Review: The Book of Dahlia, by Elisa Albert (re-read)

61K2p4MWMbL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: March 2008

>>Re-read: August 2014

That clichéd adolescent love affair with razor blades, the thinly veiled suicide threats. A handful of broken or non-existent condoms, semen of unworthy men who cared not at all for her absorbed into her body, microscopic invaders. (Cervical cancer would’ve at least made some sense! But brain? What the fuck?)

And what about people who wouldn’t let you hold their babies, who gave excuses about germs or attachment or whatever?

Locking eyes with homeless people and then giving them no change, none at all.

Reading in the paper about a schoolteacher in China who’d raped dozens of fourth- and fifth-grade girls. The sexual violence in the Sudan, blamed on its victims. A teenaged mother in Queens who had purposefully murdered her infant daughter by putting her in the microwave. To live in a world where such things were possible. All of it storm clouds gathering, gaining force, threatening claps of thunder amassing energy for the devastating downpour of this.

***

Dahlia Finger is dying. More to the point, she will be dead by the end of this novel. It’s not much of a spoiler to say so, given that the crux of the book, the reason for her journey, is the discovery, following a grand mal seizure at the end of the first chapter, of an inoperable brain tumour in her head.

So yeah, Dahlia Finger is dying, and Elisa Albert’s The Book of Dahlia is her swan song to the world.

While one might think that this is a recipe for a rather glum, solemn read, Albert’s titular heroine, like the book itself, is far from expected. As a matter of fact, at the novel’s start Dahlia is downright obnoxious. At first blush she appears to be little more than an entitled underachiever, spending her days getting high, eating Cheerios, and watching A League of Their Own for the umpteenth time in her Venice, California home, paid for by her dear, doting father, Bruce. Her ambitions seem, at best, minimal; the distaste she has for the world around her is evident from the very beginning. What isn’t immediately clear, however, are her reasons for the disaffection and vitriol she so effortlessly spews.

The Book of Dahlia is split between two lives: there’s the Dahlia of the past and the slow reveal of how she got to be the hardened self of her mid-to-late twenties (by way of her distant, globe-trotting mother Margalit and her utter piece of shit brother Danny, both responsible for casting Dahlia out of their lives through sheer selfishness and a lack of empathy or interest in her wellbeing); and there’s the Dahlia of the present, dying from cancer, taking stock of the life she’s led and what little future she has left. The novel marries these two narratives by loosely structuring itself as a self-help/cancer-for-dummies-style book, with each chapter titled for another step in the chain toward “beating” the beast (or, at the very least, accepting that the beast has beaten you).

Albert’s book is a bit of a wonder: Dahlia is, at first, a distasteful, fairly unlikable human being. She’s abrasive and seemingly uninterested in the lives of others. But by the novel’s end—hell, by its midpoint—we are given enough familial evidence to see that her present persona is not natural but crafted, unintentionally, by the spite and self-centred behaviour of her mother and brother (seriously, fuck Danny… arrogant, abusive piece of shit deserves to suffer with the knowledge that nothing in his life warrants his sister’s forgiveness). Though Dahlia has gone through life with the ever-present comfort of her father’s unwavering love and financial support, it does not preclude her from having suffered deep emotional scarring at the hands of the rest of her family.

Like all self-help books, The Book of Dahlia preaches the qualities of forgiveness and finding strength in oneself; however, Dahlia’s forgiveness is reserved for herself, for accepting the ways she’s stalled or fucked up or lost focus throughout her journey, and understanding that forgiveness should not always be given if, in fact, it is only being gifted to satisfy the guilt of another party. Her strength comes from her anger—from accepting the treatment she received at the hands of Danny and Margalit as being their problem, and not hers. This runs contrary to the advice she receives from her doctor and other cancer patients/survivors, who encourage the forgiving of others as a way of relieving the soul and body of unnecessary strain. But then Dahlia is not just anyone, and for better or worse she’s used all her external stores of forgiveness already, trying to explain away her family’s faults for years before finally accepting them as the shitty people they really are (except, of course, for daddy Bruce). It’s strangely beautiful that, in the end, she uses what remaining forgiveness she has for herself—her strength is not in forgiving the failings of others, but forgiving herself for how she let them wear her down.

