Thursday, August 27, 2020

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey: Heroes, Animal and Man Alike

In her last novel Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, Kathleen Rooney got me to care deeply about an old woman wandering around New York City on New Year's Eve. I would not have thought it possible, but it worked! I loved that book — and am still a bit gobsmacked about the delta between my expectations going in and how much I liked it. 

With her new novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, she pulls off this trick again! I should know by now, fool me once, etc. I'll admit it: I picked up her new novel a bit skeptically. The novel intertwines the stories of a hero messenger pigeon and a hero soldier during a little-remembered episode of World War 1. The pigeon parts are, yes indeed, narrated by the pigeon. This has ALL kinds of disaster potential. But I'm here to tell you, it works. It really, actually works. 

So yes, Cher Ami is a pigeon — she's born in England, trained as a homing pigeon, and goes to war to help the Americans. Major Charles Whittlesey is the commander of what becomes known as the Lost Battalion — a battalion of American troops that advanced too far (they were too successful, actually) and got caught behind enemy lines. Cher Ami's and Major Whittlesey's paths cross during the course of the ramp-up to this battle and then the battle itself, both because Whittlesey is fascinated by the pigeon, but also because he harbors a bit of a crush on the pigeons' handler, a soldier named Cavanaugh. 

Cher Ami, for her part, winds up saving their lives. Despite being shot twice, and losing a leg and an eye, she's able to deliver a message to American troops to stop shelling. Their shells were landing on the Lost Battalion's position because the artillery folks didn't know they were so far ahead. 

Along the way, we get a fascinating biography of the contemplative, mercurial Whittlesey (like Cher Ami, who is in the Smithsonian currently, Major Whittlesey and his Lost Battalion are also real), including the mystery (that's not really a mystery) surrounding his death after the war. He's a warrior who often contemplates the insanity of war, specifically, and the peculiarities of humanity, generally. And he's a gay man frustrated he has to hide who he is, especially after he returns home as a war hero. 

Cher Ami is also very introspective — she (she is misidentified as a male, and therefore given a male name — a comment on how gender is a social construct, whether 1910s pigeon or contemporary human) wonders frequently about humans' relations to animals. Why do humans seem to put so much of their expertise in animal terms ("hawk eyes," "strong as a bull," "clever as a fox," etc.), yet see themselves as so superior to animals? All this is to say that the undercurrent of an entertaining, quickly paced novel is a staunchly anti-war, pro-animal philosophy that immensely enriches the reading experience. 

That aspect, along with these fascinating characters, and the elegance of Rooney's prose, make this an incredibly satisfying read. And again, surprising — though it shouldn't have been. I know people are going to hear "parts narrated by a messenger pigeon," and like me, be skeptical. Don't be. This is so good. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Motion of the Body Through Space: Troll-tastic Shriver Takes on Fitness

Professional provocateur Lionel Shriver has written a novel, The Motion of the Body Through Space (I'm purposefully not including a link, because no one should buy this book), positioned as a "send-up of today's cult of exercise." As a runner, I thought it’d be fun or at least amusing to read a novel satirizing the “cult of exercise.” Haha, you got me there, Shriver. Runners ARE a little weird. But there's nothing light-hearted, amusing, or even remotely clever about this. Instead, it's just mean-spirited, mocking, grouchy, and devoid of any parody value whatsoever. I haven't read Shriver before, but I guess that's at least partially her schtick

It's about a mid-sixties man named Remington who has been forced into retirement, and so takes up endurance sports, despite no experience. This new endeavor annoys his wife, Serenata, who used to run and bike, but can't anymore because of a bum knee. Serenata also happens to be one of the most insufferable people in any book I've read in a long time. (To give you an idea of how much I disliked her, at one point in the novel, she injures her knee riding her bike, and I was delighted that this fictional character is in intense pain.) 

