Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tim Buck Reviews Words in Edgewise

While offline for several weeks, I did quite a bit of reading. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Here's some of my impressions:

“Bad Blood” is delightful. An American woman, married to a relocated Indian, must suffer the cultural condescension of his visiting relatives. Subtle psychological combat between our protagonist and her antagonist, Jaya, moves us humorously to the story's end. And that ending sounds an unexpected, wistful note.

Of course, the exotic (to me) element adds flavor and interest, but I couldn't resist thinking that a similar friction among relatives could just have easily occurred between two Americans. What we have, basically, is a main character who is self-conscious and self-possessed. Those others, whether in person or as revealed in letters, lack those characteristics. For them, tradition and egoism have displaced the functions of a self-critical faculty.

It would be silly of me or others to read too broadly into this phenomenon. Though India still clings to many worn-out behavioral modes, I know some Indians whose minds belong to themselves. Having said that, I do think this story should be pitched to a TV exec. It would make a wonderful, sophisticated sit-com in the right hands.

* * *

With “Prickly Heat,” Cheryl proves herself an exceptional prose stylist. There is something of Keats's “negative capability” revealed in this poignant story: it is a mystery to me how a female author can so perfectly inhabit the hurting corners of a middle-aged man's soul. And her striking turns of phrase bring delight to the reader, even as he squirms and winces in sympathy with Roger.

* * *

“Closure.” This tale is superbly rendered. Again, those fresh, stunning turns of phrase. The first time I read this, the tearful harmonica player Hank struck me as marvelously absurd, inexplicably sentimental. After a second reading, the truth came clear (I almost regret the truth, preferring non sequitur as a form of high art). The forlorn character Lily is brought vividly to life. And her moments of eventual determination are delivered to us with a palpable presence.

* * *

Read “Healing Louise” and take from it what you will. For me, the details recede. In the foreground, a general conception emerges: human beings are, each one of us, very strange creatures. Six billion brains. Six billion different psychological universes. That we communicate at all sometimes hits me with a force of incredulity. A nurse, an astronaut, a rodeo clown? What shall you choose to be to stay distracted from the crushing Absurd?

* * *

“Boomerang Avenue.” Another general conception: it is a form of magic how a writer can populate your brain with living characters and furnish it with objects that teem with verisimilitude. Setting that consideration aside, I'm not as pleased with this story as I am with the previous ones. Cathy's attitude reversal at the end – from a resentful belligerence to a sudden softening – strikes me a bathetic, a bit facile.

* * *

“Novocaine.”

Dentists are a bit odd, wouldn't you say? They've always struck me that way. And I think I've read that, among professionals, dentists have the highest suicide rate. Hygienists and dental assistants also freak me out. They are preternaturally chipper. It's no act. To their cores, they are well-pleased to be existentially rooted in the vicinity of root canals. Like blithe gondoliers rowing the canals of Venice. Chipper people disconcert me. Happy people make me nervous.

OK, to the story. I don't know what to make of it. Is Zoe a programmed zombie, an idiot-savant? She is very odd, as are the others in her orbit. Is the man as strange as he seems, or has the Novocaine numbed Zoe's brain? Maybe he's not really even there! Read this yourself and see if you can gain traction on the fascinating, slippery surface.

* * *

“Safe House.”

Like “Bad Blood,” our main character is observant, self-possessed, put upon, and constrained by socials mores. The cleaning entrepreneur Karen is, like Jaya from the first story, just the opposite – she is expressionistic rather than impressionistic. In other words, crass and boorish. But as “Safe House” moves along, we begin to sympathize with her pathos (Jaya never stirred sympathy in me).

Cheryl is adroit in her ability to blend social absurdity with personal alienation. The protagonist's husband is, apparently, the bread-winning jerk. Karen's world is a sad, seedy, fractal kaleidoscope. Those societal topographies form the background. In the foreground is a perplexed woman inhabiting her own mind.

But sheesh! Who hires people to clean? Get real. Clean up your own freaking mess.

* * *

What I liked most about reading “Whet” is that it made me glad I'm not like those characters. I'm glad that artsy discotheques and empty sex hold no attraction for me. I'm glad I don't have to associate with somersaulting libertines. But maybe I'm being callous, uncharitable. Maybe the crises of a rejection and a weight problem create a tension and an isolation that naturally expresses itself in superficial activity. And the need to be accepted, to be acknowledged, to be known can, I think, send the human spirit on very basic, urgent missions. Aside from all that, Cheryl has given us another vivid, provocative slice of life.

* * *

“Wisdom” is a very well-crafted story about time and love's erosion...about the contradictions inherent in monogamy.

And of course for me – basically a hobo masquerading as a normal person – it's always interesting to read about the upper crust, about people who have real nice houses and who attend social events. Who wear silk smoking jackets and sapphire necklaces. Who are more interested in novel bed mates than Russian novels. Who are obsessed with illicit carnality, instead of chastely dreaming about an ideal soul-mate.

* * *

In conclusion, this book is aces! If you enjoy falling into strange, expertly realized worlds, you will love this little volume.

* * *

The book's cover painting is by Cheryl's sister Janet. She also contributes a painting for each of the nine stories. These images are not descriptive, do not illustrate the stories. Rather, they are expressionistic, formally loose gesturings. From them, a mood is evoked that carries over into each story. They are ambiguous, and that is their power."
-Tim Buck

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