The Honest Tease?

Imagine an ironic love machine. In private, I tease you. I mean all the off color things I say about you. And, depending upon the kind of person you are, you love every word, not because they are complimentary (often times they aren’t and when they are- completely double edged and ambiguous) but because I couldn’t have made these contentious remarks at all if I wasn’t completely and utterly fascinated by you. And ‘fascination,’ you might come to realize, is a far purer ante-cedent to affection than simple ‘approval’ or ‘agreement.’

Book Review: THE BOOK OF TROUBLE by Ann Marlowe



In THE BOOK OF TROUBLE, Ann Marlowe perhaps suffers from the success of her previous work, HOW TO STOP TIME. HOW TO STOP TIME is something of a stylistic eureka; Ann’s severe, spare prose relates her career as a heroin junkie with impressive incision, clarity and erudition. She validates our puerile voyeurism for self destructive-cum-glamorous behavior with a cool-headed, easy-handed intellectualism by posing questions like: “What does the phenomenology of Martin Heidegger have to do with smack and Punk Rock?” But in THE BOOK OF TROUBLE, the intersection of minimalist style, ivory tower intellectualism and personal confession falls out of joint.

In the first half of the book, Marlowe, the Harvard educated power-Jewess I have come to know and love, introduces us to her post-heroin New York City social scene; a monotonous list of ridiculously well-educated expatriates from the Third World. She shoots us their names with nary an image or description, but we know how smart and sensitive and open they are; she tells us as much – it has something to do with the fact that they are from the Third World. Absent are TIME’s compelling vignettes of Marlowe’s friends burning off excess drug energy driving cross country for no reason but to feel the road under their feet. Instead, we are given dinner party guest lists. It immediately becomes clear that Ann isn’t plumbing the depths of her social situation as she did in HOW TO STOP TIME and, as a result, falls into the trap of Orientalism we wouldn’t expect her to fall for.

By the time Marlowe introduces us to Amir – her Afghan paramour – we understand why; the intellectual rigor Ann applies to her experience with drugs is enabled by her disassociation with it. In HOW TO STOP TIME, Marlowe makes clear that her relationship to heroin was a phase, that her addiction was voluntary and then, when she no longer wished to use heroin, she stopped. The separation between heroin use and Marlowe’s identity allows her the conceptually luminous, direct honesty that makes TIME a standout. In TROUBLE, however, Marlowe’s emotions and physical desire for Amir come center stage and, perhaps because she never stops loving Amir, can’t seem to establish the distance and perspective that makes TIME so compelling. I get the sense that Marlowe over analyzes and re-contextualizes in intellectual terms things that are sexual and emotional even as she sounds the call for a ‘return to feeling.’ She analyzes Afghan culture to explain why Amir treats her badly and ultimately opts out of their relationship but never seems to entertain the notion that ‘maybe he just isn’t that into her.’ As a result, her analysis comes off long winded, circumspect and sometimes pathetic; the emotionally stunted intellectual reads and writes around not just her own feelings but Amir’s.

This isn’t to say that TROUBLE is without its charms, though. The second half of the book, as Marlowe’s orbit of Amir becomes wider and his presence in the text becomes more attenuated, enjoys a realignment of perspective, analysis and tone that made TIME great. Her observation of American journalists socializing amongst one another in Iraq amidst the war features a kinetic, exciting and powerful interpolation of narrative and analysis that is canny, entertaining and spot on. Whatever the exotic location, Marlowe elucidates sexual dynamics with a provocatively efficient and insightful voice. Marlowe’s reflections as she seduces a much younger American photographer delivers on the promise of a physically fearless, coolly unapologetic and cerebrally powerful spin on ‘Carrie Bradshaw’ Marlowe’s publisher’s might have been counting on but, unfortunately, cannot guarantee with any consistency.


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December 2018
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