Dream Stuff

DREAM STUFF
By David Malouf

Dream Stuff is a book about people who are haunted. The ghosts in its stories are the ghosts of dreams, representing subconscious, underground worlds of imagination, creativity, childhood and loss.

The landscape is a kind of dreamworld itself. David Malouf is one of Australia’s most highly regarded literary exports and the country he describes has about it some of the sense of strangeness and the supernatural we associate with the island continent. Down Under has a double meaning in this collection. In a story like “Jacko’s Reach,” for example, the dream landscape which is also the natural native environment is in the process of being paved over in order to build a new shopping mall:

Those four and a half acres were an eyesore – that’s the council’s line: openly in communication, through the coming and going of native animals and birds, or through the seeds that can travel miles on a current of air, with the wilderness that by fits and starts, in patches here and great swathes of darkness there, still lies like a shadow over the most settled land, a pocket of the dark unmanageable, that troubles the sleep of citizens by offering a point of re-entry to memories that they have no more use for – to unruly and unsettling dreams.

The people we meet are haunted by a sense of loss for things that are not entirely gone. Dreams offer a chance to re-enter a present world of memory and imagination that has been driven underground.

Malouf is at his best when exploring the weird side of this dream world, one filled with the ghosts of lost loves and random violence brought about by false memories. Somewhat like Ian McEwan, Malouf associates the imagination with strangeness and danger. Aborigines, the native inhabitants of the dream world, become mysterious and threatening aliens. In the story “Dream Stuff” the title refers to an urban legend about secret gangs of workers harvesting marijuana at night.

The style is sometimes impressionistic and artificial. In the last story the day breaks upon “an expanding stillness in which clocks, voices and every form of consciousness had still to come into existence and the day as yet, like the sea, had no mark upon it.” But given the symbolic nature of what is being described this isn’t necessarily a fault. Otherwise Malouf’s writing is quite precise, especially in pleasantly fit details like the Australian vocabulary and the names given to American servicemen (“the Rudis, the Dukes, the Vergils, the Kents”).

One of the more interesting issues the book raises is that of national culture. If such a thing still exists then it too is going underground. In the title story of the collection Malouf associates it with the natural environment and Australia’s colonial history, an “underground history” that, like Jacko’s Reach, “no tower block or flyover could entirely obliterate.” But even here the dream is threatened.

The boy in the first story – and many of the stories feature children – can see the change coming when he looks at movie posters. The new world of modernity these posters advertise has a name: “America, that world was called.” Planet Hollywood we would call it now, and its effect on a people and their culture is far greater than any proposed shopping mall or high rise. The book concludes with a mystical speech about how “nothing ever gets lost”, but the action takes place on a national holiday and a local museum has just gone up in flames. The same speech suggests that the native culture of a place like Australia, or Canada for that matter, may only survive in the global village as bits of information floating in the ether, being received by distant satellites.

Notes:
Review first published September 16, 2000.

Dogwalker

DOGWALKER
By Arthur Bradford

Pretty much all you need to know about Arthur Bradford’s Dogwalker can be gleaned from its epigraph. This isn’t because of anything the epigraph says – it only suggests, not very eloquently, that it is possible to imagine various alternate realities for one’s life (a point which doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the stories in the book) – but rather its source: the Richard Linklater movie Slacker. This effectively introduces the book’s subject matter (twenty-something Texas losers) and sensibility (detached, understated, ironic).

The narrators in these twelve stories are ciphers. They exist merely to observe the various freaks around them. We might again think of the film analogy. The narrator records reality like a student film-maker (and I note in passing the biographical sketch of Arthur Bradford on the dustjacket, which informs us that his first feature film, a documentary, is about to be released). In a couple of the stories we even see him using the tools of his (real) trade, as he gets out his recording equipment to tape what is going on.

The style is deadpan wonder. Bradford’s world is pretty much pure fantasy – full of talking animals, carnival freaks, monster slugs, mutant dogs, domestic lycanthropes, etc. – but the narrator is never fazed. Physical and emotional extremes are scarcely felt. A man named Bill gets run over by a train and cut in two. His friend finds him on the tracks:

“Hey,” said Bill when he saw me. “This is a hell of a place to be, isn’t it?”
“What happened, Bill?” I asked. I knew it was a stupid question, but I couldn’t think of what else to say.
“I guess I fell asleep,” said Bill. “I sure didn’t expect this.”

The narrator is perfectly in tune with the weirdness of this world. While deadpan, he is rarely an objective reporter. The snowflakes that fall in his hand are so enormous “I could have built myself an igloo out of each one of them.” We have the sense that this isn’t hyperbole or poetic license so much as a strategy for staying sane. Bradford’s use of language accepts a freakishly overhyped world. We see it again in the story “Little Rodney” when the narrator attacks “a giant python of extremely large proportions”: “It was longer than my car. Its head was as big as a watermelon, its body thicker than my thigh.”

Of course the snake isn’t that big, as he later admits; but then, how often do you see a pregnant python in the park?

Philip Roth observed, some time ago, the difficulty American writers of fiction face in capturing the strangeness of American life. How can a mere novelist, he asked, match the headlines of the morning paper? In Dogwalker Arthur Bradford tries to avoid this problem by taking an end run through the supermarket tabloids. It is in the America of trashy headlines, with their eyewitness reports of monstrous births and the operation of supernatural forces, that his writing is most at home. The results, as with the tabloids, are amusing, but never strike us as being the real thing.

Notes:
Review first published online December 4, 2001

Dear Alice . . .

DEAR ALICE . . . : REJECTED LETTERS TO ADVICE COLUMNS FROM COMPLETELY INSANE IDIOTS
By Steven Ryniak

The hardest part of reviewing Steven Ryniak’s Dear Alice . . . was tracking down whoever borrowed it. My big complaint: The book is too easy to pick up. The catchy title, the pocket-size portability, and the blonde in a bikini on the cover make it too tempting to leave lying around.

Supposedly compiled from “over 2,000 different advice column rejection piles, from more than 60,000 newspapers worldwide, after 15 years of back breaking research,” Dear Alice . . . features over 70 made-up letters from people who are . . . well, completely insane.

How can you tell when someone is “completely insane”? The answer seems to lie in a fanatical belief in an alternate reality. Speaking Ewok as though it were a living language is a pretty good sign. Wanting to go to wizard school is another. Imagining that you’ve been lost for a week in the Nigerian jungle when you’ve only been gone for eight hours is a sure bet.

The people writing these letters certainly don’t think they are insane. In fact, they are usually so sure of their own version of reality that they can’t wait to sue. The kind of advice they are seeking is mainly legal. These aren’t just any insane idiots, these are insane American idiots, and they can’t wait to go to court.

But what makes Ryniak’s idiots endearing is the fact that they are all such suckers. Their insanity is rarely paranoid. They really want to believe the best in people. A personal trainer gets his client to eat nothing but junk food while only working out one day a week, but the client is willing to get with the program. When a girl asks another letter-writer to rub her pit bull’s tummy, he complies. An old friend has no trouble convincing “T. L.” to deliver a mysterious metal trunk to an Arab named Aachmed at La Guardia airport. A father wants to know if the “magic pills” his son has been ordering by mail really work. Various correspondents complain about being horribly abused by doctors they are only now beginning to suspect.

As you might have guessed, this is not Miss Lonelyhearts. But Dear Alice . . . is a fun collection of humorous sketches sure to give the slightly less insane a lift.

Notes:
Review first published online November 27, 2000.

Choke

CHOKE
By Chuck Palahniuk

In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman describes how the typographical age, or Age of Exposition, has been replaced by the Age of Show Business. The dominant medium of our time is television, which speaks in images rather than words. The information and art this image-based culture produces is incoherent, contradictory, and non-rational. Its ideology is entertainment. Aside from providing amusement, it is without content, meaning or purpose.

Which brings us to Choke.

Choke is the story of a young man named Victor Mancini, a med school dropout who works at the historical theme park of Colonial Dunsboro. Since pretending to be a peasant for the tourists doesn’t come close to paying the bills for his mother’s nursing home, he supplements his meager income with a truly ridiculous bit of fraud.

The scam works this way: Victor goes to a restaurant and pretends to choke. Inevitably someone rescues him and for the rest of their life they feel responsible for Victor, to the extent of sending him regular cheques in the mail.

