Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Book Review: Casebook, by Mona Simpson

Title: Casebook
Author: Mona Simpson
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: April 15, 2014
Read: April 2014
Where It Came From: Library
Genre: General fiction
Rating: 3.5 Relocated Pets

The Quick and Dirty:

Miles starts eavesdropping on his mother as his parents' marriage dissolves and his mother starts to plan a future with her new boyfriend. Despite putting it on my WANT IT NOW list in early April, and despite quickly reading it, it's not one I'm planning to add to my bookshelf. I found the narrative structure distancing, and the characters and plot unsettling.

The Wordy Version:

Casebook sold me with the basic outline of the plot: a child narrator snoops through his mother’s papers and emails, and through that he learns dark secrets of the adult world. I am often drawn to youthful narrators who are unreliable storytellers due to their pre-adult understanding of the world. (Out of the half dozen or so I’ve read, I can only think of one instance when I absolutely hated the child narrator I was reading.) Plus, spying! Questions about privacy! In short, you can see where my enthusiasm for reading started.

And for the most part, Casebook delivered. Miles begins his tale as a nine-year-old just beginning to hear unhappy undercurrents in his parents’ marriage, and in his early teen years gradually unravels the mystery of his mother’s new lover, Eli. By the final third of the book, he is recovering from learning too much information secretly. The suspense of whether Miles’s parents will catch him snooping and whether Miles will find something wrong with Eli makes the book difficult to put down.

Certainly it provoked questions about morality. Miles and his best friend, Hector, listen to hours of telephone calls that his mother makes, and rarely feel that they are crossing boundaries because they are convinced that Eli is hiding something important. To what extent they are justified in their snooping by their belief that someone else is even more wrong is an issue that the characters in the book never seem to fully realize. To his credit, Miles does stop to debate whether it is right to tell his mother any information he has gained through spying, and whether it will embarrass her too much. He later wonders about two lies he tells Eli, which is also rather moral, but by highlighting his worries about the lies Miles’s glossing over the issue of spying on his mother seems strange. This isn’t a real problem—moral questions are more for readers than for characters, and Casebook provides ample material for the subject.

I didn’t fully love the book, though. The narrative conceit is that this is an explanation of the influences for a famous graphic novel written by the friends. Hector has added a few footnotes to Miles’s manuscript, giving us foreshadowing for Hector’s life and calling some of the story elements into question, like the descriptions of the two friends. For me the framing device was a little distracting. Child narrators are so unreliable by nature that it seemed needlessly convoluted to me to add a second layer of unreliability, and to suggest that the book was written years after the conclusion of the Eli investigation. Fortunately there are only a few footnotes by Hector to keep the doubly distancing concept in my mind. But despite any amount of distance the narrative could make, I was too disturbed by the shady actions of the characters to feel many feelings other than relief to have reached the end and sadness for basically every character’s life.

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