Friday, March 28, 2008

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] by Zoe Heller

This novel, made into the Cate Blanchett/Judi Dench film Notes on a Scandal, is a well-executed exercise in the is-this-narrator-completely-nuts point of view. The novel makes a point of demonstrating how un-self-aware the narrator (an older female teacher who becomes infatuated with a younger female teacher who becomes infatuated with a even younger male student) is, but what was more interesting to me than the show-the-reader-what-the-narrator-can't-see tricks was how surprisingly fascinating it is to view the world through the eyes of someone who is really really mean. The moments with the heavy writing-pyrotechnics tend to be the ones that demonstrate the narrator's obsession with the other teacher, but the more surprising, and to my mind, sharper moments are when the narrator observes everyone and everything else. The brief moments when the story steps away from the plot to observe some tangential thing actually did a lot to elevate this from a boil-the-bunny kind of story to a more literary one. For example, "For most people, honesty is such an unusual departure from their standard modus operandi--such an aberration in their workaday mendacity--that they feel obligated to alert you when a moment of sincerity is coming on. 'To be completely honest,' they say, or 'To tell you the truth,' or 'Can I be straight?'" I'm a big fan of when fiction takes a step back from observing individuals and instead observes patterns, and Heller does this very well.

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