Saturday, January 9, 2010

Book review - The Story of My Baldness

I didn't intend on this book being the first one I finished in 2010. I only had a handful of pages to go in Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole but wanted to take a book with me to Doodle's choir practice and figured instead of bringing a second to start once I finished Toltz's book, I'd just start a second. So I did. But The Story of My Baldness went so quick I almost finished it at rehearsal and so decided to wrap it up before returning to the other.

I don't know if I am old, humorless, have a different sense of humor than most (I think that is the one) or some combination. The dustjacket calls this book "fresh and funny-neurotically, claustrophobically funny". Uh, no. The book, written by Marek van der Jagt (which is a heteronym for Arnun Grunberg), is far from funny. I did enjoy it, mostly the style of it, but found it to be sad and did not find any of the characters to be likable.

The book is narrated by Marek, a handsome Austrian student in his early twenties, who has come under the impression that l'amour fou (essentially, mad, passionate love) is the reason for living. This impression originates largely from his mother, who while married, has a jillion, zillion lovers.

The story begins with Marek stating that he will talk about his baldness, which is noted as being one of his many shortcomings. The story then jumps back several years before moving back to the starting point. Along the way, Marek (who lives in Vienna), has his first encounter with women. That encounter in itself is disappointing for Marek as he comes to discover that his member is of a size unsatisfying to most women (described as half a pinkie).

He has other sexual relationships, presumably murders his mother (the details get jumbled in his head), his brothers are very successful. No matter how hard he tries, Marek can never seem to overcome his mediocrity. He gets through life by repeatedly telling himself that "two weeks from now, you'll be happy", counting down the two weeks and then telling himself that again. Oh, we discover that he is probably not the offspring of the man he thought was his father (big surprise there) and the ending suggested to me that Marek finally finds some level of ability when it comes to assisted suicide. A laugh riot, right?

Why on earth did I give this a star? It's bizarre. But mostly, the writing moved like I think. Marek will say something, then jump to something it reminds him of, then jump back to present time, then jump back to the memory and the yo-yoing continues throughout. It took me a while to get used to it (especially since I had been reading Toltz's very clean and direct prose for 500 pages) but when I did, I found it to be refreshingly different from most books I've read. Add in the fact that it succeeded despite being translated from Dutch and I think there is some merit to reading it, even if I didn't much care for Marek's embarrassingly open discussion of his failures.

Maybe the funniest thing about this book was that it initially won an award for best debut novel until it was discovered that van der Jagt was a fake name for Grunberg, who won the same award years before. I found that amusing, even if the story wasn't.

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