Monday, June 20, 2011

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan

This novel is a little bit gothic, and a little bit rock and roll. It is full of rabbit holes and dramatic shifts of perception. There's a ghost story, some romance, life-threatening adventure, childhood trauma, and deep dark, secrets. In short, it's got just about everything crammed into it, and yet it flows along smoothly, and the shocking surprises seem utterly plausible. Very impressive.

Danny, a wannabe New York player, finds himself scaling the walls of a castle somewhere in the no-man's land between Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic - fairy tale land. His cousin is trying to create an experiential vacation spot for tourists seeking inner peace. Or something. There's a traumatic childhood secret binding and repelling these two, and the situation at the castle is fraught with interpersonal dysfunction and possibly a little supernatural shenanigans. I hesitate to say much else, because the twists and turns should really be experienced with the sudden intensity that comes from complete ignorance. There is a second simultaneous story in the novel, about a prison inmate and his writing teacher; I wouldn't call it subplot, exactly, more a concurrent reality.

Suffice to say the complete story is told from the points of view of several different characters. These perspectives are different enough to really pretzel your mind, in a way I found most satisfying. In the end there are several unanswered questions; in fact, the whole narrative seems to be about opening one door after another, wandering down hallways, becoming intrigued more with the path than the destination. There is also an underlying theme of conectedness: Danny, who relies on his digital connections to feel any sense of self, is cut off from the outside world the moment he steps inside the castle grounds. Ray, the lifer, is cut off from the self he left outside the prison walls. Questions about the nature of reality, and communication, and maintaining personal strongholds are intertwined in a manner that makes (this)  reader wonder if she has any idea what these things mean at all.

There's a lot going on in this book, much of it funny, some of it heartbreaking, all of it written with a vividness that makes it seem immediate and real. There's so much story telling going on, you might fail to notice that it's written very, very well.

Here's an interview Jennifer Egan did with the editor of the New York Times Book Review - no spoilers, and she's enviously articulate.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

This Is Not the Story You Think It Is..., by Laura Munson

This book captivated me. It's so interesting to get inside some one else's head, and hear the details of their thoughts and feelings during an especially fraught and complicated time in their lives. And then to have it edited. Because honestly, although we'll put up with repetition and incomplete sentences and poor timing from our friends when they need us, it's really more interesting to have the clean, thoughtful version.
Laura Munson's husband of twenty years, father to their two children, tells her one day that he no longer loves her, and wants out of their marriage. She responds that she doesn't buy it. She determinedly gives him time and space to consider what he might be giving up, and refuses to react with anger or recriminations. She doesn't tell many people what they are going through over the course of a very long summer, partly because not many people have much patience for a guy who stays out all night and blows off holiday weekends with his kids.
I admire Laura Munson for her clarity of vision, and for the strength of her convictions. I'm inclined to agree with her assessment of her situation, although I don't think that I could have kept my anger and fear contained as she did all those months. This book is at its heart the story of how Munson deals with her own emotions. Her husband's crisis is an arena in which she can practice intentionality. She is constantly mindful of her actions, and refuses to live her life in reaction to events beyond her control. Impressive!
As a single mother, I was a little put off by the author's assertion that if her husband moved out, her children would automatically suffer from abandonment issues, and grow up to have dysfunctional relationships. Ideally, children live in big happy families in which everyone supports one another and nobody ever leaves. But strong, well-adjusted people can suffer greater trauma than divorce and go on to lead pretty happy lives, can even, I've heard, have long and happy relationships. And people who grow up with caring, happy, ever-married parents who stay together for life can end up with lots of relationship issues. Having a mother like Laura Munson probably leads to incredible self-awareness; her children are lucky.
I enjoyed the shared diary format of the book, which invites the reader to really share the experiences as they unfold. There are a lot of great truths in this story of the type that are explored in self-help books, but I for one am more likely to take these lessons to heart because they are told with such immediacy and passion. This woman is very clear about her own shortcomings; if she can do it, I can do it to, right?
In the end, I don't think Laura Munson and I would be likely to be friends in real life. I say this not to be snarky. In fact, I admire her more because of it. It's one thing to want to emulate the person you'd most like to spend time with, and to love her book. It's another to want to emulate someone you think you might find a little bit annoying, and to still love her book.