Thursday, December 30, 2010

Damon Galgut writes about the frustrations of desire.

I was intrigued when I read accounts of this beautifully written memoir novel. It is provocative and engaging in equal measure.

In a Strange Room

South African Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room (224 pages, Europa Editions, $15) tells a fascinating story about a lonely gay man who finds himself in three different situations which both frustrate and depress him. All are told from the first-person point of view, and all seem to talk about someone like the author, and it seems that the novel also doubles as a memoir. As both novel and memoir, it is deeply engaging and profoundly true.

In the first tale, Damon finds himself engaging with a provocative stranger in Greece. This handsome German, called Reiner, engages the South African and proposes to visit him in Cape Town. When the stranger arrives, Damon finds that he is as much repulsed as he is attracted to the powerfully masculine figure of this friend, and he is not really sure he trusts him. But Reiner proposes some time hiking together in a land distant from the civilized urban world they know. This excites the narrator and before long the two men are hiking in Lesotho, carrying all their supplies and camping wherever they can. Galgut makes vivid the loneliness of such travel, especially when so much is unspoken between the two men. They walk in silence, each alone in his own thoughts, and when they do engage, it is usually in competitive terms. As the situation becomes hellish for Damon, he has no alternative but to burst out against his companion’s arrogance and self-absorption. This causes a break, and it proves to the narrator what an insufficient basis for friendship has been the vague attraction he felt for Reiner. This hike has in fact been an antidote to friendship; and if Damon is any wiser at the end of the talk, it is the wisdom of loneliness.

The second narrative is, if anything, even more devastating. Again the narrator is traveling in Africa and he meets up with an interesting group of Europeans. He is particularly fascinated with a trio: an older French man and a younger Swiss pair, a brother and sister. The younger man, Jerome, speaks no English, but seems attracted to the narrator. The feeling seems to be mutual, but there is no chance to act on the attraction. These people always travel in a group, and even when Jerome and Damon are on their own, there is little they can say to each other. It is clear Jerome wants Damon to stay with the group, and even when he has to separate from the group because of some visa issues, Jerome makes a plea that Damon come to visit him in Switzerland. Oddly enough, Damon persuades himself that he should make that visit; when he gets there, however, the family welcomes him but there are no direct overtures from Jerome. After staying sometime, Damon leaves in frustration and worries that maybe he should have handled the whole thing differently.

In the third section, Damon goes to India with a female friend who has been ill with a serious depression for some time. He hopes to be her companion as she comes out of treatment and finds herself again, but instead he finds that he is her antagonist; and it gradually becomes clear that he is the only person standing between his friend and her self-destruction. Here the frustration and anger are even more palpable than they were in the earlier sections, and again Damon fails to save his friend.

The soul-searching that accompanies each of these sections is riveting, and the central character makes it clear that all these failures leave him alone but somehow stronger for it all. This seems to be the moral of the tale: Damon fails to save his friends or even to establish a truly meaningful relationship, but still he finds himself and makes peace with that. That is surely something.

Damon Galgut

In a Strange Room is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Lauren Weisberger takes on the world of rock music

Lauren Weisberger follows up The Devil Wears Prada with a story about a nutritionist who is married to a rock star. That creates some interesting tensions.

Last Night at Chateau Marmont

Lauren Weisberger’s Last Night at Chateau Marmont (384 pages, Altria, $25.99) follows the marriage of Brooke and Julian Alter. Brooke works two jobs as a nutritionist in order to help Julian get his music career off the ground. He is a soulful singer-songwriter who first caught Brooke’s eye when he was singing his heart out. Brooke believes in him, even if her friends and (especially) his parents do not. His parents, a wealthy pair of doctors who live on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, think their son is wasting his time. They also make it clear that they have no use for Brooke, which only makes her try to please them more.

Imagine everyone’s surprise, then, when Julian’s music is actually taken seriously by Sony and when, after some trial runs and controlled performances, his career really starts to take off. Brooke is at first so thrilled that she hardly knows what to do; but it quickly becomes apparent that Julian's needs and demands as a performer will conflict with her own career plans.

At first she is rigid about her two jobs and her commitment to them. She really does love her work, it seems, and she wants to prove that she can do it all. It becomes increasingly apparent to the reader that she cannot, and eventually she loses both jobs, one on account of her increasingly frequent absences, and the other, on account of the notoriety that her position as wife of a rock star brings along with it; the private school where she works as a nutritionist has no alternative but to let her go.

