January 18th, 2011

Rose-coloured reviews *Jenny and the Jaws of Life* by Jincy Willet

This book was loaned to me–rather forcefully–by my friend M, and the introduction by David Sedaris is about how the book is so hilarious that he also proselytizes for it and pushes others to read it, or simply reads bits aloud to them.

Strong praise indeed, for I consider Sedaris one the best and funniest…actually, I’ve never been able to pin down what he does. It is essayist? Memoirist? Well, he’s pretty much the funniest *writer*, of anything, I know of. For him to write an intro and blurb for a book–let alone a bout that came out in the 80s and was being re-released in England in 2006 (??) seemed like a pretty big deal. And really, my friend M is pretty sharp, too–she spotted this perfect-condition hardcover on the sidewalk in a box!

I did not find this book all that funny, but I liked it anyway. Isn’t that weird? Usually, if I find the marketing inaccurate, it’s because the book isn’t good and I just hate the whole thing, but this is a great weird disturbing book. I found it flawed at certain points, but really riveting, inventive, striking…and yes, some bits made me laugh.

My favourite story in the collection was probably the first, “Julie in the Funhouse.” It’s about a man whose sister is murdered by her teenage son and daughter. Hahaha, right? It is true that both the man and his sister are of an ironic turn of mind, and flashbacks of them together and some scenes of him by himself are mordantly funny, but just funny in the fabric of the story, which is very much like the fabric of life. I culled through looking for a “hilarious” passage in this story, but the laughs when they come are pretty modest, in keeping with the tragic subject of the story.

But enough about baffling marketing–it’s a brilliant, achingly sad story. I think Willet’s real gift is an ability to go towards melodrama asymptotically, closer and closer without ever touching. She’s able to pull of huge scary subjects, like the murder one above, or “Under the Bed,” which is probably the best story about rape I’ve read. And yes, that one has it’s small wry laughs–probably more than most rape stories, but that’s only because it’s more realistic than most rape stories. The humour is only in keeping with the ironies of life. Even “Justine Laughs at Death,” which is a sort of paranormal take on sexual violence winds up being affecting, even exciting, and quite witty. It’s about a guy who is the single concentrated personification of all sexual violence, and what happens when he encounters the single concentrated personification of all women. You couldn’t really find a “bigger” story to write, but she does it (I think; I can see folks disagreeing with me) with minimum porteneousness and maximum inventiveness–it’s a wild story.

And that may bea flaw of Willet’s–she’s incredible with wild situations, and she can make things work that you’d never think possible, but she does best in elevated or extreme moments; sometimes the more ordinary stuff rings false or if not false then too heavily stylized, conceptualized to be real. “The Haunting of the Lingards” is about a “perfect marriage,” in which the couple had one argument early in their relationship, 16 more years of perfection, then the argument resurfaces and destroys them. However, the pages of the story are almost entirely devoted to the first and second fights, and the subsequent fallout from the second. The other 16 years are described in a quick summary of neighbourly envy, which in the face of no other evidence seems untrue–it seems like the narrator has lied to us and the Lingards were *never* happy. But what would be the point of that lie–then the story makes no sense. The concept behind the story–spiritual belief can never be successfully debated or explained, even for love–is far stronger than the story itself. The characters feel like props made for the purpose of explaining an idea.

A few of the more quotidian ones do in fact work quite well, so maybe my thesis isn’t going to fly. “My Father at the Wheel” is a lovely emotional set of postcards from a girl growing into a woman, and all the times her father gave her a life somewhere. A very simple, no-fireworks story that is genuinely moving.

Willett is also an interesting author–she published this book, then mainly stopped writing to raise her son. When Sedaris pushed for the republish 16 years later, the publisher asked her to finish the novel she’d been plugging away at so she could publish that too, which got her back into the game. You can read a nice interview with her here–sharp lady. Apparently she’s got a new book out lately, which I think I’d probably like to check out.

This is the second review for my To Be Read reading challenge–10 more to go!

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