Thursday, March 09, 2006

Richard Russo's Straight Man

I don't remember where I came across the recommendation, but somewhere (online, I think) I read a recommendation for Richard Russo's novel Straight Man. I haven't read anything else by him and don't know anything about him. I loved this book.

This book has many enjoyable aspects: it weaves a bunch of different storylines together in a soap-opera way that is sheer fluffy delight, and much of the dialog is hilarious, as are many of the situations. However it manages to also cover heartbreaking topics as well. The light touch on even those topics is in part a function of the narrator’s lack of self-knowledge; his motives are inscrutable to himself. I'm a sucker for that type of story. I think I like it because it draws the reader in by making her try to deduce the motives, and also because I don't believe people's motives are as concrete as we like to think they are. Generally I'm a sucker for underwritten books and movies; it's unusual to find that kind of book (or movie) that is also fast paced and highly entertaining.

I was thinking about the women characters in the book, thinking that they were not particularly fleshed out, and all of them are described only in relation to the narcissistic, middle-aged, male protagonist's desires. The male characters are slightly more substantial. Instead of bothering me, this pattern of characterization seemed to be a further description of the protagonist: he is hopelessly self-absorbed and contrary.

I read the hard cover edition (pictured left) with the goose on the cover. I spent the first part of the book wondering why there was a goose on the cover, and the rest thinking it was the cleverest cover ever.

I'm sure another reason I loved this book is because it satirizes academia. Some of the machinations are not so different from Caltech, but mostly it reminds me of studying critical theory as an undergrad. I was completely seduced by this material, and have lately started to pick up small bits of it again. As a companion to this book, I'm also reading The Best of Lingua Franca, which is side-splitting but dependent on theory-geek humor.

As I read back over this, I realize that I haven't made the book sound very appealing. Never you mind that. Go read it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read and enjoyed Russo's Empire Falls some years ago, although I thought it was a bit longer than it needed to be. This one sounds fun. I'm always up for academic novels. Navel gazing, I suppose.