This would be bad enough, but her relations with Julian are strained at the same time. His schedule is grueling, and he finds himself accepting tours and interviews even when she cannot be with him. Added to this professional loneliness is the incessant probing of the press and paparazzi. It gets so bad that they have to install blackout shades in their midtown Manhattan apartment. Even worse, the press seems to play this marriage as an odd choice for the handsome crooner who could have his choice of women. A slightly overweight, if not dumpy, red head is hardly what the cognoscenti would choose for him.

When it turns out that Julian may have been unfaithful, Brooke’s whole world falls apart, and until they are able to work out some way of trusting one another, the marriage seems doomed.

I can’t say that I found much sympathy for Brooke, whose demands seemed unreasonable. I was happy, I suppose, when the marriage was saved, but I also wondered why the woman had to be so dull and otherwise inappropriate as a rock star’s wife. I imagine that is best known to the author and this kind of tension is really what she wanted to emphasize. Maybe it will make a decent movie.

Lauren Weisberger

Last Night at Chateau Marmont is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Aly Monroe takes her spy to post-WWII Washington with great results.

I enjoyed the first novel in Aly Monroe’s Peter Cotton series, and I assumed I would like this one too. I was not mistaken.

Washington Shadow

In this novel, Aly Monroe places her hero, Peter Cotton, in a contingent of British diplomats and MI6 agents who immediately after the end of the Second World War have come to Washington under the auspices of the great economist Maynard Keynes in order to ask for some aid in dealing with their own post-war austerities. Washington Shadow (325 pages, John Murray, $12.95) examines the post-war desperation of the English, the increasingly chilly relations between the Americans and the Soviets, the break-up of the OSS, and the gradual slide into the cold war, all from a refreshingly oblique British angle.

Of course from the British point of view, this moment, probably more than any other, except the Suez Crisis of ten years later, marked the end of British global domination. Peter Cotton has gone to Washington with a group that is there to salvage some respectability along with a sizable loan. The farsighted among the diplomats realize that the best they can probably hope for is a position as intelligence aid and senior advisor to the greener and less experienced Americans. The British felt, justifiably so, that their years as civil servants and empire builders have given them a perspective on the present crisis.

Keynes, of course, is also trying to remind the Americans how much they owe to their former colonial rulers. As the key figures negotiate a long-term post war loan, Peter Cotton and his group are trying to create something like a more complex and partly secretive diplomatic mission on the new world scene. Washington is remarkably backwater in the year of this novel’s action, and a lot of the awkwardness of the American shift from the war against Germany and Japan to the cold war with the Soviet Union is apparent in the posturing and shuffling that is taking place at even the highest levels of diplomacy.

Aly Monroe is alive to these shifts—the novel is wonderfully researched—and she puts her hero in a place that allows him to experience, for better and for worse, the results of these growing pains. Peter meets a number of other British diplomats, some like him who have emerged from the armed forces, and he experiences their pain at trying to find a niche for themselves in the American scene. He also meets fascinating international figures, primarily a Russian and an African, who through their diplomatic friendliness show him the broad hints of horrors that are to come.

In the midst of this complex historical matrix, Cotton also makes close, even intimate friends. A British friend, his driver and assistant, is jumping ship as it were and trying to find a new home in America. This is complicated enough, especially when other friends are losing their jobs because of the American liaisons. Meanwhile, his own involvement with an impressive American female in diplomatic service begins to give Peter Cotton himself the feeling that he might be willing to relocate his career and settle in the States. Through this friend, Katherine, Peter experiences all the world of wealthy and cultured Americans has to offer. Katherine is of course a kind of renegade from her family—they would prefer her not to have anything like a real career—but Peter can also see how fulfilled she is by what she does. He tries to support her as they draw closer and talk about the future.

The tensions of the moment, however, both personal and political, prove to be too much for Peter and Katherine, as well as for many of their friends. The novel comes to a sober end, but then when one thinks about it, how could it not? This moment in history can hardly justify too many happy endings.

The ending is satisfying, nonetheless; and with it, Aly Monroe has deepened her claim as a talented and rewarding writer of historical suspense.

Aly Monroe

Washington Shadow
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Steve Martin writes a novel about the New York art scene in the later 20th Century

I was happy to see that Steve Martin had written another novel, and the premise of this one, which deals with the art world in the last decade of the 20th century, sounded more than engaging enough to recommend it.

An Object of Beauty

Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty (295 pages, Grand Central Publishing, $26.99) is itself an object of beauty. There are several color illustrations in these pages, and often, as Martin discusses a particular work of art, he shows it. These color illustrations do a lot to bring the story alive. That is especially true because the story about the art of the age is even more compelling than the story about the girl, Lacey, who tries to make her living by dealing in art.

