Monday, April 12, 2010

Particulars in ordinary worlds versus ordinariness in extremis - (Books: Something is out There by Richard Bausch & Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay)

I dipped into two fiction books this weekend, one Richard Bausch's new collection of short stories Something is out there. and the former bestseller by Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah's Key. They couldn't be more different.

Bausch's narrative voice is patient, gentle, clearly of the South. His subject matter quotidian heartbreak - the strain in a marriage between an older and a younger artist, the selfless gesture of a son towards his dying mother, the adulterous adventure of a reverends wife.
Keeping strictly to the early-morning ritual, Diana prepared coffee, boiled one egg and lightly buttered two slices of toast for him, then put cereal on for the girls, and went and dressed for the day, while they ate. When they were finished, she rinsed the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. In the usual rush, she saw the twins off to school, brushing Lauren's hair for her, nagging Kelly about brushing her teeth thoroughly to get the food particles that had lodged in her braces. All as usual. So much the exact pattern of her mornings. The ordinariness of it made her happy, and it surprised her. It also increased her sense of unreality.
The economy of this opening paragraph is a pleasure. We know Diana's day is structured, regular, but not a burden. That Diana's husband is a creature of habit, a reserved man - one egg, the toast lightly buttered - I call up the picture of an English parson. We also know that this will not be a typical day, but we don't know why, and so Bausch has created suspense in a scene of the most familiar ordinariness. Bausch fashions a world that is familiar almost to the point of cliche, but rescued from that fate by its being particular to individual lives. He accomplishes this through the use of detail. Each of the three worlds of his I have entered so far envelops me in its totality. We get to know its key citizens, usually just two or three people, very intimately. We go deep, not broad. The kind of encounter I leave feeling it has been of value.

Contrast this with the bestseller, Sarah's Key. Two alternating narratives, one set in 1942 as Paris's Jews are rounded up by their own police, one of many episodes in France's embarrassing Vichy past that had been swept under the carpet for many years. The other set in 2002 Paris, as an American journalist, who is married to a Parisian, takes ownership of an apartment originally inhabited by one of those Parisians who were shipped off to Auschwitz in 1942. De Rosnay tries for distinct voices - there is a third-person narrator in 1942, but one focused on the character of a young girl. This makes for a combination of omniscience and innocence that sounds awkward to the ear in a way that has yet to resolve itself sixty pages in. In 2002, we read the first-person voice of the American journalist, Julia. This tries for a relaxed, contemporary tone peppered with confessional detail about her marriage to Bertrand and her friendship with two cool gay fellows that I care nothing about, having not the slightest idea who she is, as well as awkward dialogue from her 11-year-old daughter.
Bertrand waved to us, then pointed to the phone, lowering his eyebrows and scowling.

"Like he can't get that person off the phone," scoffed Zoe. "Sure."

Zoe was only eleven, but it sometimes felt like she was already a teenager. First, her height, which dwarfed all her girlfriends - as well as her feet, she would add grimly...
Was this written for the Disney channel? "Like he can't get that person off the phone?" Like I can believe this sentence is being spoken by a Parisian 11-year-old who is continually 'scoffing' and 'adding grimly' - can she never simply 'say' anything? "First, her height, which dwarfed all her girlfriends - as well as her feet" Second, which comes after first, this is not a sentence. And, if I read this correctly, did her feet dwarf all her girlfriends?

Ms. de Rosnay also makes the unfortunate choice to use Zoe to give less cultured readers the basics in French everyday life:
"I have to go," I said. "Meeting with Joshua."

"What do we do with Zoe?" asked Bertrand.

Zoe rolled her eyes.

"I can, like, take a bus back to Montparnasse."

"What about school?" said Bertrand.

Roll of eyes again.

"Papa! It's Wednesday. No school on Wednesday afternoons, remember?

Bertrand scratched his head.

"In my days it - "

"It was on Thursday, no school on Thursdays," Chanted Zoe.

"Ridiculous french education system," I sighed. "And school on Saturday mornings to boot!"
School on Wednesday not on Thursday. Got it. Glad we got that exposition out of the way. I keep waiting for Mickey Rooney to run on from behind a curtain and sing a number.

The chapters are of Disneyfied length, I guess that is so that the Americans can trot off to the kitchen between them to get popcorn and sugared soft drinks and maintain their status as the leader of stupidity and obesity in the Western world, while not forgetting who anyone is. So far the structure is predictable and the prose is the most ungainly I have read in a good long while. I am interested by the Vichy occupation and I have heard that the plot is a killer, so I will try to stay with this book a bit longer. I can only guess that its popularity has to do with the fact that no one could tell a well written book from a poorly written one when the subject was the holocaust. Or maybe it was Oprahed?

No comments: