Saturday, 30 December 2017

Full of flawed characters and the stupid things they do

On Beauty It can't have been a coincidence that Zadie Smith named one of the main characters of On Beauty, Howard. The book is inspired by the author's love of E.M. Forster, is a hommage to him, and a modern re-writing of his Howard's End. Unfamiliarity with Forster's early 20th century work need not deter someone from reading Zadie Smith's story, which follows the Belsey family and how they cope after their academic father Howard gets his "end" away.

I didn't immediately take to the story. After an opening sentence that clearly declares the link with Forster, we're given a chaotic morning in what feels like an American family sticom. I also found it hard to believe that someone like Howard Belsey would turn up in London unable to make his own way to the home of his nemesis, Monty Kipps. Once these two scenes had passed, the book started to shine, and in the third section there were two outstanding, very moving scenes, first when Howard unexpectedly visits his father, and second a heartfelt monologue by Kiki Belsey after she and husband Howard have shared an intimate moment.

On reflection, there were so many things I enjoyed about On Beauty: the occasional old-fashioned style of narration, questions about intelligence, hypocrisy, education and class, and the vivid descriptions when the setting moved to London. It's full of flawed characters and the stupid things they do. Just like real life.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Neither American nor Russian

The Russian Debutante's Handbook The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart is about Vladimir Girshkin, born in Russia, whose parents emigrated to America when he was seven: They had left their rarefied Petersburg friends, their few relatives, everyone they had ever known, traded it all in for a lifetime of solitary confinement in a Scarsdale mini-mansion. Now aged twenty-five, Vladimir lives in New York, has a boring job, has failed to live up to his mother's expectations, and is going nowhere. He had reached the final destination of every immigrant's journey: a better home in which to be unhappy.

It's a great opening chapter, but I spent the next 25% of the book working hard to remain interested. I just didn't care about any of the characters, and the structure, whereby each chapter was further broken down into sections, seemed to chop up the narrative. In spite of this there were passages that contained wonderful descriptions: the Fan Man in his luxury apartment, and drunk Vladimir's first encounter with his girlfriend Francesca. It's not laugh-out-loud humour, but very entertaining.

Everything changes when Vladimir returns to Eastern Europe. The setting is Prava, Shteyngart's invented name for Prague, and the time is the early 90s, just after the fall of Russian communism. Vladimir attempts to throw off his lack of ambition, taking advantage of the unpolished mass of Westerners on the cultural make, whilst introducing American style and capitalism to the Russian mafia. He's able to insinuate himself into both camps, but at heart he's nether American nor Russian.

Enjoyable as it was, by the time I reached the end, I still didn't really care about the characters. Vladimir in particular, who seems to relish being a victim and believes this is his cultural fate.