Thursday, September 28, 2006

Last of Her Kind* Sigrid Nunez

The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez purports to be the story of a friendship between two women who come of age in the 60’s. In fact, the two women in question are friends for barely more than their first year of college, and though the events of Ann Drayton’s life haunt the narrator’s thoughts and dreams, her actual daily existence is little present in the novel. Instead, this book serves as both an homage to, and an indictment of an era.
The story of the sixties told here is not one often heard in history books or from the reminiscences of those who lived through them. Here are the drugs and free love, of course, but it is not simply marijuana and LSD and groovy be-ins. Making their appearance on these pages are heroin, crystal meth, rape and racism. Woodstock, in this novel, is an event that people never quite get to.
Georgette George, the narrator, moves through the militant activism and the drugged out idealism of the 60’s in a haze of self-obsession so thick, one wonders if she has learned anything at all throughout the course of this memoir-ish novel. Told in a pastiche of styles and a jumpcut of past and present, we learn of George’s bewildered arrival in the hallowed halls of Barnard, escaping from her lower-middle class upstate childhood and abusive mother. Here, she meets Dooley Ann Drayton, a smart and privileged upper-class girl who wishes that she had been “assigned a black roommate.” Ann is compassionate, idealistic, and uncompromising in her beliefs, working tirelessly to create the just world that somehow seemed just within reach in the sixties. She is the “last of her kind” of the title, a person so true to her values that she is willing to go to jail for them, to starve herself, to endure a lifetime of abuse in order to shed her privileged white skin.
And yet Ann is no saint. Her character and motivations are given plenty of space to be complicated, as are George’s own and those of her psychotic sister Solange. These characters are so well situated within their era, that it is clear that they are just as much casualties of 60’s as they are products of it, and the brutal honesty of their stories is immensely refreshing.

The Keep* Jennifer Egan

One never knows exactly who the main character is in Jennifer Egan’s latest novel, The Keep. In this onion of a novel, the reader keeps peeling back layer after layer to reveal and even more intriguing and engrossing plot without ever being sure which of the thee main characters is speaking, or which, even is real.
The book begins with Danny, an aimless thirty-something New Yorker, arriving late one night at an Eastern European Gothic castle where his cousin Howard has summoned him to help convert the castle into a hotel. It is soon revealed that Howard and Danny share a traumatic childhood event which may, or may not, factor into Howard’s reasons for inviting Danny to the castle. It is also soon revealed that this entire story is being told by Ray, an inmate at a maximum security New York State prison taking a writing class in order to get away from his oppressively insane cellmate.
Here are all the tropes of a modern thriller: an ancient castle, ghoulish legends of murdered twins, instruments of torture, an evil baroness locked up in a tower, a troubled childhood secret, and an imprisoned murderer. And yet, as the story progresses, none of these potential points of conflict is revealed to be the one on which the plot turns: none is the dark secret it seemed at first to be.
One has to respect Egan for presenting the reader with such potentially lucrative plot points and then choosing to let them lie. They serve the essential purpose of drawing the reader into the story and driving the plot at a relentless pace, and yet Egan somehow maintains a self- conscious awareness of her own manipulations without allowing the plot to falter. The story that is being told here is not about Danny, or Howard, or Ray, or the ancient castle and the murdered twins. The story is about imagination as a path towards healing and escape. It is about the power of fiction to both imprison and set free.
Egan has crafted a world in which all of the characters are imprisoned in one way or another (if not in a physical jail or labyrinth or keep, then in various mental squirrel cages, including addiction), but she has also given us the key: a world in which magical thinking actually works.