Book Log III: Ludmila’s Broken English, Matchstick Men, and Double Fault

It’s a three piece deal: books that did not make me feel good about them or myself! Hooray! In fact, the other books I’ve lined up after this one (I’ve read four since, but I decided not to make an entry run longer than three) aren’t all sunshine and lollipops either.

Ludmila’s Broken English
DBC Pierre, 2006

Oh God, what is this? The thought that struck me as I read the last forty pages of Ludmilla’s Broken English on the train on my way to work still stands. This is a book that promises conjoined twins separated from each other at thirty three years of age will order a young woman from a Russian Brides website. I suppose this happens, but our two groups of characters do not meet until there are scarcely sixty pages left in the book – and with them a totally insane shift of tone.

DBC Pierre won the Booker Prize for his 2003 novel Vernon God Little, which I have consistently failed to buy in all of my years of seeing it on the cheap. I didn’t even know that you were eligible to win a Booker Prize for submitting your work under a smart-arse name (DBC standing for “Dirty But Clean”). I already sound bitter, but Ludmila’s Broken English isn’t a totally lost cause; it’s just it’s like opening a birthday present to discover a unicorn that tells you funny jokes in an interesting literal translation of its home dialect, and then proceeds to get molested by interloping presents, and finally it gets eaten from the inside out by a parade of spiders which see fit to poison your eyes before they light out for the territories.

The title itself is a joke; it’s not about Ludmilla’s linguistic abilities, but rather about the twins over whom she has some sway. It’s hard to say precisely how or why DBC Pierre decided to link the two stories, considering that this is a 318 page book and the twins don’t discover Ludmila’s existence until page 197, and they don’t meet her until page 249. The story really belongs to Ludmilla because, while they get equal time, all of the twins’ chapters are devoted to how pathetic and unprepared for the real world they are after so many years in care. Ludmila, meanwhile, is disagreeable to everyone in Ublilsk and speaks entertainingly to them – although if she were real, there would be many slaps coming her way (look, I’m not advocating violence against women, but some people are simply insufferable).
We compound a sense of “what the heck is the point of this novel?” when the parties finally meet, and here I shall spoil the book: Ludmila takes the twins back to her home, only to find that it has bean occupied by invading forces. The twins are held up at gun point, so Blair gets the bright idea of giving them a “legal” experimental drug that lowers their inhibitions. Their inhibitions thus lowered, they shoot Ludmila’s family members one by one, then rape Blair with a gun, then shoot Blair himself. Yes. So I read this, metaphorically open mouthed and speechless. What was I subjected to? Fish out of water comedy? The terror of civil wars that are inexplicable to those not directly embroiled in them? People overreaching?
I have no idea, and I lament this intermittently funny book that took a distinct turn beyond the point of redemption. I figure that if I can write a book that can offend enough people, I might be able to secure myself a Booker!

Matchstick Men
Eric Garcia, 2003

I started this book immediately after I got off the train in the morning, having finished Ludmila’s Broken English only moments before, and finished it after I got off the train home from work in the afternoon. It’s a quick book, but it’s not a happy one. I looked into the Ridley Scott movie summary to find that they changed the ending – and while I think that’s a cop out, I don’t blame them.
Matchstick Men is about two conmen – an obsessive compulsive one who hoardes money, Roy, and his slovenly partner, Frank, who fritters it all away. When Roy’s psychiatrist leaves town, Frank recommends a new one who uncovers the daughter that Roy was uncertain that he ever had. Angela inspires Roy to become a better person, and to quit the con game. Matchstick Men left me with a horrible feeling. To a degree, I understand what OCD is like, and the way that Roy is written you feel total sympathy for him despite the fact that he makes his living out of milking rubes for their money. Now, I don’t demand happy endings for all of my stories, but Matchstick Men is designed to redeem Roy and provide him genuine happiness for the first time in more than a decade, and then it pulls the rug from under him. Because you’ve invested so much in Roy, you feel his loss. It’s not a sour book, but the lingering aftertaste will make you feel like you’ve tortured yourself.
I won’t deny that it is very well done, and there is a sense of mounting dread, but it’s not the sort of thing that I want to read. It’s also physically impossible to imagine Nicolas Cage in the role of Roy, or Sam Rockwell as Frank; they’re on the cover, but in my mind they’re more grey suit and older kinda guys.

Double Fault
Lionel Shriver, 1997

Well, I can justify buying this one: last year I read Shriver’s The Post Birthday World and quite liked it. So here I was, reading this novel, which was republished thanks to the success of the Orange prize winning We Need To Talk About Kevin. As I continued to read, I realised that all of the characters were horrible and selfish, and that the protagonist is a massive bitch who can acknowledge that she’s a massive bitch but is impotent to do anything about it. Yes: Double Fault, a novel about two professional tennis players who find love, and then the woman, Willy, becomes obsessed with her professional standing and overall resents her husband, Eric (I should also point out that Lionel Shriver is a woman. Hooray for unisex names, I guess).
The blurb itself tells you a pivotal moment in the book that occurs about part way through, so I’m going to do some spoiling so that you don’t have to read the book if you don’t want to:

Spoiltown.

Willy damages her leg in a tournament because she’s gone really off her game, and then after the rehabilitation, which she fudges, she continues to suck while Eric gets ever better. Bitter fights ensue, eventually Willy falls pregnant to Eric, tells him, then almost immediately proceeds to get an abortion without telling him until after the fact, says that they’re over (he’s even willing to forgive her for the whole abortion thing, but she wants out because she would resent the child), then witnesses him losing the US Open and has a certain joy that she has taught him the bitter taste of resignation and defeat.

Now leaving Spoiltown

Honestly, the best thing about this book apart from its horrid cover and its “who the hell would want to buy that?” cover ad for We Need To Talk About Kevin on the inside back cover, is the “reading group discussion” segment at the back. I don’t have the book on hand to quote from, because I very pointedly left it at work and have failed to pick it up since, but it asks stupid questions like “Do you suppose Willy would have resented Eric’s success if he were in another line of work?” – which is a ridiculous proposal, because then there would be no book. Actually, we might have been better off that way, but that’s neither here nor there. This is a thoroughly unpleasant story with nothing really going for its characters; even at the beginning of their relationship, Willy acknowledges that on average she dislikes Eric more than she can tolerate him. Which is, of course, a great way to set up a relationship and … talking about this book makes me feel severely unhappy. I like Shriver, and all of her books are different – which is a blessing and, in this instance, a curse. Kevin by design doesn’t sound like it could work out well (hopefully I’ll log that at a later date), and The Post Birthday World wasn’t all beer and skittles either (although there was certainly a lot of wine). Maybe I’m just no good at this literature thing, maybe I’m wrong to demand that last inch.

Well, happier things next time – except not really! Certainly, books I didn’t dislike more than I liked!

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