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J C E Hitchcock
- Publié sur Amazon.com
Like Alison Lurie's first novel, "Love and Friendship", her second deals with marital disharmony among members of America's academic community. Whereas the earlier book, however, was set in a wintry New England, "The Nowhere City" takes place in sunny California. Paul Cattleman, a young university historian, accepts a job with a big corporation based in Los Angeles to write the company's history.
One of the major themes of the book is cultural differences between America's East and West coasts. Paul and his wife Katherine are both Easterners, she from an upper-class New England family. At first they react to their change of scene in very different ways. Paul loves Los Angeles for its sunny climate and its relaxed lifestyle. Katherine, on the other hand, hates the city. This is partly because the atmospheric pollution aggravates her allergies, but mostly because she regards it as a cultural wasteland, the "nowhere city" of the book's title. Los Angeles, to her, appears to have no sense of history, to be a place living in "an eternal dizzying present", where the differences between the seasons, and even between day and night, are less distinct than they are in the north-east.
The differences between the couple create tensions within their marriage. Paul begins an affair with a young waitress named Ceci and gets drawn into her circle of unconventional friends living in Venice Beach, at that time a centre for the beatnik community. (The book is set in the early sixties). This leads into another theme of the book, the way in which California became for Americans in the second half of the twentieth century what America in general had been for Europeans of earlier generations- a frontier, a place of refuge for those dissatisfied for one reason or another with life at home and seeking a better life elsewhere. The Los Angeles area was therefore a natural magnet for the beatnik and hippie movements. (This idea of California as "The Last Resort" was also to be the theme of the Eagles' song of that name; it is interesting that Lurie later borrowed the title for one of her own novels, although that book is set in Florida rather than California).
Katherine, seeking something with which to occupy herself, finds work as a secretary at the University of California, where she too begins an affair with her boss, an academic psychiatrist who is the estranged husband of a glamorous Hollywood starlet named Glory Green. This leads to a complex emotional entanglement. Paul's affair with Ceci comes to an end; she knows full well that he is married, but cannot accept the idea that he is still having sexual relations with his wife. Paul is then seduced by Glory, who is seeking revenge against her husband. Eventually, Paul finds himself falling out of love with the California lifestyle, especially after the company refuse to publish his history which shows them in too harsh a light, and decides to move back East to take up a teaching job at a prestigious New England college, a decision which provokes the ironic role-reversal of the book's ending.
I can't agree with the earlier reviewer who said that you begin the book hating Katherine and sympathizing with Paul. My sympathies were with Katherine throughout. Paul is a selfish character who has always put his own needs before those of his wife; he bullies her into moving to California, and Ceci is by no means his first extra-marital affair. It seemed to me that the book was written from a subtly feminist viewpoint and can be interpreted as the story of how Katherine learns to stand up to, and say no to, her self-centred husband.
As is normal in Lurie's work, the tone of the book, despite some serious themes, is relatively light, with plenty of satirical humour aimed at the characters' pretensions. The big Nutting Corporation like the social kudos of having a Harvard-educated historian of their payroll, but do not like it when he tells them some truths they do not want to hear. Dr Einsam the psychiatrist is so busy analysing life that he is unable to experience it. Glory and the film industry types who surround her are shown up as shallow, vain and insincere. (The satire on the Hollywood of the sixties reminded me of that in Joan Didion's "Play it as it Lays", although that book is darker and more serious in tone). The beatniks are childish, and more economically dependent than they like to think on the "square" society they despise. Although they see that society as intolerant and narrow-minded, the same could be said for their own system of values with its "them and us" mentality.
At times I found some of this satire to be somewhat unfair. The beatnik and hippie movements may have had their hypocritical side, but at least their unconventionality and idealism did force Middle America to ask itself some difficult questions it might have preferred to avoid. And are there really no unpretentious or sincere people working in the entertainment industry? Nevertheless, the satirist's role is not to be fair-minded; satire that strains to see both sides of every question and nails its colours firmly to the fence is hardly worthy of the name. The theme of cultural differences between East Coast and West Coast America was perhaps less interesting to me, as an Englishman, than it would have been to an American readership. (It has always struck me, anyway, that the two coasts have more in common with each other than either does with America's interior heartland). Although this is not my favourite Alison Lurie book (I prefer some of her later books such as "Real People" and "The Truth about Lorin Jones" which have a greater depth and insight), "The Nowhere City" is certainly an enjoyable read