Shiterature vol.2 – ‘The Light We Lost’ by Jill Santopolo

Pre-Drinks

Howdy. Have a palette de-cleanser: prep for a head-first plunge into some truly excruciating excrement.

Brief plot background: Lucy is a wildly successful TV producer for children’s television. The love of her life is a wildly successful photo-journalist reporting from the Middle East. But his work took him away, so she’s married to a wildly successful investment banker instead. Here she is, holidaying on a luxury beach with a glass of Chardonnay in hand:

Exhibit A. ‘The man across from me was holding a copy of the New York Times. The article facing me said: More bodies pulled from hotel rubble in Pakistan. My mind went straight to you.’

Exhibit B.  (later, when Lucy visits war-torn Israel) ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before. The women, the children. I just keep thinking about you.’ 

Here is The Light We Lost in microcosm, ladies and gents. A novel unafraid and unabashed in its use of real-life massacre, disaster and terrorist attacks in vain search for emotional weight. Its two main characters care little for the innocent dead or suffering of those left alive: as long as their own conscience is satiated. The book is a head-in-the-clouds romance, relayed in unstintingly simple sentences, that uses national tragedies from across the globe as window dressing for one of the most stereotypical love stories committed to print this year.

The Meat

The main conceit is fairly sickening – deep breath. Lucy and her star-cross’d lover meet in New York, on 9/11. As their classmates rush to help those in the towers (giving blood, aiding firemen), they sneak off to a rooftop for a better view of the atrocious skyline-spectacle. And I Shit You Not – proceed to make-out in front of it. This is supposed to be romantic, and not a sign of pathological non-empathy.

A few pages later, and Santopolo treads dangerously close to terrorist attack erotica, when the couple recap their emotional rollercoaster of a day. They conclude that their kissing ‘felt completely right and absolutely wrong at the same time’ – a stone’s throw away from the taboo touchstone ‘it felt so wrong, but so right.’ Pretty shameless.

From now on, the image of 9/11 is wheeled out like a putrid pantomime horse –Santopolo expecting us to wipe away a tear each time and say ‘yes, how sad’ – whenever the plot demands it. Or even when it doesn’t. But it is paramount we remember 9/11, because of its importance to this couple’s relationship. See, they wouldn’t have forged such an instant connection without the steamy aura of collective trauma!

 ‘Thank you for making this day about something more.’
— Lucy on 9/11

Isn’t that just hunky-dory, ho!-what-a-wonderful-world spectacular.

Now, her bae is deeply affected by this harrowing experience. He goes by the name of Gabriel Samson, by the way, a name so Biblical it unites the Old and New Testaments. His flowing gold locks and photographer’s eye-for-Beauty are sure to hit the Bible Belt right in the ovaries with a Hemsworth-ian Thor Hammer.

Gabe proceeds to dive into mainstream-news’ most covered conflicts, in helpfully non-descript and mysterious fashion. This saves us having Santopolo ever explain, or begin to acknowledge, why these atrocities and conflicts are happening. Also, conveniently, we never have to hear the story specifics of the thousands dead, the millions effected, or the multitudes still at risk.

Instead, thankfully, we get to hear about Lucy. About her agonising over which outfits to wear. You’d think we were her personal fashion consultant given the amount of detail she provides. It’s important we know, for example, that accompanying her main Halloween outfit, she sports ‘silver ballet flats’ – oh, and she also ‘match[es] the lipstick to the fabric marker, so it was bright red.’ Thank God we have these humanising details to make her feel like a real person.

Because we don’t get them from her superlative stereotyping of all close relationships. Her eventual husband proposes to her in Paris, in front of the Eiffel Tower no less. There’s a scene where she tries on shit-tons of dresses in Bloomingdales while Gabe watches on, embodying the Hollywood montage reaction-man like he was born to do. You can just picture him now, incessantly twanging his curled bangs away from his eyes like porcine-paralleled corkscrew cocks.

In ignoring the heart of its namechecked conflicts, The Light We Lost opts instead to explore the personal tragedies of the privileged. A lot of these centre around ‘dreams’ and their perpetual non-fulfilment. So what follows is a struggle of two people finding it hard to be requisitely selfish and still make a relationship work. They console each other, that it’s alright to be self-obsessed: ‘You work harder than anyone,’ Lucy reassures Gabe. Though perhaps not harder than the firefighters you supposedly mourn, or the soldiers who you photograph for platitudinal, developed-world, exhibitory reasons.

The central question here becomes – can you have everything? Can we get a bigger house? Can I carry out an affair and still reap the financial rewards of my husband, the least testosterone-fuelled investment banker on the face of the planet? Can I visit every cool Manhattan haunt with my high-flying friends? Can I namecheck Laura Ashley, Bloomingdales and Manolo Blahniks for doubtlessly lucrative endorsements (maybe a novelist’s prerogative sneaking in there)? Can I expunge my creeping sense of guilt with surface-deep observations on global tragedies? Can I pass on these toxic foibles to another generation of sheltered, white, privileged pseudo-philanthropists? Most importantly – can I leech more happiness from luxury? More happiness? Please? Oh, please, just let me get happier!

Revolting.

What You Should Be Reading

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

For an actual investigation into collective trauma, and its coagulation around that most photographed of international incidents, try DeLillo’s short and comparably sweet novella. It’s not his best work, but does a good job of haunting the immediate period post-plane crash with the authorial sensitivity of Dickens’ ghost. Here is what heartfelt retrospective should look like: shaped around human characters, drawn from real experience and extensive research.

You can read a section here.

