Friday, 3 May 2013

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg: Book review

Drink with this:


Sweetened dairy based cocktail, with whipped eggs and the liquor of your choice. It can be sophisticated - I had one with a massive bourbon kick in a retro milk bottle at this place, my absolute favourite restaurant in London:

It can also be over saccharine, and so creamy it will make you gag, with associations of holiday season over-indulgence. The picture below somehow feels typically American to me and something I can imagine Edie Middlestein consuming.

What’s what

Oh you books trying to be The Great American Novel, why can’t I quit you? Is it your pessimism and creeping malaise that keeps me coming back for more? Your elegiac portraits of a country I barely know being colonised by strip malls and soulless corporations? Or maybe your embittered and dysfunctional characters? Damn you and your addictive ways!

The Middlesteins has been described as the Jewish Corrections but you’ll be disappointed if you go into this expecting writing as piercingly good as Franzen’s. The novel opens in media res, with the Middlestein family members discovering that Richard Middlestein has left his ailing wife Edie after more than twenty-five years of marriage. Edie is obese and is dying from diabetes and its various complications.

Edie Middlestein, patron saint of Chinese joints everywhere. Well, thought Robin, if my mother lives in this alternate universe in this strip mall, at least it’s nice that they think she’s so amazing. “He’s got quite a story,” said Edie, and she nodded approvingly at the value of such a thing. A story! pg 139

The focus of this book is intensely narrow. There is a sense at times that it is reaching, purporting to say more about America, and about the nature of obesity and need, and yet it focuses exclusively on the interior lives of a few of its central characters. And even this access is incomplete - we only get one chapter from Edie’s daughter Robyn’s point of view and little resolution to her story. At times though the omniscient narrator drops in a choice phrase skipping us forward years or decades in the characters’ lives - these moments are highly effective, giving the impression of an epic stretch of time and lives laid out for our examination, with the highlights brought to our attention.

And then there he was, in a suit (it was his only suit, but she didn’t know that yet), and he was smiling (his happiest days were behind him the minute he met her, but he didn’t know that yet)pg 60

Attenberg’s characters, much like those of Franzen or Updike, are not particularly likable. Is this just the nature of this type of writing? Are we all so damaged and confused that contemporary state of the nation novels need to be populated with these horrible miserable people? Everyone in The Middlesteins is flawed and unpleasant and there are misunderstandings and communication failures galore.

They stopped and stared at each other, and there were a million things of a confrontational nature that still hovered between them, but Benny wondered if they were worth the battle, and then decided they were not, or that his father wasn’t worth it anyway, and he would deal with how sad that made him feel some other time. pg 158

Nobody in this book understands anybody else around them, and the reader is not permitted understanding of Edie. The plot and the other characters pivot around her, and yet we never get to inhabit her present day point of view. This is a clever strategy on Attenberg’s part, as the reader like the other characters can only wonder why Edie is killing herself with food; but it is also risky. I felt very emotionally detached from this novel until 80% of the way through, when it gathered me in to its pudgy, uncomfortable embrace.

There was a person there to connect with, a jawline, a smile, a clarity in the eyes. No flesh hung from her cheeks and chin as it did now. She was in focus, we could see her, we could see who she was—or who we thought she was anyway. Where had that Edie gone? pg 236

There are many sad and brilliantly acerbic lines throughout yet frustratingly we are never really given any insights into why Edie is so overweight. Attenberg suggests the obvious - that food is a way to subsume her feelings of need and longing, universal feelings which those around her drown out through drugs and sex and alcohol and control.

Middlestein and Beverly, two lonely people, successes, failures, a widow, a husband, caught up in something resembling love. pg 224

By the end I was a convert to this novel but I’m still not convinced it gets to the heart of any great American truth. If nothing else though, it has one near perfect chapter - the bnai mitzvah, with its witty and observant details, its collision of Jewish tradition and teenage trends, of the best and worst of family.


Compulsively readable throughout, despite the moments of disgust and dislike, which eventually turn to a profound sympathy and identification with all those messed-up Middlesteins.

On the big screen

Little happens here in terms of plot - the narrative is all internal, and there are few visual set pieces. I don’t see this working as a movie.


So it has Franzen’s seal of approval but I think it’s pretty low-rent when held up against The Corrections or Freedom.

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