Review of I
Was Amelia Earhart, by Jane Mendelsohn
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/20/05
There’s an old Warner Brothers cartoon that spoofs opera wherein Bugs Bunny tortures Elmer Fudd through a series of misadventures, including one where they are married in an absurdist moment. Elmer rages and one almost expects a bodice-ripping type end, save that this is a cartoon, Elmer male, it was made in the 1950s, and instead Elmer gets physically abused in some way.
As I was reading Jane Mendelsohn’s bestselling novella (for at 146 small pages, with plenty of white space, puffy, irrelevant epigraphs, and large font I doubt it even exceeds thirty thousand words) I Was Amelia Earhart, for my stomach wrenched. I was put in mind of that cartoon because JM takes the historical Amelia Earhart and basically casts her in a Blue Lagoon type bodice-ripper, where she and he co-pilot/lover Fred Noonan do not die over the Pacific Ocean. Instead, in a Twilight Zone rip off, they forever go island hopping into the mysterium where time is null and void. I don’t actually recall if Amelia Earhart’s bodice was ripped, or if she was even bodiced, but the romance novel level prose certainly put me in the mood of a romance novel, as well as that Warner Brothers cartoon, save the intended humor.
I wanted to rip Amelia Earhart’s bodice, though. In fact, I wanted to rip things far more meaningful than her, or any woman’s, bodice. There were no bodices in my vicinity, so I decided that maybe I would rip the book. But, as bad as it was, even I will not deface such. Ostensibly, the novella starts in 1937, or is it the future? There are time slips and perspective shifts that have no rhyme nor reason. This is not a work where narrator shifts are delineated. This would not necessarily be a bad thing were the tale told compelling. This is not the case with JM’s book, which warns its readers of its pap with its first Barbara Taylor Bradford sentence, ‘The sky is flesh.’
Then the book ends. Here is its end: ‘He [Noonan] said maybe later they’d go for a swim in the lagoon. Then they were silent for a long time. And then she broke down. Broke down in tears, tears of joy, mysterious tears, and said, Yes, this must be real, I believe in this life. I believe that it continues.’ Cue sunset and melded silhouettes that become one. That last sentence is mine, but you get the drift. Take note of the fact that JM feels she must qualify the breaking down- as if the reader was confused that Amelia Earhart might whip out some old cardboard and start break dancing. I would have preferred that to what the rest of the novella, between its two dismal ends, lays out.
Instead of Amelia funking up we get a banal recitation, in distortedly breathy clichés, of her aviatrix ways, her marriage problems with her husband/promoter G.P. Putnam, and not much else. Save for driving her island companion, Noonan, to brute illiterate idiocy for her irreducible sex: ‘The navigator feels so alone at the thought of losing her. The pleasure he takes in her, in being with her, is the only pleasure he knows anymore...He realizes that without doing anything he has fallen in love, beyond love, out of love into life...In the jungle, in the dirty heat, he kisses her, and she kisses him, and they lie down together. They take each other on the floor of the jungle, and they know now that there is no difference between being rescued and being captured.’
There is no exterior to the tale, and the interior is a bad LSD trip- not because LSD is bad, but because the trippee, JM, has no trip of consequence. Her good premise goes nowhere, save to a mythic island they call Heaven- which JM tells us was a joke name, so that we are not led to believe that this place is really Heaven, as if confusion existed. We also see Amelia as a child- she experiences things, has regrets, and, well, she’s utterly boring. Not only in what happens to her but how she reacts. That someone as well-versed in life could be so capaciously void is a testament to JM’s own lack….lack….LACK!
Noonan is an utter cipher but Amelia is drawn to him, after a while, because he’s the only boy in town. Their converse is negligible. So are the facts within; here’s one- it was July 2, 1937, when Amelia and her navigator, Noonan, lost radio contact in the Pacific. Anything other than that is made up. That’s not bad, but making things up is called imagination. Imagination generally requires things to be imagined, usually so that they are more interesting than the real. JM does not understand this. Is that a rip I hear?
Sort of- it’s JM’s prose: ‘After dinner, I go to the lagoon. He comes with me. There’s a raft that I built, I like to lie there in the darkness, where my thoughts are more intense because they seem to be taking place on board a dock that has broken off and floated out to sea. But Noonan prefers the water itself. The stars tilt and wobble on the surface when we enter. It rolls in folds like the back of a dog’s neck. And as we circle each other, our feet skimming the murky bottom, our legs beat languidly and the water slips through our fingers in endless sheets of silk. The lagoon isn’t large, but it’s enormous in the night, like a lake on the surface of the moon.’
It makes you appreciate the simplicity of a phrase like ‘Hammer time!’ to describe a similar act, no? Cardboard caricatures, a thin plot that convolutes, nonetheless, and ‘depth’ like the above. Yet, this book was a bestseller- why? Blame shock jock Don Imus for plugging the book for weeks in the late 90s, after his wife liked it. As if it were not bad enough that cultural and literary assassins like Oprah Winfrey and Larry King had enough power, but Don Imus? Or, rather, his wife? It should come as no surprise to you, then, when I tell you that according to my wife JM’s next novella, Innocence, featured the storyline of possible tampon tea, as a subtext. I guess, therefore, the fact that JM is only capable of novella length pieces should be seen as a boon.
How such a book about such a vivid character, with such an adventurous
life, could be rendered so stale and lacking in drama, is a testament to the
boundless inability of JM’s prose. Here, for instance, Amelia reveals that,
despite her years of experience, and told from after death (when she’d
presumably be able to rise above her intellectual station), she has all the
depth and insight of a twelve year old pondering the meaning of the first onset
of menses: ‘When I was very young, six or seven, I already wanted to die. I already
had the dream. I wanted to escape, to go higher, to leave my body, and this made
me seem ambitious, greedy for life. When I was young, people hated my
greediness, but they enjoyed it too. A little girl filled with desire is a
beautiful sight, ugly, but very beautiful...Sometimes I remember the life I used
to live, and it feels impossibly far away...Whether life is more real than
death, I don’t know.’
Fantasy as depression-inducing. To the reader, not Amelia, who apparently was lobotomized by hitting her head when they first crashed on Heaven. Therefore, she revels in her sexy self, feeling a ‘cascade of passion’ for Noonan, who returns her devotion by watching ‘the breath flow in and out of my nostrils, with a concentration that he had not devoted to anything since he had tried to watch a flower grow when he was a child. When I woke up he was able to tell me all about my dreams.’ More likely he was entranced by a piece of dried snot tenuously clinging to a nostril hair. Still….JM manages to wholly neuter a feminist icon- a notable achievement, especially since that neutering is simultaneous to declaring her a New Age icon, one in search of ceaseless knowledge, even as each step toward it mangles both the characters’ and readers’ gray matter.In closing, I think Howard Stern was right- Don Imus should be shot, and Jane Mendelsohn sexually assaulted (note the gentility) by Cossacks. Perhaps then she could feel the pain she gave me. Cue the bodice. Sing, Elmer, sing!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 4/05 Hackwriters website.]
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