Thursday, February 17, 2011

Asleep in the Sun - Adolfo Bioy Casares (Spanish) 
I finished this novel because I was perplexed, and perplexity can tease one on. Everything happening – every damn thing – seemed slightly distorted. I wanted to find out what all the craziness was about. Yet in the last thirty pages the absurdities were pushed to the point of silliness (how about a mad scientist putting the souls of dogs into human bodies?). The book turned out to be a pointless joke, and I was snookered into wasting my time on it. It’s not surprising that Bioy Casares’s mentor was Borges, that trickster who was proclaimed a genius by constructing elaborate word puzzles that defy a solution. Yet there’s always a coterie of admirers for the Emperor’s new clothes. This novel was reissued by the New York Review of Books. James Sallis, a writer of second-rate mysteries, does the introduction, and he finds meaning in the flagrantly meaningless (he claims the novel explores “the theme of identity,” et cetera). I feel I must soften this negative review by mentioning Bioy Casares’s The Dream of Heroes, in which he combined the realistic and the fantastic to conjure up an enigma. 

Debbie - Max Steele 
Debbie (originally published as The Goblins Must Go Barefoot) was Max Steele’s only novel. Why no others? It seems a major loss. Because Debby is one of those works that make you wonder “How could somebody do this?” Steele was in his twenties when he wrote it, but his insight into human nature would have been remarkable for a man in his fifties. He enters the mind of a woman who has the mental development of a child (Debbie can’t read or tell time). As is true with children, she’s extremely self-centered and responds to people and events with an intense emotionality. Steele shows how complex those labeled as “simple” really are. When her story begins she’s staying at the Stonebrook Home for Delinquent Women. She had been there six years, ever since the state, in the form of the hated Nurse Janet, tracked her down. Debbie had two children, one an infant. She loved them, but they were living wild, like animals. The children were taken from her and she was sent to Stonebrook. In the first chapter a new life opens for her. She moves to the home of the Merrills, to work as a live-in maid; soon she’s considered one of the family. As filtered through her perceptions, we follow the Merrills during the difficult decades of the thirties and forties. Debbie’s thoughts and feelings focus most strongly on Mrs. Merrill and the youngest child, a boy who reminds her of the one she had lost. Though there are good times, lives are not easy, nor do things turn out happily for anyone. Mrs. Merrill, through her actions, loses what she most desired, and the amorphous fear which lurked at the core of Debbie comes to dominate her. I found this ending disturbing. It’s as if Max Steele, in the first pages, had inserted an intravenous drip in my vein, and through it I absorbed raw emotion. * 

The Mesh - Lucie Marchal (French)
This is a psychological study of a mother, daughter, son, and son’s wife engaged in a struggle to dominate, to possess; all of them are repugnant (even the family dog is disgusting). Marchal ventures into Simenon territory with this look at mental aberration and moral corruption. She’s fairly successful, though her characters and their actions are too extreme. Often I found myself overboard in fetid waters.

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