Inger Frimansson’s Good Night, My Darling

I first heard of Good Night, My Darling by Swedish author Inger Frimansson through Small Press Distribution. At the S.P.D. site, a listing for the recently translated novel says that Frimansson “is considered by many to be Sweden’s premier author of the psychological thriller.” As a longtime fan of one of the masters of this genre, Patricia Highsmith, I couldn’t resist getting the book, and, as it turns out, the novel evokes Highsmith when it comes to the consciousness of its killer.

Highsmith famously created murderers who seem normal rather than overtly troubled. The violence always makes good sense from the killer’s point of view. One can understand, for instance, why Vic Van Allen &#8211 small-press publisher and snail-enthusiast from Highsmith’s novel Deep Water &#8211 drowns the man who has been sleeping with his wife. The two men are in a pool so the water is handy. Vic has been watching his wife cheat on him for a long time, and his method of coping &#8211 looking at the situation with a sense of irony that creeps like a snail &#8211 only aggravates his disgust.

In Good Night, My Darling, Frimansson gives us a protagonist as oddly passive as Vic. An heiress to a candy fortune, Justine Dalvig has an air of desperate sweetness that doesn’t serve her well as a child. When girls at school bully her, she plies them with candy, which only encourages them in their vicious behavior. While trying to escape their cruelty one afternoon, she ends up breaking an ankle and yet still isn’t angry. Frimansson describes Justine’s reaction to the cast on her leg in the stark style found throughout the novel: “Her leg was put in a cast that reached up to her knee. She felt heavy and happy.”

Justine’s ankle continues to cause her problems as an adult. In the opening of the novel, she is struggling with this old injury and other hidden psychological ones. The narrative is layered with several points of view, including that of Flora, the stepmother who abused Justine as a child. Slowly, as the various characters sift through their memories, Justine’s difficult past comes into view. Frimansson portrays all of these characters, including Flora, with insightful sympathy. As a young bride, Flora tries to win over her new stepdaughter with a present &#8211 “a very nice doll, one that she herself would have wanted when she was a girl.” When Justine rejects the offering, the vain, pretty Flora, who often is described in doll-like terms &#8211 her eyes are “porcelain”; her husband calls her “my little doll” &#8211 takes the rejection so personally that she begins to beat the child.

By the time the first murder takes place, moral lines have been blurred so much that killing seems perfectly normal. The conditions are just right, the weapon on hand and easy to use. The motive is as solid from a psychological point of view as frustrated Vic Van Allen’s is when he holds his rival’s head under the pool. With her layered approach, Frimansson achieves one of the hardest goals of fiction: to make the plot seem like the inevitable result of both events and numerous choices shaped, in part, by character.

Where the book falters has to do with gender. Women tend to reach for poison when they kill, not just because, as a group, they spend more time in the kitchen than homicidal men. They also don’t have as much upper-body strength. Not many women, even if pumped up on a heavy dose of adrenaline and malice, would attempt some of the feats that Frimansson ascribes to a female character. Some of the violence in the last third of the book is improbably athletic. In fact, in a couple of places, the killing would come off as ridiculous were it not so tastefully described.

But here is just one suspicious stain on an otherwise wonderful thriller. I recommend the book to anyone as great reading for the holidays. This new English translation put out by Pleasure Boat Studio has a picture on the cover of a sweet young woman and a bird. (Justine has a large bird, rescued from the wild, as a pet.) With its innocent cover, the book provides a great place to hide for the holiday traveler. Instead of getting upset about delayed planes or family conflicts, just open the pages and watch the bodies pile up.

Originally posted on 12.25.2008

Robert K. Wallace’s Douglass and Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style

The “style” in the subtitle of Robert K. Wallace’s Douglass and Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style refers to a line from Herman Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno.” Melville writes of a couple of ships have just come to shore: “To be brief, the two vessels, thanks to the pilot’s skill, ere long in neighborly style lay anchored together.” Wallace explores a proximity between Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass not unlike that of the ships. Early in their public lives, the men lived not far from each other in three cities: New Bedford, Albany and New York.

Did they ever meet? There is no evidence they did. But Wallace sets out to show that the men knew each other’s work. The thesis is simple to prove when it comes to Douglass’s awareness of Melville. In his newspaper the North Star, Douglass published a portion of Melville’s book Typee. Also included in the paper in the 1850s were references to both Melville’s novel Moby Dick and his novella “Israel Potter.”

It is harder to show Melville’s knowledge of Douglass’s speeches and writings. Wallace tries with a detailed, clear analysis of the men’s work. Looking at Douglass’s famous lecture about “Self-Help” alongside Moby Dick, Wallace suggests the former profoundly influenced the latter. Douglass gave his lecture in New York in 1849 when Melville was living in the City too. The day after Douglass gave the speech, a local paper, the Herald, quoted some of his words: “Colored people are now beginning to exercise their gifts. They are now in a position to be heard. But we have no organization among ourselves, in the Ishmaelitish situation in which we are.” Did this reference to Ishmael, the outcast son of Abraham, later shape both the name and perspective of the narrator of Moby Dick? Wallace thinks so: “When Melville’s narrator invites his reader to ‘Call me Ishmael,’ he identifies with Douglass and other black Americans in the ‘Ishmaelitish situation’ while also declaring his own separation from the mainstream white American culture.”

