Thursday, December 17, 2009

Serenade - James M. Cain
A mess. Cain even changes the terms he establishes with the reader. The story begins in Mexico; a typical Cain tough guy on the skids gets involved with a prostitute with a plan. Next thing we know the tough guy turns out to be a world famous opera star; he regains his voice and the book switches to the classical music scene in New York, with the prostitute relegated to the background. Next thing we know – and this is the most startling aspect for a Cain novel – the tough guy turns out to have a homosexual side. When the prostitute reemerges with a vengeance things get melodramatic, even ridiculous. So why did I read to the end? Cain’s writing has energy and conviction; he entertains. And it’s fascinating to watch the conventions of storytelling being tossed out the window of a speeding car.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips - James Hilton
Sometimes an author’s ambitions are modest, but he executes his plan perfectly. This is a small novel – small in size, small in subject (the life of a British schoolmaster). I had little interest in reading it, but it won me over, as it did millions of others. Hilton was wise in not elevating Mr. Chipping above his rightful place; he’s notable only for the highly-valued British trait of steadfastness. Hilton is skillful in the way he handles Chips’ short marriage (his wife and baby die in childbirth); though Kathie is sketched in, I felt her vibrancy. This is a sentimental novel, but it’s not maudlin. What Hilton gives us is a quiet but moving account of a quiet life. And how often – if it’s easy to do – is a reader moved? A last point of interest: Chips is never an object of pity; he is, despite the loss of Kathie, despite the unremarkable march of his days, a happy man.

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
This book has many strengths, but they’re mostly found in its first third, where the prose is inventive and engrossing and the characters – Desdemona and Lefty – appealing. There are flaws in this section: Eugenides doesn’t satisfactorily resolve dilemmas he creates (most notably the too-easy escape from a burning Smyrna); some of the plot twists are far-fetched, scenes run too long. Still, the strengths held up in the second third of the book, about the young Callie – another appealing character. I also liked the social history of Detroit that was woven into the narrative. But when Callie turns fourteen sex becomes the focus. In her relationship with the Obscure Object flaws became fissures that widened into cracks. With Cal on the run the novel crumbled. The plot twists turned preposterous, the prose overwrought and ragged. The emotional quandary of Callie/Cal was belabored to the point where it seemed forced and false. As for the issue of hermaphroditism, Eugenides provides a lot of clinical research, but he never makes it clear how the male and female sexual organs coexist and function. I’m not asking for sensationalism – just honesty. The story is narrated by 41-year-old Cal, and his budding romance is unconvincing and superfluous. Too bad – because Eugenides has talent.

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