in her physically unappealing, fat and bald father. The unfolding story of these three decidedly distinct personalities and generations is a beautifully rendered and tender examination of art, love, youth and age. The old gentleman, Schiller, musing on his life and art, is a memorable character from whom all generations have much to learn, but he is not without faults (vanity, jealousy) which make him all the more endearing. Unfortunately, the relationship between Schiller and Heather plays itself out three-fourths of the way through and the focus on the mundane Ariel at the end is of lesser interest, but there is much to delight in this exquisite second novel by Dissent editor Morton, author of The Dylanist. J.A.
ISSUE 4: SNEAK PREVIEWS Back to Top
Paradise by Toni Morrison : Knopf January 1998
If, like me, you've missed Toni Morrison since her last offering (Jazz, 1992) this latest comes as very welcome event. Set in the early 70s in the all black town of Ruby, Oklahoma, where skin tone serves as class distinction with "light-skinned colored people" at the bottom and "8-rock ones" (like the darkest strata of coal) at the top, Morrison explores the theme of racial prejudice within the black community. The central image is the Oven, an iron and brick oven which the founding fathers built way back when to serve the entire community and which has been dismantled and rebuilt as the community has relocated over the years. 1974 sees the Oven surrounded by restless black youth, who pose unwanted questions and serve to threaten the town's highly conservative status quo. And Ruby has more problems: outside town a ways is an old house known as the Convent, which it once was, but which now houses four vagrant women who have ended up there by chance and circumstance to be taken in by the one permanent resident, Consolata, who was once the attendant to the Reverend Mother during its days as an actual convent. The novel begins: "They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time." It is a powerful, dark and chilling beginning, which breaks off to tell the individual tales of the vagrant women and the history of Ruby while simultaneously relaying the town's present-day (1974-75) events, which at first ooze and seethe and then explode into the violent action we know is coming as nine men from Ruby head off to the Convent (where supposedly "satanic rituals" are being held) with guns and rope.
Paradise is classic Toni Morrison: a novel which gives us deep insight into a black community, mixing elements of everyday reality with dreams, visions and memories, along with the magic realism we have come to expect which allows women to talk to their dead babies and commune with unreal people. Morrison has focused on an era which revolves around the themes of civil rights, Vietnam, youth counter-culture and generational differences; and, in dealing with these themes she tries to find resolution and does so. The storytelling is wholly engaging and its exquisite style, tone and abundantly rich characterization is there as always. But I harbor some reservations about the ending. The denouement is entirely too "magically" pat (and patently Morrison); these very real conflicting issues continue to haunt America and real resolution is evaded for a surreal flight of fancy, a tactic which works marvelously well in Song of Solomon, for example, but which seems merely an evasive tactic here. But this a quibble, and one open to much discussion. Paradise is must read for all lovers of Toni Morrison. J.A.
| ISSUE 3 (October
Cold Caller by Jason Starr : No Exit Press :U.K. 1997
For tongue-in-cheek crime noir you can't get much better than this first novel by U.S. writer Jason Starr. Told in the first person by 31-year-old Bill Moss, the story begins as he is ending his second year in the dead end, entry-level job of telemarketing. Bill lives in New York with his girlfriend who has a steady job and is waiting for Bill to regain his status (and salary) in his field of advertising where he was doing well until he lost his job as marketing vice-president at a prestigious company. The relationship is strained and the pressure mounts on Bill, especially when he is told he is about to be fired because a little investigation uncovered that he had previously been fired for sexual harassment, a fact he omitted on his resume. Before this Bill acted on a fantasy and picked up a streetwalker whom he roughed up for reasons that are not clear. What is clear, however, is that Bill is becoming increasingly unhinged. And, then, the murders begin. This is a thriller that keeps you turning the pages and laughing all the while. The narrator's deadpan delivery is superb; whether he's relaying domestic and office scenarios or murder plans, the tone is the same. Bill is pretty much the embodiment of everything despicably male (or either gender for that matter): egocentric, manipulative, servile and ingratiating, spiteful and small-minded, and finally all-out psychotic. But he can be kind of OK, too. Kind of. He comes across at first as a down-on-his-luck guy who's understandably moody and a bit unstable and the other traits grow out of this sour predicament. The book opens with Bill trying to ask a woman on the subway to give him more room which results in his getting beat up. Then all the job problems. There's never a point when the reader doesn't think if this guy could just secure a job maybe everything'd be OK. Good characterization, good plotting with a zinger of an ending, this is a rollicking good read that plays with the genre of crime noir and ultimately presents some astute observations about an all-too-familiar looking ethically skewered world. J.A.
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Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker : Serpent's Tail : U.K. 1996 / Ecco Press U.S. 1997
This postmodern psychological thriller deserved far more attention than it received
from U.K. critics. It is essentially a quest novel. The narrator, who remains nameless, is
a 22-year-old PhD candidate at Cambridge researching the works of one Paul Michael, a
French novelist whose carefully controlled and austere works are in contrast to his
flamboyant, wild and reckless, homosexual lifestyle à la Jean Genet, a lifestyle
that long ago landed him in an insane asylum, a certified schizophrenic. The narrator has
not thought much about Paul Michael the person until he begins a relationship with an
intense, scholarly female, known only as the Germanist. She writes love letters to
Schiller, the subject of her thesis, and encourages the narrator to get more involved with
his subject, which leads to the narrator's pursuit of Paul Michael in an unknown asylum in
France where he has been confined for the past 25 years. Along the way he discovers some
of Paul Michael's letters addressed to "Cher Maître," which tend to
confirm a past and ambiguous, but certainly erotic, relationship with philosopher Michael
Foucault, who himself, of course, was concerned with the themes of madness, death,
sexuality, and crime. The narrator does meet up with his subject, at which point the novel
accelerates into overdrive, veering off into unexpected areas and never disappointing.
