Friday, October 10, 2008

Take Three, They're Small

It's been forgettable fiction week here. I read Billie Letts' Shoot the Moon and listened to the audiobook of Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero. I'd liked previous books by these authors--I liked Letts' Where the Heart Is (made into a pretty good movie with Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd). I also liked Ondaatje's The English Patient (made into a very long movie with Kristen somebody and one of the Fiennes brothers).

Every time I'd get in the car, I'd fall into an Ondaatje reverie, roused every fifteen minutes or so by a phrase that was just too flowery, trying too hard to be literary. I liked some of the images, though, and I actually had to go to the library and get a copy of the book because I got so fascinated with the sound of one character's name. The name turns out to be Marie-Neige, but the reader on the audiobook pronounces it with a creditable French accent, and I kept trying to figure out if it was some form of Marjory or another common name. Ultimately, however, there didn't turn out to be much of a plot, and I didn't like any of the characters, with the possible exception of Marie-Neige, who is only a memory.

When I had the time to pick up Shoot the Moon, I had trouble falling for its forced folksy charm. The title comes from this passage:
"What does it mean, 'shoot the moon'?"
"It means he's gonna go for all the tricks."
"The whole kit and kaboodle," Jackson said.
"Kind of like getting married," Lonnie explained.
"How's that?" Mark asked.
"Well, say you find you a woman you just can't get enough of. You want her so bad you can't eat, can't sleep." Now you know this is a woman who's gonna keep your bed warm on cold nights, make you potato soup when you're sick. She's gonna believe you even when you're lying. Hell, she's the only person in the world who's gonna know what you wanted that you never got, and what you got that you never wanted. But you know for certain there's gonna be times when this woman's gonna make you miserable. She's gonna bitch if you forget your anniversary. She's gonna want you to watch some crying movie on TV when there's a ball game you wanna see. She'll expect you to skip your poker game and keep her company when she's feeling blue. In other words, she's gonna be a pain in the ass some of the time. So, you gotta make a decision. What are you gonna do? Walk away from her? Or go for it all. Give her up? Or shoot the moon."

I could have enjoyed this kind of dialogue if the plot had been halfway decent and a few of the characters had been developed past the "aren't we friendly in this small town" point, but the big mystery of the novel, when it's finally revealed, is unbelievable, and the murderer's motive is like an afterthought. I think Letts had such a good idea for a mystery that she had to begin writing it, but then couldn't think of a good way to solve it.

Reading Shoot the Moon in my moments of free time and listening to Divisadero whenever I got in the car made me feel a little like Goldilocks--one was trying too hard to be a work of literary merit, and the other wasn't trying nearly hard enough. Then I came across a copy of an old familiar poem that I was surprised to see is by Michael Ondaatje. It's entitled "The Strange Case":

My dog's assumed my alter ego.
Has taken over--walks the house
phallus hanging wealthy and raw
in front of guests, nuzzling head up skirts
while I direct my mandarin mood.

Last week driving the babysitter home.
She, unaware dog sat in the dark back seat,
talked on about the kids' behaviour.
On Huron Street the dog leaned forward
and licked her ear.
The car going 40 miles an hour
she seemed more amazed at my driving ability
than my indiscretion.

It was only the dog I said.
Oh she said
Me interpreting her reply all the way home.

When I first read this, at babysitting age, it didn't strike me as creepy, the way it does now. But it's certainly Ondaatje at his best, in that the image will stay with you for a long time.


Ron Griggs said...

So to state the obvious, does this seem creepy because babysitter starts off nervous in the car alone with the strange older man, and that somehow he must be responsible for the dog's action? "I thought it was him," she says, and now--even though she knows it was the dog--she can't get past the connection she made at first. Did he train the dog to do that? Maybe the dog, through some psychic owner-dog connection, is acting out what the man wants to do.

I feel sorry for the man.

Jeanne said...

He says at the start of the poem that the dog has become his "alter ego," so I thought it was creepy that the man interprets her reply all the way home--what's he doing, trying to figure out if she "likes" him or if she "likes, likes" him? Aside from Johnny Depp, most guys over 40 are not regarded with any sexual interest from young girls. And aside from characters who have few thoughts besides sex, like Updike's Rabbit, most of them have the sense to know that. Or should.

Ron Griggs said...

I didn't pay as much attention to the 1st part of the poem, which does suggest that the dog is acting out some of his thoughts.

I was thinking about people who have suspicion automatically thrust upon them--the young black man you meet in the parking lot, the dad walking the halls of the grade school or daycare center, or anyone who looks vaguely Middle Eastern anywhere in this country.

When I read the last line "Me interpreting her reply..." I thought of that helpless mental conversation that always goes like:

"Please don't look at me with that kind of suspicion. I really am a nice guy. Yes, I know they told you not to talk to strangers--and all those strangers in the examples just happen to be male and middle-aged."

"Yes, I know that's just what a real creep would say, to put you off your guard."

"Yes, I know that just continuing this conversation at all is only heightening your suspicions, but...oh well."

After turning 30, I finally began to have a gut level inkling of what it must be like to be a black man in America. Just a teeny tiny bit.
The automatic assumption of being a threat until proven otherwise that middle-aged white men experience in certain limited circumstances--usually in environments with children--is the mildest, faintest, palest imitation of the experience that black men must have almost every day and in almost every circumstance.