Michael Farris Smith – NICK

Michael Farris Smith – NICK

World War I is raging and Nick Caraway among the young soldiers who fight in France. His life threatened when he lies in the trench, he is looking for distraction in Paris on those few days he is off duty. He falls for a woman but times like these are not made for love. When he returns to the US in 1919, he suffers from what we today call post-traumatic stress syndrome. He does not know where to go or what to do with his life and thus ends up in New Orleans. The lively city promises forgetting but there, too, he is haunted in his dreams.

I was so looking forward to reading Michael Farris Smith’s novel about Nick Caraway since I have read “The Great Gatsby” several times, watched the film adaptations even more often and totally adore Fitzgerald’s characters. Knowing that the plot was set in the time before Nick meets Jay Gatsby, it was clear that this novel would not be a kind of spin-off, but I wasn’t expecting something with absolutely no connection to the classic novel at all. Apart from the protagonist’s name and the very last page, I couldn’t see any link and admittedly I was quite disappointed since I had expected a totally different story.

First of all, having read Fitzgerald so many times, I have developed some idea of the character Nick. He has always been that gentle and shy young man who is attentive and a good listener and friend. He never appeared to be the party animal who headlessly consumes alcohol and goes to brothels. Therefore, the encounters with women in “NICK“ do not fit to my idea of the character at all. He also never made the impression of being totally traumatized by his war experiences which, on the contrary, is the leading motive in this novel.

Roaring Twenties, lively New York party life, people enjoying themselves – this is the atmosphere I adored in The Great Gatsby, none of this can be found in “NICK”. It starts with exhausting war descriptions, something I avoid reading normally and I wasn’t prepared for at all. Pages after page we read about soldiers fighting, this might be attractive for some readers, unfortunately, this is no topic for me. After depressing war scenes, we have gloomy and depressed Nick not knowing how to cope with the experiences he made in France. No glitter here, but a lot of fire and ashes.

Reading “NICK” without having “The Great Gatsby” in mind might lead to a totally different reading experience. For me, sadly, a disappointment in many respects for which also some beautifully put sentences and an interesting character development could not make amends.

Jami Attenberg – All This Could Be Yours

jami-attenberg-all-this-could-be-yours
Jami Attenberg – All This Could Be Yours

A heart attack will surely be the end of Victor, it is just a question of days and until he breathes for the last time. His wife Barbra visits him in hospital, accompanies him during these last days remembering the good, but most all the bad times they had together. Their daughter Alex also rushes to New Orleans to say good-bye, even though she is reluctant to do so. Their son Gary, however, refuses to see his father. He hides in Los Angeles and is unwilling to even talk to his family. Victor was a man with two faces, one for the family and one for the world outside. He was successful, at least it seemed so, but his success was founded on his character and this undoubtedly had some very dark spots.

“(…) it was then she realized that the stories he told were bad, that he did bad things. Even though he thought he was a hero. Simultaneously bored and intrigued, she asked him if what he did was illegal. ‘No one is innocent in this life. (…)’ “

Victor is a man of action, he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. Contradiction and opposition are not things he tolerates, neither at work nor at home. If somebody dares to disobey, he either bullies them – like his secretaries – or smacks and beats them, like his wife and children. Now, immobile and comatose, he is not in control anymore and he cannot have any influence on his family members’ thoughts. That’s when all that has been hidden for so many years, finally surfaces.

Jami Attenberg’s latest novel gives an insight in a highly dysfunctional family. The head of it ultimately hors de combat, the toxic structures and behaviour come to the light. You wonder how and why a wife could ever accept and endure such a life, yet, the deeper you dive into Barbra’s thoughts, the more comprehensible her actions and behaviour become. She is weak and has never been ready to fight. Victor provided her with a certain standard of living and her contribution was never to dig deep, not to look too closely, but to ignore what she learnt over all those years at his side.

“Ah yes, the children. She hadn’t wanted them; Victor had. But her body was needed for  production.”

The relationship between the parents and the children has always been cold. The mother never prevented the abuse just as she accepted how Victor treated herself. The daughter Alex seems to struggle most with it. She is caught between an understanding of what to do before you lose someone forever – forgive, forget, make peace – and her actual feeling which highly contradict this. Even when Victor is in agony, he makes life hard for his next of kin.

“All This Could Be Yours” is very cleverly constructed novel. Even in his absence, this very bad man domineers his family’s thoughts and shows that he is capable of ruining everybody’s life. Wonderfully written and brilliantly made from a psychological point of view, there is not much you could wish for more in a novel.