Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Perfect Life by Jessica Shattuck

This is not the type of book one reads to escape.  Like so much in our modern world it raises endless questions. It prompted me to take handwritten notes while reading, something I haven't done in years.  I took notes because I wanted to ensure I considered all of the themes percolating throughout the book.

There is something both thrilling and exhausting about this book.  It explores the nuances and complexities of modern life with such a keen sense of observation and irony.  The characters are so real and so inherently a product of their modern world.  They (like many other experiences today) make me want to run away from modern society. Here are these individuals who went to Harvard and they are completely weighted down by their histories and their ambition.  Their modern life styles seem oppressive and exhausting.  At the end of the day, does all this striving make us happier?  I found myself connecting this story to a recent article in the New Republic about  a longitudinal study of males who graduated Harvard in the 1940s.  We expect these individuals to be happier.  But what does a pedigreed education really do to enhance a person's happiness?  Obviously it increases their earning potential but that in itself will not increase happiness beyond a certain point.

One of the four main characters, Jenny, is a typical type-A female, and what many would deem a "true success."  The youngest child of a canning plant foreman father and a mother who ran her own day care service while raising four children, Jenny journeyed from a small town with "ghastly colored houses" to Harvard and Harvard Business School.  She admires and loves her father "possibly more than any other on earth" and yet he has never visited her house in Boston. Additionally, Jenny clearly understands that she is raising her son to operate in a completely different world than that of her father, a quiet man with "hands like slabs of meat and a face as flat, ruddy, and impassive as a statue's."  Here is one of the many complexities of modern life. Many individuals seem to want their children to have more than they had, but what does that look like?  Is a woman with a Harvard MBA who excels at marketing pharmaceuticals happier than her quiet foreman father? 

I was particularly affected by the passage that talks of the chasm between Jenny's son and her father. Shattuck writes: "They would not speak the same language.  Even the simplest nouns would be attached to such different things in their minds: kitchen, school, transportation, meat....They would be left with nothing but the hugest most basic precepts: ocean, light, sickness, death.  Would this be enough?"  I suppose this chasm doesn't really exist in the world I operate in. My parents were raised middle class - my mother especially grew up in a similar manner to me and my brothers.  I no longer have grandparents and while I can imagine they might laugh at my high-flautin vocabulary we would still attach words to the same ideas.  Many of my friends seem able to have conversations with their own grandparents and parents without defining words in different ways.  I suppose part of this chasm has to do with class.  I defined school differently than my students who grew up in the Bronx.  It really isn't surprising that those who make it out of their low income communities rarely return. There is an idea of otherness, of being separate.

Jenny believes that motherhood "did not fit logically into the modern, well-educated career-driven woman's life."  Shattuck offers Jenny as a lens through which to hone in on modern motherhood.  We are left to ponder, when a woman was brought up learning to cook, garden, and keep house, when a "woman's primary aspiration was to achieve reproductive potential" as opposed to the more elusive form of recognition modern women strive for today, monetary or otherwise was it easier to mother? While Jenny questions these ideas I couldn't help but find fault with her own arguments. She talks of women who were taught to take care of sisters and brothers and grandparents, as if this was all so foreign to her, even though she worked in her mother's day care. It seems easy to  look at the past with a rosy view without realizing that of course with more options and a high powered career traditional motherhood is not easy.

I can't help but wonder, what are we all striving for?  In many ways some of the characters in this book seem like gerbils on a wheel grasping for what those around them covet, circling back into the lifestyles of those who came before. That isn't to say their aren't a variety of lifestyles portayed. Elise, one character, seems to love her world as a scientist. It is her niche and that is uplifting.  She has also found peace in a loving relationship with her partner Chrissy, but all of that is affected by their decision to have children (carried by Chrissy).

Biology is a reoccurring theme in the novel.  What makes someone a parent, blood or their actions?  This question is offered up through more than one story stream.  Additionally, how should biological parents be considered in a world with more rampant and acknowledged use of donors.  Is it better to know your donor? 

At the heart of the story are a series of even larger  questions: What is the good life for a child? What is the good life for an educated individual? What is fundamental? What is normal? Do modern individuals overuse their brains when they should be better using their bodies?  Shattuck uses Neil --the individual the other characters view as troubled, unstable and even teetering on crazy-- as a tool to question many of the experiences and ideas that have become normal.  He is concerned with human suffering and hates the way coddled people have inflated their own low points.  He questions if people actually deserve to be happy.  He wonders if symptoms of social psychological issues serve a purpose.  He wonders if antidepressants are a cultural force and an arbiter of normalcy.  He puts forth the idea of "all American delusional," for example, getting caught up in the minutiae of something as small as a video game without considering  its frivolity and utter insignificance in the larger world.  While he may have been the character with the most problems, I sympathized with him, saw things more through his lens than the three female characters (even though I myself am a woman).

 Shattuck offers a beautiful and magical story that stops the reader and causes them to ruminate on modern life. The novel, like its characters, is complex, intense, and varied.  I immediately recommended the book to friends. And if I had words to convey high praise without sounding ridiculous I'd offer them here.  I loved being in this world even though it was frustrating and at times nauseating.  I loved wrestling with these questions and I know I will continue to do so for a long time.

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