There’s a lot more to the story than this, but the different elements remain mostly disconnected. Victor’s torrid and kinky sex life is the product of his attending a recovery group for sex addicts. His mother’s Italian diary suggests that he was conceived the son of Christ through the use of a religious relic. His mother’s nurse wants to get pregnant with Victor’s baby so she can use tissue from the fetus to save his mother from Alzheimer’s (or so she says). His best friend Denny collects rocks until he has enough to build a castle on a vacant lot.

And so it goes.

The best thing about this kind of writing is that none of it has to make sense. Entertainment is all about stimulation. Its goal is to provide pleasure without any of the intellectual and moral challenge of art. In its most basic form, stimulation is sex and violence. Fight Club, Palahniuk’s first novel, was mostly concerned with violence. Choke is obsessed with sex.

Victor’s path to sainthood is the negative way described by T. S. Eliot when he said the way down is the way up. He achieves a sort of grace by debasing himself, having come to the realization that torture isn’t torture and humiliation isn’t humiliation unless you choose to suffer. In themselves, degradation and humiliation can be quite liberating. Victor first becomes aware of this when he sees pictures on the Internet of a man dressed as Tarzan having sex with an orangutan. One look at the Tarzan man’s beatific smile and Victor recognizes him as a savior.

There are a few things one could say about this scene, but what struck me the most is the anachronism. At the beginning of the novel, Victor is in his mid-20s. But he is described as first seeing the picture of the Tarzan-man while surfing the Internet as a kid. If we imagine the main events in the novel to be taking place in the present, how is this possible?

This may seem like a small point, but in fact it is quite important. What Palahniuk is doing is writing just the kind of book Postman predicted. Anachronism has no meaning in a world without any sense of history. Alzheimer’s disease and historical theme parks are only metaphors for a book that has no memory.

And without memory, there is scarcely any need for narrative consistency. At the beginning of one chapter Victor is distraught over the number of restaurants he has crossed out with his red felt pen because he can’t do his choke routine in the same place twice. Yet only four pages later the possibilities are infinite: all he has to do is close his eyes and stab his finger at an open phone book. At another point he enters his mother’s nursing home and remarks how clean it smells: “you only smell chemicals, cleaning stuff, or perfumes.” Yet later, when he brings flowers for his mom her room “has that smell, the same smell as Denny’s tennis shoes in September after he’s worn them all summer without socks.”

Choke may well be the best example yet of a Show Business Age novel: amusing, anti-realistic, inconsistent, incoherent, and contradictory. Without any sense of cause-and-effect the construction of a plot is nearly impossible. We just see wild and crazy things happening to weird people. There are plenty of interesting ideas in Choke, especially with regard to Victor’s imitation of Christ and Denny’s attitude toward art, but they are only epigrams left to float like gratuitous pieces of fruit in the shiny jelly of Palahniuk’s hurried prose.

Sweet jelly, but it isn’t filling stuff.

Notes:
Review first published July 21, 2001.

Bone by Bone

BONE BY BONE
By Peter Matthiessen

With the publication of Bone by Bone Peter Matthiessen completes an impressive, albeit inconsistent, trilogy. The first volume, Killing Mr. Watson, made use of a medley of narrative voices to tell the turn-of-the-century story of the violent life and death of an Everglades sugar plantation operator named Edgar Watson. The second installment, Lost Man’s River, was a major disappointment, following the attempt of Watson’s son to come to grips with his father’s past. Bone by Bone, the final piece of the historical puzzle that has obsessed Matthiessen for the last twenty years, is the same story as told by the enigmatic Mr. Watson himself.

Watson was a real person, and the trilogy is grounded in the few hard facts that are known about his life. From these simple guideposts Matthiessen has re-imagined a Watson that is set against the lurid Watson gossip that has evolved over eight decades into a local myth. The result is a work that explores the making of an identity, a history, and a nation.

About halfway through the novel, Watson makes a reference to the “frontier thesis” of historian Frederick Jackson Turner. It was Turner’s belief that the American identity was created out of a response to the frontier – a challenge that brought forth a separate American character and distinctly American institutions. But by 1890 the U. S. census had officially declared the frontier closed, thus bringing America’s evolution to a terminus.

