Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Woman in the Dunes

My office has summer Fridays, which means I get out at 1:00 every Friday between Memorial Day and Labor Day. And every Friday this year I've made plans about the things I'm going to do with my free time: I'm going to go see the High Line, I'm going to wash my windows, I'm going to find a father's day gift . . . but every Friday I've gone home and taken a long nap. This week I'm blaming The Woman in the Dunes for that. Seriously, even the cover makes me feel like sleeping.

The story here is that an amateur entomologist spends the day at a beach looking for some kind of beetle, only to have the residents of a nearby village entrap him in a pit. There he is to help a woman shovel away the ever-encroaching sand that threatens to destroy her home. He plots various ways to escape--sometimes rather hysterically--only to pass up an opportunity at the end of the book. This is no surprise to the reader, not only because he seems like a fairly incompetent person but also because we were told at the beginning of the book that he was declared dead after being missing for seven years.

For me, the book was mostly a reminder of just how much I dislike novels where symbolism and allegory take precedence over character (and how little I enjoy existentialism in novels). Here we are, the people in the sand pit, endlessly shoveling away a la Sisyphus. Oh, the meaningless of life. The way the daily grind wears down any desire we have for freedom or joy. Blah fucking blah.

I'm being dismissive though, of a novel that doesn't deserve such treatment. It's not a bad book, just not to my taste. Abe is an evocative and stylish writer and the plot is neatly constructed and spare. The sand, pervasive, unrelenting, corrosive, becomes a character. After his first night in the sand pit that is to be his home, our protagonist wakes coated by sand:
Quickly he jumped up. The sand that had accumulated on his face, head, and chest fell away with a rustling sound. Around his nose and lips sand was encrusted, hardened by perspiration. He scraped it off with the back of his hand and cautiously blinked his eyes. Tears welled up uncontrollably under his gritty, feverish eyelids. But the tears alone were not enough to wash away the sand that had become lodged in the moist corners of his eyes.
[. . .]
The whole surface of [the woman's] body was covered with a coat of fine sand, which hid the details and brought out the feminine lines; she seemed a statue gilded with sand. Suddenly a viscid saliva rose from under his tongue. But he could not possibly swallow it. Were he to swallow the sand that had lodged between his lips and teeth would spread through his mouth. He turned toward the earthen floor and spat. Yet no matter how much he ejected he could not get rid of the gritty taste. No matter how he emptied his mouth the sand was still there. More sand seemed to issue constantly from between his teeth.
The combination of the unpleasant nature of the sand and its inescapability is unpleasantly vivid. After all, most things become nearly unbearable when constantly present but anyone who has ever been to the beach knows how badly you want to wash the sand off after leaving. Reading the book I felt itchy and grit-covered myself. And any desire to go to the beach in the near future? Gone. (Convenient given the shit weather we've been having here in New York of late.) For me though, the quality of the writing wasn't enough to make up for the fact that I just didn't care about the characters or what happened to them.

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