The story about Lacey is in fact a little strange. I suppose Martin means her as an everywoman of sorts. She is a beautiful and tough transplanted southerner who is making her way in New York. To do this, she walks all over the people she meets and seems constitutionally unable to maintain a relationship with a man. This makes sense because her deepest interest in life is her own advancement in the art world; and if she can be said to have an undying love, it is a love of art. Or at least it is a love of what art may be able to provide for her.

Her character is vaguely amoral—she is willing, for instance, to steal art right out of her grandmother’s sickroom—but it is hard to care enough about her to worry what she does or doesn’t do. She is an excuse for telling the story, it seems, and very little more.

The other odd effect in this novel is the narrator. An art critic, and someone who knows Lacey quite well, the narrator insinuates himself into various scenes and even has some ludicrously nefarious dealings with Lacey. But again it is hard to care; and in this case it is hard to imagine that the narrator cares much about representing himself or his own needs.

What is represented, though, is the art scene of the 1990’s and the first years of the twenty-first century. Martin does a wonderful job of presenting the art world: the artists, the galleries, and the collectors of that heady era when the value of art seemed to do nothing but soar.

Lacey is caught up in the contemporary scene, and by following her as she tricks her way into the fast lane and then establishes a reputation and eventually a gallery, we keep our fingers on the pulse of the art scene. Martin represents a range of practitioners, and he manages to set a world wide stage with deftness and clarity. I, for one, felt that I learned a lot reading this novel.

I think this bodes well for Martin as a novelist. If he can create characters that matter, then he will be a long way toward writing the great novel of which I think he is more than capable.

Steve Martin

Get a copy of An Object of Beauty at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cynthia Ozick writes a novel inspired by Henry James’s The Ambassadors

I was interested by the James connection here, and although Cynthia Ozick is not one of my favorite novelists, I thought this project sounded interesting.

Foreign Bodies

Cynthia Ozick makes explicit her reference in Foreign Bodies (255 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26) to Henry James's novel about Americans abroad, The Ambassadors. Ozick takes her epigraph from James’s novel, in which he speaks about the possibilities of refinement and brutalization that face Americans in Europe, and she tells a tale that is similar enough to The Ambassadors in broad outline to make the vivid distinctions from the earlier novel truly telling.

Bea, the middle-aged heroine of the novel has lived alone in New York since her husband left her many years before the narrative opens in the early 1950s. She has in fact been asked to go to Europe to find her nephew, who seems to have defied his self-important Californian father by staying abroad longer than he was meant to. After a half-hearted attempt at finding him during her first trip abroad, Bea is roundly upbraided by her brother, who urges her to return to Europe to find his son. He cannot go himself, he tells her, because he has too many concerns at home. His work is demanding, and his wife is in a home for the mentally unstable, primarily, it seems, because she cannot accommodate the absence of her son.

When Bea is equivocating as to whether she can go or not, her niece, Iris, comes to New York purportedly to persuade her; but Iris goes to Paris herself, both admitting that she has been in communication with her brother, Julian, and promising that she can bring him back if anyone can. Bea enters unwillingly into a kind of league with this girl—she keeps her trip from the girl’s father—but still she worries that she should let her brother know what’s going on.

Rather than do that, she takes herself to Europe to discover what has happened to both these younger people. There she confronts a situation that is more complicated than she can handle. Julian seems to be involved with an older woman, a Romanian, and Iris has been aiding and abetting this pair rather than doing anything to extricate Julian from his European entanglements. Bea almost immediately realizes that she can do nothing for the youngsters either, and she again returns to New York with nothing to show for her trip.

This time, though, she slips out to Los Angeles, and she sees both her hospitalized sister-in-law, who makes intermittent sense to Bea, and her ex-husband, who turns out to live nearby. This trip opens Bea’s life to quite a lot, and afterwards she could be said to be more on the side of the young people than she was before.
The novel winds itself around the complexities of this situation, and although Bea ends up marginally better than she was at the opening of the novel, she has no more sense of her nephew or her niece and even less contact with her hideous brother.

It is hard to read a novel when so many of the characters are unlikeable. Ozick seems to have tolerance for this rum group, and even the feckless Julian seems to warrant some understanding. I found myself impatient with the whole procedure. But that doesn’t mean that Ozick does not write very well—she does—and that the novel doesn’t repay close reading. I think you have to be in an acerbic mood to appreciate it. But if you are, I bet you will like it a lot.

Cynthia Ozick

A copy of Foreign Bodies available at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.