Smoking Hopes Victoria N. Alexander, The Permanent Press, $22
By Clay Reynolds
‘Hopes’ is the name of a Japanese brand of cigarettes favored by the customers of Manhattan’s Club Kiki, where the novel’s narrator and main character, Charlie Dean, works. The men who come there enjoy the company of a rotating cadre of beautiful American women. The hostesses sit with them and light their Hopes in more ways than one.
Neither Charlie . . . nor her co-hostesses are prostitutes. Indeed private liaisons with the clientele are strongly discouraged by the Mama-san, who runs the club with an iron hand. Nevertheless, many of the girls succumb to the temptation represented by the wealthy and free-spending Japanese, each of whom seems to want his own personal American mistress as a symbol of his status in the most status-conscious of all countries.
Charlie herself succumbs, but she does so deliberately. She has ulterior motives. She plans a sea voyage to Japan to find her estranged husband, also her best friend’s estranged lover, and to recapture him with her newly learned charms. Accordingly, she takes up with a foolish Japanese executive, Hiro, who becomes so enthralled with his tall American blonde beauty that he loses his reason and eventually much, much more.
The most remarkable achievement of this often funny and highly sensual novel, though, is not the plot or setting, though both of these elements are handled with alacrity and grace. A dark comedy with cunning observations on society and culture, it avoids political correctness by employing a sometimes brutal honesty.
But it is the character of Charlie Dean herself that makes this novel work. Few narrators in my experience have been presented with such uncompromising honesty, such deep and deliberate introspection.
To understand the mind-set of women who work in such clubs, Ms. Alexander worked as a [hostess] in a Japanese men’s club in Manhattan. She apparently was successful in her research, for Charlie emerges as a completely believeable product of 1990’s femininity, a woman whose ultra-sensitivity is knitted through the narrative.
Charlie tells her tale with integrity and intense circumspection, never apologizing for her proclivities, for her excesses . . . Although she is not moralistic, she does set hard standards for herself and guards against falling into the role of victim. . .
Charlie is an intensely self-conscious character. She is constantly performing, if not for an audience of paying customers, then for people on the street, her neighbors in her almost surrealistic Manhattan neighborhood, ‘Thirteenth Alley.’
Smoking Hopes is a sometimes funny, sometimes reflective and ironic tale . . . I have no doubt that more, much more, will be heard from author Victoria N. Alexander.
Readers have been asking Victoria Alexander to sign the back cover of her first novel, “Smoking Hopes.” That’s because the blond author appears there nude, but for a pair of high heels. It’s all old hat to Alexander, who stripped her way through college (Hunter) and work ed as a hostess in private Japanese clubs on the East Side to research the book.
“It was a strange experience,” she says of working the clubs. “No one put the make on me–it was mostly just boring conversations. And when they learned I was an English teacher, they’d ask me for private lessons.”
The novel, from The Permanent Press, is getting good reviews. Alexander will read from it and sign those cheeky copies 5 p.m. Saturday at Posman Books on University Place.
Publishers Weekly February 16, 1995
Victoria Alexander, Permanent Press $22 (208p) ISBN 1-877946-69-9
As a bleached blonde bombshell whose excessive plastic surgery has rendered her ‘as unreal as animation,’ Charlie Dean, narrator of most of the richly written first novel, relates her life as a ‘hostess’ in a Japanese geisha house in Manhattan. The strength of Charlie’s voice and character renders her story continually surprising: a bookworm who enjoys George Eliot and James Joyce, she brings a wryly intelligent eye to her sordid employment, and particularly to customers’ ever-constant hope that sex is part of her job description (it isn’t). Alexander’s subtly threaded explorations of love and hope, her sensuous, distilled prose and her incisive wit make this a sophisticated, resonant debut. (Apr.) FYI: In order to write Smoking Hopes, which won the Washington Prize for Fiction, Alexander worked part-time as a hostess.
In Smoking Hopes (Permanent Press, $22), narrator Charlie Dean is living in New York, making money largely based on her looks, and hoping one day to be reunited with her ex-husband Gottlieb. In this excerpt, Dean is meeting her friend Lola in a bar near her New York City apartment.
“The day-to-day existence of Charlie Dean is punctuated with interruptions to the tune of: Your tits are nice. That this is a self-imposed handicap raises questions to be dealt with; the answer to this figures largely into the understanding of the heart of Charlie Dean. Why do I need to project my features well beyond the footlights?
As I make my way to the rear [of the bar]…I shout up to Lola, finding her at the end. She’s going on a trip to Japan! she announces. Can you believe it?
