Marking Time

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, June 18, 2006



By Monica Ali

Scribner. 226 pp. $24

Monica Ali's debut, the sensitive, subtly witty Brick Lane , was one of the best novels of 2003. Now, with Alentejo Blue , she's produced one of the best books of 1926. This spare, unrelentingly depressing story about several lost generations might have delighted Gertrude Stein and made Hemingway green with envy, but whether readers will want to subject themselves to it now seems doubtful. Searching for this title online, don't be surprised if you get a pop-up ad for Prozac.

Alentejo Blue is a collection of loosely connected short stories about the alienated, bored, frustrated people who live in or pass through a small village in the vast southern plains of Portugal. Alentejo offers little more than a convenience store and a bar, a clean, well-lighted place where patrons can recite old gossip and nurse their ennui. The new Internet cafe is open but has no working connection, a clever symbol of the town's disconnect from the modern world and the closest thing we get to humor in this book.

These sad characters introduce themselves a few at a time. Stanton, a chronically blocked writer, has come to Alentejo to finish his novel but suffers deeply from " estrangeiro malaise." "It was hopeless," he thinks. "It was like deciding to commit suicide and trying to drown with your face in a washbasin." Desperate for some distraction, against his better judgment he befriends a dissipated English family living on a derelict farm. During his first visit, he has sex with the scabby mother on the side of an outbuilding. Who could resist the "brandy and a sharp tang of vomit" in her mouth? Later, he has sex with her 16-year-old daughter, but he feels really bad about it, which you can sense in this typical passage of deeply anguished, extraneous detail: "Stanton lay back on the bed. He looked at his toenails, ingrained with dirt, the right big toenail chipped and peeling away at the corner, the nail on the little toe black, though he had not noticed banging it. He lay there gazing at his feet until darkness took them and the cicadas made audible his thoughts: insistent, streaming, unintelligible." Toward the end, "Stanton stood there and waited for something to happen and nothing happened at all," which I can confirm.

In another story, a very large man self-conscious about his "groinsweat" -- an image I'm still trying to blot out -- wonders if he should eat a piece of cake. Even if you don't recall Prufrock hesitating over that peach, you can't miss the theme in this excruciatingly dreary description of a man haunted by regrets, grief and indecision.

The young people in town don't fare any better. Little Jay -- named after his father's marijuana -- has nothing to do but wander around, wondering if he should start a forest fire. Alas, he doesn't. Meanwhile, his sister annoys the local whores by giving it away for free. But even that fails to spark any flames.

A couple of the stories -- about wives trapped in dead marriages -- are narrated in the first person, which promises a little more intimacy, but the monologues these women deliver are so brittle and alienated that you can't help feeling relieved when their depression finally silences them. They utter deeply affected statements, jam-packed with emotional pain. It's a method that seems dated and highlights the artifice of the form: "As soon as Jay left," his mother tells us, "I wanted him to come back. I ran through the mud in my socks, Michelle's socks, but I couldn't make him hear me. Sometimes I think I can't really exist. I dig my nails into my skin to see if I'm really there, I'm doing it now, and it's good when the blood comes because that proves something, and you can't just believe, you have to have proof."

One of the few truly engaging stories describes Teresa, a 20-year-old woman thrilled about the prospect of going to London to work as an au pair. Here, finally, we get some movement, some tension and development -- the rising and thwarting of her desire. She dreads having to tell her boyfriend about her plans, and she knows her mother will be ruined by the news. Ali sets up the girl's enthusiasm to look especially naive, but it's still a powerful story, made more effective by the swooning trajectory of its plot.

For the most part, though, that movement -- even if heavily predetermined -- is far too rare here. Again and again, Alentejo Blue laments the failure of these people to connect with anyone, but ultimately the stories offer us little more than a series of heavy sighs. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

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