Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Living in America

Special Topics in Calamity Physics Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World Divine Inspiration Cobweb
When I was 14, my family moved to Washington, DC. Boy, was that a strange time of my life. I'd always been a bookish introvert in Australia; in the milieu of a typical American high school, I was now bookish, weird and AUSTRALIAN!!! Being invisible was not an option. Witty teenagers would bounce towards me like kangaroos, quoting Crocodile Dundee. Other kids wanted to know whether I had a pet koala, or did I ride a kangaroo to school. Seemingly intelligent adults would tell me how much they loved my country - ever since they saw The Sound of Music. I became so sick of it that I made up a pack of lies about my home; I even managed to convince one kid that I'd never seen a light bulb before.

So it was with a sense of painful recognition that I read Special Topics in Calamity Physics. In this novel, Blue moves to a new school and finds herself completely adrift. Although she pretends to be happy enough spending much of her time alone, Hannah, a teacher, takes Blue under her wing and inserts her into her group of proteges, who are most unwilling to accept her. When Hannah is found hanged, the group falls apart. The story begins with the hanging, then backtracks over the previous year to tell the story leading up to it.

While my experience did not involve death, the novel unfolds a familiar story of adolescent awkwardness, disconnection and cruelty. The adolescent is so often an observer, analysing the actions of themselves and others. This is captured in the novel: we see the story through Blue's eyes, and, like her, we are never quite sure what is going on and even what is real. This gives the novel an authentic voice; like Blue, when I moved countries I was never quite sure whether people were teasing me, or were just ignorant; whether they liked me, and whether I wanted them to; whether I should take on a superior persona, or whether I should grovel to be accepted. Blue goes through all these shifts, and my heart aches for her.

On another note, Blue is the daughter of an academic. The novel is set up as a collegiate reading guide; each chapter is named after and refers to a work of literature, and she peppers her story with allusions and references to other works as well. It makes for interesting reading; and one day I plan to read all the books in her reading guide that I have so far missed.

Another book which takes me back to my adolescence is Sarah Vowell's collection of essays, Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World. Vowell writes for This American Life, and many of these essays appeared first on radio. The subjects are varied: growing up fundamentalist; living around guns; being part Cherokee; loving Frank Sinatra; learning to drive; making mix tapes; going to Disneyland; drinking coffee. Her writing is hilarious and self-deprecating - her essay on fighting insomnia, wherein she moves all her furniture, gives up caffeine and watches a very soporific Jay Leno, is cheerfully ridiculous. And the essay 'Music Lessons' strongly reminds me of my sister's school band. In it, Vowell writes about all the things she inadvertently learned through high school music: Marxism, transvesticism, biology, popularity, carrying heavy instruments, and how to do what you like; in doing so, she evokes the whole high school experience, nemesis and all.

Living in the States wasn't just about high school. We belonged to a large inner city church, radically different to any church I had attended previously. The sanctuary was built on Gothic lines, with vast stone columns, ornate carvings and slippery slate floors. Robe-wearing acolytes, musicians and preachers processed down the centre aisle. The church ran an adults' choir, a children's choir, and a handbell choir, and we were expected to participate in at least one of them. The organ was magnificent, and I can still remember the thrill of hearing the organist blast glory to the skies. Every year or two, the church would perform Handel's Messiah or similar, and choirs and musicians from around the city would descend on the church for hours of rehearsal. Choir directors would wave their hands in the air, shepherding lost sopranos, and music filled the space.

The church was more than formal worship and music. Homeless men slept on the steps and participated in church life. The church buildings were multi-story, and, as well as the church offices, housed an elementary school, a child care centre and a small library. Security guards and cleaning staff were ever present; and the buildings even had their own engineer. Church members were forever ducking in for projects, meetings, or to wrangle. As might be expected in a political city, church politics were a complex and constant part of life.

Jane Langton's Divine Inspiration, based in a similar church in Boston, could have been written about our church. This murder mystery, featuring Homer Kelly, stars church organists and building engineers; hopeless secretaries and hen-pecked ministers; a choir and musicians preparing to perform Bach's Magnificat; a child care centre, wealthy benefactors, and church politics galore. And it is also about the city of Boston, which, like Washington, has extreme wealth and dire poverty forever rubbing shoulders. It begins when the protaganist, Alan Starr, finds a young boy crawling up the church steps. The boy's mother is missing, and it is up to Alan and Homer Kelly to find her.

Like all Langton's Homer Kelly mysteries, and Pessl's Special Topics, Divine Inspiration draws from particular themes. Each section begins with a piece from Bach's Magnificat, and each chapter with a quote from Martin Luther. It adds to the richness and dimensions of the novel. Overall, it's great fun, a wonderful book to read in a few big gulps.

Thinking about my DC church recalls the members of the church. To a young Australian teenager, having grown up in a suburb of plumbers and builders and nurses, many of them were very exotic indeed. Members included an African ambassador whose government had been deposed and who was now stranded in the States; a man who was instrumental in introducing those yellow school buses across America; the most senior journalist at the White House; a paymaster at the CIA; an engineer at NASA; an advisor to the President; members of the Cosmos Club; people who wrote books; people who had maids, and lived in five storey houses, and went away to the mountains every summer; people who worked in New York and lived in Washington; and of course the homeless guys.

And, quietly mingling, were various intelligence agents. One man would disappear periodically, then reappear some months later. We'd ask him where he'd been. I can't tell you, he'd say, then he'd quickly change the subject. This same man would regularly stop his car to make calls from public phone boxes (he'd say his mobile phone didn't work), and would drop in on colonels in forts around Washington when he was taking us out to lunch. Questions were cut short, and it was all very odd.

Reading Cobweb, by Neal Stephenson and Frederick George (originally published under the pen name of Stephen Bury), takes me right back. It's a prescient thriller set alternately in the Midwest and in Washington. The premise of the story is that terrorists use American training and equipment to plan an attack on American soil - this was written in 1997, well before 9/11. A local deputy sheriff, Clyde Banks, picks up on what might, or might not, be happening, even as DC-based policy makers are trying to close down any investigation. On the one hand, the book is a real nail biter as Clyde tries to work out what is going on. On the other, it's a fascinating satire on American intelligence agencies as low level operatives are controlled and muffled by policy makers on high. Throw in some high grade wrestling, a young mother serving in Iraq, gloriously drunken Russian smugglers, a young Mormon CIA analyst, and a few murders, and you have a highly entertaining read.

> Marisha Pessl Special Topics in Calamity Physics; Sarah Vowell Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World; Jane Langton Divine Inspiration; Neal Stephenson & Frederick George Cobweb.

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