Books Are Rarely As Dishy, Clever and Elusively Charming As 'Alena'

Alena is the rare book that stimulates the senses while allowing its readers to be seduced by the right kind of camp.


Length: 321 pages
Author: Rachel Pastan
Price: $27.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-01

Rachel Pastan’s Alena begins with a line that seems so familiar you might think it's a joke. “Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again”, establishes the narrator who will remain nameless throughout the rest of the story. With a nod so direct and obvious to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Pastan is either extremely bold or plain insane; for how does one dare emulate the opening of du Maurier’s classic novel without falling into parody or faux pas? The answer, surprisingly, is that not only does Pastan avoid ridicule, she also delivers one of the most delicious novels of the year.

While the echoes of Joan Fontaine’s tremulous voice and the elegantly morbid sense of dread in Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Rebecca seem almost impossible to escape, as we first meet the unnamed narrator of Alena, a young American woman working as a curatorial assistant for Louise, an older woman of “maybe 50”, who is described by Pastan as being almost a construction of different body parts and cosmetics.

The young, naïve narrator and her severe patroness arrive at the Venice Biennale where the young woman is “romanced” by the mysterious art-collector Bernard Augustin, who used to run the famous Nauquasset of the first sentence; a modern museum that was once the crowning jewel of the Cape Cod coast, until the enigmatic disappearance of its curator, the Russian beauty known as Alena.

The exotically named Augustin rightfully whisks the narrator away from her employer and gives her the curatorial position once occupied by Alena, but if you know your du Maurier, or your Hitchcock well, you know that things won’t necessarily turn out rosy for our heroine. Once in “Nauk”, the young woman realizes she will never be able to live up to the legacy left behind by Alena, who was bold and groundbreaking where she is old fashioned and insecure.

Haunted by the story of how Alena went out for a swim one night and never returned (her body was never found) the young woman sinks into an abyss of paranoia, despair and unfavorable comparisons, most of which are uttered by the vicious Mrs. Danvers-character who comes in the shape of the museum’s administrator Agnes (Pastan doesn’t even try to pretend she’s trying hard to be subtle), a childhood friend of Alena, who loves torturing the heroine.

All the other characters from Rebecca are present as well, and each one is even more despicable than the previous when it comes to their adoration of Alena and their contempt towards the woman trying to usurp her place. Yet the story is familiar enough to be welcoming and Pastan’s intention so strange that you can’t help but feel as if you’ve mysteriously landed into a dream where you know you’ve been before, but don’t really know how to get out of.

This is precisely where Alena finds its own voice. Pastan sees beyond homage and full on gives herself to pastiche. Her novel isn’t so much a riff on du Maurier, as it is a direct re-appropriation of it.

She never seems too reverential or overly respectful (not that she’s disrespectful, either) but she seems to be ecstatic about the fact that as a writer she is granted with the rare gift of having a perfect structure onto which to attach her own obsessions. Alena never feels like an updated version of a dated story, because Pastan is ever aware of the importance of canonical art pieces, and the novel often seems to be winking at us with the very notion that at its center, it is a critique of modern art.

Where du Maurier allowed herself to go into lush details about the English way of life and the beauty that was Manderlay, Pastan instead focuses on the concepts of modern art and tries to explore the metaphysical elements that linger between brilliance and bullshit. She is both attacking her very intent, while defending its rightful place in the world!

If the meta elements weren’t reward enough, there's something humorous and sensual in the way Pastan explores sexuality. Where in Rebecca there was an obvious nod to sexual impotency in the relationship between the heroine and Maxim de Winter. In Alena, the problem is solved most wonderfully by having Bernard be gay.

Pastan is too smart a writer to let cliché get in the way of her characters and avoids any stereotypical banter to occur between the heroine and her sophisticated employer. Instead of concentrating on luridness or sitcom-like events, she devotes passages to their shared love for the arts and their endless quest for beauty.

Alena is the rare book that stimulates the senses while allowing its readers to be seduced by the right kind of camp. For example by making Bernard gay, it’s not that the author is just trying to be “modern”, she might also be delivering her own commentary on Laurence Olivier’s sexuality... or not. Books are rarely as dishy, clever and elusively charming as this one.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.