Friday, June 29, 2012

The old math

A colleague brought back a single mp3 disc of Carol Anshaw’s Carry the One from this spring's Public Library Association conference in Philadelphia. For audiobook publishers to give stuff away at conferences like the print book publishers do is a very good sign. For this reason alone I needed to listen to it. I’m still not sure how I got the disc's digits to download onto my computer (because it didn’t go quite smoothly), but I did, and I listened. Meh.

Carry the One is one of those novels that travels quickly through time – the author providing us with historical touchstones (Rwandan genocide, Desert Storm, 9/11, 2008 election) in each chapter so we can easily gauge how many years have passed. I hate this … I hate the jumps in time and I hate the way these narcissistic characters so glibly include these events awkwardly into conversation. It follows three siblings – Carmen, Alice and Nick Kenney – in their 20s at Carmen’s slightly shotgun wedding in 1983 in rural Wisconsin – quickly taking them to Chicago for most of their subsequent lives. Alice and the groom’s sister Maude have a sexual encounter during the reception and Nick and his girlfriend Olivia take a staggering amount of narcotics before all four of them (plus a musician friend) pile in the car at 3 a.m. to drive back to Chicago. A young girl dashes into the road in front of the car and is struck and killed. Olivia, the driver, willingly goes to prison, and the three siblings wade into the rest of their lives doomed to “carry the one” of the dead girl. Or so Alice ponderously tells us: “Because of the accident, we’re not just separate numbers. When you add us up, you always have to carry the one.”  I must be stupidly literal: What does that mean???

Along the way, Carmen becomes a single mother to precocious Gabe and devotes herself to liberal social action, losing an ear at a protest in front of an abortion clinic. Alice pines for Maude off and on, since Maude can’t bring herself to come out; she also becomes a well-known artist, surpassing her famous father. Nick – a gifted astronomer – kicks the drugs for a few years in order to stay married to Olivia, but soon he enters a cycle of rehab and relapse continually enabled by his sisters. Alone among them, he makes a connection with the dead girl’s mother.

Each chapter gives us a glimpse into their navel-gazing lives at a certain point, but the references to their guilt about the accident surface only occasionally, almost as if the author didn’t want us to forget that this is the premise of her novel. It is difficult to like any of them very much, and I’m not sure that Anshaw really does either – using them instead to forward a political agenda, or provide an ironic commentary on their sad, self-centered, flawed lives. Wait! The Kenneys are my age – it’s my sad, self-centered, flawed life! I don’t think that’s really why I didn’t care for it; more accurately, it’s that I didn’t care.

The writing is excellent; Anshaw can describe a setting or a person, or even a feeling with a few deft strokes: (cribbing from the New York Times review) “A small threat of rain was held to a smudge at the horizon.” Her dialogue can be wickedly humorous. But beautiful writing isn’t enough. Regarding audiobooks, I once read/heard that audio works best for plot-driven stories, so perhaps the episodic nature of Carry the One isn’t a good choice for listening.

It is read by Renée Raudman, a narrator I actually try to avoid (which is exactly what I said the last time I listened to her … see first paragraph for my reason for listening to her here). While her broad Midwestern accent fits this Chicago-set novel, there’s still her serious ‘zh’-for-s problem, and a lot of weird vowel sounds – “light bolb” and the like. Her reading is straightforward and natural, and her characterizations of Carmen and Alice sound completely authentic. Occasionally, she will read with a lot of emphasis and enthusiasm that doesn’t always mesh with the text. And there were a few non-English-speaking accents that come across awkwardly. Ultimately, Raudman's narration was just more of the same in the long snooze that this book was for me.

I used to suck books like this up – right about the time that Carmen was getting married – mostly about women finding their way through the thickets of adulthood, learning valuable lessons along the way and reaching fulfillment at the end. Maybe that’s what bugs me most about this book – there’s something old-fashioned about it and not in a good way. It’s time to move on.

[The graphic is “an old symbol for arithmetic addition, from the first letter of the Italian word più” (which means more). It was created by mintz_l and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw
Narrated by Renée Raudman
Tantor Audio, 2012. 9:14 

1 comment:

Jen (Devourer of Books) said...

Hmm, I'm planning to listen to this, but maybe I don't think I'll be catapulting it to the top of my TBL.