Lightning on the Sun by Robert Bingham ’88 (Doubleday, 288 pages, $23.95).
Desperately down and out in Phnom Penh, Asher is the Generation-X, expatriate hero of Lightning on the Sun, the first novel by the late Robert Bingham ’88. Asher’s life is a complete shambles. He sees only one way out: buy five kilos of the premium-grade heroin that abounds on the streets of the Cambodian capital and turn it around for a quick, huge profit in the States. With the help of his former girlfriend Julie, Asher concocts a plan to get the drugs back to the United States, thus setting in motion the wheels of this compelling, meditative thriller.
With nods to Graham Greene and Robert Stone, Bingham, whom I’d gotten to know well after we’d both graduated from Brown, takes us on a gripping, often grinding, tour of the modern expatriate world in Southeast Asia. It’s a place of disillusioned, dissolute Westerners – journalists, glorified tourists, and nongovernmental organization workers, many of whom are in over their heads and unprepared for the political and economic realities of the war-scarred country they are supposed to be working to improve. Bingham, who traveled frequently to Cambodia and had recently bought an apartment in Phnom Penh, clearly loved the city. His descriptions of it are visceral and evocative: "The bats rose up black against the vermilion roof of the National Museum, a Halloween pictorial, a horde of flying freakery, kinetically connected, swooning above his head before they disappeared in the direction of the river."
As beautifully written as Lightning on the Sun often is, the book also makes clear that Bingham, the scion of a Southern newspaper family, was an acute and self-aware observer of other people’s self-deceptions. Rather than recoil from the moral dilemmas that come with being a Westerner in Southeast Asia, he seems to gleefully embrace them. Bingham writes with brutal frankness about journalists who make Faustian bargains to get their stories, as well as about heroin use and alcohol abuse, the nature of love and sex, and the nagging sense of futility that a privileged upbringing can bestow on the children of the American upper-middle class. The expatriate characters in Lightning on the Sun are a long way from home, and the distance seems to free them from their best ideas of themselves.
In order to get his heroin back to the United States, Asher picks an unsuspecting American journalist, Reese, as his drug mule. We follow Reese back to Manhattan, watch him check into the Gramercy Park Hotel, meet Julie, and travel up to his old prep school (the Groton-like "Grove") to give a lecture about his work as a journalist in Cambodia. It is through Reese that we see the expat’s sense of the surreal as he revisits the sights of his American boyhood. The class strictures that relegate "townies" to jobs at the pizza parlor and the Whit Stilman-esque sadness of friends and classmates whose lives have stalled since graduating from prep school seem only to further divorce Reese from the shattered remnants of his past.
When Bingham’s 1997 collection of short stories, Pure Slaughter Value, was published, it earned him comparisons to John Cheever and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The collection’s taut, sorrowful narratives detailed the intricacies of a generation of privileged young adults who looked, often drunkenly and mostly desperately, for meaning in their lives. The stories in Pure Slaughter Value are slow-paced, but they are filled with a restrained, deeply felt emotion. Lightning on the Sun, by contrast, is a thriller. Its psychological core is worked out in the structure of the narrative, rather than in the minds of its characters. But like the novels of Graham Greene, Lightning on the Sun transcends its genre with beautifully written scenes and sentences that convey its sorrow and tentative hope.
Near the end of the novel, when the horrifying, inevitable conclusion is within smelling distance, Bingham shows us the possibility of salvation for Asher flickering in the distance: "The three hostages whined up the mountain road on the backs of motorbikes.... As the road leveled off there arrived a series of bombed-out houses and then, in the distance, came, of all things, a church." Few characters in Lightning on the Sun are able to think clearly about the future, however. The book’s ruminations about what’s to come are nothing short of heartbreaking in light of Bingham’s untimely, accidental death by a heroin overdose last November. In retrospect, such passages as Reese’s thoughts about an old friend on their trip up to "Grove" are haunting: "As for his old friend, well, the guy had lost his grit. The Weatherly of their rowing life together was gone, and in his place there was only the emptiness, the ambiguity of adult life and a divorce."
