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Another fine mess

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A Day at the Beach

A Day at the Beach - Helen Schulman You pick up your fifty-seventh detective novel and you're likely to assess it with more-experienced, less-forgiving eyes; for better or worse, that author, that book, bears the burden of a familiarity which, however keen its particular attentions, may make its vision duller.

I didn't come to this jaded as much as relatively far-read in the genre, and Schulman is admittedly a keen observer of the way people treat one another, particularly the small pitched battles of a long-term relationship built on unequal grounds. The central couple's hardships (and affections) seem recognizable and generously imagined--neither is mere villain--and Schulman is particularly good at shifting back and forth from each character's perspective. (She writes with a Jamesian, third-person acuity, focusing sections of the novel around one character's limited sensibilities, while also subtly limning those limits.)

But why is this set on 9/11? I've admittedly read a large number of the novels which have emerged from American writers since that date, particularly attending to the novels which try to narrate the day itself. And so much of what Schulman does is found in so many of what others have written:

--privileged New Yorkers whose privilege is underscored and critiqued by that all-knowing narrator, who learn a little bit about such "privilege" as a result of others' deaths and the sudden violent intrusion of geopolitics into their lives.

--the "day America changed" is context for the transformation of characters, hopefully toward some greater self-awareness which will persist past 9/12. (SPOILER: Schulman's novel does end with a nice bit of ambiguity, the couple perhaps reconciling, perhaps forever split--I like that she doesn't lay it out.) You could say that politics is personal, but I get the feeling that the latter tends to drown the former in the bathos.

--some element (substantive or narrative-sidebar) of meta-representational play--what is the role of art and representation, in this "new world order"? (Schulman intriguingly sidesteps narrative and prose--the most common element of many 9/11 fictions--and brings in dance and photography and painting. DeLillo was more interesting on these points, however.)

I can say that the reading of this novel was relatively pleasurable, and if you are just picking up one novel--well, I preferred it to Messud's much longer, very similar, and highly acclaimed _Emperor's Children_, and Schulman's far, far, far smarter than McInerney. And I might give Lynne Sharon Schwartz and Don DeLillo a nod only because I read them first. But as 9/11 novels go, no one's laid a hand on Ken Kalfus, far as I'm concerned, and those avoiding some of the generic conventions above (Benjamin Kunkel, Mohsin Hamid, Jess Walter, Robert Baer) stand out for reframing the event, testing my own now-trained vision of that day. Lev Grossman has a great piece in Ulrich Baer's collection _110 Stories_, called "Pitching 9/11," which in 9 (I think it was 9) short scenarios seems to slam many of our tried-and-truistic generic plots, revealing the paucity of imagination which may encumber our attempts to really make sense of 9/11 in the broadest, most substantive historical and political sense. I wish more writers tackling the subject would be that skeptical of our narrative impulses.