Archive for January, 2013

books-on-a-shelf_w725_h544A Hook in the Sky  (Claude Nougat) is a hair-raising coming-of- (Baby Boomer) age story, but an exclusive focus on that dimension may obscure its delicious complexity.  Anne Korkokeakivi, writing for The Millions, notes that French novels tend to be “… dark, searching, philosophical, autobiographical, self-reflective, and/or poetic (without being overwritten).”  Author Nougat isn’t French (she’s Belgian), but her protagonist is, and the novel’s style fails none of these criteria.  Indeed, it reads like the haunting, subtitled movie you discuss with friends for months!

The principal narrator, Robert, casts light on a heretofore uncelebrated stage of life – the third.  He is retiring from a career at the U.N. and painfully unsure of his next step.  Kay, his American wife, is twenty years his junior and deeply involved in her work as the owner of a trendy New York art gallery.  The couple is childless, a decision made years earlier by Kay without Robert’s knowledge or consent, the revelation of which decision causes the couple to separate.  Robert is abruptly alone, trying to recapture an abandoned version of himself – the (traditional) artist he wanted to be before choosing a more practical career.  He may stay with that career as a consultant, but instead dives headlong into the unknown.

His story is direct, seemingly honest and never “overwritten.”  He describes exotic Italian locales, his loathing for Modernist art and details of his affairs with an old friend and the friend’s troubled daughter in a seductively boundaried style.  The reader, while mesmerized by the written proximity of sunlit Italian villas, the inner workings of the U.N., heady discourses on art and the palpable disintegration of a marriage, is nonetheless aware that much remains mysterious, unsaid.  Robert is a quiet man, and yet his story is borne forward with an impossible-to-put-down momentum.  Something is about to happen, and it does.

What happens is a fascinating shift, reminiscent of that in Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  Once a straightforward, uncompromising tale of one (admittedly privileged and cultured) man’s transitional crisis, the novel suddenly blossoms into a sort of conceptual magic show.  It’s a wild ride into symbolic territory that may jar readers who were expecting either consistency or a sweet, comfortable ending.  After bitter confrontations over Kay’s passion for Modernist art, Robert uncharacteristically agrees to create a huge Modernist installation, a towering, dangerous, Escheresque maze of aluminum ladders rising to… a hook.  Unreachable but omnipresent, the hook both looms above and incites the conflicting struggles of the lives below.  Robert and Kay’s conflict over art reflects both their personal discord and a larger philosophical perspective from which Kay emerges monstrous, a shallow, desperate pawn in the capitalist game.  But neither does Robert emerge a hero.  He chronicles, but does not alter, the horrific/fantastic concluding events (unreported here to avoid spoiling their effect on readers).  Robert is Everyman, but an Everyman who can tell a story!

Digital publishing is still a chaotic undertaking and the text has some missing commas and an odd use of “news” as a plural noun (“The news today are promising.”), but these typographical glitches are few and subsumed in the multilayered intelligence of the book.  Ideal for book groups, A Hook in the Sky poses questions for which there may be no answers, but about which endless discussion will be compelling.

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imagesAmour, a French movie directed by Austrian Michael Haneke, is nonetheless a French movie.  These are traditionally so understated and filled with lingering shots that have no known relevance to the story that American viewers may be forgiven for thinking, “Tell me I didn’t just pay ten dollars to watch a parked car for two hours!”  Amour, despite its adherence to this protocol, has either won or been nominated for nearly every film award on the planet.  Among the many, it won the 2012 New York Film Critics Best Foreign Film Award and the Palme D’Or in Cannes and has been nominated for five Academy Awards.  And deservedly so.

The film unsparingly documents the realistic, humiliating and frighteningly tender end of a cultured, articulate and elegant life.  Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, whom we remember from A Man and a Woman) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, whom we remember from Hiroshima Mon Amour) are an elderly, middle-class Parisian couple, music teachers living quietly with books and a grand piano.  Anne has a stroke, then a failed off-screen surgery, then another stroke.  Her decline and Georges’ determination to care for her in their home until she dies comprise the story, and it is told with subtle mastery.

However, Georges and Anne have a daughter, Eva, played by Isabelle Huppert.  Viewers learn in a few (easy to miss if you don’t read the subtitles quickly) lines of dialogue that Eva, also a musician, travels professionally with a group that is still shaken after the suicide attempt of one of its members.  The suicidal woman was inconsolable after the end of her affair with Eva’s husband, Geoff.  Eva is also the mother of a young son.  Clearly, Eva is up to her teeth in the concerns of adult life – career and financial issues, children, marriage difficulties.  There is also a vague, never-explained breach between Eva and her parents, but she does intrude (she has to intrude, as her presence is not wanted) to offer support and is clearly concerned about her father’s decision to assume the complete burden of care for the partially paralyzed and increasingly incoherent Anne.

And this is where Eva’s Boomer identity assumes significance, although more within critical reaction to the movie than in the movie itself.  Eva is routinely maligned in reviews. Two examples:  New York Times critic Manohla Dargis calls Eva, “…wildly self-centered,” and feels that her offers of help “sound hollow.”  The Guardian states that Eva’s advice is “shaped by her own needs,” as if her suggestion that professional care for Anne is necessary somehow embodies a distasteful selfishness.

Amour is not about an adult child’s response to the decline into death of a parent, and most reviews merely mention that the part of Eva is played by Huppert.  However, the vitriol regarding Eva in reviews that do address her role in the story is so skewed as to demand attention.  Eva tries to establish involvement in her parents’ life with phone calls that are never answered and visits in which she is treated as an unwelcome guest.  This is a tangential dimension of the film, highlighting the natural isolation of the dying, but is overlooked in analyses of Eva’s behavior.

She’s nervous and frightened by her mother’s pitiful condition, and in one scene chatters on and on about the sale of a house and the difficulty in finding another one, as bedridden and cognitively lost, Anne struggles to respond, managing to pronounce only two words – grand mère and maison.  Grandmother, house.  It is a last communication between adult child and dying mother, incomprehensible but not empty.  Eva has offered news of her life, however superficial it may seem in comparison to Anne’s condition; Anne has made a bridge of understanding – she is the grandmother, and she understands that the conversation is about houses.  The scene struck me as powerful and touching; critics saw it as evidence of Eva’s self-absorption.

There are a number of these events throughout the movie, involving potential for wildly divergent interpretations of the adult child’s (the Boomer’s) role in the lives of aged parents.

After her first stroke, when both are aware that she will decline and die, Anne forces Georges to promise that he will not hospitalize her, that he will allow her to remain at home.  Georges acquiesces to her demand.  The request is almost universal and haunts both spouses and adult children who, in the end, may not be able to keep the promise.  But is the request realistic, or is it a version of “selfishness” that no one who is not dying dare name?

The journey of death is by definition “selfish,” as it must be traveled alone.  Those facing that journey are frightened and cannot be blamed for wanting familiar surroundings.  And we all live proximate to a communal “memory” of earlier times when people did die wherever they were when the time came, ideally at home amid supportive extended family, pets, livestock and neighbors.  But those days are no longer the norm.  Adult children often live thousands of miles from aging parents, often have (and need) work that cannot be abandoned, and children.  Eva’s urging her father to place Anne in hospice care is met with flat rejection, which is Georges’ right.  He has chosen to keep a terrible promise and no one, not even his daughter, may violate it.  But is Eva’s suggestion merely the self-absorbed cop-out of a superficial and cowardly Boomer, or does it reflect a current, and not necessarily unkind, strategy for death?

At the end, Eva is shown silently contemplating her parents’ now-empty apartment (Georges having also vanished after Anne’s death under magical/hallucinatory circumstances that, again, may not satisfy the narrative expectations of American viewers), presumably awed, confounded or horrified by the drama that has transpired there.  She may not know, may suspect, may not want to know the details from which she has been excluded all along.  What she does know, as we all do at this time, is that her parents are gone.  Orphaned, nothing now stands between her and the inevitable moment when she will undertake the same journey that has led them away.

Her philandering husband seems an unlikely candidate for the depth of devotion that gives the movie its name, Georges’ not-always-lovely devotion to Anne, itself an ambivalent ideal experienced by few.  Eva is alone on an empty stage where a drama unavailable to her, and to most, has transpired and is gone.  We know that her parents’ story is not hers.  That she is aware of another, different, contemporary story does not make her “selfish.”  It makes her an adult in her own time.

