Monday, June 20, 2011

Atwood's Bodily Harm

Margaret Atwood is one of our greatest living writers, a Canadian treasure who has been considered a strong contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature for several years.  Having produced excellence in the realms of the novel, the short story, and poetry, her reputation as a jack of all trades is well established.  She won the Booker Prize for 2000's The Blind Assassin, and the Governor General's Award for 1985's The Handmaid's Tale, which remains her most famous creation to this day.

I read The Handmaid's Tale in 2005 and Cat's Eye (1989) in 2006.  Both are among my all time favorites.  I also read at least one short story and a couple of her poems during my school years.  Last week, I picked up her 1981 novel Bodily Harm, mostly because it's the one I've heard the least about.  Surfacing, The Robber Bride, and Alias Grace would have been more obvious choices, but this relatively slim novel (less than 300 pages) called out to me.

I read the book rather quickly, and I'm still not sure what I think of it.  The prose is exemplary, as Atwood's prose always is.  The protagonist, Rennie, is very interesting.  The plot is solid, and the messages come through loud and clear.  In some way, though, the book left me puzzled.

One of Atwood's strengths as an author is the way she tells a story, presenting us with multiple time frames through the eyes of one narrator.  This strategy is employed to great effect in Cat's Eye, which takes place in present day Toronto as Elaine Risley prepares for an exhibition of her art.  We go back in time to Elaine's childhood and teenage years, and the alternating scenes work fabulously to tell something closer to a whole story.  In Bodily Harm, we also get fragmented narration, but somehow it's a little more confusing.  Maybe not confusing, but certainly not straightforward.  I can't help thinking that this reflects the narrator's state of mind, because Rennie feels fragmented herself, still trying to deal with the aftermath of a mastectomy.

Bodily Harm opens with Rennie returning from the market to find that her apartment has been invaded, and a coil of rope left ominously on her bed.  This stressful scenario prompts her to take a tropical vacation.  She is a journalist who writes lifestyle stories, and this time she decides to combine work and pleasure, taking off for the secluded Caribbean island of St. Antoine to write a travel guide article of sorts.  Upon arriving at her destination, she meets a host of interesting and mysterious characters including Dr. Minnow, who is running for public office; Laura, who bites her nails ragged and grew up in an abusive household; and the alluring Paul, who charters boats and may be involved in some sort of smuggling ring.  Rennie soon discovers that not all is peaceful on St. Antoine, and as she becomes increasingly involved in the goings-on of the island, Bodily Harm turns into a thriller of sorts.

As the action escalates on St. Antoine, Rennie has flashbacks to her life in Toronto.  She was living with her boyfriend Jake, writing stories on everything from the return of faux fur to chain drain jewelry, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Her surgery changed everything that she thought she knew about herself and her life.  She fell in love with her doctor, Daniel.  After her mastectomy, she was no longer able to feel sexually attractive.  She and Jake split up, and her feelings for Daniel remained basically unresolved.

Atwood is extremely adept at linking Rennie's flashbacks to her current situation on St. Antoine, although the tone of the two threads is very different.  The flashbacks are always interesting, but very inward looking; whereas Rennie's current situation is action-packed and dangerous.  Of course, there was danger in her life before, especially when cancer reared its head.  Atwood juxtaposes these two periods in Rennie's life seemingly to make a bigger point and to teach Rennie (and the reader) a "valuable life lesson," which becomes clear at the conclusion of the novel.

There is a lot more to the flashbacks than cancer and unrequited love.  At times, Rennie goes further back, to her childhood in the unhappy town of Griswold, where her mother became "stuck" taking care of her senile grandmother.  This gloomy upbringing left its mark on Rennie, who seems sophisticated and bright, but not entirely happy.  She is exceedingly cynical.  Also, Atwood makes it clear that Rennie's boyfriend Jake was abusive, though whether intentionally so is something the reader is left to wonder.  

Bodily Harm was released in 1981, and there are cultural references to Ronald Regan and the punk scene.  The feminist movement of the early 70s also hovers over the book, in particular, the way that Rennie was affected by it and how she relates to it today.  Atwood is a feminist, and issues of woman's rights, female sexuality, and power play between the genders are of great importance to her.  Never does she focus on these issues to the point of alienating readers; in fact, they usually heighten the impact of her stories.  In Bodily Harm, there is no escaping the presence of gender issues, and at the novel's conclusion, Rennie comes to a very sobering realization.

