This is a story that's been told over and over in American literature since the 1950s: white, middle-class couple with quasi-bohemian values and vague...moreThis is a story that's been told over and over in American literature since the 1950s: white, middle-class couple with quasi-bohemian values and vague dreams of being artists get married, have kids and move to the suburbs, where they eventually wonder how their lives got to be so boring. Existential crises ensue, which may or may not lead to either of them doing something radical to try and bust out of the rut.
I think that story is best told by Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road. His writing is lovely and lyrical, sometimes darkly funny and sometimes heartbreaking, and he keeps the book short and fast-moving.
What's more, he doesn't fall into the pattern of so many other male tellers of this tale, who always seem to blame the wife for keeping the husband mired in comfortable mediocrity. In this version, they both decide to move there so that their kids can have a backyard to play in, but they also agree that the move will be temporary, and that they will move back to the city and resume the creative, semi-bohemian life they had been living once the kids were older. As you might guess, "temporary" becomes more or less permanent; the husband, Frank, gets a good-paying job that he initially despises but slowly comes to like (once he figures out he can be good at it), and for a time the wife, April, tries to organize an amateur theater company. (She fails: the first scene of the novel is of their awkward first performance of The Petrified Forest, in which she stars). But she also takes steps toward changing their life together: she devises, and starts to carry out, a plan for them to live abroad for a while.
Over the course of the novel, a huge gulf opens up between husband and wife. They start out fairly close, like two people sharing a joke no one else is in on (mostly at the expense of the other people in their suburb, whom they see as less educated, less hip and, above all, not cultivating the proper ironic distance between themselves and their bourgeois surroundings), but life in the separate, minimally-overlapping spheres of home and office leaves them with less in common than they had when they were living together in the city.
I also think part of the reason they drift apart is because Frank changes and April doesn't, really. She clings to the idea of returning to city life like a lifeline, while Frank comes to feel at home in his new job. He starts to feel like he's needed there, and he finds it intensely difficult to get used to the idea of quitting.
Both characters are amazingly well-drawn, and even if they were the only characters in this book, it would be enough to be interesting. But there are other characters, too, who are equally complex and interesting. There's another couple who are the closest thing Frank and April have to friends in their new neighborhood, and there's their landlady and her son, who is mentally ill and who, in the few scenes when he appears, gets some of the best lines in the book. (less)
**spoiler alert** The edition of this book that I have is by "Hannah Green," which I later discovered is Joanne Greenberg's pseudonym. Apparently some...more**spoiler alert** The edition of this book that I have is by "Hannah Green," which I later discovered is Joanne Greenberg's pseudonym. Apparently some parts of the story are autobiographical, and she was unwilling to reveal her mental illness at the time.
This book, written in the early sixties, details sixteen-year-old Deborah Blau's psychotic break with reality, and the efforts of psychoanalyst Dr. Fried to bring her back. Deborah slips back and forth between reality, which she experiences as colorless and not-quite-real, and the vivid imaginary Kingdom of Yr, with gods who speak to her in riddles, a howling chorus of accusatory voices called the Collect, and a gatekeeper between worlds, known as the Censor. Over the course of treatment, Dr. Fried reveals to Deborah how she has in fact created Yr to mask her conflicted feelings toward her own family, particularly her younger sister.
Yr is easily the best thing about this novel. The scenes with Deborah's family, especially when I reread it now, paint a stereotypical picture of the family dynamics that were once believed to bring on schizophrenia in children: the mother is a tightly-wound, emotionally unavailable worrywart who clings to the appearance of normalcy like a security blanket, while the father is as quiet and hands-off as she is controlling and talkative. The family really isn't developed much beyond showing its role as an incubator for Deborah's madness.
Also, though I don't remember for sure, it's quite likely that the book contains outdated information about the causes and treatment of schizophrenia. (less)
**spoiler alert** Ursula Le Guin has said that this book grew out of a thought-experiment she did regarding the role of sex and gender in the developm...more**spoiler alert** Ursula Le Guin has said that this book grew out of a thought-experiment she did regarding the role of sex and gender in the development of civilization. The story takes place on the planet Gethen, where the people are neuter except during "kemmer," a sort of estrus state that happens about once a month, during which a given person may be male or female.
Into this genderless society comes Genly Ai, ambassador from a federation of allied planetary systems. Ai is a Terran human, and very strongly identified with masculinity. The Gethenians' neutrality unnerves him, and he finds it very hard to trust these beings he can't understand. The Gethenians also do not trust him, either in the backward, feudal kingdom he starts in --- there his only ally was the paranoid king's chief minister, Lord Estraven, whose support of Ai gets him kicked out of the king's service --- or in the bureaucratic, totalitarian state of Orgoreyn, where he is imprisoned for espionage, and from which he must escape back to Karhide with Estraven, crossing a vast plain of ice on a sledge.
The book is very complex structurally, taking the form of Ai's report to the interplanetary government concerning Gethen. Half of the story is told by Ai himself, while the rest is excerpted from Estraven's diary (presumably translated from the Karhidish by Ai). Throughout, the story is periodically interrupted by brief interludes of cryptic Gethenian folktales. It's from one of these that the title comes.
This is a book that it's more fun to think about later than it actually is to read it. The plot is so slow-paced, and the characters so reserved, that there is little in the foreground of the story to absorb you, but the background (i.e., the setting) more than makes up for it. Gethen is easily a match for the Dune universe in its complexity and elegance. (less)