Like Dahlia herself, Albert’s writing is acerbic—witty, loaded with pop culture references, and at times overwhelmingly abrasive. She writes from a third-person limited perspective, regularly flitting into Dahlia’s head while maintaining a degree of distance through which all others are observed—we never really know why Danny was such a tool, though it’s not really important, as what matters is the legacy his actions left on Dahlia’s psyche. Albert frequently diverges with parenthetical asides often acting as comedic breaks or moments of blunt realization. However, it’s her employment of deliberate repetition of words and phrases that is most effective—by the final paragraph, indeed the final two lines of the book, Dahlia/Albert’s penchant for repetition steps beyond the aesthetics of rhythm and structure and becomes something else altogether, something unexpectedly and emotionally crushing.

This is the second time I’ve read The Book of Dahlia. I first read the book back in 2009, about a year after its initial release, and have been surprised in recent years by how much it stuck with me. This year I’ve been making a point of revisiting certain titles I remember having a stronger than average impact. Perhaps there’s no higher praise I can give The Book of Dahlia than to say that even though I remembered, almost perfectly, the final few sentences of the book and how they came to pass, I still shuddered as I started the final chapter, as I crept slowly down that final page to those few words repeated over and over again—words I knew would kick me in the stomach just as hard as they had five years earlier.

And you know what? I was right.

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Review: Polyamorous Love Song, by Jacob Wren

AN_024>>Published: April 2014

>>Finally got around to it: August 2014

“We though the new filmmaking was about blurring the line between what’s scripted and real. And there’s nothing more real than sex.”

“Death is more real.” It just slipped out. It was absolutely the last thing she meant or wanted to say. She was nervous, uncomfortable, it was unlike her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that anyone should die.” It was unlike her to apologize.

“But that’s what’s so powerful about the new filmmaking,” Steve was really trying to persuade her. “When you fuck you really fuck, when you die you really die.”

“I suppose.” She was being evasive. She didn’t like this line of reasoning. This wasn’t what she had meant. She had only been searching for ways to make her life more vibrant, more alive, and to make this very vibrancy her art. Fucking and dying didn’t feel alive, at least not in the way she had meant.

“You don’t seem convinced.”

“I don’t know.” There was always some way out. “When you’re an artist, if you’re a real artist, in some sense you always have to kill the father. That’s our legacy: the modernist break.”

***

The last paragraph of the segment quoted above is both fantastic and maddening. The idea of there being a definition or defining set of characteristics for who is or isn’t a “real” artist has been a perpetual thorn in my side. In my younger days it was something I lusted after—to do or create something that would somehow instantly elevate me into the pantheon of “real” artists. When I was in the thick of it during my twenties, producing and exhibiting with some regularity, I did my best to shove the idea of the “real artist” out of my brain—it wasn’t something to strive for, after all, it was something to be (or so I tried to convince myself, but being someone with a great deal of anxiety and self-doubt… well, let’s just say I didn’t always succeed along that line of thinking).

Now, several years and at least one major career shift away from all that—specifically the visual and performing art world—I can step back and, with some clarity, see the modern art world for all its insecurity and inability to think for itself. It’s a reactionary world, one that at least on an academic level takes a look at its immediate surroundings and says “nope, not me, I don’t like this,” and then purposefully diverges—sometimes to great social commentary, sometimes in ridiculous, even immature ways.

I realize I’m being a bit unfair in this assessment, but it’s an unfortunately true stereotype of the avant-garde mindset: that in order for art to matter, it must divest itself from anything approaching social norms or acceptance. Because art needs to constantly challenge and be challenging. But while I agree that art is essential in forcing audiences to stop and second guess their established social order instead of simply taking things at face value, the placement of the avant-garde at the top of the elitist hierarchy, with all others creators of art subservient to this ideal, is horseshit. Art is art—whatever your reasons, political or personal, commentary or beauty, if you make art, you are an artist.

This is why I so thoroughly enjoyed Jacob Wren’s Polyamorous Love Song—it simultaneously analyses, exalts, and condemns the strange reactionary madness of the art world. And it does so by constantly questioning and satirizing the notion that once an artist’s season has passed, so too has their purpose.

Wren’s novella is a post-postmodern book. It is a continuous thematic story told in nine short vignettes that jump between time, place, and style, revisiting a specific set of characters from a variety of perspectives. The characters themselves are thinly drawn, in many ways existing more as ciphers for the discussion of ideas. There’s Filmmaker A, who seeks to expand the definition of filmmaking by removing the cameras and having day-to-day existence become the film, where everyone is simultaneously acting in and viewing the works of others at all times; there’s the artist seeking to gain the trust of the Mascot Front—a group of militant furries who exist in many ways as a counter to the new filmmaking, hiding beneath plush characters and products anathema to the authenticity the new filmmaking seeks to promote—in order to do a piece about them; and Paul and Silvia, authors, the former writing about Hitler fucking a dog—because no postmodernist story would be complete without talk of a generously lubed Aryan erection. Naturally.

