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And Now For Something…2

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I am definitely having one of those days when I think I should post regular FB status reports on my frustration levels, because they might have something to say about whether or not I end the day without doing something rash.

So to speak.

But instead of that, let me make a book report.

Actually, I want to make a two book report.

The first is on something called Nothing Personal, by Eileen Dreyer.

In general, I try to make a point of not commenting on contemporary mystery writers.   I don’t think it really matters who I do or do not “like,” and who I do or do not like certainly does not say anything about whether the book is “good.”

But a friend of mine sent me the book, and he wanted a report, so I thought I’d give one.

Nothing Personal is a light mystery without being a cozy, written by a woman whose main work before that date had been in romance. 

In most cases, this would not be a great recommendation for a book for me.   I think romance tends to get the least talented genre writers out there, and romance publishing is so anal-retentive about controlling content that writers who survive in that milieu get far too used to taking orders and following other people’s “tip sheets.”

As it was, this turned out to be one of the better forays from romance I’ve read, and it also managed to come to me at precisely the right time.   I was, on the day it arrived, desperately in need of something light and diverting.  It was the right thing at the right moment in the right place. 

And the plotting was not bad, the mystery actually had a twist to it at the end that I didn’t catch, and I read it right through without stopping in the course of a day.

And there was an underlying issue which I am very concerned with at the moment–what I sometimes call the “bureaucratization of everything,” so that the purpose of all institutions becomes not something they do but simply the survival and the aggrandizement of the entity itself.

In the case of this novel, the institution is a hospital, once a charitable foundation run by and staffed by nuns, now locally known as “St. Serious Money.”

But.

I wish I could put my finger on the but.

Everything was balanced.  Every element existed, it fit the overall framework, it wasn’t a bad set up if she wanted to start a series (which she may have done, as this was published in 1994).

The best I can do to explain it is to say that the writing felt like she was spending all her time on autopilot–the thing lacked, I don’t know.  Narrative drive?  Emotional intensity? 

It was making me a little crazy, because on one level I liked the book a lot, and on another I kept feeling as if the writer didn’t really care one way or the other. 

On that, of course, I’m almost surely wrong.  But that’s the way it felt.  I would read another book by Dreyer, but only under the kind of circumstances I read this one in–circumstances in which I needed to fail absolutely safe.

Safe is not what I’ve been feeling reading the other book–admission, I’m only about a third into it–Death With Interruptions, by Jose Saramago.

Yes, yes, I know.  Most of you have rejected Saramago out of hand, because what I say about him makes him sound “literary,” but he’s still my favorite writer on the planet at the moment, so you’ll just have to live.

He isn’t my favorite human being, but then, he doesn’t have to be.  A lot of writers live in one moral universe in the things they write and another in day to day life.

Suffice it to say that Mr. Saramago, who won the Nobel for literature in 1998, is a Portuguese Communist of the old school, and close to 100 years old.   They seem to like to work a long time in Portugal.  There’s a Portuguese film director who is 100 years old, and still making movies.  He’s the only person on earth who has been working in the business the entire time it has existed.

Death With Interruptions has the kind of premise that would make a fairly standard sci-fi movie:  on the first of January, in one country and one country only, people just stop dying.

They don’t get better if they’re sick.  They don’t stop deteriorating if they’re very old or in a coma.  They just don’t die.  At all.  Ever. 

You can cut their heads off.  You can run them over with trucks.  You can fill them full of strychnine.  It doesn’t matter.  They just don’t die.

That is, they don’t die unless you take them into a neighboring country, where they die just as they would be expected to, given their age or their injuries or their illnesses.

This book may be different from any other book by Saramago and end with some explanation of what has happened here and why, but I’m not counting on it.  

The novel reminds me a lot of Blindness, the only one of his books I know of to have been made into a film.  In Blindness, everybody in Lisbon (or almost everybody, there are one or two exceptions) is struck blind for no reason anybody can tell.  A few weeks later, they regain their sight.   The only explanation officialdom can come up with is that it must have been a virus–but the cause of the blindness isn’t the point.  How people behave in the midst of the crisis is.

Death With Interruptions  is that kind of thing, and right now it’s very funny.   The undertakers have gotten together and demanded government relief of various kinds, since immortality will mean that they don’t have an occupation any more, and their occupation should be kept alive.   The owners of nursing homes are losing their minds over patients who hang on forever.  The hospitals are drowning under an influx of patients who will never get well or pop off.

And, and the Churches don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad one, but they’re inclined to think bad, and have started praying that God will start letting people die again.

Then, in the middle of all this, all order breaks down, and society becomes largely ruled by “maphias,” so spelled because the leaders want to distinguish themselves from the Italian kind.

This is largely what Saramago writes about–the nature of and our relationship to the increasingly bureaucratic state.  And he does it without preaching or writing treatises.

He’s got a book called The Stone Raft in which the Iberian peninsula breaks off from the rest of Europe and goes wandering around in the ocean on its own.

The symbolism in that one was, probably, as direct as it’s possible to get. 

But I’ll go finish this, which, like most of Saramago’s work, is shortish, and then on to more conventional mystery novels.

Written by janeh

March 4th, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'And Now For Something…2'

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  1. Interesting, and I think I’d agree. The Dreyer makes my top 100, but never my top 10 or 25–good, but not great, and maybe the very balance is part of what does it.
    But not all. GAUDY NIGHT is balanced, but at the end of it characters know where they stand on a critical issue, which is not clear in the beginning. At the end of NOTHING PERSONAL, we know where everyone stands from the beginning, and no one actually makes a good case for the bureaucratic side. A story in which the bad guys KNOW they’re the bad guys is not, generally, a great story, though I think it may be a good one.
    It’s not a series, by the way. Dreyer has repeated characters, but not, to my knowledge, these characters–which is almost odd. She runs so heavily toward medal professionals and the St Louis area it might be easier to interlock the stories. Of course, you could say that of Dick Francis, too.

    Saramago. I keep getting sidetracked by this vision of using not quite dead people to settle border disputes and secession arguments, which may mean I’m not getting into the spirit of the thing. Anyway, this what would generally be termed “fantasy.” In SF, there is a rational explanation. Even in some types of fantasy, it’s rational from an untrue premise, if you will: the rules of Tolkien’s world, or Howard’s is not ours, but they’re consistent, and you have a good feel for what can or can’t be done. This sort of thing just feels arbitrary to me. You can do some interesting things with it, but, as I said, I tend not to take it seriously, and to follow through the logical consequences instead of going where the author wishes to take me. Doesn’t make Saramago a bad author, or me a bad reader, but I don’t think we’re compatible.

    robert_piepenbrink

    4 Mar 11 at 7:30 pm

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