Saturday, 11 October 2014

A Window Across the River by Brian Morton

published 2003









One weekend they spent Friday night lounging around his apartment, he in jeans and she in sweatpants, watching two movies they’d rented (Cocteau’s Orpheus, which was one of his favourites, and The Terminator, one of hers), and then they spent Saturday night at a party in the city for a friend of his who’d just put out a book of photographs, a party for which Isaac wore a suit and Nora wore a tight dress.

She’d had boyfriends she loved to be cozy with, lounging around in sweatpants, and boyfriends she loved to be out in the world with, wearing a tight black dress. Isaac was the only man with whom she loved both…

[later] On the night of Isaac’s [exhibition] opening, Nora put on a black dress and, splurging wildly, took a taxi out to New Jersey…


















observation The pictures above are the cover of this book, and an advertising poster for the Woody Allen film Manhattan. It is quite a common New York image, but it is also true that this book does have similarities with a Woody Allen film (without the worrying associations his name now has) – over-precious New York couple think about their relationship, their art, and their priorities in life. I think this is a book about reliability – how much can you and should you expect to rely on your partner? Is it unreasonable to expect more than you give, as Nora in the book certainly does?

Brian Morton is unknown outside the USA, and almost unknown there, despite having won several prestigious prizes with his 5 novels. I have read two others: The Dylanist, which is highly enjoyable, and Starting out in the Evening, which is exceptional, an extraordinary novel that takes quite routine material and makes something memorable and special from it.

This one I resisted to begin with, because of the annoying nature of the central couple, Isaac and Nora, a photographer and a writer, aged 40 and 36. They broke up a while back, now they’re wondering if they should get back together, and the story is told from their alternate points of view. But Morton pulled me in again with his felicitous descriptions, and his very very funny bits – I loved the novelist with the innovative ways of self-promotion, including giving out flyers at a funeral, and the way Nora tells people lies for no good reason. When asked what she does she says “I work in puppet repair. Mostly marionettes.” Isaac worries that the three stages of mourning are: Gee that’s too bad; what’s in it for me?; what’s on TV? Nora comments that (writer and editor) Tina Brown is always referred to by her first name – ‘she was like Madonna for intellectuals.’

The book is set around 2002: when Nora’s car breaks down, she ‘realized she was at a bridge moment in history… Two years ago it had seemed pretentious to have a cell phone; in two years it would seem pretentious not to.’ This is the kind of perception Morton does really well.

Part of Nora’s problem is that the stories she writes often seem to contain hurtful pictures of people she knows well, ‘Everything I write turns into a poison-pen letter’ she says, as if she knew that this has been a recent theme on Clothes in Books.

The main picture is the Russian ballet dancer Diana Vishneva at a book/photography launch party: it was taken by Nynaevealmeera and is available on Wikimedia Commons.

11 comments:

  1. Moira - I do like that line about cell phones! Interesting take on the way different people perceive themselves, each other, and life. It sounds as though it's got a strong sense of place and atmosphere too, and New York is one of those very distinctive places.

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    1. Yes, the world of literature would be a poorer place if you removed all the novels about New York...

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  2. Moira, Brian Morton was unknown to me until now, as many authors are. You're right, this does sound Woody Allenesque though I don't know if that's good or bad because I have never cared much for his films. There's too much talk. I liked MANHATTAN on account of Alan Alda and Diane Keaton. I find the plot of this novel interesting because of the relationship angle.

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    1. He's a very clever and interesting writer Prashant, but very much writing about New York intellectuals. Manhattan is my favourite Woody Allen film....

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  3. An excellent movie about New York and an aging, lonely, alienated professor, which brings in immigration, love in middle age, and Homeland Security, is The Visitor. This is a superb movie, which leaves one in tears while yelling at the TV.
    It's another view of the human condition in today's world where human relations trump suspicion.

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    1. Oh that sounds good, I don't know it but I'll look it up. I always say, I like a film about relationships...

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  4. Hmm, not feeling it. I looked up all his books as I've never heard of him and can't say they appeal to me. Does he write the same book over and over again? All 5 seemed to have common themes, or at least similar.

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    1. Well - I guess that accusation could be levelled at him!

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  5. I think I would rather read novels about Los Angeles couples than New York couples. Although really I would rather stay away from both cities. I will put this author on my "maybe someday" list. I am glad to be exposed to his books but don't think they are for me at this time.

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    1. It's what they make of the raw materials isn't it? As I imply above, Brian Merton has written several quite similar books, and all of them are good, and enjoyable, but one of the - Starting Out in the Evening - really transcends that, and is wonderful.

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    2. I will keep that one in mind. I do have a hard time finding non-mystery fiction I enjoy.

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