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September 20, 2007 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | September 20, 2007 |

For your information, Miss High-and-Mighty, this is life. People have crises. They push each other’s buttons. They inflict pain on one another. And once in a fucking blue moon, they bring out the best in each other. But mostly, they bring out the worst.

My coworker once mentioned his chemotherapy treatment with a shrug: “I got a divorce and cancer in the same year. It sucked but at least my hair didn’t fall out.” Sometimes, in the middle of a shift, he’ll grimace in false pain, rub his arm gingerly and grin, “Cancer’s acting up today — must mean rain.” I appreciate his attitude because I’m never expected to muster a sympathetic look or say any kind of sorry. Instead, I bring him a coffee and ask how his tumor is coming along. “Have you thought about a pre-school for your tumor? It’s never too early to talk education!” It eases the burden of expressing emotions I may not actually have. Not that I want him to die or experience any pain but forcing concerned words out of my mouth as my face assumes some kind of wide-eyed worry seems like a practiced parody designed to make everyone but the patient feel better. Unless of course, that patient is already unconscious.

Matt Marinovich’s latest book Strange Skies is about cancer. Well, it’s about faking cancer to get sympathy and sex and … sympathy sex. A lot of sympathy sex. It’s also, in part, about how much easier it is to judge people from afar than it is to actually connect with them and participate in life. Before reading the book, I skimmed some Amazon customer reviews that called Marinovich’s main character, “loathsome” and “unrelatable” but in truth, he seemed pretty normal. I’m not sure what that says about me.

Paul, our despicable but probably pretty normal, main character, is a married New Yorker. He’s got a very pretty wife, a very decent job and a very intense fear of fatherhood that drives Strange Skies to satisfying heights of candid mediocrity. Paul’s dad jeebies are introduced when he visits his brother’s family:

I’ve always found it hard to have a normal conversation with my brother’s wife when she’s breastfeeding. In fact, I find it hard to have a normal conversation with Terry when she’s not breastfeeding. Add the breast to the picture, and that saliva-encrusted rug slug she calls her baby boy, and I just go blank … my eyes slip down to the baby, who glares at me greedily with his glittering blue eyes, his damp brown hair swept to one side, Hitler-style.

When a possibly cancerous lump pops up on Paul’s arm, he’s oddly hopeful that the little growth will allow him to coast through life on an obligatory wave of TLC and release him from pressures by his baby-craving wife, Lee, his clichéd coworkers and his cheesy family. When a doctor tells Paul the node is benign, the disappointment leads him into a liberating sexual encounter with an attractive terminal patient. In the crusty aftermath Paul decides to live his cancer lie to the fullest:

I’ve been trying to reach you,” she says. Lee’s angry, but it’s just a thin layer of anger. Under that centimeter of ice is worried love. “I left fifteen messages.”

“I had to take a walk,” I say. “I had to think.”

“What do you mean?” she says.

I don’t say anything for about thirty seconds. And this is the most difficult part, because Lee starts to sob on the other end. I have to restrain myself. I want to tell her I’m fine. I want to tell her I’m A-OK. A part of me does. The other part just listens to her weep.

Marionvich’s style of writing is so casual that it works in his protagonist’s favor but only to advertise Paul’s haughty charm and downer disconnect. The book also asks us to think about the type of people we are versus the type of people we pretend to be. I may not wander around claiming that I have cancer to score free stuff and assorted sexual favors, but I do spend an awful lot of time criticizing books, movies and other people. I’m not sure where the bravado comes from but I do know that it’s an easy pull. Like Paul, I am disdainful of innumerable things. Things like popular culture; Hilary Clinton’s wardrobe; celebrity deification and obsession; screechy, misguided feminists; right-wing politics; Nader; bandwagon liberals who spend more time complaining than thinking; trust-funders; bubble skirts; fans of Dave Matthew’s Band; prom hair; marriage; intense enthusiasm about … anything; family gatherings; frat boys who still pound and explode in absolute seriousness; Oprah; Christmas; advertising; Steven Spielberg; flip-flops; T.V.’s superman, Dean Cain; and side-parted emo ‘dos. Like Claire Fisher, I often find myself wishing that just once, people wouldn’t act like the clichés that they are.

So by the time Paul’s wife realizes he’s a total philandering prick and leaves him, I had become disgusted with myself for connecting to the one person in the book who’d given up. I mean, he is the main character, so we’re supposed to at least pay attention to him, but the selfish part, the part where I felt only empathy towards Paul instead of recognizing him as the scum of the earth like a rational, right-thinking Amazon customer, was pretty depressing.

Eventually Paul does reluctantly collide with a real emotional dilemma when he becomes an accidental fixture in the life of a single mom and her leukemia-stricken son. Paul sizes the kid up as a fellow liar who uses his bald head and small stature to get what he wants. Inevitably though, Paul is dosed with the severe reality of sickness and begins to understand that not only is he as needy as the rest of humanity, but that he’s guaranteed himself a room at the Heartbreak Hotel by editing himself into a lonely, unlined corner. Unfortunately for both Paul and his readers, these life lessons are learned a beat too late.

Strange Skies made me feel like a Georgia Lass hunkered down with a battered copy of The Loner’s Manifesto after downing 15 cups of coffee at Der Waffle House. Or the physical embodiment of a Seymour Glass haiku. Marinovich’s book is a funny, well-written attempt, but because his characters have been crafted under the assumption that emotion is overrated, they seem like half-hearted props that exist only to chide Paul for being such a jerk. I feel Marinovich’s pain, though. Why spend time developing characters that provide only a brief glimpse of a full, messy life that Paul so despises? In fact, why write about them at all? There is a hot, rebellious quality to Strange Skies that is appealing until the sad, cold truth of the main character’s arrogance is revealed. He is not set apart from humanity because he chooses to be or sees some hidden, complex truth, he is disconnected because he is a coward.

Constance Howes is a book critic for Pajiba and a graphic designer living in Philadelphia. Her hobbies include making out and messing shit up. In short, she’s a firecracker. She blogs over at I Love You in the Face.

People Are Not Snowflakes

Strange Skies by Matt Marinovich / Constance Howes

Books | September 20, 2007 |

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