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Posts Tagged ‘Books’

The Other Side of What

Saturday, July 24, 2010 @ 10:07 AM  posted by Mark

Shannon Yarbrough’s first novel The Other Side of What, a languid coming-of-age story with vivid characters and memorable descriptions of its Memphis setting, mimics the process of growing up that it describes, becoming more confident as its story progresses. Ultimately, though, like its narrator, it clings to a naivete that doesn’t quite allow it to mature.

The novel begins as the gay narrator Matthew moves from a small Tennessee backwater to Memphis, the metropolis of his youth, and his search for love in his new home forms the meat of the story. Through the course of several deftly described romantic relationships of increasing seriousness, Matthew maintains a personal detachment from his new friends and lovers, keeping key elements of his past and identity hidden—partly out of embarrassment about his hicks-in-the-sticks family and partly in an effort to shape his friends’ perceptions of his still-developing new persona. The Other Side of What explores the emotional impact of Matthew’s secrets, both on himself and the people around him, who all have secrets of their own. In Yarbrough’s story, the human heart is the ultimate secret, and the struggle to reveal the heart’s secrets is the whole meaning of human relationships. Though the content of the story is not religious, its structure follows a classic Original Sin thesis: we all have secrets because we’re human, and to the extent that we can unburden ourselves of those secrets and live honestly, we achieve redemption and become worthy of love.

The Other Side of What gains its strength from a combination of glibness and meditative reflection. The matter-of-fact debauchery of Matthew’s introduction to the Memphis gay scene, which is also his introduction to the Memphis drug scene, adds grit to Matthew’s otherwise ingenuous, naive and self-deprecating narration. The colorful characters he meets as he navigates and then rejects the drug sub-culture remain friends throughout, and a spitfire art dealer named Zoe befriends Matthew and becomes his confidant. Through sharp dialogue, Matthew’s relationships develop intimacy and snappy camaraderie, and the three intersecting secrets that weave together Mathew’s lover Seth, his brother Ethan, and his friends Jacob and Vance illustrate common, even archetypal tendencies that we all share and that subvert our attempts to fully trust each other.

However, the novel itself suffers from an inability to be completely honest with the reader, so that its story remains unredeemed and its narrator doesn’t fully earn our trust. This is especially true of the story’s climax, when the novel changes narrators suddenly and inexplicably, alienating the reader and casting doubt on much of what has come before. Specifically, the novel switches from reliable first-person to omniscient third-person to unreliable first-person back to reliable first-person narrators in the span of just a few pages at the story’s most critical point, betraying an unwillingness to face the implications of its own plot. This narrative waffling is the more unfortunate because of the charm of the narrator and story up until that point, and because of the potentially explosive conclusion that the story shies away from, involving a love triangle, buried family secrets and the kind of gothic horror found almost nowhere else but in Southern fiction.

Yarbrough’s descriptions of a snowy Memphis, his clever mistaken-identities plot, and his tender handling of the first blush of romance between Matthew and Seth are all admirable and recommend the novel, but these virtues are mixed with an ending that settles for the comic instead of exploring the deeper emotional complexities of its plot and that becomes confused in its execution as a result. A good first novel that points toward Yarbrough’s more mature later work, The Other Side of What still leaves the reader wanting more.

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Shelf Life: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Monday, February 1, 2010 @ 02:02 AM  posted by Mark

For an ostensibly philosophical novel about class differences, The Elegance of the Hedgehog shows surprisingly little understanding of either the philosophies it cites or the politics it critiques, and its characters are mere fantasies, idealized notions of both the rich and the poor. Set in a posh apartment building in the upper-crusty 7th arrondissement of Paris, the novel concerns a poor but erudite concierge and a rich but erudite twelve-year-old girl, both of whom spend the novel having banal insights about life that the author attempts to pass off as profound. Though the author is a professor of philosophy, she mistakes the act of name-dropping famous philosophers with actually exploring the implications of philosophical ideas through her characters. The novel, from start to finish, congratulates itself and its readers for remembering who Husserl and Marx were, nevermind whether or not you ever read their writings, and the narrative is arch and precious. A consistently double-dealing book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog masquerades as a Marxist evaluation of bourgeois assumptions about class and personality, but it confirms the very assumptions it pretends to critique by offering us a bourgeois fantasy of poverty as a noble lifestyle choice. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a love letter to the egos of middle class readers, telling them that, as they always suspected, philosophy is a dish best served tepidly reheated.

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