18 April 2012

Black or red, black or red

I braced myself to read this book but when it was over I wasn't as moved as I expected. Come along while I try to tease out why.

THE ODDS is a short novel taking place over a weekend in which Art and Marion, a middle-aged couple on the verge of losing their house, take a last vacation to Niagara Falls. They plan (I can't remember, but I believe it was Art's idea) to put all their savings on the roulette table and, with the potential proceeds, get started over in their lives after a probable bankruptcy. Marion also sees the trip as the last hurrah for their 30-year marriage, while Art is hoping a spree on credit cards they never planned to pay back will grant them temporary relief from their worry -- and their differences of opinion start there.

I saw O'Nan read and sit for an interview in late February right after THE ODDS came out and he read two passages, a funny one and a sad one. He detailed how he feels that he has to live with his characters while he's writing with them and misses then when he's finished a book, and that sense of knowing pervades THE ODDS -- the suggestion of infinite detail about characters who have a limited space to establish themselves. I could have read a much longer book about Art and Marion and I didn't feel like I "knew" them fully by the end of THE ODDS -- but that became problematic after I stepped back from the book to try and figure out why they made this gamble in the first place. There are a million ways to respond to such a crisis, but I still didn't understand why these characters would have picked this one -- unless O'Nan's point was that any one might have gone this route, a contention I dispute.

To begin with, despite the possible grandeur, it's not a very practical idea. This came up the other day when I was having a discussion about ALL WE EVER WANTED WAS EVERYTHING, another book in which a main character facing financial duress doesn't know how to deal with it, and a coworker chimed in that she hated reading about characters who couldn't help themselves. "It drives me crazy," she said. I don't share her vehemence but I see where she's coming from. On the other hand, not to get all deep, but life often puts us in such situations so it makes sense to have characters who, not knowing what to do, make bad choices.

Maybe I had expected Art and Marion to make different bad choices than the one they had made to come to Niagara Falls. Because I didn't understand that, the end of the book left me puzzled instead of giving me an emotional reaction. I still enjoyed THE ODDS, though it didn't give me that closure; I had been trying to get to an O'Nan book after being recommended to him by a friend.

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