Grand mother divided by Monkey equals Outer Space - book review
ST ALBANS, May 6 - I bought my copy of Nora Chassler's 'Grand mother divided by Monkey equals Outer Space directly from its smiling publisher in person, on the last day of The London Book Fair, 2015.
There's a certain excitement to reading a book you have not heard of before. It's like a blind date. You never know how things will go. Luckily all was well. Grand Mother Divided won by curiosity and held it to the end.
My copy is on my desk right now, covered in copious notes. I like it being close to me. You just can't have that kind of intimacy with an ebook, now can you?
So what's it all about?
Vic, a pot-head, forty-something woman with a couple of kids and a great body gets pregnant by her coke-fuelled, teen boyfriend in early-1980s New York and ends up having an abortion.
The writing is often excellent and evokes the mood of the moment, and what a moment it was, with hedonism and chaos rampant.
I collated my notes into nine categories, the most fruitful of which was 'ace dabs' which are liberally scattered throughout Grand Mother Divided. The author has a gimlet eye for the sorts of details that convince. For example, 'Carrie's colorless hair dropped into one of the cokelines on the mirror. Arnie lifted it between his thumb and index fingers, like he was plucking a dandelion for wish-blowing.' And this, Viv, Carrie's mother, has 'dowel-like, graspable wrists'. So too, the walls of an office building are 'glossy cockroach brown.' Great stuff. Once I knew the author could serve up such tasty dabs I read in part to look for more, and was not disappointed. It's the poet in me, and the prose in Grand Mother Divided definitely has a poetic feel to it.
But the core of the story is the way in which Viv's little family mills around in a semi-dysfunctional way. Mom is still hot and knows it. But she is nearing the end of her 'purposefulness' in terms of her biological clock. Yet she pulls Arnie - a fact that bothers him - and makes him a member of the family. He almost has as much in common with Viv's two kids, Elie and Carrie, as he does with Viv. None of this is ideal from a social cohesion viewpoint. Nor is it ideal from the kids' viewpoint either. Eli becomes increasingly pissed that none of the adults in his life can get him to see The Shining. And Carrie was horrified to find that her mom had set fire to an application she'd toiled over for a place in a better school. Of all the characters in the story it was Carrie I felt for the most, having to suffer such a mom. That said, I felt sorry for most of the characters at one point or another, but it was Carrie who seemed to suffer the most. Finding her mom comatose in bed with a brazen lesbian was... ach. Poor kid.
That said, Viv is not beaten down. She works things out and tends to get her way, though her idea of what is good is limited. The drugs don't help. But then how would her life look sober? 'Some people just like (need) to alter their perception,' she tells her daughter.
Drugs feature frequently in Grand Mother Divided, are commonplace in the lives of Viv and Arnie. Viv is coming down from coke and suddenly feels wrecked because, 'Cocaine didn't peter out; coke ducked out, like a robber.' Viv loves her pot, loves it: 'The aroma of the moist half-ounce made her feel very happy and calm.' Oh yes, Viv and many millions like her. Moments later, her daughter's school application is going up in flames as Viv accidentally torches it in her haste to light her joint. Oh mommmm!
Perhaps much of American life hinges on that little toot of something or other to give it meaning. But then - confusion! - Arnie falls in actual love with Lucy, real love of the 3D walking-around variety. Up to now his love life has comprised being taken by a woman twice his age, and casual blow jobs from the guys down on the dock. Real love in NY circa 1980 seems more shocking than any amount of casual sex on a bed of coke. Where was I? Oh yes, Lucy is compared, counter-intuitively, to a 'flat coke, sweet and warm, with no edge.' But then she is not a native of the parish, being from out of town, Georgia even. Though even she looks like Fame's Irene Cara.
