[Originally appeared on New Reads and Old Standbys in May 2009:]
I initially bought this book at the urging of a friend of mine who swore up and down that it was the best book he’d read “in forever, it’s sick, seriously, go out and read this now.” Before I go any further, let me point out that he uses the word “sick” as a synonym for “awesome,“ and the word pops up in conversation with him rather frequently. For a moment I honestly believed the book was disgusting, depraved or just plain rude, before I realized what he actually meant.
As it turns out, the first time I attempted to read this novel my initial fears weren’t too far off. While not actually rendering me physically nauseous, there was something about this book that got on my nerves so much that, after fifty pages, I put it down and forgot about it for a few years. It could have been any number of things, really.
It could have been the fact that the book is narrated in second person perspective, like a Choose Your Own Adventure, which for some people is so highly distracting and dizzying that they avoid the particular format like the plague. You will really like this book if you are a narcissist, or like to fantasize about being someone else. In fact, if this is the case, you can feel yourself looking the book up on Amazon and purchasing it this very moment, paying for it with your own credit card. See? See how irritating that could become?
It could have been that the book deals in mid-90s stock exchange drama, a subject I could honestly care less about. I have somewhat of a distaste for hardcore white-collar dealings and this book is full of characters and terminology that, while I didn’t have difficulty understanding, I certainly wasn’t all that fascinated by.
It could also be the fact that the main character is a woman I would consider to be the perfect photo negative of myself. She’s career-driven, obsessed to be more accurate, concerned only with money and the stock index and the current going price of Fortune 500 shares. She’s a cultureless bitch in a Porche she hasn’t paid off yet, in clothes she hasn’t yet reimbursed her credit card for, living in an apartment she deems too small and low class for her that she’s desperate to move out of, banking her entire existence on getting into a place with a doorman and and a few hundred extra yards of space inside.
Oh, she’s just a treat, this prudish, squeaky voiced woman with her older, too sincere, rich-as-hell-but-unconcerned-with-money Christian boyfriend that she keeps around for no reason at all. Did I mention the boyfriend lives with Andre, a born-again macaque that was once one of the boldest jewel thieves in France? No?
I spent fifty pages inside the head of this woman, thanks to Robbins’ choice of narrative, and the whole time I was screaming to get out. She hates sex, everything is gross to the point where she blushes at the drop of a hat, she hates her Filipina background and her hippie parents, she hates not having money and the world laid at her feet and she hates the common people of Seattle. In addition to an overly nice but boring boyfriend and his pet monkey, her best friend is a 300 pound tarot reader named Q-Jo, and she hates being seen with Q-Jo in public because, oh yeah, the world hates fat people, especially fat people in purple turbans and other garish attire, so she keeps her best friend swept up under the proverbial rug in order to maintain her professional veneer.
I was rather amazed I got to page fifty, seeing as the whole time I just wanted to slap her. Or myself, seeing as I was supposed to be her this entire time. I felt pretty disgusted as I put it back on my shelf, relieved to find something a bit more enjoyable to spend my time on. And there that book sat, for two more years at least, until I picked it up again a few weeks ago.
I blame my recently-acquired interest in late twentieth and early twenty-first century humor fiction for sending me back to Half Asleep. Having read Barry and Coupland and Nielan over the last six months to a year, my attention turned towards Robbins again, a writer that numerous people have gushed to me over. Rather than buying another one of his books, or trying to find copies in the library (I love libraries but get a bit antsy over their rigid time restraints, due to my short attention span and habit of flitting back and forth between books) I decided to pick up and read Half Asleep. The whole way through. No more putting it off and leaving it shelved, telling myself I’d get around to actually completing it at a later date. Nope. Going to read it now.
And read it I did. I have to say that the second time is a charm for this one. It was so much easier this time around.
I found myself again rolling my eyes and feeling disgusted by Gwendolyn Mati and her obsession with emerging from the long Easter weekend triumphant over all of Wall Street and earning millions during an impending crash. That’s what this book is about at its core, a market on the brink of annihilation and a young, incompetent stock broker furiously trying to cover her possibly illegal (and most definitely amoral) investment strategies from both boss and client.
It’s also about philosophy, capitalism, African tribalism, sex, disease, space aliens, telepathy, hallucinogens and the arcane. It could also, if you stretch your imagination a tiny bit, be about love.
I started off wanting to beat the holy hell out of Gwen, just as I did last time, but pushing through this novel, page by page, I was able to witness her transformation from a completely self-obsessed, arrogant bitch to a woman who might have her heart in the right place even if she’s a bit on the narcissistic side. It was an amazing albeit snail-paced transformation, made all the better and worth waiting for by numerous encounters along the way that leave her humiliated and knocked down more than a few pegs. There are a few places where I had to hold my giggles in.
Is it possible to experience Schadenfreude against yourself? In this instance, I think so. And at the end, after I was flushed of all available derision, I actually felt a bit good for her.