Jill Ciment: Heroic Measures (Pantheon, 2009)

Heroic Measures

A fellow WordPress blogger, Jeanie from 2manybooks2littletime, recommended this book to me. I saw it was from Oprah’s “Summer Reading List” and had little hope for it. In fact, I was quite sulky about it when I started reading. It’s a small book, fewer than 200 pages with lots of white space, so I went ahead with it anyway. I’m very glad I did. Jill Ciment is from Montreal and teaches at the University of Florida, but she did a great job with New York. Her interview with Oprah (including the origins of this book in a Lost Cat poster on a telephone pole that was covered up by Missing People posters after 9/11, the importance of Chekhov, and how her first draft didn’t contain the real estate element) is available in transcript online.

The novel covers an extended weekend and is divided into chapters:
Friday Night: The Lady With The Pet Dog
Saturday Morning: The Invasion
Saturday Afternoon: The War
Saturday Evening: Ceasefire
Sunday: Queen for a Day
Sunday Evening: Fountain of Youth
Monday Morning: Animal Sense

It’s set in the period immediately following 9/11, though the time isn’t nailed down exactly. The main characters are Alex and Ruth, an elderly couple living in a fifth-floor walkup condo in Manhattan. Their realtor, Lily, figures the asking price as nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, and this figure – millionaires! Images of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers! – entices them to put the apartment on the market even though they’ve lived there for forty-five years, figuring they could get another apartment, one with an elevator, for a million dollars.

The story opens with Friday Night: The Lady with the Pet Dog. Dorothy, their twelve-year-old dachshund, develops an ailment which has her incontinent and partly paralyzed. Dorothy is part of the third-person narration here, experiencing fiery and icy pain as she is carried down the stairs on a cutting board to the animal hospital. This almost did me in, as I had a cat who woke up paralyzed and I’m familiar with the incontinence of older dogs. I have to admit, I was sulking here. I don’t like the dog having narration.

Getting Dorothy to the animal hospital isn’t as simple as it sounds, since there are helicopters and fire trucks and sirens and standstill traffic. Alex and Ruth hear rumors from Mr. Rahim, their neighbor and falafel stand owner, and from the cab driver, an Indian with a large cross hanging from the rearview mirror, who isn’t paid to think, or answer questions: there’s a fire in the tunnel, a fuel truck is stuck, etc etc. They get out of the cab and walk, in freezing cold, to the animal hospital, where they have to get through a metal detector (Dorothy’s collar keeps setting it off even after they’ve taken off their watches and Ruth’s purse has been examined) and show picture ID. Finally they are told Dorothy has a ruptured disc and while steroids may work, she may need surgery, and she may never walk again.

At this point, I’m thinking I’m not going to make it. Is it just hitting too close to home? My cat, Lucy, is having another spell of I-don’t-eat-I-don’t-pee-don’t-bother-me. I’m still recovering (hah – I’ve finished recovering, what I’m left with is what I’ve got) from disc problems in my neck that cause chronic pain and arm numbness and weakness. I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t be reading this book right now. But there’s some great stuff here. The Indian cab driver with a cross, and the metal detector at the animal hospital, these things are pretty cool, actually, they speak volumes. And Alex and Ruth are discussing helping Dorothy with her eliminative functions (dog and cat owners, as well as parents of small children, talk about such things quite easily, but I don’t know who might be reading here) and she says, “I don’t mind helping her.” He replies, “She might mind.” And I wonder if we’re still talking about Dorothy.

There’s another Dorothy-pov narration, which I really dislike. It isn’t exactly anthropomorphisation, but it bothers me. Saying a dog whimpers is one thing. Saying it knows pain differently since the orange flash earlier that evening is another.

They return home, leaving Dorothy in medical care. Mr. Rahim at the falafel stand tells them the Midtown tunnel is still stuck, and a robot has been sent in to investigate; they inform him of Dorothy’s medical state. We discover Alex is not enthusiastic about this move. He is an artist, and his studio is something he has arranged very precisely; it isn’t as simple as re-arranging it in the same way in a new space. He’s currently working on an illuminated manuscript, the manuscript being Ruth’s FBI file. Her mother was a Russian Jewish immigrant, and Ruth has been on the left of everything her whole life. I think this is terrific. I wish I had an FBI file to illuminate. Who knows, maybe I do. But I doubt it. The idea of illuminating an FBI file actually came from Ciment’s husband, Arnold Mesches, who did such a thing with his own files in The FBI Files: A Collage Series. You can see some of it as exhibited at the Witherspoon Gallery at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. You can even buy a book of the art. I love this.

There’s mention that Lily, the realtor, is selling the studio as a nursery. There’s also mention of Ruth being relieved, and trying to be disappointed, by her lack of gestation early in her marriage as her friends moved to the suburbs and started families. Lily calls, and tells them she has a potential buyer coming at 8:30 a.m. Ruth is surprised, since she didn’t think anyone would be out house-hunting with a fuel truck stuck in the tunnel. “I closed on a Tribeca loft the day after Nine Eleven,” Lily reassures her. I’m beginning to love this. And to realize something: it’s funny.

Ruth finds her eyeglasses behind the microwave and wonders how they got there. This raises a red flag for me – it’s a classic Alzheimer’s thing, putting things in strange places and not remembering. But I don’t know if that’s what it’s supposed to mean; Ruth hasn’t exhibited any other behavior like that. Ruth recalls her life by eyeglass frames. That’s interesting, I could probably do the same. Alex and Ruth go to bed; he sees the remote in her hand “like a morphine pump” which, now that I think of it, is pretty accurate in terms of the function of a TV remote control. Alex can’t really hear – he’s had his hearing aids out all day – but he sees the “LIVE” banner on the TV screen and tells her that means something is up. Ruth corrects him. “They’re onto LIVE. They know all about LIVE. Nowadays, all LIVE means is that the newscaster isn’t dead.” That’s pretty good. And very accurate. “Breaking News” can be twelve hours old, and it’s still a magnet.

The hospital calls and tells them a test, plus surgery, will be needed, as the steroids are not doing much and Dorothy is losing sensation. They approve the procedures, which will commence at 7 a.m.

I am still not enjoying this book, and I still do not know why. But now we move on to Saturday Morning: The Invasion, and I start enjoying the book immensely.

Little Dog Dorothy is having surgery; the realtor brings in people for the open house; news reports are covering the escape of the fuel truck driver. Bidding starts just as the truck driver breaks into someone’s apartment to escape, and she offers him meth. Yes, it’s as bizarre as it sounds. The bids seem to be affected by the news, by Pamir (the truck driver-terrorist, we’ve seen so much of him on the news, we’re on a first-name basis with him now), by a similar incident in Baltimore which turns out to be a seagull flying into the windshield rather than terrorism. The realtor invokes the Mugging Principle; if only your block is dangerous, prices go down, but if everywhere is dangerous, prices go up. Crazy people show up to see the condo – one woman lies on their bed to see the view, another brings her dog, and they all track in snow.

On Saturday Afternoon: The War starts – the bidding war. Ruth gets calls from the animal hospital interspersed with the bids to inform them Dorothy has opened her eyes, has taken water, has wagged her tail. And the woman who was held hostage in her own apartment tells the news reporter how she offered him meth. It’s hilarious. Ruth gets fed up with herself: “I changed. I couldn’t wait to take advantage of Baltimore’s troubles. When an accident there affects real estate here, when a dead seagull can elicit such terror in us, everything’s changed.” Still, the bids are going up, up, up, and it would be so nice to have an elevator AND a doorman… They start ducking the realtor’s calls.

On Saturday Evening: Ceasefire: There’s a scene with Alex and Ruth and their much wealthier friends Rudolph and May having dinner in a “pan-equatorial” restaurant – one of those “coffin-width” places with ten tables you find in NYC. It’s hilarious, the waiter putting on airs and describing the food by atoll, the diners fussing with their over- and under-dressed salads or the overly-quick delivery of the entrée. Seriously, you have to read it. Pan-equatorial? Well, makes about as much sense as “Pacific Rim” which inspired a number of chic eateries in the 90’s. The cheesecake, however, is from Passaic, just in case you were wondering.

On Sunday: Queen for a Day Ruth and Alex go condo shopping and find themselves on the other side of the looking glass. They make an offer, and will drop off a deposit later. I have to admit I got a little lost in the real estate transactions, and I’m not really sure whose calls they’ve been ducking or why. Then they visit Dorothy in the animal hospital; they’ll take her home tomorrow. The news on Pamir has shifted to Bed Bath and Beyond (there’s a lot of play with the word “Beyond” as he has taken hostages there. His mother is talking to him from outside, trying to get him to surrender. A forensic psychologist (you know who you are) is interviewed, and declares the connection between food and culture is why Pamir has chosen to take his hostages in the kitchenware section of Bed Bath and Beyond. This all has a Wag the Dog quality to it – everything is being said and done very seriously but it’s hilarious. I hope someone makes a movie of this. It’s hilarious only, of course, because we aren’t there experiencing it. Alex and Ruth continue to duck the realtor’s calls. Rudolph and May call from their beach house, where their TV is out so Ruth gives them a blow-by-blow on TV as Pamir surrenders and is forced to strip naked (because he might have a suicide bomb on him) with all the important parts tastefully blurred out for TV news. Alex and Ruth go down to the condo they want to buy to give their deposit: now that the crisis is over, they can make decisions. Alex is a little surprised there aren’t people celebrating in the streets. “Everyone in New York is on a cell phone,” he says to Ruth. “Maybe they don’t want to celebrate alone,” she says. This touches me deeply. I know exactly what they both mean.

Sunday Evening: Fountain of Youth is in sight, but then, an elevator isn’t really a fountain of youth. Alex and Ruth debate (over Chinese Shrimp by the light of a Yahrzeit candle) the offers they’ve had on their apartment: the women with the Labrador, who turns out to be a seeing-eye dog in training and would love to be near the dog park a block away, and the woman with clients who turns out to be some kind of chiropractor and has no pets but has the slightly higher bid: enough to pay for moving Alex’s art. Alex takes a Viagra just in case. Ruth realizes this just in time.

Monday Morning: Animal Sense

I admit, I was disappointed with the ending, but I frequently am since vague and nebulous endings are so in vogue these days. But it was a very worthwhile read, with many details that ran through the book that haven’t been adequately presented here. I just wish Dorothy didn’t have narrated scenes.


2 responses to “Jill Ciment: Heroic Measures (Pantheon, 2009)

  1. Great review! I agree with the Dorothy narration – I’m not big on animal narration and/ or anthromorphisation. I loved the the relationship between Alex and Ruth, and relate to having to address your own failing abilties and change homes based on that. I’m not there yet, but everytime I climb my stairs I see it in my future.
    Thanks for the review and the shout out to my blog!

    • Thanks, Jeanie, I’m glad you recommended the book. I’ve been thinking about the news media aspect as I’ve been watching the coverage of Japan. I lived on a third-floor walkup on Beacon Hill in Boston when I was 18, and it wasn’t easy then, I can’t imagine doing it now – Alex and Ruth must be very healthy people!

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