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Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Business School Wives Book Club: Part One (America)


My husband took one look at Jay McInerney’s “How It Ended” and said “that looks awful”. I have to admit that I was inclined to agree. Maybe it was the picture of an electric blue swimming pool on the front cover. Or maybe it was the following words on the back that really turned me off: “A transsexual prostitute accidentally propositions his own father; Two young lovers spend Christmas together high on different drugs”. It looked to me to be the kind of book that bends over backwards to be controversial and that ultimately was unlikely to be my cup of Darjeeling.

But then the Business School Wives Book Club is not a place where you get to re read your old favourites over a glass of Chablis. The members of our club are the bookworm wives of MBA students at an international business school and as a result of that we are drawn from all corners of the globe. We have an American, an Indian, a Romanian, a Russian, a Japanese, a Pakistani and I am British. Our challenge, should we chose to accept it is to introduce to the group a book that in some sense represents the culture of our home.

And so that is how it came to pass that America was represented by the collection of short stories “How It Ended”. The focus of these stories is the underbelly of modern urban life in the states. Their narrators are the excluded, the dispossessed and the disillusioned. Most have brushed fame or notoriety and retreated into the hinterland between being a “somebody” and being a “nobody”. The “Big Guy”: fat, vulgar and corrupt is a character that stands tall in these stories and he is mocked as much as he is acknowledged as the victor of the urban underworld. He stands in contrast to the neglected guy, the guy who got stepped over, the guy who is never going to “make it”. This is a world of loneliness and falsehood and envy. Everybody here has a history and yet everyone is also anonymous, the city being the best place to transform a tired middle class life into a subversive one. McInerney captures the sprawl of the city with just a few words. He focuses in on the individual soul just as easily.

The quality of the writing is absolutely excellent. The language is taut, sardonic and spare. He manages in a few pages to deliver an electrifying sense of time and place and his use of the first person narrative is extremely powerful. It enables him to build a profound intimacy between the reader and the central character of each story. It is as though you the reader, are actually there, taking the drugs and the bribes and disguising your true identity with the rest of them. You as the reader will find yourself living a lie, consorting with prostitutes, sex addicted senators and convicts – there is no end to the reinvention.

So, I guess that I was wrong on the “awful” assumption. I thought that these stories were excellent. Now that I have completed my brush with the metropolitan grotesque I have two criticisms. The first is that whilst the male characters are masterfully developed, the females are generally two dimensional dolly birds who are simply foils for their men folk. The women do not feel “real” and this lets the stories down. Secondly, McInerney is something of a one trick pony. These stories are great, but they are all the same. So much so, that they can begin to feel rather formulaic. This may be a result of the limiting format of the short story and so, surprised though I am to be writing this: I think I will give McInerney the benefit of the doubt and try one of his novels.

6 comments:

  1. The Business School Wives Book Club - I love that! I don't think I'll try these short stories, though. Not my favourite literary form anyway, and I don't think I want to consort with sex addicted senators!

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  2. Hi Hannah! I like your blog and the soothing yellow shade in the background. I have added you to my blogroll and look forward to reading your posts.

    What a title for a club! I liked your incisive review and found it interesting. These short stories aren't my cup of tea at the moment but perhaps later, in small sips :-)

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  3. Dear Geranium Cat and Rochester Reader - thank you for your comments. I have been recovering from these short stories with a spot of Mollie Panter Downes - of which more later. Glad that you like the yellow - it is my favourite colour that I can't wear due to being red of hair and pink of face - but it does nicely for the blog. Hannah x

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  4. A very interesting title for a book Hannah but like your readers above, it's not my kind of thing at all and I rarely pick up this genre of writing. I love that you recover from them with something a little less traumatic - look forward to that review!

    Jeanne

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  5. Hello Jeanne - thanks for visiting and yes - it has been lovely sitting down with something of my own choice.... Hannah

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  6. I liked "Bright Lights, Big City", but haven't been able to get interested in any of Jay McInerney's books since.

    Ditto on your yellow background. It's a tonic on a gray rainy day like this one.

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