Friday, August 6, 2010
This is Where We Live by Janelle Brown
I am an equal opportunity reader: I will chase any engaging story to its point of closure. But two things deepen my reading experience and make a novel stand out. The first is powerful writing: lyrical sentences, the bite of the real, an author's ability to spell bind me with their craft. The second is a story that forces me to think deeply about new ideas.
Having finished Brown's sophmore release earlier today, I realize it's not her writing that stands out. I didn't stop while reading to linger on any artful phrases. But I did nod throughout, enjoying th realistic portrayal of modern life and Brown's ability to make me think deeply about a variety of aspects of modernity.
Janelle Brown has her finger on the zeitgeist. I remember thinking the same thought when reading her first novel and it is vividly apparent while reading This Is Where We Live, as well. She takes these planitive, straight phrases and grows them into a well-developed story with a critique of society mixed right in for good measure. "All We Ever Wanted Is Everything," and "This Is Where We Live" both dissect modern society.
To be honest, I'm not even sure I liked the characters in this novel. At times I was very frustrated with their choices. Claudia (a wife and scriptwriter/director) and Jeremy (a husband and rock musician) were realistic and like characters on a reality tv show --I cared about their story not because of some binding connection but instead because their experiences barreled forward dramatically and allowed me to reexamine my own life.
The inside of this book deems it "A novel about subprime mortgages, ruthless hollywood economics, and the unraveling of a young marriage." While those three entities are at the heart of the story, it is about so much more: the information age and its pandering to an audience which with more cyncism can be recast as "the fractured soul of the post-modern age," delayed adolescence, human disconnection. It is about vacillitating between the polls of pragmatiscism and fuck the norm idealism/following the fire in your belly passions.
Claudia, who in my opinion is much more likeable than her husband offers: "Everyone we know thought they were going to be artists. Painters or musicians or filmmakers or writers, somehow more authentic than everyone else right? But really, how many have done what they thought they would? We were all so naive. We live in an information age, not a truth age; the only way to really make it now is to sell out to the biggest distributor, pander to the broadest audience...no one cares about art anymore." (p. 121)
Brown's novel reflects modern society back at its tenants. She takes the mortgage crisis and a simple craftsman style two bedroom domicile and uses it to riff on so very much of modern life. Her novel is a discussion about the value of technology and the relevance of art in a new world. It is about reexamining what makes the good life.
I valued the way this novel made me think deeply about modern life. I think Brown's true craft is in the simple way that she coats a plot driven narrative with much larger questions and discussions. One of my two critiques is that certain plot elements were cliche. Maybe that is an intentional choice. But the idea of a failed scriptwriter teaching film was cloyingly cliche (after all, those who can't do, teach) and the brouhaha Claudia gets herself into when she chooses to give the daughter of a hollywood bigwig an As she doesn't deserve so that he will advance Claudia's career was a little too obvious for me. I suppose this happens all the time in LA - people use any connection they can to plot their careers but it just felt like a forced plot device. The second critique is the ending was too rushed for me. After three hundred and sixteen pages I wanted more resolution. Although as I continue to think about the characters, the narrative and its many messages I am starting to understand why the story ends the way it does.