That the characters feel thin, however, is not a criticism; this isn’t a narrative in the traditional sense, but, as previously stated, a collection of ideas meant to rile expectations. That there’s even a loose narrative to it at all feels like a bonus. In many ways, Wren’s book is a natural extension of Janet Wolff’s The Social Production of Art, which presents art and artists as being wholly reliant on externalities to provide them with meaning and/or relevance. In Wren’s world, the art, artists, and audience are one, an Ouroboros both devouring and providing constantly: the Mascot Front forms to provide resistance to the new filmmaking, which exists to catalogue the “real lives” of its subjects—in other words, all of us, because the only way to subvert a style of filmmaking that both exists at all times and in all places by virtue of its actual non-existence is to live an “unreal” life, masked, hidden in some way.

The success of Wren’s book is that it manages to straddle the thin line between satire and possibility: the new filmmaking is, conceptually, aggressively postmodern. It is hilarious in its total absurdity, yet also totally believable, and more than likely an idea at least one avant-garde filmmaker has already had at one time or another. Similarly, there’s the cocktail, “the drug to remember phone numbers, the drug to supress jealousy, the drug to keep you hot and bothered and a little something extra to keep you going all night.” Like the new filmmaking, the cocktail is an artificial X factor introduced into this all-artist world to transform every interaction into a form of performance art.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Polyamorous Love Song, it will more than likely frustrate many readers. It’s not a difficult book to read, but it does require a willingness to dig deep and pull apart the layers of what is and isn’t satire. Between the novella’s many absurdities is rather deft commentary on the art world’s own demand for newness, for the avant-garde, and for the conflicts that spring forth naturally when society is pushed beyond established norms and boundaries.

Review: Summer House With Swimming Pool, by Herman Koch

18594633>>Published: June 2014

>>Finally got around to it: August 2014

I thought again about Julia’s hands clutching at her bikini bottoms. No! she’d shouted. No! And after that I thought about the raptor look with which Ralph had undressed my wife that time in the lobby of the old municipal theater. How he had worked his jaws. How he had ground his teeth, as though he could already taste her on his tongue. Men look at women. Women look at men. But Ralph looked at women as though he were flipping through a copy of Playboy. He squeezed his dick as he looked. In his thoughts, or for real. He pulled down the pants of thirteen-year-old girls. Or did he? After all, I hadn’t seen him do that with my own eyes. It was always possible, of course, that my daughter only thought he was going to do that. Maybe the four of them, Julia along with Lisa and the boys, had been yanking on one another’s bathing suits in the pool earlier. As part of a game. An innocent game. Innocent among children between the ages of nine and fifteen, culpable for men in their late forties.

***

Herman Koch doesn’t know you, but he probably doesn’t like you very much. It’s totally okay, though—if the two books of his that I’ve read are anything to go by, there’s likely little in this world he deems worthy of his time.

I’m being hyperbolic, of course, but it’s difficult to read Koch’s latest work and not feel the voice of the author bleeding through the novel’s wholly unsympathetic protagonist. In his previous book, The Dinner, the distastefulness was spread democratically among the four main characters; in Summer House With Swimming Pool, however, as disgusting as several of the peripheral characters appear to be, it’s Marc, the main character, who is far and away the most despicable. In this self-described “charming” general practitioner, Koch has crafted a man who even in the wake of his teenage daughter’s potential sexual assault is still largely concerned with making sure she didn’t happen to see anything of his burgeoning infidelity.

Pardon me—I’m getting ahead of myself. Summer House With Swimming Pool tells the story of Marc, a general practitioner with a cozy private practice in the Netherlands, and a man’s death he may or may not be responsible for. Many of Marc’s clients are creative sorts to varying degrees of fame and success. One day, a famous actor named Ralph Meier shows up in his office and the two embark on an unlikely acquaintanceship—well, Ralph attempts to befriend the doctor, but Marc is more or less uninterested. You see Marc, despite many of his regular clientele being in similar lines of work, has an extreme dislike of the creative world and its denizens. He invites them into his office, gives them the time to tell him what their problems are, and accepts their invitations to whatever launches or openings or premieres are coming up, all while gritting his teeth at their very nature. It’s good, reliable work, though, and it affords Marc, his wife Caroline, and their two daughters Lisa and Julia a life of some comfort.