Anyway, Serenata is upset at her husband for having a new ambition she doesn't deem worthy of him (she literally tells him that it's "unworthy of him" — what a snob!). She doesn't understand the point, and she frequently compares people who exercise, run marathons, and do triathlons to brainwashed members of a cult — and even, in one memorably horrendous paragraph, to Nazis. (Is this Serenata or Shriver making this claim? Does it matter? That’s not parody or satire. That’s just being an asshole.) 

What's sad is how ridiculous Shriver clearly thinks this new "fad" is, but then she couldn't come up with a more original story to make this point. Old man has late-life crisis, tries to develop fountain of youth. Good one, Shriver — wholly originally. Shriver even names Remington's comely, booby fitness trainer Bambi Buffer, for fuck’s sake! Bambi Buffer! 

It's Bambi who convinces Remington (of course, for her own personal gain in the form of a $1,200 per month fee) that the next natural step after he completes a marathon is to do a "MettleMan" triathlon, which only serves to annoy Serenata that much more. Of course, things don't go well for Remington, and the marriage moves to the brink.

Look, if you’re going to write satire, you owe your reader at least a passable understanding of what you’re satirizing. Amateur athletes do marathons, sure. But no seven-hour marathoner in his 60s is signing up for a full-distance IronMan triathlon, no matter how persuasive his devastatingly beautiful personal trainer is. It's patently ridiculous, to the point of being hilarious. So that's about the only shimmer of satire here. But because Shriver's so mean-spirited the rest of the time, you're not reading this as satire anymore. And beyond that detail, Shriver gets so much else wrong about these sports and the training and the culture she's trying to mock. It’s embarrassing. 

I only finished this because I was enjoying how much I hated it. If Shriver's goal here was to troll people who enjoy running, then kudos to you, Shriver. You done pissed me off good.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Luster: A Brutal, Brilliant, Hilarious Debut about Race, Sex, and Manners

I'll read just about anything Zadie Smith calls "brutal and brilliant," which is how she blurbed Raven Leilani's debut novel, Luster. And she's certainly not wrong. 

It's brutal in its honesty — "unflinching," as the review cliché goes. The novel is about a young Black woman, trying to make her way through love, life, sex, career, and being Black in modern day New York. Sometimes, this narrator, Edie, seems totally overmatched by life, relationships (which she happens to be in with a much-older married man), and not being totally awkward all the time. Other times, however, she seems preternaturally self-aware and understands exactly why the forces seemingly beyond her control are...beyond her control.

And it's brilliant in that on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph basis, this is one the best written novels I've read this year. Leilani's prose is witty and wise, often laugh-out-loud funny, but also profoundly keen and perceptive. It's so much fun to read.

So yes, Edie, our 23-year-old narrator, embarks on an affair with a married middle-aged white guy named Eric. But it's cool — he's in an open marriage, and through a series of odd machinations (job loss, eviction, some light stalking), Edie actually winds up living at his house in the suburbs with his wife Rebecca, and their adopted Black daughter named Akila. It's not the most comfortable living situation, to say the least, but it gives Edie occasion to do what she once thought she was destined for: art. Against all odds, her new suburban home, albeit extremely temporary, inspires her to paint. 

Edie's interactions and relationships with both Rebecca and Akila are really fascinating and well-rendered. Rebecca oddly tolerates her and actually wants to help her, even though she's sleeping with her husband. With the pre-teen Akila, Edie subtly helps mentor her in the ways of Black womanhood. 

Of course, this arrangement can't last, but will it come crashing down in spectacular flames? You'll probably read this novel so quickly, the end will sneak up on you before you even know it.

Comparisons between Luster and another huge hit this year, Kiley Reid's Such A Fun Age, are inevitable. Both are about what it's like to be young and Black, and struggling against a stacked deck. Luster, however, is a bit edgier, a bit more...unconventional. They're both fantastic debut novels so far be it from me to say one is better than the other. I'd highly recommend both. And I'd highly recommend keeping a close eye on Leilani's career — if Luster is any indication, we can expect big things.