Monday, June 22, 2015

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance – Elizabeth Jolley
In all of Jolley’s work the characters, plot, structure, and grammar are idiosyncratic. In this novel she blurs the line separating reality from fiction. In the domain of reality we have Dorothy Peabody reading parts of a novel by an author to whom she wrote a fan letter. Miss Peabody is a spinster caring for a bedridden, demanding mother; she works as a clerk in an office in London. Actually, she has no life, whereas the fictional characters she reads about – Arabella Thorne, the headmistress of a girls’ school, and her assorted companions and students – are quite lively. Diana Hopewell, the creator of Arabella, sends letters with installments of the novel to her fan, but she remains in the shadows. Dorothy, in her letters to Hopewell, tries to establish some sort of relationship; but this won’t happen. Sadly (and I did feel the sadness) Miss Peabody is unable to make contact with others; when she tries (with the help of too many drinks) she makes a fool of herself. As a reader, she’s limited by her inexperience; she doesn’t understand that Miss Thorne is a lesbian. A confident, unabashed lesbian; the matter-of-fact way this is presented is refreshing. The book’s opening line is “The night belongs to the novelist.” Not only does Miss Peabody need to enter the life of Arabella each night, but the author must (it’s also clearly a need) create this life. Lastly, in order to exist, Arabella must be created. On the first page Jolley offers a quote from Samuel Johnson (via Boswell): “The flesh of animals who feed excursively is allowed to have a higher flavour than that who are cooped up. May there not be the same difference between men who read as their taste prompts, and men who are confined in cells and colleges to stated tasks . . .” My spell checker is claiming that Johnson meant “exclusively” rather than “excursively.” No – Johnson is referring to wandering far and wide in one’s reading. Jolley must believe this to be true, and so do I. If you read excursively, every so often you come across unique books like this one.

Lost Horizon – James Hilton
Shangri-La. That evocative name first appeared in this novel, which was published in 1933. The date may be significant. England was in the throes of the Great Depression and another war loomed on the horizon; people (including the author) may have felt the need to escape to a place of peace and serenity. Such a place – which is really a state of mind – can be reached (according the book’s message) only when one gives up all passions. This is something that the main character is quite ready to do. Conway has experienced the peaks and abysses of life, and when he arrives at Shangri-La he’s a depleted man. He finds an enclave where culture is preserved (against the threat of an imminent holocaust) and where people live for over a century (enabling them to engage in intellectual or artistic pursuits at their leisure). Unfortunately, Hilton didn’t get me to believe in or accept his utopia. One problem involves logic and logistics. We never know why Conway and three others are selected to be additions to Shangri-La, and the manner in which they arrive (a wild plane ride ending in a crash-landing) is preposterous. The lamasery is extremely inaccessible, yet it has bathtubs (made in Akron), a piano, central heating, etcetera. We get the vaguest of explanations as to how these items were transported there; the same could be said for why people are able to live long lives. A vagueness – or call it skimpiness – runs throughout the novel. No character has much presence, and Hilton doesn’t go into basics, such as what the sleeping arrangements are or what foods are eaten. From the little I did get, the prospect of living a century in this passionless place seemed like a colossal bore; when Conway isn’t dealing with his three companions he spends his time conversing with wise old llamas or gazing at the scenery. Last niggling complaint: the portrayal of the one American is farcical; the man is supposed to be a financier, yet he talks like a yokel (“figgered, “gotter”). All in all, this is a tepid work written by a man who seems not inspired but resigned and tired.

Bob the Gambler – Frederick Barthelme
Bob and his wife Jewel are people I came to know and like. RV, Jewel’s daughter, manages to avoid being a stereotype (no easy accomplishment for a fourteen-year-old who’s testing limits), and Bob’s mother is a plucky old gal. I stayed unflaggingly involved in and concerned about their problems – the main one being an addiction to gambling. From what I (a non-gambler) could see, Bob and Jewel lead lives that offer little stimulation (they have no interest in their jobs, they watch a lot of TV and videos). So losing huge sums of money (and they do, in every case, come out losers) provides a kind of thrill. Also, the casinos are worlds unto themselves, with a peculiar sense of comradery. Jewel starts gambling first, then Bob joins in with a vengeance. Their marriage is a good one; they’re a companionable pair who talk the same quirky language. When Bob begins to squander their life savings, Jewel remains calm, understanding and forgiving. I thought she should have thrown a fit, but she’s not me. At heart they seem to be irresponsible, devil-may-care souls. When they wind up moving into Bob’s mother’s house, they don’t get bent out of shape. Barthelme ends the novel on a prolonged upbeat note; Bob stops gambling, he starts doing some architecturally-related work, he grows closer to RV (who’s evolving into a human being). Not much going on, but I had no complaints. Jewel does, at the end, produce a big wad of cash and makes this proposal: “Ka-boom! We are back in the danger zone, on the red-hot wire high above the city of Biloxi, Mississippi, swaying in the wind. I say we stop at the Paradise and go for the big one.” She wants to play one hand for all they’ve got and then, win or lose, walk. Do they win or lose? The scene in the casino is skipped over. Afterwards Jewel says, “We won. They didn’t lay a glove on us. We just had to clean out that little bit that was left over, and now we’re set.” She may mean that they lost it all but they don’t care. The uncertainty as to what happened works, as does so much in this well-written, fast-moving book. Even the dog, Frank, is given his rightful place in an oddly endearing family.

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