Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Life: the wonderful, the schmaltzy

"Three Dog Life" - Abigail Thomas

"The Good Life" - Jay McInerney

Sometimes (most of the time, for me) it’s more difficult to write about a good book than about a bad one. I’m more articulate in loath than in awe. So, here it goes:

Abigail Thomas’s book is a series of mini chronicles documenting the accident which left her husband without any short-term memory and unable to function autonomously.
One night, walking Harry (the dog the author had insisted on getting), Richard ran after him through oncoming traffic when the leash broke, and was run over.

Instead of widowhood, Thomas was left to confront a different, less discussed purgatory: she had to arrange the daily life and care of a loved one who, though present in body was, if not completely gone, utterly transformed.

That Thomas never blamed Harry the beagle, and adopted two other dogs in the following years, will probably not seem very far-fetched to other dog owners. That she is able to write without a hint of cheap sentiment and yet so vividly portray her ordeal is what truly brought me to tears – once when I read the ending, and a second time, when I told it to my mother.

McInerney’s book is the complete opposite: it reeks of cheap sentiment, schmaltz and soap-operism and the 9/11 back-drop made it even more unbearable. I was surprised at how much I hated it, since I read “Bright Lights, Big City” when I was 11 years old and thoroughly enjoyed it. I guess I grew up in the subsequent 19 years, whereas McInerney is confined to being for ever an increasingly juvenile writer. However, I also enjoyed his anthology of wine chronicles: sure, you could tell he was a pompous, indulgent (and indulged, by his circle of fawning fans), name-dropping idiot, but he was also funny. “The Good Life” started off by giving me a warm feeling inside, as it described the lives of wealthy and wealthier manhatanites – the continuous craving for more goods of superior quality, be they in the shape of real-estate, textiles or celebrity friends and events. I felt smug and superior until the story started going nowhere fast, while the characters failed to develop (until the end of the book I could never memorize their names, so indistinct where they from the supporting characters). These characters can’t take life’s no for an answer – as illustrated by Corrinne’s adamant pursuit of conception (finally achieved via younger sister’s eggs), and Luke’s acquisition of his socialite wife, Sasha. McInerney then tries to convince the reader that these two are transfixed by their chance encounter amid the rubble of a day-old 9/11. Fat chance of anyone believing these self-serving two are capable of a mature love affair – so the author gives a hand by providing them both(!) with philandering partners. One wouldn’t want to face New Yorkers with too much of a moral dilemma, after all. It’s all so damn convenient that Luke’s 14 year old harlot daughter – caught in the oral act by her father one day and overdosing on prescription drugs the next – is really just a sensitive girl who wants to live in rural Tennessee with her paternal grandmother and practice the family business of equine therapy. Turns out she was only engaging in casual sex and recreational drugs because she didn’t want to become a rich bitch like her doped-up mother. Sure, it makes sense…
In the end they decide - as their families brush each other at a Christmas rendition of “The Nut-Cracker” by the NY Ballet (pass the bucket)-, that their love is too pure to be spoiled by the ugliness of divorce and subsequent pain for the involved children. I couldn’t figure out why McInerney chickened out at this final bit of sentimentality – making his leading characters walk off into the sunset – after all, he had already commited the worst of novelistic faults – boring the reader to tears.

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