Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Review: Michele Martinez. Notorious.

Michele Martinez. Notorious. NY: William Morrow, 2008. (Paper, 2009)
ISBN-13: 978-0-06-089902-8

I don’t know which is worse, Amnesty International leveraging violence by Iranian pigs against grieving mothers as a fund-raising ploy, or a writer using violence against women to advance a plot?

Actual violence obviously eats at the roots of civilization, and can lead to war—remember those pre-Bush graphic images of Afghan Taliban executing women whose crime was womanhood? If giving money to a US-based pressure group could stamp out that savagery, then adelante with your email.

Fictive violence is a writer’s obligation, perhaps. As Walter Mosley reminds in This Year You Write Your Novel, a writer can fashion a plot using any number of ugly stomach-turning acts. After all, it’s merely fiction and, perhaps, art. And if not, a suspense novel is at least a cheap thrill.

But then I remember Kenneth Burke’s watchphrase, “literature as equipment for living.” Burke’s view is that literature exemplifies events that readers can convert into strategies guiding one’s own motives and ethos. Burke's is a critical stance reinforcing the view that literary characters and plots can, should, provide role models where surrounding culture leaves blanks for readers. I think of protests by pinheaded Senators who refused to believe that the nation needs wise Latinas in national leadership.

With Burke’s critical philosophy in mind, it strikes me as sadly misplaced plotting to feature a victimized woman falling prey to one of several despicable men in league against federal prosecutor Melanie Vargas in Michelle Martinez’ current thriller, Notorious. What is a reader to take from such characters and the world swirling around them?

There’s much praised in Martinez’ character. The United States needs strong Latinas, in fiction as in real life. Melanie Vargas is one tough woman, facing down scum like the odious rapper who gives the book its title, as well as the twisted criminal defense lawyer working behind the scenes to derail the prosecution. Melanie's no superwoman. There’s a chink in Melanie’s armor that shows her strength—her ongoing lust for an ex-lover. But she manages the emotion, even leveraging her relationship to use the FBI guy’s position to her advantage, gleaning data that advances her prosecution of the slimy rapper. Still, Melanie has a tough row to hoe. The rapper's immense popularity and idol worshipping fans stand in the way of a hoped for conviction, even Melanie’s sister admires the crumb’s talent.

Enter a first-year prosecutor who falls in hormone-driven lust with the defense lawyer. She starts feeding him details of the case, and worse, supplying forged documents to sabotage the case. She's a small town girl making it big, but one with a damaged past undiscovered by the US Attorney's background checks. Once the big-time lawyer gets his hands around her neck--literally, she’s putty in his sadistic hands. The flamboyant lawyer toys with the woman’s insecurities to lure her deeper into his plot to free the murderer. The traitor’s even aware she’s being used, yet she invites ever more rough sex with this paragon of evil.

When the hapless woman gets caught, she botches the sting Melanie and her associates devise to trap the attorney. Suspicious, he sends an assassin to clean up the mess. This brings a Russian hit man into the woman’s apartment, where Melanie has arrived, too. Melanie winds up on the wrong end of a pistol-whipping, described in lurid detail. But--and here comes the bitter disappointment of this otherwise effective yarn--when the defense attorney and the rapper get shot, their deaths merit a few tell-not-show paragraphs.

Talk about disappointing imbalance, with the violence against the women more vividly presented than the painless instant deaths of the two biggest assholes in the novel. Surely they deserve to die in slo-mo agony as a counterweight to the weak woman motif. Even Amnesty International provides accountability for the violence it leverages, promising to publish “the names of prisoners of conscience and documenting the use of brutal force to crush dissent”. So give us money. Very clear cut.

Frustratingly, Notorious ends with a pistol-whipped Melanie, two dead bad guys, a car-bombed friend, one dead good cop, and that sad rookie U.S. Attorney. She's fired but not going to jail for her stupidity, and keeping her license in the denouement. No consequences, nothing as clear cut as justice, much less a moral lesson or redeeming virtue. Weakness its own reward. Why does a woman need to be strong, or wise for that matter, when the only consequence of failure is a slightly sullied status quo? As a novel, Notorious ends up as a monkey wrench in the tool box of equipment for living. I derive no guilty pleasure from reading this fluff, only a sense of regret that Martinez crafted so aimless a story.

There's the first Tuesday of the year Two Thousand Ten. A Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except You Are Here. Thank you for visiting La Bloga.


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1 comment:

Lourdes said...

Thanks for the honest review.

This is not a book I might usually read, but appreciated your review and learning about K. Burke's view of literature.