Named and Shamed

Praise from today’s so-called ‘critics’

‘A heart-wrenching love story… impossible for the reader to put the damned book down!’ Irish Independent

‘An epic love story.’ Prima Magazine

‘Your new tearjerker has arrived: Fans of Me Before You and One Day will love/weep over this elegant novel.’ New York Post

Shiterature vol.1 – ‘Sometimes I Lie’ by Alice Feeney

Tricky thing, unreliable narrators. In the right hands, they can keep readers guessing in Dick-Dastardly clever fashion, making us feel like the sole source left to decipher the plot’s meaning. When abused though, they can feel like a cheat. An excuse for authorial inconsistencies (it was my unreliable narrator, don’t blame me!), and a major risk of making large story sections feel pointless at the end. Which is what Sometimes I Lie achieves effortlessly.

Now, the last third of the book is the best bit. Those years Alice Feeney spent at Faber Academy clearly taught her the clockwork mechanics of a plot that fits together in snappy, tautly tessellated fashion. But it makes the first two thirds a waste of time. Especially when they weren’t that good to begin with.

After a poor-man’s-Proustian opening where our narrator, Amber, opines on the state between sleep and waking reality, we dive into a world of maudlin melodrama and cardboard characters.

People who say things like:

‘Life is more terrifying than death in my experience’.  
(tell me more about your experience of being dead)

‘Her mouth contorts so it looks like she’s unwrapping toffees with her arse’
(for when your nonsensical scenario needs a clunky phrase)

‘We’re all made of flesh and stars, but we all become dust in the end. Best to shine while you can.’
(coming to a fridge magnet near you)

 

Amber’s life is really hard, you see. She’s in a coma for a start. Which means we’re firmly inside her head for the duration. Oh joys. How did she get there? Well, no spoilers here (no sir), but it’s safe to say events spiral erratically out of control when she picks a fight with her radio producer Madeline. Her job in Bridget Jones-level make-believe-media-world was in jeopardy at the time, so it’s thinly excusable.

And Madeline is a real bitch. She does things like ask for her favourite mug, then when informed it’s in the dishwasher, whips round to spit in moustache-twirling spite: ‘Then wash it. By hand.’ She is a monster.

How do we know Amber leads a tragic life? Maybe it’s because the motley-crew-cast of her life seem intent on entering and exiting any room she’s in at breakneck pace. Her sister will come round for a chat one minute, receive a slightly awkward glance from Amber, then shoot off again. Same thing with her husband. Their hobby is going in and out of rooms, which is a shame, because Amber isn’t a fan. She’ll lament their coming and going, then lament her tragic life.

We can’t forget she leads a tragic life because she moans about it. All the fucking time. She’ll constantly set up what she wants to do, then tack on ‘but I can’t’ / ‘but it won’t / ‘so I don’t’. She has bouts of OCD that flare up at pivotal plot moments[1]. I lost track of the amount of times she tells us ‘I hate myself’ in one form or another…

Exhibit A. ‘A lot of people would think I have a dream job, but nightmares are dreams too.’

Exhibit B. ‘I hate this body almost as much as I hate myself…it didn’t give him what he wanted’

Amber’s version of tragedy is not being able to tell her husband about her pregnancy because, oh horror of horrors, he’s whisking her away on his worldwide book tour! But you can bet she’ll agonise over it for a good few pages, and we’ll be there to lend a fraying ear.

See, when you reach too much for melodrama, milking the blackest bits of human experience, it desensitises us to them. Amber will find herself in a tough spot, then say ‘but then it got so much worse’ or ‘I don’t deserve anyone’s pity, not even my own’. Feeney maxes out our tragedy-meter early on. These maudlin characters have supposedly shit lives, we get it.

The twisty-turny last third, which critics have creamed themselves over, is the best bit no doubt. But it’s marred by what feels like betrayal. Summed up by Amber’s wandering mind here:

‘I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation, but the voices in my head are less optimistic.’

Now that’s an above-average line. But it isolates us as readers. There are other voices in your head? I thought we were the only voice in your head? How long have you been hearing other voices? It feels like we’ve been neglected, kept in the dark so that her final flourish will have the required out-of-nowhere punch.

I won’t say too much about the ending, other than that it leaves us without many ‘normal’ characters. The majority are self-hating-psychos-cum-malevolent-addicts. Not the people you really want to spend 400 pages with, I’m afraid.

 

What You Should Be Reading

Marcel Proust. Remembrance of Things Past

Proust’s masterwork starts with a similarly Feeney-ian thought about the ‘freefall between sleep and wakefulness’. And that’s about as far as the comparison goes. Follow Proust’s staggeringly superior opening with an epic essay on memory, love, home, time, and childhood. Don’t be put off by the size: it’s split into separate books so treat them as such. Swann’s Way comes first. Read it to find beauty in everything from the minutia of social interaction, to thoughts snatched from throes of deepest childhood, to long and ambling walks in French woods. Not much happens plot wise but it’s choc-full of lines perfectly preserved from mindful inner monologue to bodily page (with a hint of Proustian razzle-dazzle of course).

 

Named and Shamed

Mislaid praise from ‘critics’ today

‘Sometimes I Lie is a rare book, combing helter skelter twists with razor sharp sentences’
– Dan Dalton, Buzzfeed

‘Satisfyingly serpentine, and with a terrific double twist in the tale, it leaves you longing for more.’
– Geoffrey Wansell, Daily Mail

‘Intriguing, original and addictive, I can’t wait to see what the author does after this blinding debut.’
– [unknown, presumably Claire Frost], The Sun

 

 

[1] And precious few other times… gotta hate that narratively-timed OCD