Sunday, April 06, 2008

Still Life with Elephant by Judy Reene Singer

I am not sure how to classify this novel. Let me tell you some things about it that might shed some light on where it falls between To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street by Dr. Seuss and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

First the characters. Neelie, the main character, strikes me as a dope with several annoying habits. One habit is mangling the words she hears from her family and friends into incomprehensible phrases, which she then has to translate – sometimes successfully, most often not. This “habit,” or perhaps more accurately “affectation,” as it seems to become, predictably disappears when she meets Tom. For someone with a Master’s degree in psychology, her vocabulary seems woefully inadequate – numerous, slightly less than common words, elude her. It is not cute, and it wears thin in the first twenty pages.

Speaking of Tom, he is completely one-dimensional, and I scratch my head at how he achieved his place in the novel.

Maybe I suffer from a life strewn with mistakes that have sometimes merited forgiveness and other times not. When a character (Neelie) suffers because of a mistake by a loved one (Matt), and that loved one almost immediately shows remorse, and begs for a pardon, doesn’t love require another chance? Is there anything so terrible that true lovers can not forgive, even if only once? How about if that mistake occurred because both lovers were real big dopes? How about if the mistake was partly caused by Neelie? Except in the case of a severe pathology (sex addiction), I firmly believe that responsibilty for adultery can be placed on a continuum from 10-90% to 50-50% percent. This is not to excuse it, but I do not think Matt has a sexual pathology. The author's note says she has a degree in psychology, but I think a character suffering from sex addition would be beyond her literary powers.

I found this plot situation entirely unbelievable, along with the circumstances of the first trip to Africa. The dialogue was banal, annoying, and full of clich├ęs. Several other key situations simply did not ring true.

Maybe a new classification is in order. How about a “novel of delusion”? These characters are delusional about life, relationships, politics, foreign countries, travel, just to name a few items on an extremely long list. Since this is an advanced reader’s copy, I can’t list exact quotes, and I won’t be buying the published edition to make comparisons. I would also add predictability to this work’s list of faults. Two stars for a mildly interesting sequence in Africa.

--Chiron, 4/6/08

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