Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Book Review : “Beginner’s Greek” by James Collins

Talk about coincidence: gathering dust near the top of my “to read” pile is a copy of James Collins’ debut novel, “Beginner’s Greek,” and I’m listening to the February 22 podcast of the N.Y. Times Book Review, and who is Sam Tannenhaus, host and editor of the Review, about to interview? You guessed it. None other than the first time novelist himself. Coincidence, you ask? Where is the coincidence in a novelist being interviewed on a broadcast devoted to books? But then this is the N. Y. Times Book Review, and isn’t this a first time novelist? Well alright, it may not rank with the convergence of the twain, but it is a little spooky.

Talk about coincidence: Peter Russell, the hero of James Collins’ debut novel, “Beginner’s Greek” is sitting on a plane bound for L.A. on business.. The seat next to him is empty, and as he waits for its occupant he dreams that a lovely intelligent woman will appear to fill it, that they will make an immediate connection, that they will fall in love and live ever after happily. And who should plop down next to him: the lovely intelligent Holly (no last name as yet), and they do make an immediate connection, clicking as only mutual admirers of “The Magic Mountain”can. Falling in love is undoubtedly inevitable when she gives him her number and he promises to call. But. . .there has to be a but. . .Peter loses her number, and, you will no doubt remember from the prior parenthetical, the beautiful, intelligent Holly has no last name.

Talk about coincidence: four years pass and Peter, back in Manhattan, is invited to a party to meet the new girl friend of his best friend, a cad of a novelist, and who does this new girl friend happen to be. Give that reader a Kewpie doll. But now Holly is his friend’s girl, and Peter is a noble fellow; besides though he still feels the attraction, he has no idea how Holly feels about him. Life has a way of throwing monkey wrenches into dreams. Peter keeps quiet. Holly and the novelist eventually marry. Peter is the best man.

Talk about coincidence: I could go on, but it wouldn’t do to give away the plot of the novel, which, if you have no problem with coincidences, is undoubtedly quite entertaining. And, after all, why should you? Although there was a time when novelists were criticized for relying on coincidence to resolve their plots (one thinks of Dickens, for example, managing to have the little Oliver Twist get caught stealing by Mr. Brownlow), critics have long since concluded that coincidence may well be less a crutch to move along a recalcitrant plot than it is an indication of a particular vision of life(at least in some novels). There are no such things as coincidences, one might argue; what happens in life is indeed what is supposed to happen (at least in some novels, by some novelists).

And it is certainly arguable that it is just this fatalistic word view that suffuses Collins’ novel. Note the reference to Greek in the title. What happens to Peter and Holly is no more random happenstance, than what happens to Oedipus or Antigone. It is an elemental step in a greater cosmic plan. The universe described in this novel is as deterministic as any in a Thomas Hardy novel, if, all in all, a much more pleasant place. If Peter and Holly were meant for each other, they will get each other; if not, not. If however, whatever will be, will be, there is still the question of whether what will be is somehow determined by anything we human beings may do. Is there some relation between a person’s moral behavior and a person’s fate? Does the good guy get the girl? Does the bad guy get his ‘come upance?’ Do good guys finish last? In some sense, this is the question “Beginner’s Greek” tries to answer.

On another level, the novel is a kind of adult fairy tale which the reader has to pursue to the end to find out if the prince and Cinderella get to live happily ever after. And appropriately it is peopled with a cast of supporting characters straight out of the Grimm Bothers. There is a fairy godmother surrogate of sorts, an adulteress whose own story is much too delicious to spoil for the prospective reader. There is an evil dwarf in a sub-plot concerning Peter’s job with a prestigious Wall St. financial firm. There is a powerful king who, if benevolent, can make all well; but if tyrannical, can ruin everything. There is a wolf in sheep’s clothing who can charm the pants off every female he comes near, and usually does. There is a crazy old man who is often wiser in his insanity than the worldly cynics around him.

It is set in the world of the upper East side of Manhattan, a fairy tale world where people have boxes at the opera, live in lavishly furnished mansions and fly off for weekends on the islands in helicopters. It is filled with the beautiful people, the movers and shakers, the power elite. And if Peter is not yet quite there, not yet at the top of the mountain, he surely aspires to get there, and one imagines that as a bright young man, he may well manage to do so (if, that is, it is in the stars?).

Every once in awhile Collins seems to question the conspicuous consumption of his characters, as for example, when Holly demands that the money spent for an expensive necklace be donated to a hospital for children with cancer. Although, even then, it is made clear that while too often charity is little more than an enabling crutch, in the case of child hood cancer that is certainly not the case: compassionate conservatives at work. This may be the kind of thing that Tannenhaus is referring to in his interview when he makes the point that the book combines romance with more serious concerns, moral and social concerns. Collins, for his part, agrees. He adds that he was trying to add elements of characters struggling with issues as well as elements of satire.

While there is some truth to this assertion, there are some barbs thrown at the world of high finance, there some punches at the idle rich, there are even some sneers at literary ladies and randy novelists. There is certainly the whole philosophical question the book raises about determinism and morality. Nevertheless, when you come right down to it, the overwhelming import of the book is its romance. No one is going to read it for its social criticism or its philosophical discourse. One is inclined to think that the whole issue is a less than subtle attempt to distinguish “Beginner’s Greek” from what is too often dismissed as “chick lit.”

However, as romance, the book certainly has its charms. Collins prose is sharp and pointed. He is adept at the arresting metaphor. Tears fall on a letter like bullet holes. People who are supposed to be friends but who don’t quite connect have keys that don’t quite fit each other’s locks. When a beautiful person joins a group, the tome changes like a film going from black and white to color. It plot is filled with twists and unexpected turns, so that pages keep turning almost on their own. It provides insights into a social world inaccessible to most readers, and it gives the impression that the author knows whereof he speaks. These are no mean accomplishments.

Besides, if you want philosophy, you can always read “The Magic Mountain.”

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