The fictional Ishmael may have lived apart from this culture while on a racially integrated ship; Melville, however, was caught in the mechanics of white supremacy. His father-in-law, Chef Justice Shaw in Massachusetts, enforced the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The law directly threatened ex-slaves like Frederick Douglass by sending them back south. To get beyond the reach of the law, Douglass had to purchase his own freedom with money from friends in England.

Still Melville, in spite of his morally compromised position, managed to address a black readership in his time. Wallace, a Melville scholar, makes some of his most interesting points when discussing how the author accomplished this task. Wallace says Melville developed “a double vision” that allowed him to talk to white and black audiences at the same time. Wallace further explains: “Melville symbolizes his own double vision in ‘The Sperm Whale’s Head’ in Moby Dick, imploring his reader to develop the imaginative equivalent of the whale’s optical ability to see in ‘exactly opposite directions’ in one combining act of vision.”

To expand upon this idea: in “Benito Cereno,” a story about a slave insurrection, this double vision comes together like two ships moving into shore. They arrive with different crews, navigated separately, but come together, “thanks to the pilot’s skill.” Melville, writing with his unique sense of mystery, gives the vessels one pilot, like a lowercase god.

Originally posted on 10.29.2008

A Scrooge Plan Growing in July

After much consideration about how best to sell out, I have decided to become a propagandist for the Raw Foods Movement. I know about the movement, being a “raw foodist.” (That is what we call ourselves.) I can sprinkle my fictional scenes with details that show how a diet of uncooked food dramatically improves health. But how can I make money off my convincing propaganda? This question has sent me to an unlikely place: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Reworking Dickens’ novella, I have created a story that promotes the eating of raw foods while reinforcing the values of the rich. Through the story, which I am offering for free on this website, I want to attract the attention of wealthy raw foodists. Some famous ones include Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore and Carol Alt. The diet generally enjoys more popularity on the West Coast than it does here in the East, probably because of the warmer weather. Cold food seems like a cruel way to go on a snowy night. Also the diet ran into an image problem in New York when one of its proponents and chefs, Dan Hoyt, got caught masturbating on the R train. Surely the raw food way of life could use some good press for the sake of its spas and retreats. I am hoping that a holistic businessperson will find his way to my work and ask me to create more propaganda for the cause.

While I am reluctant to give away my work for free, I am as desperate as author Dubravka Ugresic was a few years back when she offered to put a Miele vacuum cleaner in one of her novels for a price. The offer appeared in 2003 in her collection of essays Thank You for Not Reading. While stating her case, she gave a mini endorsement when she called Miele “the Mercedes of household appliances.” I assume that she received no compensation for the phrase.

I would offer to do product placement myself but want to give more. I must give more. My diet costs a lot, what with all of the produce and the shopping trips. Produce after all has a mere blip of a shelf life compared to pasta and jarred sauce. Furthermore, conditions for fiction writers have declined since Ugresic made her pitch. Recently I read Anne Elizabeth Moore’s Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing and the Erosion of Integrity and learned of how creative artists are selling out for next to nothing these days. Some product placement here and there won’t cut it in today’s market. Anyway, a few fruits and vegetables thrown around a story would be more messy than illustrative and persuasive; truly I have picked a movement that requires an elaborate sell.

And so without further ado, here is “A Raw Christmas,” a short, fresh story.

A Raw Christmas

The ghost of Jacob Marley enters the bedroom of his old business partner Scrooge. He shakes the chains he is wearing, having forged the links over a lifetime of usury.

Scrooge is bored with the ghost. Having the Mercedes of home entertainment centers [insert brand name here], he is accustomed to vivid illusions. His mind wanders. The poor, blah, blah, blah. The real poor people are in other countries – India, Africa. All of the “poor” in the U.S. are inexcusably fat.

But Scrooge pretends to care. He knows he is in A Christmas Carol. He prides himself on his self-awareness and believes that it &#8211 and not acts of generosity &#8211 will be his ultimate salvation.

Marley, obviously confusing Scrooge’s boredom with disbelief, says, “You don’t believe in me.”

Scrooge says the line Dickens wrote for him: “I don’t.”

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

Scrooge continues to try to stick to the script: “Because a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

After Marley leaves, Scrooge realizes that he messed up this line about the gravy and the grave. He forgot to say that Marley could also be “a fragment of an underdone potato.” His mistake ultimately leads him to raw foods. He comes to learn that Marley is not “underdone potato” but overdone. Those ghosts bothering him about 25 percent interest rates on student loans are indeed “more of gravy than of grave.” His digestion is seriously overtaxed from cooked foods.

Scrooge changes his diet and feels better right away. No longer is he bothered by ghosts or, for that matter, thoughts of his first wife. That self-righteous woman had a tongue like a knife when she got home from the soup kitchen. (“Of course you’ve figured out what story you’re in, genius! Your name is Ebenezer Scrooge!”) Now she is a distant memory. She is stuck among the bitter, worrying about “the poor,” while he has moved on. He is healing, his heart having so improved that Viagra is no longer contraindicated in his case.

