Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Kate Atkinson's Not the End of the World: Dissonance

This is the fourth of a twelve (maybe thirteen?)-part series reviewing the short stories in Kate Atkinson's 2002 collection of short stories, Not the End of the World. In this particular story, "Dissonance": Machine Head and Mahler, Slipknot and Mozart, and all sorts of dissonant chords.

Spoilers are inside as per usual, for this and all previous stories. I am also attempting to get back on something resembling a schedule. Paying over $10 in library fees might have had something to do with this.

Previous reviews:

Before you begin, here is Mozart's String Quartet #19, also known as the Dissonance Quartet, from which the story takes its title. Play through this as you read; keep it in another tab. You might recall it mentioned, incidentally, in "Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping." (Actually, it's mentioned twice: as one of the "random" murmurings of the businessmen, and as the "Mozart string quartet" Charlene listens to after the store fire.)

Now for the story proper. Pam McFarlane, an English teacher (good, you're paying attention) has two teenage children: shoplifter and violence enthusiast Simon, and pulled-together classical music buff Rebecca. Neither of them like her very much, as teens are prone not to. They don't like her boyfriend, "Beardy Brian," or her blissful ignorance that their father's girlfriend is pregnant, or really anything she says. They don't like each other. About all they like, in fact, are themselves and their own hobbies, and of course they don't expect any of that to be upturned, either by a skateboarding injury (Simon) or dimly depressing CPR session (Rebecca).

Review: As you've no doubt already guessed, this is the first time we really see how the stories are intertwined. It's jarring; I didn't pick up on it until I saw the name Hawk. Then everything changed. That's a "Tunnel of Fish" callback, and there's another big one: Pam McFarlane, as you might have remembered, was Eddie's English teacher. And another: she, too, thinks she teaches at a "schemie school" -- for the Americans, that's slang, somewhat like "chav." Hannah, Sarah, and Emma (June's names of choice) are here: Rebecca's friends, and a girl-conglomerate Simon fantasizes about. Mozart's symphony, as stated above, is a major plot point. Buffy shows up again as part of Simon's cultural vocabulary.

On to the story. The title, "Dissonance," can refer to two (or more, but let's stick with two) clashing tones, played together. It's also an apt description of Simon and Rebecca's interactions. Simon is introduced first, and at first he clearly seems like the worse of the two. With his surly violent/misogynist demeanor, he'd make a great companion for Brody from Queuelty. ("Friend" seems like the wrong word.) He's a petty thief, at least a quarter of his vocabulary consists of swear words, and a good deal of the rest is made of "heh, heh, heh" cackling like someone off Beavis and Butthead. He ogles everybody and everything, including family members (it's rather disturbing how often he has to tell himself not to think about his mother and his sister in that way.) It's easy to dislike him; the text practically tells you to.

Rebecca seems so much better by contrast! When we first meet her, she's studious, responsible, independent. She's a bit reminiscent of Patricia in Behind the Scenes at the Museum. She listens to pleasant music, she keeps a job. She's a vegetarian. She wants to work for Doctors Without Borders. Sure, Rebecca hates Simon and everything associated with him, but at this point, so do you and I.

But Rebecca is also disgusted at her mother's very existence, just like Simon is. She constantly brings up how ugly she thinks Pam is, how horrible her clothes are, how repulsive her attempts at conversation are. A bearded man in the cafe receives the same scorn, the same disgust, as does Beardy Brian. It isn't even rational disgust; the former is (again) mainly weight, the latter is for being a "boring" social worker. Her ridicule of Simon is based as much on his acne as his personality. You get the sense that she'd be disgusted by pretty much anyone who isn't her. Her Doctors Without Borders dream is about how she sees herself -- the noble doctor operating on "photogenic babies" -- not about the people she'd help.

Most of the story's substance, in fact, comes from playing the two off against each other, from the resulting (title drop!) dissonance. Take one set of two paragraphs, one for each child going to sleep. They happen at the same time, and if it were possible in prose, I'd imagine they would be read at the same time -- two audiobooks in separate speakers, maybe. Simon goes to sleep after listening to the Deftones, playing Tekken, eating Pot Noodles, sneaking beer and cigarettes. He has lewd dreams about "Hannah-Sarah-Emma." Rebecca goes to sleep after listening to Mozart, readong The Portrait Of A Lady, eating an apple and sneaking a joint. She has (impliedly) lewd dreams about the Chinese boy who sometimes does delivery. They mirror each other.

What's somewhat lost in the story is Pam. Unlike her children, she's a genuinely good person. She cares about her students, cares about society at large, and most of all, cares about her family. And what does she get? Simon treats her every bit as cruelly as you'd expect, and Rebecca treats her arguably even worse. Their family dinner (how much have we heard about how eating dinner with your parents is a cure-all for everything?) is a long slog of stifled hatred that we hear from both children, practically in stereo. Pam's dialogue is in italics, making this even more clear. They're not really having conversation; she's just speaking, separate, in another typeface and another world. This certainly happens in real life, as a New York Times article in my Google News Spotlight section has reminded me for weeks now -- and it's just as tragic there as in fiction.

The ending, then, is weirdly touching. More precisely, Simon's half is. He's injured while skateboarding, his skull is fractured, and he calls his mother. So far, so routine. If your skull is fractured, wouldn't you let your mother know? But skip ahead to the last scene with Simon, the last few sentences even. He's crying -- we got a near-glimpse of tears at the family dinner when he mentioned his father's new girlfriend -- and he's holding his mother's hand, and he's telling him everything's all right. It's downright touching. It's how things should be.

That's all well and good, but Simon is still a cretin! Rebecca should be the one who gets a touching moment, and she almost does. It's parallel again; Simon has been injured, and Rebecca treats an injury: that of the bearded man in the cafe whom she had mocked for eating pastries. She saves his life, she's a hero, but all she can think is how gross the pastry tastes when she gives him CPR. When the man regains his pulse, all she can do is cry and think how little she wants that sort of responsibility. Here's where you might snark: that's what you get when you go into medicine for the glory; why are you surprised?

But again, that's all well and good, but Rebecca's such a good kid! She listens to classical music! She has aspirations! Which brings us to the real tragedy here, that good kids can turn out so rotten, and that the sparks of good that rotten kids manage are drowned out. You almost have to agree with Rebecca when you wonder why Beardy Brian wants to be part of this family. There's no family in it. There's no love. There's only dissonance.


- I would not look down upon an essay that concluded "What a sheer, big waste of love Romeo and Juliet is! It has a voice. And, well, it's true. (Postscript: Just flipped to the next story. I SWEAR I hadn't seen it when I wrote that! This is what you get when you blog as you go.)

- If the "file that one away for later" in parentheses when Rebecca mentions Hannah's father with an unfamiliar woman isn't foreshadowing, then I don't know what is and isn't anymore. Ditto for "The world could not end as long as the 'Dissonant' Quartet was being played." (A callback to the first story?)

Name Report: Rebecca and Simon are lovely; Pam and Brian are serviceable; everything else I've written about before -- except no, there's Alistair. Most people seem to like it. Moving on.