Long time no see, Cannonballers. I’ve been awfully lazy lately, when it comes to blogging, but today, to make it up, I’ll be reviewing two books: Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park and Mary Gordon’s Spending. And yes, I will be using all the Russian words I know.
Fist up is Gorky Park: a murder mystery set in Brezhnev’s USSR. The titular Gorky Park is a real park in Moscow, where three corpses are discovered one spring. They’ve been shot and mutilated so as to preclude easy identification and, as it turns out, they’ve been hidden under the snow for several months. Chief investigator Arkady Renko is assigned to the case.
Renko is a man born to the nomeklatura, who rejects the advantages conferred on him by parentage. For reasons that remain sketchy (although I guess his father does seem like an asshole of the first water), he’s extremely skeptical of bureaucracy, which in his experience always devolves into rule by lowest common denominator. He abhors the amount of hypocrisy he’s expected to spout, so while backstabbing apparatchik flourish, Renko’s career has stalled.
Renko’s insistence on the primacy of truth is his tragic flaw, and the closer he gets to solving a case no one wants solved, the more it costs him, personally. Still he persists. Renko is in no danger of going down as one of literature’s phenomenal detectives; every revelation feels deeply earned and he goes down more wrong tracks than right ones. The mystery itself is involving and complicated enough that unraveling motivations is as interesting as figuring out what actually happened. I’m not going to spoil things by going into specifics like Wikipedia (thanks a lot, guy who gave away the end of the book in the character description, when all I wanted was to remember Recurring Marginal Character #347), but suffice it to say that in communist Russia, the mystery solves you.
(Nyet! YOU are more tired that Britney Spears’s weave. Whatever, let’s not fight.)
Reading this is in 2010, it feels like a time-capsule: a glimpse into the paranoia, disorientation, and disillusionment that dominated the Soviet 1980s. Cruz Smith has a lot to say about police states in general, but he never makes the mistake of letting it shape his story, and the picture he paints of Moscow is full of vivid detail, idiosyncrasy, and even affection. Here are shabby offices, dim apartments, cheap cigarettes, bad marriages, and Russian cold so vividly evoked that I kept wanting to crawl under a blanket.
Which is why it’s so unfortunate that the story goes totally off the rails about 2/3rds of the way through. There’s a location change (to the USA!), which really took the zip out of the story. His descriptions of NY don’t live up to what he does with Moscow (of course, I’ve never been to Moscow, so maybe that’s the difference). And the ultimate answer to the mystery, when it comes, is sort of disappointing. Still, worth a read if you’re curious about the later Soviet era.
My second review is for Spending, which was a book I read for school. It’s about a middle-aged woman painter who meets a man—whom she calls B—who offers to be her muse. Not only does he want to inspire her, he also wants to offer her financial assistance, so that she can give up her teaching job and devote herself to painting full-time. Complications arise almost immediately when they jump into bed about ten minutes after meeting.
I read this book in the context of a class about writing sex into stories. Spending is about sex (alooooot of sex), but it’s also about creativity, and a woman’s relationship with her work. It charts the confluence of all of Monica Szabo’s passions. It starts with a sexual encounter, and sex is both the catalyst and inspiration for a series of paintings that make Monica’s reputation as an artist. Sex very much defines character: Monica’s sense of joyful abandon during the first sex scene, which surprises even her, is part of our first impression of her. Although we’ve only been acquainted with the character for a few pages, it’s clear that something important is changing for her (“In the morning when I woke up, I was shocked” she tells us). Throughout the novel, the sex Monica has reflects her needs, her frustrations with her work, and the necessary selfishness–maybe even narcissism–she has to assume in order to finish her project. And that project is in itself about sex: she sets out to paint a series of post-coital men modeled on great classical paintings of Jesus shortly after the crucifixion. She draws a direct line from religious ecstasy to sexual abandon.
This all sounds very cerebral—and Monica is a clever, engaging narrator—but it all ends up being really lightweight, because there isn’t any real conflict. As soon as anyone has a problem, it’s already been solved. B loses all his money about halfway through the book, but hey, look! Monica’s rich now and she loves him. This isn’t even a spoiler—it’s part of the jacket copy. Without a sense of risk and danger, the story turns frothy and inconsequential despite its interesting, unconventional narrator, like chick lit for smart women. It’s the kind of book that you should definitely read if you find it in someone’s bathroom and you’re super-bored of their party.
Next up: A Game of Thrones