Sunday, July 28, 2013

An Accident in August, by Laurence Cossé

My timing might seem suspicious, but it is pure coincidence that my reading of this book coincided with the advent of the Royal Baby. Still, it didn't seem like such a bad thing to be remembering Lady Di at this hour. In an alternate universe, after all, she is at this moment a doting grandmother.

Laurence Cossé uses the moment that took Diana's life (as well as that of her fiance and her driver) as the catalyst for this suspense novel, which imagines the story of the driver of the mysterious 'slow moving car' that had the world speculating for weeks after a certain high speed accident in a Paris tunnel  onAugust 31, 1997. It is not so much the Princess of Wales' life as it is the aftermath of her death that is evoked in this novel and then only as the background to the situation of its protagonist, Lou, the fictional driver of the Fiat Uno that the famous Mercedes collided with.

As the novel opens, Lou knows she has just made a mistake, but doesn't yet know the magnitude of it, nor does she even understand why she chose to flee the scene rather than stopping. What she does know is that her life has changed overnight. The question is, what is she going to do about it?

Other novelists might imagine a happy life, shattered, but this is not precisely the tack that Cossé takes. Although at first we are simply absorbed in Lou's current plight, gradually we come to understand that until this moment, Lou's life has been somehow incomplete. She has recently allowed her boyfriend to move into her flat but is already beginning to regret this a little, and we come to realize that this isn't really about him, but about her. As her predicament unfolds, what she notably doesn't do is include him in on it. So even before the crisis occurs, there is a 'me against the world' mentality in Lou. And what Lou discovers as the book goes on is that the crisis brings out both her strength and her resourcefulness. Without giving away any more of the plot, I will divulge that by the end of the novel, Lou is not so much a changed person as a truer version of herself.

Although Diana's life doesn't play a huge part in the story--Cossé refers to it in passing from time to time--it's clear that it is this particular car crash and no other that could have set this story off and running. A key theme is the nature of celebrity, and Lou could be said to be an anti-Diana, both in physical type and in her loathing of the idea of fame--not just notoriety, but any kind of fame whatsoever. Not wanting to have her picture taken in connection with the accident is not just a preference, it is part of the core of her sense of identity and strength.

The novel first came out in France in 2003, though Europa didn't bring it out in English until 2011. Our distance from Diana is greater now than when the book was written. What oddly seems at an even greater distance, though, is the era in which the book is set. We don't realize how much the world has changed until we read a book set pre-millennium. Lou keeps track of how far the police may be from apprehending her by reading various editions of the papers. Perhaps it is different even now in France, but in my part of the U.S., papers coming out at different times of day is a thing of the past. Lou's world seems rich in print options, and following her story involves wading through many more pages than we would do today. At the same time, today she wouldn't be going out for papers at all. She'd be holed up, reading them on her computer, or perhaps her smart phone.

Even now, conspiracy theories are alive and well about who was driving that Fiat Uno--and why. But in 2006, the Daily Mail published a convincing story about who the driver is likely to have been. The person in question isn't much like Lou superficially, but there are some strong similarities all the same. Whether or not Le Van was driving the Fiat Uno that night, Lou would find much to commiserate with in his (non self-incriminating) statement:

"The experience has been hell for me. It almost ruined my life, but I have been strong and pulled through.
"My family and friends have been badly affected. It has to stop now, but I fear that it never will."

(This post was originally posted on The Europa Challenge Blog, a challenge that I'm currently running pathetically behind on.)

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Bloodland, by Alan Glynn

I happened to be reading Bloodland at the same time a blog post came out from the excellent Martin Edwards, addressing the question, How Many Characters in a Novel? Too many characters was actually the main complaint members of my book group had about the last book under discussion here, Creation, by Gore Vidal, a problem I thought could have been ironed out a bit by a simple list of characters at the beginning to refer back to. Edwards is talking specifically from the point of view of mystery writer, though, and this has some bearing on Bloodland, which I would call a mystery in the broader sense, though I have seen others refer to it as a classic conspiracy novel.

