Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Gentrification Mysteries

The Lower East Side is a ghost town. Ann Arbor smothers under the weight of its own preciousness. Unfinished luxury high-rises are the setting for surreal interactions between the living and the dead.

I love it when all my novels line up thematically.

I recently read Lush Life, Ghosts and Dream House and found all these great common threads that would make a kick-ass post, but a very long one. In the interest of not boring anyone, I shall present it Dickens-style: serialized.

I'll start with the disappointment.

In her review of Valerie Laken's Dream House, Times critic Marilyn Stasio writes, "[she] has written the perfect haunted house story for these unnerving times. While the ghosts that come with this property don’t rattle chains or shake the bed at night, they manifest themselves in subtler and crueler ways, by reminding us that the homes we love may not love us back."

What a pretty couple of sentences. If only the novel were as interesting as the description. It has potential: a couple moves into a house where a murder took place 18 years ago. Good stuff. Solid stuff: "Unbeknownst to Kate and Stuart, the killer has served his 18-year sentence and is now standing outside in the garden."

Off to a good start. And then, "having assembled the plot machinery for a sturdy thriller, Laken does none of the expected things." Oh. "Instead, she uses the framework to support an ambitious study of people in search of a home — 'home' being a metaphor for the elusive something that defines and validates the self." Sometimes, Marilyn Satsio is too kind.

Laken does none of the expected things all right. In fact, she kind of does nothing, basically. She gives us a great premise and then retreats into what I call "MFA writing," which is probably an unfair categorization on my part, but nonetheless my pet name for any over-subtle, far too restrained and airless writing.

Laken's written a bloodless (if you will) story stuffed with obvious metaphors (haunted houses!) and her central conceit, that each house like each person, tells a story, is not enough to fill a book. This thin and labored premise is too weak. Perhaps Laken knew this and so tried to add another dimension to the story: the home as metaphor for the rite of passage of growing up. First house, first marriage, first divorce, first trip to a big box store you never thought you'd find yourself shopping in. It's all there.

Suddenly the premise goes from too little to too much, and the story goes from too metaphorical to far too overt, even (awkwardly) announcing its premise in the final paragraph. The protagonist finds a letter from a German immigrant from 1928, which tells of "the struggle to hold lives together, to make shelter and lose it, to hope, to endure, to be lonely, to be lost, to injure, to remember. The author of the letter .... was trying to sound brave and strong, optimistic, trying to tell the people who knew her back home that she'd be all settled soon, and ready for visitors, and they'd be amazed at what she built there."

Just in case you missed it.

Perhaps I'm a jerk to point out flaws in a first novel -- cause I've written so many, you know -- and heaven knows I'm no critic, but I'm curious to see if someone will mount a brilliant defense of this thoroughly average novel. Also I wanted laugh publicly at the notion of gentrification in Ann Arbor, the way New Yorkers laugh whenever anyone else in the country complains about high rents: bitterly, and with contempt. This didn't strike me as a novel of gentrification so much as a novel of renovation, though it does touch (sort of) on shifting identities and the ghosts of old neighborhoods waiting to be excavated ... it was just so ... cluttered, yet empty.

Luckily, Lush Life and Ghosts were better! Stay tuned ....

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