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Of Biplanes And Hypnotists Essay, Research Paper

Of biplanes and hypnotistsThe Unfortunatesby Laurie Graham384pp, Fourth EstateWar Crimes for the Homeby Liz Jensen240pp, Bloomsbury To write comically about epochal events is one of the most exacting tasks a writer can face: it’s far too easy to misjudge your tone horrendously and end up with a mess that is neither funny nor illuminating. And yet if you pull it off, the rewards are great. Not only can you amuse and entertain your readers, but you can also reclaim the fictional terrain that is generally earmarked for a far more solemn and ponderous kind of writing. Both these novels will make their audiences laugh, although whether they finally succeed in making that transformative leap is more debatable. Laurie Graham is a writer with a remarkably malleable comic voice that has recast itself over and over again in a series of unjustly neglected novels. In her previous, The Future Homemakers of America, as well as in The Unfortunates, she has projected her talents on to a larger canvas. Both are sagas, set across continents and generations, and both present us with capacious narratives that bowl along at speed and launch their characters into ingeniously caperish situations. Poppy Minkel is not, on the face of it, one of the unfortunates of the novel’s title – that tag belongs to the Irish maids who flounce their way in and out of her wealthy family’s Manhattan home, and later, to the bohemian rag-bag of second-world-war refugees whose passage to America she reluctantly funds, and who subsequently find themselves fodder for her burgeoning career as an art dealer. But Poppy is something of an unfortunate: her father goes down with the Titanic, her mother and aunt subject her to the nightly torture of ear-correcting bandages and neck-whitening cream so that she might catch a husband, and then just as swiftly decide that she’s better off as a companion and general factotum. The progress of the novel describes Poppy’s determination to free herself from these unasked-for constraints, and also ponders what it might be, in an age of death, destruction and displacement, to be a committed narcissist. Poppy, like Nancy Mitford’s Linda Radlett and The Bolter, is a thrill-seeker with a penchant for romance, brightly coloured clothing, elaborate cocktails and effervescent company, one minute flying a biplane down to Cap Ferrat, the next establishing herself as a stalwart of the English aristocracy. Nothing if not adaptable – which Graham implies is the true spirit of the age – she puts on and discards her Jewishness like a witty cloche hat, abandons her children, moves with ease between husbands and apartments, and dodges the outraged ultimata of her complicated and extended family. It’s very Wodehouse as well as Mitford – the drinking salutation “tinkety tonk” is a direct and affectionate piece of borrowing – and very enjoyable. There is, though, something slightly unsatisfactory about it; Poppy’s unassailable glibness too often smacks of extreme callousness, and her smooth, self-protecting passage through the decades is too alienating to work at such length. In The Future Homemakers, Graham introduced a darkness that slowly emerged from the novel’s jaunty surface, and one feels that more of that light and shade was needed here.Liz Jensen’s War Crimes for the Home is a far grimmer affair, its humour of a much darker hue. It contains a magnificent portrait of an old people’s home, in which the contrary and cantankerous Gloria Taylor lightens her load by cracking off-colour jokes and inviting infirm elderly men to join her in a spot of somewhat creaky love in the afternoon. “Don’t knock it,” she tells the hatchet-faced matron when an over-excited conquest is carried off to his coffin. “Old people have a right to a sex life just like anyone else. Anyway, he died happy.” Gloria’s unquenchable libido might be attributed to the Great Zedorro, a stage hypnotist who changed her life during the second world war by turning her into a rod of iron and, by curious coincidence, sweeping away what resistance she might have offered her GI boyfriend, Ron. With that act of surrender, the narrative’s convoluted and mysterious events are set in train, to resurface 50-odd years later in Gloria’s patchy and possibly deliberately fragmented memory. Questions of paternity often seem to crop up in Jensen’s novels, but here there are also questions of maternity. Gloria’s son, Hank, appears frequently by her side, but he is soon joined by a woman claiming to be her daughter; meanwhile, Gloria is haunted by the ghost of a baby girl, apparently bleeding to death. How many children she had, who they are and where they came from ratchets up the tension in this clever, complex novel, whose repeated reference to hypnotism, amnesia and mind control is skilfully managed and exploited to provide a sense of the lasting mental damage of war-time trauma. As Gloria’s dependents fume and fret over her recalcitrance, so do the gaps in her story appear more and more irreconcilable, until Jensen suddenly and powerfully joins them altogether towards the novel’s end. Jensen has created a more recognisable and enduring character than Graham’s chameleon adventuress, and the interplay between the comedy of survival and the inescapable consequences of tragedy is more obviously directed in her novel. None the less, both of these tales are impressively capricious and imaginative, and both take us more generously into their lives of their heroines than their staider counterparts.

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