The delicate art of disappointment
April 15, 2013 § Leave a comment
If there was a list of the top ten themes of literary fiction, one would surely be “disappointment.” Coming-of-age novels are often full of it—disappointment at the adult world, at its inconsistency and the inconsistency of everyone in it, its lack of one sort of anticipated freedom or another, its resistance to earnestness. But the rawness of this feeling has to be cultivated if it’s to survive past twenty-five or thirty, by various means including choosing under-employment, retreating from a familiar milieu in hope of finding some truer, purer meaning elsewhere, and so on. It was interesting to recently read back to back two novels that seemed to share characters with an ongoing investment in this disappointment despite coming at it from two completely different places.
Owen King’s Double Feature (Scribner) opens with Sam Dolan, son of Booth Dolan, a director of monstrously cheesy films. Sam is trying to drum up the money to produce his own feature film, Who We Are, in the summer after he graduates. Who We Are follows four students through their university career, leading them from fresh-faced eagerness to a degree of jaded experience that nonetheless leaves them utterly unprepared for the world they are about to join. Around a quarter of the novel describes the shooting of the film, Sam’s involvement, and his relationship with the assistant director, the mentally fragile, but bottomless-pocketed, Brooks Hartwig Jr. The rest of the novel, divided into three main parts, follows Sam eight years later over the course of a single long weekend. In between each part comes a short section flashing back to Sam’s childhood or his parents’ relationship or both.
Sam is very much in the mould of the loser-hero, a type some people have criticised for being unrealistic. Writers of these characters no doubt see it rather differently: that the person with artistic ambitions who is forced, either through circumstances or through lack of talent or opportunity to abandon their dreams, is not only very common but also, perhaps, morally superior to everyone who sold out for a corner office and a minivan parked in front of the house. Sam himself has no shortage of this sort of integrity: it’s more or less what has wrecked his dream of a film career, and kept him in under-employment, first in a video shop and later as a weddingographer.
The novel’s plot comes in part from what happens to Who We Are: Sam gradually realises that his assistant director has had a very different vision of the film all along—and intends to get his own way. Who We Are then takes on a life of its own, becoming almost a character in the novel. Double Feature is fairly typical realist literary fiction, but does begin to stretch the reader’s credulity as the long weekend gears up for the climax. I’m all in favour of the implausible, but I like it much better when it’s fundamental to the novel and not a way of bringing together different plot points and even whole plotlines.
This is, in large part, a narrative arc with which we’re familiar (this is not a criticism): young adult needs to break away from parental influence to prove him/herself, as made explicit in Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, for example; attempts to follow long-held dreams and ambitions; stumbles through twenties without money, direction or love; realises at last that maybe it’s okay to lighten up a little, to live with inconsistency and falling short; understands that parents have been doing their best all along, or are at least trying to now. What we are less familiar with is the story told from the opposite side, politically speaking. In The Story of My Purity (translated by Stephen Twilley, published by Hamish Hamilton (UK)/FSG (US)), Francesco Pacifico’s narrator Piero Rosini is thirty years old, married (but impotent), and working for an extremely conservative Catholic publishing house. Having grown up in a well-to-do liberal Roman household, Piero now spends his working hours producing anti-semitic texts, and his leisure time discussing the world’s moral problems with a group of fellow ultra-religionists.
As Piero falters in his quest for purity (he lusts after his beautiful sister-in-law), he pushes himself even further to the right, until he meets Corrado, a man trying to pitch a novel about gay men to Piero’s publishing house. He strikes up a rather unexpected friendship with Corrado, before fabricating some kind of conflict with his boss over the book and striking out for Paris, alone. In Paris he falls in with a group of single woman who take him on almost as a mascot as they go to parties and bars. Inevitably things become more complicated, both romantically and philosophically, leading towards the (perhaps appropriately anticlimactic) crisis of the novel.
One problem for Piero—and ultimately for Pacifico—is the fact that the novel is narrated in the first person, which means he undermines, a little too often, the ideology of his (perhaps more committed) supposed peers, particularly given his habit of following the letter of the law exactly while entirely ignoring the spirit of it. Because Piero’s internal conflict isn’t quite convincing (although it is entertaining and, in many places, cleverly done), the reader has to work a little bit too hard for not quite enough payoff.
So although the narrators of both novels are suffering from what could be described as a crisis of extended adolescence, Piero’s disillusionment with the adult world is different from Sam Dolan’s in Double Feature. Although Sam’s decade-long existential crisis might not be as original (in literary terms) as Piero’s, it does ring true; it’s not a sleight of hand rigged up for effect. Like Double Feature, The Story of My Purity is a novel about searching for the one place you might finally feel as though you belong (with great lines like “splitting my sides laughing like I had learned to do among normal people”), something that Pacifico captures beautifully and precisely. The problem is not so much that people can’t be religious and still assailed by earthly desires, more that I am not convinced that Piero really is religious in the first place. But people from different countries have different expectation of, and relationships with, religion and the concept of piety; perhaps Italian readers can accept Piero’s predicament—which seems more social than moral—more willingly. As a non-Italian and a non-Catholic, I interpret Piero’s religious side as more like some kind of year-long intellectual challenge, while his true nature is the far less strait-laced aspect of his character that distracts him from his purpose. The comedy would have been even funnier if Piero really was as devoted to the church as he told us he was.
So high marks to both writers, but no early contenders for my own 2013 top ten.
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