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Monday, 12 January 2009

A book that revels in its 'smoke-and-mirrors' suspensefulness, that gains traction in your mind by copying your suburban predispositions intimately, and which is also filled with intelligent writing, must be a book to remember. I wonder.

In The Effect of Living Backwards, Julavits' most profound discovery - that we revel in the familiar, that we only recognise what we've seen before, or what we've been told to see - relates to her final shot, and is linked back on those discoveries because it's to do with the rivalry between the elegant, sophisticated sister who becomes dispirited and the dumpy, 'good' sister who lives a fulfilling life.

It's to do with the life of the imagination, despite how the sameness of 'home' is a constant threat to sanity. But the cliche is mesmerising in its simplicity.

Julavits' truly inventive verbal and notional play centres on a putative Swiss Institute of Terrorism. We're some time in the future. Students are able to move between role play and reality in a final, perfect continuum of uncertainty. From practicing life in uncertain situations to the real thing.

It's the perfect escape from the humdrum of domestic existence. Except that, in Julavits' novel, the protagonist is caught up in a moment of internecine warfare between competing cliques of the Institute.

The result is a piece of controlled mayhem in the telling of which the author is able to examine notions of power ("Hell is other people") and loyalty, the comfort of strangers and the hatred existing between siblings. It's a curious book and one that might eventually become a classic. I can see the orange covers of a faux-retro Penguin lining bookshelves in a city store.

The experience changes Alice, of course. This is a novel after all. It allows her to remove herself from the mundane and enter into a pact with herself: no longer the pretending social worker cum waitress, Alice can blossom into something far larger. She can not be a cliche of failure, and becomes instead a cliche of success. So much for 'genre' fiction.

If these cliches are worth anything, it's worthwhile to note that the book is also, absolutely, a suburban drama. All those far-away place names, the romantic professions. It's wallpaper for a funhouse the author has lavished her skill on embellishing with as much intelligent prose as possible.

But the truth really is that it's a small world we live in nowadays. Published in 2003, the book is ideally positioned amid the cataclysm of September 11 and subsequent political manoeuvres to restrict freedoms. All that's passing, now. But for a while it seemed real.

Nevertheless, we are living in a small world, and the strange has become less quaint with each passing Sunday night foreign affairs broadcast. We're all starting to look the same. Even 'suburban' is starting to take on new meanings as we realise how much good can be achieved in one of them. And how they are ubiquitous.

Julavits' narrative of lies - the story of the hijacking - is interspersed with 'shame' chapters, which are truthful. These are glimpses into the past of actual characters, outside the hellish, flickering scramble for reality found in the rest of the novel.

They are rest breaks in a long journey, during which you only desire to read the final word. You wait for the end, and it comes, at last.

But this is the odd thing in such an inventive piece of fiction: you've seen it all before.

3 comments:

residentjudge said...

This sounds good. Where on earth did you get it? I've looked at my usual haunts ( local and university library, Readings, Readers Feast etc). Great title too.

Matt said...

This was sourced from BookMooch but the tip to buy was from a fellow blogger, at Counterbalance.

Kathryn said...

Yes, this does sound good!