Assessment: Ali Benjamin’s ‘The Smash-Up’ updates ‘Ethan Frome’

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On the Shelf

The Smash-Up

By Ali Benjamin
Random Home: 352 pages, $27

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Simply in case you’ve forgotten (or presumably blocked out) that semester in highschool or school while you learn Edith Wharton’s 1911 novella “Ethan Frome,” here’s a temporary refresher: Throughout a desolate New England winter, a stoic, sad man, Ethan, yearns to go away his domineering spouse, Zenobia (or Zeena), for her cousin Mattie, who has been residing with the couple as Zeena’s aide. After monetary circumstances and propriety forestall Ethan and Mattie from operating away collectively, they try double suicide by crashing their sled right into a tree, in order that they’d “by no means have to go away one another any extra.” Spoiler alert: The “smash-up,” because it’s referred to, completely injures Ethan and leaves Mattie paralyzed, bitter and endlessly depending on Zeena.

As I reread “Ethan Frome” in preparation for this evaluation, I discovered myself admiring Wharton’s luxurious descriptions and her capability to infuse each second with a way of inexorable tragedy. However I additionally questioned: Who the hell would wish to retell this story in a recent setting?

That is precisely what Ali Benjamin has accomplished with “The Smash-Up,” which takes Wharton’s bleak, turn-of-the-century dirge and updates it to the equally bleak Trump period. It’s September 2018, the Senate is holding a listening to on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court docket, and Ethan and Zenobia (“Zo”) Frome and their exasperating 11-year-old daughter, Alex, navigate life in Starkfield, Mass.

Drama abounds. The advertising agency Ethan cofounded faces monetary smash as a result of sexual misconduct of his former enterprise accomplice. Zo, a contract documentary filmmaker, struggles along with her newest undertaking whereas conspiring along with her coven, a girls’s group referred to as All Them Witches, to protest Kavanaugh’s misogyny. Maddy, the Fromes’ live-in nanny, earns extra cash as a cam woman by way of a gig web site referred to as Ten Spot. Alex, prescribed Adderall for an ADD prognosis, is on the verge of expulsion from her costly different non-public college. That is white liberal America writ massive.

As Benjamin wrangles her characters into straits of heightened topicality, she focuses, like Wharton, solely on Ethan’s viewpoint. By way of him, we see a tradition mired in bewildering metamorphoses about which he stays deeply suspicious. “It’s all outrage lately,” he thinks. “An infinite loop of shock.” Even in his youth, within the ’90s, he centered himself within the world narrative, seeing the world as unreasonably demanding: “Is he going to must proceed studying the meanings for issues, shedding previous selves for brand new, like some form of molting snake, endlessly? Does he ever get to easily be?”

The novel nods towards quite a lot of sizzling buttons — transphobia, rape tradition, sizzling takes, the entire post-truth smorgasbord — with out ever actually pushing any. Ethan is supposed to typify male fragility but in addition — as the one character given full interiority — to earn our sympathies (or no less than our curiosity). It’s a tough balancing act, and at occasions the scales tip towards villainy, as when Ethan crankily dismisses his spouse for calling a customer support hotline: “Maybe the corporate simply marketed on the mistaken tv present, some cable information outlet whose host mentioned one thing horrible, or no less than clumsily, and somebody tweeted it, and now the corporate’s 1-800 quantity is fielding livid calls from everywhere in the nation.” His disdain can put on out the tolerance of anybody who doesn’t care to spend hours desirous about “cancel tradition” someway. Is that this actually fertile floor for political fiction? Ethan’s not fairly a straw man, however sometimes you may’t assist considering: If he solely had a mind.

Book jacket for Ali Benjamin's novel "The Smash-Up"

Benjamin litters the novel with heaps of literary allusions and references: Austen, Beckett, Proust, Gogol, Eliot, Rand, Melville, Shakespeare, Stein, Frost, Nabokov, Updike, Wallace, Flaubert — this can be a partial record. She is as excited about these authors as she is in Wharton. The truth is, one would possibly surprise how Benjamin landed on her explicit supply textual content. Couldn’t she have interaction with all these topics and allusions and insights with out remaking a well-read basic?

The reply to this query can also be what makes the novel — for probably the most half — succeed. It’s not the transposition of that well-trod narrative and its character varieties that compels; it’s the distinction sharpened within the act. Wharton’s world is remoted, stifling and dire, and the political implications of her characters’ selections are subtextual. Within the polarized, interconnected current of Benjamin’s novel, all the things is expressly political, even the ostensibly apolitical.

What this shift sacrifices in symbolic subtlety, it earns again in emotional depth. Wharton’s Zeena stays till the top of “Ethan Frome” a tyrannical partner whose persistent diseases are continuously dismissed as hypochondria. Benjamin’s Zo begins in an analogous predicament however her human complexities emerge by the top. Ethan too is given not one impediment to confront however a fancy net of them. Like Wharton’s Ethan, he offers along with his attraction to a a lot youthful lady who lives in his home, however he additionally struggles along with his daughter’s tutorial struggles, his enterprise emergency, his stalled profession, his suburban neighborhood overrun with rich New York expatriates and his withering marriage. Benjamin doesn’t remake “Ethan Frome” a lot as she contends with it. “The Smash-Up” is an homage and a critique.

Maybe the simplest replace comes within the conclusion. Benjamin subverts Wharton’s infamous ending in a approach that doesn’t simply shock; it complicates. The finale diverges in quite a few methods, however one is essential: who causes the smash-up. In Wharton’s narrative, the results of a puritanical society work on the characters despite their isolation, and the violence is self-inflicted. In “The Smash-Up,” all the things appears to be taking place to the characters. The violence right here is terrorism, and the wrongdoer an incel sort whose act ties the narrative right into a neat bow, a sort of douche ex machina. It’s an astute commentary on the variations between Wharton’s time and ours, but it surely additionally lets the Fromes off a bit calmly. A reader unfamiliar with the supply materials will inevitably miss out on a few of these distinctions, however that’s the value an writer pays for literary cosplay.

A few of the novel’s approaches to politics are a bit clumsy or apparent, however that’s typically within the nature of political observations: clumsy, apparent truths that aren’t any much less true as a result of they don’t sound unique or profound. “The Smash-Up’s” political scope can solely make out blurry figures past the standard truisms about masculinity and white feminism, however for a story centered on its characters’ political and private myopia, these limitations really feel applicable. As a result of one other unremarkable reality is that each one our views are restricted; the exceptional tragedy is that these are exactly the constraints we’re unable to see.

Clark is the writer of “An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom” and the forthcoming “Skateboard.”

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