Monday, August 18, 2014

Sweetness #9

Stephan Eirik Clark
Sweetness #9

Little, Brown, 2014

Summer 1973. Rutgers graduate David Leveraux gets a job in a lab of a large chemical giant. This is actually a dream job for David. In a group of researchers, he will be engaged in testing food sweeteners, which is the corporation’s specialty. The protagonist works as a Flavorist-in-Training testing sweeteners on rats. Every day he has to watch the group of experimental rats, add a special sweetener to their food and drink, record the results of the behavior of rats.

In the laboratory David’s colleague becomes an Englishman by birth, Charles Hithenbottom, not too friendly, single, childless and divorced. With David, they almost do not communicate. Hithenbottom works in a nearby lab with similar experiments on chimpanzees.

Time goes, and David begins to notice changes in rats under the influence of sweetener "Sweetness #9». Rats are starting to put on weight, they become lethargic, they reduce activity, lose the will to live, one of the rats trying to commit suicide. David is trying to attract the attention of colleagues to these rats, however, Hithenbottom ignores the young colleague. The boss advises not to bother him. For the compamy it is only important that the sweetener won’t cause cancer. David is trying to raise hell, the security throws hom off the territory of the laboratory. David is fired.

Despite the "sweet" title, the novel is not mawkishly sentimental at all, on the contrary – one that leaving a bitter aftertaste. Stephan Eirik Clark condemnes American (and partly international) society, but leaves an open verdict. Where is the cause of dissatisfaction with life, in us or outside of us, in external sources? Do the food additives control us, making us dependent and unhappy, or whether these additives only affect the taste of the food, but not anything else? Clark sows a seed of doubt in the minds of readers. What do we really know about our bodies and the process of thinking, when we can not even deal with relatively simple nutritional supplements.

Fine social satire are skillfully adapted to the family saga during one generation. Leveraux family is a little less typical than typical American family, but all the diseases are visible. Each family member has a disease in the literal and figurative sense, but as a social unit the Leveraux is too far from healthy existence, having a common ailment. Head of the family is suffering bad conscience, daughter worries about her sexual orientation, the youngest son almost closed in himself, wife is worried because of the excess weight and coldness of her husband. As a team, the family does not seem to have degrading ailments, but the general dissatisfaction with life does not live them in peace.

Family chronicle peacefully coexists with the views on science, and the plot is driven by anti-utopian elements (not that superfluous here, rather unexpected for the overall tone of the novel) and the thriller elements related to trade secrets. The book seems really to contain an addictive sweetener. You won’t take a break from Sweetness #9, though, that the book is hardly a page-turner.

Clark pays closest attention to detail, has broad outlook, the utmost certainty in many areas, from online shopping to work of filling station. Miraculously, the author weaves in a fairly realistic story a half-myth/half-fairytale about the Hitler’s chef.

Sweetness #9 is a clever and charming book, extensive and relevant. The novel grabs you also by the fact that actually does not open all the cards. What in the book is actually the truth about supplements and what was invented? Whether or not Hitler had a special chef? Hell knows. And it does not matter when the book is so good.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Butcher

Jennifer Hillier
The Butcher

Gallery, 2014

In 1985, in Seattle a serial killer hunted young, single girls. Chief of police Edward Shank accompanied by other armed police officers during raiding the house where the suspect lived killed this suspect, known pervert Rufus Wedge. The dead suspect by circumstantial evidence is recognized as the maniac nicknamed the Butcher and all 17 kills were blamed on him. Case was closed immediately because of the death of the suspect, Shank received the glory, the Butcher became the thing of the past.

The action moves to present times. Now Edward is already 80, he is a widower, not able to care for his Victorian house, and prepares to move into a retiring home. The house is passed on to Shank’s grandson Matt, a successful chef who became famous because of his Filipino recipes acquired from his grandmother. Matt has already moved into the house of his grandfather, and Matt’s girlfriend, Samantha, expects that she will move in with him. But Matt is going to focus on his business and does not want to be distracted by love affairs, offering to leave the relationship with Sam as they were. Jason, a friend of Samantha and Matt, does not understand such behavior of his friend, but Matt still stands on his own.

The action switches between all the characters of the book, one by one. All cards are laid on the table at the very beginning of the novel: the real Butcher wasn’t Wedge, but the chief of police Shank. From the flashbacks we learn how he chose the lonely girls, took them into the woods or to his home, raped them, cut off their left hands and a strand of hair. Shank also killed his wife by staging her death as an accident.

Only lazy are not writing books about serial killers, and usually the result is absolutely unreadable. The area, which was chosen by Hillier for her novel, is famous for its serial killers. Be that as it may, the author apparently was too lazy to learn all the features of maniacs and their captures. If The Butcher would have been written as a parody, it could have been readable, but Hillier remains serious throughout the book, and the novel itself moves down to the level of parody – it just is not funny.

Hillier made such a mess of the fact and fiction, that the novel can be disassembled chapter by chapter for factual and logical mistakes. Blame the negligence and carelessness of the author, too lazy to somehow link the story of the book with reality. I will say nothing about coincidences and annoying love angle.

Since the cards are open from the beginning of the novel, the criminals and their deeds are known, all that remains for the author is the plot device, its surprises and twists. And plot is not Hillier’s best side, even on the contrary - the book is predictable from exactly the moment when Hillier discloses the identity of the main characters. Every move is predictable on five steps ahead. Add to this the fact that of the three main characters in the book two are killers, then you can only sympathize with the female characters.

Predictable thriller is the worst punishment for the reader. This thriller breeds boredom. Hillier is trying to disperse boredom with gory details. Grandson finds grandfather's "trophies", and it is strange that the maniac would leave his treasures in the house, where he no longer lives. And if it comes to that, Shank left home at odd circumstances: he began to kill again, and to do so it would be easier at home.

In the parody, the bad one, the novel transforms with individual scenes. The bear appears from nowhere in the woods and scares the serial killer right at the time when the maniac prepares to kill the victim. 80-years-old Shank with erection in his pants hunts young victims. With special lust thr author describes sex between 80-year-old persons, and the maniac, of course, uses a condom. Stranger from the forum suddenly interrupts her story and leaves without naming the killer. The book will make you laugh out loud, though, it will be awkward laughter, as if laughing at a disabled person.

Even worse than plotting are Hillier’s descriptive abilities. Women in the book are perceived and described as sex objects, no matter from which point of view are written chapters, Sam’s or Shank’s. Love triangle is handled extremely rough and constantly distracts from the main action.

Dialogues are those as if taken out of the teenage horror movie. Shank in 1985 mentions DNA, although DNA was still known only to scientists in laboratories. Anyway, the police chief in the role of a serial killer is not even a bad taste, it’s elementary laziness and stupidity.

That’s an ugly book.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Goodbye, Columbus

Philip Roth
Goodbye, Columbus

Houghton Mifflin Company, 1959

If Philip Roth had been born half a century later, he easily could have become a singer of revolt and play in punk\hardcore bands. The action of the title novella of this collection takes place in a cozy suburb, in a lovely suburbia, where, as you know, gathered all the hated by the young rebel.

The hero of the novel at first glance is not a rebel. He is a Jewish young man who graduated from college, working in a library, living in the home of his aunt and uncle, himself almost hovering in the void of suburbs (the entire state of New Jersey, probably, can be considered a suburb of New York). The protagonist, Neil Klugerman, meets a nice girl from a wealthy, middle class family. Klugerman methodically courtes her until she does not give in to his courtship. This is followed by sex on the couch, meeting with the parents and brother of the girl, a visit to the girl’s father's firm.

The parents of this girl, Brenda, not so long ago escaped from the relatively poor suburb and moved to the relatively rich one. The Potimkins own company selling kitchen and bathroom sinks. Head of the family is doing business alone, but realizes that he will soon need an assistant. Son-in-law will suit fine.

And then the narrator’s protective reflex kicks. Gradually, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, the young hero imagines his future, if he marries Brenda Potimkin. The full life in the suburbs, cute, dying of boredom wife, hurrying loaders at the store room of his father-in-law firm, reliability throughout. Klugerman is a gentle man, well brought up, suave. He is sick of Potimkins and their nobility as well as of his own lack of confidence in his future. What's wrong with the solidity? What's wrong with the sweet Brenda? It is one step only, and you will cease to understand how you are different from Potimkins.

The narrator is a hidden rebel, and his hatred of suburbia is not openly manifested (do not forget that Neil is very polite), but latent remarks.

«Beside the freezer, incongruosly, was a tall old refrigerator; its ancient presence was a reminder to me of the Patimkin roots in Newark. This same refrigerator had once stood in the kitchen of an apartment in some four-family house, probably in the same neighborhood where I had lived all my life, first with my parents and then, when the two of them went wheezing off to Arizona, with my aunt and uncle. After Pearl Harbor the refrigerator had made the move up to Short Hills; Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks had gone to war: no new barracks was complete until it had a squad of Patimkin sinks lined up in its latrine.»

«Mrs. Patimkin continued to smile at me and Mr. Patimkin continued to think I ate like a bird. When invited to dinner I would, for his benefit, eat twice what I wanted, but the truth seemed to be that after he'd characterized my appetite that first time, he never really bothered to look again. I might have eaten ten times my normal amount, have finally killed myself with food, he would still have considered me not a man but a sparrow.»

«Ron left Mr. Patimkin's side and went back to directing the men. He thrashed his arms about a good deal, and though on the whole he seemed rather confused, he did not appear to be at all concerned about anybody dropping a sink. Suddenly I could see myself directing the Negroes-I would have an ulcer in an hour. I could almost hear the enamel surfaces shattering on the floor. And I could hear myself: "Watch it, you guys. Be careful, will you? Whoops! Oh, please be-watch itl Watch! Oh!" Suppose Mr. Patimkin should come up to me and say, "Okay, boy, you want to marry my daughter, let's see what you can do." Well, he would see: in a moment that floor would be a shattered mosaic, a crunchy path of enamel. "Klugman, what kind of worker are you? You work like you eat!" '"That's right that's right, I'm a sparrow, let me go." "Do not you even know how to load and unload?" "Mr Patimkin, even breathing gives me trouble, sleep tires me out, let me go, let me go ..."»

Another kind of protest Klugerman shows at work. In the library, where the narrator works, a black boy starts to come regularly, browsing through the contents of the same book every time - a collection of reproductions of Gauguin. Klugerman does everything so the boy could read this book in peace without worrying about how other librarians could chase him out or that the book will be taken home by some reader. This quiet fight against racism is worth more than a dozen protests.

Five stories in the collection are built around a Jewish theme, which gives reason to put a serious moral questions and even have a glimpse into the territory of the absurd.

Already with his debut at the 26, Philip Roth made people talk about him, and so far no one has thrown him off the pedestal.