Monday, April 4, 2016

Under the Influence

The theme of deception, of illusion vs. truth, and of appearance vs. reality continues to fascinate.  See blog posts on The Goldfinch (Oct., 2015), “Eisenheim the Illusionist” (March, 2015), “and “A Game of Clue” (Jan., 2016).  Epistemology is more than an obscure philosophical sub-discipline; it is a challenge of daily life, whether we are following the news or navigating our own personal lives. 

How do we know the truth?  Even when relying on direct sense perception, we may be vulnerable to deception. Even when facts can be established and agreed upon, they may be open to multiple interpretations.  Even, perhaps especially, when applying strict standards of observation, logic, and rationality, we may overlook the unpredictable, often irrational human equation.  To what extent do we see what we want to see and believe what we want to be true?  It may even be possible to base our whole lives on a false belief (See blog post on Blame, Nov., 2015).

Joyce Maynard’s recent novel Under the Influence could just as well be titled Under the Spell, as the first-person narrator, Helen, a recovering alcoholic who has lost custody of her son because of her drinking, falls under the spell of a wealthy couple who “take her in,” not only in the sense of providing friendship and support, but also in the sense of deceiving her with their false show of glamour and goodness, charity, and kindness. 

Granted, Helen, a professional photographer, provides multiple services to the Havillands in return for their favors, but, even so, it is a bit too good to be true.  Does this couple have to use their wealth to buy friendship?  Blinded by her own neediness, Helen falls under the spell of this upbeat couple and their exciting, glittery life style, ignoring one red flag after another, abandoning her one faithful friend, and eventually choosing the Havillands over a dull but wise fiancé, who tries to warn her that “something’s not right here.” 

Helen’s greatest need is to get her son back.  She uses the couple, especially the husband, Swift, who admits he is a just a grown-up, fun-loving kid himself, to lure her son back into her life.  Swift teaches him to swim and keeps him entertained with toys and games, acting almost as a bribe to draw young Ollie back into Helen’s life.  Swift also promises to have his lawyer pursue the legal means for Helen to regain custody. 

Despite becoming Ollie’s favorite playmate and serving as the means by which Helen hopes to get her son back, when a tragic accident occurs involving his own grown son, Swift quickly turns on Ollie, trying to shift blame for the accident from his own son to Helen’s.

That becomes the wake-up call that Helen finally hears.  In the end she does regain custody, but as much because of problems in her ex-husband’s new family as the friendship with Swift.  Along the way she has lost her previous best friend and her fiancé.

Meanwhile, the Havillands crash and burn as financial irregularities are uncovered that lead to indictments for both Swift and his son, thanks to some behind-the-scenes sleuthing by Helen’s ex-fiancé.

In a recent commentary (, Joyce Maynard identifies her key theme as the seductiveness of friendship and The Great Gatsby (see blog post, June, 2014) as a key source of inspiration.

The traditional seduction narrative, as she notes, involves romantic relationships, but there can be a fine line between romance and friendship, and any relationship can, no doubt, be subject to the manipulation and deception often involved in seduction.

The traditional narrative also often ends in tragedy for the (most frequently) female protagonist, thus serving as a kind of cautionary tale of warning to its young female romance readers, and the novels Maynard cites in her commentary all involve friendships that go awry, often ending in tragedy, though the sympathetic protagonist may survive to tell about it, as Helen does.

It is really Ava Havilland, the wife, who takes Helen under her wing and befriends her.  The novel begins with a chance sighting that Helen gets of Ava years after the dissolution of their friendship.  Ava has become a tragic and lonely figure, sans Swift, sans glamour, sans Helen.  The rest of the novel is a flashback to their first meeting, the blossoming of their friendship, the increasing importance of Swift to Helen’s relationship with her son, the accident, the betrayal and end of the relationship, Helen’s recovery, and the Havillands’ decline.

“The painful dissolution of a friendship is a universal theme, “ Maynard states in the above commentary.  In my life,” she says, “the ends of certain friendships have hurt as much as the end of any love affair.”  Given that she kept a copy of The Great Gatsby on her desk as she wrote, it is tempting to see Gatsby with his wealth, glamour, grandiosity, and hidden dark side, as a model for the Havillands.

The friendship theme hasn’t received a lot of attention in Gatsby, though some have seen a same-sex attraction on Nick’s part.  Certainly Nick is as fascinated and drawn to Gatsby as Helen is to the Havillands.  Also, just as Nick is self-deceptive about his role in the dark underside of Gatsby’s romantic idealism, so Helen is self-deceptive in the way she rationalizes the Havilland’s behavior when those red flags go up. 

It is not just that appearances can be deceptive, but, all too often, we participate in our own deception.

Both Nick and Helen escape the worst.  Gatsby is murdered and the Havillands lose their lavish lifestyle, just punishment for the latter, perhaps not such just punishment for the former.  Nick leaves the East Coast and returns to the, in his mind, more “decent,” less corrupt Midwest of his upbringing.  Helen remains in California, raises her son as a single mother, and, as he prepares to go off to college, decides to call that ex-fiancé to see if there is any hope for rekindling their relationship.  We’re left in uncertainty about both Nick’s and Helen’s futures. Presumably, they’ve both learned some lessons along the way, about illusion vs. reality, about self-deception, about friendship.

Whatever comparisons and contrasts there may be between the two novels, Under the Influence does not rise to the level of The Great Gatsby in terms of literary quality.  It’s a B novel, at best, though it resonates with those universal themes.