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14 December 2005

Sweet Agony (2001)

By Nancy Huston

From the paperback back flap: "On a snowy New England evening in a small college town, Sea Farrell - a hard-drinking, libidinous poet and professor - hosts a Thanksgiving dinner. The eleven guests include two fellow professors (one a novelist, the other also a poet), two of Sean's former lovers, his lawyer, his housepainter, and his baker. What none of them knows is that Sean is dying. This dinner could be his grand finale.

"As food and drink flow, secrets are exposed, tragedies bared, and truths uncovered. 'Never could we have dreamed how rough adult life would be,' one character thinks. Yet there is wit and laughter too, in this novel about mortality that is also a celebration of life."

Yeah... or something like that.

I read this novel for the MOMS Book Club that will meet on Monday morning. In this club, the hostess for that month picks the discussion book, although I do not know how that will work with the kids in attendance as well. I've not been to a meeting yet, so I cannot imagine how we will be able to offer any substantial criticism with ten pre- schoolers playing in the same room. We'll see. In case this club winds up being like that episode of Malcolm in the Middle, where Lois read the book but the other women were just there to gab and gossip, this will serve as my serious, well-pondered review.

Alright, this story has an omniscient narrator named... GOD! No kidding. And it annoyed the crap out of me. Every other chapter was narrated from God's point of view as he described in gleeful, malicious detail the manner by which each character meets his or her final end. One reviewer called this "an audacious conceit" (quoted on the back cover of the book), but he meant it in a good way - in that it makes the novel stand apart from other Big Chill wannabes. I would select those words as part of a larger onslaught of disturbing insults for this gimmicky schlock.

In between the demise-and-death chapters, which read like a dispersed series of epilogues, were scenes from the drunk Irish poet cliché's dinner party. Every manner of stereotype and outrageous farce was presented, with everything geared toward (stale) shock value:
  • The lawyer who is continuously tried and found guilty in the court of his own memories for the vicious gang rape of a young woman while he served in Vietnam. Ever since, he's pursued law and order.
  • The obese feminist hippie who was molested by her uncle at age twelve. And now she doesn't like men.
  • The 23-year-old former prostitute and coke addict who slept with her brother and poked the eyes out of a sparrow because their mother pimped them out to her boyfriends as children.
  • The articulate black poet, a most hideously stale Oreo stereotype, whose white wife divorced him because he had an affair.
  • The anorexic woman whose aunts and uncles had been gassed in the Holocaust. Now she teaches philosophy and wonders why her children were so morbid.
  • And the man who escaped from Belarus but endures the quiet sorrow of losing his family to the Chernobyl disaster.
The whole thing just reeked! Every possible dynamic was covered, from infidelity, child deaths, drug addiction, Alzheimer's, cancer, humble beginnings, general asshole qualities, fame, corporate ladders, murder, etc etc etc. She could have just thrown in someone who lost a loved one in the Challenger explosion, and it would have fit in seemlessly! I cannot imagine the stress of having to socialize with such an amazingly distraught, unseemly, disfunctional group of friends. My friends and I talk about jobs, kids, food, movies - not the WEIGHTY PAIN OF EXISTENCE.

But then, maybe we're just hiding the truth from each other, in our own heads, and only God knows what is really happening. If that's the case, being God would give me a worse headache than this novel did. I cannot understand where the "celebration of life" aspect was revealed, because I would jump out of a seventeenth-floor window (like one of the characters did) if I had to live like these people.

Can't wait to talk about it on Monday!

Vocab: saprogenic

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