Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Demented beach reads

(is it really possible to read at the beach?) at the Village Voice. Go and take a look, it's a highly eclectic mix--and here's my take on Lionel Shriver's Double Fault, which I highly recommend:

Photographed kissing the phallic statuette she received when We Need to Talk About Kevin won the 2005 Orange Prize, Shriver wore a look of satisfaction so intense as to verge on impropriety. Now Serpent's Tail has reissued Shriver's 1997 Double Fault, an utterly compelling tale of love and envy in which Willy (short for Wilhelmina) and Eric meet on a Riverside Park court, fall in love, and marry without adequately comprehending the damage their changing national rankings will wreak on this union between two deeply competitive professional tennis players. The short span of an athlete's career means that Willy at 23 considers herself already middle-aged, and a devastating knee injury proves impossible to overcome. Fortunately, making one's mark as a novelist is not subject to the same physiological constraints.

I loved We Need to Talk About Kevin when I read it last year; this novel is perhaps somewhat less accomplished on strictly technical grounds i.e. prose style (see Cressida Connolly's review at the Telegraph, courtesy of Frank Wilson) and yet it's just as compelling, I have found myself thinking of it again and again in the past couple weeks since I first read it.

You do not often read a really good novel about relationships between women and men that addresses the fact of envy and competitiveness, and this book is exceptional on that count. I can hardly think of anything else I've read in recent memory that so closely captures the painful dissatisfactions of being female:

Willy was ordinarily content with her own figure; it was taut and neat. But as Eric approached in the moonlight, she was aware that her breasts, while small, sagged just enough to fail the pencil test. She recited to herself that she was in good shape, that all women have a layer of subcutaneous fat; when Eric put his hands on her waist Willy heard in her head the very phrase, subcutaneous fat. Her own trunk was smooth and bland, with none of those conniving, thinking ripples musing over his chest. Eric sighed as he traced her hip, but Willy found the slight flare too wide and envied him the clean, parallel shoot to the thigh. . . . He smoothed his left hand from her hip to her thigh, teasing his fingers up and inward, and she panicked at what he could possibly find in the absence between her legs that could compete with the whole fifth limb that arced against her stomach. Maybe, in sufficient thrall, it was impossible to imagine that so riveting a sex could conceivably be attracted by one’s own.

Shriver writes exceptionally well here about tennis (and in particular about tennis as a way of laying bare character, she is a great novelist of discipline); she also has a really remarkable summing-up voice, I imagine it will not be to everyone's taste but check out these sentences:

While Willy could no longer cash in on the ‘something special’ that had brought her father to his knees when she was ten, Eric was barreling along on his genetic gravy train. His game seemed to mature by itself. Naturals who are still flourishing on knack alone do not understand, as Willy did not in high school, anyone who fails to grow new skills like fingernails. Too, the athlete who has finished mining the seam of his gift has a dronish aspect, marked by sedulous, painstaking progress, as if scaling a cliff with no chinks for sudden ascent; the precocious find handholds to make breathtaking leaps in a day. It was prettier to be effortless, and she worried that Eric found her monotonous two-hour net drills pathetic.

Below you see a third-person voice doing some of what the first-person narrator in Kevin pulls off so effectively, here Willy is muscling in on her husband's rope-jumping fitness sessions in a squash court at the health club & feeling herself slipping behind him & being overcome with a surge of negative emotions (the "zwieback" reference is to his high-scoring Scrabble word in a game Willy mistakenly thought she might win):

She hated his self-righteously sweaty clothes,s he hated his smarmily perfect body, she hated his fancy-schmancy exhibitionist theatrics raised to a power just because a lot of nobody pseudo-sportsmen were gooning at him. In a spreading tide of anathemas, she hated his priggish recitation of who won the Italian in 1963, his look-at-me-I’m-so-dedicated posing in front of tournament videos with a pen and pad, his chuckling superiority slipping out of those zwieback tiles when he’d merely lucked into the Z, and most of all she hated his conceited, swaggering upper-class assumption that just because he deigned to pick up a tennis racket at eighteen he could sashay into the pantheon of her profession when she’d been busting her ass since she was five.

And one more, with a very characteristic swerve of ethical-imaginative sympathies at the end (it's this that makes Willy someone we care about rather than someone we find absurd) (oh, and the reference is to a fancy meal earlier in the book in which Eric is brought the 'man's' menu with prices that Willy's lacks):

For Willy had never understood whether you could be held responsible for your own emotions. As far as she could discern, circumstance had dealt them discrepant menus as the waiter had at Lutèce. Rather than lack prices, Willy’s listed different entrées: rancid resentment, gristly consternation, and prickly spite, all with an aftertaste of self-reproach--a sort of collective squab. After swallowing her pride, Willy’s only just dessert was humble pie. Meanwhile, Eric’s menu cataloged an emotional haute cuisine: tender solicitation, sweet concern, and creamy largess. In fact, she wondered if Eric himself wearied of his princely diet, got full to his eyeballs with his own decency, and coveted her shrieking fits. He was an aggressive, complicated man. Nobility and forbearance morning to night must have bound him like a woman’s corset.


  1. I MUST READ THIS! Thanks for the post. I should make my husband read this too -- we both are athletes, and race together, although we don't really compete with each other (thank heavens).

  2. Yes, do read it--it really is something special, high quality but also most unusual in the topics it tackles.

  3. This is such a great recommendation for a book: Your appreciation of Lionel Shriver's writing is clear, precise, and generous. Explaining what a writer does well and how she does it is a practice that sometimes doesn't fit into shorter book reviews, but it works really well on your blog. I feel like I learned something about writing and description from it.