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Oh joy, a controversy!  78 million people now comprise, and millions more are close to, a vultures-02demographic category several million others wish would just shut up.  The 78 million-plus are Baby Boomers.  Late forties and up.  The third stage of life.  Some Boomers are insisting that third-stage experience will give rise to its own literary genre, while detractors are certain that nothing interesting can possibly happen after 46 and thus no literature can emerge from the Boomer demographic.  Stories, after all, require conflict, drama, interesting stuff about which to write.  Hmmm.

All literature is about change, about transition.  A king dies, conflict ensues, new king happens.  Boy meets girl, conflict ensues, both are changed (usually into parents).  Aliens/serial killers/heartless corporations threaten, conflict ensues, salvation lies in characters who change under threat in order to slay the beasts.  Transition, which cannot occur without conflict, is the first cause and beating heart of stories.

Life involves four major transitions, of which two (birth and death) do not produce literature.  These two are silent, since we cannot remember our births and cannot write books while dead.  The second transition, child-to-adult (innocence to experience), has given us countless myths and the currently wildly popular YA genre.

Claude Nougat, a Rome-based novelist and economist, notes that sheer Boomer numbers created YA forty or fifty years ago.  Those same numbers, now mature, are creating a new genre reflecting the third transition – adult-to-sage (experience to wisdom).  But is the third transition sufficiently rife with conflict and drama to make literature?

Oh boy, is it ever!

what-a-maleficent-party-L-8_Zk2aIt always was.  While a failed child-to-adult transition results in nothing more than a large, lumbering child whose existence is both puzzling and tedious, a failed adult-to-sage transition is a profound and hideous disaster!  Remember the nasty Boomer so obsessed with maintaining her youthful allure that she tried three times to murder her beautiful stepdaughter in order to remain “the fairest in all the land”?  Time, of course, cannot be stopped, and all attempts to do so are doomed.  But the punishment for failing to make the third-stage transition is dire.  Snow White’s stepmother must dance, screaming, in red-hot iron shoes until she dies.  In a more recent story, a Boomer named Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman) commits suicide rather than relinquish his now-delusional adult-stage images of himself and the world.

We are only too familiar with the agonizing penalty for failure at the third-stage transition because there is already an archetypal body of literature documenting it.  But these archetypal tales aren’t Boomer Literature.  The genre is new, largely because although there have always been individuals who lived long and well, only now have medical advances, diet and a non-scarcity environment allowed enormous numbers to approach the third-stage transition bright-eyed, healthy and looking for roadmaps to successful navigation of these heretofore uncharted waters.  IE: “Wow, I’m not dead!  I’m not even sick.  Apparently I’m going to live quite a bit longer than popular ideas have led me to expect.  What now?”

Boomer Lit is about making it, about defining that shadowy divide and crossing it with style.  Boomers are beginning to write and read books about themselves in every genre, although Hollywood, ever sensitive to sources of impressive profit, got there first.  The Descendants (George Clooney), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Maggie Smith, Judi Dench) and Hope Springs (Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones), to name only three of about fifteen in 2012, are box-office hits.  Many more Boomer movies are in the pipeline, Boomerism is a hot topic in the media and there are too many Boomer blogs to count. But Boomer Literature is the turtle in this race, scrambling to catch up.

Why?  Not because young people think older people are hopelessly stupid and out of it; that’s perfectly normal.  Every generation must define itself in opposition to what has (recently) gone before.  The life-threatening leap to wisdom from the precipice of experience cannot interest those still trying to accumulate experience.  The attitudes of the young are of no significance here, and cannot be blamed for the dearth of good Boomer literature.

What can be blamed is a two-headed sloth.  One head is a publishing industry that somehow managed to overlook the tsunami of readers in an age demographic Hollywood is only too happy to please.  Heads of literary agencies, senior editors and publishing CEOs are themselves Boomers-and-up, but the dissolution of the traditional publishing world has shaken them so badly that they can’t read an actuarial table.  The other head belongs to an army of interesting, educated and articulate Boomer writers who (a) have internalized the concept that their stories aren’t interesting, and/or (b) are unwilling to dive into the admittedly trying realm of digital publishing technology.

That’s changing, slowly.  An early phalanx of Boomer authors has launched itself.  So, savagely trashing the convention that authors may not write book reviews, I’m going to devote a bunch of subsequent blogs to reviewing, or at least listing, new Boomer novels.

Stay tuned…

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