Barcelona Review Book Reviews:
issues 17 & 18
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issue 18
George Saunders: Pastoralia
Rachel Resnick: Go West,Young F*cked Up Chick
Joyce Carol Oates: Blonde
Sparkle Hayter: The Chelsea Girl Murders
Charles Baxter: Feast of Love
Fred G. Leebron: Six Figures

issue 17

Apostolos Doxiadis: Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture
E.L. Doctorow: City of God 
Sheri Holman: The Dress Lodger 

index of book reviews for all issues

Note: The BR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK  carries all titles reviewed in the BR; all US releases carried by unless otherwise noted.
Pastoralia by George Saunders: Riverhead Books, U.S. May 2000

Nineteen-ninety-five saw the debut of George Sanders’ short fiction collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, a riotous, surreal, Vonnegutesque romp through an America of the not-so-distant future: a greed-ridden, dog-eat-dog future in which toxic waste and pollution of all variety contaminate the land - and theme parks (such as CivilWarLand) sprawl across the landscape. Bounty, the novella of that collection, presents a world divided into two groups, the Normals and the Flawed, the latter being mutants who have very little chance of survival outside Bounty - a theme park in which Normal clients can act out their fantasies and the Flawed are employed to cater to their whims (and given a "toot of cocaine" each day for their efforts). One of the Flawed decides to try to escape in order to capture his sister, whom a client has taken away for his pleasure. In the outside world he undergoes several adventures, including being captured and sold as a slave to a brothel situated in an old Safeway where he is assigned to give "drive-through hand jobs." As with many of Saunders’ scenarios, weird though they are, one has the sneaking suspicion that jobs such as this might already exist, and if not, some opportuntistic marketeer is ready to pounce on the idea.

Pastoralia picks up on the previous collection and delivers more riveting good stuff in the same darkly satirical vein. The title story is yet again a theme park of the near future: Pastoralia is a vast, underground park in which the privileged can wander, viewing theme sets of real people re-enacting the historical past. Thus, we find our not-so-privileged narrator employed as a caveman, virtually living his life in a zoo-like cave with another hapless employee, a cavewoman. The two are not allowed any communication or behavior other than that of the cavedwellers whom they are hired to portray. They communicate by fax with their families and the administrators of Pastoralia, and receive their daily food - a live goat - through the Big Slot. As in Bounty, it’s a clearly-delineated world, divided between the controllers and the controlled. A familiar enough premise, perhaps, but Saunders’ highly imaginative vision is unique. "Pastoralia," along with the other five stories, is both hilarious and disconcertingly familiar.

In "Winky," Saunders has a delightfully wicked go at self-help groups. Middle-aged, nondescript Neil Yaniky, a.k.a. Winky, lacks the balls to ask his older sister, a crazy-looking religious nut, to move out of his apartment. He joins the seminar of guru Tom Rodgers, whose mantra consists of "Don’t crap in my oatmeal." As Tom’s spiel goes:

Now, if someone came up and crapped in your oatmeal, what would you say? Would you say: ‘Wow, super, thanks, please continue crapping in my oatmeal’? Am I being silly? I’m being a little silly. But guess what, in real life people come up and crap in your oatmeal all the time -- friends co-workers, loved ones, even your kids, especially your kids! -- and that’s exactly what you do. You say, ‘Thanks so much!’ You say, ‘Crap away!’ You say, and here my metaphor breaks down a bit, ‘Is there some way I can help you crap in my oatmeal?’

Does this sound eerily familiar or what?

"Sea Oak" takes a different turn. Slacker sisters Min and Jade - young, unwed moms with little babies - spend their time lounging around the house - their Aunt Bertie’s house, that is - watching such T.V. programs as How My Child Died Violently. Big brother Freddie is a waiter at an airplane theme bar/restaurant for women, who come to watch the male waiters strip and strut their stuff. Life in the go-nowhere lane takes a turn when Aunt Bertie begins to kick ass . . . in a most extraordinary and unexpected manner.

