"Ship of Fools"
You know those movies or sitcoms where a completely ridiculous mix-up occurs, such as when a character gets ‘accidentally’ hypnotized, and you must sit through the ensuing high jinks, knowing that by the end everything will be solved with a happy ending, but you still must endure the various overused instances of hilarity and confusion along the way? They get to be pretty annoying, no?
Unfortunately, Fool’s Gold, a first novel by Jane S. Smith, revolves around one of these story lines. The Harts, an American family vacationing in a disappointingly non-provincial Provence, discover a horde of pagan gold and mayhem ensues. From beginning to end, involving all the characters, all the slapstick plot tricks are pulled out, from mistaken identity to “I-hate-you/I-love-you” romances to move the book along. It is not a big surprise to say that everything will work out very conveniently in the end.
Smith’s largest problem is her combination of broad, stereotyped plot mechanisms and a slew of characters misguided by their own inept ambitions and overestimated senses of talent and intelligence. Smith obviously means for her characters to amuse her well-educated readers, but then she offers her audience a plot worthy of a cartoon. It’s difficult to suddenly switch from laughing at our protagonist Vivian, who is better at imagining herself as a writer than actually writing, to worrying where the hidden gold treasure is. It is not unusual for the reader to be in the lives of an aristocratic couple one moment, the next, in the mind of an obnoxious child. The transition is not smooth.
Meanwhile, Smith’s characters are all difficult to empathize with. While Smith intends for us to condescend to many of the characters, she goes overboard, to the point where many of them are detestable. Smith seems to hope her they are lovably human, but to the reader, they are annoyingly subhuman, and she even criticizes them with asides such as “What an absurd thing to say.”
Vivian is a shrill, thin-skinned mother who fancies herself quite the feminist and art scholar, constantly bending reality to fit her ever-changing hypotheses, denying the fact that she is ultimately nothing special. Richard is her fat, drunk, insensitive photographer husband whose main theory in life is that in order to gain success, it is always best to be the fourth person to jump on any particular bandwagon.
Even their children, who discover the gold, are annoying, as Justin sulks and Lily cries at everything. Smith seems not to be sure how to treat these children, sometimes nailing their tendencies dead-on (such as when they quickly recover from their bad attitudes on one day trip when they come upon a carnival), but often she feels clumsy, trying to capture children’s slang or state of mind, as they yell “dope!” or as Lily refers to another shrill American character as “the fairy lady.” Meanwhile we encounter other Americans in Provence, like the filthy rich Hugo Bartello who has an annoying, stereotyped habit of orating and calling people “my boy,” and the young Ariel Stern, who is pretty much a younger version of Vivian, along with misguided ambitions and irritating feminist ideals. The book she is working on is meant to be “a narrative of pure idea, one that would reveal the workings of her own superior intellect while avoiding the encumbrances of race, class, and gender that kept so many other writers from the true fluidity of nontransgressive expression.”
Yep, annoying. There is also Peter Wall, who serves very little other function than to become Ariel’s love interest and participate in one of the most absurd cases of mistaken identity ever recorded.
Smith’s use of the surreal and the mythological is also difficult to swallow. While on the one hand, the reader absorbs such realities as annoying children, the difficulty of living abroad, and unrealistic ambitions, we are also asked to enter the minds of the children, a derelict named “Flic Flac” (wasn’t that the brand name of a watch?), a retarded man named Marcel, and also imagine the wild pagan world of the Celts in Provence.
It is difficult to trust a novel that basically tells you the entire story in its one page preface, that annoyingly instructs you to “Imagine.” and then concludes, “If you’re ready, we can begin.” It seems as though Smith cannot decide whether she wants to treat her readers as adults or as children.
Despite all its missteps, Fool’s Gold does go down easily, just as one of its silly slapstick television counterparts would. The prose is light and the chapters short, and the commonly used scenario of Americans living abroad is treated with a clever, light hand. Those who have been in that situation will recognize the truth of which it is told, reality almost never lives up to its expectations, but pleasantries may be found in unexpected places. Smith also clearly identifies the most with Vivian, who sometimes, through her annoying tendencies, shows us the true soul of a 21st century woman who must balance between her independent, intellectual life and her role as a wife and mother. Smith depicts this cleverly as the Harts discover what a letdown their new cottage in Provence is: “Vivian sat at the kitchen table and held a brief memorial service for her fond hopes and reasonable expectations.”
However, like a slapstick adventure movie, Fool’s Gold will not leave the reader thinking much about the realities of life. It is clear that as the conflicts come to a head and then quickly and easily melt into convenient conclusions, that the plot goes into autopilot, and the reader will find herself doing the same.