“Frenzy” by David Grossman

HerBodyKnows“Frenzy” is one of two novellas (the other one is titled “Her Body Knows”) published together in one volume, titled HER BODY KNOWS, by David Grossman.

Shaul, the main point-of-view character in David Grosmann’s “Frenzy”, is a respectable academic, who is widely admired and gives interviews on television about such things as budget cuts to science education (17). Behind his calm exterior however, lies a stew of jealousy and torment. For Shaul believes that his wife visits her lover every day, driving her green car to see him. As he closes his eyes, he pictures what happens:

She charges ahead, the green car dances through the network of arteries that spreads from here all the way to him, and when Shaul emerges from the wave of pain, she’s already there with him. He can see them dimly, a large wide blur of warmth, solid arms, and her brisk movements as she holds on to his shoulder with one hand and bends over to pull of her shoes without unbuckling them. Her fingers stiff with longing, she touches his naked body; his clothes are already at his feet, and hers fall on top of them, and Shaul shuts his eyes and absorbs the blow embodied in this intermingling of fabric, and it hurts so much that he has to look away from the man’s clothes, because, for a moment, even the man himself is less painful than the clothes shed on top of one another. (5)

Shaul imagines his wife’s delight at visiting her lover. Her car charges ahead, it dances as it makes it way through the network of streets that separates them (emphasis added). His imagination gallops ahead of the pain he feels. She’s already with him. We are told by the author that Shaul can see them, if only dimly. But even in this dimness, he sees a great deal of detail, a blur of warmth, solid arms, her brisk movements as she holds onto his shoulder and takes her shoes off. He sees her fingers stiff with longing, his naked body, his clothes on the floor, hers falling on top. It is in these details in this lush prose full of words that divert us that Grossman is able to get away with telling the reader what happens. The details are so precise and compelling that even though the characters are not actually in a scene, the writing sweeps us along so that we almost believe that we are seeing what Shaul imagines.

gymbagTowards the end of this novella, Grossman reveals that Shaul is an unreliable narrator. His wife has not been visiting her lover in her green car, as he thinks. She’s been going swimming as she says she has. Later, when he checks her gym bag, “the towel is wet as it should be, the bathing cap is damp, there is slightly less shampoo in the tube.” (116) He checks every day, because “these minute signs and tokens are, as he well knows, his one and only proof of her guilt.”

This would be funny if it weren’t so heartbreakingly sad. Shaul is crazy, his judgement has gone to pieces in a poisonous stew of jealousy, to the extent that factual evidence that should exonerate only serves to condemn in his eyes. It is these precise details that enable us to see Shaul’s world through Shaul’s eyes even though we are constantly being told how he thinks and feels. Five Stars.

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Monday Craft Tips: Using details to portray jealousy

Shaul, the main point-of-view character in David Grosmann’s “Frenzy”, is a respectable academic, who is widely admired and gives interviews on television about such things as budget cuts to science education (17). Behind his calm exterior however, lies a stew of jealousy and torment.

For Shaul believes that his wife visits her lover every day, and his imagination becomes so overheated that he imagines himself not only in his wife’s point of view, but also in that of her lover’s:

She slowly walks down the hallway, wondering how to convince him to let it go today, unaware of the effect of her slow walk, which seems deliberately feline to him, twisting the tendons of his passion until it hurts…Here you are, he says, unable to hide his happiness, his face actually opening up and shining, and she still does not move as she inhales the scene, absorbing and carefully distributing it to every cell in her body, provision that must last her for a long time, for another whole day of hunger and thirst. (9)

The power of this writing lies in its surprising details: We are told that her walk twists the tendons of his passion until it hurts. We are told that she inhales the scene and that it is provision that must last another whole day of hunger and thirst (emphasis added). His passion is compared to a painful injury. Hers is compared to food. Shaul’s emotional state is indirectly conveyed by the way in which his imagination blurs his boundaries so much that not only can he RachelImenuinhabit his wife’s point of view, but that of the lover. How does he manage to do that? It turns out that he has actually met the man:

Shaul and Elisheva are in the kitchen of their old house on Rachel Imenu Street, chopping vegetables for a salad, as they do every evening, chatting about how the day went and what will happen tomorrow and who paid what and who will take Tom to the dentist, when all of a sudden the door swings open to reveal a man Shaul has never seen before. He walks straight into the kitchen and says, with a heavy Russian accent, that he can’t take it anymore. (96)

Now that we have spent 96 pages inside Shaul’s fevered imagination, it’s no surprise that he should place the worst possible construction on the situation:

Out of embarrassment or weakness, the man leans against the fridge, but it seems to Shaul as if he has already taken this stance before, with this same fridge, as if he’s used to standing there like that, among all the notes and the phone numbers and the pizza magnets. Shaul is amazed to think of how many times he himself has touched that same fridge without suspecting that perhaps an hour or two earlier, in his absence, another man had touched it for a minute…(98)

With this small detail, the juxtaposition of the uninvited male leaning against a fridge, positioning himself amidst the ordinary paraphernalia of Shaul’s kitchen, Shaul perceives it to be habitual. He tortures himself by comparing his leaning against the fridge to the uninvited male’s, as if he is his wife comparing the two men.