"The End of FIRPOL in the World" follows the thoughts of a hell-on-wheels kid and relates his latest naughty scheme while sketching in the dysfunctional family background and ending on a touching note. "The Fall" traces the nervous, introspective Morse, "tall and thin and as gray and sepulchral as a church about to be condemned," as he ruminates on his life; along with the "odd duck" Aldo Cummings, both of whom are led to act - or not - when a crisis presents itself. And in "The Barber’s Unhappiness," a middle-aged barber (a mama’s boy who still lives with his nearly eighty-year-old mother) fantasizes about the women he ogles - screwing in a bean field or in a mud hut with "Miss Hacienda," for example - and later wanks in the pantry on a milking stool; then, through his Driving School group he meets a woman . . . not ideal, but then neither is he. One of the funniest stories I’ve ever read - although the others in this collection are contenders.

If you haven’t read George Saunders, you’ve missed a major talent. He’s laugh-out-loud funny and a sharp and intuitive visionary, holding up a cracked mirror to all the skewed values and wrong-headed turns that America (and much of the world) is hellbent on taking, with special attention to the widening gap between the powerless individual and the global "administrators" who determine the course of lives. Want to see the future? Read his stories and weep - with tears of laughter and a haunting premonition that the future is upon us. J.A.

Go West Young F*cked Up Chick by Rachel Resnick: St. Martin’s Griffin, N.Y. 1999; paperback release May 2000

Stunning debut novel by up-and-comer Rachel Resnick, in which the hip and beautiful, yet vulnerable, Rebecca Roth shares protagonist status with the City of Angels (helL.A.), the one looking for love and a career in the film biz and the other offering up both in all the wrong places. The premise is simple enough: Twenty-four-year-old Rebecca pulls roots on the East coast and heads west in her yellow Toyota Corolla. Her alcoholic, bohemian mother has died - a suicide, we later learn - and Rebecca senses that she is following her mother’s spirit across country in what becomes a quest, both to come to terms with and to distance herself from the maternal grip. The incantatory opening, resonant of the author’s sharp, clear-eyed prose, pulls the reader in, never to let go:

The first time I saw Ma after she died was on the New Jersey Turnpike, right near Exit 13A. A matted-haired mutt on the side of the road, sitting on its bony haunches so steady and forlorn on the shoulder, looking right at me. The mournful expression, the eyes, the mouth -- my mother trapped inside that dog.
      I didn’t stop though. Until I saw her again. Outside Baltimore. This time she inhabited the body of a hitchhiker, straw hair in his weather-beaten face but through that ragged curtain, Ma. Same eyes, same bulbous Irish nose, same alcoholic despair. "Gimme a ride, Rebecca." His thumb was jerking westward and he held aloft a sign saying CALIFORNIA BOUND.
      I didn’t pick him up. My mother told me not to ever pick up strangers. My mother was a vagabond, so I knew she wouldn’t stay long in that hitchhiker. Ma wasn’t dead -- she was on the road. I was going to follow.

In L.A. Rebecca encounters a series of jobs on the Hollywood periphery (assistant ["slave"] to Entertainment Tonight’s head reporter; production assistant to sleazy would-be players and so forth) while moving through a battery of colorful, but fucked-up lovers (the handsome, but listless Isaac; the New York-based Italian economist, Giorgio; the outlaw bluesman, Slim [whom fifty-year-old Faye Dunaway later lures away]; dancer/musician Johnny the Rocker, etc.).

The loose plot is bound together by a series of star-spangled vignettes in which we meet all forms of Angelenos: a sacrificial cow lured to a penthouse roof by a group of incompetent Satanists; the pregnant (and later nursing) therapist to whom Rebecca tells her life story; the one-legged Esmerelda who exercises on a trapeze; dominatrix Anastasia of the "rubber-flex vavoom body"; a pushy dwarf actress; Carla, "the perfect punk black Barbie"; street dude Tommy, taken home by scriptwriter Kate, who embraces his psychosis, even when it leaves her naked and in ashes. And then there is a trip to Rome and a brief stint at Fellini’s Cinecittá, where we encounter Italian counterparts to the L.A. crowd, such as the hunk Paolo with whom Rebecca has hot sex in a Rome elevator on the way to her apartment, after which he immediately returns to his double-parked Fiat, never to be seen again.

Interspersed are the exquisitely sketched portraits of such places as the Hollywood YMCA (as opposed to the trendy Hollywood Athletic Club); the Blue Ribbon Coin-Op Laundromat ( where "the son of Gene Autry" is doing his wash); La Brea Tar Pits Park ("trickling stream . . . gentle odor of tar"); and theme restaurant Luna Park, where Rebecca meets Ray Manzarek of The Doors, one of several known names to crop up. Memorable short pieces also appear on various topics such as "Happiness," a meditation on a man taking a dump on the steps of the Saint Francis Hotel; and "Talk": "In Los Angeles, because there’s so much space, lines of conversation depart the mouth and become dismembered limbs, or chopped-in-half earth worms. They float, or they snake like trains, gliding furtively and leaving a track of liquid slime."

