Monday, April 09, 2007

Book Review: Three Dollars

I just finished this one today and wrote a review on goodreads that I will include here too.

This is one of the best novels I've read in a long time, possibly one of the best I've read. Australian writer Elliot Pearlman's Eddie Harnovey is a decent man living in increasingly bankrupt times (i.e., now). He and his wife Tanya are young, aspiring professionals who find their truth-seeking inclinations stymied by the corporatist, deregulating world around them. The seismic shift of priorities that Western governments, particularly English-speaking ones, embraced in the 80s in the name of imparting "personal responsibility" exacts the sort of devastating toll on hard-working, well-meaning people that those gung-ho Reaganite/Thatcherites purport is impossible, the toll of defaulted mortage payments, perennial unemployment and untreated medical conditions. The tale of such unmitigated despair is perversely readable, and much of that owes to the acuity and perspicasiouness of Pearlman's writing.

Pearlman gets so much right: office life ("Each day, I would say 'good morning' to the same people I said it to the day before. There were 'in' jokes about the standard of the coffee, the football tipping competition, or somebody's outrageous tie. Lunch was snatched hurriedly from the place next door, a little cafe where the regulars from the department jokes with the proprietor and his staff, small jokes, small business, small change, but these people were immensely important to each other. It might be that none of them were aware of their importance, each to the other, and it took me awhile to realize it myself but with each 'good morning' they were reminding each other, just slightly, who they were and that they were there" page 84), the transition into adulthood ([...] dinner parties had come upon us stealthily, imperceptibly, like winter and old age...[they] take hold of you like a virus and before too long you are a pregnant couple admiring vases and crystal decanters in shop windows and discounting the monetary cost of cnadlesticks because they are so lovely and because no one else will" p. 127), the strain differences in ideology and worldview can exact on friendships (see the arguments between Tanya and the couples' friend, Paul), the moral bankruptcy of modern institutions ("The universities seemed to her at the vanguard of society's unraveling. But I knew better because I was not there. They were not the first to retreat from what they had once stood for, they were not the first to turn their backs on any notion of common good and to prostiute themselves; they were not the first to promote a meaningless langauge designed to preserve their own pseudocultural and economic fiefdoms[...]But if the universities were not the first, neither were they the last" p. 248), the penchant au courant for seeing the world through the lens of silly corporatist platitudes ("The world was in the hands of animated self-parodies delivering Dale Carnegie wisodm to the bewildered mountain of their own banality." p. 293), among other things.

Pearlman masterfully weaves a story of conflict between people and their principles, especially as it comes out when young, educated people become professional and find that their careers drive them to embrace opposing values. We all need to justify ourselves and our priorities; often enough, such self-justification reaches a discomfiting cold-heartedness that frowns upon the behavior of friends in the name of adhering to one's principles.

My biggest criticism: I wondered whether the dialogue ascribed to the narrator as a child was realistic for someone that young.

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