Ruth, the wife at the center of this sharp and funny academic novel, is a once-celebrated novelist, briefly contented mother, formerly hopeful hostess and guest. Now she is "left to chew the bitter cud of envy and resentment." She has become dowdy, disappointed, and frequently drunk.
Ruth's husband, Ben, a professor of philosophy at a large, dull Texas university, is a throwback "to a time when the world viewed academia as a preserve for the gently befuddled." Philosophers then "were an unhygienic herd of tweedy bumblers; swollen gums were in evidence then, and dandruff." Now, members of this group are kempt and suave networkers. One of their number has become department chairman. She ignores reason, spews demagogic nonsense or administrative jargon, and replaces Ben's efficient, loyal secretary with a young woman who fails to show up for work and can't be fired. Ruth and Ben's son, Isaac, is a filthy street person who refuses to speak to them.
Ruth longs for a world of excitement, where her old sense of expectation might be reborn. She pines for community within the university and reconciliation with her son. The arrival on campus of a new couple - a lovely, generous, candid young memoir writer and her big, brash husband - promises change, and happily delivers.
Susie Orbach asks "How do we get a body?" Her answer is that we get a body not from nature but from how the body is treated by those who raise us. She supports this answer with many examples of bodies that have been treated badly and required remedy. She begins with a story of drastic remedy - a man who chose to have his legs amputated and achieved a sense of satisfaction and ease in his legless body. Many people, argues Orbach, believe themselves to inhabit false bodies. In response, they seek surgery, diet, drugs. They change their sex, their skin color; increase or decrease their height; enlarge or reduce their breasts; refine their jawline; resculpt their nose.
Orbach, a practicing psychoanalyst, relates the struggles and strategies of her patients as they attempt to create a reliable body and erase their sense of vulnerability, shame, unease, and inauthenticity. She recognizes the cultural moment we live in and the ever-increasing availability and acceptance of procedures to exchange and enhance our appearance. She concludes with the hope that we can allow our bodies to become sources of pleasure and celebration. Much of what Orbach reports is not new - how the Wild Boy of Aveyron could never learn language, how psychologist Harry Harlow's monkeys clung to their wire mothers, how thinness and fitness have taken on moral weight, how anorexia, self-mutilation, and sexual dysfunction afflict us. But her use of this well-known material is made new and instructive by her passionate commitment to health and happiness.
The Danes love this novel and have awarded it many prizes. Reviewers have enthusiastically likened it to John Irving and T. C. Boyle. I had to drag myself through its almost 400 pages, working valiantly to keep the many stories and characters straight, while waiting for a faint echo of Irving or Boyle. Narrated by a grandson, the novel features three generations - all four grandparents, many uncles and aunts, sisters and brothers. Stories of courtships, marriages, births, accidents, adulteries, mistakes, pranks, deaths, are told and retold.
With gross humor, Asger Eriksson tells the tales: How Grandma Bjork delivered a baby into the stinking privy, how the family fortune was buried and lost, how Uncle Knut went to sea, how various nicknames were minted: Jug Ears, Applehead, Latchkey Kid, Bath Plug. Repetition and revision do not make the stories more powerful or the characters more real. Despite the racy language and raunchy content, the feeling of the whole is flat and dull. On the last page, the family's pot of gold is discovered, "devoured by rain and devalued by time." The bank notes are soggy, moldy, and worthless, much like this shaggy doghead story.
Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.