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The original Stockholm hostages

The original Stockholm hostages

My alter(ed) ego, as part of his role in hosting a fiction series at Philadelphia’s Musehouse, has been reading new novels by two interesting authors. Liz Moore’s Heft (W. W. Norton) focuses on a housebound ex-professor who weighs more than 500 pounds—a grotesqueness that I thought would put me off. Overall, there are too many characters in contemporary fiction who don’t resemble anyone I know. It turns out, though, that hefty Arthur Opp isn’t grotesque at all, not in ways that count; he’s extremely human and decent and has a fine appreciation for the finer things in life, including but not limited to crab rangoons (“a crunch followed by lush bland creaminess”). He’s a good man whose story of lost love and found friendship grows more fascinating as it proceeds.

Very different but equally entertaining is Marc Schuster’s The Grievers (The Permanent Press), the tale of a prep-school graduate who arranges a memorial event for a classmate who has committed suicide. Marc satirizes every institution in contemporary America from schools to banks to chain restaurants, and his main character, Charley Schwartz, is a smart-ass who never had a good intention he couldn’t undermine with stupid comments. But Charley, like Arthur, grows on the reader, and once he has slashed away everyone’s pretenses, including his own, he finds a way to connect with people at the end.

My alter(ed) ego did an interview with Liz and Marc for the Musehouse blog. You can find it here. They will be reading and schmoozing at Musehouse on May 19 at 7:00.

Among numerous interesting points in the interview, one that jumped out at me was Marc’s comment about the dangers of first-person narration:

The temptation is always there to go into a character’s head and talk about things like guilt and regret. The narrator can do something petty or spiteful, and immediately you can have her turning to the reader with an apology. The real challenge, though, is conveying that kind of information without getting too interior. Ultimately, being in the narrator’s head is a bit like a hostage situation. As a reader, you’re more or less stuck with the character, so it’s only natural to experience a degree of Stockholm syndrome.

The implication that having the narrator express guilt can be the easy way out ties in with my previous post on Jeremy Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. In that Man Booker–winning novel, Barnes does exactly what Marc worries about, and it bothered me so much that I felt the reverse of the Stockholm syndrome—the narrator’s whining about his guilt distanced me rather than increasing my empathy.

I say this as the author of an entire novel, McAllister’s Fall, predicated on a man’s guilt. In that book, the protagonist semiaccidentally kills a guy with a baseball bat and spends the rest of the novel clumsily trying to make up for his action (and perhaps making things worse in the process). Maybe it’s proper that it remain unpublished so that I can criticize others’ treatment of remorse without suffering the inconvenience of that emotion myself.

Visiting a Playgroup

September 22, 2011

The Playgroup coverRecently I’ve been learning about motherhood. Being a father of two and grandfather of five and a half,* I never expected to study mothering except for the few tricks a man needs to know for self-preservation. But reading Elizabeth Mosier’s The Playgroup (part of GemmaMedia’s Open Door series) was entertaining as well as enlightening.

The novella (110 pages) focuses on a group of women who have set up a Playgroup ostensibly for their infants, but really to give the mothers a chance to schmooze. And their talk, as Mosier details it, is alternately funny, unsettling, profound, trivial, and full of annoying advice about child-proofing the house. What comes through most strongly is an undercurrent of fear—that a mother will fail at her awesome responsibilities or that this carefully arranged but fragile life will take a gruesome turn. The protagonist, Sarah, pregnant with her second child, has a special dread caused by an abnormality in her sonogram, a small spot “shaped like a cashew.” But uncertainty governs even the most outwardly self-confident of the women:

“Motherhood is like a second adolescence, a time when the self a woman thinks she owns is repossessed by the so-called authorities [all the experts, including family members, who tell her how to be a mother]. She’s left naked and defenseless, asking herself questions about purpose, faith and identity she thought she’d already tamed. … At times, we seemed less like mothers than like insecure teenagers at a beer keg tapping liquid courage, though at Playgroup we swilled coffee while we sought each other’s advice.” (pp. 11–13)

“Loss always lurked beneath our conversations in Playgroup, under talk of microdermabrasion, premenopausal symptoms, IRAs and long-term health insurance.” (p. 72)

The book has one symbolically “perfect” mother, Amy Marley (name reminiscent of Jacob Marley, one of the ghosts in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol), who comes back to haunt the others in an unexpected way, and the arc of her life becomes instructive to all.

During a recent reading at Philadelphia’s Musehouse, the author explained that details of the new mothers’ thoughts and emotional swerves are based on notes she took at that stage of her life. She was brutally honest with herself back then, and her readers get the benefit now.

To give us multiple views of the Playgroup in a short space, Mosier employs a clever narrative device. The first-person narrator, Laurie, begins as a relatively undifferentiated member of the group, and as such she gives us the community outlook on the main character, Sarah:

“Sarah led us into the living room, an arrangement of white chairs and a couch on a white pile rug. … Another group, gathered for a different purpose, might have praised the room’s stark furnishings, but we were there to compare and to judge. Sarah waited nervously for our review.”

Soon, however, Laurie becomes a confidante of Sarah’s, able to reveal Sarah’s thoughts and feelings. Though I was a little less than 100% convinced by this dual narrative function, it should work for 99.9% of readers.

The men in these women’s lives are mostly ignored and irrelevant in the story; they pour margaritas and hammer away at construction projects. Yet the only time I wanted to escape the estrogen-laden environment was when the women started scrapbooking—an activity that, to my relief, the narrator treated with irony.

The book is a quick and fascinating read, and I recommend it to all men who are partnered with a mother, who work with mothers, who stumble upon unfathomable claques of mothers and infants at coffee shops, or who wish to understand why mothers behave in an irrational manner so totally unlike our time-honored male form of irrationality.

*Three dogs, one long-term cat, one short-term cat recently expelled from the immediate family (that’s the half), and one snake. At last count.