Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mashed potato number one

Book: Dream Jungle

Author: Jessica Hagedorn

Published: 2003 (Penguin Books)

Pages: 325

What do I do when I’m eating vegetables on a plate with stuff that’s easier to eat, like mashed potatoes? I smush everything together so the vegetables taste a little more like mashed potatoes, so I can get full tastes of the easy stuff around trying to digest all that fiber. Ta-dah! A metaphor for my reading life: I’ve been chewing on a dense textbook for the past two weeks while swallowing gobs of a few good much faster reads.

Mashed Potato Number one is a novel woven from traditions of conquest and servitude in the Philippines, telling the story of a poor girl who goes to serve with her mother at the house of a rich man who discovered a lost Paleolithic tribe. Or at least that’s what he’s telling everybody.
It’s also about the making of a very Apocalypse Now-sounding movie about Vietnam in the same jungles five years later. The one thread both stories have in common is Lina, the young servant girl who is secretly happy when her father washes overboard and drowns on a ship journey (he made her life shit), which lets her go live with her mother in the rich man’s house. As a servant there, she gets knocked up by the master and runs away to the rough part of Manila where an actor in the movie finds her in a go-go bar and falls in love with her. He brings her onto the set of the movie as a food worker and eventually, after the giant torturous genius work is done (way over budget and time, of course, but almost worth the sanity lost), he takes her back to the States and they live semi-happily ever after.

This plot is full of parallels, mad geniuses bursting through the underbrush, deception, schmoozing, unanswered questions, disappearances, and one hell of a plot that doesn’t sacrifice the full round discontent of its characters.

And the author gets into the head of pretty much every one of her mains, switching viewpoint and headspace without warning but at least neatly divided into chapters. I see the point of jumping characters; I don’t see the point of flitting in and out of the first person seemingly at random. It’s not difficult to keep up with but it does seem unnecessary.

The ending is kind of crap, by which I mean it peters out into mysticism that I think is supposed to lend some final epic weight but really just feels like a cop out that doesn’t answer the biggest question of the narrative: did rich dude make up the tribe he found and made famous or not? I dunno, and I’ve read this thing like six times since I…bought it? Found it? I can’t remember.

It’s worth reading for the descriptions and parallels and contrasts of all the different lives that hinge on its narrative, though. For sure. 

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