Do not be put off by the lack of a strong plot. The sketches - whether character, place, or abstract topic - are simply dazzling. Resnick’s writing is fresh, vivid, imaginative, and every bit as alluring as its twin subjects: the tough, tenacious Rebecca and L.A. - city of oddballs, perverts, stars, transients, players, and dreamers of all variety. Check out Resnick’s website and hear an audio reading of the first chapter - J.A.

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates: HarperCollins (Ecco Press) 2000

What more can be said about Marilyn Monroe? The MM myth is imprinted on our psyches and has already been extensively written about by Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem and Truman Capote, among others. We know the story, right? Rough childhood, teen marriage, rise to pin-up girl then stardom, marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, the major films, the affair with President Kennedy, the death - probably suicide, maybe F.B.I.. . .who’ll ever know. But then, we already knew the Mary Jo Kopechne-Ted Kennedy story, did we not? Yet, having read Oates, one can no longer think of that ill-fated affair without thinking of Black Water; or Jeffrey Dahmer without thinking of Zombie. In fact, Joyce Carol Oates’ fiction, whether focused on a well-known figure or the girl next door, invariably leaves an indelible impression. She delves deep into her subjects, probes and explores the "wreck," - to use Adrienne Rich’s metaphor - and bam!, captures some previously eluded essence as if by magic. In taking on Marilyn Monroe we find Oates in top form and this means you will not emerge from its pages without a new perspective on the subject and further appreciation of Oates’ enormous talent.

As Oates says in her Afterword, this novel is a "work of the imagination representing the subject’s ‘dreaming-back’ at the time of death and is not intended to be a transcription of the historic life of the individual . . . . though a number of biographical episodes are dramatized, many more are not . . . . the author intends a portrait of the subject that is spiritually, not literally, faithful to the original." And this is exactly what we get. The book is bracketed by the Prologue: "3 August 1962:  Special Delivery," which begins: "There came Death hurtling along the Boulevard in waning sepia light" in which a bicycle messenger delivering a package is metaphorically portrayed as Death. We don’t know from whom the package comes or what is contains until near the end (some 700 pages later) where the refrain is picked up again and the scene played out in full. The narrative voice is ever-shifting, from the voices of the many who knew Marilyn - including a collective "we" - to that of Marilyn herself (somewhat reminiscent of the way the voices are presented in the film Reds). Major figures such as DiMaggio, Miller and Kennedy are referred to as the Ex-Athlete, the Playwright and the President, which works well to keep the spotlight on Marilyn herself and adds to the lyrical tone of the novel, the epithets containing a fairy-tale dimension.

Essentially the book is structured around a series of thematic refrains. They include: "The Fair Princess and the Dark Princess" - the Cinderella theme that sees Marilyn forever awaiting her Dark Prince; "The Magic Friend" - the beautiful woman she sees in the mirror, preferably without clothes; "The Beggar Maid" - who in the fairy tale "knew not but to obey"; "The Blonde Actress" - i.e., Marilyn Monroe, the persona, someone she claims she hardly knows; "The Gemini" - referring to Marilyn’s ménage-à-trois with Cass Chaplin, Jr. and Eddy Robinson, Jr. At first she and Cass are the soulmate Gemini, but Cass and Eddy are also the Gemini. The threesome poses problems, creating a triangle with the woman as a sort of "receptacle." As Cass relates the mythological tale of the Gemini, we have the introduction of another death metaphor; "The Emissary" - a form of the Dark Prince, referring to the Death messenger at the beginning and to numerous other Dark Princes, specifically those bearing messages, such as Marlon Brando, who comes bearing a haunting message from Cass; and "Baby" -  referring to  one of several abortions that Marilyn is said to have had: that of Cass/Eddy’s baby (specific father unknown). Marilyn loved children and always wanted a baby, but she too is a "Baby." Also, "Marilyn" (a name she preferred not to be called by lovers) would have had her career threatened by having a child. She both desperately wanted and didn’t want a baby.

