January 30, 2009

Book review: "Attachment," by m.e. Jabbour

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Attachment, by m.e. Jabbour
By m.e. Jabbour
Self-published / ISBN: 1-42571-039-5

As regular readers know, I've been spending the week finally making my way through a whole pile of only so-so books that have been in my reading list, titles that in some cases have been in the queue for months now; and as mentioned in an earlier post, I want to remind people that this is a different thing than a book simply being bad, else I would simply say that the book is bad, in that I've never had a problem saying such a thing in the past. Take today's title under examination, for example, the human-interest novel Attachment by m.e. Jabbour, which is actually a surprisingly complex story when you stop and analyze it, one that a certain amount of people are bound to naturally love. It's just that the weaknesses of the book are going to keep X amount of people away from it as well, which is why it's ultimately getting an only so-so score today; because that's part of what makes up the ridiculously overanalytical scores I give out here, not just how good the book itself is at what it's attempting, but how much it will appeal to a large general crowd versus a small niche one, how much it transcends the trappings of whatever genre or style it was written in.

Because make no mistake, Attachment is written in a very specific style -- it's one of those character-heavy academic novels that them perfessers love so much, the kind that concentrate more on examining the human condition than in relating an exciting plot. Specifically it's the story of one Joe Burns, who in the tradition of the novels I love the most is what I call an "antivillain" -- that is, instead of the more well-known "antihero" situation, where we end up rooting for a character who at first appears to have deeply repulsive flaws, here we start out with a sympathetic character who we come to despise more and more, the better we get to know them. Why that is is essentially the subject of this book, an examination not only of why so many liberal intellectuals seemed to completely lose it during the second Bush presidential term of 2004 to '08, but of what drives these people to become who they are in the first place, and of how a complete obliviousness to their own inner nature can sometimes cause an endless cycle of repetitive terrible behavior.

Why yes, if this sounds remarkably like the premise behind the popular novel and award-winning movie Affliction, that's because it is -- except in this case, instead of the main character being an aimless middle-aged conservative in a small town in the midwest, with a penchant for boozing and a tendency towards violence brought on by decades of parental psychological abuse, here the main character is an aimless middle-aged progressive in a small town on the Oregon coast with the same past and current problems. Because make no mistake, Joe is a bundle of violent, passive-aggressive neuroses, caught in a repeating cycle of acting-out precisely because of the complete selective blindness he has developed regarding his own behavior; and then instead of ever confronting all this, he ends up channeling his rage into an all-consuming hatred for the neocon nutjobs who ran this country during the early 2000s, becoming the proverbial letter-to-the-editor crank throughout history who blames every single thing going wrong in his life to whatever politician happens to be in charge that particular moment.

In fact, there's yet another literary trick on display here that in general I'm a big fan of, a device that's so good for antivillain novels, which is the use of an "unreliable narrator" to tell the actual story; because the more you read of Attachment, the more you come to realize that Joe is leaving out important details of these events from the first-person narrative making up this manuscript, details that would make these situations seem a lot more even-handed if disclosed, that would help him identify his own bad behavior and stop repeating it if he could simply learn to acknowledge them. For example, near the beginning of the novel Joe starts a romantic relationship with a woman significantly younger than himself, which at first he paints in deliberately vague terms that makes it seem like he's maybe in his early forties and she in her late twenties, on the outer edge of what most consider a "normal" age gap in a relationship but certainly within that normal boundary; but the longer the story continues, the more it becomes clear that he's actually more in his early fifties and she still college-aged, a ten-year addition to this age gap that moves it thoroughly into creepy territory.

This is bad enough, and especially his complete lack of mature awareness over her young and confused actions towards him; he perceives her constant hot-and-cold attitude the same way a teenaged boy would, for example, as some sort of complex dance of seduction on her part, instead of what it actually is, a young sad girl with daddy issues and no affection in her life, stuck in a rapidly aging small coastal town and with no prospects for the future. But then to be invited over to her family's place for Thanksgiving out of the blue; to get punched in the face when first arriving by her angry career-Marine brother, for what he sees as his legitimately pervy nature; to then proceed to get hammered on the family's liquor over the course of the afternoon, openly leer down the girl's blouse every time she bends over, pick a curse-laded fight with said Marine brother at the dinner table concerning the Iraq War, and then end the day with drunken target-shooting in the rural backyard, using the gun the middle-aged hippie keeps under the front seat of his car at all times...to experience all that and still at the end think to themselves that the day went "pretty well" is a serious commitment indeed to self-delusion.