From their first meeting, Ralph shows an insatiable interest in Caroline. Marc, not to be outdone, finds himself growing more and more interested in Ralph’s wife Judith. As you can imagine, this isn’t going anywhere pleasant. Eventually the doctor and his family wind up as guests of the Meiers at the titular summer home with a swimming pool. Once there, a host of insidious events occur, culminating eventually with Marc choosing to misdiagnose a fatal illness in Ralph as reciprocity for an especially vulgar crime Marc suspects the actor to be guilty of having committed.

The novel opens the day before Mark is set to appear before the Board of Medical Examiners, where a jury of peers is preparing to weigh his guilt or innocence in the matter of Ralph Meier’s death. Much of the narrative occurs in the past, covering the eighteen months from Ralph and Marc’s first meeting up to the point of Ralph’s death, and is merely bookended by the present as Marc reflects upon what led to the uncomfortable position he now finds himself in.

From the very beginning, it’s clear that for Marc, humanity is an obstacle that’s been inflicted upon him. Though a physician, he is disgusted by the human body; his ego has elevated him above all that step inside his office. Nowhere is this more evident than when the author takes several paragraphs to discuss, in florid detail, all the ways that fat people disgust and annoy Marc. Women are also harshly objectified, as the doctor appears to judge all male/female interactions on a level of fuckability (even women he finds ugly he still seeks to dominate in this regard). This callousness and aversion to people beyond simple physical transactions sets Marc up as an interesting though altogether unlikable marriage of an intellectual who also happens to represent the very worst of male stereotypes. I won’t even touch upon the interaction he has at the end with a gay patient who comes to Marc because he knows Marc is uncomfortable, even unforgiving toward his way of life, and prefers that to a doctor who acts like being gay is normal when the patient feels it’s not—it’s as if the author is commenting on the idea of the self-hating homosexual being preferable to one wholly confident in their own skin. It’s unsettling to say the least.

This distaste for humanity is the grounding for much of the narrative conflict that follows, as Marc not so subtly pursues a physical relationship with Judith while staying at the Meiers’ summer home. It doesn’t matter that there’s little chemistry between them (despite what Marc openly claims about his own irresistible charms); what matters is that Marc has set his sights on another woman and he intends to go for it with everything he’s got. The two don’t get very far as their initial steps toward infidelity are potentially glimpsed by another—more than likely Julia. And when Julia is later found assaulted and possibly raped, the greater narrative turns to who could have done such a thing, though Marc is also wondering whether or not her assault has possibly wiped whatever she’d witnessed between him and Judith from her memory.

So yeah, he’s pretty terrible. Irredeemable, actually. And because of this, he’s never once trustworthy. That’s not to say he’s an unreliable narrator so much as it is to say that when he does eventually start showing more emotion, especially toward Julia, it’s not believable in the least.

All the backstory between Marc and Ralph and whether or not Ralph is responsible for what happened to Julia serves a specific moment in the narrative: when Ralph goes to see Marc and expresses concern for his health, enough suspicion has built up in Marc’s mind as to “justify” his not sending a tissue sample taken from Ralph in to be analysed, thus knowingly condemning the actor to an early demise. It’s effective, and if not sympathy one does feel some degree of understanding for Marc’s actions. His actions are still not justified, nor could they ever be (especially for someone who’s taken the Hippocratic Oath), but one is able to see how he justified it.

But whatever justification the author is able to create is undone by a weak ending in which no consequences are experienced, and no remorse is shown despite the growing slope of evidence that, as much of a degenerate asshole as he was, it’s possible—if not likely—that Ralph had nothing to do with Julia’s assault. Knowing this and still finding comfort in his actions, Koch cements Marc as a sociopath, void of decency or regret. I wanted to shower after being subjected to such a vinegary stain of a human.

Koch’s writing is simple and straightforward, with the bulk of its artistry and imagery reserved for that which he finds most abhorrent. Additionally, the book’s mystery is revealed effectively and deliberately—the narrative never slumps, never becomes boring. In the end, Summer House With Swimming Pool is an odd mix—I was compelled to push through because of its narrative, but I desperately wanted to walk away from its characters. For fans of The Dinner I’d suggest giving this a look, though this title is decidedly less rooted in some form of morality (in the aforementioned title, the four main characters acted horribly out of a desire to protect their children; in this book, Marc acts primarily out of self-interest, even after his child has been harmed). Not a poor read by any stretch, but neither am I comfortable recommending it. After both this and Gone Girl, I feel like I’ve had my fill this year of books with terrible people in every corner.