Wrong about The Marriage Plot

I loved The Virgin Suicides, laughed at the praise and awards for Middlesex, and ignored The Marriage Plot. It was easy to ignore Marriage Plot; the author had written one good book followed by one bad—odds were in favor of another dud.

What a dope I am. Marriage Plot is damn funny and blasted with that undergrad cruelty-ennui Evelyn Waugh so loved. Madeleine Hanna is a terrific creation—she is Oedipa Maas before settling with Mucho in Kinneret-Among-The-Pines.

Some great lines and paragraphs, including my favorite so far:

She could see her parents waiting below. They were trapped between the lobby door and the door to the street, Alton in a seersucker jacket, Phyllida in a navy suit and matching gold- buckled purse. For a second, Madeleine had an impulse to stop the elevator and leave her parents stuck in the foyer amid all the college-town clutter—the posters for New Wave bands with names like Wretched Misery or the Clits, the pornographic Egon Schiele drawings by the RISD kid on the second floor, all the clamorous Xeroxes whose subtext conveyed the message that the wholesome, patriotic values of her parents’ generation were now on the ash heap of history, replaced by a nihilistic, post-punk sensibility that Madeleine herself didn’t understand but was perfectly happy to scandalize her parents by pretending that she did—before the elevator stopped in the lobby and she slid open the gate and stepped out to meet them.

Eugenides is 2 for 3. Good average.

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Common Good: Wallace Stegner’s Mormon Country

Wallace Stegner’s Mormon Country (1942) strikes one as relevant to life today, if only to highlight what many lack in contemporary life, namely a vibrant social and problem-solving network. Mormon foresight–which may have been formed out of luck, necessity, or both–from the pioneer days up until WWII, ran counter to the secular settlement of the West, and Stegner gives numerous examples of how one spots an ordered Mormon community or outpost, in contrast to the shabby strewn appearance of the typical yahoo.

Highlighted are the M.I.A. faction (Mutual Improvement Association), a social group for all, including the reticent and the wallflower, who are pulled from their timidity; the natural Mormon markers (poplar trees, valley towns); and the acute central planing crucial to faith and family. The most interesting story so far is one of Mormon farmers who wanted to leave the village and live on their farms, but were persuaded not to by elders, who saw the value of the community whole, of all members present and accounted for in that community, partaking in meetings and dances and civil life. Perhaps this is Communism by another name; I can’t think of many other successful American movements that have put such emphasis on the common good.

Mormon Country is a hoppy fresh read, reminding this reader of Mark Twain’s Roughing It, which had a bunch of smart funny insights and jibes at the Western Mormon.

Who writes a better letter, Dylan Farrow or Woody Allen?

It has been a year since a public debate referenced a piece of writing (remember Christopher Dorner and his manifesto?) and now we have two letters worthy of comment, one from a woman named Dylan Farrow, and one from her father-in-name-only, the filmmaker Woody Allen.

Dylan is the better letter writer. She comes out knifing with a great lead paragraph. The rest of her complaint slows in comparison, but Dylan writes better than any twentysomething I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot since the Internet took over the national news racket. Dylan’s opening paragraph puts all that edgy quasi-chick-lit (see Alice Sebold, Emma Donoghue, Edward St. Aubyn, etc.) to shame:

What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me. He talked to me while he did it, whispering that I was a good girl, that this was our secret, promising that we’d go to Paris and I’d be a star in his movies. I remember staring at that toy train, focusing on it as it traveled in its circle around the attic. To this day, I find it difficult to look at toy trains.

Later on in her piece I picked up a new word:

But sexual abuse claims against the powerful stall more easily. There were experts willing to attack my credibility. There were doctors willing to gaslight an abused child.

Love that gaslight and will use it. And the closing paragraph does a nice call back to the opening line. Dylan’s prose is tinted but not overwhelmed by emotion. I’d buy a Dylan Farrow novel.

In contrast, Woody’s lead limps:

Twenty-one years ago, when I first heard Mia Farrow had accused me of child molestation, I found the idea so ludicrous I didn’t give it a second thought. We were involved in a terribly acrimonious breakup, with great enmity between us and a custody battle slowly gathering energy. The self-serving transparency of her malevolence seemed so obvious I didn’t even hire a lawyer to defend myself. It was my show business attorney who told me she was bringing the accusation to the police and I would need a criminal lawyer.

It doesn’t get much better. Woody attempts to assuage numerous complaints against him, some vague and some direct. His letter is twice as long as Dylan’s letter, and ten times as watery.

There are many asides in his letter, including tributaries on Dory Previn (a pretty good singer) and Frank Sinatra’s sperm. His best attack–Dylan’s mother permitted some movie clips to be used in a Woody tribute–is buried in a latter, weak paragraph.

I expected more from the man who wrote the screenplay to Deconstructing Harry, a film that gave me a favorite insult, “meshugenah cunt.”

My Kind of Gal: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

Is Gone Girl any good? If you are one of the three billion people who have bought and read Gone Girl, you might have an opinion of its merit. I knew almost nothing about the book when I opened it up, and what I had heard most often of it now seems silly. Amy Elliott Dunne, one of the narrators, has been described as a psycho bitch (a joke the book itself makes). I take it this bitch claim is being made by illiterate people, people who have never encountered Fran Dodsworth, Mildred Rogers, or Brenda Last, literary bitches of the highest order.

