Claudia Moscovici

A Literary Profile of the Abuser: Anna Quindlen’s Black and Blue

Many of us who love  Lolita have its unforgettable first lines committed to memory: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three…”  Using exquisite prose, Nabokov sketches in an extremely compelling manner the profile of a pedophile and his victim. Unlike many other psychological novels, he doesn’t turn tragedy into redemption and pathology into love. There’s nothing redeeming or redeemable about the sociopathic pedophile and his sick love for Lolita.

Anna Quindlen’s Black and Blue follows in Lolita‘s footsteps as a great work of psychological fiction. Psychological, because the author sketches in such a realistic fashion the profile of the abuser that I’m tempted to say her novel should be available in every domestic violence shelter under the category of “nonfiction.” And yet, one can’t forget that Black and Blue is above all a work of fiction, masterfully crafted. Its beginning echoes the first lines of Lolita, in fact, the novel which it resembles in style even more than in content:

“The first time my husband hit me I was nineteen years old. One sentence and I’m lost. One sentence and I can hear his voice in my head, that butterscotch-syrup voice that made goose bumps rise on my arms when I was young, that turned all of my skin warm and alive with a sibilant S, the drawling vowels, its shocking fricatives. It always sounded like a whisper, the way he talked, the intimacy of it, the way the words seemed to go into your gutys, your head, your heart.” (1)

The message of Black and Blue is similar to that of nonfiction books on dangerous men, which attempt to educate the public and empower the victims. Abusers are often charming. Abusers don’t usually begin intimate relationships with overt abuse. Abusers can be entrancing and romantic, at least at first, during the wooing phase. Abuse doesn’t get better; it escalates. Abusers push the limits of their victims’ tolerance, little by little, until they dominate their targets. Abuse is above all a power game. The abusers are generally narcissistic individuals who lack empathy and want total control. The victims, however, aren’t necessarily weak or passive. They can be strong and loving men and women, like Frannie Benedetto. Abuse is a tragedy without a silver lining.

It’s one thing to read this familiar message in self-help books and pamphlets and quite another to feel it in a great work of fiction. From the very first lines, Black and Blue gets under your skin. It reveals the mindset of both abuser and abused. It traces the emotional scars of the child or children who have to endure these sad family dynamics. “My son scarcely ever cries. And his smile comes so seldom that it’s like bright sunshine on winter snow, blinding and strange.” (26)  Such beautiful language for such ugly facts… Perhaps this is the best way to bring the abuse to life for others. Above all, Black and Blue puts you in the shoes of all those who have the courage to run away from it without ever looking back.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

September 26, 2010 Posted by | abuse, Anna Quindlen, Black and Blue, book review, book review of Black and Blue, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, domestic abuse, domestic violence, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, psychopath, psychopathy, salon | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on A Literary Profile of the Abuser: Anna Quindlen’s Black and Blue

A Belated Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

Nabokov’s Lolita is credited with adding a previously forbidden theme–of pedophilia, pathology,  psychopathy, whatever negative label you wish to apply–to mainstream American fiction (even though  it’s the French who dared publish it first). But, actually, Lolita made an even more significant and enduring contribution to the American literary scene. It added a new style of writing that began to rival in popularity the action-packed, “masculine” terseness of Hemingway and Steinbeck’s vivid, fluid descriptions. With Nabokov–Russian-born yet adopted as a quintessentially American author–the first-person narrative with a mandatory, almost ruthless sense of irony has become a staple of American fiction.  Highly successful novels ranging from Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections have experimented with it. In fact, I suspect that by now literary agents and critics have come to expect it from contemporary fiction. It’s difficult to compete with Nabokov in his capacity to reinvent the English language or in his use of irony and wit to render endearing and engaging even the ugliest human beings.

I think, however, that Marisha Pessl manages to do it in her debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Her book was met by critics with resounding praise and made it to the New York Times Bestseller list in 2006. One of the main attractions may have been that Pessl was only 28 years old when she first published her novel. Although overtly repudiating Romantic clichés, the literary and artistic milieux still covertly fetishize the residues of what used to be called, during the nineteenth century, “artistic genius.” “It’s always refreshing to find [a writer] who takes such joy in the magical tricks words can perform,” declares the Los Angeles Times. “This blockbuster debut, over five hundred pages chock-full of literary and pop cultural references and illustrations by Pessl herself, demands attention,” seconds People magazine.

What makes this novel stand out are not the traditional elements that help other contemporary novels sell well: plot and characterization. Action-packed novels like The DaVinci Code sell well largely due to their suspenseful plot. Literary fiction that sells well and gets great reviews tends to have compelling, “realistic” characterizations such as we find, say, in Wally Lamb’s novels (particularly in I know this much is true, a psychological tour-de-force of mainstream, character-driven fiction). Although Special Topics‘ plot becomes increasingly tangled and implausible as the novel progresses and its main characters are at times farcical, thanks to its style, I believe that Pessl’s first novel nonetheless stands on a par with some of the best contemporary American novels. In Special Topics, like in Flaubert’s classic Madame Bovary and Nabokov’s Lolita, the style steals the show. Not since Nabokov have I read an author so adept at verbal gymnastics that make you experience the power of language, with unexpected freshness. Nor have I read a narrative able to sustain for over 500 pages an irony and wit that never become old or tired. “Beneath the foam of this exuberant debut is a dark, strong drink,” writes Jonathan Franzen. In great fiction, style isn’t just surface, it’s also depth. The style permeates the main characters, who without it might seem somewhat stereotyped: the timid yet perceptive, nerdy young narrator; her narcissistic, academic father with a scathing sense of irony towards everyone but himself; the circle of bizarre friends with sociopathic tendencies; the charismatic teacher who commands their attention like a cult figure. Each of these characterizations shines through with vitality and depth due to the freshness and inventiveness of Pessl’s narrative style and her tireless wit, which makes her first novel a book you’ll enjoy reading again and again.

Claudia Moscovici,

September 17, 2010 Posted by | Black and Blue, book review, book review of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Eastern Europe, fiction, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie, Kant, literary criticism, literature, Rousseau | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment