Saturday, September 17, 2011

SPL Shelf Life [adult]

This review appeared in The Stratford Gazette on September 15th. Written by Shauna Thomas, Librarian.

Starting From Happy By Patricia Marx

Once, in the final year of my undergrad, I lost my mind in essay format. It was the gruelling end of a weird semester and the course was Linguistic Epistemology (or Underwater Basket-weaving, if you prefer). For the final essay, I was supposed to investigate the possibility of expressing a natural language's functions entirely in symbolic logic.

Long story short, I went barking on stress and 5 different caffeine delivery options, and threw the whole notion out the window with 12 hours to go. Natural language isn't a logically coherent system. Can't be. Humans use it. Have you met humans? Half of them can't figure out how to text each other, and the other half have murdered natural language. I filled 20 pages with a manic ode to joyous illogic in nonverbal communication. For my breakdown, I received a generous mark in the mid-70s.

This isn't a non sequitur to distract you from the fact that there's no book review happening. Honest. The same kind of panic-fuelled adventure in chemistry and extreme sleeplessness seems to have propelled Patricia Marx's Starting From Happy. Right from the get-go, it's apparent that Marx is meeting a book contract the most gleeful way she knows how – as obviously as possible.

Starting From Happy opens with a “PROLEGOMENON” meant, as Marx notes in wistful sarcasm, to have been penned by Philip Roth. Except, he “backed out.” After trying to get several other authors - Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Cormac McCarthy (who was “under the weather, existentially speaking”), Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and the deceased John Updike - to pen the intro and pad her word count, Marx gives up. She spends the rest of her own intro typing animal sounds to hit word count and avoid litigation. She closes the book with fan/hate mail and an index that uses imaginary numbers to refer to nonexistent people and events. You have to admire the panache.

But how's the book in between? Without question, this is the funniest book I've read this year. Arranged in tiny chaplettes of a few sentences rather than chapters, Marx uses their brevity to create a kind of mosaic sketch of the lives of Immogene and Wally, the couple at the centre of Starting From Happy. It follows their disjointed NYC courtship and social scene through their lives together, stringing together a genuinely touching story out of a series of blisteringly sarcastic fragments of scenes and conversations.

By the time you finish Starting From Happy you might be confused, but you'll also be bowled-over by the sheer blazing postmodernism of the project. By letting all the seams show, Marx constructs a novel that has deeply clever things to say about what literature means in the twilight years of the paper book's reign. If you took Comp Lit and people have a hard time knowing whether you're kidding, you should probably read this book.

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