New York is a the elephant in the room of this story. Everything the characters are is because they are New Yorkers to their fingertips. Viv's little crew is a New York family, assertive and active. They get on with it. Yes, their lives might not be ideal, but they sure as hell live 'em, even the kids. And Viv loves her city, the very air of which, 'felt cosy as a quilt, warm and muffled and welcoming.' Arnie to-and-fros to the local Gristedes where he has a dealer. There are still mourners outside The Dakota, where John Lennon met his end. And out-of-town Lucy sees Arnie, Carrie and Eli as, 'the kind of interesting people she wanted to meet'. Yes, New York makes to much possible, but is also perhaps a harsh trap for families like Viv's. Their lives are interesting to outsiders, but you would not want to living as one of them. Carrie knows it, feeling like she was, 'in a sit-com someone had forgot to make funny'. Arnie is in love NY style. Out-of-town Lucy lives 'inside a pretty picture'. He watches over her sleeping form as the sun rises over Central Park going 'through the shades of a healing bruise'. Now how NY is that description?! Perhaps out-of-town Lucy's love is healing some bruise Viv inflicted on him by 'initiating their affair'. NY and bruise seem to go together perfectly somehow. Behind his Ray-Ban Wayfarers Arnie - who is also sick of coke - turns out to have a soft heart. That said, that said, he also leaves Viv in a brutal NY sort of way by just going.
Where was I?
Oh yes, sex. Yes there is sex, not overt in your face sex, background sex, matter-of-fact sex. Yes, sex with Arnie lands Viv with a tricky little problem. But hey, nothing that a $500 loan from her father-in-law can't fix. Two passages in Grand Mother Divided were disturbing. Firstly, one of the kids can't sleep because of the 'sound of her mother fucking'. Not nice for the kid, for any kid. But the toughest passage in the book for this reader was where Carrie was solicited to pose for some pics to go in a book to be called 'The Sex Lives of Children'. Seriously bad stuff. Some taboos should never be broken. Libertarianism must have its limits. Rant over.
Grand Mother Divided is an excellent retrospective of life in the badbrands of haute-postmodernism - crap food, regular drugs, booze, chaos. Yes, the city offers life with an edge for those stuck out in the Labrador-breeding suburbs, but it's not an ideal place to get stuck trying to bring up a couple of kids. But what do I know? Some will argue kids grow up stronger from the experience. So no judgement. Actually, no, I feel so strongly for Carrie. Viv is a bad mum. It has to be said. I really felt for Carrie.
That said I loved the arch humour, too. Like the all-girl band that got worse and worse the more they practised, Viv sucking so hard on her joint she swallows the roach, the fuck-off fake owl with an NY pigeon perched on its head.
And then, and then, there was a wonderful passage near the end which seemed to cut to the truth behind all the name-checked brands, films, sounds, celebs of the time: 'Some people don't want to know the truth; they cling to their fictions for dear life, they kill for them...' The read was worth it for that thought alone.
The emotional engineering then gets seriously good. A few pages on, Viv is weeping as she leaves the abortion clinic, not because the life she was carrying has been terminated but 'about her lack of money'. Damn, don't want her giving in to - shhhhh - moral scruples.
And then - the most moving part of the story for me - we see her stretched out alone on the loveseat in her rubbish apartment. Life. Bleeding.
If NY - the big, bold and beauteous beast of a city - is the elephant in the story, this description of Viv seems artly fitting. There she is dancing by the jukebox her Wonder Woman tits jiggling around in her 'little t-shirt that said Carnaby Street on it in faded letters. She had a belt of silver elephants, in a chain: trunk to tail, tail to trunk.'
Yes, I loved this writing.
Yes, I baulked a little at the title of Chapters 1 and 17: Chapter Zero. Why? Because it instantly put me in mind of Ground Zero and NY 2001, thus diluting the 1980s retro feel. But this is a small criticism. More seriously, I am not entirely into the full-fat title, which I think is maybe trying too hard.
I finished the story thinking I really wanted to know what became of Viv, Carrie and Eli. And Arnie, too. I think there is excellent scope to write a 2015 sequel. Viv wld be, what, 75 now? Does she still like a spliff? Is she still hot? And does Carrie end up with a doctorate in marine-biology? Eli maybe becomes a cop? And Arnie? A dad with five kids in the Labrador-breeding burbs? Not for me to say. But I would dearly like to know!
By R J Askew