Category Archives: comedy

THE MANDIBLES by Lionel Shriver

It’s 2029. There’s a Latino in the White House and Putin is still ruling Russia. The dollar is about to become worth less than the paper it’s printed on. Families like the Mandibles, who have accumulated wealth from one generation to the next, and along with it a sense of security and entitlement, now find themselves facing a new financial and social reality. One which requires them to battle simply to survive in an America that’s become even more competitive, brutal and violent than they could imagine.

Shriver’s writing is, as usual, blistering and unflinching. Her comedy is dark and the satire just brilliant – take one Mandible mother, trying to be modern, fresh and quirky, who gifts her sons the names Goog (for Google) and Bing.  The premise is that the future  everyone expected is one big practical joke and the nightmare future she has created  to replace it is both credible and terrifying. Hiding gold is treason. Homeless shelters overflow. Supermarket shelves are regularly empty and inflation out of control. From details like a return to printed bank statements (“So history could reverse” observes one character) and the daily rituals of first saving water then having to scour the streets for old fabric to turn into reusable toilet paper, this is large scale social breakdown told through the every day small things.

The younger generation and the drop outs adapt most easily but by 2047 a new kind of economy has emerged to replace the old one – one in which it’s clear they are going to have to shoulder most of the burden of supporting their parents and grandparents. Their resentment at having to work three jobs, paying 77% tax to meet the costs of elderly social care, and filling the gaps previously plugged by immigrant workers is palpable. The concept of free time laughable.  Leaving not an option when your chipped. No wonder the Utopian myth that is Nevada, the state that chose to leave the US almost as soon as the shit started hitting the fan, persists.

Some of Shriver’s previous books have failed to live up to the high of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN but this is her back up there.  She hasn’t shied away from doing the economics thoroughly and she’s got every little thing right – from the throw away lines about the Chelsea Clinton administration to the way slang has evolved. From the way that food evolves from being a style and life choice for the “watercress and wasabi” set to something that prompts former hedge fund managers to mug their neighbours at knife point – superior quality designer kitchen knives, of course. From the practical uselessness of the jobs most of the Mandibles do to the astute characterisation of every family member – from eccentric, canny Enola, for whom no amount of economic chaos can detract from the importance of doing her daily jumping jacks at the ripe old age of 80 and beyond, to thoughtful teenager Willing who quickly grasps that his beloved dog needs to be given away before the family can no longer feed him and just as quickly learns to steal, lie and wield a gun.

I loved this dark dystopian novel. And it’s definitely made me think twice about what’s valuable now compared to when everything does go belly up. Basically, stock pile loo roll, grow your own food and don’t bother with a pension.

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ALL MY PUNY SORROWS by Miriam Toews

I’d been warned this book was upsetting and it definitely was. How could it not be when Elf is intent on killing herself and her sister, Yoli, is intent on stopping her? What I wasn’t prepared for was how funny it is in places, how bitter sweet and how it would totally change my perspective on suicide.

Elf is a successful pianist with a loving husband called Nick and her sister adores her. But Elf just doesn’t want to live. A fast approaching world tour precipitates her latest suicide attempt which sees Yoli rush to her side, along with their mother and Nick. The envelop Elf in their love and care but, as the story unfolds, Yoli is forced to confront the idea that what Elf needs more than anything is to be allowed to die. She researches the possibility of taking her to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, wrestles with whether to tell the rest of the family and makes promises to Elf that she’s still not sure she can keep. Yoli is also making plans to bring her sister home, let her sit and just be and Elf knows this, so is making plans of her own.

It was clear from the outset this book was not going to end happily and yet when it did end as expected I was happy for Elf. What Toews has done is convey just how hard life is if you truly want to die. How the feelings of those anchoring you to life can matter hugely but still not be enough to keep you alive. And how sometimes nothing, not even love, is enough. That’s not something I am prepared to hear very often. Last year, someone I knew – not well but who was loved by a dear friend of mine – killed herself. Reading ALL MY PUNY SORROWS has helped me better understand why she did and to even admire her for her bravery.

Toews own sister killed herself and much of the book is close to her own experiences, including of growing up as a Mennonite. She’s depicted a childhood that’s fizzing with laughter, rich with community and full of love. As an adult, Elf appears to have it all whilst by contrast Yoli’s life is messy and unfulfilled. This messiness provides much of the book’s lightness, as do her tales of a sister who is strong willed, passionate and never does things by halves – as I said, the outcome is inevitable. And yet Toews taps into what most of us would experience in Yoli’s shoes – a blind faith that things are going to turn out differently, against all the evidence and all the odds. It’s this which is both a source of joy in the novel and of sadness. It also means the book doesn’t read as the story of Elf’s death but rather as the story of her life. Far better than the A COMPLICATED KINDNESS, ALL MY PUNY SORROWS spoke to me in all sorts of ways and I hope it might speak to you too.

