Monday, January 24, 2005

California Screamin'

I have no idea what that title means, but perhaps we'll find out. Am finally back in New York after over a week in California, where the temperature was consistently in the 70s and occasionally the 80s. I had a moment of gloating, or something, when I heard about the blizzard and chilly conditions hitting NYC and the Northeast in general. Not gloating: Let's call it "vacation luck," those moments when where you are is nicer than where you've come from.

When our flight on Saturday was canceled, though, I was yearning for New York. Enough of this balmy California paradise—there's nothing to do out here. JetBlue (which I love, normally) had us on the runway for over an hour, finally, regrettably saying that conditions at JFK had deteriorated and there was no way we'd be able to land; when they told us the earliest flight we could have was on Tuesday, I wondered how we were going to fill the time. I had seen enough birds. We had played enough tennis. We went for a walk on the same trail from the other day, saw the same cormorant. If you didn't focus too much, you could look at the tile-topped roofs of units in the various gated communities and pretend you were in Tuscany. Then you had to look straight and keep walking.

I'm from Buffalo, I thought. I belong in wild weather. I am a creature of snow. The nothing that is not there and the nothing that is, and all that Wallace Stevens stuff. Give me dazzling storms—enough of this false summer!

We flew back on Delta today (Monday), about which all I'll say is: Don't ever fly Delta.

Cabbing it home, I made low-level marveling noises at the snowscape. But then when I went out to get some milk, I found myself saying: "This weather sucks!"

My one accomplishment while being stranded on the tarmac at JFK today (after touching down, our plane didn't get to a gate for over two hours—unwelcome visions of this flashed through my head) was finishing Michelle de Kretser's novel The Hamilton Case. Set in Sri Lanka, the book got off to such a wonderful start—but then dispensed with its engaging unreliable narrator, lawyer Sam Obeysekere, and translated the bulk of the action into the third person. It was backstory city; the murder mystery that was highlighted in the first part was almost completely obscured. Much of the writing was quite beautiful, and de Kretser can do a list of flora and finery like no one else. But there was perhaps one infant death too many, and the emotions didn't register in this distanced voice. By the time the book got back to the "case" in the title, I had lost interest in it, and the alternate solutions offered were wearying. Much attention was drawn to the act of storytelling itself—not a dull topic normally, but one that pales in comparison to just plain vigorous indelible storytelling (i.e., what de Kretser was so impressively accomplishing early on).

I was reminded of Ian McEwan's Atonement, a book I liked, but which I liked markedly less at the end than at the beginning. I don't want to invoke the M word (meta) here—I don't think these writers' agendas are violently postmodern. But whereas some writers in that reality's-a-shiftin' mode are entertaining and provocative because that's what they're all about, McEwan's and de Kretser's novels are a bit diminished by their creators foray into narrative carpet-pulling. In other words, they start out so strong that you want them to keep on being strong, rather than to resort to marginally curious reframings of the central drama.

Or was it that their beginnings were too good somehow that they needed to abandon, disfigure, escape them? Like someone leaving California for a climate 50 degrees harsher.


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