The ultimate scene of the novel, which brings the saga of Asher and Julie to a brilliantly realized if unbearably painful crescendo, is powerful and subtle. With an ending as intense as those of the great works of expat writing that Bingham loved, Lightning on the Sun is a beautiful book filled with sadness: it promised great things from an extremely talented writer.
Samantha Gillison is the author of The Undiscovered Country.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Six months after his marriage and in the same November week that page proofs of his first novel came off the press, Robert Bingham was found dead from an accidental heroin overdose in the bathroom of his New York City apartment. The scion of a storied Kentucky newspaper family, Bingham had a reputation for being different from other rich people. “He was without a snobbish bone in his body, able to empathize with people completely different from himself and extraordinarily generous with anyone he loved, believed in, pitied, admired, or was flattered by persistently enough,” wrote Samantha Gillison on the Web magazine Salon.com. Bingham’s death was an abrupt ending to a writing career still brimming with promise. After an early start – the New Yorker published his first story when he was twenty-six – Bingham earned a reputation for poignant portrayals of disaffected and burned-out rich young men. He also published the work of other similarly brilliant-yet-bizarre writers in Open City, a witty, provocative, and often dark literary magazine that Bingham cofounded and bankrolled. A review of his first collection of short stories, Pure Slaughter Value, said Bingham’s work, “at its best, stands out for its precisely rendered and convincingly bleak view of life.”
A professor struggles to balance a career with a sick child.
Angles of Reflection: Logic and a Mother’s Love by Joan L. Richards (W.H. Freeman, 282 pages, $23.95).
Anyone who’s tried to balance a job and children knows it’s impossible to do both wholeheartedly. Usually you end up focusing on your job and asking someone else to take your child to the playground, or you stick with the kid and squeeze in a little work at night. But if your child becomes ill – especially if you are a woman – the balancing act goes right out the window. Your career just has to wait.
That’s one of the underlying messages of Angles of Reflection: Logic and a Mother’s Love, an eloquent memoir by Associate Professor of History Joan Richards. In the course of eighteen months in 1994 and 1995, one of Richards’s sons endured first brain surgery and then a mysterious elbow injury that left him unable to bend his arm. Those eighteen months coincided almost exactly with a sabbatical that was supposed to get Richards, whose specialty is the history of mathematics in Victorian England, back on the academic fast track. Over the years she had managed, with two little boys at home, to teach classes, write a dissertation and a book, and get tenure, but she’d also lost a promotion because she had chosen to spend time with her family instead of cranking out a second book. Now, with nine-year-old Ned in and out of the hospital, Richards watched the opportunity presented by her sabbatical trickle away.
As she describes how she cared for Ned, Richards puts forth the other message of Angles of Reflection: that, despite the book’s subtitle, a mother’s love is not logical at all. Richards boldly relies on her academic specialty to provide her with guidance in her personal life. The result is a deftly told and moving story.
As Richards grapples with her son’s illnesses and the havoc they wreak on her long-awaited sabbatical, she describes the life and work of a nineteenth-century mathematician named Augustus De Morgan, one of the first people to write about probability theory and logic in England. Like Richards, De Morgan had a child who became sick, and also like Richards, De Morgan found mathematics a tranquil, orderly respite from the chaos of everyday life. But as she alternates passages about De Morgan with her own experience, Richards reveals how her beloved mathematical world, with its theories about logic and absolute time and space, doesn’t really have room for things like children and sickness and loss.
Angles of Reflection is at times an emotional, even tearful, read; Richards writes powerfully of her struggle to reconcile the messiness of her personal life with the neat absolutes of her mathematical training. The sections on logic may get tedious for nonacademics, and sometimes the juxtaposition of Richards’s experience with De Morgan’s feels a little forced. But in the end the two stories need each other; each deepens the other’s meaning. Just like a mother and child.
Contributing Editor Jennifer Sutton is a freelance writer based in Brattleboro, Vermont.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JOAN L. RICHARDS
When Joan Richards was an undergraduate at Harvard in 1966, "mathematics was not something that girls did,” she says. She’d been a fine math student her whole life and was interested in pursuing the subject at the college level, but the discipline wasn’t ”female-friendly,” she says. Instead Richards redirected her interest in numbers and combined it with history. Now an associate professor of history specializing in the history of science and mathematics, Richards was hardly alone in making the turn: “You’ll find a number of women in the history of math for just that reason,” she says. Richards continues to balance the demands of academia and home – though things are a little easier now that her son Ned, whose illness is chronicled in Angles of Reflection, is in good health. She is happy to report that Ned “is absolutely fine. In fact,” she adds brightly, “I’m in the process of getting him into Outward Bound.”
GIRL TALK Unzipped: What Happens When Friends Talk About Sex – A True Story by Courtney Weaver ’87 (Doubleday, 256 pages, $21.95).
BY JEN MAYER ’91
Male-female relationships have always been fertile soil for writers, but the best cultivation of this ground in the 1990s seemed to come at the hands of women. Just as books (Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary), alternative newspaper columns ("Female Trouble" in the New York Press by Amy Sohn ’95), and television series (Sex and the City) were attracting a following, Courtney Weaver began turning out a weekly column called "Unzipped" for the on-line magazine Salon. Weaver’s columns were based on her frank talks with friends about sex and relationships. In her first book, a retelling of many of the stories from her columns, she takes readers on an entertaining odyssey through today’s dating scene in San Francisco.
As a writer Weaver’s biggest assets are her friends: Harriet holds to old-fashioned dating rules, Marie (Weaver’s hairdresser) is in an open marriage that has blown wide open, and Jemma has entered a master-slave relationship with a dominant man. As Weaver follows this diverse cast of real characters, she is matter-of-fact and to the point; she has no problem asking all the questions politeness might forbid. Her voice is sardonic but never bitter or dismissive.
Drifting in and out of a tepid, on-and-off relationship with an old boyfriend, Weaver’s own forays into dating provide wry commentary on some modern nuances of male-female relations. Innovations in telecommunication are, we discover, fodder for frenzied, neurotic speculation. Today’s modern woman doesn’t just sit at home waiting for the man to call. Instead she compulsively checks voice mail, e-mail, and caller ID for telltale signs that he might have communicated his intentions in any way. The peak of this techno-neurotica comes when Weaver, desperate for insights into her noncommittal boyfriend’s mind, steals his voice-mail password and obsessively listens to his messages for weeks, an invasion of privacy that seems far more shocking than any revelations in Unzipped about sexual lifestyles or practices.
Ordinary life in Weaver’s account often shares the page with racier material. Moving from stories about sex and dating to retellings of arguments she has had with her mother, Weaver relates tales of heartrending betrayal alongside the saga of the boyfriend who gave his mate a cheese grater as a birthday gift. The height of these surreal juxtapositions occurs as a man casually offers Weaver an Altoid in the midst of an S&M sex-club scene. The small details enhance the book’s sense of authenticity, but the portrayal of ordinary life is perhaps a bit too authentic in parts. As in life, the story line frequently meanders and sometimes drifts too far into the mundane.
Still, it’s an enjoyable ride. Reading Unzipped gives you the guilty pleasure of peeking into other people’s lives – without having to steal any passwords.
Jen Mayer is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
COURTNEY WEAVER ’87
Courtney Weaver is too much of a grown-up to be called a sex columnist. During the two and a half years that she wrote “Unzipped,” a column about relationships for Salon that she later turned into her first book, she tried “to be the voice of everywoman,” she says. “I wasn’t taking a lot of drugs, going to wild parties, and trying to be a hipster,” she adds. “Sex itself is boring, but the psychology of relationships is interesting.” Now the author of an advice column called “Leave It to Weaver: Advice for Men“ at Edificerex.com, Weaver these days fields such questions as “How should a man manage his mate during the throes of a mother-daughter spat?” and “How should one deal with well-intentioned, if intrusive, grandparents?”.