The book is full of such little details, which I have to admit I found simply brilliant: the way we only hear his half of all telephone conversations, for example, with Jabbour clearly hinting that what's being said on the other end are such sensible questions as "Are you all right?" and "What's wrong with you?" and "Why do I keep hearing all these stories about you acting batsh-t crazy?" Or to cite another excellent example, the way that Joe is under the impression that every woman in his life is maintaining a flirtatious, sexually tense relationship with him, from the teller at his bank to the leader of his writing workshop, and is constantly quoting from their conversations as a way to prove his point; but how to an objective outsider, the conversations he quotes could just as easily be seen as the innocuous small-talk of some poor woman caught at work and stuck having to deal with this oblivious middle-aged lech, saying as little to him as possible in a desperate attempt to not encourage him further, and to get him to just move the f-ck along. Now, is this a sign of Jabbour being deliberately brilliant, by understanding the deep flaws inherent in such a person, and by laboriously maintaining Joe's self-delusion throughout all of this bad behavior? Or is it a sign of Jabbour being ironically brilliant, by being just as self-deluded as the character on display? That's the problem, after all, with writing a novel that shares many of the characteristics of the novelist's own life, is that they practically beg for such questions to be asked, questions that are probably better left for obsessed fans to ponder; as a simple critic, the only thing that's important to me is whether that brilliance is there, and whether it ultimately makes for compelling literature. Which in this case, it is and it does.

Of course, like I said, Attachment has its serious problems as well, some of which are just natural drawbacks of writing a character-heavy academic novel; like many such books, for example, the actual plotline is nearly non-existent for most of its length, then suddenly at the end veers into ridiculously melodramatic territory, an unrealistic and forced high tension that attempts in one fell swoop to make up for two entire previous acts that went nowhere. Also, Jabbour is absurdly guilty of a notorious pet peeve of mine regarding middle-aged progressive liberal authors, of using a hackneyed literary device (in this case, regular visits by Joe to a therapist) as an excuse to add an excruciating amount of rambling, overly simplistic political rants, these pedantic little speeches that sound like they were lifted word-for-word from one of those rambling personal/political blogs that middle-aged progressive liberals love maintaining so much. (And related to this, let me also confess my personal displeasure with authors who use a novel as an excuse to also include a dozen of their rambling, overly simplistic political poems. "Bush / like a cancer / growing, growing..." F-ck, okay, I get it. Stop now.)

But all that said, Attachment also succeeds at exactly what it's trying to do -- it is for sure a deeply complex look at a whole series of complicated people, the kind of book that inspires you to get lost in its details and setting and mood, to feel by the end like you just got done spending time with actual people, not just a bunch of artificial constructs that exist only as words on a piece of paper. In fact, all throughout this book I couldn't help but think of a past favorite of mine, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, and of the heartbreakingly complex portrait he paints in it of his father -- this rage-filled alcoholic who was actually quite a productive foot soldier during the Irish Revolution of the early 20th century, but then became an abusive wreck after the peaceful Republic was established, spending the rest of his miserable life waking up his kids at three in the morning after coming home wasted, making them sing revolutionary songs in the middle of the night while standing at attention in their pajamas, as he sat in the corner weeping until finally passing out with a bottle still clutched in his hand. This is exactly what Joe reminded me of, and I think it's no coincidence at all that so many volatile intellectuals in real life ended up going so nuts during Bush's second term, including let's not forget such notable suicides as Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace.

But at the same time, this also reminded me of yet another past favorite, William Kennedy O'Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, if for nothing else the comic level of pure obliviousness displayed by the main character regarding his own repugnant behavior; and let's be truthful, that it's a great portrait as well of those ponytailed middle-agers you always see in the back of the room at collegetown coffeehouse poetry readings, the ones who always have that creepy lover/father relationship with so many of the undergraduate-girl regulars at that cafe, which for some reason always seem to somehow involve as well getting them to pose for cheesy black-and-white photographs while lounging nude in graveyards. It's for all these reasons that Attachment gets a middle-of-the-road score today, albeit on the high end of so-so in this particular case; it is simply one of those books that will appeal only to a limited crowd, although will appeal deeply to those who are within that crowd.

Out of 10: 8.1

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:17 PM, January 30, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |