Friday, February 28, 2014

Friday Reads: Maria Semple's "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?"

Satire has always been, to me, a proletarian endeavor. By which I mean that specific type of lampooning is best directed at the upper classes in order to bring the upper class down a notch. The fun made at the expense of the lower classes can usually be called (at best) clowning. When, in Shakepeare's Twelfth Night, the clowns, Sirs Toby and Andrew, make mockery the aspirations (and transgressions) of the play's malcontent, Malvolio, the satire is at Malvolio's belief he is more than a servant. Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," as every college freshman knows, takes a bite (pun intended) at the rhetoric wealthy lawmakers of 17th century England expound on the solution to Irish poverty. P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh (who share the same crate at Wallace Books) made a living mocking the upper classes; Wodehouse a little more lovingly than Waugh, who made sure to point out that the post-war British upper class had no more money than the lower. The idea is to make the upper class as foolish as us, perhaps (let's hope) even more.
Accessories not included. 

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? follows in this tradition, with an irresistible twist. The novel is epistolary, with some small narration from Bee Branch, thirteen-year-old daughter of Elgie and Bernadette Branch. Emails, report cards, traffic incident reports, alerts, all go into telling the story of a mother who is at once fearless and intelligent, willful and broken.

What we gather from this (mostly electronic) ephemera, is the story of Bernadette Fox, a reclusive, antisocial mother, who twenty years ago was a brilliant and ambitious architect. A disaster, which has mostly to do with Bernadette's overconfidence (equal parts hilarious and maddening), leads her to leave the architectural life and move with her husband Elgie from L.A. to Seattle, buy a dilapidated mansion, and after several attempts get pregnant and have a daughter, before descending into an antisocial and bitter life. Surrounded by what Bernadette calls "gnats," native Seattle-ites whose outdoorsy, Subaru driving, nosy ways Bernadette cannot stand, her one consolation is her daughter, Balakrishna. Bee is a brilliant young girl waiting to hear from an acceptance to the boarding school her mother went to, a dream misinterpreted by the "gnats" as her mother's desire, not Bee's. Upon the very first page we learn that Bernadette has disappeared, and although her husband Elgie knows, he refuses to talk about it to Bee, who begins discerning why. The novel is that discernment. It is equal parts laugh out loud funny and bitterly sad.

The first ingredient for satire is that the satirized must be unaware of their absurdity, and if we are honest with ourselves (something the subject of satire can never be, in real life or in art), we will realize that an email is a great starting point. In an email, rhetorical structure and exposition make way for the Ego, and expose us to ridicule. In Where'd You Go, Bernadette, the characters are woefully unaware at how exposed they are, which is exactly where author Maria Semple (who wrote for, among other shows, Arrested Development) needs them to be. Perhaps the best subject is Bernadette's neighbor, Aubrey, a mother at the same private school Bee attends; her correspondences, emails between her friend, emails back and forth from her landscaper, even school notices after an "incident" with her foot and the wheel of Bernadette's car, are all marvelously biting just because Aubrey is so very unaware at how absurd her emails are to any reader other than the intended. But although Aubrey was my personal favorite, the other characters, Bernadette included, don't fare much better. The only correspondence that seems mostly bewildered at the indignity of the emails is Bernadette's agent, an obscure and capable woman who arranges all of Bernadette's appointments, travel itineraries, reserves tables for the Branch family at Thanksgiving, and (of course) lives in India.

At the shop, the used copies of this book have been trickling in, and I picked it up in a lull to get a sense of it. Eighty pages later, I realized I had read eighty delightful pages and thought I should get back to work. It is a trap at a bookstore -- "falling down a rabbit hole" is what I call it. I fell into the novel with great good humor and it was hard to pull myself back. Do yourself a favor: fall into it as well.

~ James, February 2014

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