Upstate Novelist, Victoria N. Alexander, To Give Reading at the Golden Notebook
by Gary Alexander
Have you spent too much time trying to convince your girlfriend that ‘Decadent’ is not a flavor? Or are you ticked off that some nutritional idealist wants your school cafeteria to use coconut oil on something your kid might eat for lunch? (Not here! We don’t have coconut trees along the Hudson River!) The most stark divisions in America may spring not from political, ethnic or racial backgrounds but from informational sources and a currently prevailing chasm between American cultural lifestyles.
This is a theme explored in the darkly humorous novel, “Locus Amoenus” by Victoria N. Alexander, Ph.D. (my new bride-just joking; she’s no relation), who will be reading at the Golden Notebook bookstore in Woodstock at 6 PM on Saturday, August 1st.
Set in the eastern region of upstate New York, the book reflects attitudes and perspectives which may strike a familiar chord in local readers but cling, also, to the early century psyche of North Americans in general. Tapping in particular the gathered outlooks of residents in her immediate surroundings of towns in Dutchess County, the author introduces us to the misadventures of an 18-year-old named Hamlet who has been unsettled, to say the least, in his defiant move to a treehouse rather than the attic he was bumped into when his new stepfather decides to use Hamlet’s room for a home office.
“She’s a little bit of a parody on and self-criticism of myself,” admits Victoria (or “Tori,” as she prefers), speaking of Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, a central character in the narrative who challenges the lunch menu at her son’s school after moving from Brooklyn into this rural, upstate setting where she lives on a sheep farm (as does the author). The clash of fast food fans and “health conscious” activists is skillfully and amusingly nuanced by the author, who is already credited with several best-selling and award-winning titles. “I’m like the ‘liberal Do-gooder’ who came to this rural town to ‘help’ people that didn’t want my help. I was initially lacking an awareness that they were just not interested in a newcomer’s ‘helpful corrections’ to their systems. They like their lives. They’re proud of who they are and resentful of a different set of values being ‘inflicted’ upon them.” Many Woodstockers might recognize the casual scorn which prompts Tori’s villagers refer to “weekenders” as “citiots.”
Encouraged by the number of readers who have told her they laughed out loud while reading the book, she hopes that the humor will guide her message through internal gatekeepers imposed, she noted, by the few corporations which control the delivery of most of our national information. She voices Gertrude’s cause as her own, striving for more local control of school menus, for instance, influenced by what might be well-meaning federal regulations guiding insistence on sufficient calcium in children’s diets which translates into chocolate milk with a lot of sugar content as Gertrude argues for water or other non-sugared options. She notes that other upstate towns within easy driving distance of her own are “much more open to health foods, buying local and things like that. It’s really a plea for politics to change from top-down control to more localized input.” You don’t have to be a mere New York resident to desire local control. It’s also a vital thing to have so that your Kingston-based corporation doesn’t have to, apply to Beijing, because of some new trade agreements, for logging rights to Central Park.
Although the novel’s primary focus is upon the relationships and activities of its chief characters and their neighbors, co-incidence is a shadowing presence not only in their situations but in their creation. Gertrude moves north with her son after being widowed by the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and, in subsequent years, marries one of the co-authors of the official NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) report on the towers’ “collapse.”
The already sore relationship between Hamlet and his stepfather, Claudius, escalates when one of the boy’s former teachers in Brooklyn, “Horatio,” arrives with results from tests on the tower “dust” Hamlet had collected from the lower Manhattan aftermath debris and left in the teacher’s possession. A faint, distant but playfully updated echo from the Western World’s most famous bard developing? I won’t say except that there might be the ghost of a chance of that.
“Locus Amoenus,” Tori suggests, despite the obvious controversies, deals with far less complex and controversial topics than her previous works, such as her 2011 nonfictional book “The Biologist’s Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature, and Nature.” Tori, co-founder of the Dactyl Foundation, (a notable arts and science organization in New York City), whose honors and accomplishments are far too extensive to even list here, did the research for her Santa Fe Institute dissertation “Narrative Telos: The Ordering Tendencies of Chance” in teleology, evolutionary theory, and complexity science, topics illustriously recurrent in later works.
“When you run into a coincidence, you take notice,” Tori remarked. The resultant “notice” further resulted in a novel written with the balance and soul of a poet, keen observational skills befitting her scientific background, edged with the wit of a satirist which Dorion Sagan (son of Lynn Margulis and Carl Sagan) describes as “ a short, sweet, sui generis blend of contemporary adult fiction and geopolitical drama.”
You can find out more about “Locus Amoenus” (which means “pleasant area”-like here in Woodstock) at the Golden Notebook on Saturday.