Literary bestsellers

My reading fare these days is a heady mix: I am boning up on difficult essays on Cultural Studies for my class at San Beda University and I’m also preparing my syllabus for Asian Literature for my class at Far Eastern University. I am also finishing some frankly literary books that I love for the sound of their sentences and the depths of their insights.

But I also find the time to read literary bestsellers – books that are written with intelligence and skill, yet written with a mind to keep the pages turning. One such book is the runaway bestseller, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” written by Maria Semple.

When 15-year-old Bee (real name: Balakrishna) claims a family trip to Antarctica for doing well in school, her fiercely intelligent but agoraphobic mother, Bernadette Fox, throws herself into preparations. Bernadette won a MacArthur Fellowship 20 years ago, a genius award for the most promising architect in the United States. But she has been worn down by the years of living in boring and rainy Seattle, in a kind of life she never wanted. Now she is 50 years old and she has stopped producing art. An architect who lives in a large sprawling house that is falling apart, she has become a “menace” (her own words) to society.

Bernadette is on the brink of a nervous breakdown. As disaster follows disaster, she just disappears somewhere in Antarctica, leaving her family to pick up the pieces. And this is what the precocious kid Bee does, weaving together emails, invoices and school memos to reveal the secret past that Bernadette has been hiding for decades. The novel is an ingeniously entertaining work about a dysfunctional family coming to terms with who they are. It is also the power of a daughter’s love for her imperfect mother.

The various prose texts that Bee pieces together mirrors the shape of this novel. In the old days, this kind of writing was called the epistolary novel – a novel written in the form of letters exchanged between the characters. But in the postmodern world, the novel’s storyline can be gleaned from emails, school memos, letters, FBI documents, correspondence with a psychiatrist, a ship’s reports, a kid’s school grades and even an emergency room bill. It is interspersed with zany dialogues, sharp scene-setting, overheard conversations and the main character’s short but on-point reflections. The reader is left to piece the storyline together from these mixed media, the various fragments of texts colliding and cohering within the novel.

It is to Maria Semple’s credit as a novelist that she pulls this off swimmingly. Semple used to write scripts for the television shows “Arrested Development,” “Mad About You” and “Ellen.” She has a gift for the comic one liner and the sharp riposte. Moreover, she has an uncanny talent for creating characters with different voices and accents: she is the writerly equivalent of Meryl Streep.

From this welter of voices come fully realized characters. There are the “gnats” in school, the nosy women who make fun of Bernadette; her husband, Elgin Branch, who has the fourth most-watched TED Talk in history; an assortment of psychiatrists and office co-workers, as well as the virtual assistant Manjula Kapoor, who is really a bandit character working for a Russian mafia.

One architecture student meets Bernadette in Seattle and is surprised. He later writes to his friend: “Bernadette Fox is walking around Seattle in the middle of winter wearing a fishing vest.” This sentence foregrounds what she will do later, in the latter part of the novel. It also mirrors what she is doing at that time: putting her wallet, passport and keys in the pockets of her fishing vest. She wants desperately to survive the funk that she is in, but how?

The email of her husband, Elgin, to the appropriately named Dr. Kurtz (“The Heart of Darkness”), a shrink at Madrona Hill, has parts poignant and pained. The back story is worth recalling.

“Bernadette and I met about 25 years ago in Los Angeles, when the architecture firm for which she worked redesigned the animation house for which I worked. We were both from the East Coast and had gone to prep school. Bernadette was a rising star. I was taken by her beauty, gregariousness and insouciant charm. We married. I was working on an idea I had for computer animation. My company was bought by Microsoft. Bernadette ran into trouble with a house she was building and abruptly declared herself through with the L.A. architecture scene. To my surprise, she was the engine behind our move to Seattle.

“Bernadette flew to look at houses. She called to say she had found the perfect place, the Straight Gate School for Girls, in Queen Anne. To anyone else, a crumbling reform school might seem an odd place to call home. But this was Bernadette, and she was enthusiastic. Bernadette and her enthusiasm were like a hippo and water: get between them and you’ll be trampled to death.”

In one fell swoop. Elgin has put his pulse on one of the malaise that ails modern society: the need to be perfect, especially for those who are young, restless and talented. I keep on telling my students that we should aim for excellence but not perfection, since the latter does not exist. They will just get disappointed if they angle for the perfect poem, story, essay, novel or play. It just does not exist.

But what are our mental anxieties compared to the agelessness of an iceberg? An iceberg tears itself off from a centuries-old glacier and floats in the wintry depths of Antarctica. Some of the strongest writing in the novel is found when the characters come face-to-face with an iceberg: three times the size of a big ship, a wall of whiteness that has survived the most cruel and coldest conditions on earth. This is what Bernadette Fox discovered, when she just vanished into thin air.

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Email: Penguin Books has just published Danton Remoto’s novel, “Riverrun.”

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