Friday, February 20, 2009

From Wreck to Ruin

Lately the weather in Berlin has been a metaphor for life -- endless cycles of beautiful snow falling, rendering all cozy and gemutlich, quickly losing its charm, turning to grey slush and rain, freezing over again, a more temperate rain coming and washing the detritus of our lives into the gutter. In the end we all end up drugged and fucked on the permafrost, food for carrion birds...until then I'll just watch the sky drip from my Berlin window -- not quite rain, not quite snow, the cold still biting enough to tear into your balls should you forget to don underwear.

It's in this spirit which I have luxuriated the last week or so, sort of in a no-man's land, a purgatory of the soul. It didn't help that I ploughed through two timely novels in quick succession -- one about a couple of deluded sell-outs stuck in a sick marriage, the other dealing with the most grotesque gallery of losers you could ever hope to meet. I've met people like this in real life, but to get into their heads for a while can be quite corrosive. Not coincidentally, both novels riff heavily on Edward Albee's acid Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf -- the newer one, The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland, quite flagrantly. The other one, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, was actually published in 1961, a couple years before, but it does harbor many similarities to Albee's masterpiece of delusion and conjugal warfare (including an epiphany at a roadhouse). I do recommend both tomes for those in a reflective mood,but neither trumps Albee's classic.

CAUTION -- spoiler alert

Yates' book is certainly a product of its times, and the theme of suburbia as a graveyard of dreams, from our vantage point, is nothing new. But the characters are imbued, beneath the parlance of 50's Americana, with a universality which may make some readers wince. Can't anyone identify with the little lies people tell themselves to deal with unfulfilled hopes and expectations?

For instance, Shep is a clumsy ox and half of a couple who fulfill the generic role of "best friends" of the Wheelers. In the end, Shep realizes his love for April was illusory, as thin as the hopes which the Wheelers had pinned on their flight from an un-extraordinary life. Shep and his wife may have been consigned to a life in suburbia, and may have been tainted by the Wheelers' maelstrom of a marriage, but in the end, they are, in a sense, lucky in their doofusy suburban blissful ignorance.

Another surprising implication was that if April had actually gotten her abortion before the third trimester, she would have saved herself and perhaps realized her dreams. But Frank talks her out of it, representing the 50's mores of family values above all else. Something tells me that if they had made it to Paris, that goal would also have collapsed under the weight of their own character flaws. That's how much Yates is invested in these characterizations -- the plot is almost rendered irrelevant because every decision is pervaded by the immutable flaws that get the characters in this pickle. It gives everything a nice sense of historical inevitability which Albee would have appreciated.

Coupland's epistolary novel is also a tragicomedy set in suburbia -- well, not a tragedy really, because things start out shitty for these characters, are set against a brown background of shitty, and go from bad to worse to only slightly hopeful. The redeeming quality here of course is the laugh factor, which is high -- Coupland is walking a tightrope of gallows humor and tangible despair.

The action is rendered through various points of view, in old-fashioned letters, sent via snail mail and Fed Ex (which saves the style from total anachronism), handwritten notes, journal entries, and the manuscript of a novel by the protagonist, Roger, a broken forty-something working at a Staples office supply chain (the novel-within-the novel is transparently modelled on WAOVW, right down to the fact that its four main characters are two couples, one older, one younger, faculty at a prestigious university gathered together for dinner at the older couple's rambling campus home, a dinner which quicky degenerates into squabbling, truth-telling and the puncturing of delusions, such as the lie that the older couple have a young son).

Roger once held promise but after a series of personal disasters he becomes an alcoholic husk of his former self. He soon strikes up a correspondence based on mutual neediness and blackmail with Bethany, a fellow employee at Staples and embittered overweight goth girl par excellence. Others, soon become entangled in their web of correspondence, including Bethany's mother Dee-Dee and some fellow employees at Staples. (The whole book could be an amazing feat of product placement if only the characters weren't so embittered about their predicament -- in fact, it could be seen as a practical argument against office supply chain stores.) Will Roger keep his day job or succumb to his neuroses, his novel languishing in purgatory? Will Bethany's elopement to Europe with a handsome Office hack spell disaster? Or can she somehow redeem herself by heeding Roger's negative example? Hint: there is nothing remotely resembling redemption in this story. Like Revolutionary Road, the characters can barely keep head above water, hobbled by their own delusions and fear of mediocrity and beholden to a system over which they have scant control.

1 comment:

Mari O'nette said...

I love this bit about the weather... So true.