Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Books: Cigarettes, by Harry Mathews

Because this book is so much more comprehensible than TheConversions, I expected that Harry Mathews had written it first. In fact, Cigarettes is his fourth novel, The Conversions his first. While it’s strange to see an author grow less experimental with age (wait, is it? Now I am unsure. . .) I’m not ashamed to admit that I liked this later book much more than the confounding Conversions.

Mathews is clever (and cruel) enough that Cigarettes might not be as simple as it seems, but in spite of my fascination with the nesting Russian Doll effect in postmodern fiction, I remain a sucker for good, straightforward storytelling. Cigarettes, which is a series of interlocking vignettes, love stories of the amorous and familial kind, that together comprise a novel, contains no mysteries that it doesn’t solve, no conspiracies threatening the hermetically-sealed setting (an idealized summer resort town a few hours outside of New York City, with moneyed artists and insurances salesmen for residents). The only remotely postmodern thing about the book is that the stories are told out of chronological order, so that we find ourselves shuttling between the sixties and the thirties, watching parents meet and fall in love after we’ve already seen their children do so.

This episodic, interlocking technique, particularly given the melodramatic sexual and familial intrigues, smacks of soap (the book was published in 1987, perhaps the very height of the televisual genre). One sister is given a greater inheritance than another; a man is banished from his house by his wife and his lover, now possibly lovers themselves. A young gay man fascinated by masochism, and watches his lover die from a heart attack while he’s trapped in a cast of concrete, unable to reach the phone. His sister, a young girl who’s moved to the City on her own, wastes away to near death because of a mistreated thyroid condition, driven mad by an angry voice inside her head she terms “the squawk box.” And so, the book is incredibly readable, in that indulgent, romance novel with big words kind of way. If something here is deeper than simple character study (a sketchbook, really, in words), I was too seduced to notice.

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