Sunday, March 9, 2014

Bridging the gap between past and present: GREAT EXPECTATIONS, LITTLE FAILURE and the DEATH OF BEES

In Dickens' GREAT EXPECTATIONS, the orphaned Pip has reconciled himself to a life at the forge, when he suddenly learns he has a fortune and is to become a gentleman. In LITTLE FAILURE, Gary Shteynart's memoir, Igor leaves his semi-invalid childhood in the Soviet Union and suddenly becomes Gary, a healthy school boy in the U.S.A. Two sisters, Marne and Nelly, hide their parents' bodies and suddenly are on their own, scrambling for survival in Glasgow, Scotland in DEATH OF BEES.

These are first-person narratives by bewildered children struggling to emotionally process the past, while trying to succeed in an unfathomable present. Bridging that gap is crucial. And when they fail, they fall into chasms of self-destruction. Pip dissipates his potential on a dandy's wardrobe, fine liquors, and elaborate suppers with actresses. Igor, who becomes Gary, since Igor is to Americans the name of a hunchback, finds himself a middle school pariah ridiculed as the Red Gerbil. But when he's accepted to Styvesant, a prestigious New York High School, he only aspires to the stoner crowd and becomes an alcoholic. Later, at Oberlin College, he's a scary falling down drunk. 15 year old Marne, who protects her sister, abandons herself to drugs, alcohol and sex with a married drug dealer.

Absurdity and writing save Gary, as well as a kind encouraging grandmother, Marne and Nelly's macabre humor is thin cover, until Lenny, an elderly neighbor, gives them a home. Similarly, though Pip rejects his brother-in-law, the simple but faithful blacksmith, the man's affection and offer of refuge is stabilizing. Though they find some adults who provide refuge, you still fear for these children. There lives are overwhelming and you don't know if they will be casualties or emerge from the abyss. What's eternal about these books is less the adult sop about the "resilience" of children, than their resourceful creativity. Even so, chance plays a role for these children to find a bridge out of a past created by crazy adults.

In GREAT EXPECTATIONS, the orphaned Pip, mistreated for years by his sister, also fears for his life because of a rough encounter with a desperate criminal. His future seems to have little promise of  his higher aspirations, the ideals in books he's been exposed to through Ms. Haversham, a wealthy spinster. Pip feels badly about not wanting to be a blacksmith but his fortune is used mostly to buy things and learn manners, the surface of a gentleman. Turning his back on the blacksmith leaves him adrift, without purpose. It's not until the identity of his benefactor is revealed and he loses his money that he finds a destiny. He leaps to the aid of the man and redeems himself.  In the end, Pip integrates the old values with a new self. He wins his old love and a path opens.

In LITTLE FAILURE Igor's Soviet Union is a place, where asthmatics get mustard plasters instead of inhalers and his parents' lives revolve around protecting him from attacks. Constantly, Igor fears suffocation. His parents joke about their "Little Failure," who cannot take a walk without risk of an ambulance. His father builds a ladder to the ceiling to help him overcome his fear of heights, but Igor remains afraid, especially of his father. When his father hits him, Igor rationalizes that it's how he shows his love. Red ears stinging, he retreats into fantasies of space travel in a rusty playground rocket or the noble Lenin of a statue. Then, supposedly for his future, Igor's parents give up their jobs, apartment, and beloved relatives to go to Queens, NY, where Gary is only shunned for his foreignness and poverty. Through his talent, writing a satirical novel, he goes from untouchable to creative, an identity he takes to the prestigious Styvesant high school. His parents believe his admittance, means he's launched into the Ivy League and a career as a lawyer. This justifies all their sacrifices. Yet Gary lets them down.

Much  is expected of him but he's got the burden of being a "Little Failure." Gary succumbs to despair more times than he can stand. Only when he backtracks, does he begin to understand failure and make a bridge to the success he will become. In the end of LITTLE FAILURE, he returns with his parents to visit the former Soviet Union. He realizes who he was, as well as how his Americanized parents look younger, healthier than their Russian counterparts. He, as well as his parents, achieved lives they could not have anticipated.

In THE DEATH OF BEES, Marne and Nelly's parents are wildly dysfunctional. Home is a dirty trash-filled falling apart house. The sisters do not mourn parents, who neglected and abused them. Marne gives Nelly her cornflakes and coke and sees her off to school, where she also goes--after digging holes, transporting volatile bodies, planting graves, and figuring out cover stories. Marne worries about Nelly, who found their mother hanging in the garage. Nelly with her love of Bette Davis and sometimes offensive theatricality was already odd. Yet Nelly's got an uncommon talent for the violin. As Marne cynically observes, school authorities trot her out to look good, but no one hires a teacher to advance her.

Authorities in this book only make life worse. Marne doesn't want herself and Nelly split up in foster care. At 16, she can legally raise Marne, but must hold it together until then. Her father a drug addict and dealer, was always unreliable. Mother, constantly high, spent their food money on drugs and booze. Much of this has been observed by Lennie, who is supposed to be a gay "perv" but provides a wholesome alternative to their hideous home. He plays duets with Nelly and worries about Marne's behavior, though academically she gets top scores without studying. Her ability is fortunate, when her parent's welfare checks stop coming and she has to take jobs. First there's her work for the local drug dealer in his ice cream truck. Then she cleans house for a former teacher, an immigrant forced to flee his war-torn country. But her efforts come to little, when Lennie dies and a horrific grandfather surfaces. He gets custody and, worse yet, only wants Nelly.

Marne's powers of improvisation seem stymied, until Lenny's aid reaches beyond his grave to provide them a sanctuary at the beach. Marne is given a respite to reconcile her parent's demise and figure out how she and Nelly will carry on. The girls begin with dead parents but are given Lenny's legacy, the conscious act of making a gracious life; creating music, food, and living up to the best in you, regardless of what others think. Lenny, who was a gay man, not a perv, showed them that love has ethics. You end THE DEATH OF BEES believing they are already fulfilling his prophecy.

This may be a fictional ending but it does happen in real-life. A look at Igor's real-life triumph as the American novelist, Gary, and you see that ability can triumph. Circumstances are not necessarily fate. But while a character can be forged in crisis, many people get lost in dark emotions. Sometimes they make a new path. That's why these books seemed similar. Perhaps classics, like GREAT EXPECTATION, are narratives that follow an eternal pattern and make it visible. When life reinvents that pattern, some fictions reinvent life.

SW