Monday, December 1, 2008

Catherine O'Flynn/WHAT WAS LOST

In 1984, 10-year-old Kate Meaney, a loner without family or friends to speak of, opens a detective agency. Kate's hope is to identify, through hours of careful and boring observation, a crime somewhere in her everyday surroundings, solve the crime, and garner recognition from real adult detectives. Her "surveillance" takes her to Green Oaks, a new shopping complex a bus ride from her home in Birmingham, the industrial capital of the British Midlands, where she spends hours each day tracking the various suspicious characters who troll the mall. Twenty years later, in the same shopping center, two lonely, disaffected people--Kurt, a security guard, and Lisa, a manager at a music store--try to distill their lives and understand what is keeping them so miserably rooted to Green Oaks. It turns out they have one thing in common--Kate Meaney.

I ended up buying this book because I have picked it up at least 4 times in a bookstore, thought, "This looks interesting," and then left without it. I decided to bite the bullet on Saturday, and overall I'm glad I did.

This is a good, quick read. (I read the entire book in one sitting, and I'm not someone who can frequently pull that off.) While I found the rotating narrative a little irksome and occasionally boring--why this section? what does it have for me? etc--the story is extremely accessible. While the text isn't exactly a triumph of originality, Catherine O'Flynn's tirelessly (and, it seems, intentionally) pedestrian narrative captures and embodies the malaise that afflicts so many people. The story is full of people to whom life has happened--mediocre relationships, jobs they don't like or understand, misplaced or uncommunicative families. Their familiarity is almost uncomfortable, as is their ability to tolerate the intolerable people around them and to tolerate their own lives, which have few or no redeeming features. The book, in the end, is about the challenge of fighting our own unhappinesses, an easily digestible cautionary tale about being true to ourselves, wrapped around a mystery that turns out to be exactly as satisfying as it needs to to support the story.


Brian Keaney said...

A pretty accurate summing-up. But I think Catherine O'Flynn has real promise. I especially liked the occasional moments of extended observational humour - almostlike a stand up comedian. Here are a couple that made me smile.

'The estate was full of dogs - people bought them to make their lives easier but it didn't work out that way. All the dogs had psychological problems: hatred of children, hatred of bikes, hatred of paperboys, hatred of black kids, hatred of white kids, hatred of fast-moving objects; some hated the sky and barked and leapt at it all day. The happy thing for the dogs was that there was always another dog who shared their psychosis and who they could join in a gang.'

'Lisa had known many alarm clocks and she knew that they were not in this world to be liked. Alarm clocks knew the deal: a good day started with being told to fuck off, a bad day started with being hurled across the room and having your guts spilled all over the floor. She was amused by the futile attempts at self-preservation made by many alarm clocks: adopting the guise of beloved cartoon characters or a favourite football team - futile because even a sweet chld would rather crush Snoopy's head to a wiry pulp than endure that dreadful noise. Lisa had spent a lof of her life shopping for alarm clocks. She found that she got through alarm clocks and toothpaste at about the same rate.'

moonrat said...

Moments like those made the text feel very, very British to me--I think the "extended observational humor," as you put it so well, is a hallmark of a lotof British contemporary fiction that I've come across. It's funny (in both senses of the word) because it's not something American readers are quite accustomed to.

Interestingly, I remembered both passages you quoted really vividly, and they're both examples of the kind of paragraph that stood out as un-American because of the overstatement. (Another one I remember is the development of the naughtiest kid ever theme.) Isn't that funny? I actually thought about this THROUGHOUT the book.

moonrat said...

Oh, and I didn't mean to assert that "American" writing is better writing, simply that perhaps the book has a different ring for British and non-British readers.

Brian Keaney said...

I think American and British writing are often significantly different, in tone, scope and theme. Most of my favourite authors are American. (Perhaps that's a kind of exoticism)

Interestingly, when a book by a UK author gets published in the US it gets a significant re-edit to change words like 'petrol' to 'gas', 'moaning' to 'whining' etc. But when a US author is published in the UK no such re-edit takes place.

sandralambert said...

Let's see, I used to be a retail person, I'd just finished a chapter in the voice of a 7 year old when I read this novel, and, oh, my mother is from England which now, from these posts, I know is why I've always loved "extended observational humor." Need I say that I inhaled this book. The beginning, the child's part, is perfect.

Chris Eldin said...

I really like British humor, so I'm thinking I'm going to love this book.
Brian, thanks for those examples! They made me laugh out loud!