Monday, February 15, 2016

Valentine's Day Hangover: 8 Books for a Post-Romantic Mood

Valentine's Day, especially in the age of the internet, is the day when single people are expected to lament their single state with copious amounts of wine and chocolates (that were not a gift) and couples are expected to have a photogenically uber-romantic evening involving the presentation of flowers, boxed candies, and goopy protestations of affection. While singles have the day to bitterly scroll their social media to see what lovey-dovey public tributes their coupled friends have posted, the couples try to top each other in gag-me sentimentality, whether through photo slideshows of themselves and of the food they are supposedly going to eat, or gross euphemisms about how much sex they are going to have after they put down their phones. February 14 in the age of the internet is a nightmare of mawkishness that even the Victorians - inventors of the valentine card - would find nauseating. It's too much for me and I cried, twice, watching Goodbye, Mr. Chips. All of us, single or coupled, enthused Valentine's Day celebrants and skeptical grouches, could use a palate cleanser. Here are eight books that relegate romance to the dustbin:

Notes from Underground - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
This bitter, existential novella is narrated by an unnamed man, a retired civil servant who spends his days masochistically obsessing over his own suffering and planning elaborate schemes of revenge against everyone he dislikes, including his old colleagues and a prostitute who he manipulates into believing him her savior only to crush her with the knowledge of her inevitable, anguished destiny. Dostoyevsky's narrator wields his philosophies in an attempt to prove his own self-superiority, his own unique value over the rest of society, and the book becomes an indictment both of the idealistic creeds the narrator loathes and the conclusions he clings to to boost his own ego. The romantic, the utopian, the charitable and humane, are exposed as self-serving lies. This book should prove a more than adequate antidote to even the most cloying Valentine's Day romance.

Look at Me - Jennifer Egan
Egan's novel attains more relevance as our lives, or rather the images we create of our lives, on social media play an ever greater social role. Threading together the stories of a fashion model whose face has to be completely reconstructed after a car accident, a depressive and homely teenage girl, a man with a half dozen identities who may or may not be a terrorist, and a private investigator on the edge of falling apart, the novel examines the gulfs that open up between what we look like and what we are, what we project to others and what others project onto us, how we present ourselves and what we are like when we're alone. The greatest violence that the book perpetrates on its characters is their unmasking, the exposure of those titanic gulfs. Though there are moments of tenderness and brief flashes of compassion and pity, this novel has a razor-sharp edge and is anything but romantic.

The Talented Mr. Ripley - Patricia Highsmith
In Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith created one of the single most charming monsters of literature. Tom has expensive tastes and few talents, but among the talents he does possess is the ability to inspire utterly undeserved trust, confidence, and affection in others. In this novel, Tom uses that ability to get himself to an idyllic seaside town in Italy, the chosen haunt of Dickie Greenleaf, heir to an American fortune, and, while he may not exactly want to get his hands dirty, when his friends won't cooperate he doesn't have much choice in the matter, or so he believes. Highsmith is the mistress of suspense, but the book also has a sly, winking, sinister sense of humor and not a single shred of sentimentality. 

Lust - Elfriede Jelinek
Austrian feminist writer Elfriede Jelinek writes novels that, even in our jaded age of limitless internet pornography, never fail to shock. In interviews, Jelinek has said that her original intention for this novel was to write feminist erotica, but she found that the paradigms of sexual language were too contaminated by a male, violent point of view to do so. Lust is, absolutely, about sex, but this is sex as violence, sex as the brutalizing use of the female body by men and boys. The novel's protagonist, Gerti, is daily abused by her husband, who believes himself entitled to sex as a marital right; Gerti tries and fails to indulge in escapism by fantasizing about a sexual encounter with a lover that might offer her some trace of sexual satisfaction. Jelinek's writing is not for the queasy, the easily disgusted, or the prudish, but few writers write so vividly of the physical intersections of the animalistic and the human. Her militant expression of feminism leaves no space for dream romances and is the absolute antithesis of the bodice-ripper.

Ignorance - Milan Kundera
Kundera's novel probes the shortcomings and self-serving selectivity of memory by narrating how two former lovers, Czech expatriates Irena and Josef, recall, or fail to recall, their long-ago affair. Devastating in its unsparing depiction of the impossibility of returning to the past, the book rejects facile notions of love with its surgically precise examination of how ignorance, whether willful or unconscious, shapes our understanding of ourselves, our lovers, and our homelands. In stark contrast to the bathos of films like An Affair to Remember that assume an eternal perpetuity of love and an absolute truth of memory, Ignorance, in deconstructing the pasts of Irena and Josef, forces the reader to question her own memories, what they mean, and what they might mean to others.
On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan has tirelessly, and from myriad points of view, examined violence, desire, and selfishness; in this novella, Edward and Florence arrive at Chesil Beach, just married, for their honeymoon. Their union is unconventional given their backgrounds - Edward's family is not especially well-off or privileged, while Florence's family is wealthy, cultured, and sophisticated - but they are convinced, and have convinced their families, that their love for each other will bridge over the gaps. The disasters of their wedding night, however, as they realize how little they know or understand each other and become profoundly disillusioned, destroy their romantic hopes and reveal how very fragile those hopes were to begin with.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. - Adelle Waldman
Waldman's debut novel made a splash when it was published in 2013, garnering almost universally positive reviews and a spot on many critics' best-of-the-year lists. Though decidedly gentler than the other choices on this list, the book skewers the hipster literati culture of Brooklyn in its story of Nate, an up-and-coming writer about to publish his first novel who embarks on a relationship with a fellow writer, Hannah. Waldman brilliantly captures a very male, very white literary voice without succumbing to it, exposing the unrecognized misogyny of male privilege and egotism, without completely losing sympathy for her deeply flawed, but nevertheless appealing protagonist. The novel ridicules the absurdities of contemporary dating, its politically correct rhetoric riddled with stubborn assumptions about men, women, and what they want and think, and might very well compel the reader to delete her OkCupid account.

The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton
Wharton's first masterpiece is a clear-eyed, unflinching depiction of the constraints placed on women when the only ambition permitted her is matrimonial. Lily Bart, high-born and raised to expect fantastic prospects from marriage to a wealth man, is beautiful, vivacious, and seductive; men want to bed her and women envy her, shepherding their husbands and fiances out of her scope of influence. Her best efforts, however, fail, and unable to snag a husband and totally unsuited and untrained to pursue employment in the few lines of work open to women in 1905, she succumbs to addiction, poverty, and despair. Through this story, Wharton advances a feminist polemic: a woman barred from work and expected to fulfill herself solely through marriage is failed by her society, her only recourse being the prospect of money, without which she loses value as fast as berries left to rot in the heat.

1 comment:

  1. I love "Mr. Ripley", in fact it inspired me to binge read a lot of Highsmith's other works about ten years ago. Her writing is so highly descriptive and evocative, it's no wonder it's been mined for so many movie plots.