Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sometimes pairs come in twos

The first two books I knocked out this week were a pair of e-books by Chris Guillebeau. Guillebeau is a writer and traveler who is making a living off of writing and traveling by harnessing the power of the internet. You can read both A Brief Guide to World Domination and 279 Days to Overnight Success on his website. It contains a lot of useful information if you're determined to try and make a living off of something you enjoy doing.

The other two books I read also pair up nicely. They were The Kept Man by Jami Attenberg and Model Behavior by Jay McInerney. Both are about lousy relationships involving wealthy New Yorkers (and strangely, both include characters named Philo).

When people ask me who my favorite author is, I respond "Michael Chabon is my favorite author but Jay McInerney and Jeanette Winterson are my favorite writers". The difference is this. Chabon weaves terrific stories (and is also a fine writer). McInerney and Winterson just have a way with words. Their writing is always a pleasure to read even if the story itself isn't always great.

I picked up Model Behavior at a used bookstore a few months back. It's one of the few McInerney novels I didn't own. Actually, it is a novel and seven short stories which is sort of neat. I really enjoyed the short stories which is unusual for me. Normally, short stories are like small appetizers to me. They either leave me wanting more or they make me wish I had had something else. They are rarely satisfying. I liked all seven of McInerney's short stories. The endings made sense and actually ended the story (so many short stories I have read seem like unfinished works). Like virtually all of McInerney's writings, all eight tales are about flawed human beings. This is one of the things I like about McInerney.

McInerney makes human beings seem human. They're unfaithful, they have problems, they have addictions, they are full of themselves. But rarely are they lousy people. Done poorly, you wouldn't care about these characters at all. Instead, you do find yourself caring and hoping things turn out well. You sympathize, even when they're snorting coke or cheating on a spouse. It sounds strange, but McInerney pulls it off.

Model Behavior is about an entertainment writer in love with a model (the model is Philomena or Philo). The model leaves him for a film star, ironically, one the writer is trying to interview. The writer is hardly an innocent, though, having slept with someone else and he regularly hangs out with a stripper whose company he enjoys. In addition, the writer tries to cope with an anorexic sister and the neurotic behavior of his best friend, a monastic poet who seems to find himself in the limelight too much, and an internet stalker. Good times, right. And my description sort of makes it seem outlandish, huh? It's not, though. Neither are the short stories about the filmmaker with connections to the mob, the transvestite hooker, the doctor who works in a prison, the couple who try to quit smoking, and so on. Like I said. Just frail human beings trying to lead lives with their own complications.

The Kept Man is similar in a way but then again, maybe not. I signed up for book recommendations through AccessPA and this was one listed under "books involving art" which I am a sucker for. The art is sort of minimal in this one, though. In this book, the main character is the wife of an artist who has been in a coma for six years after a fall caused a brain injury. Her hubby had experienced success and him being on his deathbed has increased interest. She's lonely, gets pressure from her husband's agent and his friend about doing retrospectives and such, and she has a hard time with it. Her clothes washer goes on the fritz and she starts going to a laundromat where she meets three guys with successful wives (The kept men) who don't do much of anything. She has an affair with one which doesn't help things and eventually she pulls the plug on the husband but not before a battle with his parents.

Unlike the characters in McInerney's book, I couldn't care less about those in Attenberg's work. I also thoroughly hated the tone. It's written like the narrator has an MFA in creative writing. The dustjacket calls the narrative spare. Does this sound spare to you?

"As I approach Metropolitan, I see two punks, clothes gray with dirt, black pants, black combat boots, a T-shirt with "Fuck You" scrawled on it in Magic Marker on one of them, the other in a shirt, shredded but somehow still whole, defiantly battling rag status. They're squatting against a brick wall covered with graffiti, not wild, hell-raising graffiti, but commissioned-by-the-community graffiti, blocks of wall real estate carefully delegated to top vandals in order to keep them out of trouble."

I think it bothered me that this is a first-person narrative but the reader gets tons of descriptives that you would expect out of a third-person narrator (which, now that I mention it, is sort of funny, because McInerney has the narrator switch over to the third-person (typically when the narrator is doing something wrong) in Model Behavior). The overly descriptive descriptions are also botched by a high level of crudity. The narrator seems both overeducated and undereducated at the same time.

Oh, the Philo in Attenberg's story is an old man who lives in the facility where her husband is receiving care. Just thought I'd mention that.

So while I find myself rooting for the hero in McInerney's story, Attenberg's lead is too whiny and unsympathetic for me to really care.

I thought about putting McInerney's book in the top ten (around #8) but looked at the list and said to myself "If I was going to tell someone to read either this book or the one currently on the list in positions 8-10, which would it be" and I had to go with the current list. Mostly, though, because I think this was my least favorite book by McInerney I have read. Ransom is my all-time favorite, I've probably read that close to twenty times in my life. The main character's search for somewhere he can call home has always resonated with me. But any of McInerney's other novels are also highly recommended by me. No recommendation of any sort for Attenberg's book.

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