26 May 2018

The Symmetry in Asymmetry

Just months before the great writer Philip Roth passed away, a young woman penned a fascinating first novel that featured an elder writer with a surprising and definite resemblance to Roth. Turns out, he was the model for the character and he did have an affair, years ago, with the much younger woman, as depicted in the novel. As if, since Roth stopped publishing five years ago, he had to be present in fiction in another way and it works. In a recent interview, Roth said, "she got me." And what a wonderful me he was, in this novel as in life. 
Agent-turned novelist Lisa Halliday
            In the first part of three-part novel ASYMMETRY, author Lisa Halliday describes the tale of a junior editor having an affair with the revered older east coast writer, and takes place in Manhattan and Long Island, Roth's habitats, at the onset of the first Iraq war. The anxiety of the twin towers hovers over the city.
            It was cool for June; a steam rose from the water as though a river of magma flowed only a fathom below. Rustling trees cast trembling shadows on the basin, whose layers had chipped away over the years to leave swirls of old grays, greens, and aquamarines, like an antique sea chart. Beneath the surface, Alice’s hands, still coming together and swiveling apart, began to look less like instruments of propulsion than like confused magnets, or hands trying to find their way out of a dark room. But still, she swam.
           The unlikely affair between the older Jewish westside writer,  and the young quirky Irish east sider is surprisingly and delightfully funny in parts, as I'm told Roth was. Despite the sensuality, and the May-December romance, there is something decidedly sweet between them, as if a last glimpse of innocence in a world gone crazy. 
The great Philip Roth
The affair plays out predictably, and in Part three, the novel returns to the writer in later years in a stunning fictional interview in which he is asked to define the decades of his life through music. Roth fans know he is nearly as devoted to classical music as his writing, and the interview seems spot on. One of the characters in Part two is an exceptional pianist, one of the few slim threads of connection between parts. Asymmetry not disconnection.
            Our mother’s tendency to mythologize our childhoods would have you believe that Sami, who had never touched a musical instrument before, sat down at that piano for the first time and was rolling out bagatelles by sundown. I don’t think it was quite like this. A more accurate version surely begins with a fact that has long confounded my parents, and me to a degree as well, and that is that my brother did not like living in America. Almost from the beginning he complained of missing his Baghdadi friends and pointedly lagged behind in school, although he was no less clever than his classmates and had spoken English as well as Arabic since he was three.
            The filling in this novelistic sandwich is an entirely new set of characters - hyphenated Americans and Brits and Muslims – in the nearly McCarthy-esque days during the gulf war as Saddam Hussein is overthrown. The voice is completely different, the story line geo-political, and only a subtle hint in Part one [which I nearly missed] suggests the young woman’s interest in this culture and in writing her own novel. 
            The most profound asymmetry is in the relationships, between cultures, religions and educational status and, in some ways, also reflects the assimilation of the Jewish writer into the mainstream, in contrast to the perpetual turmoil in the middle east.
            Or not. This novel is as much about interpretation and the perception we bring to the reading. The middle part may be jarring, and seems so far from the story line it’s hard to make sense of it, at first, but take your time with it. I prefer only to review books I recommend, and this one gave me pause, but if you’re interested in post-modern literature with superlative characterization and excellent writing, despite its asymmetrical nature, or perhaps because of it, there is much to commend the writing and the pleasure of being in Roth's presence, as close as we can get now other than reading his own words, which I intend to continue to do often. 

05 May 2018

The Search for Identity

David Plante

So much has been written, and said, of late, about the search for cultural identity. And, right now, the preponderance of refugees from Africa and the Middle East attests to the constancy of human migration and to our biblical propensity to be tribal. 

I’ve just read two slim compelling novels featuring female protagonists approaching the quandary of otherness on totally different paths.  

David Plante, an accomplished British-American writer with a French-Canadian family tree, is not well known but prolific in both fiction and biography. I heartily recommend THE FAMILY, his best-known work and a National Book Award finalist.

Now he presents AMERICAN STRANGER [published in January by HarperCollins] but this stranger is not new to our shores. Nancy grew up in an affluent Jewish household in Manhattan but knows little of her parents’ German history, other than they escaped during WWII. They never speak of it, she never asks, and this disconnect to parents is also central to the story. As she comes of age, aimless and enlightened, she seeks herself in relationships with three different men. [Think searching for love in all the wrong places.} The most elusive of the three is an equally troubled young man searching for himself in spirituality and nonconformity. His searching is particularly moving to Nancy, and his memory haunts her. Plante reminds us we are grounded not only in our roots, but in the worlds we create for ourselves. While there are a few plot moments I found implausible, it’s a beautifully written work of fiction with a unique set of characters.

“Anyway. Yvon knew he couldn’t blame Ma for what she was, because she couldn’t help herself, she didn’t have the will. You see, Ma was, well, a kind of innocent, it was beyond her all that made her helpless, and, I’ll tell you, I loved her for her helplessness. And, here’s something else I’ll tell you, I loved my brother Yvon for his helplessness, that made him, too, a kind of innocent. He tried and he tried, but, after all, Yvon didn’t have much will. And those are the innocent people.”

Yuri Herrera
Pair this with SIGNS PRECEDING THE END OF THE WORLD by Yuri Herrera, who some call Mexico’s greatest novelist. [I might argue on behalf of Carlos Fuentes, although I am so pleased to discover Herrera.] Published in 2009 in paperback from the British publisher, Other Stories, and translated by Lisa Dillman, the novel [more a novella] constructs the journey of Makina, a Mexican girl in search of her brother who previously crossed the border to America. 

A proud, feisty character, Makina makes the crossing under the auspices of a seemingly benign coyote, who uses her as a messenger. She carries one unknown messenger to a stranger, and a message from her parents for her brother. Once her first mission is accomplished, she finds herself in the labyrinth that is immigrant existence in border communities and her brother seems to have vanished without a trace. Undaunted, she sets out to deliver the message.

There are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rabid intensity: with restrained fervor they can be the meekest and at the same time the most querulous of citizens, albeit grumbling under their breath. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of a new people. And then they speak. They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more ,never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link.

Both books will remind you there are no others, only disparate worlds. Happy reading.