Great Book: Emotionally Weird, by Kate Atkinson

Yesterday's review

I loved, loved, Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Emotionally Weird is on the 'Great Books' list courtesy of the Harvard Book Store(plebian origin, despite the 'Harvard' in front) whereas Museum is on there courtesy of Jane Smiley's 13 ways of looking at the novel list (she gets letters published in the New York Times, you know). Emotionally Weird undoubtedly suffered from my high expectations, but I think it truly is a lesser work. Museum started off with a bang, a jubilant 'I exist!' that captured my heart. Weird is, well, weirder. More mellow. Longer, more langorous, perhaps to a fault.

Plot, such as it is, such as we eventually gather it to be: Effie is stuck on a remote island with her mother Nora. Effie tells her mother a story about her time at school in Dundee (during which she writes a mystery novel, of which portions are included in the text), which composes the main part of the book, and coaxes Nora to reveal details of her mysterious origins and family mess.

Draped on the skeleton of this family drama is a light-hearted exploration of the power of words and the relevance of literature. The multiple layers of narration (and narratees, as Effie puts it) combine with the lecture-drones of Effie's professors (she is pursuing a degree in English) and the occasional interjections about her, and her classmates, creative writing, to make something of a send-up of analysis and literature altogether.

It took me about half the book to realize that this was set in the early seventies - the lack of computers eventually tipped me off. The narrative is scattered with student protestors, pictures of foreign countries being bombed, pot, raving feminists, etc. but this seemed pretty close to my own student experience. I did wonder why Effy's Star Trek-loving boyfriend Bob never quoted any Next Gen. Aside: There is a minor character named Janice Rand. This is the name of Yeoman Rand, a character on Star Trek (The Original Series) during the first season. A hot, blond character that Bob would have known about. Atkinson never did anything with this, so I think it's just a coincidence.

One false note was the contest among professors for the soon-to-be-vacated department chairmanship. My dad is an academic, and being department chair was always seen as the booby prize because it was so much extra work. Maybe it's different in GB.

At one point Effie calls her narrative a 'comic novel' (although it is littered with dead bodies, abandoned babies, and suicide attempts), but it wasn't very funny. I think probably this was the fault of the reader, Kara Wilson. Wilson demonstrates a wide range in this performance, but the voice she chose for Effie grated on me miserably, as did the faux American accents assummed for visiting professors.

1 comment:

Richard Mason said...

I think that becoming a department chair is different in G.B. I think it might be more analogous to becoming the "William and Melinda Gates Endowed Professor of XXX" in the U.S. In other words, it's an honor that means you've reached the top rung of academics, and that you'll hang on to until you retire, not just an administrative job that you'll do for a few years and then hand off to someone else.