On The Book of Getting Even

14Dec08

In which The Gay Recluse files a book report.*

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In The Book of Getting Even (a title we love, btw!) by Benjamin Taylor, we meet some interesting characters: first (and last) there is Gabriel Geismar, a Jewish — and notably, unapologetically gay! — teenage boy from New Orleans with a horribly abusive father (a rabbi) and long-suffering mother. (Oh and he is obsessed with numbers and has — why not? — two left thumbs.) Fortunately Gabriel manages to escape his sad house for college at Swarthmore, where he meets a pair of twins (brother and sister) who somewhat inexplicably both fall in love with him over a single meal at the cafeteria, even though they’re seniors and he’s a pathetic little freshman. Whatever! They invite him home, and he discovers that their Hungarian/Jewish parents are the opposite of his: intellectual, generous, warm, cultured; in short, we like them. Years pass and Gabriel becomes like another son, and like his “adoptive” father — who helped invent the atomic bomb — he’s very smart at science; he gets a PhD and by the end of the book is teaching physics/astronomy at the University of Chicago (don’t worry, not a spoiler).

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Which is a good thing, because their own son — the boy twin — is srsly fucked up! Although he’s gay for a while with Gabriel — which maybe sort of upsets the sister — he ends up drifting away from home (and the narrative) to protest the U.S. occupation of Cambodia and then basically goes completely AWOL before inevitably getting into serious trouble with the authorities. The girl meanwhile, after getting over her crush on Gabriel, becomes his bff, and we see her suffer through a relationship with a waspy, judgmental poser meant to epitomize/symbolize the east-coast literary establishment, which by this point has entered the narrative with a heavy thud in the form of yet another couple who are — at least from our perspective, because we are led to hate them — frenemies with the adoptive parents.

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The book is set in the 1970s — a strange and horrible decade, as Taylor makes clear by periodically listing external news flashes — but for which Taylor displays an insidious (by which we mean unconscious) nostalgia that results in some tedious reading — e.g., all the zany kids in the dorms at Swarthmore, a digression into the politics of The New Yorker fifty years ago, stereotypical street characters in New York City — that seem to presume on the reader’s part a shared understanding (and interest) in this version of the dark ages, without ever making a case for why we should really care.

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As the book progresses, there are fortunately some compelling scenes with Gabriel’s pseudo-adoptive parents. Gradually we learn about their deeper pain and conformity, and the book ends by unveiling a startling series of tragic events in Holocaust-era Hungary that perhaps explains some of the anguish we’ve been hearing about with regard to the wayward twin son.

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Unfortunately, as compelling as these ingredients are in theory, they are glossed over in just a few pages, so that like an undercooked meal the impact is not as pungent as we might have hoped. And sadly for us, this frustration carried through much of the book, i.e., we wanted more depth! At only 166 pages, Taylor’s narrative left us speculating about the exact import of certain peripheral characters/developments (and there are far too many) or symbols — e.g., two thumbs! twins! — and worse, exactly what these are supposed to mean to the development of the main characters. Instead of analyzing these events (many of which — suicides, disease, assassinations! — are inherently epic in scope) with passion and texture, the author often delivers the news between much smaller and pedestrian scenes that focus on say, an awkward comment at a dinner party, the failure to get a joke, the painful remark overheard from the next room.

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While there are a few moments of psychological insight delivered with great beauty and finesse — e.g. “Gabriel reeled quietly with the realization that someone he was ready to like simply didn’t like him…” — on the whole, Taylor seems a bit too concerned (particularly as he skewers the east-coast elite) with post-war literary pyrotechnics — tense changes! second person! — than conveying substantive truth. As Taylor flits from one character to the next, the risk of the omniscient narrator is made clear at the end — and even with Gabriel — when we don’t really know or understand the characters much better than we did at the beginning; or maybe that’s not entirely true; rather, we don’t get a sense that the characters understand themselves to any greater extent, which leads us to ask exactly why we were taken on this short but traumatic trip.

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*Any negative reactions notwithstanding, we encourage readers to buy this book and form your own opinion because wtf do we know?

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