Sunday, July 7, 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?
By Maria Semple

Note: Please read this blog entry in Ron Howard's voice. Thanks.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? opens with a report card. But it's not just any report card. It's Balakrishna (Bee) Elgin's report card from The Galer Street School, a snobby private school where the parents pick their children up in Subaru's (but not, lamentably for the administrators of the school, in Mercedes). Bee is a special student who has achieved straight Ss throughout her academic career.  Galer School is one of those educational institutions that does't like the stigma of traditional "grades" and thereby gives their students Ss (Surpasses Exellence), As (Achieves Excellence) and Ws (Working toward Excellence), presumably to assure parents that their precious little snowflakes are all some incarnation of excellent.

Bee, however is not your typical special little snowflake. She is the daughter of Elgin Branch, workaholic Microsoft employee with a rabid geek cult-following ever since a now legendary TED Talk (fourth most watched TED Talk, ever!) about a technology that allows people to control a robot simply by thinking about it. Elgin enjoys reticulated bicycles and irrigating his sinuses among other pastimes. Bee's mother is Bernadette Fox, a legend in architecture the way Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger are legends in literature. Within the world of architecture, Fox is both a genius and a ghost. A former recipient of a McArthur Grant and the designer of the now mythologized Twenty-Mile House (mythologized because it was torn down immediately after it was completed). Fox has not designed a house in two decades and has become an angry, agoraphobic recluse to the point that she has outsourced her life to a personal assistant in India for seventy-five cents an hour.

Together, the Branch family live in the ruins Straight House, a former Catholic school for wayward girls which has now been overrun with blackberry bushes and rot. Despite being an architectural and design genius, Bernadette has not so much as lifted a drafting pencil since moving in and renovations have yet to commence. Much like The Branch family's collective sanity, the house is literally crumbling in on top of them. So, the house is, quite obviously, a metaphor about unrequited homosexual desire and to sum up, Bee is pedigree of genius. And with genius comes madness. Beautiful, anti-social madness.

In an attempt to stave off a pony, Bee's parent's had promised to get her anything she ways upon graduation from Galer School (on the condition she achieve straight Ss, of course). Bee calls them on their promise and demands a trip to Antarctica (it is here that I should note that upon my graduation from middle school I was given a pat on the back and told to keep out of trouble in high school).  From that point on, the novel shifts into overdrive and truly awful but seriously hilarious things start happening in rapid-fire succession. There's a landslide, an intervention gone horribly wrong, physical altercations, an arrest, someone scratches their eyeball and, of course, all sorts of Three's Company/Frasier style misunderstandings. The situation is so grave that it requires a trip to the ends of the Earth to rectify the situation (the aforementioned trip to Antarctica, of course). Naturally, Antarctica is a metaphor for cultural erosion.

If the Where'd You Go, Bernadette? sounds like good television, it's no wonder. Maria Semple is a former television writer who worked on (among other things) Arrested Development, which is why I: a) hated every single character and b) loved every single character because I hated them so much (this is exactly why I think Arrested Development is the best television comedy of its generation (sorry 30 Rock). How can you not hate and love to hate Lucille Bluth?). Where'd You Go, Bernadette? is a tightly-constructed narrative populated by delusional Tiger Moms, snobby private school parents, neurotic tech geeks, scatterbrained artists and the now ubiquitous overly-ambitious Asian woman who will do anything to succeed. The characters you are meant to hate are atrocious human beings (that you will recognize from your own life) who get their comeuppance in stunning fashion. But the protagonists are no better. Semple has not written then in such a way that a reader will immediately empathize with them. Nope. Not in the least.. The Branches (Branch's?) themselves are the worst sort of Bobos, a term coined by David Brooks in his book Bobos in Paradise. But who's thinking about sociology while personal assistants based in India are procuring anti-psychotics for you and research scientists are ordering pink penguins at the bar.

As in any good ensemble comedy (whether it is Arrested Development, The Simpsons or Where'd You Go, Bernadette?), the absurdity only works when there is a straight man to counterbalance the insanity. Arrested Development has Michael Bluth, The Simpsons has Lisa and Where's You Go, Bernadette? has Bee. These characters, while often seen as bland, are the lynch pins to the comedic payoff. They are the link between the off-kilter characters and the readers/viewers. In this particular instance, Bee is both the most and least interesting character in the novel, depending on how you read it. It's not terribly difficult to lose sight of her what with all the drug abuse, Russian mafia and dental appointments but make no mistake, this novel is essentially about Bee, not Bernadette.

Written in several formats including e-mail correspondence, psychiatric evaluations, FBI documents, report cards and even a receipt or two, the entire novel comes across as a case file that is weaved intricately and imaginatively without repeating information (a common occurrence in multiple format style novels (see: Dracula)). Semple is one hell of a good comedic writer and now that I know she worked on my favorite television show, I'm sorry that she didn't write more of the novel in dialogue form (there is a transcript of the intervention but it's a tantalizing snippet of what Semple might be capable of doing. I cannot wait to get my hands on more of her work.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? is the very definition of a summer read but with the added bonus of having literary cred. It's a wild ride and absolutely impossible to put down. I picked it up with more than a little trepidation that it was going to be one of those definitive women's novels (no offense intended, I'm using this term for lack of a better. But there are so very many novels written and marketed to women specifically and I try to steer clear). If you are looking for something light to read on the beach this summer or if you are looking for something a little more literary than the usual check-out fare or if you are simply looking for a book that mentions Antarctica because it's too damned hot and you want to forget about it, you will find something to take away from Where'd You Go, Bernadette. It's impossible to put down.

Kenny Bania inadvertently summed up Where'd You Go, Bernadette? years ago when he succinctly noted: "That's comedy GOLD, Jerry!"


Brian Joseph said...

I tend to like books constructed of letters, reports etc. ( I decided not to use the technical word :)). As it is also fun, it sounds like I would really like this one.

Athira said...

I loved reading your interpretation of this book. I enjoyed this one tremendously - it's still my favorite book of the year, but I didn't quite see the similarity between this book and typical American comedy shows until I read a few other reviews. But then, I don't watch too much comedy television. :-/

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I've been indifferent to this book but I love that it's got an epistolary format, that makes me want to read it. And as a teacher, I know all about parents who think their children are special little snowflakes.

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