Mar 20, 12
Read from February 27 to 28, 2012
So I guess it's been a month, but I'm going to take a stab at a (short) review anyway, despite not being able to remember all the things about this book that I thought would stick with me.
This is supposed to be one of the overlooked classics of the 1980's, which, given my fairly low opinion of the 80's in general, I can believe. What's fascinating to me about it is how accurately it portrayed the American privacy/property impulse. According to Erickson in the preface, this impulse hasn't always been a part of American culture, but I think it has. Sure, people all over the world probably want both privacy and property, but in America we've placed a premium on it and, at the same time, made it relatively attainable. Each suburban (and a suburb, as far as I can tell, is for the most part an American phenomenon) home is its own mini-castle, complete with a moat analogue in the yard. In fact, we have laws in most states that are called Castle Laws, that enable you to address an intruder - any intruder - with lethal force.
With this as part of our ethos, it's not too surprising that Loewinsohn makes his characters say things like the worst part of being robbed is "the feeling of being violated, of having your privacy invaded, that's pretty bad." This seems cliché now, since everyone who gets robbed tends to use the word "violated." But at the time, I'm not sure. I still cringed, but I want to try to give Loewinsohn the benefit of the doubt, because he's meditating on something pretty interesting.
The fact is, though we've always been pretty privacy-oriented, only recently has complete privacy become an option (setting aside cases of recluses and hermits and all that). A comparatively high proportion of Americans can and do work from home. You can get your groceries delivered by a number of different services. Thanks to the Internet, you can buy anything you might need for entertainment or anything else, without leaving your home. Hell, if you're looking for a significant other, you can even find those online. And by the way, apparently more Americans are living alone than ever before.
I do think people are taking full advantage of these things, and because of this, it's interesting to think that maybe robberies and burglaries will become increasingly traumatic because of this. People who live alone can unleash their latent eccentricities a bit, without fear that anyone will judge them...unless someone breaks into their house, of course. And if you're used to having your home be almost a literal castle, wouldn't it feel that much worse to have it invaded?
And obversely: I live in a house with four other people, and none of us have anything much worth stealing. People I've never seen before frequently show up at the door, and I let them in because I assume they're friends of friends. But they could be anyone, really. And actually, my house has been robbed a number of times in the last two years, and I don't feel particularly violated. Loewinsohn's narrator says the worst part is the violation, and the items stolen don't really matter because of insurance. Since I don't have homeowner's insurance, I have to disagree with him. For us, the items stolen are the only things we care about.
My point is that most Americans have an expectation of getting past that situation relatively quickly; if I were to put it in Loewinsohn's terms, my magnetic field is smeared together with a bunch of others, and they all ultimately cancel each other out. Would Albert, the book's serial breaker-and-enterer, feel much of anything if he came into our house? Doubtful. Whereas in the houses of the well-to-do, there's always an aura surrounding the objects, and this is what Albert feeds on. Consequently, the owners of the aura can feel that it's been violated. This seems hardly a good thing, so ultimately I don't think I envy them their complete privacy.
Also, there seems to be a dog-eared page in my copy of this, and I've just figured out why; it's a quote that makes me a bit less likely to ever want to have a kid. There's a precocious and troubled kid in this book (a trope that I'm not sure I'll ever tire of), and he develops a hobby of building model trains with his dad, as a bonding thing. Naturally, the dad feels great about this, as he hasn't been able to reach the son any other way. Later, we find out that "the boy had never had the slightest interest in model railroading, and had begun the layout and continued to expand and develop it, almost to the day of his death, because he knew it made his father feel good to think he was contributing in this way to his son's happiness."
Ouch. This reminds me of a few occasions on which I did things like this, never to the Mortimer kid's extent, of course. And seeing it from the other point of view, if I ever had a kid who did something like that to/for me, I'd be crushed. First of all, to be deceived by a child, even a precocious one, would be a little embarrassing. Second of all, to feel like I'm doing someone a favor and then to find out they've been doing the favor for me the whole time is always a downer, and in this case, as the father, I'd feel like a major failure.
So..I didn't really say much about the book. You'll have to just trust me when I say it's pretty good. Loewinsohn's prose is not gorgeous, but in a good way. And the way he weaves the three stories together is impressive in the exact way that The Sea Came In At Midnight was not.