I love finding old pocket paperbacks in thrift stores. That’s how I ended up with a 1960s-era British pocket Penguin edition of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. On the cover, the price is listed as “3’6” which, though I’ve been to England, I can’t decipher. On the first page, in pencil is the price – 50p – wanted by some British used book dealer years ago, and in pen, the name of one of the book’s former owners. I myself got the book for around fifty cents or a dollar from one of the neighborhood secondhand shops, and though I’d love to keep it on my shelf, I’m tempted to release it back into the wild so it may continue on its journey. The book does indeed fit in my pocket and so was a good one to take on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I read the book in its entirety on the plane ride home. I love reading books like that, in one sitting while in transit, because it feeds into a romantic notion I have of what I might spend my days doing if I had no other responsibilities. But, of course, I have responsibilities and so does Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Bellow’s book. Wilhelm, a failed Hollywood actor living in a New York hotel a few floors removed from his father, appears to be nearing the low ebb of a long downward slide. He has lost his job, owes money to his wife (who won’t give him a divorce), rarely sees his children, fell out with his mistress, and is so nearly penniless that he must ask his father to cover the rent. Tommy’s father, Dr. Adler (Tommy changed his name in Hollywood), sees his son as a big baby. Seize the Day reminded me of both Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. All the books of ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads. Wilhelm ruminates mostly on sorrows of lost opportunities, yet the book is shot through with humor as well, especially as Wilhelm gets more and more wrapped up in a stock market scheme. Bellow’s book is sad and funny and deserves to be read far more than it is. (Special thanks to Millions contributor Patrick who first pointed me to this book years ago – it just took a little while for me to get to it.)
Imagine Sophia from The Golden Girls in Soviet Russia – spewing insults, exaggerating her own worth, bemoaning the state of things. Instead of being surround by three salty dames who deflect her barbs with their own, she’s surrounded by a husband, daughter, and granddaughter whose will to live she has methodically trampled. Such is Rosalinda, or “Rosa,” the narrator of The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine.
The book opens with Rosa’s daughter Sulfia telling her mother that she’s pregnant, while Rosa points out that she’s stupid, ugly, and has bad posture. Rosa’s emotional and verbal abuse of Sulfia is her main source of personal expression throughout the novel, when she’s not heaping praise upon herself. She’s extremely proud of her shapely legs, her shiny hair, her skill with make-up, and her personal comportment. “I stood up elegantly,” she says while describing her visit to a rich home, “Not everyone had the ability to gracefully extricate oneself from a soft chair. But I did.”
Despite her inflated view of herself, she is quite a capable woman. In Soviet Russia, where the smallest errands required bribes, back-room deals, or standing in hour-long lines, she usually gets what she wants. She gets her granddaughter out of trouble, finds apartments in the government-run housing system, and all but blackmails men into dating her daughter. This manic survivalist instinct carries over into her personal life, where her constant barrage of criticism toward her family is, in her mind, part of her responsibility to make them as flawless as possible. Of course, she mistakes her daughter’s patient, nurturing nature for spinelessness, her husband’s compromising resignation for imbecility, and her granddaughter’s aversion to being pinched and called “little Satan” as misbehavior. She is a piece of work.
Her inability to see herself as the domineering monster mother that she is is the book’s bottomless source of black comedy. She is taken aback when her granddaughter Aminat calls her an “evil grandmother”: “I didn’t look anything like a grandmother at all. I looked good. I was pretty and young looking. You could see that I had vitality and was intelligent. I often had to mask my expression to keep other people from reading my thoughts and stealing my ideas.”
Because she is resourceful and funny, you find yourself liking Rosa, even while a voice at the back of your mind is protesting that she is horrible and a little crazy. Alina Bronsky doesn’t try to justify Rosa’s personality. There is a little description of her early life, and that it was hard, and probably had to do with how she turned out, but not enough to seem like Bronsky is excusing her behavior.
Liking Rosa for her spunk and entertaining inner monologue, despite her treatment of everyone around her, is something that becomes more and more uncomfortable as the novel progresses. At the outset she is a barking but funny housewife, but once she’s driven away her husband, ruined Sulfia’s potential relationships, and tried to kidnap her own granddaughter, I started to waver. Then, when she realizes Sulfia’s German suitor is actually more interested in 12-year-old Aminat, she overlooks it because she is so desperate for him to get the family out of the country. This is where I got off board.
The book raises a lot of questions about intentions. Rosa truly believes that everyone needs her to take care of their lives at every moment. Because of her fundamental usefulness as a bossy woman in a society that requires elbowing people aside, she is right enough of the time to convince herself. If she’s at all aware that her intrusiveness is manipulative, she hides it well. According to her inner logic, she is always acting in the best interest of her family. I found I could rarely fault her motivations, even if I did pity the people in her life.
