Thursday, July 12, 2012

Review of How to Get Into the Twin Palms

For the last thirty years or so, we have struggled to define whatever generation is coming of age. Douglas Coupland gave us what is still the best term, almost that long ago. Generation X. Since that term we've been deriving other phrases to describe what is essentially the same phenomenon; young people reaching adulthood without any society-defining challenge to rise to. As a result, X'ers, Y'ers, slackers, hipsters, and millenials, frequently saddled with student loan debt and with no frontier to escape to have floundered around in their identities until the social and material pressures of mainstream society settle them into a slightly less lucrative, slightly less comfortable, slightly less stable version of the lives their parents lived.

The tragedy is of course that President Obama was right when he said we had reached a “Sputnik moment,” but it also isn't terribly surprising that we have not responded as a society the way we responded to the Soviets or the Nazis. Our generation's crisis is our carbon footprint; no wonder we flounder for direction. Though in some ways limiting carbon emissions might be more important to preserving human civilization than beating the Nazis or the Soviets, it's awfully hard to worked up about. And it's hard to write about in fiction. As in Generation X the book, depicting the floundering of America's young, doesn't lead to much of a plot.

Anya, the protagonist of How to Get Into the Twin Palms, is floundering, for different reasons than what I've been talking about, but I think the images are equivalent. Anya is a Polish immigrant, a member of the “1.5 generation” who emigrated with her family to Texas when she was just a child. Now, living in L.A. Anya is trying to define herself in an era when “authenticity,” whatever that is, is cool. So she doesn't want to become an American. However, like many children of immigrants, she feels a kind of shame for her Polish heritage and so she doesn't want to embrace that either.

And she flounders. Spending a lot of time just driving around. Running because she doesn't know what else to do. Haunting a nearly empty hotel while forest fires rain the pool and the deck chairs with ash. Collecting unemployment. Calling bingo at a nearby church for $50 a night. Somehow, perhaps because nature abhors a vacuum, she latched onto the idea of getting The Twin Palms, the exclusive Russian only night club in her neighborhood, and made that her goal.

To do so, she adopts a Russian sounding name “Anya,” and starts what I guess you'd have to call a “relationship”, with a shady Russian cab driver named Lev. She dies her hair, changes her style, gets a push-up bra, all to attach herself enough to Lev, all so he will to take her to the club. What she plans to do afterward she never shares with the reader. Many of us have done what Anya has done, found, discovered, or created our own “Twin Palms,” something to give us direction in a society that hasn't provided one. The luckiest of us, myself included, have artistic vocations or political visions as our Twin Palms.

And while she struggles, the outskirts of Los Angeles burn.

And, as happens, when we only want one thing, finally getting into The Twin Palms is not a breakthrough, but a breakdown for Anya. She can't even speak Russian, so whatever facade she brought with her disintegrates almost instantly. The fall out carries her through a dramatic and drastic action to the ambiguous ending.

I doubt Karolina Waclawiak would think about her book in the terms I have. She might see it more constrained and more potent in its examination of identity through the experience of the actual 1.5 immigrant, rather than from my metaphorical understanding. She might see more focus on ideas of “authenticity,” especially when presented in an institution, The Twin Palms itself, that unironically and unequivocally values “authenticity” and harshly judges those who come up short of whatever the actual rubric for Russian-ness is to them. She might also want us to think about what “identity” means in a melting pot society, or in a nation that doesn't know what era to moor it's national identity to, or in a culture where individuals are empowered to choose their own identities rather than accepting the ones passed on by their parent's culture.

But I don't think its too much of a stretch to argue that American generations from Gen-X on are 1.5 immigrants into a new kind of society. We have the material comforts so many previous generations struggled so hard to provide, but it has not provided any of the emotional or spiritual comforts they assumed it would. And those comforts carry with them assumptions of ease of acquisition that were really only valid for about 30-40 years, so that the 30-40 year old of today has to work twice as hard to buy half as much as their parents did. And the challenge we face is completely different from those faced by previous generations. It's not about signing up for the army or breaking ground in a distant patch of land or even about scraping material existence by on the family farm. It's about recycling. Not much of an activity to design an identity around. (And how much do we enjoy being around someone who has designed their identity around recycling?)

How to Get Into the Twins Palms plays with the conventions of the immigrant story in a way to, at least in my mind, capture some more general experiences in our contemporary society. Despite Waclawiak's attempts to add a level of consequence to events, this novel limps to its conclusion, but it is hard to fault her for it; in a way this novel is also about limping along. It would almost be dishonest to the theme to conclude with some resonating epiphany. But the point of literature is to get readers to think about their world, and though I didn't personally connect with what actually happened, Waclawiak's book had enough substance and quality to inspire wider consideration.

1 comment:

  1. Waclawiak is reading/signing at Skylight Books tonight. After reading this review, I think I might pass.