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Blue Angel (2006)

Blue Angel (2006)

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3.32 of 5 Votes: 1
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0060882034 (ISBN13: 9780060882037)
harper perennial

About book Blue Angel (2006)

“Blue Angel,” written by Francine Prose (who has the greatest name for a novelist ever), emits the beautiful, multi-colored flames as a large structure falls to ash. It is worth a look, or a read, despite its failure. One, the book is filled with cardboard characters. The supporting characters, in particular, are built on insufficient description that relies on nickel and dime stereotypes. The characters lack any depth. The lesbian feminazi college student can do nothing but shout down those she feels fail to recognize the greater demons of men or imagine contrived scenarios of male vs. female cruelty. Her adult counterpart, and leader of the politically correct movement on the fictitious New England college campus, is a chief antagonist and yet she is mentioned derisively and handful of times and appears in three scenes: her only full scene occurs in the culmination of the drama when she brings the hammer down on the protagonist. The supporting cast is left to common social outlines rather than full, human, breathing characters. Two, Prose seems aware of the flaws in her novel. She has the students in protagonist Ted Swensen’s class point them out. They speak of characters so reduced to stereotype that they fail to appear plausible or real. Three, the chief problem with “Blue Angel” is the language. Some years ago, I attended a speech, given at my college, by Stephen King – one of the most derided writers in English departments everywhere. There are a plethora of stories told by English majors who recall their professors running through segments of King’s work pointing out all the grammatical errors. Yet, King’s central theme in the speech had to do with a question that he received while sitting on a dais with a host of writers including Amy Tan. The writers were asked if there was a particular question they never heard that they’d like to have asked of them. Tan said something to the effect of “I’d like to be asked about the language I use.” King, of course, went on to publish “On Writing” a year or two later that departed from that self-same story. The language, argued King, is the key to literature and even contemporary literature has a number of talented linguistic masters. He went on to reel off a list of recommended reading that included Tan, Joyce Carol Oates, and others. “Blue Angel” fails on precisely this account. While Prose’s sentences roll with ease across page after page. The book reads fast and maintains interest. But, here use of the present tense in the third person narrative doesn’t work. I found it amateurish. Moreover, with a book that purports to explore the pitfalls of political correctness in the higher learning system, the third person does not work. Sure, it may have functioned if the characters were full and fleshy. But, they’re not. I suppose the author is attempting irony. But, it falls flat and feels false. Third person would work if the novel required an omniscient narrator. It doesn’t. The second protagonist/chief antagonist Angela Argo, one of Swensen’s students, is written as a mystery. Her motives, her real history/biography, her persona remains unknown. Having an unknown protagonist by itself is fine but when no one else is fleshed out well enough to compensate, problems emerge and linger. The novel is crying for the first person. Swensen, the professor and two-time novelist who is struggling with writing, would be the perfect narrator. He would be unable to know all of the characters. In fact, the irony would bleed through his words considering he is struggling as a writer, his observational skills would be off. Despite significant flaws, “Blue Angel” has strong points. In moments, the novel captures something that seems real or true. As a cook, I couldn’t help but love Prose’s clear appreciation for eating well. “Swenson has the good luck to be married to a woman who can work all day at the clinic and still have enough consciousness about the small pleasure of daily life to the tomatoes on the sill – just to make the salad … Sherrie throws her whole self into mopping up sauce with bread. Swenson loves to watch her eat, (p. 65).” In other moments, the novel captures nuances of contemporary culture that ring true to their core. “It’s not just Angela. It’s her whole generation. Sometimes I worry they think there’s something wrong with sex altogether. It’s as if they secretly believe that having a sexual though or desire means you’re a terrible person, (82).” Moreover, Prose delivers a lurid and righteous romp through taboo subjects and does not yield to pleasantries and so on. Still more, she has the courage to present unlikeable protagonists without apology. In the end, the strong points are not enough to save the ensuing and consuming flames of failure. Without the best possible language, the book remains in the ether, ungrounded, and surreal bouncing about in sort of literary limbo or serving time in purgatory for its offending sins.

I was very torn on this book. I kept hearing echoes of "Oleanna" and "Disclosure" as I read. I mean, taking things that happen quite often - sexual harassment and sexual relationships between male professors and female students - and doing a bit of role reversal? How shocking, how transgressive, how...completely obnoxious. It's about as edgy as someone who shows more concern for the few men who might be falsely accused of rape than for the multitudes of women who are actually raped. Never mind all of the women who are actually sexually harassed! What about the one dude who is falsely accused of sexual harassment? WHO WILL THINK OF TEH MENZ?!?!?!!!1 I also found the positioning of the campus feminist group as the villain of the story rather annoying. Maybe it's just a feature of small liberal arts schools, because at the two big state universities I attended, the campus women's groups and the women's studies departments were more like perfunctory nods toward multiculturalism and less terroristic enforcers of joyless political correctness that ruins all of the fun for everyone (and by everyone, I mean the dudes). So why did I give this book three stars? Because it was entertaining, because Prose made a lot of points about writing - particularly creative writing dispatched in service of a political ideology - that I agree with, and because she made the self-destruction of one sadsack of a man so compulsively readable. Because, make no mistake about it, the narrator completely self-destructs. The student was just the catalyst for it. Swendon was clearly unhappy with everything about his life, even his marriage and his wife, about which he spent much brain power trying to convince himself that he really was happy, that he really did have a good life, that he truly loved his wife. He loathed his students and his colleagues, but most of all he loathed himself, and he tried to make up for it by being an insufferable snob. He was thoroughly unlikeable, mired in a clusterfuck of his own making, and yet Prose managed to stir up something resembling sympathy in my heart.

