Tag Archives: satire

Fame – Daniel Kehlmann

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Daniel Kehlmann plays with the idea of being noticed by the wider world–of fame, in all its irritating and intoxicating guises. His characters, woven into nine interconnected stories, are the playthings of the author, introspective ruminators, attached to fame, hooked up with fame, running from fame, inadvertently famous. Fame, the book, is satirical, world-weary, farcical, sad, wry, and packed with coincidence.  

A seventyish woman named Rosalie decides to end her life in a Swiss euthanasia clinic when she receives a diagnosis of advanced pancreatic cancer. She goes through all the steps to make arrangements and gets herself to Zurich, noticing every single thing that happens around her with hyper-awareness. But then she gets angry at the author and demands that he rewrite the story, producing a miracle cure and saving her the trouble of killing herself. A famous author plays with a loaded gun in his fabulous penthouse, after writing a cynical letter that debunks all the luminous spiritual self-help books that made his fame and fortune.

One man finally acquires a cell phone but the number belongs to someone else who receives constant calls and the phone company will do nothing to help him. So he begins to answer the calls, changing appointments, making dates with a mistress or girlfriend and standing her up time after time, messing up deals and playing havoc with the life of the apparently famous person whose calls he keeps getting. An actor plays an impersonator of himself as a joke and then loses his identity to the real impersonator who becomes him, moves into his home and career and takes on his celebrity.

Fame, in this translation from the original German, is very clever and very smart and raises serious questions about who we think we are, who we really are and who we might actually be. It’s also very European—Americans tend to a more straightforward acceptance of fame, when they are not lusting after it. But the absurdities and inconsistencies of fame, the profound alienation of living lies and the barbed privilege conferred by notoriety are worth reflection and Kehlmann provides that, too, in his odd little, very polished book.     

Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes   Daniel Kehlmann | Pantheon Books   2010

Orlando – Virginia Woolf

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Orlando was a very successful self-published book for Virginia Woolf in 1928. She called it a biography but it is really a fictional exploration of the meaning of gender, a mild send-up of the formal biographical detail typically used to sum up a life, an homage to Woolf’s bisexual lover Vita Sackville-West, and a comic romp that represented a departure from her more sober novels.

The protagonist is a young nobleman, born and raised in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. During the course of the novel he is a sought after lover, first of the aging queen, then of a number of potential and actual high-born fiancées, soon of a mysterious Russian princess who captures his heart and abruptly vanishes on the morning tide. Heartbroken, he retires to his country estate where he contemplates the meaning of life, love, poetry and noble legacy on endless walks in nature. When Orlando is stalked by an archduchess who resembles a hare, and is considerably less captivating,  he finds salvation in flight.

Calling on his noble connections, he wins an appointment as foreign ambassador to Constantinople where his extraordinary physical beauty, intelligence and charm win him friends and a new title. But bloody rioting in the city disrupts his boring exile and he falls into a long sleep from which he emerges a woman. Orlando is still Orlando in everything except gender, which fazes him, um her, not a whit. She flees the burning city with a band of gypsies and lives with them until her reverence for nature and gypsy pragmatism clash and Orlando ships out for home.

On the voyage, she discovers that a glimpse of her fabled legs will nearly send a sailor plunging from the mast, and that those legs are now encased in yards of skirt which will place a real drag on her freedom. But she also reflects that she might not mind the role of woman, a yield-and-resist pattern to replace the bluster-and-conquer persona that might be expected of her as a male. She returns to the endless writing and revising of a nature poem she began as a boy and, once back in England, explores what it means to be a writer, a woman, a sexual being with a new orientation.

Orlando was a larky but daring experiment for Woolf. The novel treats bisexuality, androgyny, lesbianism, the constraints of gender throughout the history of English society—Orlando only ages twenty years in the almost 400-year course of the book—the struggles of the writer, the responsibilities of property, and complex issues of identity. It is funny, satirical, and laced with a kind of magical realism that accommodates its bizarre turns.

I needed to immerse myself in a classic after a long diet of mostly current books—probably a reader’s reaction to Downton Abbey—and before I approach one or two self-published novels by e-book millionaires, the formula for the future if literary pundits can be trusted. Woolf self-published with more prosaic technology and left a lasting legacy. Orlando isn’t a thriller and it has no trolls. But it does take risks and is very readable and we can be glad there was Hogarth Press to help it find an audience so we can still read it today.

Orlando (Annotated): A Biography   Virginia Woolf | Harcourt Brace & Company

Good Bones and Simple Murders — Margaret Atwood

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Good Bones and Simple Murders is a collection of Margaret Atwood’s—umm—short bits? Mini-stories? Musings on our twisted society? Whatever it is, it’s amusing, witty, brilliant as the author and, incidentally, illustrated by her, as if you weren’t already impressed with the poetry, fiction and journalism Atwood turns out, seemingly on cue.

The bits hit on many of Atwood’s themes and spare none of the comfortable clichés of literature or life. “The Female Body” explores the fragile imperfect thing a body is, a light-up see-through anatomical model, the culturally determined accessories required for the social display of the female body and, finally, that queen of accessories, the doll herself—giant boobs, teeny waist, pointy little feet, long legs, no cellulite, and bouncy vinyl hair, probably blond. What a small girl can do to a Barbie doll is a sadistic and very satisfying thing. Read all about it.

“Poppies” is a creative writing exercise–she calls it “variations”–that uses the lines from “In Flanders Fields” to inspire a series of anti-war texts. But that oversimplifies. Atwood describes history, aftermath, toy soldiers, male violence, fearful women and an arsenal’s worth of topics that circle around her point before they explode—with those words from the poem italicized in case you failed to catch the clever trick.

“Gertrude Talks Back” gives the queen some centerstage that Shakespeare never scripted. She would have called Hamlet ‘George,” thinks he ought to get himself laid and find a real girlfriend, not the bordeline Ophelia, puts the Prince of Denmark straight about sex, booze and his frigid, abstemious father. Atwood’s Gertrude is drying her nails, not wringing her hands, not the least bit angsty, entirely unapologetic. The angst he must have gotten from his father.   

In “There Was Once,” Atwood deconstructs a fairy tale with some combination of political correctness and obsessive editing until the story becomes untellable. In the title story, she deconstructs bones—the lacy bones of the old, the high cheekbones of the young and a cemetery full of good and bad bones mixed with some thoughts about calcium and mortality. In “Hardball,” she creates a horrible post-apocalyptic world where the rich live on the top deck with access to pink strawberries and pale yellow carrots. Severe shortage of real estate for agriculture, human habitation and corpse disposal but pretty good protein when a baby is born and someone is selected for the meat grinder. Is it recycling or a demented form of composting? We may soon find out.

Good Bones is very entertaining and very brainy and both fun and not-so-funny at the same time. I read it on the subway en route to a client meeting downtown. I read it on the way home, subway again. I changed trains twice going down and once coming back. It’s a good book to read on the subway. Oh, and the illustrations aren’t bad—probably better than you could do.

Good Bones and Simple Murders   Margaret Atwood   Doubleday  1994