Monday, May 6, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“VARIOUS PETS ALIVE AND DEAD” by Marina Lewycka (Penguin, $NZ26)

            Satire is a tricky beast. Make it too harsh and bitter and you reveal a lack of sympathy for the human species. Make it too soft and sentimental and it loses all point as satire. I suppose there has to be an element of savagery in satire – it is, after all, telling us that some human beings are fools – but there also has to be something one can identify with. Isn’t satire supposed to “reform manners”? It can do this only if it suggests there is something worth reforming.

            I’m in two minds about the success of Marina Lewycka’s Various Pets Alive and Dead as satire.  To cut to the chase, it is a “good read”, it hits some targets spot on and it has some moments of genuine hilarity. But it goes a little diffuse and cuddly before the last pages, as if the author is reassuring us that’s she’s only kidding and doesn't mean any offence.

            The basic set-up is this. With her partner Marcus (whom she never married) Doro, now in her sixties, brought up her kids Clara and Serge on an anarcho-Marxist-hippie commune just outside dismal Doncaster in the 1970s and 1980s. It was the type of place where lentils were usually on the menu, care of children was supposed to be a communal concern, marriage was frowned on as bourgeois, there was much talk of the coming revolution and much swapping of sexual partners. Newborn kids were lumbered with names like Ulyana and Kollontai and the red flag was waved ostentatiously for local miners who (in the 1970s and 80s) were suffering Thatcherite closure of their pits.
But try as they might, the communards remained middle-class dreamers to their fingertips. Whenever they contacted the real proles, the proles either saw them as soft touches for cash or as people to exploit for their naivete.

Doro has an epiphany one day in the commune in which she realizes:

“…she couldn’t help being thoroughly and undeniably middle class…. So were all of them, in their thoughts, their habits, their tastes and preferences. The fact that they’d just gone off picketing didn’t alter that one iota. Did any of the [working-class] women in the soup kitchen wear dungarees or read George Eliot or eat vegetarian mush? Although they’d lived up here on the fringes of this working-class community for fifteen years, they’d barely touched its inner life.” (Pg.81)

Doro solves this dilemma at the time by smoking a joint, which says something else about the intellectual weaknesses of the commune ethos.

Out of this mush, the inevitable happened. Doro’s children Clara and Serge grew up to loathe and despise the fact that they had nothing of their own; that their parents didn’t show them any more regard than they showed other kids in the commune; and that they were constantly surrounded by the smells of unwashed bodies and the jealousies and bullying of other unsupervised kids. At the first opportunity they escaped the commune and everything to do with it, and turned their backs on the things their parents stood for.
            Well, almost.

            At the time the main plot unfolds (2007 and 2008) Clara has long since tired of being “a prototype of a new kind of human being – the torch-bearer of the non-bourgeois, non-private, non-nuclear non-monogamous non-competitive non-violent society they’d set out to create…” (Pg.94) She is now an elementary school teacher trying her best to nurture proletarian kids, which is at least something her mother would have approved of. But Clara also insists on having a clean and tidy flat of her own which she doesn’t wish to share with anyone, and indulging in harmless pleasures such as gourmet foods which her parents would have seen as decadent luxuries.

            Meanwhile Serge has turned 180 degrees away from any collectivist ideals. The genius of the family, he is supposed to be doing a PhD in Mathematics at Cambridge, to which he won a scholarship. But, unbeknown to his parents, he has absconded to London and become a number-cruncher for an investment firm, making fortunes for his dodgy bosses by devising the mathematical formulae that will allow them to profit from plunging markets. In short, he is a prize capitalist exploiter.

We see in close-up the way he is seduced by young City financier types:

They laugh and he laughs too, suddenly engulfed in a warm gloopy wave of at-oneness with his beautiful young, high-flying free-floating no-baggage global elite, whose title is wealth, whose passport is brains, whose nation is money.” (Pg.61)

            Thus the set-up. Dreamy collectivist hippie parents of the 1970s turning out money-obsessed individualist kids. From Flower Power (with a light dash of feminism and Marxism) to worship of The Market. The hilarity of seeing an upbringing producing the exact opposite of what was intended.

            Except that Marina Lewycka is too shrewd to leave the novel on that level. After all, exposing the shortcomings of old hippie communes isn’t exactly hot news, is it? At a certain point we realize that, for all her ideological fuzziness, Doro is a more humane person than her City son. And we can’t help sympathising with some of her tastes:

Doro has a long list of things she disapproves of, including consumerism, racism, war, Botox, Jeremy Clarkson and trans-fatty acids. Maybe bankers have been added already; if not, it can only be a matter of time.” (Pg.19)

Old communes were partly a composed of unrealistic nonsense, but they had at least the grain of an idea in their hopes for the social good. As grey-haired Marcus still tries to type out yet another Marxist tract, and as grey-haired Doro joins yet another demo against a commercial take-over of local farming allotments, we smile indulgently, but we know that they are better people than the son who kids himself that there is nothing immoral in making and breaking business firms simply for the sake of the financial rake-off. The processes of Serge’s self-deception are viewed with sharp irony:

 He won’t let himself get seduced into that life of aimless consumption, fetishisation of high-value objects, partying to oblivion, life ruled by P&L, body-rhythms ruled by uppers and downers. He wants money not to acquire stuff but to buy freedom – the escape to the modest beach house in Brazil…..Okay, so he might also have a nice suit or two.” (Pg.165)

            Elements of the plot do weight our sympathy towards Doro’s point of view (especially her devoted care for Clara’s and Serge’s Downs Syndrome younger sibling “Oolie-Anna”, which becomes more and more important as the novel progresses). Doro is really the main character and certainly the novel’s moral centre. Clara is a little redundant in terms of plot development and her tribulations at the trendy elementary school, amusing in themselves, blunt the satire somewhat. Marina Lewycka is at her best in puncturing the financial whizz-kid’s pretensions and in holding up to ridicule some current social attitudes. A particular sting is that the most materialistic of Serge’s thoroughly materialistic colleagues is the Russian girl he lusts after, a citizen of the former Soviet Union who wryly reminds him that communism merely succeeded in turning Russia’ current masters into the most ruthless of buccaneer capitalists.

            I do not want to talk this enjoyable novel up too much. It’s a brisk, efficient, funny popular novel, not a great and penetrating work of literature. The narrative structure is clever, cutting between the characters’ present lives and their memories of the old commune, which allows us bit by bit to learn of the traumas that drove them away. (Some of which involved the sudden death of beloved pets – thus giving the novel its title). Its two major weaknesses are its rather lame and forgiving ending, which does not resolve all the loose ends; and Marina Lewycka’s unhappy way with physical farce.

There are a number of scenes which are meant to be uproariously funny but which are not as good as their set-ups – escaped classroom hamster wreaking havoc as it is chased around elementary school; zealous wimmin’s meeting called to denounce the patriarchy being disrupted by cussing , smoking prole woman and crude bloke who pees in the fire; horny office attempts at love-making being interrupted by the cleaning lady etc. etc.

The novel’s better social attire is worthy of less clich├ęd knockabout. But this doesn’t stop Various Pets Alive and Dead from being a fun read.

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