Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Phillip Hensher

Books: I am reading Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency, finally released in the United States this month. This book in a way strikes me as the quintessential American novel (only English), similar to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, the epic which failed as an Oprah book after Franzen made the mistake of saying on the radio something about not having written for Oprah fans. The Corrections (which I threw up on during an illness and then had to buy another copy of) focuses on two siblings from Kansas City, the brother a professor who is sued and fired after having an affair with a student (the girl calls her parents from a motel), and the sister a cook who, having escaped the midwest, turns lesbian. Hensher’s epic is a slower narrative and covers a much broader canvas, including minutiae about multiple characters from Sheffield, and focuses on two generations of families, straight, dull fathers, often discontented mothers, occasional drug dealers laundering money, and untraditional children who grow up to escape to London. (I’m only halfway through.) Both Franzen and Hensher shock with masturbation scenes: Franzen’s character masturbates on a couch (or perhaps it’s a leather jacket, I can’t remember), and one of Hensher’s characters actually DIES from masturbation. Please, no.

Hensher’s writing is lively and acerbic, his characters are realistic, and somehow we trust his analysis of the culture of the '70s and '80s: he has obviously observed and absorbed, understood and organized the confusing, jumbled elements of ordinary life. When the neurotic Katharine wants to have an affair, we understand why: her husband lives for re-creation's of the Civil War and gardening, while she dreams on a large scale and ends up outdoing him by working in a florist’s shop and even having sex with the florist (once).

It's a sociological novel: "All happy families are alike..,etc."

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