Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review - Dancing With Gravity by Anene Tressler

Short review: Life is difficult when you are a self-absorbed slightly paranoid narcissistic jerk. Even if you are a Catholic priest.

If you are a priest
And a self-absorbed narcissist
People won't like you

Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Father Whiting is a Catholic priest who works in a Catholic run hospital counselling patients and their families. Unfortunately, he's also a juvenile, self-absorbed, narcissistic, paranoid jerk. Throughout the book, he drifts through life, self-absorbed enough to be certain that everything everyone else is doing must be directed at him, paranoid enough that he agonizes over what they must be thinking or planning, juvenile enough that he lashes out when the woman he has a crush on chooses to have a relationship with someone who is actually available, and misogynistic enough that almost every interaction he has in the book with a woman is strained and uncomfortable. In short, Father Whiting is a petty, vain, and generally objectionable person.

Having a dislikable main character in a book is always a risk, even if you intend to rehabilitate him by the end of the book (and that seems to be the intention of the book, although I didn't find Father Whiting's turnaround to be particularly convincing). This is especially true if you are going to tell the story using that character as the sole viewpoint character, as all of their selfish, cruel, and vindictive thoughts are conveyed to the reader in undiluted form. And because the only lens that the reader sees the other character through is the mind of the protagonist, it is impossible to separate the other characters from the protagonist's perception of them. The result is that most of the other characters end up seeming almost as unlikable as the main character. One is left wondering if Jerry really is a sanctimonious prick, if Lillian really is a needy and clingy woman, if Sarah really is vapid, and, finally if Nikolai really is a thoughtless cad and ass. Even though one suspects that they are not, whether or not the characters actually are a collection of disagreeable people, because we see them through Father Whiting's eyes, they appear to be so. As a result, the reader is left wading through a morass of petty, almost meaningless relationships between characters that no one would ever want to actually interact with.

But it is a mark of the skill of a writer that they can take this volatile mix and still produce a book that keeps the reader engaged and turning the pages. However, Tressler is able to pull this off, even if at times one keeps reading for the same reason that one slows down to see a train wreck, as you wonder exactly what new boorish action Father Whiting is going to take next. Though Whiting himself suggests that he is sleepwalking through his life, it seems more like he is actually obsessing over the trivial and magnifying mundane events into crisis after crisis. This pattern is established from the very opening pages of the book when Father Whiting, just returned from an extended conference in Italy, overhears a dispute between the hospital president and the head of the hospital's board of directors. Whiting then obsesses over whether anyone saw him eavesdropping, and spends much of the next chunk of the book worried that he will be fired for this pecadillio, inflating in his mind a cryptic meeting arranged between himself and the head of the Sisters of the Little Flower, the order of nuns that manage the hospital, into a call to the carpet so he can be fired for his indiscretion. The meeting is nothing of the sort, and instead Father Whiting is asked to take over additional responsibilities relating to a circus that the sisters have improbably inherited. While Whiting is busy obsessing over what people think about him, the rest of the world seems to move along without caring about him very much.

This pattern repeats itself several times in the book, with Whiting agonizing over the minutia of interpersonal relationships, always narcissistically assuming that everyone he comes into contact with, or who happens to just walk by, is as focused on Whiting as he is on himself. It does not take long for the reader to conclude that Whiting was sent to Italy, not so that he could learn anything in particular, but because everyone else at the hospital needed a break from dealing with him. In the one scene we see in which Whiting is performing his putative job, pastoral care, he is unable to offer any kind of help to a grieving parent dealing with a sick child, able to only come up with empty platitudes, while another parent actually takes steps to comfort the woman he is supposed to be ministering to. Even when he is ostensibly helping Jerry, a fellow priest and an old friend who is getting treatment for cancer, Whiting uses this as an opportunity to preen. And in his most obnoxious performance, Whiting develops a crush on Sarah, one of his coworkers, and when she doesn't return his affection (probably because she realizes that he's supposed to be a celibate priest), he immediately begins to resent and denigrate her.

Which leads one to realize that Whiting's relationships with almost all of the women in the book are strained. To a certain extent, even though he is described as being fifty-eight years old, Whiting behaves like a maladjusted teenager and this is at its most apparent when dealing with women. The most obvious is his relation ship with Sarah, where he behaves like a jilted lover with his feelings for her turned on a dime. He switches from caring for her to finding her vain, petty, and foolish in the space of a single moment. His interactions with his secretary are strained, as she dominates and bullies him, even though she supposedly works for him, and he is never able to work out any kind of reasonable working relationship with her. Finally, near the end of the book he generates some backbone and explodes before ordering her to transfer out of his office in a scene that seems to be intended to show how he has begun to assert himself. Instead, he comes off as pathetic, unable to resolve a work related problem in an adult manner.

But it is Whiting's relationship with his mother that proves to be revelatory concerning how he developed into such a jerk to begin with, and in a roundabout way, it seems to be tied in to why the son of an irreligious woman would choose to become a Catholic priest. Whiting's mother Lillian was a minor actress who refused to accept that age ended her career and then turned to training performing dogs to stay on stage, drifting from town to town to ply her trade. She also split from Whiting's father when he was young. The resulting nomadic lifestyle seems to have left the younger Whiting feeling rootless and resentful of his neglectful mother. To a certain extent, Whiting's leap into the arms of the Church seems to have been the result of a desperate desire to find a stable home to live in and a stable authority figure to follow that had been denied to him throughout his childhood. But the pernicious effect seems to have been to trap Whiting in a kind of extended adolescence, so that thirty years after most men would have begun to progress into behaving like an adult, Whiting still behaves like a spoiled teenager.

