Monday, March 3, 2008


I suppose my recent foray into male-centered Western sagas of bonding, agon and identity must have propelled me to the other end of the pendulum-swing: to female-centered urban sagas of bonding, agon and identity -- in this case Alison Lurie’s novel The Truth about Lorin Jones (1988). The novel follows the experiences of Polly Alter as she attempts to research a biography of enigmatic painter Lorin Jones, née Laura Zimmern, a task that she expects to give her grounds for an exposure of the patriarchial art establishment (due to her subject’s unearned neglect and bad handling), but which leads her to grasp (gasp!) that things are more complicated than that.

Beginning as a crusader for Lorin, Polly comes to find the painter not wholly to her liking, and, this is the point again and again, foolish hetero-female that she is, she can’t help sympathizing with the males she meets who were close to the taciturn, difficult, withdrawn, neurotic and self-centered Jones. But males are supposed to be the enemy -- at least that’s what Polly’s closest friend, a sympathetic but ultimately self-centered lesbian named Jeanne says -- and poor Polly just can’t seem to toe the correct ideological line. That, such as it is, is the comic premise of this good-natured riff on the gender wars of those quaintly assertive and oh-so-politically correctional 80s. Though, truth be told, the setting seems much more late 70s to me. No matter, Jones died in 1969 and this is about twenty-years later; no need to check your zeitgeist, alas, for Lurie does nothing to make the different eras live as anything more than dates on a registry of events. No effort is made to bring art as an occurrence with distinct periods and premises into focus either.

I’m not sure the novel qualifies as “chick lit,” which I believe is an appellation it predates, but the prose reminded me of nothing so much as all those Ramona books by Beverly Cleary that I dutifully read and re-read to my daughter in the mid-80s. Perhaps, since Lurie teaches children’s literature as well as writing, this resemblance is not coincidental. My sense is that Lurie set out to give us a more adult version of the experience of reading Ramona books. The point of comparison? The way that Cleary was able to delight young readers by creating a feisty heroine who didn’t always know what was what. The pleasure of figuring something out before Ramona did and then watching her realize the truth and deal with it was what made her a good vicarious figure.

I can’t say the same for Polly, for she’s too pro forma for her own good. Lurie can’t stop giving her internal “reaction shots” to virtually everything anyone says or does. It gets tedious in the extreme. And the other characters she deals with remind me of the sorts of figures one encounters in second-rate mystery stories: believable enough as “types,” but never anything more. This might work well enough if Lurie’s novel were a mystery -- it sorta is, but only sorta. In other words, there is, it is hinted, a “truth” about Jones to be discovered, but it amounts to nothing more than the fact that everyone who knows a person “owns” a different version of that person -- and none of those portraits are wholly coherent with one another. The Truth reads like a made-for-TV version of the kind of novel Nabokov liked to write, in which a protagonist -- often a narrator -- comes to grips (or not) with the fact that the narrated world can only behave like the mind of the protagonist. But that remark gives this novel too much credit.

So why did I read it? Well, I wasn’t feeling well, and this novel struck me as a kind of breezy, easy read that would be the literary equivalent of the kinds of films my wife likes to watch, e.g. The Devil Wears Prada, Miss Potter. Which is to say, I guess, that I was indeed looking for a ‘chick-lit experience.’ And, certainly, Lurie provides some of that: a female protagonist led by gusts of emotion, coming to the hard realization that she doesn’t really want to resist a certain guy, but would rather give in, even as she discovers that women -- yes, even lesbians -- can live up to the bad press women get from men, and that men, while always self-serving and assertive where women are concerned, can still be surprisingly sympathetic because they are, after all, men (and here I have to say I’m too inured by marriage to jaundiced comments on males who assume themselves to be more attractive, intelligent, interesting, and successful than they actually are to find much sting in Polly’s caustic inner-bitch comments, and have been “awareness-raised” enough to find her easy capitulations maddening). Even more disappointing was the fact that Lurie’s version of “the art world” is wayyyy thinner than academia chez David Lodge and seems to exist in some TV sitcom world -- the influential art critic Garrett Jones to whom Lorin had been married kinda reminded me of Thurston Howell for some reason.

Which brings up my last thought: had this been a film, it could’ve been way more palatable. First of all it would’ve taken 90-100 minutes to watch, rather than the greater part of the day to read, and second of all, a few well-chosen character actors could’ve animated these stiffs and made them, if not interesting, at least charming. Ah, Hollywood, come back, all is forgiven. Oh well, like Rimbaud always sez: “j’ai vu l’enfer des femmes là-bas.”

*If you, hypocrite lecteur, can identify the film my title is sorta lifted from, then, well, I’m not saying I’m going to PayPal beacoup de bucks on yer ass, but, you get the Gold Star from Hell, or something. No fair googlin’.


jim said...

i give up... and i even cheated with The Great Google.

Donald Brown said...

Hint: it's an obscure and VERY bad (as in, hilariously wretched) film, and the speaker of the line ("some chicklets...?") is an Academy Award-winning actor (he won in your lifetime).