Thursday, May 17, 2018

Everything was something else first

I paused, looking out at the blue merging of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and I wondered if there was a word for it, a name, a title, to indicate this strange layering that seemed to be commonplace in Tangier, where everything was something else first, and nothing was ever entirely one thing. I thought of Alice again. She was something else in Tangier too, something completely different. Hardened, distant, tired. A new Alice had been layered upon an old one, subsuming the original. But I had not given up hope. She was not simply Alice, John's wife. She had been her own person once, she had existed without him. What I needed to discover was how to get her back, how to move from Tangier to Tingis — and whether such a Herculean feat was even possible.
I read Tangerine, by Christine Mangan, on vacation. Maybe my opinion of it suffered a little for this (unlike most people, I am more easily distracted and tend to read less when I'm on holiday).

(I love the cover! I'd been dithering over what my vacation reading should be, but when I saw this cover, I had to have this book.)

It was an enjoyable read, but didn't quite meet the (very high) expectations I had of it, it having been noted on several lists of highly anticipated books.

The story switches between the perspectives of two young women, and each of those unreliable narratives skips between the present (mid 1950s) and their college days years beforehand. I found that one of the women's perspective was favoured as giving voice to the true version of events, but the opposing perspective had a force of character and a clarity of perception that cast doubt on any notion of certainty.

Essentially, the reader discovers a mosaic of intersecting and overlapping triangles, of romantic and other varieties. For more plot details, see the published reviews from established sources.

To pique one's interest, one needs little more than this blurb from Joyce Carol Oates (of whom I'm not a fan): "As if Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn, and Patricia Highsmith had collaborated on a screenplay to be filmed by Hitchcock." It's all very Tom Ripley.

One character references Paul Bowles — "You must read him, if you want to understand this place." It's been decades since I read The Sheltering Sky (time for a reread?), but my sense was that Bowles settled on reconciling to the impossibility of understanding such a foreign place. It feels a little as if Tangerine was intended as an homage to Bowles (moreso than to the other literary influences); I wonder if anyone has examined the relationship between Tangerine and Bowles's work more closely (if you have come across any such review or article, please let me know).

Despite the expectation set by the title, the city of Tangier never really comes alive, as if the author's experience of it was only through other books or movies. Nor am I confident in fingering any of the characters as the eponymous Tangerine.

For all the psychological notes it hits, Tangerine feels like an academic exercise in creating a specific type of thriller, with a superficial treatment of place and character. It lacks depth.

All that being said, I absolutely will go see the movie. (And it was a great vacation read.)

The following reviews are quite mixed but, in my view, right on the money.

Irish Times

New Yorker:
For a novel that leans so heavily on its setting, "Tangerine" rarely succeeds at evoking more of Tangier than its heat, its humidity (or dust), its "confined and chaotic streets," and its sweet mint tea. This, the novel's biggest weakness, is largely a failing of Mangan's prose, which tends to be general rather than specific, lofty rather than grounded, received rather than observed. Whether Lucy or Alice is narrating, Mangan's diction has the archaic gentility of someone incorrectly imagining how previous generations thought and spoke.
New York Times:
Mangan, who has a doctorate in English, wrote her dissertation on 18th-century Gothic literature and she knows all the notes to hit to create lush, sinister atmosphere and to prolong suspense. Unfortunately, she hits them all, and she hits them a little too hard. Both narrators periodically lapse into the language of academia, bluntly signaling how we should interpret the narrative rather than letting us figure it out for ourselves. Alice worries that her tone of voice is "wavering somewhere between lighthearted and serious, skirting the liminal boundaries between laughing and crying." In 1956, a young woman in a white pillbox hat would not have talked about liminal boundaries. When Lucy refers to the "intertextuality" that once existed between her and Alice, she uses a term coined by the French semiotician Julia Kristeva a decade after the novel takes place. At times, "Tangerine" reads as if it were reverse-engineered from a scholarly paper about suspense fiction. Happily, you can write a satisfying, juicy thriller this way, if not a blazingly original one.

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