History of Wolves – Who’s Watching Who?

In Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves there are predators who are sometimes preyed upon. And there are prey who sometimes become predators. This is no surprise because as the narrator, Madeline, who at school was called “Linda, or Commie, or Freak,” explains in her report (called History of Wolves) “an alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason.” This concept certainly applies to Madeline, though her reasons for being a predator (when she is one) are not clear. The recklessness of a child trying to prey on an adult is.

Madeline is 37 years old when she tells her story, and the narrative consists of flashbacks of when she was 4, 15, and 26 – so 11 is an important number here. Why? No idea. But the internet says (the following is to be read with an authoritative British accent): when the number 11 appears frequently in your life, there is a need to find or restore balance.

When Madeline was 15 years old (the pivotal year in this story), a new history teacher, Mr. Grierson, mysteriously arrived from California. Why would a man suddenly leave a prestigious California high school to teach in northern Minnesota? Could he be a child molester – the worst kind of predator? That seems unlikely. Does he just prefer life in the bleakest part of Minnesota, where winter is 11 months every year? That sounds right.

Despite her suspicions about Mr. Grierson, Madeline regularly puts herself into situations where she’s alone with him – as if she is trying to tempt or entrap him. The question of who’s watching you, while you are watching someone else, emerges as a theme. Madeline is watching Mr. Grierson, who is watching Lily ( another young girl at the high school). Who is Lily watching? Mr. Grierson may want to pay attention to that. So someone is always watching you – whether you know it or not. That’s not comforting, but no one cares about your comfort. In fact, reading this story is like walking with a splinter in your heel. Yet, it is so well told, you must read on.

All of this is introductory, designed to make the reader uneasy – off balance, if you will. The story really takes off when a young couple with a small child move into a cabin near Madeline’s home, and she becomes the boy’s babysitter. Paul is 4; Madeline is 15; Patra (the boy’s mom) is 26; and Leo (the boy’s dad) is 37. Hey, 11 snuck in here again. Does that mean something? Probably not. Don’t worry about it.

Early on, the reader learns Paul will not live to see 5. The reader also learns Leo and Patra started dating when she was 19 and in college. Leo was her teacher. Patra insists, however, that’s not creepy because she pursued him. Believe what you will, but there’s that predator question again.

Paul is clearly ill. However, Leo is a Christian Scientist so medicine and doctors are forbidden. Patra doesn’t know what to do. She wants to believe Leo knows best. She wants to have faith. Is she being preyed upon? Why won’t anyone answer these freaking questions? Ultimately, Paul dies (as we know he will) from a treatable condition. Leo and Patra are put on trial, and Madeline is the key witness.

This a story about an adult struggling to find balance. Attempting to understand and recover from the damage of two traumatic events when she was 15 years old. The questions to be resolved are difficult. “What’s the difference between what you want to believe and what you do believe?” And “[w]hat’s the difference between what you think and what you end up doing?” But the answers to tough questions don’t come easy. They never do.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

Crows

   I like how you describe that poem
   more than the poem itself.
   You see things I don't,
   and the things you see have deep meanings -
   deeper perhaps than the poet intended.

   You see birds symbolizing change.
   The young leave the old
   and neither knows the impact of the parting.
   Shockingly this lack of comprehension is of no consequence
   because there is love in the leaving.

   Even after reading the poem several times,
   I see crows.



   I am not sure you are right,
   but I know you are not wrong.

   You amaze me.



   I would like to see that poem as you see it.
   But whenever I see you and me in a mirror,
   I am reminded:
   you have poor eyesight and a temperament that is too tender.
   They are your most egregious shortcomings,
   and I have benefitted from both.

   Luvgood Carp, Editor-in-Chief and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

   First published in The Oddville Press 

Martin Amis and the Art of Self Abuse

How do you create a story about a truly despicable person and make him sympathetic? Martin Amis in Money has a simple answer. You don’t. Because that’s a fool’s errand, and Mr. Amis is no fool. However, it also means the reader is not going to like John Self, the narrator and protagonist (we guess), or pretty much anyone else in the book. Self is an alcoholic, who finds pleasure in the simple things: sex, drugs, and money. And he is abusive with all of them. He is abusive with women. In fact, there is nothing and no one he does not abuse – including himself (our favorite kind of abuse). Despite this, he frequently and somewhat engagingly speaks directly to the reader asking for sympathy. “I want sympathy, even though I find it so very hard to behave sympathetically.”

Money ostensibly is about John Self, but it is really about money and all the reprehensible things people do to get money and (even more so) once they have money. So the title is no misdirection. The story, which was written (and is set) in the early 1980s, successfully captures that decade’s Zeitgeist. “The streets are full of movement but hardly anybody goes where they go through thought or choice, free of money motive.”

Self (think self-absorbed or self-indulgent or self-destructive or self-pitying or self-ish or your-self) has made a lot of money directing fast food commercials in London. But now he has an opportunity to direct his first movie and make piles more. As a result he spends much of his time shuttling between London and New York – drunk and failing miserably to manage his personal and professional lives. Though he craves money, he doesn’t actually understand money – other than how to spend it.

Everything about Self is tacky and sticky. He is an old stool in the back corner of a truck stop strip club. And because he is drunk or hungover nearly all the time, he has no clue what is happening around him. He continually gets into ludicrous situations that are quite funny at times. Self (occasionally) is also comically self-aware. “It puts you at a big disadvantage with the ladies, being drunk all the time.” But the humor particularly sizzle when Mr. Amis skewers movie stars and the movie-making business. At other times, however, the humor is dated – as it frequently comes at the expense of a self-destructive alcoholic when he is blindingly drunk.

One unexpected pleasure is Martin Amis appears as a character (because it is impossible for a novel to be post-modern unless the author is a character). Martin Amis (the character) tries to assist Self with the movie’s script, but this conceit allows Martin Amis (the writer) to make witty observations about writing, such as an “author is not free of sadistic impulses.” Based upon Mr. Amis’ abuse of Self (self-abuse?), truer words are not found in this novel.

The story is at its satirical best when Mr. Amis is mocking the pretensions of actors and other movie people. However, the novel lags about two-thirds of the way through and then limps to its conclusion. And just as with life outside books, it gets tiresome watching an unlikeable, self-destructive person continuously self-destruct.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans