Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Edmund White - 'My Lives'

I'm stumbling over writing this one, and have now left both the book and the quotations I noted down at my other home (cumulatively, my girlfriend and I have a house, it's just that some of the rooms are five miles away from the others), which doesn't help. And look, in this blog which I'm trying to keep reasonably free of references to myself, how quick I am to mention my girlfriend when discussing an account of a gay life. As if to draw attention to my generous indulgence of this way of living which deviates so far from my own experience. And to reinforce the position from which the indulgence is granted: that of the heterosexual, monogamous male. All powerful, all dull, in the patriachal model of society no-one believes in anymore. Yet as I get older I find myself, hedged in by circumstances which haven't quite gone my way (neither are they completely awful), falling back on this flimsy defence. Because I am English and can construct a sentence. But I don't really want to revert to type, and that's why I need books like 'My Lives' to shake me from complacency.

Edmund's father is rather like that, though he remains unshaken. In another 'Blind Assassin' coincidence, he made a fortune in manufacturing during World War II, only to lose it all afterwards, ending up broken by the inconsistency of the world's favours. Just like Laura and Iris's father. He belives in the practices which have made him successful, to the exclusion of almost everything else (the only real exception is sex). Because he knows how to balance the books and wear a respectable suit, he doesn't bother about people: he has no friends, is devoid of curiosity. His task is to get the things he knows done, not to find out about new ones.

Edmund's mother is the opposite: the tragedy of her life is that she lacks her husband's (later her ex-husband's) certainty. When there's a man around, she doesn't need to supply this herself, and is OK. Studying and working in Psychology also gives her a framework to cling to (as well as supplying Edmund with in-house analysis of his homosexuality, which he sees as a curable disorder all through adolescence). She is curious, to a point - enough to study Psychology, enough to feel a sometimes desperate need for a male companion, but Edmund, whilst clearly very close to her, is scornful of her intellect. It's hard to tell what motivated him to put the following story in his book: once, as a fat alcoholic, she fell in her house and was unable to get up again. She was also unable to empty her colostomy bag and, realising after 48 hours that her own faeces were starting to back up and would poison her if the bag didn't burst, she prayed, promising God that she'd give up drink if he would burst it and save her life. The bag did burst, and she became a teetotaler.

My knee-jerk reaction to this: how disgusting! Demeaning! Why say that about your own mother? Well, partly because it's true, but that hardly covers it. It tells as few other anecdotes could (here's hoping, at least) what kind of a state she was in: it's an effective crux in the 'My Mother' chapter. Mostly though, it's an example of Edmund's rejection of his father's values of order and tidiness. He refuses to tidy up his life, because his life is all about the fascinating mess which occurs when people freely interact. Not when he was (as he still is, of course) living it, and not now that he's come to tell it.

He is equally blunt about his own life, usually in relation to sex. The chapter 'My Master' is a painful account of an affair which began and ended only a few years ago (concurrently with his 'real' long term relationship, and with the full knowledge of his partner). Edmund's account of his retreat to the internet after the break-up, dividing his time between incessantly checking his email (for the 'I'm sorry. I've made a terrible mistake' message which inevitably never comes) and crusing gay message boards, is completely without gloss or glorification. If this seems a little less pungent than the colostomy story, there are details of sex acts with T. (the only un-named person in 'My Lives') which make up the shortfall. Rarely can an elderly man's affair have been so filled with youthful excitement and pain, and Edmund begins the chapter castigating himself for this, as though he hasn't progressed at all since he was 16. But when he was 16 he would have been incapable of writing something as vital as 'My Master'.

There is another side to this abjection. T. is the master, Edmund the slave, the role he has preferred all his life. In giving us so much in his autobiography which might have remained private, he is being both generous and selfish, since what turns him on is to give up power, make himself vulnerable. It's a neat paradox but not, perhaps, an uncommon one. It's also an impulse which, in inviting reaction, draws people in and makes possible a life full of interest and friends.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Mario Vargas Llosa - 'The Feast of the Goat'

There are certain things linking 'The Feast of the Goat' and 'The Blind Assassin'. Both use alternating narratives: one from a very specific strand of the past, the other in the present, reminiscing more generally, filling in the gaps and gradually revealing where the past has led. In both narratives there is an obvious crux: 'The Blind Assassin' opens with Laura Chase's suicide, as she drives dramatically off a bridge, and the rest of the novel is dedicated to explaining this event. Chapter two of 'The Feast of the Goat' introduces the four assassins of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 - 1961, waiting in a car for Trujillo's Chevrolet Bel Air to drive past, so they can pump it full of bullet holes. Roughly half of the novel is dedicated to explaining this event; the remainder deals with the fall-out.

Another point of comparison is the sexual preference of the dominant male presence in each book, for too-young women. In each case the girl concerned is pimped by her own father (in desperate straits) to a more powerful man for financial or political gain. Repression and machismo are constant themes, and the sad conclusion to draw from both is that, though order can be restored, brute force (or its financial equivalent) will often hold sway for so long that it is impossible to entirely recover from its effects. This is particularly true of 'The Feast of the Goat', in which the tyrant's domination affects not just a family, but a nation. The culture it describes is one of reasonable affluence (fast disappearing because of sanctions), but absolute repression. Political murders are common, the media is state-controlled. Trujillo has elevated himself to a God-like status: he owns 40% of the country's industry, and buys more for nominal sums people are too frightened to refuse; he sleeps with whoever he likes, including the wives and daughters of most of his ministers; his personal whorehouse is 'a kitsch monument' (p. 390), putting one in mind of Saddam's gold taps.

And yet, he is hard-working: the country doesn't run itself. This is not a mitigating circumstance, but it does explain a lot. The fear, the devotion. The rest of his family - his sons, brothers and wife - hang on his coat tails, without an ounce of his decisiveness or initiative. They just like being rich, and putting on generals' outfits. Trujillo's undoubted capacity for office is reflected twice through the actions of others: firstly, by contrast with the badly organised assassination (one of the assassins happens to know a trustworthy doctor, for instance, which he mentions after the event, when they are all riddled with cuts and a few bullet wounds - how can they not have thought of this in advance?), and most especially General Pupo's pathetic reaction to it, which shows the power of long habit; secondly President Balaguer's masterful improvisations, by which he manoeuvres himself from puppet president to the real thing. Far more of a politician than Trujillo, he proves adept at keeping enough people happy enough for the country to not break down in to civil war, or be invaded by America.

The most powerful section of 'The Feast of the Goat' comes after the assassination. This is where the structure differs from 'The Blind Assassin': now there is nowhere to go, the plot is no longer inevitable, and messy real life emerges from the clockwork. The remaining chapters each follow the fate of an involved party, truths emerging at their intersections. The quick deaths of Antonio de la Maza and Amandito are the least painful: they come out fighting, and face the inevitable. Amongst the pestilence of black Beetles which descends upon Ciudad Trujillo (Santo Domingo) after the assassination, each containing secret service agents and machine guns hungry for assassins and relatives of assassins. Horrible scenes of torture fill some of the later chapters, and Urania's rape by Trujillo (the novel's second crux) rounds things off, but surprisingly the ending does manage to be hopeful, though it can't be fulfilled. Things have changed. The Goat is dead. It's up to the people now.

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