Monday, June 29, 2009

Uncharted Places

What do you read after Nora Johnson's The World of Henry Orient? I like to binge-read authors, so I riffled through the shelves for her Uncharted Places, which I bought at a book sale a few years ago. What a peculiar book this is!  The Nora Johnson of 1988 is completely different from the Johnson of 1958. Part literary novel, part beach book, Uncharted Places is a fascinating mess, unrealistic and uneven, yet compelling and entertaining. At first I thought I was reading a comic masterpiece about marriage by an American Penelope Mortimer, with just a hint of Sue Kauffman and Lisa Alther thrown in. But then the whole thing goes Erica Jong on me - eroticism and Haitian voodoo - it falls completely apart, but I couldn’t stop reading - and then the narrative adheres again - ironic and satiric, literary and fast-paced.

When I told my husband the incredible plot, he said, “Where do you get this shit?”

Well, but it’s fun.

It starts in medias res on a tropical island, where Dinah and Willy have fled from New York to survive the demise of Willy’s medical career and his nervous breakdown. It’s hot and flamboyant and gorgeous, but they’re unhappy in their idyll, burdened by too much leisure, surrounded by other expat failures they don’t want to know.

Dinah muses:

"I hate it when Willy lies, even when it’s for my benefit. He’d like me to think he’s happier here than he was before in his high-powered life. But I know him too well. He thrived on the work, the breakneck pace of hospital life, the bizarre complexities of the medical establishment. Nothing put him in better spirits than another intramural shake-up; never was he better than with a group of dewy-eyed residents. In situations that would wilt other men, Willy grew more alive, more potent, brave and cheerful. Power made him magnificent."

The early chapters are alternately narrated by Dinah and Willy - eventually it’s more Dinah. We return to the beginning of their relationship in the 70s. Dinah surfaces in New York, an amnesiac who remembers nothing about her earlier life, a waif with bruises and cuts, assessed by the police as an abused wife. The doctors at the hospital decide she’s not crazy and release her into the world with no survival skills. At first Dinah is pressured to room with her doctor’s mistress, Chrissie, so she can provide a “cover” when Chrissie’s parents call (she says Chrissie is at Bloomingdales). Later, so lonely that she is a walking victim, Dinah is seduced and virtually imprisoned by white-haired Sally, a scheming, insane, successful lesbian writer of sensational non-fiction, who is determined to make her fortune through a book about Dinah’s amnesia and recovery. (One of Sally’s masterpieces is a book about the Kennedy women murdering Marilyn Monroe.) With a $50,000 book advance, Sally is furious that Dinah recovers no memories, and forces her to go to the police station to read the crazy responses sent therein to an AP article about Dinah. Sally finds Dinah's interviews with sad people and nuts searching for their relatives funny; Dinah finds them poignant. Eventually, the disgusted Dinah runs away, threatened by Sally at gunpoint. Later in the book, when they are reunited for a short time, Sally chases her naked through a motel with a knife, infuriated that another book has been published on an amnesiac and she has to return the advance. Actually these scenes are so horrific they’re funny (and are intended to be).

Then marriage: Willy, an alpha doctor/world-famous hand surgeon, adores Dinah because she has no memories and “no baggage.” She becomes the perfect housewife and stepmother of his two children and mother of a son: he believes no other man in the ball-busting ‘70s has such a dutiful wife. But Dinah is more original and free than he thinks: she becomes friends with his ex-wife, Liz, who briefly went insane during the marriage, and reunites Liz with her kids; she inspires Liz to start a business, Finders-Keepers, which brings together people who have lost each other, others who are seeking substitute mothers, brothers, sisters, and ready-made friends. Dinah’s ex-husband shows up at Finders Keepers. Needless to say, Willy can’t handle any of this. And when Dinah and Liz becomes involved in voodoo ceremony with Dinah’s Haitian housekeeper, they are arrested, and the papers have a field day with the story of two wives of a doctor in voodoo.

So you see why it sounds crazy.

I enjoyed it. I hope I can find something good by Nora Johnson. There’s very little about her online: if anyone can recommend any of her other books, I’d appreciate it.

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