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He recognized her despite the uproar, through his tears of unrepeatable sorrow at dying without her, and he looked at her for the last and final time with eyes more luminous, more grief-stricken, more grateful than she had ever seen them in half a century of a shared life, and he managed to say to her with his last breath:

“Only God knows how much I loved you.”

Today has been reported as the hottest day in Sydney for 85 years. I certainly felt it. When I set out this morning the air had been pleasantly cool. One quick deposit of previously reviewed book titles and the collection of this coming week’s novels and I was back outsde, stepping lightly on sizzling concrete.

Absolutely unbearable. While waiting for the bus I began reading Love in the Time of Cholera, a book I am sad to say I am mostly familiar with following its use as a prop in that Kate Beckinsale romcom Serendipity. I felt as if the heat simply dropped, so absorbed was I in the book’s fluid prose. Later when I retreated to my shady bedroom, with my wife curled up asleep beside me in bed, I felt like I was the luckiest man alive.

The story begins with the tragic suicide of a man who refused to grow any older once he had reached his sixtieth year. Though he does not figure in the rest of the story, a narrative that flashes back and forth across the lives of three individuals caught in a strange love triangle, this man’s refusal to grow old reflects the concerns of the novel itself. Whether love, that animating principle that sustains both generation and devotion, is possible in old age?

For fifty-one years, nine months and four days Florentino has remained passionately in love with Fermina. They met while they were both teenagers and conducted a secret affair of the heart through love letters. Florentino is given to over-romantic poetical outpourings of affection, gifts and persistent entreaties for Fermina’s love. For her part, she maintains a degree of reserve in her replies, although she is convinced that she loves him. Even after the affair is discovered, she persists in her shared attraction to the poet, until one day, having overcome many months of obstacles thrown in their path to be together, she sees him in a new light: as a pathetic looking figure, completely dependent on her reciprocation.

She rejects Florentino and instead finds herself courted by Dr. Urbino, sophisticated and possessing of wordly knowledge where her former lover was insular and consumed by an irrational infatuation. Urbino has returned from Europe with the sophistication of a true Parisian, a cultured interest in literature and modern medicine, having aided in the defeat of a devastating cholera epidemic. They marry and raise a family together, discovering an enduring domestic happiness.

Florentino fastidiously preserves his own body to remain in shape for his beloved and is incapable of writing anything but love letters in memory of the woman who rejected him – something of a hindrance when it comes to writing business letters for a shipping company. As the years pass he begins to take a series of lovers, generally widows, with whom he has clandestine relationships, never marrying, never accompanying any of them in public. As he rises up the corporate ladder rumours spread that he is in fact homosexual and with his studied vanity, unusual attention to his health and obsession with sex is seen as an odd character.

When Urbino finally dies, having fallen in an attempt to retrieve a parrot from a mango tree, Florentino presents himself to Fermina while she is still in mourning and presses his suit. Horrified she rejects him a second time, in disbelief that such an unnatural request be made while her husband sits in his coffin waiting for burial.

The death of Urbino occurs at the beginning of the novel, with the three lives of the spurned lover, wife and dead husband poured over for the rest of the book. There is a Proustian quality to the proceedings, with memory the fuel of the narrative. The frailty of the human body is ever-present. Florentino’s romantic obsession is symptomatic of cholera; the aging characters are betrayed by bodily effluvia. At one point someone declares that romantic love in youth is ridiculous – during old age, obscene.

This book remains passionately defiant and wickedly seductive till the last page. Delirious, amoral and bewitching.

I mean, I’m just tired of being wrong all the time just because I’m a guy. I mean, how many times can everybody tell you that you’re the oppressive, prejudiced enemy before you give up and become the enemy. I mean, a male chauvinist pig isn’t born, he’s made, and more and more of them are being made by women.

See when the Late Review panel were discussing Fight Club and getting a bug up their nose about the fascist implications of the film, or the mocking tone with regard to therapy groups, I remember watching them fret, kvetch, moan and gibber, thinking to myself ‘they’ve missed the bloody point’ Palahniuk is writing comedy. This stuff is funny. Offensive, shocking and controversial – but funny none the less.

At least I hope he’s being funny.

Victor Mancini is a failed medical student, historical re-enactment performer, conman and sex addict. He schemes and plots to fund his mother’s medical bills, which involves faking choking on a mouthful of steak in restaurants and then hitting up his would-be rescuers for cheques to support him in his hour of need. It’s a decent scam, allowing him to spend his days dressing up in period costumes with his best friend Denny and teaching obnoxious school kids trivia about life in 1734. His sex life is conducted with fellow addicts at their weekly support group. Victor narrates to us his past with his mentally disturbed mother, who kidnapped him on at least several occasions from new sets of foster parents, all in the name of ‘rescuing him from a conventional life’.

Victor’s life is certainly not conventional. Problem is he’s not a nice man.

Unfortunately conning innocents out of their savings can’t pay all of his mother’s medical bills and as her condition deteriorates he is made an outrageous offer by Doctor Paige Marshall. But is she for real, or is Victor himself the victim of a long con?

Palahniuk enjoys drawing out the grottiness of his character’s failed lives. Over and over he insists that we have to stop reading this book, that it’s only going to get worse. Sex addicts are everywhere rutting in public toilets, looking nondescript in their everyday disguises. Victor’s narration introduced me to a new euphemism for the penis, as well as warning of the dangers of mislaying an anal bead. He also speaks in a parody of a medical dictionary, obsessively diagnosing syndromes and cancerous growths, proving that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. His extreme loathing for the boy he was, unknowingly swept up by his mother’s psychosis, seems to lie behind all his failed attempts to be a better man, or a doctor, friend who is needed, perhaps even the second coming of Christ!

Palahniuk’s humour mocks the pretentions of nihilism, its self-pity and refusal to take responsibility. When Victor is having sex a nymphomaniac in a toilet stall with his dog not for one moment does he consider what he is actually doing. His behavior is caused by addiction. He cons people to save his dying mother, whom he secretly hopes will never recover. He adopts different personas when he visits her, as she is too deluded to recognize her own son and spends most of his days pretending to live in 1734.

For this generation of men the greatest failure is to ejaculate prematurely (or in Victor’s words ‘trigger’). Sobriety and self-control are too much to ask of them. Everywhere they see the threat of increasingly dominant women and a mother’s love is never sufficient. Palahniuk is no prophet of doom, however, he’s just offering to smack modern man upside the head shouting wake the hell up!

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