I even felt proud of her when, late in her life, in a foreign country, she decides to learn how to ski. “I got dressed, took my skis, and went by myself to the lift. I was just as elegant and confident as the arrogant bitches that came here every year and wore mirrored sunglasses pushed up on top of their heads.”
She’s not short on moxie, which makes it harder to choose whether you can like her or not. Thankfully, the book doesn’t ask you to, so you can leave with the guilt-free impression that you just met one of the most fascinating women in the world. And that luckily you never have to meet her in real life.
If Arthur Phillips’s fourth and latest novel, The Song Is You, were to spontaneously transmogrify into music, I’d wager a bet that it would take the form of a pop-infused iPod playlist. The two are kindred spirits for the most obvious reasons. The fortysomething Julian Donahue roams Brooklyn streets, dog runs, and subway cars always with earbuds attached. Popular song lyrics are embedded and alluded to within the text. And while music plays a constant background role, it also provides the foreground’s milieu. To begin: Julian inherits his enchantment with music from his father, who met his mother at a Billie Holidayconcert, after shouting a song request that Holiday honored – an act later immortalized on a live album. When Julian first moves to Brooklyn, his frequent walks along the Promenade are accompanied by the score on his Walkman; during one of these strolls, on an auspicious day (after directing his first television commercial), he experiences “the sensation that he might never be so happy as long as he lived. This quake of joy, inspiring and crippling, was longing, but longing for what? True Love? A wife? Wealth? Music was not so specific as that.”
Fast-forward many years, and Julian has married and separated, and has seen his young son die. His hope and vibrancy dissipated but his connection to music remains a consolation. And then one day at a local bar, he stumbles upon a band destined for larger venues and greater media attention. The singer, Cait O’Dwyer, acts a siren to Julian’s solitary soul; his fascination with her develops as he listens to her songs. While Cait’s catchy tunes play and replay in his mind, and on his Ipod, thoughts of her repeat on a loop.
Music fuels Julian’s obsession, and he attempts to woo Cait with advice, anonymously and somewhat accidentally at first, in the form of ten illustrated coasters upon which he writes tenets to enhance her rock-star persona. Julian knows nothing if not how to wield the power of an image, knowledge acquired from his work directing television commercials. He has perfected his ability to use images to evoke longing – for hair conditioner, floor cleaner, and the like – and now Cait O’Dwyer. With Cait, he’s motivated by his desire, as she is both the source of his desire and the raw material he hopes to refine.
Obsession and longing preoccupy Julian as he falls deeper into his infatuation. Cait returns the admiration, but to a lesser degree. She’s smart enough to recognize the wisdom of his advice, and to value his counsel. And yet, Julian’s desire to know her leads him into a series of escalating attempts to if not meet her at least to see her. He finds her apartment, observes from a bench as she walks her dog, and snaps candid photos that he later sends to her. By the time he lets himself into her apartment using the key she leaves under her doormat (a location she reveals in song lyrics), one would think he’s stepped over a line. He sifts through her apartment and cooks her dinner but she never shows. He thought she’d invited him with her lyrics, and it seems that she did, but all the same, by this point, how is it possible to consider the narrator entirely reliable?
Isolation also plays a role in the confusion as well. As the opening lines of the first chapter state, “Julian Donahue’s generation were the pioneers of portable headphone music, and he began carrying with him everywhere the soundtrack to his days when he was fifteen.” Much of the time he is plugged in to music, and much of the novel resides within Julian’s mind. As his obsession grows, he has a few encounters with other people, but mostly he ruminates and reflects and observes. There is a meeting with his estranged wife, Rachel, as well as conversations with his genius though socially awkward brother, Aidan. But throughout, Julian remains mum on all fronts regarding his obsession with Cait, to whom he writes notes and about whom he drafts defenses of on messages boards till the wee hours.
As a voyeur, Julian is impenetrable: he reveals his infatuation with Cait to no one, and he lurks like a stalker, watching her from afar, fantasizing about her, but never meeting her. This becomes more interesting when it seems he may be devolving into obsessive madness. Still, for all that Phillips does to lead the reader to wonder whether Julian has truly lost his mind, at the last minute there’s a quixotic save, which makes the story tie together so nicely, unbelievably so.
At times Julian’s interiority and inscrutability evokes a Proustian inwardness as well as one of Robbe-Grillet’s voyeurs, and yet these allusions are superficial; neither conceit is employed to great effect within this narrative. And so, after the contrived climax, the narrative resolves into a somewhat expected although rather abrupt end. Page-by-page the novel is immensely readable – the scenes limned of Brooklyn streets and city life are vivid, the members of Julian’s family are compelling, at times fascinating – but the sum of the parts doesn’t add up to much. This is another way the novel evokes a pop song. Phillips’s writing is descriptive, compelling, proficient, but there’s little substance anchoring the scenes. The end result is akin to the disquieting feeling I get after eating half a box of Krispy Kreme donuts – the anticipation and consumption, though delightful at points, has delivered me into a stultified malaise.