Danny is a nagging, childish pain, Camilla's ex-husband is just too damn nice to be believable, and Camilla's best friend Stuart, the former mime now book shop owner, is the poster boy for the self-absorbed pretentious arty-farty.
In Martha Cooley's previous novel, The Archivist, the first sentence reads: "With a little effort, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced." And with exquisite understanding and detail, Ms. Cooley introduced her readers to unlikely connections and truths, revealing the depths of human love and despair.
Sadly, in her second novel Thirty-Three Swoons, Martha Cooley's attempts to once again prove that "anything can be shown to connect with anything else" falls irrevocably flat, like an over-ambitious acrobat who has misjudged his leap and lost his balance. The image of the acrobat was deliberately chosen because theatre plays a significant role in Cooley's second novel, though not necessarily a fitting one. As with The Archivist (and it is so difficult not to compare), Thirty-Three Swoons explores the concepts of repressed emotions, hidden truths which slowly reveal themselves, and figures in literary/artistic history who play vital roles within the framework of the novel.
Enter Camilla Archer, a 50-year-old divorced woman who sells theatre memorabilia for a living in Manhattan. She seems to have a pretty good life: she enjoys her work, she's blessed with arty, loving friends who care deeply for her (including an ex-husband, an oh-so-amicable relationship which borders on the really-hard-to-swallow), and she's even got a married lover on the side, "Nick the paramour", to satisfy her carnal urges. But all is not well in Camilla's ordered life. Her volatile cousin Eve has recently died of meningitis, and now Eve's daughter Danny is desperate to discover the truths surrounding her mother's promiscuous background, and the identity of her real father. Danny is convinced Camilla knows the answers, but is holding back. Holding back, in fact, is what Camilla does best; she's wound up so tight she can't let anyone in, or anything out. No doubt this stoic nature is due in large part to her complicated relationship with her distant father Jordan, a perfume chemist who passed away 10 years earlier.
The novel focuses on Camilla, and her attempts to help Danny discover family secrets, but the main story is really Camilla's own self-discovery of her past and present. But this is not your typical 'protagonist discovers self' story. Cooley experiments with fantastical techniques in telling this tale, and unfortunately it doesn't work. A key element in the novel is a doppelganger for the early-20th-century Russian theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and it is this doppelganger who introduces the reader to the story of Camilla and her conundrum. Why a Russian theatre director? Well, apparently Camilla's father had a small connection with Meyerhold many years earlier, and so we are to believe that this doppelganger has existed in time since the real Meyerhold's execution by Stalin in 1940, searching for someone to help, in order to atone for not saving poor Meyerhold those many years ago. Confused? I don't blame you. But it gets even better. In order to help Camilla solve her many unresolved issues, the doppelganger plays around with her subconscious, putting messages in her dreams for her to interpret, and thus piece together her family puzzle.
And what a puzzle! Or perhaps I should say a Russian matryoshka, those round wooden decorative dolls which contain smaller and smaller versions of each other as you open each one up. I should have known there was trouble ahead with this novel once I saw that clichéd imagery used on the first page. Mind you, at least a matryoshka has more believable structure than this story. The novel jumps from the doppelganger to Camilla's dreams and then to Camilla's daily life. These shifts do not flow smoothly, and quite frankly, the doppelganger, who has a fairly large role in the novel, is annoyingly pompous and pedantic. The entire structure of the novel lacks authenticity and cohesion. I found myself also getting increasingly annoyed with all the characters in the story. Cooley doesn't dig deep enough to explain why Camilla is such a tight-assed pill, so it becomes increasingly difficult to find any sympathy for her. In fact, none of the characters in Thirty-Three Swoons are sympathetic or even likable. Danny is a nagging, childish pain, Camilla's ex-husband is just too damn nice to be believable, and Camilla's best friend Stuart, the former mime now book shop owner, is the poster boy for the self-absorbed pretentious arty-farty. His affected dialogue made my skin crawl.
The one saving grace in this big disappointment is Cooley's undeniable talent for beautiful descriptive writing. Most delightful were her explorations of perfume, scent, history and memory:
For Jordan, perfume was more than anything else an acknowledgment of impermanence. Fragrance is time-bound: it ends in decay. Rather than attempting to deny or overcome this reality, Jordan found ways of exploiting it. He orchestrated his fragrances' life spans like beautifully shaped musical compositions. Magically mobile, they registered in the mind like a dream.
Passages like that made me wish so much that she had focused more on the themes of scent and memory, and just dumped that damn doppelganger altogether. But as good as Cooley's writing is, it wasn't enough to save this pretentious mess.
I don't enjoy being so harsh with such a truly gifted writer. No doubt I'm part of the problem, considering my own limitations in accepting certain experimental fiction. And I also cannot deny that my expectations were very, very high, having been completely swept off my feet by The Archivist, which was a national bestseller, and a New York Times "notable" title for 1998. It's hard to imagine how one could attempt to enter the "second novel syndrome" after creating such an amazing first novel, but after waiting seven years, I certainly expected more than what Ms. Cooley has provided. The Archivist, which was in part a book about books, is strong and solid, like a good book should be. It will stay with me forever. Thirty-Three Swoons is that disappointing expensive perfume that will linger only briefly, and then fade away without a trace.