Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Fates And Furies: A Story of a Marriage...And Then Some

To say Moby Dick is a story about a whale is like saying Lauren Groff's stunningly good new novel, Fates And Furies, is a story about a marriage. It is, sure, but that doesn't do it justice. In 2015, seemingly the year of the Marriage Novel, Fates And Furies is THE marriage novel. I turned the last page of this book, exhaled, and just said, "Wow."

It's the story of Lotto and Mathilde who meet at a college party, fall instantly in love, and marry two weeks later, much to the consternation of Lotto's wealthy mother, who immediately cuts him off.

In New York City, the newlyweds struggle to make ends meet. Naïve, narcissistic, but lovable Lotto tries his hand at acting, but his magnetic personality doesn't translate to the stage quite as easily as he'd hoped. Mathilde works at an art gallery to support her husband. But they're young, they have tons of friends, and they're beside themselves with love for each other. What could possibly go wrong?

This story, though, isn't so much about what can wrong in a marriage, as it is about how much you ever really know about and understand the person you know and understand best in the whole world. It's also about secrets, the internal engine and behind-the-scenes support system that makes a marriage work (or not), and, as most good novels are, doing your best to be able to see the world through someone else's eyes, and not slink away from what you see.

As well, throughout, Groff sprinkles allusions to mythology (the title, duh) to set up a tension of the eternal question of what we choose and the paths we take vs. what's been decided for us. Her writing, as you know if you've ever read her before, is exceptional. Her prose sparkles. It's near-perfect — every word has its place; not a word in excess, not a word too few. And the structure she's chose here only highlights her writing: The first half of the novel is told from Lotto's perspective, the second from Mathilde's. This creates such a richer experience with both these characters than a linear narrative could have.

I haven't decided yet whether this is No. 1 on my favorites of 2015 list yet, but it's extremely close. I really, really loved this book — a fantastic reading experience.

Getting this in the mail last week is a highlight of the year.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance: Evison Does Elderly

Normally, I'd avoid a novel about a 78-year-old woman like, well, a real-life 78-year-old woman in a grocery store line. But a novel about a 78-year-old woman written by Jonathan Evison? I'm all in! And this is great.

Harriet Chance has lived a long and fruitful life, and soon after Bernard, her husband of fifty-plus years, dies, she learns he'd won an Alaska cruise, which he'd never collected, at a silent auction. She decides YOLO, and goes, even after her friend Mildred bails on her, and her two grown (and scheming) children, Skip and Caroline, try to talk her out of it.

Along the way, though, we delve back into Harriet's life in short snippets of story (told in the style of the radio program "This Is Your Life"; "Look at you Harriet, a grown woman!", i.e.) that show her at various formative stages. All this gives context for the real-time action, and the revelation of a secret about Bernard that Harriet discovers not long after she's embarked on the cruise. It's a secret that changes everything...dum dum dum.

But the intriguing thing here is that we soon learn that Harriet harbors her own skeleton(s), and isn't completely blameless. Evison's revelations are carefully placed and tug us along through the narrative at just the perfect times. It's a near-perfectly constructed novel, is what I'm saying.

One of my favorite parts of this novel is how it subtly scolds readers for our (or maybe just my?) stereotypes of and annoyances with the elderly. Indeed, there's even a scene, at a time in the novel when we're at maximum sads for Harriet, when she struggles with her coupons in the grocery store, and the line behind her gets impatient. I'm not going to lie, I was a little ashamed of myself when I read that part.

Overall, though, this is quick, charming, delightful, if often sad, read. As was the case with The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, Evison's terrific 2012 novel (soon to be a movie with Paul Rudd, by the way), Evison is fantastic at somehow making his readers happy while reading a sad story. You'll read this quickly, and if you're like me, you'll really dig it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Franzen Strikes Back: On Purity

Purity is Jonathan Franzen's third "major" novel — it's his most structurally complex, robust (or verbose, depending on your POV), and smartest novel yet. It's not his best, nor is it my favorite of his, but it's still pretty awesome — as quick a read as a 550-page novel can be.

What's fun about this novel is its sheer volume of topic. Franzen utterly commands a reader's attention, as he's interesting on just about everything he writes about. Here, Franzen tackles the pressures of fame, parents and kids, socialism, relationships, sex, nuclear disarmament, Internet leaks, trust, journalism vs. new media, Oedipus, art, East Germany.

This is all included amidst a tightly spun, though geographically diverse (Oakland, Denver, Bolivia, East Berlin, New York City, etc.) plot about a 22-year-old woman named Purity, but who goes by Pip. As we first meet Pip, she's talking with her neurotic mother who lives by herself in a cabin in California. Pip, who is rather a hot mess herself, lives in a squat house in Oakland, harbors a secret crush for a married housemate, works as a telemarketer for an alternative energy company, and just wants to find her father, who she thinks can help her pay her crushing $130,000 student loan debt.

After we're introduced to Pip in the first 100 pages, we spend the next 100 pages with a man named Andreas Wolf, who comes of age during the early 1980s in East Berlin. Andreas (as we've learned in Pip's section) runs an organization called The Sunlight Project, a Wikileaks-like outfit that attempts to "cleanse with sunlight" by revealing secrets. Andreas's section basically describes how he got to be the way he is. From there, the less you know about the plot, the better and more fun your reading experience will be. Franzen masterfully connects these characters, many more, their secrets, and how many of their stories are surprisingly similar. Trust him: What may seem like coincidence initially obviously isn't. Franzen's too good to resort to coincidence.

One of my favorite things about this novel is its self-awareness. You'll no doubt see (have seen?) a ton of articles over the next few weeks that basically say the same thing: "Jonathan Franzen is perceived by many to be a jerk, but jerks can write good novels. And this is a good novel." I don't disagree with that, but Franzen seems to have occasional fun with his critics here, spending a few carefully chosen words on technology (including Twitter, which, as we know, Franzen despises), feminism (which he admires, but wonders if it's about women being equal, or women being better), and even the number of real-world "serious" novelists named Jonathan. All wonderful stuff.

Again, though, even though I really enjoyed this, it's probably my third favorite of his three major novels. At times, it felt bloated, like we went too far back into the history of some of the characters, only to make a minor point. At times, the mighty ego of the Franzen — I mean, you go into reading Franzen knowing will be on full display — got in the way of his story (most notably, during several pages rant comparing the East German Revolution with the Internet, a parallel, that, despite reading several times, I still don't understand completely).

What it comes down to though is that you're going to want to read this. It's a fascinating study of our time. And there truly aren't too many writers working today that are as entertaining to read as The Franzen is.