You hear people say, "(blank) novel haunted me." But dig a little deeper, and it's usually some writer's trick of outrageous violence (or some other offense against humanity) at the center of the sentiment. Yet here's a book that's been haunting me for months now, and it didn't contain a single scene of murder, rape or torture to do it.
How? It's a very spare book--an "easy" listen. But each scene is drawn with purpose and originality. I didn't expect to like the setting in Saudi Arabia--but Eggers skips the easy exoticisms and creates a world at once unlike anything I expected, yet totally recognizable.
At the center of it all is a tale of the decline and dissolution of Schwinn Bicycles (yes!). It's a "backstory" item, but Eggers returns to it again and again--the whole book's really a rumination on just what the heck went wrong, and what such failures of modernization/corporatization/globalization/etc. mean for a man trying to survive in the world today, (and so we return to the question of murder, rape and torture...).
Now THAT'S haunting.
All this is accomplished without being preachy, or prescriptive. Just perceptive.
Also, the reader Dion Graham really is superlative--I bought the book on a Salon recommendation that praised his ability to capture in his read the way an Eggers page is "composed" (with eccentric spacing, elisions, etc.). Thought this would make for a sort of avant-garde, "performance art" experience. Not at all--it was like being inside someone else's train-of-thought, but without the claustrophobia. Incredible vocal characterizations. No way I would've gotten as much out of text on a page!
I went in hoping for a clever riff on Austen; instead, I wound up with a David Foster Wallace eulogy, (a switch which itself feels like an repudiation of Austen, and left me bummed).
It felt too bloated for its original (and admirably) modest aim (as set out in both author interviews and the novel itself), and too superficial and unoriginal for its heft. I wondered if the author was trying to meet a minimum page count...which, as listener, became trying....
Most promising early when the focus is on Madeleine, the undergrad heroine, (tho' even this section is marred by the author's fixation on the tony Ivy League setting--Brown, if you care. It all comes across as either padding, pandering, or a reflexive attempt to pump-up the story's importance. Grew from a mild nuisance to a real drag before midway).
The most memorable incidents center on the least conventional character, an alleged "genius" named Leonard--he quickly becomes an overlarge presence that throws the whole book out of balance. And learning about his close resemblance to Eugenides' friend, the real-life writer and recent suicide David Foster Wallace, quickly engulfs any interest the fictional character is able to generate.
The time spent with the bookish third leg of the love triangle feels almost totally irrelevant and uncomfortably like a self-portrait of the author.
Before halfway into the book it felt like Eugenides had paused and looked at what he'd written so far...and lost faith in everything but the idea of painting a refracted portrait of his recently deceased friend DFW. This diminished the fine work he'd done with Madeleine, our ostensibly sympathetic and central character around whom "the marriage plot" is supposed to literally revolve. By halfway she's a shadow presence, and the book becomes a study of one man's decent into mental illness...which wasn't really what I signed up for, y'know? The ending felt like a rushed attempt to work her back into the novel's emotional cross-hairs.
On the other hand, even a year or two after listening (seems more "fair" to wait awhile and see what sticks before sharing an opinion, don't you think?), I can still recall much of the story, and more than a few scenes with real clarity . But then, those mostly had to do with sex.
A note on the narrator, David Pittu: he is a(n otherwise) very good reader with a resonant, neutral American accent, who lapses into an (unintentionally?) HILARIOUS voice whenever he reads any female character but the heroine. Think Jimmy Fallon trying to impersonate Harvey Fierstein impersonating Phyllis DIller...No, just think PAUL LYNDE. I kind you not. Even his Madeleine had me questioning if Mr. Pittu really liked ANY of the female characters...and this eventually had its own corrosive effect on my enjoyment of the story.
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