Sunday, February 24, 2013

Eclipses in the sun and moon

Right on the heels of reading what now ranks as one of my favorite books by Ann Patchett, I read what is now among my least favorites. Taft centers on a Memphis bar manager's obsession with a young girl and her troubled brother. His own rocky relationship with the mother of his son guides his fantasies of what might have happened to the pair of siblings. Throw in a small dose of Tennessee's racial dynamics and underage teenagers, and that's basically the entire storyline.

I guess my main problem with the story was that the narrator's thoughts didn't match his actions. His self-destructive indiscretions came out of the blue and completely apart from the stream of consciousness to which the reader is privy. The same goes for most of the other characters. And, like so many other of Patchett's books, Taft ends with no resolution to any of its several story arcs.

Similarly, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves left me uncomfortable while reading every short story in the collection. I really didn't like Swamplandia!, the novel based on one of the short stories in St. Lucy's.

To be clear, they are all incredibly well-written: descriptive, evocative, pathos-laden. Isolation, both emotional and physical, is manifest. Each one involves some sort of natural or human-made disaster: an avalanche, getting left in a giant conch shell overnight, being torn away from your wolf family to live with humans.

Karen Russell presents some fascinating and creative scenarios: a Minotaur on the Oregon Trail, part-wolf children sent to boarding schools, a family of alligator wrestlers. Some element of nature -- or of freaks of nature -- are central to each short story. Where a borderline sci-fi set-up isn't the norm, loss and separation is: two brothers in search of their sister's ghost, two boys stranded on a glacier, a girl left in a giant sea shell, kids plotting to misdirect seagoing turtles.

If there's anything that pervades the stories, it's melancholy. There's a barrenness, a core abandonment, that accompanies a change that the adolescent characters must face. But just like many of Patchett's stories, Karen Russell ends hers right at the cusp of when her characters are finally interesting.

The stories aren't as depressing as The Road. But it was hard to be pummeled with snapshots of dismal human experiences, ten unresolved tales in a row.

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