My New American Life by Francine Prose
Harper Perennial $24.99
A number of Francine Prose's novels and stories circle around the American Dream of self-invention/re-invention. So it is with this sharp, satirical, semi-satisfying new work.
Lula is from Albania, where she had nothing. Now she's in George Bush's USA, where she wants everything. First step is in the 'burbs of New Jersey, living "the life of an elderly person", looking after a teenager and his Wall St dad, whose wife has run off to re-define herself in "clean and white" Scandinavia.
Mr Stanley is a sympathetic boss, even more sympathetic when Lula begins embroidering her past. She tells and even writes stories of kidnapping, blood feuds, Nato bombings, suicide pacts. Her real-life biography is much more mundane - or is
until three sinister fellow countrymen arrive in a sinister SUV, with a sinister gun.
From then on, it's enigma, entanglement, an ending that will either have you laying the book on the table with a deep breath of admiration, or chucking it at the wall with a loud noise of irritation.
In some ways, My New American Life is a riff on the Henry James theme of worldly wise, world-weary European meeting idealistic, naive American and things inevitably ending in tears.
But James did it with meticulous prose and complex characters. Ms Prose's prose (sorry) is energetic and engaging, but her people are caricatures, cartoons, cliches. You feel sorry for Zeke and his ineffectual Dad, but you want to shake them. You feel a rueful respect for Lula, but you want to smack her.
The 26-going-on-62-year-old's viewpoint as an outsider gives the book edge and sting. Her lonely, compromised life gives it intermittent depth. In contrast to the morally floppy, intellectually flabby Americans, Lula never stops honing herself. She needs to: her days are twangy with fear.
Even in this safe new land, people vanish after men in black drop by. In her employer's battleship of a house, where a curved porch "bulges like a goitre", she's under siege.
The social anatomising which distinguishes Prose's other fiction occasionally glints here. Sharp, savage dialogue crackles along on the page. But the plot slows, jerks, wanders. Lula knows exactly where she's going, but her creator doesn't seem so sure. The final scenes are ... well, silly. You can read this novel as a metaphor of displacement and alienation, and you'd be right. You can see it as a promising idea that lost its way - and you'd be right again.
David Hill is a Taranaki writer.