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Friday Pictures: Unusual places for books

Here is a charming bookstore from the island of Santorini…

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Book Review: ANGELA’S ASHES by Frank McCourt

AngelasAshesI don’t think anyone would describe Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, his account of growing up poor and starving in Ireland, as funny. Nevertheless, the many tragedies in his story are leavened by glimpses of humor. Near the beginning of his memoir, McCourt sets the scene in the following way:

Out in the Atlantic Ocean great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the Feast of Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges…

The rain drove us into the church–our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. At Mass, Benediction, novenas, we huddled in great damp clumps, dozing through priest drone, while steam rose again from our clothes to mingle with the sweetness of incense, flower and candles.

Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain. (1-2)

We learn that it rains in LimerickLimerick, but Limerick is not just wet, it stays wet for eternity. The great sheets of rain drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick (emphasis added). We learned that the rain dampened the city from the Feast of Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. Not only does the detail of the ‘Feast of Circumcision’ sound humorous, but that sentence actually means that it stayed wet from January 1 to December 31. In the next sentence, McCourt takes things up a notch by providing us with a marvelous list of alliteration and onomatopoeia. Again, the details are compelling. We don’t just have a cacophony of coughs, which sounds clichéd, but a cacophony of hacking coughs. Just when you think this can’t possibly get any worse, McCourt tops that sentence with the next one: “It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges.” After a few more sentences (omitted for brevity), we learn that the rain drove everyone into church, it was “our refuge, our strength, our only dry place.” In this sentence, McCourt gives us a list which acts like a garden path sentence. It implies that it’s talking about one thing (the piety of the people of Limerick), when it’s actually talking about something else (their wish to get out of the rain). The next sentence gives us a marvelous image of all those people crowded into church in “great damp clumps, dozing through priest drone,” and this sets us up for the punch line at the end, that Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but “we knew it was only the rain.”

And so the story begins with some humor, to ease the way for the tragedies that follow. I highly recommend this memoir. Five Stars.

 

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Monday Craft Tips: Using narrative to convey humor

I don’t think anyone would describe Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, his account of growing up poor and starving in Ireland, as funny. Nevertheless, the many tragedies in his story are leavened by glimpses of humor.

newsagentPerhaps my favorite moment of this whole memoir was the incident in which the teenaged McCourt is commanded by his boss, Mr. McCaffrey, to go around all the magazine shops in Limerick and tear out page 16 of John O’London’s Weekly, because it has an ad for birth control:

The biggest customer for the magazine, Mr. Hutchinson, tells Mr. McCaffrey get to hell out of his shop or he’ll brain him, get away from them magazines, and when Mr. McCaffrey keeps on tearing out pages Mr. Hutchinson throws him into the street, Mr. McCaffrey yelling that this is a Catholic country and just because Hutchinson is a Protestant that doesn’t give him the right to sell filth in the holiest city in Ireland. Mr. Hutchinson says, Ah, kiss my arse, and Mr. McCaffrey says See, boys? See what happens when you’re not a member of the True Church…

We scoop up everything on the floor and he’s happy sitting at his desk at the other end of the office ringing Dublin to tell them how he stormed through shops like God’s avenger and saved Limerick from the horrors of birth control while he watches a dancing fire of pages that have nothing to do with John O’London’s Weekly. (497-498)

McCourt doesn’t need scenes with dialogue to convey the humor of the situation, he does it in the narrative. It is a very clever way of controlling pacing. If McCourt had put this into a scene it would have slowed down the dramatic flow. But in this situation we want to feel that the characters are rushing around, trying to get rid of page sixteen. So McCourt keeps the pacing fast by keeping it in the narrative summary, giving us the details of the conversation in the form of a list. This excerpt ends with a wonderful sentence that gives us the punch line; of course the boys are not throwing the ad into the fire, they’ve saved the pages to sell later.

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Friday Pictures: Unusual places for books

I found this picture on Stumbleupon. I’m not sure where it is, but I would guess (from the shape of the window, and the eccentricity) that this HAS to be somewhere in England! If any of you know, please drop a comment below…

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Book Review: “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin

SonnysBLuesJames Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is about a black family in twentieth-century America, particularly about the un-named narrator and his younger brother Sonny. After time in jail for peddling heroin, Sonny returns to his brother’s home in a housing project in Harlem.