 

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THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen

I have been looking at this book for some time and for some reason it always felt like it was going to be hard work, so I put off reading it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Lambert family are a joy to read about. From stubborn, principled Alfred and his wife,  Enid, for whom life’s highlights are weddings and Christmas, to their 3 children – angry Gary, loser Chip and striving Denise.  The joy is because of course, there’s so much more to all of them than I can possibly convey here.

Indeed everything about this book is big, epic even – from landscapes traversed by railroads to ideas and theories. Its  geographical heart is the mid West of America, taking in Lithuania and New York en route. It encompasses dodgy pharmaceutical corporations, celebrity restaurants, the internet sale of most of Vilnius, philanthropists growing vegetables with poor kids, and children setting up CCTV in their own homes. It’s a commentary on the modern economy, the digital age and the American dream. But above all it’s about the space in time when nothing much is happening. Who we are and who we have become. The disappointment, the self-obsession, the tragicomedy and the humiliation. The rot. And how it’s all pretty much inescapable.

Franzen’s greatest skill is perhaps that he has made such a dark and ultimately desperate book feel warm and light-hearted. That there’s much which feels familiar is no doubt largely responsible. What I also felt though was distance – and, I admit, superiority. My life is surely more than waiting for something to happen? More than an attempt to correct the mistakes of my parents? Of course, this is what we all believe – and perhaps delusion is one way to survive. Enid found wonder drugs, Gary alcohol. Denise throws herself into love, work, sex, whilst Chip runs away. Alfred is the only one facing the truth and it’s making him depressed.

I didn’t only put off reading THE CORRECTIONS, I delayed writing this review too, knowing I’d never be able to do it justice.  I don’t pretend to be a literary critic – this blog is intentionally small and personal. A book like this somehow deserves more though and all I can really say is that if ambitious, intelligent proper literature is your thing, please go find the joy.

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SET THIS HOUSE IN ORDER by Matt Ruff

Matt Ruff’s other books have been, to put it mildly, riotous and this is no exception. The house of the title is a construct in the mind of Andy Gage, created as a means of managing his multiple personality disorder (MPD). Andy shares the house with over a hundred other souls, including his father, Aunt Sam, a boy named Jake, fighting fit Seferis and testosterone-fuelled  Adam. The mental landscape they occupy features a pumpkin patch, a pulpit where the souls go to communicate directly with Andy, a meeting room where everyone can convene, a lake with an island to which the soul Gideon has been banished, and a locked basement.

Learning how Andy satisfies the needs of all his personalities, draws on their different qualities and carefully holds together the whole is fascinating. The delicately balanced order by which he strives to live is in direct contrast to – and threatened by – the chaos that is the life of Penny Driver, otherwise known as ‘Mouse’, who also suffers from MPD and who crashes into Andy’s life thanks to his friend and boss, Julie Sivik. Julie owns and runs a not very successful tech company that’s developing virtual reality software. Both her frequent change of career and boyfriends, alongside the different tents within a warehouse structure of the workplace she has created, serve as gentle reminders that most of us consist of different selves, urges and interests – and that MPD is just that normality taken to extremes.

Andy suspects Julie’s motivations for hiring Mouse, believing she either wants to match make them or help ‘cure’ Mouse – if not both. Her agenda never become entirely clear but Andy and Mouse do develop a close relationship, as together they confront some of the causes of their disorder, the traumatic events of their pasts and go haring round the country getting into all sorts of potentially difficult situations when their different personalities take control. Mouse also gets to meet Andy’s doctor, thanks to an intervention by the evil twins Maledicta and  Malefica and her protector personality, ‘Thread’, a move which is the start of her getting her own house in order, albeit along a very different model to the one favoured by Andy.

This is a smart, fast paced novel that has multiple dimensions as well as personalities – far too many for me to capture or do justice to here.  Also featuring a 1957 Cadillac Sedan de Ville, a dilapidated real house on the verge of crashing to the ground, two broken-hearted police officers, heart-breaking emotional and physical abuse, regular notes to self, frequent mayhem, Harvest Moon diner, the gem that is Mrs Winslow, a hunt for a child murderer, a serious amount of swearing, and some seriously unexpected twists. Ruff has magnificently combined horror and humour to write a story that messes with your head and I challenge anyone not to get swept along in the strange whirlwind.

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ELIZABETH IS MISSING by Emma Healey

A detective story like no other I have ever read, ELIZABETH IS MISSING revolves around a woman called Maud who is suffering from dementia. She is desperate to find her friend Elizabeth but the clues to her whereabouts are muddled with those from Maud’s past and the disappearance of her just married sister, Sukey. Maud endlessly tests the patience of her long suffering daughter Helen and her carer Carla, a brilliant character who is convinced every old person is on the verge of being murdered in their bed. But her persistence, and insistence that something is wrong, lead Maud to finally solve the mysteries that are haunting her.

The narrative switches between past and present, much as Maud is wont to do. Sometimes she’s lucid in the present but often she’s not, and the ensuing encounters with, for example, police officers, Elizabeth’s son and the receptionist at the local newspaper who takes personal ads are both funny and inherently sad. The notes she stuffs in her pockets are supposed to help but they tend to cause more confusion than clarity – whilst reminders to not eat any more toast are dutifully ignored.