I like Amy, I liked her more as the story went along, though she was tiresome at times in part one–I picked up on her saintly bullshit act well before it was revealed. There is something of Tom Ripley in her, and perhaps one day she will find herself in another book, doing more and better damage (Highsmith’s first Ripley is the longest and most dense–the others are taut rippers). Imagine mother Amy, divorced from Nick, child in tow, headlong into a relationship with a nebbish artist type, the trouble she could make. Amazing Amy Entraps Woody Allen.

Is Gillian Flynn any good? She drops the occasional smirk-worthy adjective–potato chip dip is “semeny,” and a suicide try is envisioned with pockets filled with “Virginia Woolf rocks.” Cute, but not devestating.

Flynn’s narrative was rather safe, low to the ground. Recall what Christopher Priest did with his dueling narrators in The Prestige to achieve that unforgettable book, and question if Flynn lays it on a bit thick, muy pasado as we say in Chiapas. There were endless passages I marked with my trademarked penciled U, a U that denotes Useless Information. What, if anything, rings out in this paragraph:

Ellen Abbott is making much of the fact that our backyard leads right to the Mississippi River. I wonder then if it has been leaked – the search history on Nick’s computer, which I made sure includes a study on the locks and dams of the Mississippi, as well as a Google search of the words body float Mississippi River. Not to put too fine a point on it. It could happen – possibly, unlikely, but there is precedent – that the river might sweep my body all the way to the ocean. I’ve actually felt sad for myself, picturing my slim, naked, pale body, floating just beneath the current, a colony of snails attached to one bare leg, my hair trailing like seaweed until I reach the ocean and drift down down down to the bottom, my waterlogged flesh peeling off in soft streaks, me slowly disappearing into the current like a watercolor until just the bones are left.

There are many paragraphs of common prose that I suppose move the story along; I read them all and they filled me with nothing. Rice-cake paragraphs.

Another tidbit I recalled from the Gone Girl hype related to our Great Recession, that the novel was a commentary on hard times. Some of Flynn’s touches are good–early on, a creeping man is seen in an abandoned house, and the bankrupted shopping mall occupied by disgruntled unemployed blue-book aficionados was a highlight of the novel. But when down to people, to Nick and Amy, there isn’t much there there. Here’s Nick on the day of his layoff from a NYC magazine:

Then I spent the first class answering so many awestruck questions, and I turned into such a preening gasbag, such a needy fuck, that I couldn’t bear to tell the real story: the call into the managing editor’s office on the second round of layoffs, the hiking of that doomed path down the long rows of cubicles, all eyes shifting toward me, dead man walking, me still hoping I was going to be told something different – that the magazine needed me now more than ever – yes! it would be a buck-up speech, an all-hands-on-deck speech! But no, my boss just said: I guess you know, unfortunately, why I called you in here, rubbing his eyes under his glasses, to show how weary and dejected he was.

I don’t get much from that paragraph, from that supposed dread. Note the weak words; doomed, dead, dejected. For an unfair comparison, consider Mildred Pierce in Cain’s novel of work and dread, set in that Grand Depression year of 1931. This is Mildred after getting a job in a hash house:

All that Mrs Boole had said, all that Miss Turner had said, all that her bowels had told her, after that trip to Beverly Hills, came sweeping over Mildred, and suddenly she dived for the bathroom. The milk, the sandwich, the tea, all came up, while moaning sobs racked her. Then Mrs Gessler  was beside her, holding her head, wiping her mouth, giving her water, leading her gently to bed. Here she collapsed in a paroxysm of hysteria, sobbing, shaking, writhing. Mrs Gessler took her clothes off, massaged her back, patted her, told her to let it come, not to try to hold back. She relaxed, and cried until tears gushed down her face, and let Mrs Gessler wipe them away as they came. After a long time she was quiet, but it was a glum, hopeless quiet. Then: ‘I can’t do it, Lucy! I – just – can’t – do – it.’ 

Frightening, erotic, weird–Flynn misses out on riveting passages like this, and Amy deserves this pulsating detail. Flynn is not good at jobs, at work; her main characters are unemployed, her cops and the lawyer come from bad drama television, and running a bar is as easy as drawing breath. Even her class consciousness doesn’t play well–Nick’s from the middle, Amy the top, and though disdain gets expressed (and repeated), it never stings, never draws blood.

Writing in 2014 about Gone Girl is silly, but when I finished the book I wanted more Amy, older, wiser, and bitchier Amy, Amy cutting loose and cutting hapless men. Amy in North Berkeley, rife with feckless organic free-range males; Amy in Mendocino County, with its stoned cash-rich layabouts: the havoc, the havoc.

The Gone Girl movie comes out in the fall, and its director David Fincher will see that it is simple and loud for the popcorn crowd he desires. But there’s something about this Amy I like and maybe love, and I want to see her in complicated action, in a better book and in the high gear, out for greater stakes and more of that blood she doesn’t mind one bit.