Oates portrays her subject as a total innocent in her younger years, never knowing the score and trusting to a fault. This was a bit hard for me to believe of a girl brought up in an orphanage and later a raunchy, lower-middle class foster home. One would expect, at least of the fast-developing and beautiful adolescent, that she would have learned the art of manipulation simply as a survival technique. She appears, in short, too perfect and trusting - my one initial quibble. All of Marilyn’s later "bad behavior" - promiscuity, drug-taking, bouts of hysteria, being difficult on the movie sets - is portrayed as that of an innocent child. Only once does she tell an exec in an outburst: "Fuck ‘Marilyn.’" And rightly so, for the Studio has her on a weekly contract denying her the huge profits it is reaping from her films. This comes as such a relief, but we rarely hear this anger again. This innocence, of course, is crucial to Oates’s interpretation and my initial reservations, if not entirely swept away, were eventually overcome by the power of Oates' overall vision.

The famous marriage to the Ex-Athlete provides some poignant scenes of Marilyn with his Italian family: trying to stay awake during a Catholic Mass ("Is it always so long?" she asks innocently afterwards) and struggling not to feel nauseous while laboring over a stove trying to learn to cook Italian dishes. The following marriage to the Playwright casts him as a nurse to the child-actress, a role he tries to fulfil, but cannot.

Always looming in the shadows is an ominous, deeply disturbing figure (a special agent) referred to as the Sharpshooter. He does not make moral judgments, but dutifully gathers evidence of any possible "subversive" activity.  He is not even sure at times if his job is for the President or the more powerful and enduring F.B.I., who have their own agenda. Nor does it matter to him. Through Marilyn, we get a good picture of 50s America - complacent, generally well off, conservative, freakishly obsessed with communism, and wholly pre-feminist. Oates perfectly captures the mood of the era without ever straying from her subject. It is this mood, of course, that helps create Marilyn.

Oates focuses only on the major films and uses them to give us insight into Marilyn through the characters she portrays, a tactic that works well. Thus we have the early "dumb blonde" roles, and then the more substantial ones in which Marilyn becomes entirely absorbed: Rose Loomis in Niagara, The Girl Upstairs in The Seven Year Itch, Sugar Kane in Some Like it Hot, Cherie in Bus Stop, Roslyn in The Misfits (written for her by Arthur Miller). She draws on her past for these characterizations and the filming drains her completely. She has long been on barbiturates and amphetamines to keep going, prescribed by the Studio’s doctor (who is later found OD'd on morphine or heroine). This doctor and her make-up man, Whitey, are important sub-characters, deftly employed by Oates to bring us closer to the woman behind the persona. Doing Marilyn’s make-up takes hours, especially when the drugs begin to take their toll. Marilyn is always late for shoots, often unable to rouse herself to get out of bed, where Whitey begins to work his magic with creams and mud-packs - a job that becomes more difficult with time.

The scenes with the President show him to be the worst womanizer of them all - which is going some compared to many of the early Hollywood producers. When the Secret Service arrange for Marilyn to be flown to New York for an overnight visit with the President (after their initial rendezvous in L.A.), Oates pulls out all the stops and creates a self-serving, small, power-mongrel of a man, who beckons Marilyn to his bed (which appears to already have been shared by another woman) while talking on the phone with Castro on the brink of the Cuban missile crisis, and roughly forces her to give him a blow job while continuing the conversation and then completely dismissing her, only to call on her months later to come sing "Happy Birthday" at the now infamous Madison Square Garden Democratic fund-raising event. Always compliant, she goes. Oates portrays the President "lounging like a spoiled young prince in the box above her," making crude jokes with his men as she sings - one of the most memorable and painfully sad scenes in all the book.

Oates’s scene-by-scene portrayal, building up to the inevitable climax (carrying no ambiguity here), filled with memorable detail and description (the President’s penis described as an "affable slug"; the F.B.I’s page-long list of supposed lovers, which includes not only Roy Rogers, but Trigger as well; Marilyn’s heartbreaking attempt to pronounce words and names that she’s only read; the burst capillaries in her eyes from drugs) - culminates in a powerful, spiritually-faithful portrait that breaks down the myth while elevating Marilyn the woman to a new height for all her humanness and touching vulnerability. J.A.

The Chelsea Girl Murders by Sparkle Hayter: No Exit Press, U.K. 2000

Although this is the fifth book featuring Robin Hudson, she and the author are new to me, so for Hudson/Hayter fans I can’t make any comparisons. For the uninitiated, Robin works for a TV company that’s aimed at women. She’s feisty, feminist, forty and wisecracks herself into lots of trouble and also, one gathers, is a body magnet. By that I mean if there is a murdered body in the vicinity, Robin will find it, or it will find her. At the start of the book a downstairs neighbour has accidentally set fire to the apartment block so Robin plus her cat, the spoilt Louise Bryant, find themselves staying at a vacationing friend’s apartment in the legendary Chelsea Hotel. No matter which author, movie star or rock band you like, they have more than likely passed through the Chelsea, have written their finest poem/book/song there plus committed gross sexual acts in the elevator or wherever, or have even been murdered there. The book strangely never mentions Nancy Spungen’s death, even after a long alphabetical list of the goings-on of the famous, and simply refers to the last murder in the building as being twenty years ago. (Incidentally, it would now appear Sid Vicious didn’t do the dastardly deed.) Once in the hotel Robin is disturbed by Nadia, a young girl who has permission to stay from the owner and is waiting for her lover so they can elope and escape an arranged marriage in her country. Then a dying man falls through the door and Nadia disappears. The lover, whom Robin refers to as a ‘manboy’ arrives and makes himself at home, happily living off the contents of the fridge and making frequent visits to the bathroom with a copy of Cosmo. Being a body magnet puts Robin at the top of the list of suspects, the police pretty convinced she must be a serial killer who manages to blame everyone else. Logical, really, it’s a bit like a re-run of Murder She Wrote - I mean would you invite Jessica Fletcher to your home? Someone will wind up dead but as yet no one has accused Jessica of being a serial killer . . . shame. Anyway, Robin now has to find the killer and reunite Nadia with her lover, if she is still alive. This means enlisting help from the rather odd residents of the hotel and dealing with the New York art scene - a mix that can only lead to some hilarious situations and bitchy shenanigans. At first I felt it a bit slow-moving but then the laughs came and the plot was nicely rounded off, making for a good read that left me wanting to follow the luckless Robin to see where and when she next falls over a corpse. M.G.S
The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter: Pantheon, U.S. 2000

There is no plot here in the conventional sense. Author Baxter - i.e., narrator "Baxter" - is out walking one night because he can’t sleep due to writer’s block. He meets neighbour Bradley Smith, out with his dog, who suggests that Baxter talk to real people about their relationships and fashion a book called The Feast of Love. We find out later that Bradley is a part-time artist and has done a rather good painting of the same title. Bradley begins with a story about his first wife, Kathryn - who is afraid of dogs - going to a dog pound and giving names to all the dogs. She tells the next story saying she doesn’t remember the dog-pound incident, but then explains why the marriage broke down: she met another woman and her suppressed lesbianism surfaced. Bradley then suggests the author talk to two of his employees at Jitters, his coffee shop. Chloé and Oscar are young, very naïve and very much in love. Oscar is a drug user and a bit wild; he also has a heart murmur and a revolting drunk father nicknamed the Bat. Chloé is also wild, sleeping with either sex and taking any-and-all drugs. It is in this state at a party that she is convinced Jesus Christ came to her and asked for directions. Meeting each other quiets them both down as they become absorbed and obsessed in each other’s bodies. Bradley’s neighbours, philosophy professor Harry Ginsberg and wife Esther, get called in for their story which revolves around their demanding bastard of a son. Slowly the stories begin to gel as a novel as the characters intertwine.

The beginning is a little worrying. The author breaks the unwritten rule that you should never start a book with someone waking up; then he has a character suggest the dreadful title of the book. That title, I feel, could do the book some damage - love is a subject men indeed read about, but not when the title shouts it out like a Danielle Steel romance. I can imagine very few people, male or female, carrying this title on the subway, which is a shame. The style is simple, the ex-wives and Bradley have almost the same voice, but Harry’s has a Jewish lilt and Chloé speaks like a youngster with lots of ‘you knows’ and ‘likes’ and a quirky slang built around Spanish or French words. It is the rather dim Chloé who eventually takes control of the book and the reader’s sympathies. Overall a very well-written book - crafted with subtlety, rich and vibrant, hilarious and painfully sad - on the intricate subject of various types of love:   same sex, parent/son, animals, etc. M.G.S

