Monday, September 24, 2012

How to Get Into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak

I read this like a pelican eats a fish. Why I gulped it down so fast I'm not sure, because How to Get Into the Twin Palms is about a woman changing herself to capture a man and I usually don't care for that story. But, despite the simple plot, there is something very much not straightforward to this story. The book's first line, "It was a strange choice to decide to pass as a Russian," alludes to this and though the following sentences seem to give reasons why the main character, Anka, chooses to do just this and more, they don't provide easy answers.

There are a several things going on in this novel. Despite being framed as a way to "crawl out of [her Polish skin]" and find out, between Russians and Poles, "who was under who," Anka's desire to get into the titular Twin Palms nightclub seems less like a desire to escape a specific ethnic identity and more as a particular way to obliterate self. When it comes down to it, Anka feels like she is nowhere and nothing. The fact that her search seems like a whim, a way to pass her recent unemployment, makes the mercenary quality of her plan--find a Russian man, seduce him, gain access to the inexplicable charms of the club--distressing and, as she begins to succeed, it gets weirder. Anka is unpleasant to spend time with. She is prickly and seems fascinated by a chinzy excuse for paradise; sitting with her as she decides to ruin her life is hard only because you keep wanting something more interesting to be revealed in her desperateness. Anka is the dark side: boring without being sweet, self-destructive without being artful, strange without being intruging.

At its heart, How to Get Into the Twin Palms is the story of a breakdown. It is also a story about being 25 and unmoored, about being an immigrant, about what happens when the money runs out, about being a woman, about sex and relationships. Most potent is how the book examines modern American womanhood. Anka herself is consumed with beauty and courtship rituals so unexamined they read as ridiculous and disgusting, and she herself finds the reality of the body as something to be fought against. The character of Mary, a lusty, oversharing, and unraveling old lady who attends the bingo where Anka is occasionally employed, is a reminder that loneliness and desire aren't assuaged by age. Mary is a specter in Anka's life and Anka begins to hate her for her needs, the same needs that Anka wants to satisfy for herself. The two women's exchanges are some of the most satisfying in the book because of their unexpected weight.

I don't know if it is because I just got back from another quasi-disturbing trip to LA, but the importance of the LA setting crept up on me only after this visit. Anka is always scraping at her skin, dyeing her hair and doing the laundry with stinging stinky chemicals, with dinged faith that change will happen this time."The box said Spicy Ginger... I put on a shower cap and caught myself i the mirror.  I looked ridiculous, but this was it. I knew this was what I finally needed. I would look ravishing fresh and new." Also to this point is the exchange between Anka and a regular-guy-type fireman who is in LA to fight wildfires:
"What's your problem," he asked.
I wasn't sure how to answer.
"I don't know what's yours?" I said.
This place. This place doesn't make sense to me."
"It's alright. Takes some getting used to." I let pool water into my mouth and pushed it out again, for effect. "There are places you should see."
Even after some time, I can't quite pin down my feelings about How to Get Into the Twin Palms. As usual, Two Dollar Radio's production is beautiful. Examining my reactions to Anka and her world gave me a lot to think about and sometimes that is enough.

Waclawiak will be in conversation with Vanessa Veselka(author of my favorite book from last year, Zazen)  and Sarah Mcrary on October 11th @ 7pm @ Melville House.

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