By Watson’s reckoning this was premature. “The professor who claimed there was no more frontier had never heard about the Everglades.” After living a semi-outlaw life in the Wild West (there were even rumours that he killed Belle Starr), Watson comes to the Ten Thousand Islands precisely because it is “the last American frontier.” The Everglades are a lawless, violent backwater that is also a land of opportunity for those who have the right stuff.

Matthiessen has always been interested in frontiers, in part because of what they represent as metaphors. The frontier is that fluid line dividing conscious and unconscious, advanced and primitive forces. The way they react makes history.

The frontier is also part of Watson’s split personality. On the one hand he is the progressive, entrepreneurial businessman known to the locals as the Emperor; on the other he is the savage, hard-drinking murderer “Jack” (a name he gives himself). And if it is the frontier that defines America, then Watson’s frontier identity is also symbolic – a man, like America, always starting over from scratch and trying to make himself anew.

The trick to a book like this is to take the raw matter of history and biography and give it artistic shape and narrative drive. And while Bone by Bone does have a few slow sections, it makes up for these in the boldness and size of its conception.

Though not as strong as the first Watson book, Bone by Bone manages to fulfill all of the promise in Matthiessen’s grand design, which stands comparison to Faulkner’s masterpiece Absalom, Absalom. The writing has a fullness as lush as the natural world Matthiessen’s language draws from, and the plot is controlled by a master’s hand. Matthiessen is one of those odd writers who are highly regarded but whose career has never seemed to peak – until now. With its completion, we can see the Watson trilogy as his masterpiece – a large and unforgettably powerful achievement.

Notes:
Review first published October 2, 1999.

The Body Artist

THE BODY ARTIST
By Don DeLillo

In a bold move to pre-empt any debate over who will write the worst novel of 2001, Don DeLillo has taken the prize home early. While there’s no way to predict what horrors are yet to come, it’s safe to say there won’t be anything as bad as The Body Artist published in the next ten months.

The sheer awfulness of The Body Artist is even more of a surprise given the talent involved. While Don DeLillo has always been a hit-and-miss author – for every White Noise there has been a Mao II – he has never gone off the tracks like this before.

What went wrong?

The fault is not in the story, though that is weak enough. In outline it deals with a body artist (think “performance piece”) named Lauren who is renting a house with her husband, a film director named Rey. Rey kills himself and Lauren goes on living alone in the house until a strange man shows up. He may be a homeless person, a ghost, or a figment of her imagination. In the fashion of the best high literary crossover into pulp romance (think The English Patient), they get involved.

So far, so bad, but what really makes the book a true disaster is the writing. Gone are the satiric wit, cultural engagement and kaleidoscope narrative of DeLillo’s last novel, Underworld. This time out he seems to be struggling under the influence of that greatest of all posh literary introverts, Virginia Woolf. Every small gesture in The Body Artist is presumed to carry Great Significance. Every subtle change in tense and tone is a profound mystery of meaning. Consciousness doesn’t flow in a stream so much as sit at the bottom of a well of self, listening to murky echoes and repetitions of itself thinking.

Lest you think I’m making any of this up, here are a couple of representative passages submitted as evidence:

She climbed the stairs, hearing the sound a person makes who is climbing stairs, and she touched the oak grain of the newel when she reached the landing.
It was okay. She wanted to be here and she’d be okay. All their marriage, all the time they’d lived together they’d lived right here.
Her body felt different to her in ways she did not understand. Tight, framed, she didn’t know exactly. Slightly foreign and unfamiliar. Different, thinner, didn’t matter.

That Lauren hears the sound of a person climbing stairs when she is, in fact, climbing the stairs, gives some indication of the level of self-absorption she has attained – a reverse Nirvana for the artsy set. Certainly her inability to understand what doesn’t matter anyway is a feeling many readers will share.

The second passage is an example of how the dialogue between Lauren and the stranger works:

“Then when it comes to me.”
“What?”
“A thing of the most. Days yes years.”
“Do you know what that means? A day. A year. Or did you hear me use these words?”
“Say some words.”
“Say some words.”
“In when it comes.”
“In when it comes. What?” she said
“Leave into leaving.”
“Who is leaving?”
“This is when you, yes, you said.”
“What did I say?”