I suspect that in today's reading climate, where everything possible must apparently be done to keep the reader from giving up and turning on the television or  some other device, the opening of Bloodland will be off putting for some. After an initial scene in Africa, you have three more starts to the book, all involving dyads or triads of men. I'm pretty game  to try complex openings, but even I had some worry whether I was going to be able to keep track of all the players--Ray and Jimmy and Phil and Larry and Dave. You get the picture. And then about forty pages in another group of men are introduced.

I bring this up only to say, don't be put off by this. You'll figure it out. Everything's connected--which is also a theme of the book as a whole. And the men, as you get to know them, are distinct characters.  You won't confuse them.

The basic idea of the story is that Jimmy Gilroy, a talented but unemployed young reporter who's lost his job in the moribund newspaper industry, has landed a little gig writing a combination bio and exposé of a scandal ridden celebrity, including her tragic death in a helicopter crash. Unwittingly, by taking the assignment, he has just pulled the small thread by which a very large web is going to unravel. His first glimpse of this result is when he's called by Phil Sweeney, an old friend of his dad, who asks that he back off the "last days" angle of the story. Instead of seeing this as a favor he owes the older man, Jimmy is offended and hangs up. This action is what sets the plot--or perhaps I should say plots--in motion.

Bloodland is extremely ambitious in scope, which is why we need not just one protagonist but many as it unfolds. Glynn adeptly connects American and Chinese depredations in the Congo to the crash of the Irish housing market, celebrity scandal and presidential ambitions. What has perhaps not been noted enough is that it is also a meditation on fathers and sons. At least two of the main characters are father haunted, and while the fathers may be gone, the friends of the fathers remain, trying to steer the course of the future through these adoptive ties to the sons.

For a failed reporter, Jimmy is perhaps a little too lucky as the story unfolds, and I wasn't entirely convinced that as he finds his way through the labyrinth of collusion and deceit the very powerful men he confronts would have been quite so panicked as they prove in response to his investigations.

Though it's true--they do have some very big things to hide...  

Monday, July 8, 2013

Creation, by Gore Vidal

For the most part, my book group found this to be something of a clunker. And to be perfectly honest, I also found this book to be a slog. I'm still trying to understand exactly why that is, because, based purely on concept, if I were going to pitch this book for a TV series, I would say it was I, Claudius meets the travels of Marco Polo.

I think one problem with it is that for a story that covers Greece, and almost all of the Near and Far East, it is curiously static. This may be in part because Vidal chose to tell this from the point of view of a very old, blind man, and so some of the more dynamic events of his own life are not of much interest to him anymore. And Vidal has deliberately chosen his narrator to be not a central historical figure, like, say Xerxes, the Great King of Persia, but instead a chronicler of the real movers and shakers of his era. To put it another way, as Paul Theroux wrote in his review in 1981, when the book was new: "Anyone looking for libido in this novel will be disappointed." And actually, Theroux's appraisal is quite just and worth reading. You can find it here .

However. All these things being true, it is still a worthwhile read. It is set in the fifth century B.C., and "anybody who was anybody" was there. I have long heard about the almost miraculous explosion of consciousness in this era, when not only the Greek philosophers began their inquiries, but in quite separate spheres, Confucius and Buddha also were holding sway. Cyrus Spitama, half Greek, half Persian and the grandson of Zoroaster to boot is Vidal's fictional creation. He is young enough and ambitious enough--and well connected enough, although he never seems to think so--to be able to journey to see all of them in one lifetime.

The novel's interests are not those of most novels. Vidal is inquiring not into our social interactions but our political ones, and above and beyond that, his character Spitama is preoccupied with the subject of Creation, with all the different ideas that were going on in that vast part of the world on how everything came to be, and how we are supposed to live as a consequence. It is a hugely ambitious undertaking, and if Vidal didn't write the novel we wanted him to write, he certainly wrote the novel that he wanted to write. I spent much of the time I was reading it wondering how on earth he did it. How did he know enough about multiple, vastly different political and religious/philosophical realms to do it? One reason I persisted with the novel is that I knew that even if it took a bit of effort, I was never going to have another guide through this period as good as this one.