If some of this sounds a little heavy, do not fear.  Margaret Atwood is a commercially successful author as well as a critically acclaimed one, and this is because she knows how to hold your interest.  Bodily Harm is never boring, even at Rennie's most introspective moments.  The conclusion to the thriller plot line on St. Antoine, and the conclusions that Rennie makes about herself, are both satisfying.  I was, however, unsatisfied by the fact that the opening invasion scene is never really touched upon again.  I thought there would be some kind of resolution, but apparently it was included on a more metaphorical level (and, of course, to steer Rennie toward her tropical destination).  Atwood is great with description, characterizations, and action in equal measure.  Bodily Harm is not her most essential novel, nor is it her best, but it's an important part of her oeuvre, and an enjoyable, rewarding read.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Literary Classic: A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories by Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor is one of the most well-known names from 20th century literature.  She wrote two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, before her early death at thirty-nine years of age.  She is probably more revered for her two collections, A Good Man Is Hard To Find and the posthumously published Everything That Rises Must Converge.  In 1972, she won the National Book Award (also posthumously) for her Complete Stories.  She is absolutely among the greatest short story writers of all time.

I remember reading three of her stories for my AP English class with Mrs. Taylor during senior year of high school: "Greenleaf," "The Enduring Chill," and "Parker's Back."  They were strange and alluring, eccentric tales, and my curiosity was piqued.  Somehow I did not have to read her for any of my college courses, but she's always been in the back of my mind.  Last month, one of my book groups decided to tackle our first collection of short stories (we've only read novels up to this point), and we unanimously selected O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard To Find.

This collection of ten stories produced some of the most famous and studied titles in recent memory, including "A Late Encounter With The Enemy," "Good Country People," and "The Displaced Person."  It's a bleak book, full of desperate, tortured, and unhappy characters, and lots of uncomfortable situations.  O'Connor's style is often labeled Southern Gothic, and she is compared to writers like Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Carson McCullers.  Her tales are not for the faint of heart.

In all honesty, though, Flannery O'Connor did not write like anyone before or since.  Her style is unique and entirely her own, which is a large part of the reason these works have stood the test of time.  Yes, the South of the 1950s is a huge part of the stories' fabric, which places her alongside Eudora Welty.  However, Welty's stories were written in a much more formal style, and violence and danger were merely undercurrents.  O'Connor, on the other hand, writes in a quick, blunt style with slight echoes of Hemingway, and violence is right on the surface of these sometimes chilling tales.  The only living author I can think of whose stories bear a slight resemblance to O'Connor is Joyce Carol Oates, but again, these comparisons are not overt.

The title story, " A Good Man Is Hard To Find," is possibly the most well-known in this batch.  It follows a family of six as they take off on a road trip.  They are not a happy bunch.  The grandmother, known only as The Grandmother, is constantly harping at her son, Bailey.  Her grandchildren, a boy and girl, are argumentative and fidgety.  Bailey himself is often finding fault with his old mother, yelling at and insulting her more than once.  His wife (also nameless) and newborn baby don't have much to do.  When the grandmother's cat jumps out of a basket and startles Bailey, he drives their car down into a ravine.  They are soon "rescued," but the rescuers are a group of bandits led by a notorious killer named The Misfit who has been referenced since the opening of the story.  What happens next is horrific, even by today's standards, and you'll not soon forget this tale.

Flannery O'Connor was a Roman Catholic, and many of her stories involve characters searching for grace, pondering grace, or finding grace at an unlikely moment.  Religion was an integral part of her work.  It also cannot be denied that many of her characters are racist, uneducated, and coarse.  She was writing what was real to her in that time and place, and it's often ugly and hateful.  You can argue that she was making deeper points than are readily apparent in some of the stories, possibly trying to combat racism by exposing it at its brutal core.  These are issues that have been debated for more than fifty years, and readers will have to make up their own minds.

The endings of O'Connor's stories are often abrupt and startling, and they leave you wanting more.  Sometimes, the conclusions raise more questions than answers, which again reminds me of some of the short stories of Joyce Carol Oates.  There is symbolism in many of these stories, as well as allegory, metaphor, and irony.  O'Connor employed many literary techniques and used each them in an expert manner.

There is something sinister in almost every story in this collection.  O'Connor is exploring the dark facets of human nature, but again, she also allows her characters to find moments of grace, albeit in strange ways.  She addressed themes that were somewhat ahead of their time, as in the story "A Stroke of Good Fortune," wherein the protagonist is disgusted and dismayed to find herself pregnant. 

I cannot say that reading A Good Man Is Hard To Find is a particularly pleasant experience, because so many of the stories are bleak.  However, it is definitely an intriguing, challenging, and revelatory experience, and certainly worth it to see one of the masters of the short story form at the peak of her powers.  There is a reason that some authors are considered essential touchstones of fiction.  Flannery O'Connor is one of the literary greats, with an uncontested place in the canon.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Book Review: She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb

Warning: this review contains spoilers

Nineteen years after its release, and fourteen years since Oprah chose it as one of her book club titles, I finally read She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb.

