Friday, November 30, 2012

A self-indulgent conceit I grew to love

BrokenBroken by Karin Fossum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While quickly ordering books from the same seller on hoping to get a good deal and save on shipping, I accidentally ordered this book thinking it was another in Fossum's inspector Sejer series. So, initially, I was disappointed, envisioning another heartless experience as when I inadvertently picked up Arnaldur Indridason's *Operation Napaleon* hoping/praying it was another of his Erlendur detective series. It wasn't and after reading 20 pages, I discarded with a bad taste in my mouth, unsure how the amazing writer of Erlendur could write such mind-numbing action drivel.

But...*Broken*, though not immediately, won me over. I got caught up in the sad lonely life of Alvar, a man who has coasted into his 40s, remaining unconnected and above it all until a heroin-addicted young woman, Lyndis, seeks him out and eventually turns his life upside down. Alvar is never comfortable with what most would consider life, poignantly saying at one point "This world will never be a familiar place; everyday I have to navigate it as a beginner." And that captures Alvar exactly--a 40 year old virgin, to quote the irresistible movie title, but more importantly a 40 year old newborn tensing at ever new noise and bright light.

I must come clean now; I'm leading you on because thus far I've failed to mention a key piece of information--certainly most of you learned, especially my literary, friends will dismiss this book as self-indulgent. One articulate Goodreads reviewer lashes out against Fossum's invention, "The book’s concept, that a character is harassing the author to write about him and must face the story she presents to him, is definitely a bit indulgent. It feels like something she wrote while stuck on another project, something that probably should never have been published." Yes, that's right the main character, Alvar, has been quickened because he jumped the line in the author's mind and begged her to write about him. And, yes, it's a self-indulgent authorial exploration of what it means to write and I was absolutely and completely ready to, pun-intended, write it off. But, alas, just as the author, the one in the story that is, can't dismiss Alvar, I couldn't dismiss Fossum's neurotic self-examination.

I became fascinated with Alvar's attempts to be a "decent person" and yet not be completely controlled by Lyndis the young seemingly frail heroin addict. Alvar may be the most inept character I've ever experienced, but still I took up his struggles body and soul. And while I intellectually understand why many will find Fossum's author/character conceit indulgent, for me this heightened my compassion for both Alvar and his creator. Worried that Alvar is going to be tested by the author, he asks about his future and she replies,

"Alvar, my're worse than a child. And I know that you're in a tricky place right now. It's as if you're half finished. You're dangling, literally, in thin air. But if it's any comfort, Alvar, I'm dangling too. I'm halfway through my story...I'm struggling to sustain my faith in my own project. Doubt creeps up on me like an invisible gas...Have I found the right words?"

Grown if you must...but for me, I can only feel compassion for Alvar the pathetic and his nearly as pathetic creator and author. Maybe because it seems to me we are all pathetic and weak. Or maybe because I'm simply pathetic. Who knows. What I do know is that when Alvar contemplates suicide and the author dissuades him, recounting her own failed attempt, the author/character conceit melted. She tries to convince Alvar,detailing each step in her own attempt, that it's much harder to kill yourself than you think--and I, most pathetically, wept.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Absurdly human drunk Indians

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in HeavenThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finally got around to finishing this. Started it like 6 or 7 yrs ago after having watched Smoke Signals which was loosely based on these stories and was written by the same author, Alexie.

I'd like to say that I was completely riveted by each story because I so so much loved Smoke Signals. Instead I can say that several stories were wonderfully written: "The only traffic signal on the reservation doesn't flash red anymore (probably my favorite) which is a meditation on reservation heroes, basketball, alcohol, and dreams; "This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona" where we get the broad strokes of the Smoke Signal plot; "Jesus Christ's half-brother is alive and well on the Spokane Indian Reservation" which is philosophical and surprising; Family portrait which gets at the constant distortion of language and history.

I can also say that the overall impact of the book is unique, irreverent, fanciful yet stone-cold serious, playful yet philosophical AND my sense is when I wasn't riveted it was about me, about my inability to close my eyes and embrace the wispy lunacy that Alexie is boring into. Here's some stone-cold serious lunacy, an irreverently counterintuitive passage from "The only traffic signal...":

"It's hard to be optimistic on the reservation. When a glass sits on a table here, people don't wonder if it's half-filled or half empty. They just hope it's a good beer. Still, Indians have a way of surviving. But it's almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass Murder, loss language and land rights. It's the small things that hurt the most. The white waitress who wouldn't take an order, Tonto, the Washington Redskins" (49).

And that's the essence of the book and Smoke Signals. Alexie faces the pain and suffering of the Indian, completely embraces AND rejects the truth and stereotype of the drunk broken Indian, yet comes out laughing and fancydancing and storytelling. Alexie embraces the meaninglessness, the absurdity of it all, instead of trying to explain it or rectify it.

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