Do You like book Blue Angel (2006)?

Swenson's a writer, but one who hasn't published in years. Now he's teaching creative writing at a small New England college and one of his students, Angela Argo, is writing an engaging and quite publishable novel. He's amazed by Miss Argo and her creative body piercing and tattooing, but he's also fascinated by her story and its oddly familiar threads. So who is Miss Argo? Is she the awkward insecure coed she portrays or a manipulative, ambitious would be author who would use anyone and anything to see her novel on the shelves? And who is Swenson, for that matter? Both are complicated because the author, has created characters whose true natures are as complex as anyone we know in real life. Blue Angel is a slow satirical journey into the world behind the ivied walls. As you travel its pages, you laugh at the hyprocrocy, you despair at Swenson's choices, and you have to read to the end to find out what happens--even though you have a foreboding.Intelligent. Witty. Incisive.
—C. McKenzie

I loved this book, thought it was a very witty academic satire and fun spoof on students and terrible writing. To me the central joke is that the "brilliant" student is also a terrible writer-- the excerpts we read of her novel are cliches of goth/riot grrrl anomie, with the lurking menace and squalor and minimalism and repulsive/erotic imagery. (Her name "Argo(t)" suggests this quality of subculture chic and slang). Plus hello she's writing about a student attracted to her male teacher, FOR her male teacher. Her writing and character exemplify a sleazy 90's "porno feminism" and the joke is that the teacher mistakes his sexual response to this dirty girl and her dirty book as an aesthetic response to her talent. And the agent recognizes her writing and image as something/someone he can package and sell on its bony, angry, anti-sexy sexiness.

This novel was a New York Times Notable Book, and a finalist for the National Book Award. These accolades prove the reverse of what you'd imagine: not that Blue Angel is a good read, or anything or literary merit, but that standards on the whole have fallen. This novel fails on so many levels, I felt insulted 150pgs in and angry by the end.The novel wants to be either a satirical critique of political correctness, and how its guilty-without-trial ethos of college-level sexual harassment is as easy to manipulate as the justice system in the south was in To Kill a Mockingbird. Except: Lee's tale was extraordinarily well-drawn (Atticus! What a character!), well-edited, and well-executed. Prose's version, however, is painfully predictable, its characters by and large either annoying as shit or completely unbelievable, and its writing very very weak. It would be tedious to get into why, on a technical level, the novel is a failure. So let's keep to the thematic issues. Basically a reverse-Lolita, it's the story of Swenson, a neurotic wimp of a novelist professor at a remote liberal arts school, who, despite what looks like a pretty amazing life—loving spouse, cush job, security—gets pissed off or bored by pretty much everything. Until a "punk" student, Angela Argo, turns in astonishingly good work and wakes him from a slumber that's never very convincing. He encourages her work, a novel in progress about a high school student's burgeoning affair with her music teacher. They inevitably fool around, and we do believe that the encounter is mostly her seducing him: he's really too incompetent to do any of the work, and besides, he points out to the reader several times his clean record up to this point, after 20 years of teaching.You can pretty much guess the rest: she urges him to show her work to his editor, he tries and fails, so she tells everyone and his life is in ruins. A few hundred pages of really elementary buildup for ten pages of climax wherein the reader is supposed to go, "But wait! It's not like that! Swenson's not entirely to blame! She's complicit!" And, to be honest, I did a little. Then I realized how contrived everything is. He's "tried" by a jury of his colleagues, apparently whose fierce devotion to semi-antiquated 101 feminist values more befitting a freshman than any scholar on the topic (one of whom happens to be in the committee trying Swenson) trumps any sense they would realistically have of fairness, democracy, justice, or even humanity. A proper allegory might be: imagine your boss of several years was told by one of your employees, perhaps the mailroom clerk, that you were embezzling money. Now, despite the fact that you've been an employee for years without incident, and that your boss happens to be very current as to how you are in no position to embezzle anything, he fires you on the spot. Not very realistic is it?Perhaps I'm being reductive, which is fair considering it is a novel. You can never parse 300pgs of moral ambiguities to a paragraph or two. It was an admirable attempt by Prose, and a decent avenue to explore issues of hypocrisy in our current colleges, but when ambition so far overreaches talent, you have to refer to other successes. So I will. For a much more believable neurotic wimp, check out Jonathan Ames' Wake Up Sir; for a better book on a college professor's infatuation with students and writing, see Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys (also the excellent film adaptation by Curtis Hanson); and for a better satire on academia and sexual politics, I can think of no better place than the original source: Lolita (Pnin is also great, though less about sex.) And I have yet to read it, but all my friends love Zadie Smith's On Beauty, which tackles similar issues to Prose's book.
—Ryan Chapman

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