Jamaican-born, Welsh author Duncker, in this her first novel, begs the reader to explore
the postmodern concern of reader-writer involvement in an easily accessible, titillating,
richly symbolic narrative full of intrigue, suspense, and romance. J.A.
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Freezing by Penelope Evans : Black Swan : U.K. 1997
It is always fascinating to encounter first person narrators who enable the reader to adopt personas far removed from personal experience. The blind man in Rupert Thomson's remarkable The Insult, for example, and Stewart Park in Penelope Evans' second novel. Stewart is one of life's oddities. A face like a "wedge of cheese" with sticking down hair Stewart looks a mess, a "young mother's worst nightmare". He has a terrible stammer and after work at the mortuary where he is the photographer he spends most of his time playing a computer game. He is a classic harmless nerd who looks more sinister than he is and yes, he does wear an anorak - well, a parka to be accurate. His domestic life is depressing. His father has obsessive hobbies that last for short intense periods, such as when he goes house security crazy and buys Lady, a dangerous pit-bull. The father also likes to pull things apart and Stewart has nightmares about the fate of his computer which compels him to keep his bedroom door locked. His sister Mary is also a bit odd, very frightened of Dad when she comes round to dump her two hyperactive children on Stewart to look after. The kids start to become withdrawn and Stewart realises that they are suffering from Mary's abusive partner. In the meantime Stewart becomes obsessed by a young drowned girl who is brought to the mortuary . When no one comes to claim the body Stewart decides to find out who she is. The naive, but not witless, Stewart has very little concept of the real world and very soon the community has him tagged as a pervert and that's just the start of his problems. With this scenario the possibilities of humour are ever present but the underlying theme of the book is child abuse and the two converge into an unholy mix that is a sad and unusual commentary on the family, society and the strange world we have created for ourselves. M.G.S
My Lucky Face by May-Lee Chai : Soho Press : U.S. 1997
The cover blurb reads: "A young wife opts for personal happiness in the New
China." And that is exactly what the novel depicts. Lin Jun, the first person
narrator, has all a modern Chinese woman could hope for: a good teaching job, a handsome,
intellectual husband, a mother-in-law with connections, a darling and healthy son, a TV
set, and a "good fortune" face. But all is not well. Her overworked and
indifferent husband is becoming increasing remote and Lin Jun has been given the extra
job, falsely referred to as a "privilege" by her administrators, of overseeing
the new American English teacher. The new teacher has a beneficial effect, however, in
that she helps Lin Jun to deal with her debilitating personal life by offering and
encouraging options. Lin Jun opts for a divorce and "finds the strength to fight for
[it] no matter what." Against this present day melodrama runs the story of Lin Jun's
past which takes us back to the political upheavals of the Cultural Revolution: Her mother
drowned while working on a great damn on the Yangtze, while "serving the people"
and her counterrevolutionary father, an "intellectual bourgeois," was taken to
be "reeducated in the countryside" while Lin Jun and her brother were taken in
by an Aunt until the father's release, after which he committed suicide. This potentially
rich narrative, written in a sparse and effective prose style, nevertheless disappoints in
the end. Despite the narrator's faint protests upon occasion in defense of her culture,
the author's message is clear: The Cultural Revolution was a really bad time and now it is
better, but it could certainly be better yet, much, much better. We learn little except to
reinforce our western feelings (stereotypes) of the New China, a task the media
accomplishes well enough. J.A.
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Jesus Saves by Darcey Steinke : Atlantic Monthly Press : US 1997
This is a story of two young teenage girls, Ginger and Sandy, who have never met, but Ginger 'knows' Sandy through the newspaper reports of her abduction. Each chapter is headed with the name of one of the girls. Ginger is pretty much a typical American teenager - smokes a little pot and has not-great sex with her scarred and obsessed-with-death boyfriend Ted. Ginger, although committing 'sins,' is also religious, not a bible thumping radical like her preacher father but enough to be moved and swayed by the ceremony and the basics of religious practice. Her Dad is having problems with his congregation who wish to follow the more materialistic aspects of Mid-American Christianity and have become increasingly hostile to his old school sermons which emphasise guilt. Some very good points on the mores and values of the church crop up during the Ginger chapters. The Sandy chapters lead off in an entirely different direction. Sandy has only just started to develop breasts and her only previous sexual experience has been a "seven minutes in heaven" kids game. Now, chained to a bed lying in her own urine, she is being raped in all major orifices by her abductor whom she calls the Troll. Her story is especially harrowing as her childish naivete intermingles with the horrors that are happening to her. She drifts between childhood nursery images of bears and other animals and her real family and the Troll. In moments of clarity every insect that is in her prison is described along with hearing her fate as a 'buyer' turns her down. Jesus saves? The book is very quirky to say the least. Certain aspects of the plot are sometimes rushed only to be followed by long, detailed descriptions of irrelevance, such as changing a tampon. At some point almost every character has "a pee"; again this usually warrants an over-long description which seems to get in the way. At book's end I couldn't help but think that the author really just wanted a novella called, maybe, "Sandy" or "Ginger" but couldn't sustain or justify it. Both characters are well drawn enough to warrant such a treatment and maybe tying them together was a mistake. But flawed though it may be, Jesus Saves is still one hell of an accomplishment in its dual portrayal of teen angst in the wasteland of consumeristic suburbia and horrific despair at the hands of the worst kind of nightmare (so familiar in tabloids) that that wasteland has produced. Its lack of any moral centre is clearly the author's intention. M.G.S
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©The Barcelona Review 1997