Burning Down the House/Jane Mendelsohn: Reflections

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Long before the current unkempt presidential election season was set into play, the novelist Jane Mendelsohn (I Was Amelia Earhart) was embarked on her fourth novel, the story of a New York City family whose wealth is the product of intense (even monstrous) real estate dealing.

The family patriarch is Steve Zane. His "... office towers, malls, skyscrapers, housing developments, business contacts, political connections" have yielded tremendous, soul-darkening privilege. They have set decay—often violent decay—into motion, against the backdrop of sizable luxury.

Everything is in jeopardy in Burning Down the House (Alfred A. Knopf, March 31, 2016). The scheming son has had it with the father. The adopted child is self destructing. The Eastern European nanny who has emerged from a terrifying kidnapping and years as a sex slave is asked to revisit the terrors of her past. People are disposable. And when Zane—now older, now reflective, now negotiating the tenderness of unexpected affection—seeks at last to draw a moral line, it may (or may not) be too late.

Fearlessly deploying past and present tenses, multiple perspectives, and the smack of white space, Mendelsohn creates a harshly glinting (a Mendelsohn word) milieu.

Here is Steve Zane himself, for example, on the savages now destroying our world.
What we are confronted with in today's world are cruel degenerate people with no sensitivity or psychological awareness. Savages with no feelings. Maybe it's always been this way, but it's worse now. They are in charge. We are talking about people who are so numb to their fellow human beings that they think they know better how everybody should live. And do you know what happens to people who know what's best for everybody? They destroy the world. That's what they do. They dismember and disembowel the individual and boil her flesh and entrails down in a stew with everybody else.
Here a character elucidates artistic ambition, envy, and ego:
They'd followed his successful career as if they were bird-watchers and he some common pigeon who had inexplicably been accepted by a flock of rare eagles. They no more believed in his talent than they believed that they themselves might be untalented. Over the years they had won prizes and fellowships and commissions and professorships. They had been invited to lecture and appeared in numerous footnotes. These achievements had been like snakebites on their egos, swelling them out of proportion to the rest of their beings so that their sense of importance bulged and tottered on top of them like extra heads, as if they were monsters in a fable, muzzled, drooling, snouted, skin split to reveal pink bone and yellow ooze.
Like Lidia Yuknavitch, Mendelsohn brings a rare poetic sensibility to indecorous circumstances, a loveliness of language to odious characters. There's no hedging of any bets here, no softening of the tale, no hitching of this plot to a book-club formula. Obscene wealth and uncured ambition are often ruinous combustibles. Mendelsohn, in Burning Down the House, will not pretend that they aren't.


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