The central element of the story is Whiting being asked to bless the Little Flower Circus, which brings him into contact with the vivacious and energetic troupe of performers that make up its cast. This group includes Nikolai, a trapeze artist, and Sarah's lover. The life-loving performers are clearly intended to serve as a contrast to the washed out colorless existence of Whiting's everyday life, and after some resistance he gravitates towards them and the apparently fascinating Nikolai. Whiting finds himself among people who actually do things - they perform, they work the concession stands, they teach children their craft, and otherwise actually help people - and the inactive and ineffectual Whiting is at a loss. Whereas he is self-absorbed, the performers appear to be almost selfless. This is further highlighted by the revelation that the circus was created in large part as a cover to spirit people in danger out of oppressive countries and to safety in the United States, and though some of the performers are refugees, others are not, but took the risk to help others out anyway.

Eventually Whiting strikes up a kind of friendship with Nikolai, eventually developing an infatuation the trapeze artist (including clumsily copying a love poem onto a card to the performer, an act that Whiting, as usual, obsesses over like a love-struck preteen). This part of the novel was, to me, the least convincing element of the book because other than being told over and over again that Nikolai is a muscular man that everyone likes, there is no real reason given for the attraction, and no real reason why Nikolai would return Whiting's fumbling schoolboy crush. To a large degree, Whiting's motive seems to be little more than petty revenge at being spurned by Sarah - since she turned him down, Whiting seems bent on proving to her that he is desirable by stealing the object of her affections. I suppose one is to focus on the fact that Nikolai is a man of action, which Whiting craves, but as much of the embryonic relationship takes place out of the sight of the reader, it seems undeveloped and not a sufficient reason to result in the level of impact upon Whiting's life that Nikolai's presence is supposed to have. This may, however, be intentional, as much of the relationship between Whiting and Nikolai, like the relationship between Sarah and Whiting, may be nothing more than a figment of Whiting's imagination.

So the book rambles on with Whiting becoming more and more wrapped up in his work with the circus, at which point Jerry decides to reinforce that he is, in fact, a complete sanctimonious prick by warning Whiting not to "go down the path he's on" and should instead focus on the useless pastoral care. Whiting, since he is also a sanctimonious jerk, passes on the favor telling Sarah that her thought to leave the hospital and join the circus to do public relations work for them is ridiculous. Eventually, after he ignores his dealings with his mother for weeks several events take place that push Whiting towards his transformational moment. Whiting is told by the head of the Sisters of the Little Flower that he is being relieved of his duties for the Little Flower Circus, which, being completely self-absorbed, he interprets as an indication that they have discovered and disapprove of his infatuation with Nikolai. But when he rushes to find Nikolai, he finds him with a tear-stained Sarah. In a fit of pique, Whiting gets himself lost in a rainstorm, and stalls his car on a flooded road. After spending the night trapped, he is rescued by a good Samaritan who refuses payment, an action of unselfishness that stands in stark contrast to Whiting's own selfish passivity. Finally, and probably most predictably, Whiting's mother dies just before he is scheduled to go visit her for the first time in weeks. In effect, Whiting repays his mother's years of neglect of him as a child with months of neglect for her as a dying adult.

But even the successive hammerblows of these events don't shake Whiting's self-absorbtion. In fact, at his own mother's funeral he is obsessed with the thought that Nikolai might show up. When Nikolai doesn't show up, Whiting feels slighted. But the curtain on Whiting's self-absorbtion comes crashing down - Nikolai doesn't show up because the circus is being moved to New Mexico and he had left to go to another circus in Spain. And this is why Whiting is being relieved of his duties with respect to the circus. In short, everything that Whiting was convinced was directed entirely at him turns out to have nothing to do with him. On the other hand, Nikolai proves himself to be a thoughtless ass by discarding Sarah without a second thought, and Whiting is self-centered enough to feel some happiness that her life is essentially ruined, but then croaks out some sympathetic words and starts thinking about forgiveness. After a couple hundred pages of acting like a misogynistic selfish teenager, Whiting begins to ask the people around him to forgive him, which is supposed to mark the beginning of his change. Maybe I'm not a forgiving person, but at this point everyone around him should have simply told him to jump in a lake and drown himself for the good of humanity.

Dancing with Gravity is a strong case study of a really quite (one might say irretrievably) flawed and selfish human being. Through most of the book one rides along looking over his shoulder as Whiting justifies his petty vindictiveness and self-centered behavior. For most of the book you keep hoping someone will punch him in the nose. By the end, you are hoping that someone will strangle him to death. And it is the end that just didn't work for me. After Nikolai's departure, Whiting is handed a poem from the trapeze artist that is supposed to change Whiting's perspective on life. But since his relationship with Nikolai comes off as being little more than the crush of an emotionally stunted misanthrope, one doesn't feel that the poem would have any real impact on Whiting. There is a brief epilogue where Whiting has gone to South America to help one of the performers who had been hiding from a corrupt banana republic government with the circus*, but this element was just not convincing as it came so abruptly after Whiting's "big change" that the reader doesn't have time to accept a changed Whiting before one shifts to him hiding under a bridge. But even though Whiting's transformation just doesn't seem convincing, it only takes up a handful of pages at the end of the book, which means that the bulk of the book is quite strong, although it is dominated by a very unappetizing character. Despite the unconvincing ending, Dancing with Gravity is a strong book that lets one see the inside of a horribly flawed human, and while one probably won't sympathize with him, one can at least try to understand how a person who is supposed to have devoted themselves to others could be so completely devoted only to himself.

*This character bothered me. Exactly how does someone expect to hide by performing in front of hundreds of people on a daily basis? And then when he thinks he has been discovered, he flees by returning to the oppressive state the circus helped him escape from. This character, Anjo, just seems to be too stupid to believe.

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