At the end of the story, Sonny, out of jail and back home with his brother, rediscovers his lifeline, the one thing that makes his life worth living, his music. But his first attempts to play piano are rocky:

And Sonny hadn’t been near a piano for over a year. And he wasn’t on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seem to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck (49)

The rhythm of the sentences mirrors Sonny’s panicky attempts to play jazzHonkyTonk. The first two sentences start with ‘And’, a short word that sounds like a gulp. In the third sentence, one can almost hear Sonny try to play. The sentence is full of clauses of different lengths, that mirror the lengths of the musical phrases. So Sonny and the piano stammer, they “started one way”, “got scared”, “stopped,” started another way” and so on. What is so brilliant about this passage is that you don’t have to know anything about jazz to hear it. Each word contributes to the effect. Five Stars.

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Monday Craft Tips: Using details to avoid cliches

James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is a short story that sounds like a memoir. Baldwin’s powerful un-clichéd writing stems from the details he uses, particularly his choice of words. “Sonny’s Blues” is about a black family in twentieth-century America, particularly about the un-named narrator and his younger brother Sonny. After time in jail for peddling heroin, Sonny returns to his brother’s home in a housing project in Harlem. In this excerpt, they are being driven north, in a taxi, through New York City:

So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, towards the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn’t changed, though housing projects jutted up out of them now like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea. Most of the houses in which we had grown up had vanished, as had the stores from which we had stolen, the basements in which we had first tried sex, the rooftops from which we had hurled tin cans and bricks. But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap…(13)

harlemBaldwin uses compelling detail to make this scene come alive. The hotels and apartment buildings don’t just have an elegance to them, they have a stony, lifeless elegance (emphasis added). This is an acute observation as it both tells us that poorer neighborhoods often have more life to them, probably because people are forced to co-exist in a small space, but also that rich people don’t care about poor ones. They are not going towards the streets of their childhood, but to the vivid, killing streets. The word ‘killing’ is an arresting word that shocks the reader because it precisely describes exactly what was happening on the streets of their childhood. (I believe that this phrase has now entered the cultural lexicon.) Baldwin’s word choices contribute to the theme of the book, the rage and helplessness of black people. The housing projects don’t just jut up from the street, they jut up like “rocks in the middle of a boiling sea.” This image makes us feel the bubbling rage and resentment of black people. Baldwin goes on to talk about the inhabitants of these houses, particularly the boys who, “smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster.”

With this arresting image, Baldwin makes us feel the trap they are in.

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Friday Pictures: Unusual places for books

Can you believe the size of some bookstores? This is the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa or Academic Bookstore in Helsinki. Don’t you love that sleek Scandinavian design?

Academic-Bookstore1

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Book Review: Charles Dicken’s A TALE OF TWO CITIES

A Tale of Two CitiesIf there is one thing that people remember about Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, it is of Madame Defarge knitting while the heads roll: “The ministers of Sainte Guillotine are robed and ready. Crash!–A head is held up, and the knitting-women who scarcely lifted their eyes to look at it a moment ago when it could think and speak, count One.” (178)

This is a brilliant example of how brutality dulls the mind in the face of horror. Dickens uses knitting, which we normally associate with a cozy home life, and pairs it with the guillotine to make it seem sinister and arresting. What is odd about this scene is that it is the only example I could find of Madame Defarge actually knitting beside the guillotine, and she isn’t there, a fact that is made much of by her side-kick ‘The Vengeance’. So one could say that this scene is also a perfect example of how memory has difficulty in processing negatives. Because what people actually remember is that she is there, in her chair, knitting. Here is an actual example of Madame Defarge knitting, and why it is so important:

 Next noontide saw the admirable woman in her usual place in the wine-shop, knitting away assiduously. A rose lay beside her, and if she now and then glanced at the flower, it was with no infraction of her usual preoccupied air. There were a few customers, drinking or not drinking, standing or seated, sprinkled about. The day was very hot, and heaps of flies, who were extending their inquisitive and adventurous perquisitions into all the glutinous little glasses near madame, fell dead at the bottom. Their decease made no impression on the other flies out promenading, who looked at them in the coolest manner (as if they themselves were elephants, or something as far removed), until they met the same fate. Curious to consider how heedless flies are!–perhaps they thought as much at Court that sunny summer day.

A figure entering at the door threw a shadow on Madame Defarge which she felt to be a new one. She laid down her knitting, and began to pin her rose in her head-dress, before she looked at the figure.

It was curious. The moment Madame Defarge took up the rose, the customers ceased talking, and began gradually to drop out of the wine-shop…(85)

MmeDefargeMadame Defarge, while talking with the spy Barsad in the most unhelpful fashion possible, is knitting in code such details as his name and appearance. Which is presumably why she wants the other inhabitants of the shop to go away, so that she can concentrate. I love the way in which Dickens picks out seemingly unimportant details to make a point. For example, the flies are compared to those courtiers who lounged around Versailles, pursuing pleasure with abandonment, heedless of the storm that is brewing up beneath them. Five Stars.

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