Healey has beautifully captured the loneliness of dementia and the impact it has on the different generations of Maud’s family.  I especially loved one scene when she’s in a coffee shop with her granddaughter Katy and spills her drink: Helen would make an irritated noise now, but Katy laughs. “Bit too big for your hands, isn’t it?” she says, and makes me feel delicate rather than clumsy.  Helen’s characterisation is masterful, with just the right balance between patience and immense frustration.  Whilst Maud’s occasional awareness of her situation is incredibly poignant: I think of telling her that I’ve forgotten why we’re here. But she looks so happy and I’m worried about how she might react.

At one point Maud’s detective work takes her back to her childhood home. The passage Healey has written to describe how Maud feels, is a perfect example of the strengths and insight of this remarkable book:

I’m not sure what to do. I can see a light on in the kitchen, but I can’t think how to get there. It all seems so familiar, as if it should call up memories, but I can’t reach them. There’s a layer of other people’s lives on top….I feel in my pockets for notes, but there’s nothing there, just a few threads and emptiness. I’ve no notes at all. The lack makes me feel sick; I’m cut loose and whirling about in the wind. I wrong the fabric of my coat, scrunching up and down in panic. And then, inside the ripped lining, I find one small blue square with my writing on it: Where is Elizabeth?

Life affirming, funny, honest and addictive – this is a brilliant first novel and Healey is clearly a writer to watch out for.

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A COMPLICATED KINDNESS by Miriam Toews

a complicated kindness by miriam toews

Sixteen year old Nomi is about to leave school and “already anticipating failure”. Her favourite quote is “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge” and she wonders if it’s possible to donate her body to science before she’s actually dead.

She lives with her father, Ray, in a small Mennonite town called East Village. Her mother, Trudie, and older sister, Tash, left town a while back. One day Nomi finds her mum’s passport and wishes she hadn’t – the “Obscenely, heartbreakingly hopeful” story she has told herself involves Trudie travelling the world, having adventures.

Growing up Tash and Nomi are allowed to “listen to the names of dead people being read out in a terrifying monotone” but not “the Beatles singing all we need is love”. Ray spends a lot of time at the local dump “where he could organize abandoned dreams and wrecked things into families, in a way, that stayed together.” He and his daughter communicate mostly by writing notes to one another. He is “stuck in the middle of a story with no good ending”. She is smart, rebellious and will never leave him behind. The complicated kindness that gives the book its name might set them both free but will it make them happier?

This came highly recommended so I was looking forward to reading it. It’s a sweet, simple, poignant and funny coming of age novel  and Toews has won various awards – presumably in large part because the way she’s depicted life in East Village is incredibly authentic. But truth be known I was rather disappointed. Despite all that’s going for it, A COMPLICATED KINDNESS left me feeling something was missing or lacking. There was so much potential and yet it didn’t really go anywhere other than the kind of dead end that’s East Village. Perhaps that was Toew’s intention, I don’t know, but whilst I wanted to finish her book, much like Nomi I was also very much looking forward to being out of there.

 

 

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DEATH OF A SHE DEVIL by Fay Weldon

Ruth Patchett is back. She’s 84 and living in the High Tower, one time love nest of her rival Mary Fisher who now haunts the tower. A senile Bobbo (whom Ruth plotted to send to prison in THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A SHE DEVIL) is ensconced in the uppermost Lantern Room and the rest of the tower complex is home to the staff and supporters of IGP, the Institute for Gender Parity, set up when Ruth realised the opportunities for pretty and plain girls would never be the same so decided to focus on goals such as closing the pay gap instead.

One of the residents is Valerie Valeria, young, ambitious and an altogether different kind of feminist from Ruth.Valerie’s plans for IGP include glossy catalogues, a bullet proof Mercedes and much spectacle and expense reuniting Ruth with her estranged children and a surprise grandson, Tyler.

This isn’t nearly as good as THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A SHE DEVIL, which I remember devouring when I first discovered it, but Weldon has written another funny and smart reflection on gender politics and how it affects our every day lives. Especially interesting is how she integrates new debates about gender and sexual identity – albeit not as thoroughly or as deeply as they deserve. Valerie persuades Ruth’s grandson Tyler to transition, a story line which affords plenty of opportunities to reflect on the impact of testosterone and oestrogen, but leads the she devil to some rather suspect conclusions. Other characters  touch on the way feminism has evolved and the differences between various struggles for equality. Weldon’s satire is genuinely non discriminatory and she directs it with equal savagery at all, and especially at those who seek to use feminism to pursue their own goals. As one of the older women in the tower, Dr Simmins, remark at one point: “So whatever changed, except perhaps, these days, gender? There were nice people and nasty people and some of them were M and some of them were F: and a whole lot in between.” Despite these themes, Weldon’s wit and story telling powers mean there’s nothing worthy or overly earnest about what is a gutsy, gleeful if somewhat less radical novel than is predecessor, and one that builds beautifully to the most fitting of deaths for the ultimate she devil.

 

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