Another thing I really appreciated about this book was that Vidal chose to tell it all from the point of view of a Persian. What little most of us know about ancient history, if we know anything at all, and on my part, that's not much, comes down to us from the Greeks and Romans, or, on another track, from the Hebrews. To have the Persian perspective on the Persian Wars--even just an educated guess as to how it must have seemed from their angle-- is a nice way of turning different truisms on their heads. And though the book is not particularly droll, though every once in a while Vidal's wit shows through, it is funny to see Cyrus moan about the Greeks so much. We are used to bowing to them without knowing them all that well. Cyrus, though half Greek himself, does not bow to their superiority. It is a little hard to know what Vidal himself thought of them.

I liked the way the book helped me put together the relation of all these concurrent empires in time and space. They were all in one way or another looking to receive heaven's mandate--which meant world domination. And yet, in Cyrus's view, on a basic level, they were self preoccupied and not interested in the other cultures beyond the horizon. Cyrus is always returning from some expedition or other, full of tales and adventures, and finding that no one cares. (Of course, it may have been that they, like we, simply found him not to be that scintillating a storyteller. It happens.)

I also found it interesting to read about democracy when it was young, especially in the context of recent news from Syria, Iran and Egypt. The interplay of the military and democracy seemed particularly apt. It takes a power other than democracy to enforce democracy, then as now.

If you have an interest in this period and have the kind of disposition it takes to get into a long, slowly paced book (it definitely doesn't feel as if it was written for our current historical moment), give it a go. But if you do, you might start writing down who's who as you go. Because Gore is not going to help you with that one. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple

I have a great fondness for books that I think can more generally be classified as contemporary comedies of manner. Diane Johnson's French novels, like L'Affaire and L'Divorce; Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club; Cathleen Schine's Rameau's Niece--you get the picture. They are witty, cerebral, often romantic but just as often anti-romantic; usually familial. Above all, they require a light, deft touch.

Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette? falls into this confectionary category. The story is about a family of three that has somehow ended up living in a monstrous old decaying house in Seattle, which at least one member of the family thinks of as the remotest hinterlands.  Bernadette Fox is a very eccentric former architect, her husband Elgin Lane is a highly esteemed but very abstracted Microsoft developer, and their daughter Bee is both precocious and kind. This is the story of their unraveling.

If I tell you, as almost everyone who writes about this book will, that Semple used to write for Arrested Development, you should have a pretty good idea of the style of its humor. Told with an equal degree of skill in a variety of literary forms--the email, fax, magazine interview, PR memo and so on--the story gently skewers the upwardly mobile classes of Seattle. Except for the Microsoft bit, a lot of this book could have been set in certain Westside neighborhoods of L.A., but, especially through the voice of Bernadette Fox, Semple reserves some particular barbs for Seattle itself.

The book opens with Bee's reminder that her parents had promised her the granting of a wish if she maintained a certain high standard in school. Her wish turns out to be a trip to Antarctica. This would be a tall order in most families, but not this one. However, though she can't back out of her promise, Bernadette doesn't really want to go. She begins to figure out an escape route.

In a subplot, the private school that Bee attends is hosting a fundraiser to attract some "Mercedes parents"--i.e., clients from an economic bracket just slightly above their own. Subsequent preparations do not always bring out the best in people.

If there is one downside to the story, it may be that it centers a little too much on the "First World problems" of a very privileged class of people, Mercedes driving or not. On the other hand, Semple has a very good ear for the way people who are unaware of their great good fortune talk to themselves and to each other. The genteel warfare that goes on over the Galer school fundraiser is expertly observed. But Semple's humor is of a type that never puts any of these people absolutely beyond redemption.

And as a counterpoint to all of this, we have Bee, who is privileged in a very different sort of way, because she should never have survived in the first place. She grounds the book because she is not a satiric character, because she is steadfast and true, and because she's going to find out where Bernadette went, no matter what.