Thursday, April 21, 2011

My New American Life

I loved After and was less enthusiastic about Goldengrove, so when Harper offered to send me an advance copy of the new novel by Francine Prose, I said yes, send me My New American Life.  And the verdict?  While I'm never sorry to have read anything by Francine Prose, because she's a good writer and a smart person, this one doesn't address national issues as well as I hoped it would, and as well as I thought After did.

The novel tells the story of Lula, an Albanian girl who came to New York City on a tourist visa and has been spinning tales about her native land as part of her effort to find a way into the American Dream.  For the suburban New Jersey dad she calls Mr. Stanley who hires her to watch over his son Zach, a high school senior, she tells folk tales and goes along with the assumption that she is a war refugee. For Zach she tells stories about rebellious teenagers. For the Albanians she sees in New Jersey, Lula tries to tell a tale of her American success, but since none of them believe that success comes without some kind of sinister price tag, they see no real opportunity to capture that elusive American Dream, no house in the suburbs that isn't haunted by the failures of its former occupants.

The darkness and emptiness that are so integral to this story make the story itself feel underpopulated and flat.  Here's Prose reading a one-minute segment from her novel.  You can see that she believes in its satiric potential, but I don't see that the satiric moments ever coalesce into a meaningful whole.

The moments are interesting and amusing enough to sustain a reader, however.  Especially early on in the novel, Lula's "teaching moments" with Zach are wonderful, like this one:

Last night, like every weeknight, Lula and Zeke had eaten dinner in front of the TV. Lula made them watch the evening news, educational for them both. The president had come on the air to warn the American people about the threat of bird flu. The word avian was hard for him. His forehead stitched each time he said it, and his eyelids fluttered, as if he'd been instructed to think of birds as a memory prompt.
'At home,' Lula marveled, 'that man is a god.'
'You say that every night,' Zeke said.
'I'm reminding myself,' she'd said.  Her country's love affair with America had begun with Woodrow Wilson, and Clinton and Bush had sealed the deal by bombing the Serbs and rescuing the Kosovar Albanians from Milosevic's death squads. Even at home she'd had her doubts about the streets paved with gold, but when she finally got to New York and started working at La Changita, the waitstaff had quickly straightened her out about the so-called land of opportunity. And yet for all the mixed feelings shared by waiters and busboys alike, the strongest emotion everyone felt was the desire to stay here. Well, fine. In Lula's opinion, ambivalence was a sign of maturity.
Yesterday night, as always, she'd felt sorry for the president, so like a dim little boy who'd told a lie that had set off a war, and then he'd let all those innocent people die in New Orleans, and now he was anxiously waiting to see what worse trouble he was about to get into. He seemed especially scared of the vice president, who scared Lula too, with his cold little eyes not blinking when he lied, like an Eastern Bloc dictator minus the poufy hair.
'There is no bird flu,' Lula had told Zeke. 'A war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, sure. Maybe one chicken in China with a sore throat and a fever.'
But by then the city police chief had appeared on the screen to announce that the alert level had been raised to code orange because of a credible terrorist threat against the New York subway system.
Lula said 'There is no threat.'
'How do you know everything?' Zeke asked. 'Not that I don't agree it's all bullshit.'
She'd been about to tell Zeke--again!--about having grown up in the most extreme and crazy Communist society in Europe, ruled for decades by the psycho dictator Enver Hoxha, who died when Lula was a child, but not without leaving his mark. The nation was a monument to him, as were the seventy thousand mushroomlike concrete bunkers he'd had built in a country smaller than New Jersey. But before she even had a chance to repeat herself, she'd been distracted by an advertisement for the new season of ER.
'Look, Zeke,' she'd said, 'see that gurney rushing in and doors flying open and all the nurses throwing themselves on the patient? Other countries, no one rushes. No one even looks at you till you figure out who to pay off.'

It seems to me that the delights of the satire in that passage are offset by the childishness of the caricature of the president, and so like all partisan political rants, the novel is going to end up preaching--to the extent that it succeeds in preaching at all--to the choir.  Lula becomes less of an interesting character, and more of a liberal mouthpiece.

She's a canny operator at all times:
"She wanted to give him a consoling pat on the shoulder, but she never touched Mister Stanley, and she didn't want to start now, both of them weakened in body and spirit, both perhaps seeking relief from the damage that alcohol had inflicted on their bodies. Mister Stanley wasn't the type of guy to hit on the nanny, but every guy was a hangover away from being that type of guy. Even a friendly shoulder squeeze was a door best left unopened."
After enough passages like that, it gets harder for me to work up much sympathy for what Lula wants, and cheer for her to get it--she's looking out for herself, and she doesn't need anybody else.

As she gets more sarcastic, she gets funnier, but seems more two-dimensional, so that passages like this one--which should hit me right where I live (and work)--bounce off without much effect except a wry smile:
"It was darling, the way Americans put so much faith in going to college, the way American parents bought their baby birds a dovecote in which to roost for four years before their maiden flight out into the world."

By the time Lula and Mister Stanley take Zeke to visit a fictional college called Alice Ames, the satire has stopped working.  Lula's musings, at this point, are the ravings of someone who is becoming unhinged by months of boredom and disappointment:
"It had tickled her to see Americans taken in by the sort of scam people thought happened only in Eastern Europe. If she had a dollar for every La Changita customer who told her about not being allowed to drive his rental car to Prague because it might get stolen, she wouldn't have had to work there. But now that she'd come to care about Zeke and Mister Stanley, she'd lost the ironic remove from which she watched Americans get conned, and she hoped that Alice Adams was not a dirty trick cynically named after some grifter's favorite hooker."

Satire requires a delicate hand, and Francine Prose is almost good enough to do it well.  So even though this isn't the satire about what has happened to The American Dream that I might have been hoping for, it's as close as anyone else has come since Miss Saigon, another "see ourselves as others see us" kind of satire, and it makes an interesting companion volume to Jonathan Franzen's novel FreedomMy New American Life will be available--in bookstores--on Tuesday, April 26.


bermudaonion said...

This sounds fascinating to me. It sounds like the kind of book that would make you put things in perspective.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

Interesting review, thanks Jeanne. I haven't heard of Francine Prose, but I think something political might be good for me to read right now, given all the political craziness happening in Wisconsin lately :)