Thursday, July 31, 2008

Beginner's Greek, a novel by James Collins

A book cover blub and reviews compare James Collins' Beginner's Greek to the novels of Jane Austen, but as I was reading, the only Austen moment that came to mind was by way of Andrew Davies' Pride and Prejudice when Lizzie writes, after an unflattering but entirely accurate description of Lady Catherine's daughter, "I'm sorry to be hard on any of our sex, but there it is." I do want to be supportive of a first-time novelist, but I really hated this book. Randy got so sick of my disgusted snorts as I was reading it in the car that he threatened to throw it out the window.

Beginner's Greek works so hard creating a protagonist that is affable and loveable, that I absolutely despised him.

Julia leaned forward. "Tell me something....You haven't said a word about your career. How come?"

"Oh," Peter said. "Well--I save that for when I am going out to dinner with a woman for the first time. We'll talk about it-- that is, I will--for pretty much the entire meal. I mean, not every minute--you've got to order and so forth. Also, when a woman and I are in each other's arms know, I like to tell her about it. It's beautiful."

"What if someone asks you what you do?"

"I've always wanted to sort of draw myself up and say with a withering look, 'I am a gentleman.'"

You might wonder, like I did, if this conversation was intended to be laughable, but it's followed by the so literal lines: "Julia liked Peter. Over the months and years, she had always been happy to see him, and, in fact, he had worked his way into her heart."

Peter Russell meets the woman of his dreams on a plane, but because of an unexplained loss of a piece of paper, he loses her to his best friend. Never mind his own lack of courage that prevents him from admitting his feelings or protecting the woman from her philandering husband. It was the paper's fault!

So he marries another woman he doesn't love.

When the philanderer is dispatched by a bolt of lighting (my favorite moment of the book), our weenie has this lovely thought about his wife: "He could flip Charlotte in a year, and nobody would care."

Yeah, right, a gentleman.

In conventional, non-experimental fiction, to earn the right to be the main character, you need some kind of pluck, or gumption or special quality - something, anything! That sets you apart from the million other Joes and Marys out there. But this Peter can't do the right thing - he can't do much of anything - it has to be done for him. His wife runs off with another man and Peter, for over-complicated and implausible reasons that are all in his head, even with all obstructions conveniently whisked away, can't tell the girl of his dreams that he loves her. He can't figure out a way to stand up to his bully boss. But he still gets the girl, watches the boss get his comeuppance and in a dinner party scene that explains the title of the book, manages to impress a table of scholars, business titans and cultural elite.

"Peter emerged as sort of a mascot of the table. Two people would be discussing something--a movie, a political issue, the economy, the human condition--and then they would turn to him and ask him his opinion. Peter found himself able to talk with perfect ease on any subject at all."

This may sound cruel, but instead of Austen's work, the book that I was reminded of, actually, was A Million Little Pieces, James Frey's crappy novel that he couldn't sell and so falsely labeled a memoir. ("At first I made an effort to fit in, but I couldn't pretend, and after a few weeks, I stopped trying. I am who I am and they could either like me or hate me. They hated me with a fucking vengeance....Got first DUI. Blew a .36, and set a County Record. Went to Jail for a week.") I couldn't take Frey's self-consciously hard-ass persona and where else but in the fantasies of an insecure male ego do scenes like this live?

Would you like my copy?

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