Monthly Archives: May 2010

So Much For That, by Lionel Shriver

So Much For That, by Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That is a jolting experience, but it’s not a rollercoaster ride. That would suggest moments of ascent and exhilaration as well as gut wrenching downward spirals. So Much For That is more a steady descent into hell for two middle class American families: comparatively modestly living their lives, contending with some challenges, experiencing personal and professional triumphs, making some mistakes and errors in judgement along the way, but nothing that would seemingly warrant the misery that Shriver visits upon them.

What reader would perversely stick around for such a dismal journey, one that dredges up the worst case scenario catastrophes lurking beneath and waiting to be unleashed by everyday occurrences that start out benignly enough: a doctor’s appointment, a credit card debt that is starting to get a bit out of hand, an elderly but still independent parent taking a tumble, a reprimand from a perhaps unreasonable boss about some late office arrivals …?

The reader learns quickly that Shriver doesn’t shy away from a single humiliating detail of those situations run tragically amuck, no matter how intimate or grim it gets. Just as quickly, the reader comes to trust Shriver’s laser precise honesty and the fundamental clarity with which she imbues or finally bestows on her central characters (peripheral characters, not so much – they’re irritating foils, albeit rendered with razor sharp wit). That potent, acerbic honesty means you won’t look away either, no matter how much those scenarios are your own worst nightmares.

As unflinching as Shriver is delineating each character’s folly, self-absorption, selfishness or delusion, she is equally generous showing their resilience, courage and tenderness. The result is a story populated with believable, not always likeable or lovable, fully dimensional characters tackling real situations that might still illustrate our own worst fears, but inspire us to approach them with the same ultimate grace.

Still, is patriarch Shepherd too much a literal rendering of his own name, and perhaps an unrealistic modern Job? After the ragged, searing twists, turns and injustices throughout the novel, is the ending just a bit too neatly sewn up? Perhaps, but after the rough ride Shriver takes her characters and readers on, the ending feels reasonable, compassionate and earned, as Shep captures in a moving and candid moment with his terminally ill and finally fiercely undeluded wife:

“You know, these movies …” He was groping. “Remember how sometimes, in the middle, a movie seems to drag? I get restless, and take a leak, or go for popcorn. But sometimes, the last part, it heats up, and then right before the credits one of us starts to cry – well, then you forget about the crummy middle, don’t you? You don’t care about the fact that it started slow, or had some plot twist along the way that didn’t scan. Because it moved you, because it finally pulled together, you think, when you walk out, that it was a good movie, and you’re glad you went, See, Gnu?” he promised. “We can still end well.”

Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem

Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem feels like an unfettered frolic around an off-kilter and slightly imaginary Manhattan, but it turns out to be tightly and intriguingly choreographed. Tilting back and forth between the probable and the improbable, Lethem follows seemingly bland, naive former child star Chase Insteadman as he becomes enmeshed with a cast of colourful characters involved in the city’s cultural, countercultural and political milieus. Chase absorbs the charms and foibles of an eccentric Lester Bangs-like former rock critic, an attractive but embittered celebrity ghostwriter, a former political radical turned City Hall insider and fixer for the billionaire mayor – and absorbs from afar the wistful missives of a dying astronaut fiancee trapped in the International Space Station.

The increasingly askew city is being menaced by a marauding tiger that can stop traffic and apparently make buildings collapse. The city is further ravaged by peculiar and escalating weather disturbances. As Chase chases his troubled friends around the city and tries his best to give them the different kinds of love and support they demand, he also seems to be chasing some kind of oasis of sanity, safety and predictability in the midst of the maelstrom of a metropolis battered by strange forces. For a time, that safe haven seems to be an apartment building refashioned as a home for abandoned pets. But still, nothing and no one is what it seems to be. In a racing narrative peppered to the end with direct and sly indirect pop references galore, Chase keeps chasing to the last page before he finds sanctuary.

The following quotation is perhaps a bit of a spoiler, but also best sums up what all the storylines and characters converge upon at the end:

“The world was ersatz and actual, forged and faked, by ourselves and unseen others. Daring to attempt to absolutely sort fake from real was a folly that would call down tigers or hiccups to cure us of our recklessness. The effort was doomed, for it too much pointed past the intimate boundaries of our necessary fictions, the West Side Highway of the self, to shattering encounters with the wider real: bears on floes, the indifference and silence of the climate or of outer space. So retreat. Live in a Manhattan of your devising, a bricolage of the right bagel and the right whitefish, even if from rival shops. Walk the dog, dance with her to Some Girls. Why did Perkus have to be killed for his glance outside the frame? But maybe he hadn’t been killed, had only died. And again, maybe absconded. I was sick with ignorance, and my own complicity.”

When he does find sanctuary, the special payoff for the reader is that the tabula rasa central character has in fact absorbed and transmuted all of the confusion and deception (much of it unwitting self-deception) and distilled it into an emotionally authentic finish that will resonate for a long time.

The Last Woman, by John Bemrose

The Last Woman, by John Bemrose

John Bemrose’s The Last Woman focuses on the intertwined lives of an artist, her lawyer husband and her former lover, an Aboriginal community leader in northern Ontario where the artist’s family has had a cottage for many years. The book is thoughtful and carefully crafted. However, Bemrose’s attempt to present all three points in this triangle in as balanced and evenhanded a manner as possible results in the book being overly internal, self-absorbed and ponderous. To one extent or another, each character is emotionally paralyzed at the juncture when Bemrose examines them, and it neither makes for compelling sustained reading nor ultimately rouses much sympathy or empathy for any of them. If in fact the novel is trying to surreptitiously skew towards sympathy for one specific character – as the title and a titular painting might suggest – it doesn’t work.

The book’s descriptions of the natural world and human encroachment on it are very good, even heart tugging in places. I felt much more sympathy for Mother Nature as the “last woman” than for anyone else as the book wound up … and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Bemrose’s previous novel, The Island Walkers, was engrossing and engaging. Even with the wider cast of characters compared to his current novel, Bemrose still made each of them authentic and made the reader care about them. Despite some of the weaknesses of The Last Woman, I know I’ll be interested in visiting his explorations of the human and natural world again in future.

Nox, by Anne Carson

Nox, by Anne Carson

Anne Carson’s Nox is gorgeously crafted, both as poetry and as a book and beautiful object. Carson collaborated with designer Robert Currie to create an extended accordion fold-out of a plump, substantial set of pages that have the feel and heft of a handmade scrapbook. The assembled and folded pages are stored in a sturdy, hinged box, in handsome, muted neutral tones with a family photo album snippet on the lid. The elegance of the outer package seems to be trying to contain the unravelled scope of the pages when they are folded out, just as Carson’s words seem to strive to contain the unfettered life of a loved one she is striving to decode and understand.

(Image courtesy of

Nox is Carson’s singular lament for her lost and now deceased brother. Because he left her life early on, and provided and left little for her and her family to reconstruct his life, she approaches understanding and remembering him as she best knows how. She translates him the way she would the fragments of poetry in classical languages, methodically and almost repetitively analyzing every single word down to every possible meaning and variation. She uses as her framework Poem 101 by the Roman poet Catullus, a work that also paid tribute to a dead brother taken before his time. What seems almost monotonous at first grows increasingly moving with every term examined and dissected.

Visually, the jumbled family photos and scraps of handwritten cards and letters are heart clutching. The reproduced textures of torn and crumpled and dog-eared paper and even of the pressure marks of a pen on paper are startling and intimate, compelling you to constantly reach to touch the page.

“Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light. Human words have no main switch. But all those little kidnaps in the dark. And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate.”

This is a haunting and unforgettable work.