It is possible to find some defence for what DeLillo is doing. Since Lauren’s body is her art it makes a kind of sense that she is so obsessive about herself, so trapped within her own interior world. But making her sensitive to the point of feeling “her aorta recoil to every blood surge” is simply ridiculous. And the constant dwelling upon the minutiae of daily existence becomes a crushing bore even in a book as short as this.

As for the dialogue, DeLillo tries to excuse it by suggesting that Lauren and the stranger communicate “outside language.” He deliberately fashions their conversation so that it has no rhythm, none of the tempo, inflections or intervals that make normal speech comprehensible. That this results in a lot of gibberish is, I think he would argue, his point.

But this does not explain the rest of the dialogue in the book. Here, for example, is Lauren talking to the man who owns the house she has been staying in:

“Has it been satisfactory then?”
“Mostly, I think, yes.”
“Because if there’s anything.”
“No, it’s fine, I think. Rooms.”
“Yes.”
“Rooms and rooms.”

What are we to make of this?

Scholars may find something to salvage from The Body Artist. In terms of its theme I assume it is meant as a response to DeLillo’s fascination with the way cultural products, and in particular the signals sent by mass commercial media, have colonized the subconscious. The only rebellion against the tyranny of the media thus becomes an obsessive inwardness that denies the external world entirely. As he says of Lauren, “the world was lost inside her.”

This is all well and good, at least for Lauren, but if this is DeLillo’s point then it is one that is lost in a dull, derivative paste of writing that is almost beyond parody:

He said, “The word for moonlight is moonlight.”
This made her happy. It was logically complex and oddly moving and circularly beautiful and true – or maybe not so circular but straight as straight can be.

My guess is most readers will find this baffling. I’m prepared to grant what the stranger says is “true,” but what is logically complex about it? Or moving? Or beautiful?

There is a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Man on the Dump,” that reflects on a literature grown heavy with cliché, especially words stale with “beautiful and true” associations like “moonlight.” The moon creeps up on a pile of garbage that includes images of the moon itself, along with the wrapper from a can of pears, a cat in a paper bag, and books, one suspects, like The Body Artist.

Notes:
Review first published February 3, 2001.

Armadillo

ARMADILLO
By William Boyd

At a time when the competition is admittedly pretty weak, William Boyd has established a reputation as one of the bright lights of English comic fiction.

Armadillo, which refers here to a “little armed man” and not an edentate mammal, deals with the adventures of Lorimer Black (formerly Milomre Blocj), a loss adjuster for a London insurance company. The plot involves, in no particular order, a hanged man, a dream analysis clinic, an insurance scam, Lorimer’s pursuit of a married woman (Flavia Malinverno), and a comedy of manners starring an upper-class twit named Torquil Helvoir-Jayne. Along the way we are treated to selections from Lorimer’s Book of Transfiguration, a journal filled with quotations from Gerard de Nerval and digressions on the philosophy of insurance.

The silly names and overly complex plot indicate that Boyd belongs to the group of writers, sometimes called postmodern, who take a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the novel. The writing itself has its ups and downs. Boyd’s sense of place is surprisingly poor (his London is scarcely more than a city map), but his dialogue has the fast-paced wit typical of the best of his contemporary hipsters. A novel as light as this can be read in an afternoon, and most of the time it will be enjoyed.

Unfortunately, this is as far as it goes. Armadillo is funny, but its attempt to be something more falls flat. The characters, with the exception of Lorimer, are two-dimensional, the symbolism is forced, and nothing about the story is very compelling. Boyd’s talents, which are real, should have been put to a better use than this.

Notes:
Review first published May 30, 1998.

Angry Young Spaceman

ANGRY YOUNG SPACEMAN
By Jim Munroe

Why is Jim Munroe angry? According to his bio he is only 27 years old, a former managing editor at the high-profile parody magazine Adbusters, and already has one successful novel under his belt (Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gas Mask). Things would seem to be going pretty well.

And yet Jim Munroe is a rebel. He has published Angry Young Spaceman under his own imprint, and urges others to do the same on a highly recommended Web-page (NoMediaKings.org) that he has turned into a platform for his crusade against media monopolies. His new novel is an extension of his political creed, being a critique of modern globalization and materialism in the form of a science-fiction comic romance.

