Ah, the holiday season… Time to gather with family and surround oneself with warm, comforting memories.
Or, more realistically, subdue rising anxieties about the perfect meal, dodging insults about your housekeeping abilities, the way you are bringing up the kids, avoiding this year’s taboo topic, and desperately hoping your gift will meet with a less-whithering gaze this year. It’s when we set aside our normal, (mostly) functioning lives to invite dysfunction in for a couple of days. Now, it’s not all that bad, really, but everyone has had some sort of awkward dinner to attend, perhaps at the new girlfriend’s parents’ house. From the outside observer, it makes for some hilarious schadenfreude.
For this narrator, he remembers his friend and colleague Oliver Vice as an aloof, strangely wealthy philosopher type. After Oliver’s disappearance over the rails of the Queen Mary 2, the reminiscences attempt to piece together an enigmatic character. Oliver is at one fearless and shy, dapper and stunted.
The Vices reads like a prose version of an Edward Albee play. In fact, more than one scene could be out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? However, I must disagree with some of the “advance praise” quotes. While I found the book very engaging and was anxious to keep reading it, I did not find it terribly funny. It’s not “widely comic” nor does it imbue a “bright sense of humor.” I say this not as a slight on the book; it’s very well-written. I just wish to dispel any expectation of chuckles along the way for any future reader. I think I would have enjoyed it all the more had I not been expecting it to get funny.
Any humor that is to be gleaned from its pages comes from the most uncomfortable awkwardness of the characters. The Vice Family Christmas Dinner is not something I would want to attend. It was so vividly drawn I found myself wincing for their transgressions.
Additionally, the Vices’ backstory, which is woven into the narrator’s search for the family’s true identity, is quite interesting. So much identity was lost — deliberately and accidentally — during great migrations of people in the 20th century. Unfortunately, this trail is not fully-formed by the author and the final pages of the book peter out.
Imperfect though I found it, it makes for an enjoyable read. Book clubs should consider it as a choice for their readers. There is plenty to be pondered and discussed.
Many, many thanks to OTHER PRESS for the review copy.
Format: Trade Paperback, 352 pages
On Sale: August 16, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59051-415-3 (1-59051-415-7)