Hopscotching through A Life in Men

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  • Algonquin Books
Last night I finished reading A Life in Men, a new novel by a Chicago writer named Gina Frangello. I felt compelled to read the whole thing, but I'm not sure how much I actually enjoyed it. Frangello builds suspense by playing with time and withholding information about past events that affect how characters behave in the present.

Here's where I confess that I'm not the sort of reader who does well with delayed gratification. I'm not above flipping to a book's last page to find out how it all works out—except with romance novels, which are soothing because their endings are a foregone conclusion. I ended up skipping ahead in A Life in Men a lot.

This is how it was supposed to unfold: in 1988, two blond American best friends, Nix and Mary, decide that their main mission during their week of vacation in the Greek islands is to get Mary laid. Mary has cystic fibrosis and is expected to die young; her condition requires a strict medical regimen that means she never really gets to live, either, or have the life of adventure she imagines Nix must be leading at college in New York and will continue to lead on her upcoming semester abroad in London. Unbeknownst to Mary, Nix slept with her one-and-only boyfriend two years earlier while Mary was undergoing her first round of CF treatments and feels very guilty about it.

In chapter two, we flash ahead two years. Now Mary is the one who's having a bohemian adventure in London (with lots of loud and athletic sex with a South African circus performer) and Nix is dead. Something happened in Greece to drive them apart, but Mary's not entirely sure what it was, or if it played an indirect role in Nix's death. But she resolves to have the sort of life she imagines Nix would have had, cystic fibrosis be damned, and she remains loyal to their best friendship by never making another close female friend. Hence, the life in men, who, over the course of a dozen years of travel in exotic locales (Kenya, Mexico, Marrakesh), will help Mary come to terms with what happened in Greece and Nix's death. Frangello alternates chapters between Mary's life and Mary and Nix's Greek adventure, and concludes with an epilogue concerning two characters who have nothing and everything to do with what came before.

Instead, this is how I read it: as soon as I learned that something bad happened in Greece and got bored reading about Mary's adventures in London bonding with an (unconvincingly written) American heroin addict, I skipped ahead and read all the Greek chapters first, and then went back and read the others. It was sort of like reading Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar, except my skipping was unauthorized. I didn't feel like I was missing out on any of the pleasure that comes with an unexpected revelation or twist in the story, though, or that delayed gratification would have improved my reading experience in any way. I'm not sure if this is my fault or Frangello's.

The problem—my problem—is that a lot of the tricks Frangello plays with time have become so common in literary novels, it feels like they've become mandatory for a book to be taken seriously: the cross-cutting between past and present, the withheld revelations from the past, even the ending with the tangentially related characters.

But as I read, I began to suspect that Frangello deployed these tricks not because they're fashionable, but to disguise some of the book's shortcomings, most notably with characters. Mary is meant to be brave and tough; in an author's note, Frangello writes that she was based on a friend she had during her own college semester abroad in London who also had cystic fibrosis but didn't let it (or her treatments, which worked best in clean air and sanitary conditions) deter her from becoming a cultural anthropologist, and she died while living with a tribe of Bedouins in Jordan. But Mary is dependent on all the men in her life, both emotionally and financially, and her defiance of her disease in order to travel seem more like adolescent rebellion—"you're not the boss of me!"—than a genuine desire to learn about the world. Worst of all, if you read the Greece chapters all at once, the thing that happened to cause a rift in Mary and Nix's friendship becomes so painfully obvious so early on, it seems incredible that it would take Mary ten years to piece it together. How myopic is she?

Or maybe I just think that because I read ahead and didn't let it come to me the way it was supposed to, in bits and fragments mixed in with other events of Mary's life. That's sometimes the problem when a writer tells two stories at once: one is bound to be more interesting than the other.

I once read War and Peace backward. It wasn't out of impatience. It was just interesting to start with the characters as their mature selves and go back, step by step, to see how they got that way. I also skipped the historical essays. It obviously wasn't what Tolstoy intended—though I don't suppose he intended it to be read all in English either—but I enjoyed it just as much as I had reading it front to back.

A Life in Men, nonlinear, did not provide that sort of enjoyment. All it did was satisfy my impatience to uncover the book's secrets. But I wonder if I really have the right to criticize it. Would I have noticed its flaws as much, or let them bother me as much (would the structure have succeeded in disguising the problems with characters?) if I had just read it the way Frangello intended?

Women and Children First (5233 N. Clark) will be hosting a book release party for A Life in Men next Friday, 2/7, at 7 PM.

Aimee Levitt writes about books on Fridays.

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