Friday, October 14, 2011

SPL Shelf Life [adult]

This review appeared in The Stratford Gazette on October 13th. Written by Shauna Thomas, Librarian.

Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman

Since the market freefall in 2008, it seems to me there's been a bit of a shift in prose, creating a new subgenre of literary fiction. It's lighter than Atwood or Enright, but still deals with weighty issues in ways that feel true. It plays with postmodernism and postcolonialism rather than bathing in them. 1st person protagonists flirt with disaster with the kind of ironic glee only generated by the grim knowledge one is likely hooped either which way.

First-time author Matthew Norman's Domestic Violets hails from this trend. Keenly aware of its time, it captures a family caught in 2008's rolling fecal storm of bad credit and malignantly inept corporate decision-making. Protagonist Tom Violet is the son of a literary genius, Curtis, who's just won a Pulitzer. A chronic, Porche-driving womanizer and happy alcoholic, Curtis can be read as an aged version of Californication's Hank Moody.

Tom, on the other hand, writes ad copy for a management consulting company by day, and furtively broods over his own novel by night. Superficially, he's living the dream: He's married to a beautiful woman, has a charming daughter and a dog, and lives in a stately home in one of Washington DC's tonier suburbs. The charm of the top layer wears off fast, though – the novel's first scene is a twisted and hilarious psychological battle between a married, middle-aged man and his unwilling virility. The spark is gone in Tom's marriage to Anna, his dog has anxiety issues, and his job requires he artfully rearrange corporate buzzwords in pamphlets. One apt description of office ennui: “Greg is a tie guy, and I am a non-tie guy. This represents the rift among males in our office – Business Casual versus Business Formal – and I'm almost certain it will eventually lead to a choreographed dance fight in the employee lounge.” In the sea of beige Tom refers to as the Death Star, he occupies the lowest rung on the management ladder, overseeing a clever, beautiful and enticingly young junior copywriter named Katie.

Things come to a head when Anna leaves for a conference in Boston. At the same point, Curtis moves in to avoid the fallout from his most recently imploded marriage, and the Death Star begins layoffs in earnest. Tom's big mouth gets the better of him, and in the midst of several crises he goes down swinging, cursing and burning all possible bridges. For an over-networked generation encouraged to see each unique snowflake of a person as a rung to be dynamically trod in the stepladder to the top, it's pure, hilarious catharsis. Will Tom survive his own sass attacks and rise from the ashes? Well, if you're a fan of authors like Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story), or you enjoy the feel and dialogue of Californication, and don't mind a little grit in your fiction, I recommend you find out.

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