The angry young hero is Sam Breen, an Earthling who goes to the liquid planet of Octavia to teach the indigenous squid population English. Octavia is a Third World kind of world, where the locals ape all of the latest Earth fashions right down to the hottest new boy band (Intergalactic Cool Youth). Needless to say, it isn’t long before Sam is fulminating against this one-galaxy monoculture and preparing to “go native” in a big way. “Earth has bullied everyone into being like it,” he complains. Teaching English is like spreading a disease, destroying native ways of life and replacing them with boring and meaningless alien traditions.

As an allegory of Western cultural imperialism all of this works quite well, and the writing itself is very good. The book’s real failure is its hero. Sam Breen, the intergalactic ambassador of sensitivity, white guilt and political correctness, was more than I could take.

What Sam is angry about is never clear. He wears an “aggrometer” on his wrist to warn him when he is going over into the red zone of rage, but the only time he really gets upset is when people are impolite.

Tolerance, acceptance and sensitivity are an obsession with Sam. He is, of course, an environmentalist and radical vegetarian, and even leads a campaign against eating the tiny shrimp-like creatures that live on Octavia. Relationships? Tolerant of difference of course (his mother is a lesbian and his girlfriend is one of the local squid), but also committed to building a responsible, long-term monogamous relationship. Violence? Certainly not the real kind. Even disciplining unruly students is a no-no (“institutionalized violence, always directed against the powerless for ‘their own good'” – sniff!).

Why then is Sam angry? Precisely because he has nothing to be angry about. Sam is a thirtieth-century rebel without a personally felt motive for his cause. Coming from a privileged background (his mother is some kind of corporate planet developer), and only associating with an elite minority while living on Octavia, his political posturing only makes him seem like an ideologically hip prig. He’s the guy who’s got it all, but doesn’t want it.

It is an attitude that’s hard to wear for a full-length novel. The best drama in any fiction comes from the conflict between characters and ideas. A novel without that conflict runs the risk of becoming sentimental or preachy, which is exactly what happens to Angry Young Spaceman. Near the end Sam makes one of his speeches about how bad a thing cultural hegemony is. As he concludes, the person he is talking to (or rather, as usual, talking at) only raises his eyebrows “in a kind of maybe you’re right way.” This leaves Sam feeling unsatisfied. “I’d have preferred he argued,” he decides.

So would we all.

Notes:
Review first published June 10, 2000. Munro’s next novel, Everyone In Silico, was much better.

The Angel of Darkness and When She Was Bad

THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS
By Caleb Carr
WHEN SHE WAS BAD: VIOLENT WOMEN AND THE MYTH OF INNOCENCE
By Patricia Pearson

The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction has been demonstrated once again in two new books dealing with the evil that women do.

The Angel of Darkness, like its prequel bestseller The Alienist, is a detective story set in turn-of-the-century New York. The detective team from the earlier novel, headed by eminent “alienist” (psychologist) Dr. Kreizler, is here reassembled to investigate the abduction of a Spanish diplomat’s infant daughter.

The narrator is 13-year-old Stevie Taggart, a (somewhat) reformed street urchin who lives with the doctor. The crime-solving team also includes a pistol-packing proto-feminist, a pair of Jewish police detectives, a fallen aristocrat reporter, and a piano-playing, brass-knuckled manservant. It is a Dickensian oddball club, and their adventures take place in a recognizably Dickensian world of dirty urban streets filled with gangs of street children.

The detail is impressive, as one might expect from an author who is both a historian and a lifelong resident of the New York area. Much of the writing seems done with one eye fixed on selling the film rights, but this simply has to be expected in a bestseller today.

The villain of the piece, the titular Angel of Darkness, is a serial baby-killer (and no, I’m not giving anything away). The very novelty of her crime in a society that idolizes women as maternal and nurturing protects her from suspicion and places her virtually above the law. Frustrated, Dr. Kreizler is driven to exclaim: “The last time we worked together, we studied known laws of psychology. This time, the biases of our society will force us to write new ones.”

The real life Angel of Darkness, whose story Carr admits drawing on, was Marybeth Tinning, a psychopath from New York State who killed eight of her own children. Tinning’s story, along with many others, can be found in Patricia Pearson’s fascinating study of violent women: When She Was Bad.

Reading Pearson, one gets the sense that little has changed in either the laws of psychology or the biases of society since the days of Dr. Kreizler. Drawing on a wealth of research, Pearson shows how violent women today are still seen as special cases, whose brutal crimes are all too often excused by dubious psychology and social denial (the myth of innocence).

Since there is no single kind of violent woman, Pearson breaks the subject down by victim, including women who kill babies, women who abuse and/or kill their spouses, and predator women who kill strangers. It is disturbing reading, and even “true crime” veterans may be in for a shock.

On the dustjacket the books is described as “certain to be controversial, guaranteed to infuriate.” That may be an understatement. Pearson asks feminists to stop trying to incorporate female violence into a “victim-feminist heroic” and start talking about personal responsibility. She is not afraid to question such excuses for women’s violence as hormonal imbalance, postpartum depression, battered woman’s syndrome, and (that catch-all evil) the “patriarchal society.”

In addition, she is severely critical of a justice system that exonerates figures such as Karla Homolka, and a media that makes serial killers like Aileen Wuornos into heroes.

The point When She Was Bad ends up making is the same one made by most common-sense discussions of the subject. Despite social inequality and a culture that continues to exploit differences between the sexes (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, etc.), the fact is that men and women are in most important ways the same. Violence, like love or hate, ambition or greed, is “a human rather than gendered phenomenon.”

That is a conclusion that many of the characters in The Angel of Darkness are afraid to make. As Pearson demonstrates, it is one we have yet to fully deal with.

Notes:
Review first published October 25, 1997.

Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM
By Ian McEwan

I have always had reservations about the Booker Prize. Two years ago I had my doubts confirmed. In 1996 Graham Swift’s Last Orders (a very good novel) took the prize. Scandal followed when it was suggested that Swift had plagiarized William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

If that had been all there was to the charge, then it should have simply been ignored. Swift’s borrowing from Faulkner had, after all, been noticed by many contemporary reviewers, and to call it plagiarism was just absurd.

But then came the response. In a letter by A. N. Wilson, one of the five judges on the prize panel, it was suggested that the committee hadn’t even been aware of the connection between the two books – despite a relationship so patently obvious that any English Lit. undergrad would have recognized it after reading the dustjacket.

Even worse, Wilson confessed that the committee had actually wanted to give the award to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace – not because it was a better book (it wasn’t), but because she was “a more distinguished writer.”

So much for the Booker Prize. Now on to this year’s winner.

Amsterdam is a short novel that plays at the fringes of what most of us expect a novel to be. Like most of McEwan’s work, it is a moral fable, which means it has to be approached in a slightly different spirit than realistic fiction. Things like the symmetry and improbability of the plot are a function of different conventions than we usually see on the best-seller lists.

The story deals, in perfect balance, with events in the lives of two men: Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday. Clive is the romantic, inner-directed half of the standard McEwan dichotomy – a composer who writes books on esthetics and goes hiking in the Lake District for inspiration. Vernon is his practical, real-world complement – a newspaper editor with few scruples about using his position to promote a personal vision of the public good.

We first meet Clive and Vernon standing off by themselves at the funeral of an ex-lover. Things are going well for both. Clive has been commissioned to write a “millennium symphony” and Vernon’s newspaper is beginning to show signs of a turnaround.

Then, as always in McEwan, there is a moment of crisis (or two moments, one for each). Put to the test, both Clive and Vernon make poor moral judgments that come back to haunt them. As a result of a strange pact, each becomes the other’s keeper, and learns at some cost to judge not lest ye be judged.

While it is instantly recognizable, it is not easy to define the McEwanesque. Although the writing is incredibly economical – there is a lot of plot in Amsterdam for such a short book – it can’t really be called minimalist. The descriptive writing throughout Clive’s hiking trip, for example, is quite fully imagined and developed. Instead, the word “clinical” comes to mind, describing both the choice of subject matter and the sharp-edged quality of the prose. His last novel (Enduring Love) ended with the presentation of a scientific case-study, and I have a feeling that is an association he would not resist.

Amsterdam is not McEwan’s best work (Enduring Love was more substantial), but it is a welcome change of pace and thoroughly well-crafted entertainment. Readers coming to McEwan for the first time will find it an enjoyable introduction, while longtime fans are in for an elegant surprise.

Notes:
Review first published December 12, 1998.