I read Lamb's novel I Know This Much Is True years ago and have always considered it among my all time favorites.  Thus, my expectations for She's Come Undone were very high.  I'm glad to say I was not disappointed.

I read She's Come Undone in a week.  It's a fairly sizable book, clocking in at 465 pages in the trade paperback edition.  I never lost interest and found myself grabbing the book to read during spare moments, like the five minutes between packing my lunch and leaving for work.

She's Come Undone is told in the first person, from the point of view of Dolores Price.  We follow her from the age of four, when she believes her life started with the delivery of her family's television set, to the age of forty, when she finally attains some semblance of a "normal," contented life.  Along the way, she undergoes one tragedy after another, including her parents' divorce, her mother's nervous breakdown and hospitalization, and a horrific rape when she is only thirteen years old.  These events cause her to eat herself into oblivion, and when she finally leaves home for college, she weighs more than 250 pounds.

If you think She's Come Undone sounds a bit like a soap opera, well, I can't say that it doesn't play out like one.  And the soaps are actually mentioned numerous times, because Dolores watches many of them over the years, from "Love Of Life" and "Search For Tomorrow" right up through "As The World Turns" and "Days Of Our Lives."  Much like food, television is her addiction, and she wastes away hours of her life in front of the tube.

Two things save this novel from dissolving into melodramatic histrionics: Lamb's effortless and appealing writing style, and Dolores Price herself.  She is a self-effacing, observant, world-weary, and often hilarious character, and you'll probably never forget her.  At least, most of the people I know who read the book during its 1997 heyday seem to remember her fondly all these years later.

Dolores absolutely deserves our pity, because all of the tragedies leading up to her obesity and unhealthy lifestyle are completely out of her hands.  Later in life, she briefly contemplates the existence of God and the cruel tricks of the universe.  She justifies most of her actions by reflecting on the blows she suffered, but she never panders for our sympathy.  It's a testament to Lamb's skills as a writer that we feel for her and root for her in spite of the soap opera plot.

In the early chapters of the book, when Dolores's parents are having their marital troubles, we watch her fawn over her father while often seeming exasperated by her mother.  She is disrespectful and outright rude to her mother.  This bothered me at times, because her mother didn't deserve the treatment she received from her cheating husband.  However, Dolores's worshiping of her father does seem very realistic, as does the fury she brings down on him after he abandons them.  She turns on him completely, and years later at her mother's funeral, she blows up at her dad in one of the most emotional passages of the book.

Bernice Price, Dolores's mother, emerges as a likable, strong character who tries to do right by her daughter in spite of not having an easy time of things herself.  She dies fairly early in the book, and this lays the groundwork for Dolores's emotional growth throughout the rest of the novel.  In the years following Ma's death, Dolores realizes that her father wasn't as great as she thought he was, and that her mother wasn't as bad as she made her out to be.  During her therapy sessions with Dr. Shaw (she suffers a breakdown and is hospitalized for years), Dolores addresses her residual feelings of anger and abandonment toward her deceased mother, but she is also able to forgive her and to finally express her love for her.  During the final stretch of the book, Dolores regularly reflects on Ma, and it's poignant in a very real way, mainly because we've taken an emotional journey with her.

I've hardly scratched the surface of the plot points in this book.  There is a tumultuous marriage, an abortion, an odd encounter with a whale, and a cast of memorable supporting characters.  Among the best of these are Dolores's religious grandmother; Larry the wallpaper guy and his wife Ruth (who resurface in a clever way at the end of the book); and Roberta, the neighbor who owns a tattoo parlor and comes back in to Dolores's life years later.  Also, Mr. Pucci, her high school guidance counselor and "pal," to whom she repays kindness in a very big way in the last chapters of the book.

Because She's Come Undone charts the course of forty years in one woman's life, we see a lot of American history unfold.  Lamb does a great job painting distinct eras, mentioning songs and television shows and fashion styles that were popular at any given point in Dolores's life, weaving them in to the fabric of the story so that we watch a country change along with the protagonist living in it.  During the final stretch of the novel, which takes place in the mid-80s, Lamb addresses the AIDS epidemic via the character of Mr. Pucci.  This segment works well and manages never to seem heavy handed, at least not to this reader.

I liked a lot of things about She's Come Undone, including the setting, the passage of time, the plot, and the supporting characters.  I really enjoy Wally Lamb's writing style.  He walks that line between commercial and literary fiction, and I think he walks it very well.  Most of all, though, I loved the character of Dolores Price, surely one of the most memorable heroines in this great era of modern fiction.