Six Figures by Fred G. Leebron: Knopf 2000

In just what way does an overworked, underpaid husband and father lash out at what he thinks is the cause of his problems? A very intriguing psychological thriller about possible domestic violence and its aftermath, made all the more enticing for being set firmly within the bounds of the humdrum world. Warner Lutz, 35, has (like millions of men throughout the world) reached a point where life should be easier but has instead become an uphill struggle. He has a good but not that well-paid job as a fund-raiser for a non-profit organisation. His commitment to his work is not one-hundred per cent and he is jealous of how rich other people are becoming in boomtown Charlotte, North Carolina. Every day he returns, in an aging Honda, to a cramped house, which includes his wife Megan, six-month-old Daniel and four-year-old Sophie. He is overprotective of Daniel - always carrying him and not handing him over to Megan, when logic says he should - and he loves his daughter and wife, but not at the same time. He wants his wife without the children, to be free of endlessly having to keep an eye on them. He sees Megan as the cause of this frustration as it is she who decided to have the second baby; in fact, the way he sees it, Megan is the cause of many a major change in his life. He loves her but also hates her. These feelings and frustrations are finely balanced, but soon the scales are tipped and everything disintegrates into chaos. I won’t say any more apart from the fact that even the reader's sympathies are left swaying in the balance and the ending is inspired. An added bonus is the author’s treatment of the two mothers - both in their 60s but both very active, running businesses or whatever, fully knowledgeable about e-mail and mobile phones. It is rare to read about active 60-year-olds and this made a refreshing change. My favourite book, so far, of the year - for the taut prose and intricate nuances in which the author deftly conveys the way anger and resentment can build up and fester in a typical, middle-class American man. M.G.S
Issue 17

Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis.   Faber & Faber UK; Bloomsbury US, 2000

Greek author Doxiadis wrote this novel in 1992 and updated it slightly for the 2000 publication in English. It’s a delight to have it in translation at last because this is a riveting good story about pride, obsession and - gulp - mathematics. Have no fear if you’re somewhat left-brain deficient in the math department like me; Doxiadis’s narrative is easy to follow and will have you chatting away about Goldbach’s Conjecture, Fermat’s Last Theorem, Kurt Godel’s Theorem, etc. as though you knew what you were talking about (well, kind of). I did learn this: Fermat’s Last Theorem is no longer theory as it was proven in the mid-90s, ditto for Kurt Godel’s Theorem back in 1931. It’s been surprising and somewhat disheartening for me to learn that several of my friends already knew this, from reading the Sunday papers, they say, but if I can’t blow off about my new-found knowledge at least I’m no longer so ignorant. What has not yet been proven (and therefore not yet a subject for the Sunday papers) is Goldbach’s Conjecture, which remains one of the toughest mathematical problems to date. He who can prove Goldbach’s theory will surely win the Nobel. I think you could win the Nobel if you disproved the theory as well, but I don’t want to get in over my head.

The novel begins: "Every family has its black sheep - in ours it was Uncle Petros." The narrator is Uncle Petros’s most favored nephew. He tells of how his family has always considered Petros to be one of life’s failures. The nephew, who begins his story looking back to his high school years in Athens, is naturally curious about the eccentric uncle who lives on the outskirts of the city and is more or less a recluse interested only in chess and gardening. As the nephew learns, Uncle Petros was once a maths prodigy, who studied and taught for many years at a German university and spent time at Cambridge as well. One day he visits his uncle and announces that he would like to make a career of mathematics himself. Uncle Petros proposes to set his nephew a mathematical problem to solve. If he can solve it, he says, then mathematics is indeed his chosen field, but if he cannot solve it, then the nephew must make a binding promise to drop mathematics as a career pursuit. He accepts the terms, fails to find a solution and heads off to university in the US undecided about his major now that it won’t be math. His roommate by chance is a math major and through him he learns that the problem his uncle had set him was no other that Goldbach’s Conjecture. This conjecture is what his uncle had spent his life trying to prove and could not. Part Two of the novel sees the narrator on a return trip to Greece confronting his uncle and demanding to know why he had set him such an impossible task. We then get "The Story of Uncle Petros Papachristos," which the narrator tells us in the third person. It is a fascinating story of math and genius and here we get the pride and obsession that characterizes the life of Uncle Petros. Part Three brings us to the present day. Petros is now an old man, nearly 80, and slightly unhinged. The nephew, who began his life in mathematics but later gave it up, confronts his uncle again, wishing him to own up honestly to his past failure. What follows is a fascinating end to the tale with a dazzling climax. First and foremost Doxiadis is a storyteller extraordinaire. He’ll keep you turning the pages to get at the uncle’s story and in that story unfolds the life and world of a mathematical scholar who single-mindedly pursued one goal: the proving of Goldbach’s Conjecture. That most difficult of conjectures, by the way, is this: Every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes. Sounds elementary, but that shows what I know. J.A.

