A Sparkling String of Perils
The amazingly prolific and astonishingly sophisticated James Hamilton-Paterson has given us another novel, as offbeat and unexpected as any of the rest. He's a man of unabashed contradictions: someone who's lived all over the world, written about Ferdinand Marcos and Egyptian mummies, yet scorns travel and travel writers in a piece he recently wrote for Granta magazine. He's written the highly regarded "Griefwork," but now gives us a comedy -- second in a series about Gerald Samper, a feckless ghostwriter. (The first was "Cooking With Fernet Branca.") Gerald is 40, or so he maintains, and makes his living writing "autobiographies" of sports heroes. He doesn't like sports heroes, but he loves his life, and that's what he wants to tell us about. Whether or not this is a comedy (as the jacket publicity blandly assures us) remains to be seen.
Gerald lives in an ancient peasants' stone cottage high in the Tuscan hills with a breathtaking view that extends all the way to the Mediterranean. He's a loner -- shy, gay and good-natured. He used to have trouble with Marta, his Eastern European spinster neighbor, who tormented him with her piano playing, even as he tortured her with awful renditions of his favorite arias. She's mysteriously disappeared, and he's worried about her. A woman whose life story he's currently ghostwriting also is driving him to distraction.
Millie Cleat is an extremely unpleasant, leathery little woman in her 50s who early on had an arm bitten off by a shark. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, she's kindled the affections of an Australian billionaire who's built a very high-tech boat so that she can sail around the world one-armed. She attracts the crazed attention of the media, manages to break a round-the-world record and messes up some very serious oceanographic experiments in the process. Distinguished oceanographers have learned to loathe her. Millie is impervious. She takes to thinking of herself as a mysterious queen of the sea: She purchases, as an accessory, a transparent hollow arm that fish can swim around in. If all that weren't bad enough, there's no end to her pontificating.
Meanwhile, Gerald has purchased some pills off the Internet to enlarge his genitalia, and much to his alarm, the pills work. There's not much more to be said about that in a family newspaper, but for him it becomes a growing concern.
Most of his days are spent in harmless-enough pastimes. He loves to cook and whips up dubious-seeming delicacies like "Death Roe," which includes cod roe, squid ink, eggplant and black currants. Another dish: Eels Flottantes, which, besides the eels, features rhubarb, okra, nutmeg and (as an optional extra) lime juice. The only creation he will admit as having been fully inedible was an unfortunate cuckoo sorbet, which he served to his father and wicked stepmother. He's more than fond of dishing up a p?te of dog, which his friends, without knowing the ingredients, profess to admire.
Gerald's life is filled with mild mishap. At a family dinner in the home of a world-famous conductor whom he admires greatly, he uses a toilet that hasn't been hooked up yet. And, in a fit of neighborly generosity, he decides to change his missing neighbor's locks. It turns out -- probably because he drinks prosecco, Italy's insouciant answer to champagne, as if it were water -- to be a disaster you can see coming a mile away. What else? He delights in couching insults to his landlord in the most baroque Italian he can muster, and his landlord takes equal delight in this poisonous exchange.
Plot? Structure? Internal conflict? Hamilton-Paterson takes a don't-ask, don't-tell position on all of these. I looked pretty hard and couldn't find any. "ODTAA" is what they used to call this genre in graduate school -- "One Damn Thing After Another." But I suppose that's what the author is getting at in this novel, which may or may not be a comedy when you stop to think about it. We drift through our lives, supremely deluded. Does Gerald really think his cooking is wonderful? And what about his god-awful singing that brings strangers screeching from their homes, imploring him to stop? We tell lies to ourselves all the time just to get through the day; we embark on pointless enterprises -- sometimes just to stir up trouble, to keep us from dying of boredom.
Some things seem changeless -- like Gerald's old peasants' cottage. God knows he's lavished enough time and trouble on it. But maybe it's only the view that can be counted on, the refreshing chill of prosecco, a dinner party with friends well met. Maybe, as Peggy Lee would say, that's all there is.
Gerald develops a mild crush on a nice oceanographer who happens to be a brother-in-law to that conductor he admires so much. He keeps up a competitive, rather petty friendship with a gay guy who has some questionable habits. He gets to know the leader of a boy band who's turning 30 and going bald. The one-armed lady sailor keeps driving him batty, as do her dippy New Age eco-followers, who dimwittedly go about trying to save the planet. It's same old, same old for Gerald. He's had more than enough heartbreak in his life, though he addresses all that in throwaway phrases and half-sentences.
Who should read this book? If you're filled with lofty ideals and ambition and a strong sense of right and wrong, "Amazing Disgrace" will probably offend you. If you're far enough along in life (and I don't mean old!) that 99 percent of the human condition seems like God's Own Little Joke, pick this up for some well-earned consolation.
By Carolyn See