I try to get to her. We are still separated by the crowd. Someone pulls my wrist, that black dancer [she had just left behind], and whispers, “Why do you dress like that if you don’t want it?”
Why do I dress like a fille de joie? Actually, I’m making a fashion statement, poor me, not a sexual one. Why, this outfit describes the kind of music I listen to. Psychofunk and hiphop house. Sometimes, I even dream that out of a slavish dedication to some new fashion I’d seen in an advertisement, I go grocery shopping bare-breasted, or sometimes without pants. In the fresh vegetable section, I begin to get the feeling that some shoppers aren’t aware of that particular style. I begin to suspect I’ve gone too far, and I feel really silly, but I conceal my shame, trying to act naturally.
Or is it shortsightedness? The optimum beauty is the traffic-stopping kind. As a topless dancer, I learned that if every customer didn’t gasp and hand me a 20 the moment I walked on stage, I was not beautiful enough. Conspicuousness, that’s beauty. If blonde is pretty, blonder must be prettier…If a mini-skirt is sexy, a micromini is even sexier. But when does it stop being beautiful, become theatrical, and then finally ridiculous? When you see that showy image of yourself alone, with no one watching, without an audience.
So there you have it. I’m caught, a child in her mother’s make-up kit–red lips, perfectly round and garish circles of rouge on her cheeks, neon blue eye shadow. Naively, I believe I look beautiful, but Mother, who knows better, says I look like a little whore, and I squirm giggling as she wipes the mess from my face.
But I’ve learned that kind of girl gets all the attention, and wanting to be one is probably not merely a taste for the illicit. There must be some objective reason why we like whorish looks, some staid sound value, or chemical reaction, or something undeniably true and real, something unworthy of contempt.
That kind of girl gets to sail to Japan to Gottlieb.”
Carrollton native Victoria Alexander bares it all to make a literary name for herself. But is she exposing too much to be taken seriously? JOSEPH GUINTO reports.
I am waiting. Waiting like the tramps for Godot and like the characters in Carrollton-born author Victoria Alexander’s new book, Smoking Hopes, are always, always waiting. They wait for love, for fulfillment, for purpose.
Myself, I’m just waiting for Victoria, and she is 10 minutes late for our interview. I’m sitting in a Lower Greenville coffee-house. Not unlike the people who populate Smoking Hopes, who hope they will get what they wait for, I also have hope. I’m hoping Victoria won’t show.
Judging from her press clippings, including good reviews in publications as disparate as Paper magazine and the Dallas Morning News, Victoria is an excellent writer. Judging from the photos in her press kit, Victoria is, well, hot. On top of that, I’ve already seen her naked. The back cover of Smoking Hopes features a picture of Victoria in puris naturalibus, sans vêtements. A nude photo on the back of a book being touted as “literary fiction” makes me wonder if Victoria has wrought an artistic work or simply cranked out some smut.
She’s now 15 minutes late, and I’m wondering if Victoria isn’t just a flighty stripper who got lucky on a publisher’s couch – a dumb blonde with a laptop, some time on her hands, and good grades from English class. The only thing keeping me here is the mention in her press kit that Smoking Hopes – whose main protagonist is a cosmetically enhanced former stripper who now works at a modern-day geisha club where women pour drinks, light cigarettes, and flirt with Japanese men – has won the Washington Prize for
fiction. Then I realize that, without much journalistic diligence on my part, I have no idea what the Washington Prize for fiction is.
The instant I decide to leave, the coffeehouse door swings open, and a cool woman with long, blonde hair walks in. It’s obviously Victoria. I can tell from her leg muscles. They’re stripper’s legs–the sort you might develop from dancing in high heels for hours at a time. And she is wearing just such high heels, a blue, pleated miniskirt, and a blue half shirt that exposes a hint of a navel.
My first impression says Victoria is exactly what I worried she’d be. But, as we sit down and talk, I will regret having judged a book by its backside.
Victoria Alexander is the kind of women other women love to hate. She looks good in micro-miniskirts – or nothing at all. Because her writing and eloquent manner of speech make her impossible to dismiss as a dumb blonde, she has run headlong into feminists.
If Victoria Alexander is the kind of woman other women love to hate, then Smoking Hopes’ main character is the kind of woman men love to hate. Charlie Dean is beautiful, if a bit surgically enhanced.
In reviewing her book, the Dallas Morning News said of Dean, also the book’s narrator, that she “tells her tale with integrity and intense circumspection, never apologizing for her proclivities, for her excesses, her calculated use of her beauty and sexuality to achieve her goals, whatever they may be: a free cab ride Up Town, an emerald ring, an extension on her overdue electric bill or income taxes.”
Dean works in the Japanese hostess club, as Victoria did while researching the book, making up to $200 a night by simply lighting cigarettes, pouring drinks, and talking to Japanese buisnessmen. The patrons pay $100 per hour for the girl’s company.
“There’s really no American version of the hostess club,” Victoria says. “You can’t compare them to a topless club or anything like that. The Japanese are very polite, very indirect. The highlight of the night comes if they can get a girl to waltz with them, and they can get close. But they’re very bad dancers.”
The hostess clubs are essentially a Japanese way of playing the traditional dating game: the flirting, the maneuvering to the dance floor, the hope on the man’s part that the woman might actually like him.
Though dating clients is strongly discouraged, hostesses have been known to take up with some of the men outside of the club, even to find a husband among the patrons. For her part, Victoria always explained to the men that she was working at the club as research for her book. But that didn’t lessen their hopes that she would take an interest in them.
She pushes her empty iced coffee aside and leans forward again on the table. She whispers, “You know what? That didn’t make a bit of difference. They’d want to be in the book, of course, but they didn’t get it: That was the only reason I was there.”
One client even traced her down at Hunter College, where she was teaching. “He had bought a gold bracelet from Tiffany’s,” she recalls. “By the time he found me, he handed me the bracelet, said he was late for a meeting, and left.”
Another client paid her $3,000 for four meetings in which she taught him Mark Twain.
Those events all find their way, in small pieces, into Smoking Hopes. It is a solid, moving and funny work. The title stands both for Hopes, a brand of Japanese cigarette, and hope, what drives the characters in the book. They all hope to find love in the strangest places and people.
Hopes is a black comedy to be sure. The lives of the characters are laughable – but they’re also pitable. Most of all, they’re real. Regarding the hostess clubs, Victoria provides keen insight into a world that most Americans know nothing about. Regarding her main character, Charlie Dean, she provides insight into the life of a woman on her own in the modern world, with the gawking men, credit-card debt, bugs in the apartment, and noisy neighbors that go along with it.
“What I write is literary fiction,” Victoria says with an arched brow that asks if I know what literary fiction is. “It’s not Danielle Steele, not John Grisham, not . . .” She stops herself and smiles playfully, pleased that I am shaking my head head in agreement. “I don’t want to become famous off this. I don’t want to make a movie based on the book. I don’t want to make a million dollars. I want to be taught on college campuses when I’m dead.”
Well, I tell her, you have to have hope.
Now Victoria Alexander and I are both waiting. We are hoping her husband will arrive to pick her up.
Victoria has made me rethink my first impression of her. She is intelligent, funny, and very engaging. (A few weeks later, when I have completed Smoking Hopes, I also realize that she’s a deft young writer.)
I sit back in my chair, which I believe has actually shrunk over the course of our conversation, and make an effort to appear calm, cool, relaxed – and fail. I find myself clicking my pen cap, opening and closing my notebook, and sweating. Not perspiring, sweating. I consider excusing myself to go to the bathroom and slipping out the back door. Now that Victoria Alexander has earned my respect, I’m desperately hoping she doesn’t know what kind of woman I at first thought she was – and, more to the point, what kind of man I am.
But then Victoria’s husband shows up and saves me. “He’s here,” she says, pointing to a minivan parked across the street. “We unhooked the bike trailer.” They have a Harley. A fitting contradiction – the family vehicle towing the rebel bike. I meet him and he hands me a copy of Smoking Hopes, which Victoria signs. She hands it back, looking at me with a shyness I have not seen in her before. She looks hopeful that I care for her autograph, I act honored, then say my goodbyes, receiving a handshake that is distant, perfunctory. She knows, I think.
A few weeks later, I receive a letter from Victoria. She says she enjoyed our interview and hopes to see me again when she returns to Dallas. Hmm. Maybe she doesn’t know. You have to have hope.
Art imitates (sometimes ugly) life
Sunday, January 21, 1996
Reviewed by Clay Reynolds
‘Hopes’ is the name of a Japanese brand of cigarettes favored by the customers of Manhattan’s Club Kiki, where the novel’s narrator of this stunning first novel, Charlie Dean, works. The men who come there enjoy the company of a rotating crew of beautiful women, many of whom have worked as exotic dancers, strippers or prostitutes in the past. They are chosen for their beauty, and they are paid well for their work.
But they are not prostitutes. Private contact is discouraged by the Mama-san, who runs “the piano bar,” although she requires each girl to call former customers who tipped well, inviting them back with a personal note.
The hostesses sit with the mean, listen to their small talk, occasionally dance with them, and light their Hopes in more ways than one. It is, perhaps, a less than honorable profession, but it pays well. Charlie and her best friend, Lola, are experts at it.