City of God by E.L. Doctorow Random House, New York 2000

Taking the title from St. Augustine, Doctorow delivers what appears to be a spiritual autobiography in the form of a novel, assuming various personas as he works his way through. “City of God” is New York, the author’s home territory. (If God or a sign can be found anywhere, says one of his characters, it will be here in New York City.) The two principal characters (two variations of the author’s persona) are Thomas Pemberton, an Episcopalian priest, and the writer, Everett (a variation on Doctorow’s first name, Edgar), who is writing a book on Pemberton. There is a simple story running throughout the narrative, but there is nothing simple or conventional about the novel, which is a dense and convoluted postmodern pastiche that interweaves metaphysical ponderings on the origin of the universe and individual spiritual quests with the occasional “midrash” of some old-time popular music; forays into the minds of Einstein and Wittgenstein - two geniuses with whom the author/narrator sits comfortably; a running commentary on movie-making and a humorous futuristic/absurdist speculation on the trade; marvellous Whitmanesque passages in the “Author’s Bio,” such as the tour de force about the writer Everett’s brother’s bomber flight over Germany during WWII; the story of a young runner boy in the Jewish ghetto of Kovno during WWII; the rant of a Vietnam vet; a stand-up schtick by Frank Sinatra; and the present-day recounting of an ex-Times reporter who is fixated on “closures” (killing surviving men of evil). This literary collage is all writer Everett’s compilation - notes/jottings/musings/stories - for the book on Pemberton.

So where was that simple story? Pemberton the priest is experiencing a spiritual crisis: is there a god? if so, why so much evil in the world? how did the world begin anyway, with the Big Bang? is religion even possible in this day and age? The big questions. His superiors are not pleased with some of his recent sermons. Pemberton is essentially a 60s’ idealist and thirty years down the line finds him in a funk, despairing of  “our wrecked romance with God.” As he is wrestling with his personal demons, the cross from his parish goes missing. It reappears atop the building which houses the Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism, a radical Jewish sect headed by rabbis Joshua Gruen and wife Sarah Blumenthal. Pemberton takes this as a sign of some kind. He begins spending time at the small synagogue, attending the weekly seminars (intellectual debates) on the Jewish faith. Sarah’s father, he later learns, had survived the Holocaust. He also learns that a diary exists that contains a running account of Nazi atrocities. Joshua goes in search of this diary in Kovno, but is mysteriously murdered (a mystery never satisfactorily cleared up). Pemberton takes up the search - first in Kovno, then in Moscow. In the meantime, a love relationship has been forming between Pemberton and Sarah. Love, after all - and a conversion to Evolutionary Judaism - would seem to be the antidote for the spiritually wounded Pemberton's ”chronic despair.” But the happy ending is ironically couched in a movie scenario, as penned by Everett.

The omniscient Everett first appears on the scene as a reporter pursuing a scoop on the disappearance of the Episcopalian cross, but as he gets to know “Pem,” he begins thinking in terms of a novel. E-mails are fired back and forth between the two, a taped interview also takes place - as the mind of Pemberton, the author’s persona twice removed, is explored by Everett, who weaves his stories, scenarios, imagined conversations, and what have you through his subject, creating a heady metafiction that nevertheless reads with relative ease: a feat in itself. There’s humor to be had, too, such as Pem’s wishful thinking that the electric anus of the Hatchet fish is the living incarnation of Adolf Hitler; and his earlier speculation that the religious objects stolen from his parish might surface in an installation in Soho.

Of course, it could be said that the book is one long excuse to let Doctorow have his say on all and sundry - well, it is - but what Doctorow has to say is still worth more, much more, than a great deal of other serious contemporary fiction. And, the seemingly disjointed parts that make up the novel are, like the Bible and St. Augustine’s opus, the form most befitting a spiritual odyssey. (As Everett says at one point, the Bible itself is a “scissors and paste job.”) Written with grace, beauty and wit - City of God is a brilliant millennial summation of the shaky spiritual foundation on which we find ourselves at the beginning of the 21st century. J.A.

