Friday, September 28, 2007

Books: The Blood Oranges, by John Hawkes

Here, I must admit to making a rather silly assumption, which is that John Hawkes novel would be like John Fowles' novels (this is my first foray into Hawkes, whose Blood Oranges came highly recommended by an internet person who commented on my Facebook Visual Bookshelf (where I have around 100 titles on my "Want to Read" list)). The book thereby disappointed thoroughly, as it had all the sex, but none of the intellect to be found in Fowles, and we all know from experience that sex with mindless twats* is never as good as sex with intellectuals.

The story is simple to the point of discomfort: our narrator, Cyril, and his wife Fiona are childless, forty-something swingers of a bygone romantico-philosophico-sort, living in a villa near a Mediterranean beach and with grape arbors in their courtyard (mind you, I hesitate to even use the word "swingers," since it's certainly not in Cyril's vocabulary, and calls to mind something much cheaper than the project he thinks he is a part of). They seduce another couple, High and Catherine, who come travelling through with their three children and their dog, when the family's van unsalvagably falls off the side of the road into a canal. They move into the villa next door. Sex ensues, with plenty of inter-couple tension, as Hugh, who only has one arm and one flipper-like stump, despite his reticent relations with Fiona, is uncomfortable with the situation and jealous of Cyril's potent sexual relations with Catherine. His frustrations erupt one night when, after they discover an ancient and rusty iron chastity belt (complete with pointy teeth in key areas), he locks his wife into the device. Cyril argues with him, and then releases her. Shortly thereafter, Hugh hangs himself. Fiona takes the three children and moves away. Cyril is left to live alone in his villa, lusting after the homely native girl he has taken as a housekeeper, and visiting Catherine at the local hospice (nunnery?) where she now lives and listlessly sits in the garden, not speaking.

The discomfort I mention is in the isolation. First, the foursome is isolated from the society in which they are living. They do not speak the local language, and only occasionally engage with the locals (usually women), and always in a somewhat predatory way (Hugh, a photographer, makes nude portraits of peasant girls; Cyril, who doesn't need a camera to stand in for his penis, simply fucks, or tries to fuck, those same peasant girls). Second, the adults and their sexuality is isolated from the children. I can't help but wonder what the three children (a girl of conscious age, perhaps seven, perhaps ten, perhaps twelve, named Meredith, and two small twins who can walk but not speak, placing them between the ages of one and three). Meredith occasionally enters the stage and expresses dislike for Cyril (and who can blame her), as if she is aware that something is amiss, but isn't certain what. Her jealousy is apparent and one of the only palpable emotions in the novel. Ultimately, the four adults are completely isolated from reality. Where are they from? Where did they buy their clothes (I only ask because Hawkes spends so many words describing these outfits, which are very unlike the local garb), and more importantly, where did they get the money to do so? Where do they get the money to buy food? Who owns the villas, and how are they paying their rent? Libertines, I know, rarely have time for jobs, but I can't help but wonder how these people live in such isolation, except for the fact that they are simply curved but flat characters in a curvaceous but two-dimensional book.

Linguistically, or narratively, Hughes is supposedly ground-breaking/post-modern, because he writes in non-linear flashback sequences, each (again) isolated as a crystallized memory, or like a singular smoke ring (Cyril smokes, and takes pride in his fantastic ability to blow smoke rings of all shapes and forms). But Hawkes reads more like D.H. Lawrence than John Barth, and I'm here referring to the tedious Lawrence of Women in Love, rather than the racy Lawrence of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Cyril would never use the word "cunt," but does spend as many sentences describing the veiled eroticism of Fiona's blue skin-tight pants as Gudrun and Ursula devote to their love of stockings (please, does someone have an Alka-Seltzer?). My favorite writers write about sex and writing (Fowles, Miller, etc.), such that their minds are constantly cranking, and sex provides either some reprieve, or no reprieve, for that intellectual activity. Hawkes, it seems, is all dalliance, and no grit. I will give him one more chance with The Lime Twig, but that's all that he gets. I haven't time for such casual sex.

*Please note that I use this term in a completely equal-opportunity way. The male characters of The Blood Oranges are even bigger twats than the females.

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