Monday, May 11, 2009

Book Review: the Spa by Fay Weldon

To the dedicated reader, how you find a book becomes almost important as what you're reading. If a book is recommended to you as a friend, your relationship to that friend colors how you read it, and vice versa--if the book is complete excrement, you're not going to look at that friend in the same way. That's why buying a book as a gift can become an overthinker's nightmare--you have to consider not only what the intended receiver means to you, but what you mean to them, what the book means to you, and what the book will potentially mean to them. Other methods of book searching carry similar issues. Usually, if a book recommendation comes to me from some sort of scholarly article, I read it in full scholar mode, noting all the little issues that arise that would make an interesting paper. That's not to say that I enjoy the book more or less than if I had come across it otherwise--just that the reading experience is different.

One of the ultimate thrills of the reader connoisseur, then, is the book, or series of book, that is discovered through serendipity. It's akin to the horticulturalist who finds that rare flower growing by the side of the road, or the antique collector that finds the last piece of a set at a garage sale. I deliberately choose random books on occasion, hoping for just this outcome. Of course, to say that the choice is random is a sort of willing blindness--if you are looking for books in a bookstore or a library, there is some sort of organizing principle at work, and, like it or not, your search becomes a part of that system. (Idea I'm too lazy to flesh out: this is very much what de Certeau's talking about in The Practice of Everyday Life, both in terms of consumerism and reading.)

As you've probably gathered, this digression eventually leads to the book at hand. My first Fay Weldon book came from the result of a random search in a Someplace Else public library. Of course, it wasn't entirely random: I was looking for a book that caught my eye in the fiction section, because I generally prefer fiction to nonfiction, and I chose the book--A Hard Time to Be A Father largely based on the comic strip-esque cover. The book turned out to be a collection of short stories by Fay Weldon, with heavy overall emphasis on postcolonialism (in the New Zealand form) and gender issues. It was an all right collection, good enough that I took out another of Weldon's books,Mantrapped. As an entirely tangential note, this book belongs in the small category of books I read from beginning to end in the cardio section of the University of Someplace Else's gym in the summer of 2008. And while Hard Time was okay, Mantrapped was exceptional. The plot itself--a middle aged woman switches bodies with a mid-twenties man--is handled well enough, but the real ingenuity comes from the book being half fiction, half autobiography: Weldon regularly interrupts the plot to deliver a metacommentary on what events in her own life led her to include or reject certain elements, and how the progression of her life mirrors the progressions of her novels.

This book took Weldon, in my personal estimation, from an interesting writer to someone with something really unique to say, and led me to make the crudest estimation of her scholarly significance: I looked up how many books the university library had by her. The result was a whopping 41 (75 at my current university). It doesn't really compare to, say, Atwood or T. S. Eliot (both at 100 or so, btw), but it's very respectable. And yet, because I discovered the author entirely independently, the books mean something very different to me than Oryx and Crake or The Wasteland.

I've read one other Weldon book since coming to Blank: The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. I'm not going to say anything more about it here other than the fact that it dealt with gender and misogyny in an intelligent manner highly reminiscient of Patricia Highsmith at her best, and, despite that, I found it to be the most repellent book I've ever read.

So: book at hand. The plot is that the narrator, Phoebe, stays at a spa over Christmas and the New Year. She and the other nine women there spend the time telling each other their life stories. In other words, it's a 21st century feminist restructuring of Cantebury Tales. (Not that you'll find any direct reference to it in the book's jacket. Would it have been that hard?) It's an interesting inversion of the formula: a decadent retreat instead of a religious pilgrimage, and a redefining of the essential positions of society: rather than miller's wives and knights, we get the trophy wife, the stepmother, the judge, the surgeon, and the manucirst. (The best title of the bunch has to go to "The Vicar's Ex-Wife's Tale.") Essentially, it boils down to the elements Weldon has made herself famous for: an uncomfortable examination of gender roles and a conscious evaluation of what makes a story. On that level, many of the tales are hit and miss--"The Conspiracy Theorist's Tale" is a really abrupt shift to modern social theory, and the "Company Director's Tale" is a little too heavy on shock value. The hits, on the other hand, are a lot of fun: "the Journalist's Tale" and the "Brain Surgeon's Tale" are respectively stories of how nasty people can be to each other, and how we try to hide things, and "The Screenwriter's Tale" is a wonderful piece of metafiction that blurs the line between life, story, and screen play. Most important of all is the narrator's story, the text that binds all the individual tales together, much as in the original. Phoebe provides some further judgment and evaluation of the stories and characters, so that we feel we are colloborating with her--and becaue Phoebe is basically a thinly vieled stand-in for Weldon, it creates all sorts of issues regarding response to the individual works and the book as a whole. It's a good read.

And that's it. I suppose current blog readers may complain that they've travelled a very long path to reach that conclusion.

Now you know how I feel.

Later Days.

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