The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann
The Permanent Press, June 2011
Alfred Buber, the narrator of Schmahmann's (Empire Settings) second novel, is a man both prissy and sordid. He describes himself as portly, little, middle-aged, bald, with beady eyes, a big nose, and hairless legs. He's a partner in a stodgy Boston law firm and lives in the grand house he began building as a young lawyer. He's also old-fashioned, formal, dryly witty, and recognizes that his way of trying to fit into the world only serves to isolate him. His fetishistic attraction to Asian girls, which developed during his youth in Rhodesia, eventually leads him into a double life: he travels to Asia for sex with very young prostitutes. But at the Star of Love Bar, after watching public sexual encounters, then experiencing his own, matter-of-factly, as though "she were changing a bandage on my leg," Buber also experiences love, touched by the beautiful teenage girl, Nok, who he first sees paging a child's book, trying to learn English. Buber moves back and forth in time and place, to Boston, to Europe, to Bangkok, trying to figure out his life, wedded to both his personas, and as both his lives slowly unravel, he faces the consequence of his waffling. Schmahmann has captured desperation and love between unequals. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Ah, the unreliable narrator! It drives some people to distraction but it's a literary device I love.
In some cases it's subtle, as if the person speaking isn't that different from you or me. We each perceive things differently. Telling a story from our individual perspective is not a lie, nor is it delusional. It's point of view. Only when imagination veers wildly from reality does the unreliable narrator show his or her detachment from reality. It's kind of like when my kids tell me "everyone else has _____!" Fill in the blank with something expensive, like a laptop. Or a car. Or hair extensions.
So, how can we tell when a narrator is grossly misrepresenting the facts? A good writer shows us, that's how. He (in this case) describes the reactions of those around the narrator, which, in the case of the unreliable narrator, screams out, "This dude is nuts!"
Yes, the correct literary terminology includes the word "dude." If you hold a degree in English literature, as do I, you'll know. If not, you must go on trust.
Main character Alfred Buber is a well-to-do everyman. A middle-aged and paunchy attorney, he realizes despite all his success he's very lonely. He wonders if any woman could ever find him attractive, at this point in his life, and if he has any hope at all of finding love. For all his money all he has to show is a showcase of a home, empty save for himself and his help.
Because he is so rich and unattached, Buber can afford to travel anywhere he'd like. So he takes a trip to Thailand, where he meets a heart-achingly young prostitute named Nok. She's beautiful, frail and doesn't deserve to spend her life in a brothel. The minute he sees her he's smitten, deciding then and there his purpose in life is to use his fortune to rescue Nok from her own life.
Nok, on the other hand, sees her life as inevitable. The daughter of a destitute farm family living in rural nowhere, it is her duty to come to the city and make money using all she has – her body – sending money back to her family to help support them. She's doing what poor young girls do, not feeling herself degraded by her life so much as useful to her family.
Eventually, after more trips back and forth, he decides he must marry Nok and bring her home to live in his empty mansion in Boston. But he also knows if he does everyone will think he's resorted to a mail-order bride, a young Asian woman who barely speaks English, is tiny and beautiful as a doll, and lives with him out of gratitude he's saved her and appreciation for his money. He's not so deluded he doesn't see reality, yet he's tortured. And Nok? She's extremely confused.
And life is about to get more convoluted for Buber. Much more.
Of course, Nok is Lolita, and Buber Humbert Humbert. She is child-like and waifish, he middle-aged and wealthy. It's a theme that's been done over and over. Still, Schmahmann manages to bring a fresh perspective to it, some quality it's hard to name, but one that appeals though I've read several Lolita-esque books of varying quality.
Buber is a laughable character, in a very dark way. I'm not one for seeing humor in situations in which a sad person humiliates himself, though many other reader/reviewers are, or at least express they are. To me that sort of thing isn't funny. I feel for Buber, wish him well and hope he find his heart's desire. Yes, he's a bit of a kook. He's unrealistic, but his heart is good. He's done what so many others have, put aside everything in life for his career. And now he's alone, realizing what he's missed.
This is a book that likely won't receive the recognition it deserves, getting lost in the shuffle with the big publishers, but I recommend it very highly. If you can get your hands on it it's one terrific read that's stuck with me for months.
David Schmahmann was born in Durban, South Africa. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Cornell Law School, and has studied in India and Israel and worked in Burma. His first novel, Empire Settings, received the John Gardner Book Award, and his publications include a short story in The Yale Review and articles on legal issues.
