Monday, November 17, 2003

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I want to talk to you this morning about a much talked about novel by Ann Patchett entitled Bel Canto. I can’t remember a time in the recent past when so many of my reader friends have recommended a book to me as a must read. Some loved it because they are music lovers, some because they saw it as a beautiful love story, and some recommended it because they saw it as politically significant. I actually read it some weeks ago, but felt that I must let it steep for awhile before I talked about it.

Let me say immediately that I understand why my music loving friends loved this book. For those who already love opera, this book reinforced that love; others vowed to take another and closer look at opera after reading it, supposing that they must really have missed something in not paying closer attention to this music form. And still others simply appreciated the weaving of music into social and political themes.

And the love stories are touching, oddly convincing, and very sweet. But how can a novel about the taking of hostages be also a love story and a tribute to music? In fact, isn’t there something odd about mixing a love of music with such troubling political themes? I have to admit that I am uncomfortable about the juxtaposition of such serious political questions with love and music appreciation, and even after waiting for a few weeks, I still feel a little tricked by this book, feel that the plot is too contrived and the circumstances just too hard to believe (despite the beautiful writing). One could take as the controlling theme of the entire novel the following line:
The world was a dangerous place, notions of personal safety were a fairy story told to children at bedtime. All anyone had to do was turn the wrong corner and everything would be gone.
Indeed, and I think the novel succeeds well in making this point. In some sense any of us could have been at a concert, social-political function, benefit, and one way or another our existences pass from ordinary people to hostages. The life we all take for granted is suddenly very much not granted, not guaranteed, not even likely. Dostoevsky with three minutes to live in the execution yard, about to die as a political prisoner, Victor Frankl in a concentration camp. The miracle of waking up again, alive.

But Patchett wants to do more. She wants to put a human face on the captors; she wants to try to explain in some way that members of powerful and affluent countries like ours might hear or see, that even the question of what ‘terrorism’ means is a loaded, complex, difficult. For the most part, so-called ‘terrorists’ use the weapons and tactics they can muster. It seems the word really connotes little more than disapproval, a kind of pejorative finger-pointing. If I do it, it’s war or defense; if you do it, it’s terrorism. Is dropping two thousand pound bombs terrorist? My friends tell me just the shock-wave from the explosion kills everything within quite an incredible radius. Oh, but we do it, so it’s not terrorist. Surgical strikes that (whether it is hit or miss, a mistake or not) wipe out neighborhoods, not terror because the weapons of terror are ours, the acts have been sanctified by Bush and Co. We kill hundreds, thousands, but these are acts of war, not of terrorism. If you attack me with a jet plane, that’s warfare. If you kill yourself in the detonation of your weapon, it’s terrorism. Actually, if you’re on the ‘wrong’ side, the less powerful side, your war will be called terrorism. Or so it seems.

Patchett sees all of this. She sets us up as the concert goers, suddenly taken and helpless before a band of armed men. The wrinkle is that we come to know the men, and women as it turns out, who are our captors. Not just know them, but depend on them, fall in love with them; the captives finding (for many different existential reasons) themselves while existing in this limbo state, even to the point of deceiving themselves into believing that it can continue. Most of their captors are children, truly armed and dangerous, but also deeply ‘innocent’. And even the generals are jaded but good men, eager to help the even more powerless in the cities and villages they have come from.

Ironically, the intent of the attack, the seizing of the President of this South American country and holding him for political ransom, is thwarted from go; the president is at home watching his favorite soap opera. Now the so-called guerrillas have a bevy of hostages, but nothing to do with them. From the first moments, the captors’ fates are sealed, it is only the fate of the hostages that is in question. Days, weeks, even months of negotiations:
Both parties were intractable and what the party inside this wall didn’t understand was that the government was always intractable, no matter what the country, what the circumstances. The government did not give in, and when they said they were giving in they were lying, every time, you could count on it.
This put into the mouth of the Swiss Red Cross mediator who struggles from the beginning to bring about some sort of negotiated end.

