Thursday, February 03, 2011

Succumbed to a half century of forty-watt bulbs

I don't know how long I slept, because when I awoke in my solitary cell, of the many things I did not see, most conspicuously absent was a digital-clock radio. Go tell the time, in a sunless room, from shadows on the wall. For all I knew, I was Rudolf Hess rising and shining in Spandau, because if he's as crazy and subject to persecution manias as his attorneys purport, what worse thing could he wish on himself than to wake up as me? I lay in my narrow, lumpy bed, calmly aware that the thin, tufted mattress had crippled me for life. A dancer could have an airtight damage suit, but a non-professional such as myself, who simply preferred a healthy spinal column for personal reasons, had no case. I couldn't find the energy to turn my head. Had anyone, I wondered, ever been this tired? There was a recent collection of pictures in my head, vivid and meaningless. Claude throwing my bags into the rear of Charles's car. A hotel lobby ugly with paintings, hanging metal objects, and fluorescent light fixtures. A skinny, balding night clerk ignoring me and handing Claude a key. Claude unlocking a door and dumping my worldly goods on a green, blue, and yellow linoleum floor worn brown in spots.

All through the room, cracks and burns exposed an underlayer of barren brown that was spreading as though blight had struck the skimpy surfaces. A yellowish lampshade next to the bed had succumbed to a half century of forty-watt bulbs and displayed its diseased patches of brown. There was no question in my mind that whatever had afflicted the room was contagious and would get to me next.

— from After Claude, by Iris Owens.

I first heard of this book a few months ago during NYRB Reading Week. (You can read reviews at Bibiliographing, Shelf Love, and The Dewey Divas.)

It starts off with wit and self-assurance ("I left Claude, the French rat.). The Bell Jar, The Dud Avocado, Fear of Flying — it has a voice in this class of books. Feminist spirit. Self-examination.

But it didn't take long — just a few pages — to find that I didn't like Harriet the narrator) all that much. She's deluded and downright mean-spirited.

This makes for a fascinating train wreck of a read, but I have to admit I had trouble getting past my distaste for her character. I had to repeatedly remind myself that I was supposed to be enjoying this, in a jaw-dropping OMG-how-can-she-do/say/think-that kind of way, and stop getting worked up over Harriet's poor decisions. (This book is pretty much dismissed by the Guardian, where, curiously enough, it's reviewed by a man, and I can't help but feel that's a factor in their low opinion.)

Midway, the novel takes a turn for the weird and becomes a very different novel from the one it started out to be.

While the first section is spent mostly in Claude's apartment, warlike and reliving the past inside her head, the second section takes place in a room at the Chelsea Hotel, where it's all peace and love, and Harriet actually looks outside herself and finds her saviour, man. These two sections almost don't belong together.

I'm ambivalent about After Claude for lots of reasons. If you've read and enjoyed the novels of Plath, Dundy, Jong, then Owens may entertain you and will bring a 1973 complement to the lives of women depicted therein. If you've not read those other books, go read them first.
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