Thursday, November 22, 2007

Michel Faber's "Vanilla Bright Like Eminem": Book Review

With a nod to the American market, what in Britain two years ago appeared as "The Fahrenheit Twins" now comes, after the success of his Victorian triple-decker "The Crimson Petal and the White," as Faber's third collection of his more usual genre, the short story. If you're wondering about the similarity with his blockbuster, doorstopper of a novel (I'm told a sequel's in the works), there's only one story, "Flesh Remains Flesh," that takes place in the mid-19c., and this was one of the weakest entries, in my opinion. However, even this macabre tale displays Faber's genial wit, his edgy sensibility of an outsider, and his fascination with the outré amidst the mundane.

These stories often depict a character out-of-sync with society, or one who shifts slightly away from the norm and finds wonders or horrors. The first two, "The Safehouse" and the slightly less successful "Andy Comes Back," present protagonists who in the first case leave and the second case return from the margins. Faber conjures up a marvellously sinister take on the Panopticon and an Orwellian society of surveillance and suspicion in "The Safehouse" and ends it perfectly. He does this with "Andy" and the "Eyes of the Soul" also, and after three strong stories that begin this collection, "Explaining Coconuts" veers off into an off-beat satire of a deadpan recitation of the properties of that magical fruit to an audience of lustful middle-aged rich men; impossible to explain the tone of this story, but it's almost extraterrestrial in its strangeness. It reminds me a bit of his haunting novel "Under the Skin" in how it evokes an alien sensibility within otherwise ordinary surroundings.

"Finesse" takes what appears a predictable encounter of revenge between a female doctor whose family has been held hostage by a dictator and his need for an operation and manages to rework this conflict satisfyingly. Likewise, "Less Than Perfect" takes adolescent angst and longing for the unattainable woman and presents an encounter that proves more faithful to reality than most fiction; "The Smallness of the Action" tries this with a harried mother caring, or not caring for, her infant but the touch is too heavily ironic here for the reader to care. "A Hole with Two Ends" makes the Scottish Highlands (the author's adopted home) into a wilderness akin to the harsh savannah. "All Black" balances a breakup with a man's male lover with his weekend visit with the man's daughter after he's been separated from his wife-- complicated enough-- and sets as a backdrop to this domestic set-up what appears to be a catastrophic plague of oncoming global darkness. An ambitious story, but Faber manages to keep the familiar and the terrifying blended in perfect proportion.

"Serious Swimmers" dramatizes an addict who must begin to care for her long-estranged daughter; at a public pool under the eye of a social worker, her courage becomes no less engrossing than the quest of an ancient superhero. "Someone to Kiss It Better" efficiently details the downfall of a thug, "Mouse" sets the worlds of gaming and nature and desire against each other neatly, and "Tabitha Warren" handles the decline of a hack bestselling writer of treacly animal-narrated potboilers brilliantly in her rendition of a cat's true stream-of-consciousness narration. It's both funny and poignant.

So is "Beyond Pain," when the unlikely pairing of a Scots small-town musician for a death-metal band and his Hungarian girlfriend brings them into a moment of beauty at a roadhouse csardas. The title story movingly relates the one moment in a father's life when it all comes together perfectly as he watches his daughter rub his son's spiked and bleached hair on a train. Faber's humanism softens and sculpts this final entry.

I wanted to conclude with a few samples of Faber's prose, for those unfamiliar with his style. Whether depicting the world outside or the torment within, Faber avoids the predictable yet keeps his control of the human. Like George Saunders, he manages to provide a moral grounding while he enters the altered, deformed, or stunted sensibility of the nonconformist, the misfit, or the repressed Everyman. All of these sixteen stories are worth reading, twelve are recommended, and half of those I found met the already high expectations I had for this writer after his two novels.

"All around Neil and Sarah, the picture quality of the world was being adjusted as if by brightness and contrast knobs on God's remote control: the sharper contours of grass and scarred earth were sharpened further, almost luminescent, while the duller stretches were retreating into darkness." (The Highlands, in "A Hole," 133-4)

"He seemed unconvincing as a new arrival to the world. There was a darkness in his brow, a slyness to his eyes, a set to his mouth, which made him look like he was a man already, as if her womb had been some sort of a public bar where he'd already spent half a lifetime sipping beer, swapping grievances with his mates, and staring at women's breasts." ("The Smallness," 141, as the mother looks at her son.)

"In the lurid electric light of the train interior, traveling backwards with my eight-year-old daughter at my side, I suddenly realize that my gorgeous, talented, award-winning partner's play wasn't really about anything, except being gay. Judged next to any children's story, it had no plot to speak of." (One moment of self-scrutiny, "All Black" 157)

{Posted to Amazon US today.}

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