Thursday, August 16, 2012

Reading Douglas Kennedy's "The Moment" and "The Woman in the Fifth"

Douglas Kennedy in The Woman in the Fifth (Atria Paperback 2007) and The Moment (Atria Paperback 2011) demonstrates some of his strongest themes, tropes, and peculiarities in two books that are seemingly very different and yet, at the same time, strangely similar. Both stories are told in the first person; both books concern men experiencing failed relationships with cold, decisive women; both men flee to Europe to hide from their problems and re-invent themselves through writing; both texts are ultimately perceived by the reader as the very text that the novelist/protagonist is writing, resulting in a self-reflexive modernist experiment; both novels are melodramatic in the same way that a Douglas Sirk film is melodramatic; both novels contain exuberant, somewhat Technicolor-like descriptions; both novels are explicitly sexual to the point of almost being  embarrassing; both novels rely of the quotidian to form the foundation of the tawdry events that follow; both novels possess unlikeable and weak-willed male protagonists; and, as a result, both novels seem like cleverly concealed roman à clefs, but are probably not; and, ultimately, both novels are very readable, full of suspense, narrative-driven, although the characters are well-defined and believable, and emotionally manipulative.

The protagonist of The Woman in the Fifth is Harry Ricks, a professor of film at an Ohio university, who flees a domestic disaster to Paris, where he intends to write a novel and look for work. He escapes with all his worldly goods, which amount to a few thousand dollars, and lands in a Paris hotel, sick with the flu. One employee of the hotel takes advantage of him and slowly siphons off most of his money, while another helps him to find a cheap chambre de bonne in a sleazy quartier inhabited by immigrants. Rick's plight worsens with every step he takes until he descends into a dangerous underworld of Turkish mobsters. However, his luck (or destiny) changes when he meets a strange woman at a weekly salon held by an American expatriate. Suddenly, he experiences a coup de foudre, a thunderbolt of attraction. This thunderbolt is a common experience in  the novels of Douglas Kennedy. It usually signals a passionate relationship destined to lead to tragedy and heartbreak. Kennedy is too much of a pro to say it but I suspect he is suspicious of what Goethe called the "elective affinity," "an indescribable, almost magical force of attraction." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1971), 286. The turn of the screw in The Woman in the Fifth is that Harry Ricks is haunted, both literally and figuratively, and his coup de foudre with its attendant madness leads to an existential trap. No one in the love affairs of Douglas Kennedy escape unscathed.

In The Moment, Thomas Nesbitt, a travel writer in Maine is going through a nasty divorce from a successful woman, who he never really loved. After a half-hearted suicide attempt on a cross-country ski trail in Quebec, he reflects on the past, when he receives a package from Berlin. The novel then consists of one story told through two first-person narratives: one narrated by Nesbitt ( the novel we are reading) and the other by Petra in epistolary form. Once again, we have the coup de foudre. Nesbitt meets Petra, a political pawn expelled from East Germany by the Stasi, in Berlin several years before the fall of the wall. They fall madly in love, while working for a CIA-funded radio station, but it is Berlin, during the cold war, and Petra has too many secrets for this story to end well.

Both novels are well written, replete with full-bodied characters, and a rich array of local color. Kennedy started out as a travel writer and his attention to the detail of place is precise and complete. As he said in an interview on French TV, my locations are also characters.

Kennedy is a throwback to an earlier time: his books are page-turners. And, although both novels could be classified as genre: The Moment, as thriller or spy novel; The Woman in the Fifth, as horror or urban fantasy. They ultimately are melodramas in the sense of a film by Douglas Sirk or Rainer Werner Fassbender. And it is their emotional wallop that causes you to stay up past midnight to finish them.

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