A Man without a Country
“As a kid, I was the youngest member of my family, and the youngest child in any family is always a jokemaker, because a joke is the only way he can enter into adult conversation.”
This is one of the last things that Kurt Vonnegut published in his lifetime. He’s also the kind of writer who wrote so many things about so many different topics, that his writing was a well that got dipped into long after he died, so there’s more books later, but not necessarily ones that he wrote with the idea of publishing while he was still alive.
It almost seems cheap that Vonnegut died during the Bush administration and found himself writing in reaction to it near the end of his life. So much of his writing is larger than the historical moment he found himself in at a given time. You know when you look at the publication date of any his book who was president at the time, but it rarely feels right to consider the book of that given moment. This book does have some of that outsized-ness to it of course, but it also has that limiting factor coloring him at times. But the thing about the Bush administration that is interesting to me now is that there’s a sense from a lot of people that it “wasn’t so bad”, but it was. And this worries me because the act of surviving something sometimes gives it the air of being imminently survivable. So while I think we are served by Vonnegut in this book, I don’t think Vonnegut is served by this book.
Speaking of books that could easily be mired in the specifics of their situation. This is the play where a Greek woman begins a campaign of unity among Greek women to withhold sex from their husbands in order to apply pressure to end the Peloponnesian War, and as the movement grows, Spartan women just the fight. The play is both a social critique of male violence and male dominance (the women address the question of what to do if their husbands just decide to rape them for example), but it’s also long discussion of persuasion and the power of influence. The play, like a lot of Greek plays, loses a lot out of context, and is of course a flavor for a certain kind of reader, but the themes and seeds are there for a very powerful and interesting inverting of the power structure.
This book has the unfortunate reputation of being the “Korean Misery” and in a way it is, but that’s insulting to both books and frustrating to this novel in specific. The fun, what fun there is, in Misery is that a fan of a writer is the one that happens upon Paul Sheldon, and so the satire element of obsessive fans is on full display and plays a huge role in that book. In addition, Paul is forced to write a new version of his novel, and we get that in the text, with Stephen King having some fun writing a romance novel.
Here though, the setup is kind of similar, with our main character being involved in a major car wreck and waking up in a hospital with his legs shattered and unaware of exactly what has happened. He learns that his wife died in the crash (he was driving) and that there are questions about the exact events. Questions he does not actually know the answer to. The book is dreary, by the way, so comparing it to Misery, which is a thriller, is not quite right tone-wise. We get a long section of looking into the past of the character (he’s a college professor who specializes in cartography, which plays a small role in the characterization). While he’s recovering, his mother in law begins to help him put things back together in ways like finding him an at-home caregiver and a physical therapist. He starts to suspect that her intentions are not clear as she too is dealing with her grief. The novel has a bit of a thriller element to it, but if it’s meant to be important, it’s underdeveloped. Instead, the novel is about a man who for the first time in a long is forced to confront what led him to this moment, especially given how ambiguous his memory about key details.
The Old Woman with the Knife
This novel begins on a train where an old woman is sitting quietly by herself. She gets up at her stop, brushes against a fellow passenger and goes on her way. We understand that the passenger she brushed up against soon dies thereafter. We then learn that the woman is a skilled and experienced assassin for hire who is not actually as old as she looks, in her late fifties instead of elderly, but that the assassin for hire business can be grueling, and she’s not looking for retiring, but is aware that her handler is always checking to make sure she still has it all together. We also learn of a kind of friend of hers who is a man in his 20s or 30s, and from flashbacks we learn that he lost both of his parents to murder when he was young — wanna guess who killed them? Therein lies the tension of the novel.
The book has fun with the expectations of the age, and plays around with the thriller genre (and assassin sub genre) in some interesting ways. It’s a short novel that does not try to do anything wild with that it’s play around with, but does have fun and doesn’t over stay it’s welcome. It’s a novel that says, if you’re going to underestimate someone for being old and being a woman, be careful as it might cost you.