The messages are important and true, and yet I find myself bothered by the book. Certainly, it would not have happened. For example, there is a young Japanese man among the captives who is a gifted linguist; he can interpret for this band of diplomats and businessmen and musicians and captors, going from French to German to Russian to Spanish to Japanese. Still, if not believable, it is a clever device. The translator’s relative importance in the community of captives soars, while the man he works for, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, relies on the translator as much, more, than any of the others who hub through him. His wealth matters little, though the cooking prowess of one of the minor French diplomats ‘on board’ becomes pivotal, as well as the general housemaid, housekeeping contributions of the Vice President whose house happens to hold the hostages. We readers get to watch this odd band become a community, seeing what really counts in day to day living, and Patchett provides lots of insights along the way. All the little things perceptive novelists see, Patchett sees: what makes relationships good ones, how even old relationships can be ‘redeemed’, how the glow of sexual love can literally current through our lives, from out of the blue. How it transforms and metamorphoses.

The novel has to be contrived in order to work, and the messages seem to justify the contrivance. Still, there is something too neat about this novel. Maybe simply my jade showing through, my cynicism.

But enough of my petty reservations, let me close by reading a long and lovely passage voicing a young woman’s view of the crisis, a woman who happens to be one of the captors, one of the ‘terrorists’, and also happens to love the Japanese translator, Gen, who very much loves her. Her name is Carmen, whom we now know is as gifted at learning languages as her teacher and lover. Carmen is also a kind of personal captor to the famous opera singer, Roxanne Cross, who is a gigantic presence in the book though I have said little about her here. But to the scene:
Gen lived one life and in that life he was always a prisoner and his friends were the other prisoners, and even though he loved Carmen and got along politely with some of the terrorists, he never got confused and thought he wanted to join LFDMS. But for Carmen it was different. She had clearly two lives. She did her push-ups in the morning and stood for inspection. She carried her rifle on guard. She kept a boning knife in her boot and she knew how to use it. She obeyed orders. She was, as it had been explained to her, part of the forces that would bring about change. But she was also the girl who went to the china closet at night, who was learning to read in Spanish and could already say several things in English. Some mornings, Roxanne Cross let her climb into the impossibly soft sheets on her big bed, let her close her eyes for a few minutes and pretend she belonged there. She would pretend she was one of the prisoners, that she lived in a world with so many privileges that there was nothing to fight for. But no matter how the two sides got along, they were always two sides, and when she went form one to the other it was a matter of crossing over something.
Two sides, powerful and powerless, haves and have-nots. This is a good novel, and perhaps my friends are right, it is a great one.

Monday, November 10, 2003

The Last Resort by Alison Lurie

I want to talk to you this morning about a book by Alison Lurie entitled, The Last Resort. As I was reading this book, I thought I would not review it, since the plot is blatantly contrived, and the characters are so obviously doing work for the author. However, the more I read, the more obvious it became that the author was not at all trying to hide from the reader her manipulations. Even the title announces that the author is playing with her material, having fun with the reader.

The last resort is, of course, in Florida, and it is the last resort because people go there to finish out their lives and to die. This setting allows Lurie to explore a number of her favorite themes, and to do so in a manner that is both quite funny and quite perceptive. There is no single star in this novel; rather, Lurie brings together a collection of people who would never be together save for this being the last resort.

The plots and subplots are a thick soup. Perhaps the most important character in the book is Jenny, a bright and able woman whose significance in life is in being the wife and helpmate of a famous environmentalist. Her husband, Wilkie Walker (close enough to Willie Wonka to bring an immediate smile) has spent a lifetime as a writer and crusader for the environment, but we readers know that he thinks his star is burning out. Younger, tougher environmentalists are taking over the spotlight, and to make matters far, far worse, he suspects, indeed he claims to know, that he is dying. In fact, he agrees to leave his New England home and study to go to Florida and the last resort only because he knows that his life is over. Going to Florida is to provide him with a convenient way to commit suicide (swimming out to sea), and a way as well to help his much younger wife and assistant to transition to a life without Wilkie.

The wise and strong Wilkie has decided that he must protect his much weaker and more vulnerable wife both by not telling her that he is dying, and by beginning to pave the way for her life after his death. Even the thought of a life without Wilkie brings tears to his eyes.

Lurie's description and setting up of this couple is sad, perceptive and mischievously funny. Jenny knows that she is not simply important but essential to Wilkie's work. Besides maintaining a house for him, cooking all of his meals, acting as his secretary as well as his editor (and truth be told, co-writer), she has raised their two children and tried to shield the children from their father's disappointment with them (since neither, sadly enough, is a little Wilkie in the making). Just to add spice, Lurie paints Wilkie as deeply homophobic who argues in his work that homosexuality is simply an aberration of nature.

Jenny is well aware that some women view her partnership with her husband as a trap, that they see her as subverting her own career in furthering Wilkie's, but they simply don't understand the importance of the work. In Jenny's own words:

Theoretically, as a modern, enlightened person, Jenny supported the women's movement, and occasionally had been persuaded to send a check to NOW. But in fact feminism had done nothing for her except make her chosen life seem peculiar and estrange her from her friends. She could agree with them that there was no reason why most men shouldn't help with household tasks and child care. But Wilkie Walker was not most men: he was unique, irreplaceable. The work they did together might change, had changed, the world. Jenny didn't want to be forced to abandon this work in favor of some theoretical 'career'.

This conviction, unfortunately, had come between Jenny and many women she might have remained or become her close friends. But when they cooled towards her, or failed to warm, Jenny forgave them. They didn't understand; they were married to ordinary replaceable men, men whose jobs could be done by someone else if necessary.

Lurie has set the stage so well. Now add in a woman, Lee, about Jenny's age who runs a women's only resort and who manages to rescue Jenny from drowning and to fall in love with her almost the day that the Walkers arrive in Florida. Wilkie, absorbed by his own impending death and his dwindling stature does not realize all the ways in which refusing to tell his wife of his illness and his death-fears alienates them from each other. Since she has no way of knowing that his silence, his downright coldness around her, his no longer sharing even his work with her is occasioned by his struggles with his own mortality, she quite naturally supposes other explanations for his freezing her out. And then the final straw, he fails with her in bed!!! In his words, “... their final significant encounter had been false and meaningless. Last night, their last night together, he had planned to make love to Jenny. He had tried, strained, willed it with all of his force—but all for nothing; worse than nothing.” When Jenny tries to reassure him, to tell him quite truthfully that it is the closeness that matters, that his failed erection is not the end of the world, he angrily discounts her words. “Of course she would say that, out of politeness, out of love. Silently he had turned away from her and pretended to sleep. That clumsy, humiliating failure would always be her last intimate memory of him.”

Ah, what could be worse for such a vital, such a virile, such an important man than to lose his erection. Nothing left but to swim out into the ocean one last time, to die brave and alone.

Already, I have probably told you too much of the plot, but there are many surprises left to come, and many characters that I have not even mentioned. Lurie obviously has fun with the absurd homophobia of Wilkie as well as other characters whom she contrives to bring on stage. The almost inevitable romance between Lee, the owner of the resort, and Jenny is humorous, but it is also touching and (I think) full of insights about how relationships should really be, about the mutual attention and respect that really good relationships require.

Again, despite the comedic setting, Lurie has important insights about both the importance of environmentalism and about the ways that it can direct political energy as well as the ways in which it can deflect it into a kind of meaningless sentimentalism. In the end, this book is a comedy with more than a few important messages, and it is written by a writer who has mastered her talents. It is at the very least and entertaining novel, and I think quite a bit more than that. I think Lurie deals with sexual and political themes in important ways, and even quite deep existential questions get a good, hard look, though all of this is cloaked in humor. It is an easy book to read, and I think its messages are well worth absorbing.