The First Mark in Project PPD – – A Mixed Bag.
1 February, 2010 § Leave a comment
Although my level of interest in the 1984 Pulitzer Prize-worthy “Foreign Affairs” could be described as flagging (at best) and almost non-existent (in truth) by the time I reached page number 78 on Saturday afternoon, ultimately I am glad I pushed through the plateau of dull interest to successfully turn the last page over, several hours later… if for no other reason than it has been enjoyable to analyze the book on a subjective as well as objective level.
At the risk of beating an already over-dented and frequently beaten literary gong, my initial conclusion as to why Lurie’s work was deemed worthy of the PP centers on her depiction of the human condition. Lurie is unrelenting and even harshly blunt in revealing her characters for what they are: a cast of rather ordinary but undeniably quirky persons who are, in turn, profound, dense, connected, lonely, compassionate, self-serving, intelligent, lustful, profane and insightful. Her descriptive pen targets a dual audience of Anglophiles and travelers in a simultaneously derisive yet companionable fashion. Anyone who has spent more than a week passing in London will find themselves erupting into knowing laughter when Fred Turner’s hapless American friends parrot the hackneyed references to England’s wet climate, undependable appliances and social gentrification – – and then, several paragraphs later, will find themselves strangely touched at Lurie’s depiction of universal social pretenses that incidentally bond and isolate the American and the Brit alike.
The title, “Foreign Affairs,” in itself is not merely a reference to the visceral experiences that occur during a prolonged time of travel; rather, the nature of human need, physical entanglement and emotional connection (or lack thereof) is explored through a recurring motif of sensual versus sexual exploration and emotional as well as social repression. The two main characters – – an older, deeply imaginative and rather isolated academic by the name of Professor “Vinnie” Miner who seeks to bury her desire for human contact underneath an ardent yet remote union with the landscape of English society and a younger professor, Fred Turner, whose intellectual capability is somewhat hampered by his emotional instability but ultimately bolstered by the undeniable vigor of his youth – – traverse a parallel journey of self-discovery, personal failure and social achievement in the greater context of expat-Britain. Much of the book is consumed with relationship, extramarital and platonic alike; unfortunately, it remains almost impossible to discern what greater message Lurie is attempting to convey through her characters’ convoluted, messy and alternately dispassionate/loving/terminated/long-lasting commitments.
When it comes down to it, I admired Lurie’s ability to incorporate social critique, human narrative and the culture of academia into a cohesive whole, one made remarkable for its piercing ordinariness as well as for the self-reflexive quality of its realistic occasion, providing familiarity irregardless of the reader’s nationality or own cultural reference points. On the other hand, more often than not, I found myself disgruntled with the dearth of redemption or growth consistently lacking in any of the characters’ lives. There were refreshing, however brief, flashes of dry wit and “droll social commentary” (thank you, Amazon book review) at points throughout the narrative; the overall timbre of the book, however, remained resoundingly bland and unengaging, mimicking a consistently stunted and superficial knowledge of the primary characters. Lurie’s relentless use of a self-conscious, colorless third-person limited narrative voice made it impossible for the reader to ever truly feel incorporated – – or invested, moreover – – in the events, emotions and figures of the story. While I don’t adhere to a school of literary criticism that weighs a book’s literary quality sheerly upon its didactic worth, the novel lacked the technical brilliancy or delightfully vocalized insight required to compensate for an otherwise uninspiring, undefined and unstimulating plot. All in all, were I on the board of Pulitzer Prize granters, “Foreign Affairs” would not have made it on to the short list.
Next up for Project PPD? Edwin O’Connor’s “Edge of Sadness,” written in 1961 and opening in a somewhat oblique fashion as follows:
This story at no point becomes my own. I am in it –
good heavens, I’m in it to the point of almost never being out of it!
– but the story belongs, all of it, to the Carmody’s,
and my own part, while substantial enough,
was never really of any great significance at all.
I don’t think this is modesty; it seems to me a simple fact.
Because now that it’s all over, and I can look back
on all those weeks and months –
not with detachment of course,
but with a somewhat colder eye than before,
I have the feeling that whatever happened would have happened
whether I had been on hand or not…