Originally posted on 7.14.2008

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Not having much time to post here, I wanted to write something brief about Frankenstein, which I reread a few weeks ago. Midway through the book, I realized I had forgotten a major piece of the plot. I couldn’t remember what happens when the monster asks the scientist Frankenstein to make him a female companion. I knew the woman monster never gets completed, but I couldn’t remember why.

As the moment approached in the story for the female to come to life, I tried to guess why she never does. I told myself that it pertained to Frankenstein’s skills as a scientist. He doesn’t know how to make a woman even though he has tried his best to find out. He has traveled to England to learn about “some discoveries” that are “material” to his project. But in the end he doesn’t learn enough about the female form – or so I speculated as Frankenstein started to make a woman out of dead flesh.

Imagine my surprise when he starts to tear up this woman before he has finished. The male monster, who has come to check on Frankenstein’s progress, watches the body being destroyed. The hideous and lonely monster has been promised a mate, but Frankenstein goes back on his word: “I thought with a sensation of madness on my promise of creating another like to him, and trembling with passion, tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged.”

I was going to write about the sensation of reading this passage, of seeing my own amnesia while watching, like the monster, the half-formed female being ripped apart. But as I said before, I don’t have much time to spend on this blog entry. I am busy writing a manuscript right now, and the sensations I felt while reading the scene would take a while to describe. The feelings were as profoundly weird as the body that gave rise to them.

Which brings me to another point about this book that surprised me this time around: I forgot that Frankenstein builds the monster to a huge scale in the interest of finishing quickly. “As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionally large.” So in honor of Frankenstein, who learned the hard way about haste – his monster does get him in the end; I didn’t forget that part – I will end this comment here.

Originally posted on 5.22.2008

Ha Jin’s A Free Life

In this blog, I have tried to focus on books that haven’t been reviewed much elsewhere. It’s usually easy to do since many of the books I like come from small presses and don’t get a lot of attention. The novel I want to write about now, however, comes from Random House and has been reviewed widely. Many critics have made similar points about A Free Life by National Book Award winner Ha Jin. The author uses mundane details to tell the story of a Chinese immigrant and his family. Walter Kirn in The New York Times calls the pace of this realistic narrative “slow, implacable and steady.” Previous books by Ha Jin have not been heavy on plot &#8211 his best-known novel is aptly entitled Waiting &#8211 but the slowness here is more noticeable since A Free Life is over six hundred pages. Reviewers have mentioned many of the strengths of this long, meditative book. Kirn remarks on “the Zen-like composure” of the prose while Jennifer Reese in Entertainment Weekly praises the author’s ability to speak “directly to the readers’ heart.” But what compels me to write about A Free Life went unexamined in the reviews that I read.

This omission isn’t surprising since what interests me unfolds in the later chapters of the book. To explore it in a review, therefore, is to risk revealing too much plot. I promise not to do that.

What I will do is touch upon Jin’s use of poetry near the end of the book. At the center of A Free Life is an aspiring poet, Nan Wu, who comes to the U.S. from China in the 1980s. In the beginning of the novel, he leaves Brandeis University where he has been studying political science. His goal is to get a job where he can think about poetry while at work.

But Nan doesn’t just have to support himself; he also has a wife and son to consider. After leaving Brandeis, he works as a security guard and then as a busboy and cook. In a matter of months he has lost some of the thinking that he brought with him from his communist homeland: “he was no longer ashamed of working hard to make a dollar.” With constant work and prudent savings, the Wus achieve financial security relatively quickly for new immigrants. Unfortunately, Nan’s dream of writing poetry ends up getting buried beneath his need to make money.

When this need grows less intense, Nan turns his attention back to what he really wants to do. As he starts to focus on poetry, a curious picture emerges. Ha Jin shows us the largely academic workings of American poetry &#8211 MFA programs, prizes and the importance of having connections to famous poets &#8211 from the unique point of view of his protagonist. Nan’s perspective has been shaped by communist China, capitalist America and the poetry of both countries. He is erudite and idealistic, and these factors come together to give him a fascinating take on both the individual vision of the poet and the paying community of the MFA workshop.

Ha Jin is not only a novelist but a poet, and he draws upon his dual skills to tell this story. As a novelist, he shows how Nan’s choices shape the future; and as a poet, he creates the work that Nan, inspired by unfolding events, comes to write. The result is a moving book that explores the relationship between the many aspects of a poet’s life &#8211 working, personal, professional &#8211 and the work that he creates.

A Free Life is not without its flaws. John Updike in his review in The New Yorker does a thorough job of discussing a jarring one: Ha Jin, who is not a native English speaker, uses odd words here and there. Updike quotes a number of them in his review. These occasional slips, though, do not detract from the book’s emotional depth and cultural relevance. With A Free Life, Ha Jin contributes to the ongoing conversation about how poetry and literature are being produced in America.

I am looking forward to hearing him read at the AWP Conference in two weeks.

Originally posted on 1.18.2008