Thursday, August 26, 2010

The next item of distraction

I wanted to say a little about The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy, but time is tight these last couple weeks, so I keep waiting and waiting for time enough to say what I have to say, and it turns out I really don't know what to say, and if I wait any longer there won't be anything left for me to say, all that something I'm trying to put my finger on will have vanished into thin air, so here I am settling to say just a very little.

It's charming!, delightful!, even outrageous! in its way. Groucho Marx, in a letter to Dundy, wrote, "I had to tell someone (and it might as well be you since you're the author) how much I enjoyed The Dud Avocado. It made me laugh, scream, and guffaw (which, incidentally, is a great name for a law firm)." Written in 1958, The Dud Avocado wreaks of other-era-ness, but in the best possible way. About a 21-year-old American girl living in Paris for a time (funded by her uncle), sowing her wild oats and trying to find herself. Somehow, magically, it's fresh.

The thing that stands out for me, beyond the colourful characters and funny incidents, is the voice. And I don't just mean the tone, its easy, breezy way, the way the language simply carries you off, or the mood. I'm kind of assuming these are quasi-technical terms — voice, tone, mood — and I can't pretend to know how to use them correctly. But I mean: voice! It's so strong, I can hear it in my head, I don't mean like just some random crazy voice in my head, but really hear it, and if I were any good at that sort of thing (like in the way you need a certain vocabulary to be able to describe a really nice glass of wine — see, how lame is that, "really nice"?), I could describe it, its timbre and pitch and fullness and legs, the way it cracks with occasional uncertainty and how it flirts. I mean: you can hear it! this beautiful narration, it's the most natural thing in the world.

It's a voice with a touch of Irma la Douce about it; the stories share little (although, hmm... it's been ages since I saw that movie; I mean, the plots are different, but come to think of it, you could probably spot lots of similarities, situation by situation), but anyway the spirit of Paris is similarly resonant. Also it reminds me of Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, minus the psychoanalysis, and Breakfast at Tiffany's (more the film than the novella), but without quite that level of tragedy. She's a phony, but a real phony.

And she's young! and in Paris! and in love! and oh, how terribly wrong it sometimes goes! And even though you want to slap her from time to time, really, deep down, you hope everything turns out for Sally Jay.

I returned to the table black and blue, two buttons ripped off my blouse and mad as a wet hen. I confronted Larry. "Good-by," I said. "Go to hell and take this whole bunch with you. Do you know what I think? I think they should be driven into the sea with pitchforks, like a horde of great crab things." I gesticulated wildly, and my handbag swung out and hit something or somebody, and landed on the floor, butter-side down of course, and everything spilled out — lipstick, compact, passport, mirror. It was the Ritz all over again, except the gesture had popped the last button of my blouse as well. I stamped on the mirror in sheer temper. Then I sat down. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Everyone, I noticed, was very polite about my outburst, which for them was merely the next item of distraction which they expected to have provided; Larry picked up my bag, put all my things back in it, handed it to me and told me to go to the Ladies Room and have the attendant sew the buttons back on my blouse, and that we'd go on as soon as I got out.

And then — oh gosh — I know all this next part by heart — I should, I've been over it so many times. And then I came out of the john and told Larry I'd lost my passport and he said, "No you haven't, here it is, I found it after you left" and he took it out of his jacket and slapped it against the palm of his hand a couple of times and asked me why on earth I carried it around with me. I said because I didn't know where to put it down. Oh Lord, just saying these words even now makes me groan with boredom, when I think how many times they've bounced off dead walls and deaf ears. Anyway, I said I didn't know where to put it down because I was always losing things, even in my hotel room, or they were losing me, rather. It's a gradual thing — I kind of slowly miss them — it's as if they're weaning themselves away from me. I've never known a fountain pen longer than a month and I'm lucky if a lipstick stays with me for three weeks. So, as I said, that was why I carried this passport around with me. Larry said, "O.K., O.K., it's none of my business," took my bag, dropped the passport in, clicked it shut, and handed it back to me. And that, as I was later to say about a hundred thousand million times, was the very last I ever saw of that passport.

I bet you want to know what happened to that passport!

Here's another little excerpt, which gives insight into the title.

This book is a bit hard to find in Canada (I believe it's a matter of rights and permissions — there's not even a Canadian price printed on the cover), but it's worth going out of your way to get your hands on a copy.

Wow, I had more to say than I thought.


Stefanie said...

I've got this book on my shelf and your enthusiasm for it is infectious, you make me want to read it right now. It sounds like great fun. And now I know I have something really good to look forward to!

Emily said...

The passages you pulled make it sound a bit like a female-narrated Catcher in the Rye - I know what you mean about the voice that follows you around; that's one of my favorite qualities in a novel! Guess I'll have to search this one out. Thanks for the great teaser!

Isabella said...

It's a very enjoyable book, Stefanie. I just realized I didn't actually say much of what the story's about (I've edited the post now to add a sentence to that effect), but the charm definitely lies more with the how than the what of this book.

Yes, Emily, I was reminded of Holden, too, but Sally Jay's more mature and somewhat more upbeat. I'd hate to see this, or Catcher for that matter, made into a movie precisely because the voice is so strong. No one could ever realize it the way it sounds in my head.

Maylin said...

I'm guessing you read the NYRB edition which alas, doesn't have Canadian rights (hence no Canadian price on the cover) But never fear Canadian readers, the Virago edition does have Canadian rights and any bookstore can easily special order it, although really, if there was any justice, it would be a standard on the shelves of every bookstore. I ADORE this novel; the ending always makes me smile and you are absolutely right about how unique the voice is.