Monday, September 10, 2007


Twisted Sad People

Okay, don't you think it's a bit weird that a stream of sad tales about creepy or twisted or simply bruised, battered and broken people keeps flowing from middle-class novelists? Is it a kind of voyeurism? A sort of artistic do-goodness? Slumming? It depresses me to read about the prison life of women who have murdered their own children; it's only a little bit less depressing when they have murdered their abusive husbands or sons. What makes a writer want to get into the lives of women who set their nine-year-old daughters on the streets to work? To speak for them? Why? What illumination is there, for the middle-class reader, in these drug-fried, violent, devil-possessed evil-doers?

The only thing I took away from The Big Girls by Susanna Moore (Knopf, 2007), a story about a psychiatrist with countertransference issues, is that the people in charge of a prison are only a shade less gone than the prisoners. Dwellers in misery, all of them. What disturbs me the most about such things (this book, Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates a decade and a half ago; the criminal hijacking episode in "Six Feet Under"—heck, "The Sopranos" phenomenon) is that the audience for them is the educated middle class. It's icky!

On the other end--WAY on the other end--of the scale is Secrets From the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean (Viking Canada, 2006), which is icky in its own way. The stories about Morley, Dave and their kids and neighbours are very sweet, and, as with candy, the mature palate quickly sickens. I wouldn't have picked up the book if it hadn't been for the design, which is fabulous, and, now that I think of it, totally reminds me of a hilarious Norwegian movie I saw a couple of months ago about an early-fifties (fictional) research project of the Swedish Housewives' Institute, which sends Swedish social scientists out to a border village to "observe" the kitchen habits of Norwegian bachelors

Along with several New Yorkers, in the past couple of weeks I have also read How I Live Now by Meg Rosen (Random House, 2004) and S.A.S.S.: Swede Dreams by Eva Apelqvist (Speak/Penguin 2007) . The latter I picked up, of course, because of its setting in Stockholm: an American teenager goes to Sweden for three months, becomes fluent in the language and finds herself and true love. It was utterly pedestrian and a little unbelievable, but pleasant.

The former is another take on the "what happens when the world as we know it ends" theme. In this story, an American girl goes to England to stay with her cousins when her home situation (stepmother, new baby, anorexia) has become dire. Aunty has to go abroad, and then Britain is invaded, by an unspecific (terrorist-type) enemy. Since the kids (ages 17? to 10) are alone and live deep in the country, it takes a while before the situation catches up to them. This, too, is a highly personal story—aside from a few dramatic incidents, the "war" is the backdrop to the relationship between the American and: the cousin with whom she is passionately in love; the younger girl cousin whom she must care for; her own sense of self. Still, the "war" is interesting: Britain's invasion is one of many all around the world, by enemies who have nothing to gain but the attention and fear of their hosts. They are never going home again and have nothing to lose; their occupation is at first somewhat lazy but, when pushed, they kill.

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