The International Writers Magazine: Book Review
Was Amelia Earhart, by Jane Mendelsohn
ISBN: 0679776362 · Published by Vintage
an old Warner Brothers cartoon that spoofs opera wherein Bugs
Bunny tortures Elmer Fudd through a series of misadventures, including
one where they are married in an absurdist moment. Elmer rages
and one almost expects a bodice-ripping type end, save that this
is a cartoon, Elmer male, it was made in the 1950s, and instead
Elmer gets physically abused in some way.
As I was reading
Jane Mendelsohns bestselling novella (for at 146 small pages,
with plenty of white space, puffy, irrelevant epigraphs, and large font
I doubt it even exceeds thirty thousand words) I Was Amelia Earhart,
my stomach wrenched. I was put in mind of that cartoon because JM takes
the historical Amelia Earhart and basically casts her in a Blue Lagoon
type bodice-ripper, where she and he co-pilot/lover Fred Noonan do not
die over the Pacific Ocean. Instead, in a Twilight Zone rip off, they
forever go island hopping into the mysterium where time is null and
void. I dont actually recall if Amelia Earharts bodice was
ripped, or if she was even bodiced, but the romance novel level prose
certainly put me in the mood of a romance novel, as well as that Warner
Brothers cartoon, save the intended humor.
I wanted to rip Amelia Earharts bodice, though. In fact,
I wanted to rip things far more meaningful than her, or any womans,
bodice. There were no bodices in my vicinity, so I decided that maybe
I would rip the book. But, as bad as it was, even I will not deface
such. Ostensibly, the novella starts in 1937, or is it the future? There
are time slips and perspective shifts that have no rhyme nor reason.
This is not a work where narrator shifts are delineated. This would
not necessarily be a bad thing were the tale told compelling. This is
not the case with JMs book, which warns its readers of its pap
with its first Barbara Taylor Bradford sentence, The sky is flesh.
Then the book ends. Here is its end: He [Noonan] said
maybe later theyd go for a swim in the lagoon. Then they were
silent for a long time. And then she broke down. Broke down in tears,
tears of joy, mysterious tears, and said, Yes, this must be real, I
believe in this life. I believe that it continues.
Cue sunset and melded silhouettes that become one. That last sentence
is mine, but you get the drift. Take note of the fact that JM feels
she must qualify the breaking down- as if the reader was confused that
Amelia Earhart might whip out some old cardboard and start break dancing.
I would have preferred that to what the rest of the novella, between
its two dismal ends, lays out.
Instead of Amelia funking up we get a banal recitation, in distortedly
breathy clichés, of her aviatrix ways, her marriage problems
with her husband/promoter G.P. Putnam, and not much else. Save for driving
her island companion, Noonan, to brute illiterate idiocy for her irreducible
sex: The navigator feels so alone at the thought of losing
her. The pleasure he takes in her, in being with her, is the only pleasure
he knows anymore...He realizes that without doing anything he has fallen
in love, beyond love, out of love into life...In the jungle, in the
dirty heat, he kisses her, and she kisses him, and they lie down together.
They take each other on the floor of the jungle, and they know now that
there is no difference between being rescued and being captured.
There is no exterior to the tale, and the interior is a bad LSD
trip- not because LSD is bad, but because the trippee, JM, has no trip
of consequence. Her good premise goes nowhere, save to a mythic island
they call Heaven- which JM tells us was a joke name, so that we are
not led to believe that this place is really Heaven, as if confusion
existed. We also see Amelia as a child- she experiences things, has
regrets, and, well, shes utterly boring. Not only in what happens
to her but how she reacts. That someone as well-versed in life could
be so capaciously void is a testament to JMs own lack
Noonan is an utter cipher but Amelia is drawn to him, after a
while, because hes the only boy in town. Their converse is negligible.
So are the facts within; heres one- it was July 2, 1937, when
Amelia and her navigator, Noonan, lost radio contact in the Pacific.
Anything other than that is made up. Thats not bad, but making
things up is called imagination. Imagination generally requires things
to be imagined, usually so that they are more interesting than the real.
JM does not understand this. Is that arip I hear?
Sort of- its JMs prose: After dinner, I
go to the lagoon. He comes with me. Theres a raft that I built,
I like to lie there in the darkness, where my thoughts are more intense
because they seem to be taking place on board a dock that has broken
off and floated out to sea. But Noonan prefers the water itself. The
stars tilt and wobble on the surface when we enter. It rolls in folds
like the back of a dogs neck. And as we circle each other, our
feet skimming the murky bottom, our legs beat languidly and the water
slips through our fingers in endless sheets of silk. The lagoon isnt
large, but its enormous in the night, like a lake on the surface
of the moon.
It makes you appreciate the simplicity of a phrase like Hammer
time! to describe a similar act, no? Cardboard caricatures, a
thin plot that convolutes, nonetheless, and depth like the
above. Yet, this book was a bestseller- why? Blame shock jock Don Imus
for plugging the book for weeks in the late 90's, after his wife liked
it. As if it were not bad enough that cultural and literary assassins
like Oprah Winfrey and Larry King had enough power, but Don Imus? Or,
rather, his wife? It should come as no surprise to you, then, when I
tell you that according to my wife JMs next novella, Innocence,
featured the storyline of possible tampon tea, as a subtext. I guess,
therefore, the fact that JM is only capable of novella length pieces
should be seen as a boon.
How such a book about such a vivid character, with such an adventurous
life, could be rendered so stale and lacking in drama, is a testament
to the boundless inability of JMs prose. Here, for instance, Amelia
reveals that, despite her years of experience, and told from after death
(when shed presumably be able to rise above her intellectual station),
she has all the depth and insight of a twelve year old pondering the
meaning of the first onset of menses: When I was very young,
six or seven, I already wanted to die. I already had the dream. I wanted
to escape, to go higher, to leave my body, and this made me seem ambitious,
greedy for life. When I was young, people hated my greediness, but they
enjoyed it too. A little girl filled with desire is a beautiful sight,
ugly, but very beautiful...Sometimes I remember the life I used to live,
and it feels impossibly far away...Whether life is more real than death,
I dont know.
Fantasy as depression-inducing. To the reader, not Amelia, who
apparently was lobotomized by hitting her head when they first crashed
on Heaven. Therefore, she revels in her sexy self, feeling a cascade
of passion for Noonan, who returns her devotion by watching the
breath flow in and out of my nostrils, with a concentration that he
had not devoted to anything since he had tried to watch a flower grow
when he was a child. When I woke up he was able to tell me all about
my dreams. More likely he was entranced by a piece of dried snot
tenuously clinging to a nostril hair. Still
.JM manages to wholly
neuter a feminist icon- a notable achievement, especially since that
neutering is simultaneous to declaring her a New Age icon, one in search
of ceaseless knowledge, even as each step toward it mangles both the
characters and readers gray matter.
In closing, I think Howard Stern was right - Don Imus should
be shot, and Jane Mendelsohn sexually assaulted (note the gentility)
by Cossacks. Perhaps then she could feel the pain she gave me. Cue the
bodice. Sing, Elmer, sing!
© Dan Schneider, April 2005
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