Vanilla Bright Like Eminem
by Michel Faber
Published by Harcourt
246 pages, 2007
Falling Through Ice
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Some years ago my husband and I read Jane Smiley’s Greenlanders, her attempt at Norse Saga. Character after character abruptly died by falling through the ice. It became a joke between us: whatever happened to so and so? He fell through the ice and died.
The characters in Michel Faber’s Vanilla Bright are about to fall through the ice and die. A very few survive their falls, somehow bobbing to the surface, stunned, badly foundering as loved ones stand by, numbly unable to assist.
Faber is rare in that he moves easily across genres, which become, beneath his amazing pen, visitations to places we are hard pressed to name. In “The Safehouse,” misfits and runaways of all kinds, wearing long garments declaiming the many wrongs done them, find safe haven in a sort of warehouse. They have dropped permanently out of the world and are happy simply to be fed and sheltered.
In “Andy Comes Back,” a man abruptly recovers his senses after a five- year bout of illness-induced insanity only to find himself a stranger to his family. Jeanette, in “The Eyes of the Soul,” is sold a “view” she cannot afford, a literal window into another life, one far from the violent, drug-ridden government housing she cannot escape. Gail and Ant, of “Serious Swimmers,” are a young mother and son desperately trying to reconnect as Gail recovers from drug abuse.
Many of Faber’s stories are about families in trouble; a surprising number of protagonists are women. At the risk of sounding nastily feminist, few male writers are so deft at delineating a woman’s thinking (Andre Dubus II comes to mind). Gail’s rising panic over her son Anthony’s temporary disappearance is the true terror of a mother; Christine, in “The Smallness of the Action,” is every underslept, lonely new mother, albeit taken to extremes.
Some stories are less successful than others. While “A Hole with Two Ends” and “Less than Perfect” don’t quite stand up, they are more than compensated for by the slyly sexual “Coconuts” and the wry political repartee between a dying dictator and the surgeon he pulls from prison to save him in “Finesse.”
The eponymous story closes the book; it is a rare work in both its ability to fold a White rapper from Pontiac, Michigan into a literary story and its utter lack of irony. There is currently much dustup about the death of the short story. Many reasons are batted about for this, including rampant illiteracy, the Internet, blogs and the confining effects of MFA programs. I would add to this a pointed taste among the “littles” for ironic, post-modern stories where characters in their 20s experience talking chairs and anomie for no especial reason. But then again, being the graduate of an MA program myself, I may be just a tiny bit bitter.
Faber, perhaps by virtue of his pan-European upbringing (Holland, Australia, Scotland), suffers none of these limitations. He feels perfectly free to write stories about magical windows, days that go inexplicably dark, and the looming insanity ever threatening daily life’s surface. He then closes with a simple story of a man on a train with his family, exultant despite his teenage children and menopausal wife, exultant precisely because they are his family, and he loves them. | October 2007