Thursday, March 12, 2009

Divide By Zero

Divisadero is the first book that I've read from Michael Onajadabadapetapetalonaman.  Apparently he's also the author of "The English Patient", a novel that I haven't read which is the basis for an Oscar-winning film that I haven't seen.

Divisadero is good, and I enjoyed it, but I think I missed out on the greatness.  I don't doubt that it's in there, but I think it's largely implicit, and I made the mistake of primarily reading it for the story, which evaporates about 2/3 of the way through.  I was left with some extremely well-drawn characters, a surprisingly vivid landscape, and too few memorable scenes. 


Divisadero came up on my radar shortly after it came out, largely due to kind mentions in the local press.  It's easy to see why; Michael did a lot of research for the book, and the parts that are set in California have a very settled, real feel to them.  It isn't flashy or showy - there's never a moment when a character sits down and relates the history of the state or anything like that - but there is a great naturalness about it, the way city names roll off the narrator's tongue.  Everything feels right, down to the details of Bancroft Library and the drive down the Central Valley.

Three characters form the core of the story - Anna, Claire, and Coop - but I thought the most interesting ones were the minor colorful characters that only appear to draw out Coop's later life: The Dauphin, the Brethren, the singer, the hippie.  They're shallower than the central trio, but much more vivid and gripping.  Everything they do drives his story forward, while the others seem to largely react, ponder, and synthesize the world around them.

There are a couple of really cool things Michael does, like not revealing one character's physical ailment until about halfway through the book.  It's delivered as an afterthought, which seems fitting... after all, these people grew up together, and when you know someone that well, you get used to who they are and don't consciously think about things that would be obvious to strangers.

The final section of the book is what will probably make or break it for most people.  It took me a while to get into it - I really wasn't very interested at all in the chapters with Anna, but once you start pushing back into the past, it became more interesting.  Again, the peripheral characters are shallower, but more interesting than the ones the story supposedly revolves around.

I THINK that I get the "point" of the book - it's alluded to in a Nietzsche quote at the beginning, about the power of art to protect us from reality.  We cannot truly know the past or know another person, so we're constantly creating stories to make sense of the world.  Ultimately, those stories say as much about us as they do about their supposed subjects.


All in all, a good read, one that will especially appeal to people who enjoy character-rich fiction.  If your tastes run more towards snappy plots or surreal imagination, keep looking.

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