Thursday, July 3, 2014
Apologize, Apologize! by Elizabeth Kelly
by Elizabeth Kelly
Knopf Canada, 2009
This is a book that, like the family it chronicles, is a little dysfunctional. It has a severely split personality and I felt quite strongly that it got away from the author around the 3/4 mark, but she did bring it back, in the end. It's possible I was so thrown by those sections because this is not a usual kind of read for me, but despite the fact that I was a little blindsided it felt a little formulaic, too, which is a very odd juxtaposition. I saw it coming but couldn't quite believe it when it happened.
See, the thing is, a book tends to have a certain tone. And as much as explicit foreshadowing can, the tone can set the stage for what comes; the reader knows that there will be something of a certain magnitude and a certain temperament down the road. Part of an author's job is managing these expectations, I think. What happened to me as I was reading this book was that I did hit the crisis of a certain magnitude, as I expected - it was heavily (but not heavy-handedly) foreshadowed, the tone and early plot very nearly demanded it - but then rather than maintaining the level, several other events of enormous magnitude and very different temperament happened, and they felt out of place, though I understood where Kelly was trying to go with them. We veer crazily from madcap family tragicomedy to a war zone to medical malpractice before we finally come back to our senses, rather than unfolding in a way that feels both logical and emotionally true. I ended up with whiplash.
Which is not to say that this book doesn't have it's excellent moments, and I read it very quickly, almost compulsively, and I liked it, in the end.
So, the summary: Collie (yes, named after the dog) is a first-person narrator, detachedly telling us about his early life and his loudly dysfunctional, incredibly wealthy, strangely endearing (most of them) family. He sees himself as the sane one, the normal one, but he loves all of them, even his emotionally and sometimes physically abusive mother (I didn't see anything likeable about her at all; she had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, which makes her the odd one out in the book) and he spends a lot of his time wanting to crawl into a hole to die of embarrassment, attempting to contain the damage, or trying to coax some sort of order out of the chaos. He's a very sympathetic narrator, and he doesn't spare himself. Dysfunction has made him who he is and he's benefited hugely from the wealth and profile of his family, but he's also very aware (and the reader more so) of just how destructive the dysfunction he grows up around is to everyone touched by it. It's not harmless, even if it is really funny a lot of the time.
One of the blurbs compares this to a Wes Anderson film, and while I try to take those with a grain of salt, I think that one is quite apt. The madcap antics of the eccentric characters that appear harmless on the surface, the underlying melancholy, the peaceful moments, the black humour, the slow unfolding of a tragedy that seems inevitable. That's the first part of the book and it holds up as a comparison. The rest of it not so much.
Collie is the most relatable character in the book, perhaps excluding the verbose, blustering but quietly tender Uncle Tom (acting as the family's live-in maid and servant, pigeon racer, alcoholic.) But getting back to my point that the dysfuction, while amusing, is not harmless: Collie is also incredibly dysfunctional in his own way. Because of the way he has grown up and the personality he has, he is a person whom things happen to; he is at the mercy of everyone around him. He is not forceful - almost religiously not forceful - and he doesn't hold convictions, and he doesn't have any follow-through either. He's a limp fish and while he doesn't ever ask for exoneration, it is not hard to imagine him saying "really, it all had to turn out like this." And yet somehow I still liked him.
Tonally the book is uneven, but I did enjoy it for what it was, and I'm glad I read it. Mildly recommended to fans of contemporary dysfunctional family narratives (it's a whole genre!); you won't find it a difficult read, and it's got some lovely moments.