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Penury As a Kind of Apartheid...

Spent the weekend Tax Bwana-ing to the poor; watching La Dolce Vita; and reading Scott Spencer’s most recent novel, River Under the Road.

It rained steadily. It was very gloomy. I did force myself out on the running path when the rain congealed into drizzly fog for a two-hour window on Sunday.

I think the deal is that I’m lonely. It’s not social isolation in the classic sense you read about in the AARP newsletter: Social isolation in seniors causes emotional issues like depression as well as physiological problems such as heart disease and immunodeficiencies…

I am surrounded by people. Any time I want to have a half-hour conversation about why the garbage collection people now pick up the recyclables half an hour later than they used to pick them up, well dayem! No end of takers.

But that’s not what I want to have conversations with people about.


Not that I would ever want to make a list of The Ten Most Depressing Movies of All Time, but if I did, La Dolce Vita would rank high on that list.

La Dolce Vita isn’t about genocide, or trench warfare, or concentration camps, or poison water, or bikers stomping helpless, furry kittens, or any of those things that make this planet a truly horrible place to be.

It’s not the events of the film that are particularly depressing. I mean, in a sense, I spent seven years as La Dolce Vita’s protagonist, although God knows, I didn’t get to hang out in cafés in whatever the midtown Manhattan equivalent of the Via Veneto is. I did my stalking by phone! But anyway, I know that life. True, you’re not curing brain cancer. On the other hand, you are a fixer, giving everyone exactly what they want. Dumbing down ancient archetypes like Aphrodite into pap like Pamela Anderson that’s more palatable to the masses of your particular time/space continuum and then feeding that pap to said masses – such hungry little birds! Providing professional narcissists with the adulation that keeps them from overdosing or shooting themselves in the head – such hungry little raptors!

There’s some gratification to giving people what they want.

No, La Dolce Vita is about passivity. And passivity is inherently depressing. La Dolce Vita is about being suspended in that uncomfortably weightless place between delusional desires and cosmic aspirations – a theme that’s foreshadowed in the movie’s justifiably celebrated opening segment when a helicopter flies a cheesy statue of Jesus high above the city of Rome.

When you’re pulled apart like that, the result – often – is that you can’t move at all.

La Dolce Vita is an extraordinarily tight and well-constructed movie, too – in contrast to a lot of Fellini’s latter work, which is loose and formless. The seven segments of the film equivalent to the seven hills of Rome; the Christ symbolism of the opening segments echoed in the Christ symbolism of the closing scenes when Marcello and the other revelers stumble on to a beach and discover fishermen who’ve just netted a truly hideous monster fish. (One of Christ’s symbols is the fish.) The failures of communication that frame the film: In the opening scene, Marcello tries to get a girl’s phone number – rather impossibly since he’s in a helicopter, 100 feet over her head; in the final scene, the beautiful Umbrian angel girl tries to ask Marcello if he’s still writing, and the roar of the ocean makes it impossible for him to hear her.

The film left me feeling very, very, very empty.

It was a hard feeling to shake.

But fortunately, after I went running Sunday, I’d made a trip to the library.


In River Under the Road, Scott Spencer appears to be writing about the same set of protagonists that Lauren Groff wrote about in Fates and Furies. No shit! I mean, true – Thaddeus is a screenwriter, and Lotto is a playwright; Thaddeus and Grace buy a house in the Hudson Valley that is obviously Rokeby outside Rhinebeck while Lotto and Mathilde buy a more modest cottage in some fictional equivalent of Columbia County, but the tensions between husband and wife are exactly the same: The husband is charming and lovable; the wife is not.

This leads me to my umpteenth restatement of DiLucchio’s Law of Intimate Attraction: We partner with those people who are able to say “No” to the things we ourselves cannot say “no” to – but wish we could.

It also makes me wonder if this couple has a real life equivalent in the real-life social scene of the Hudson Valley literati and why I haven’t been invited to any of their parties.

River Under the Road is the most post-modern Spencer novel I’ve read to date. Not that it abandons narrative. But it abandons the connective tissue between chunks of narrative. It’s episodic. Its device or conceit (if reading the book left you feeling snarky) is descriptions of 13 parties spread out over a span of 20+ years. (This structure is also curiously reminiscent of Fates and Furies.)

Spencer’s prose, as usual, is shimmery and evocative. Some of his sentences and metaphors actually make me shiver with physical pleasure:

What was the point of life without access to all the pleasures on earth? Read your Epicurus. Look around you. People were sleeping in better beds, eating tastier food, traveling the world as if the world was theirs, while you and your beloved were holed up like losers in an apartment with virtually no light, drying yourselves with towels that just moved the moisture around rather than absorbing it. He experienced his penury as a kind of apartheid, a daily injustice.

OhmiGAWD. That apartheid! :::SWOON:::

There are also metaphors that don’t quite work, of course, through which one catches a mental glimpse of Spencer with a three-day beard and a cup of cold coffee leaving rings on the yellow post-its next to his computer, muttering to himself as he rearranges the commas in some particularly climactic passage for the eighth time.

I’ll leave prospective readers to discover those metaphors for themselves.

All in all, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Not great but good, even very good in parts, and a highly entertaining way to recover from watching La Dolce Vita.

This entry was originally posted at http://mallorys-camera.dreamwidth.org/696953.html. You may leave comments on either Dreamwidth or LiveJournal if you like.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 26th, 2018 06:38 pm (UTC)

He’s got Epicurus wrong. He’s nothing about envy of others’ pleasures and all about finding it for yourself in your own life. Thus the quote about a bit of cheese making bread and water into a feast.

I have a different law of attraction. Get with someone(s) who say yes when you might be inclined to a no. IOW enablers. 😝

Feb. 26th, 2018 08:40 pm (UTC)
I suspect that it's the character rather than the author who's got it wrong, in which case it's a telling detail. :-)

And my comments apply to corporations, not LLCs. :-)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )