The Price of Paradise
At the surface level she narrates, in a series of discrete chronological scenes, the quotidian progress of an affair between a powerful music executive and a flight attendant who has take a week off to tryst with him "in paradise.” And indeed the book may be read entirely on that level. That said, from the opening image – where parrots printed on the hotel corridor’s wallpaper are accompanied by a soundtrack of bird chirps – we are cued to a strangeness, an out-of-the-body quality, that pervades the story. We may suspect the romance took place in the ‘70s, though one occasionally finds notes of more recent “globalization.” From the sureness of the telling –delivered in the female protagonist’s first person voice – one feels certain the relationship is over, though the how and why of its dissolution are not revealed. Nor are clues given as to the time elapsed since the events related, or the current circumstances of the narrator.
We should get married, he says, but I will never marry. But if I were to marry, you’d be the one.
These sentences, repeated twice, once in the middle of the text, and again at the very end, are clearly written, yet subtly leave open the question of who the “I” and “you” refer to. Particularly since the dialogue, sans quotation marks, is folded into the running text.
Likewise, one can only conjecture about the narrator’s motive for writing this slice of her biography, since there seems no urgent need on her part for catharsis, nor does the telling feel impelled by nostalgia for a different, or younger, or better time. All of which leaves the reader with a puzzle. Every piece fits, but despite a wealth of particular details, no depth of field emerges. Man and Woman, who, throughout the text remain unnamed, engage in a great deal of sex, purportedly passionate. But their couplings are not described. Absent almost completely is a sense of touch, with one vivid exception which I’ll discuss below. This means that we come to “know” the characters without connecting sensations or other referents.
I want to make clear that this is a strategy pursued with discipline and consistency, and so efficaciously that what does emerge from beneath the stylistic mask, and without so much as a hint of didacticism, is a struggle for power between two vastly unequal contenders. Man is cast as a wealthy gear-turner in Joni Mitchell’s “star maker machinery.” Woman works in a seemingly glamorous, but physically taxing and psychologically punishing job, for a barely-living wage. In order to be admitted into Man’s world, she must present as tasteful, sleek and attuned to the occasion. To pull off being such a class chameleon requires poise, circumspection, and mad skills as a bargain shopper. This book, without ever tipping its hand, narrates Woman’s collusion with and resistance to Man’s domination, but leaves open her personal motive for playing this game and her stake in its continuance.
Though referred to as a powerful figure in the music industry, Man is given traditionally effeminate qualities, for example, he eats lightly, mostly salads, forcing Woman to do the same despite her lumberjack’s appetite. Man is also subject to fits of pique when his whims are stymied in any way. He doesn’t drink alcohol, rather, at poolside, many small bottles of Perrier. His physical description consists of two attributes that run counter his yin personality: a long beard – which he occasionally strokes – and an impressive erection.
What we know of Woman comes through his generic appreciation of her body parts. He praises her legs, her ass, her breasts. Not, however her face. And Woman never describes herself, apart from a reference to contrasting tanned and pallid flesh. At this and at all other levels, the narrative is tightly controlled, nothing brims over into outright drama.
The closest we get to open conflict is when the couple ventures out on a shopping expedition to San Remo. There, they are accosted by a trio of thugs who threaten them with robbery and hurl anti-Semitic jibes at Man, who freezes, leaving Woman to drive them away.
Gripping his arm, we continue down the sidewalk. A few minutes go by before he speaks. That was really something, he says. What you did. It was very brave. He seems shaken by the incident.
Well I’m used to crazy people, I say. The planes are full of crazy people. You have no idea.
We walk on, I continue gripping his arm. I look straight ahead. I’m afraid to look at him. I don’t want to see fear.
She is afraid to see his fear. Are we witnessing a relationship between two individuals, or an enacted polarization within a single self? The power struggle between this dyad culminates in the scene immediately following when Woman expresses her wish to visit the actual beach rather than the hotel pool. Man accedes, seizing the opportunity to exert leverage by dressing her for the occasion. Woman pushes back:
Hold it, please. I would like to pick out my own bikini.
I want you in a white one.
Not white! White goes see-through when it gets wet.
You’ll be naked anyway, he says.
That again! I feel myself starting to tighten. I sit at the foot of the bed. Treat me like a whore, I say.
Later, at the sea, “the sun is directly overhead. Everything… looks Technicolor.” Indeed all seems brightly lit in this world. But little is seen that can be reliably confirmed, no more than is revealed on Camus’s fatal beach. Indeed in Monte Carlo… nobody dies, or is injured, except at the level of sensibility, as in the scene where several young women strip at the pool, driving a cohort of fat old men to a display of primate masculinity and scandalizing their wives. While not enacted directly against the body, aggression and a kind of compulsive, archetypally-driven madness underpin the telling. “Two of the wives get out of their chaises and approach the naked girls. Demanding they cover up. The French girls just arch their backs, laughing.”
Partly because it gestures toward but refuses to concretize itself in physical sensation, the language of this book implants itself in the mind, there to work on all the more powerfully on the imagination – to draw us into a paradise of no resolution. One could attempt, at scholarly length, to analyze how the author accomplishes this literary feat. Suffice it that once read, this tale, in all its paradox, becomes impossible to dislodge from one’s internal landscape.
\This essay first appeared in January 2018 in the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene blog: http://dougholder.blogspot.com