18 December 2012

Chalcot Crescent (Fay Weldon)

You'd think, reading the jumping-off point for Fay Weldon's Chalcot Crescent ("Two years after I was born, my mother has a miscarriage. . . . This is the sister's story, set in an alternative universe that closely mirrors our own") the novel would be, frankly, a downer. Instead, I can only describe it as delightful--and it's my old friend, VOICE, that does the trick.

Said voice comes courtesy of Weldon's conjectured sister, Frances, eighty-something in a near-future London. It's so nice to have an elderly female narrator, you know? And so rare. Frances is so much the kind of old lady I aspire to being, the kind one might admiringly refer to as a "battleaxe": cranky, funny, bawdy, and far more realistic than her descendants about the future ("When people complain that I am cynical, I say, but I am not cynical, I am just old, I know what is going to happen next"). She is a writer, or once was--she's outlived her heyday and spent her fortune, and the bailiffs are at the door of her title-street home--and the novel is a kind of memoir, full of flashbacks and imagined scenes. Two favorite passages, witty and wise, which shall have to stand in for many more:
  • "I hesitate to say this of this alleged love of my life, but show him a female and he'd try to fuck up her mind."
  • "Many a lady writer feels that . . . she will be unveiled any minute as an impostor. That the review will one day appear: 'Why have we been taking this writer so seriously? She can't write for toffee.' And that will be that. It is not a worry that plagues men. On the whole, women who get bad reviews crawl under the blankets and hide; men writers roar and go round and beat up the critic, or at least think about it."
Reading Crescent right after The Stand, the latter a thoroughly American apocalypse, really highlighted its Britishness--not just the humor, which runs to the dry, but the nature of the dystopia itself. Britain, a few years from now, has been through a depressingly familiar series of crises, economic, political, and climatological, but has found a sort of stability under the National Unity Government (NUG), which is composed "not of politicians but of sociologists and therapists." There's a CiviCam on every corner and National Meat Loaf (suitable, mysteriously, for vegetarians) in every pantry. It's very much the nanny state writ large, a government that cares so much about its citizens it has no choice but to oppress them for their own good.

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