The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman, Atlantic Monthly Press. 2000

Peasants slapping mud for a living, cart owners pulling up in front of houses asking for the recently dead and a King passing through a shit-drenched village - these are some images of England in the early middle ages as seen  in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A few hundred years later nothing much has changed in Sheri Holman’s atmospheric historical thriller of prostitution, grave-robbing and child theft in 19th-century England. The plague has been replaced by advancing cholera, the peasants have fled the countryside to live in city hovels, and England is a lot wealthier thanks to the Industrial Revolution. Sunderland, a port in the North of England, with its backdrop of filth and misery is as much a character in this book as the human ones. Gustine is a 15- year-old potter’s assistant by day and a prostitute by night. She works these two jobs so that she can give the best to her child, who was born with a very strange defect. But Gustine is no ordinary street hooker. Her pimp and landlord, the almost comic Whilky Robinson, has bought one expensive dress for Gustine to wear to attract better clients. She rents the dress from him and is therefore a ‘dress lodger.’ Because of the dress’s value, Whilky (who has already had some girls run away in other clothes) hires the Eye, an old one-eyed woman who appears to be a seething mass of rage, to look after the dress. So at night ‘the dress’ has sex up against walls while ‘the eye’ watches.

Enter Henry Chiver, who is a surgeon with a past. He was implicated in the Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh – the case in which two grave-robbers quit robbing graves and selling the contents to surgeons for dissection and began killing beggars instead ....fresher bodies and less hard work. In Sunderland he hopes to start a new life; he has a useful sponsor and is soon to be married but his medical school lacks bodies for study. He is with his students in John Robinson’s bar (brother of Whilky) when Gustine comes in. He once told her in a drunken state that he needed bodies and she has just found one down by the river. The other important 'character' - and one that will pitch rich against poor, and doctors against the disbelieving, untrusting populatio - is the aforementioned cholera which did in fact first reach England through Sunderland. Cholera acts as the catalyst for many of the actions and incidents that are about to happen. Whilky’s rundown boarding house, where all sexes sleep on straw in one room, is to become a breeding ground. Whilky has a hatred of doctors and rich do-gooders, built on ignorance as much as anything, and won’t let any near his house. Instead, his retarded daughter Pink and his beloved ferret spend all day at home killing rats amidst the filth of the hovel – buckets of urine are in the corner ready to be used to wash the grease out of clothes. So, will the young prostitute come between Chiver and his fiancée? Will love conquer poverty? Maybe, but not in this book. Holman has a whole different agenda. The characters are well drawn, especially Pink and the Eye, and there is sympathy for the luckless Gustine. There are other clever bit-players who dash in and out of the story as well, like the vain writer who thinks he can ‘see’ people’s lives. Others may seem a little stereotyped: Whilky, for example, is too much Hollywood’s idea of a Dickens landlord.

Sadly, there is a major drawback at the beginning. The author takes a character (a matchstick maker, who is later to die) and calls her ‘You’, which of course can be read by the reader as the author talking to the reader (who is then further confused by the identity of the ‘we’). So, you are waiting in line to go and see a show and find that the author is using you to introduce the real heroine of the book.

Don’t be upset, dear friend; we can’t all of us be heroes. Though we met you first we shouldn’t feel compelled to follow your tiresome life. …. You have a purpose in the machinery of this book, and though it is not large, it is necessary. We have brought you here to describe her to us, we being too far away in time and space to form a clear impression. Please, dear friend, keep us in suspense no longer. Is she lovely? Plain? Young? Old? First impressions are difficult to shake, dear friend, so please, be precise.

This annoying device is used again later when the ‘you’ shifts to someone else, but it can, at other times, work quite successfully by aiding the reader to ‘see’ around this bygone world and to get inside the characters' heads. Where it fails, as in the passage above, is by intruding on the readers' submersion in this alien environment. The image is shattered by reminding us that ‘we belong too far away in time and space’, thus removing us from the cleverly created 19th-century Sunderland and bringing us back to 21st-century Wherever-ville. The other thing that grates is the condescending, brusque tone of ‘we’. This horrible opening to the book very nearly killed it off for me and it was only my interest in the vivid, lurid, squalid details and my love of history that fortunately pushed me on to discover all the other delights. Get past that one hurdle and its smooth sailing. M.G.S.

© 2000 The Barcelona Review
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