Friday, February 21, 2014

Mrs. Ted Bliss - Stanley Elkin
Elkin inhabits his character: Mrs. Ted Bliss lives. She’s an elderly widow residing in a condominium on Biscayne Bay. She considers herself an ordinary person, but her thoughts and memories yield a rich vein of material. What is unnecessary are the plot complications that Elkin introduces (drug kingpins, Junior Yellin’s antics, Hurricane Andrew). He should have had more confidence in Dorothy and the so-called small events of her life. Also, the vulgarity – which appears sparingly – was jarring because I felt that Dorothy wouldn’t approve of it (not that she’s a prude, but still). It’s an odd sort of tribute when a reader thinks he knows a character so well that he objects to what an author does. The prose rambles along in freewheeling style; it turns an occasional somersault, but this novel – which was Elkin’s last (he died the same year it was published) – is more straightforward than other work by him. Like her creator, Mrs. Bliss is facing the end of life, but for the most part this is an upbeat and frequently funny read. And in Dorothy’s observations we get some down-to-earth wisdom. Regarding how people react to the elderly: “The trouble with kindness, Mrs. Bliss thought, was that there was a limit to it, that it was timed to burn out, that if you slipped up one time too many, or didn’t put a brave enough face on things, or weren’t happy often enough, people lost patience.” And on making a change in your later years: “What was to stop her from moving back to Chicago? Nothing. Nothing but her failing energies, nothing but her sense of how disruptive and untrue one must be to oneself even to want to make a new life.”

The Shrimp and the Anemone - L. P. Hartley
I liked half of this two hundred page novel, but the rest was all downhill. Hartley writes well in every sense of the word except one: he doesn’t have the right instincts. For one thing, he doesn’t know when enough is enough, or when a little is too little. He goes into every nuance of Eustace’s overactive mind, but in doing so the little boy becomes a tiresome neurotic. On the other hand, his sister gets shortchanged; Hilda is an interesting presence in the beginning, but she’s demoted to the sideline. As for the mechanics of the plot, Hartley glosses over major events and prolongs minor ones. Eustace’s year long relationship with Miss Fothergill, in which he goes to her house for tea, takes up one short chapter; the brief glimpse of what went on between the two is inadequate considering that the old lady will leave him a small fortune. Hartley has a taste for misinterpretations and misunderstandings. Anxious Eustace thinks “You’re going away” means “You’re dying,” and Hartley explores the repercussions at length. Then he has the father withhold from the boy the news of his inheritance; since every living soul in town knows about it, a scene reminiscent of the Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” skit ensues. Poor instincts = poor choices. This is the first of a trilogy that make up Eustace and Hilda. I won’t be reading the others.

To Be a Pilgrim - Joyce Cary
The first person narrator has a voice that pulls you in. Tom Wilcher has strong opinions, and his inner dialogue is interesting and vigorous. Though he doesn’t lead an exciting life, he’s the primary character only in that what we get is filtered through his sensibilities, and the people he writes about supply an abundance of color. One of two alternating plot lines takes place in the present, when Tom is an old man, and it mostly involves his brother and sister’s adult children, who are married and with whom he lives. The other is based on memories of the past and focuses on his three siblings. All the lives in this book end in dismal defeat. But Cary writes with such verve and liveliness that he manages to divert the reader from the bleakness. He also managed, for a long time, to divert me from the fact that his characters act without proper motivation. Cary sets up terms by which some people are outside the limitations imposed by logic, so I accepted that Tom’s sister Lucy was emotionally explosive and his brother Edward a calculating enigma. The problem came near the end, when Tom suddenly – after a lifetime of propriety – begins acting in a way that he considers shameful. No reasonable explanation is given; the one that Tom proposes – possession by the devil – may be an okay defense for Flip Wilson, but not for someone whose highly-rational mind we’ve been in for the entire book. This episode of errant behavior (which ends abruptly) called into question all the previous randomness, the sudden about-faces that fill this book. Mostly they involve Lucy and Edward, but I thought back to Tom’s unconvincing love affair with Julie, which was full of inexplicable twists and turns. I was left wondering if Cary was an irresponsible author who liked to toss furniture about. Well, even if he was, it was rather fun watching him do it. One last aspect of interest is Tom’s religious convictions. He believes that, without faith, life is pointless and frightening. Yet this viewpoint isn’t presented in a proselytizing manner; it’s merely the way Tom sees things, and he’s a flawed man. Pilgrim is the middle volume of a trilogy. The first is Herself Surprised and the last is The Horse’s Mouth. I haven’t read either of them, but will attempt (for the fourth time) to read the latter.

Of Love and Other Demons - Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Spanish)
Though I read half of this very short novel, and thus it qualified for a review, I considered avoiding the task of being critical of an author whose work I admire. Garcia Marquez was in his late sixties when he wrote Demons. I don’t see a decline in his abilities; what I object to is how he takes his trademark magic realism to an extreme; the result is a steaming heap of peculiarities. On page eight Bernarda is introduced: “Her Gypsy eyes were extinguished and her wits dulled, she shat blood and vomited bile, her siren’s body became as bloated and coppery as a three-day-old corpse, and she broke wind in pestilential explosions that startled the mastiffs.” While such extravagances abound, we get few glimmers of humanity. On page one young Sierva Maria is bitten on the ankle by a rabid dog; when I called it quits she had been placed in a cell at a convent run by a monster of an Abbess and was to be exorcized. It’s not that I dreaded what the girl would be put through; I had no feeling for a character who was depicted as a feral animal. I dreaded what I would be put through.


kmoomo said...

I find your review of Mrs. Ted Bliss very intriguing and can't wait to read it. THIS will be my next book. Hope I can find it in the library. I am curious how wanting to start a new life is being untrue to oneself though. I completely understand how there may not be enough energy involved, there are complications,etc. But I feel the inability to make the move due to various reasons (and they are very valid) is sadly what KEEPS one from being true to themselves.

Phillip Routh said...

I get the gist of what she's referring to (probably because we're around the same age).
Moving with the idea of making a "new life" -- when you've already lived your life -- is to believe that you'll be someone else, some happy, revitalized version of yourself. That's foolish thinking, and you're going to be disappointed.
Accept (be true to) what you are, even if it's a bitter pill to swallow.
The novel has flaws, but I think you'll enjoy being with Mrs. Bliss as much as I did.

kmoomo said...

Recently finished reading Mrs. Ted Bliss and did enjoy being with her as you predicted. I agree with you that her everyday life and thoughts were the best part of the book and that the sections dealing with the king pins and drug lords and such changed the pace and feeling of the book. I was thrown off a bit too by the ending. I am not sure HOW I wanted it to end, but I am not sure this was it. I understood the meaning, but it was a bit abrupt. Overall a very enjoyable time getting into the head of Mrs. Ted Bliss!

Phillip Routh said...

I thought Elkin should have stayed with things like the daughter-in-law's visit.
Maybe part of the problem with the ending is that Elkin was trying hard to make a point. That never works.
What I find interesting is how seldom a man writes exclusively from the viewpoint of a woman, or a woman from the viewpoint of a man. I'm talking about novels in which an author uses someone of the opposite sex as the dominant perspective.
To give an extreme example, could a woman write Portnoy's Complaint?
This subject is going to be explored in a forthcoming essay at Tapping on the Wall.