Welcome to sunny 2007

January 3, 2007

As anyone who might have hoped to find an update here may have noticed, I spent a blogging free New Year’s weekend largely consisting of the the long dreamed of cookie/reading marathon. In all fairness, it wasn’t too much of a marathon, as all it got me through was the second book in Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe trilogy, Independence Day and the first 100 pages of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise. The latter has me completely hooked. Despite the truly depressing subject matter (life in occupied France during early WWII) and the equally depressing fate of the author and the ever looming (at least in my mind) depressing fact that this could pretty much happen to anyone in any country at any time, the writing is luminously clear and emotionally direct and hard to put down. The translator’s note said that what we have is basically a first draft, but I don’t think that hurts it much. The finished books (there are two, were supposed to be three) might have looked much different, but they also might not have had the urgency and clarity that these do so far. In any case, I think I would have to concur with the critics that we are very lucky to have at least this much of it and translated well.

Back to the former book, Independence Day. Of course, being the lemming reader that I generally am, the reason I started reading the trilogy is because this year’s third book was so well reviewed that I figured I should start at the beginning for full effect. So over Christmas it was The Sportswriter and New Year’s ID. The knee jerk feminist in me will note that despite interesting, non-stereotypical female characters throughout both books there is not much in the way of nuance in the portrayal of women in general. They are distant, foreign, routinely evaluated on the basis of their looks (although the narrator does seem to have a more or less generous set of beauty standards), and often expected to be the savior figure for the narrator’s often floundering emotional well-being. Still, seeing as our Frank is a first-person narrator, I think it is easier to accept that these limitations are a reflection of his emotional limitations and that they are so pronounced because, entering middle age with a bitter divorce under his belt, he has given up on getting past them and settled into acceptance of himself as a cosmically limited human being. So there’s worse things. That said, I don’t want to give the impression that I want to be the kind of feminist reader that feels she has nothing to learn from staunchly male viewpoints, so onwards. Both books basically cover three days in the life of Frank Bascombe, first at age 39 and in the second book somewhere in his mid-forties. His backstory is he once wrote a book of well-reviewed short stories but never finished his follow-up novel and became a successful if dispassionate sports writer, and alongside of that got married, had kids, and got divorced. The narrative is basically his internal monologue, in which he is constantly resolving the tensions and compromises and doubts that the progress of adult life generates in order to remain at least philosphically satisfied with what life currently offers him. But really, it’s a lot better than that description might lead you to think. The writing is rhapsodic and compelling, and the attention to the details of places that most people write off as being featureless or heavily symbolic is superb. In these books, the suburbs of New Jersey and Michigan are not the ideas of suburbs or filler stand-ins for actual places, they are dense and specific worlds, unromanticized, and this gives the mental gymastics a grounded quality that I find quite recongnizable. How often have I driven through the Midwest and let my mind roam between the past and future while wondering just how lives in these little houses I see from the highway? I may not yet recognize middle age angst, but I do recognize that process. I think my reading of these books will prove to be timely as I continue to soldier on into the craptastic world of adulthood. For example, just as I was entering the throes of house envy, I opened the second book to find it has a heavy emphasis on real estate. There is a great passage about how buying a house is never about buying the house you want, it’s about buying the house that is for sale and you can afford and then finding ways to make yourself feel good about it. Exactly, and if that is the case, I might as well go into with my eyes wide open and my heart closed, because it is just a business transaction. (Not that I’m going into it any time soon, but when I do I’d like to have a mental plan as to how to avoid making it into a cosmic referendum on my destiny in life. It’s not, it’s just a place to live.) In fact, if there is one thing I feel ready to glean from reading these books it is that part of growing up means letting go of the idea that everything you do is a cosmic referendum on anything about you. It’s a series of choices you have to make in order to go on, and you are probably better off if you don’t try to always make it into a cohesive storyline. Storylines don’t always make good decisions. Storylines tend to make you feel like you need to be the same as you were in the past (otherwise you have fallen from the glory that could have been yours) or make you think that any change has to be dramatic and life-altering.*

This kind of gets me back to the idea of phases, and how the current economic climate makes it darn hard to have one or two. Or at least, makes it seem hard. Late on Friday night, as D and his brother and I sat around their parents’ house pretending to babysit D’s sisters but really just cruising the high definition channels, we stumbled upon a taping of Madonna’s most recent concert, Confessions. T had his laptop out and he wikipedia’d Madonna as we watched, spitting out blurbs like “she got a scholarship to go to University of Michigan’s dance department.” Of course, rather than getting to U of M’s rather impressive dance department and saying to herself “oh no, I’ll never be a ballerina and all these other people are sooo good and golly me I suck” and deciding to devote her life to the process of succeeding in the academic side of the dance world she said “forget you people, this is boring and not helping me, I’m going to New York.” And so she did, and what for less talented mortals might have been a phase became a lucrative career. So is the moral of the story that we should all say yes to our phases, no matter the cost, just in case? What about the fact that most of us are not Madonna on any scale? Yes, you could say it would be a huge loss for American pop culture if Madonna had never dropped out of U of M, but that doesn’t mean that just by dropping out of conventional goals you become relevant or important or even especially extra creative. For most people there is not going to be any other accounting for the time you’ve spent other than to yourself. Pop culture theorists and historians might one day busily write tomes analyzing Madonna’s every life choice, but for most people it just likely isn’t to matter that much to anyone but ourselves. So. I should just do what makes me happy, right? Duh. That is not a newsflash to any American who grew up in the late twentieth century. Well, what is that, exactly?

As usual, I have nothing but partial answers to that question in the long term sense, but in the glorious short term there are many things: beaches (which I am re-embracing as part of my dermatologist-free 2007), caipirinhas (just a sip of that smoky devil’s brew takes me back to the care-free days of life in Brazil… of course only care-free in my revisionist history of them, but that’s okay for now), learning how to cook a little (emphasis on the little), and all these wonderful books. And I got a little bit of all those things in over the New Year’s weekend, so I’d say that’s a pretty good start.

*I remember reading something in Holy Feast, Holy Fast for Bowman’s class about how men tend to envision their lives as being filled with ups and downs and dramatic pivot points while women naturally feel the story of their lives to be an organic, unified unfolding. I sometimes wonder if I haven’t absorbed a little too much of the male point of view from having tried at various points in my life to succeed in disciplines that tend to favor it because they are dominated by men. In any case, I could do with fewer epiphanies in my life I think, because I get disappointed with myself after they wear off.

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One Response to “Welcome to sunny 2007”

  1. LCB Says:

    I’ve been dying to read Suite Francaise. (Well, maybe dying isn’t the right word, but every time I read something about it, I make a mental note to pick it up. And then never do it. Welcome to my life.)

    I totally noticed your absence New Year’s Day. I was literally asking everyone on the internet, “Have you seen Liz?” It was a little sad.

    Happy New Year!


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