He practices law in Boston, and lives in Weston, Massachusetts.
More blog reviews:
The South End
Empire Settings: A Novel of South Africa
Ivory From Paradise
Nibble & Kuhn
The Curfew by Jesse Ball
From a deluded middle-aged man to the terror of a father and his young daughter living in a police state. No good segue, save both books are masterful, literary in the purest sense of the word.
"I shall introduce this city and its occupants as a series of objects whose relationship cannot be told with any certainty. Though violence may connect them, though pity, compassion, hope may marry one thing to another, still all that is in process cannot be judged, and that which has passed has gone beyond judgment, which leaves us again, with lives and belongings, places, shuttling here and there, hapless, benighted, discordant."
– from The Curfew
Former violinist William Drysdale and his young daughter Molly live in an apartment in an unnamed city part of a police state. Theirs is a world of fear and uncertainty, the memory of how things used to be quickly fading, a new world order stamping out all that was in an attempt to control with an iron fist. People are dying, disappearing. The sound of gunshots is becoming normal; dead people lie in the street until soldiers carry them away. People are afraid to look too long, to be too curious, lest the same fate befall them.
William's job is taking orders for tombstones, going from house to house. For each order he uses a brand new pencil, sharpening it himself. It's a quirk of his. The families tell him about the deceased and he helps them craft an epitaph so that it doesn't implicate the government or the way they actually died. Instead, he chooses a matter of fact statement from the details they give him.
For instance, this one for a child:
9 years, 24 days.
In our street by our house, it was almost evening.
His job is very busy. There is no lack of customers.
William's daughter Molly is electively mute, communicating by way of notes and hand signs, even at home with her father. William devises games, riddles actually, for Molly. They keep her mind sharp and give her something besides the world to focus on, making the best of a horrific situation.
People disappear in this world, leaving no trace. Soldiers carry guns while the people cower in fear, save for a very small minority which has formed a resistance group, taking a very big risk with the hope of outwitting the regime. Among those in the resistance is an old friend of William's, one who saw William's wife, Louisa, being taken away and knows what happened to her. Meeting up with William, seemingly by chance, he invites him to his home to meet the others in the group. And if he will take a risk and join them that evening he can learn not only how he can help, but why his wife disappeared, as well. He also has something to give William, something once dear to him.
William knows what it would mean should he get caught violating curfew. He knows what it could mean for Molly, too, leaving her without either parent. But he also knows what it could mean for everyone if he's part of the solution, because he remembers how life used to be, how he had a wife and daughter, how he had been a violinist living happily in a free society.
"He should not go. He wouldn't. It was out of the question. But of course, of course, he must go.
Yes, there are times when something is asked of us, and we find we must do it. There is no calculation involved, no measure of the necessity of the thing itself, the action that must be performed. There is simply an acknowledgment that we will do the thing in question, and then the thing is done, often at considerable personal cost.
What goes into these decisions? What tiny factors, invisible, in the jutting edges of personality and circumstance, contribute to this inevitability?"
Dropping Molly off at the apartment of a neighbor he knows he can trust, he goes out into the night. Meanwhile, the older couple watching Molly introduce her to their handmade puppets, surreal dolls that appear so life-like it makes the reader's skin crawl. But not Molly's. She's fascinated. The old man performs a puppet show, then asks Molly to help write a script he'll perform for her. This occupies her for hours.
In the midst of a horrific world is a fairy story comprised of puppets and happenings so odd Molly is kept riveted, but never afraid for herself, only for her father. She knows, and she doesn't know what may befall him. The world is so confusing, especially to a child. So she sits watching the increasingly life-like puppets, waiting for dawn.
The book is gorgeous, timeless. It makes you consider the horrors others have lived through, and how lucky we are to be free, without worry soldiers will burst through our doors, taking loved ones we'll never see again, never learning their fate. Young, sweet Molly typifies innocence lost, and her father the bravery of those who would fight to win back their homeland. The older couple abides, keeping to themselves in their darkened apartment, wisdom telling them this is where they're safest. Molly is a joy to them, a substitute grandchild. Keeping her occupied is their kindness to her, helping take her mind off what's going on outside their safe little nest.
Ball's prose is sparing, the dialogue kept minimal. It has a poetic quality, a beauty that belies the horror. Very highly recommended.
More blog reviews:
The Fiction Advocate
The Nervous Breakdown
Samedi the Deafness
The Way Through Doors
The Village on Horseback: Prose and Verse 2003 – 2008