Many of the girls succumb to the temptation represented by the wealthy and free-spending Japanese, each of whom seems to want his own personal American mistress. Charlie herself succumbs, taking up with a hapless fertilizer company executive, Hiro; but she does so deliberately. She has ulterior motives. She plans a sea voyage to Japan to find her estranged husband, who is also Lola’s estranged lover, to try to recapture him with her newly learned charms.
The most remarkable achievement of this highly literate dark comedy, though, is the character of Charlie Dean herself. She tells her tale with integrity and circumspection, never apologizing for her proclivities, for her excesses, for her intense awareness of her own femininity.
Charlie is a highly self-conscious woman. With plastic surgery, hair extensions and other cosmetic devices, she has altered her physical appearance to manufacture a ravishing beauty, an irresistible creature to men, the target of envy to women.
She has also altered her psychology, her mind. the books she reads are chosen as much for their effect on her mood as the are for how much they might interest her. A student of philosophy, of art, of literature, and of human nature, she is haughtily superior to all around her, revelling in her ability to manipulate others’ emotion, others’ actions.
Charle is alert that every move she makes, every gesture, no matter how small, is observed, admired. Hence, she stages each move with care, sensitive to tis effects on those around her. She is in a constant state of performance, even when she is alone, even when she is asleep. She is watched, even if only by herself, and she is aware that she is watched. Such awareness gives her power.
Unfortunately, there are also victims, and in a bitterly ironic ending, Charlie ultimately becomes a victim of her own devices.
An intense and intelligent narrator, Charlie captivates the reader with her self-awareness, with her almost programmed sense of constant performance, and with her deeper nature, which seeks the meaning if not the actuality of hope.
Alexander, herself a native of Dallas, is a graduate student at City University, New York. In order to gather material for this story, she worked as a stripper and hostess in Japanese men’s clubs in New York City and Tokyo. Her manuscript was award the Washington Prize for Fiction and, one hopes, it will be the first in a long line of highly stylized, well-crafted stories of the bittersweet pain of living in a confusing and modern world.
Clay Reynolds of Denton is the author of three novels.
that makes this novel work. Few narrators in my experience have been presented with such uncompromising honesty, such deep and deliberate introspection.
RING THREE TIMES
Author Victoria Alexander’s naked truths.
1996 Julie Besonen Paper Magazine Summer
“A naked woman is a very powerful thing,” says Victoria Alexander, whose recently released first novel, Smoking Hopes (The Permanent Press), chronicles the comic adventures of a professional hostess in a Japanese men’s club.
Over coffee at Chez Bernard on West Broadway, Alexander, who posed nude for the back cover of Smoking Hopes (Hope is a Japanese cigarette) … has a slight Southern accent retained her Dallas, Texas, childhood. She is introspective and intellectual and not your typical idea of a showgirl. Blonde and petite (”Five-foot-two, and five nine in heels”), with limpid green eyes and translucent skin, she is currently at work on a doctorate in English literature at CUNY.
Nudity was not part of Alexander’s job in the Japanese hostess clubs of N.Y.C. Women wore conservative cocktail dresses, and no sex was involved.
“It’s a holdover from the geisha days,” she explains. About 35 such clubs exist on the Upper East Side, where businessmen pay as much as $100 an hour simply to come in and talk and have their cigarettes lit and drinks poured by beautiful women. To be admitted, men must be able to read a sign in Japanese that says “Ring three times.” Alexander made anywhere from $75 to $200 a night just showing interest in what her male customers had to say (a short stint in the Tokyo clubs netted her $400 a night). “Working as a teacher I learned how to ask questions and really dig. I’m a good listener.”
Hostess’s story told with wry insight o Victoria Alexander practiced the profession to prepare for her writing.
“Conspicuousness, that’s beauty,” says Charlie Dean, “hostess” at a private Japanese club in Manhattan. When she strolls down the avenue a blind man whistles and cabbies offer her free rides.
Victoria N. Alexander’s first novel, which won the Washington Prize for Fiction, follows the surgically enhanced Charlie through her days in an apartment decorated in off-Broadway props and nights of offering false hopes to her clients at the Club Kiki, where the customer is king and the conversation is sex.
Charlie may be a bimbo, but she is a literate bimbo who reads George Eliot, St. Augustine’s Confessions and, significant to this story, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
Charlie is waiting too, for Gottlieb, her ex-husband. She hopes to find him by taking a trip to Japan, where she thinks he has fled. In the meantime, she meets a cast of characters who include Lola, Gottlieb’s ex-mistress, and the Japanese businessmen who smoke Hope cigarettes and offer her money for the outside chance at love.
Seemingly in a state of low-grade depression, Charlie takes advantage of Hiro, a businessman who frequents the club. Alexander’s portrayal of Hiro and the other clients shows them in the cruel light of pity and ridicule. They are seen as cartoonlike characters, which deepens the novel’s negativity.
The beauty and humor of Alexander’s writing in other parts of the story are appealing.
“Hiro shrunk into sleep and I have expanded into the unused night,” is one example of here powerful prose. Delightful twists and tweaks jump out in sentences like this: “We gulp down our crustaceans, clams, scrod and scram.”
Ever brightening the dark corners, though, Alexander wins the day and elevates the book with Charlie’s character. A scene in which Charlie kills roaches in her apartment is a scream. Her letter to the Internal Revenue Service asking officials to “be a dear” and ease up on her overdue payment provokes giggles. Her entrances and fashion choices are hilariously explained with rare insight into a woman’s sexual radar.
Alexander writes of the human need for hope: “…that is what makes the human the darling, the inexplicable pet of the universe.” We hang on to this hope as Charlie proceeds with life while everything around her is crumbling. By the end, however, our own hope goes up in smoke and the disturbing ashes are left in our afterthoughts.
Daily New Hampshire Gazette
WHEN LUST IS SEARCH FOR HOPE nuanced novel exposes more than just flesh
Let’s start with the jacket photo. Everyone does. It shows author Victoria N. Alexander from the back, naked, with the light playing off her splendidly rounded derriere. When you put such a photo on your book jacket, Alexander said, you invite three kinds of reaction. Some people (myself included) think the book will be stupid. Some people think the book insults women. And some people are simply curious to read a book by the owner of this lovely bottom.
The main character of “Smoking Hopes” (the Permanent Press, $22, 207 pp.) turns out to be a beautiful woman nicknamed Angel who works in a Japanese men’s club in New York. Happily, this is not a stupid novel. It offers some memorable glimpses into the world of women who sells their charms, if not their bodies. In a Japanese club, men pay big bucks to converse with attractive women, have their drinks poured and their cigarettes lit. They are paying not for sex but, in Alexander’s version, for hope. (Hope is also the name of a popular brand of Japanese cigarette.) In the novel, a customer named Hiro does, for a time, have his hopes fulfilled. Angel, desperate for funds and companionship, becomes his mistress.
I was fascinated by Alexander’s description of the way hostesses play the game at Club Kiki: “That the hostess’s vision of the future differs wildly from that of her customers does not make the present reality a lie. For example, ‘I enjoyed speaking with you tonight. Please come back real soon,’ when said by a waving hostess at the door, does not mean: ‘I like you; let’s date,’ particularly if she’s said it in memorized Japanese.
“However, it does represent a Club Kiki Truth. She really does enjoy talking with him (because she is paid well for it), and she really would like him to come back (so she can draw ten bucks’ commission). Hostesses simply do not lie.”
Hiro is always seen through the eyes of Angel, and he grows increasingly complex. Alexander doesn’t prepare us, however, for the cruelty he exhibits at the novel’s end.
Her next novel, which she’s finishing up, is a more light-hearted look at strippers, entitled “Trixie, Mad Pixie.”
“Smoking Hopes” has nearly sold out its 3000-copy first printing. Victoria N. Alexander will sign copies of “Smoking Hopes” on Saturday from 3 to 5 p.m. at Media Play in the Hampshire Mall, Route 9, Hadley.
August 14, 1996
Mary, Joseph. . . and Brad?
by Neal Travis
So what’s it like being landlord to the couple-of-the-moment, Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow? ‘I feel like the owner of the manger must have felt when he rented out his place to Mary and Joseph,’ says novelist Victoria Alexander. ‘Sort of important, but I can’t really take any kind of credit for anything.’
Alexander owns the SoHo loft with artist Neil Grayson. They were going on the road for five months to promote her new book, ‘Smoking Hopes,’ and heard through a mutual friend that Pitt and Paltrow were looking for a quiet place to stay. She says she firmly had to discourage friends who wanted to drop by, pretending not to know she and Grayson were away. In the end, the glamour couple were pretty much undisturbed.
The hefty rental income will be used to finance the renovation of another SoHo property, which is home to the Dactyl Foundation, which offers grants to artists and writers.
The Dallas Morning News
June 25 , 1996
Overnight Now the Nudes
by Helen Bryant
You may have read this paper’s review of ex-Dallasite Victoria N. Alexander’s book, Smoking Hopes. Victoria, now a New Yorker pursuing a doctorate in English literature, worked part time as a hostess to gather material for this work of fiction. On the back cover of her novel, she is pictured unclad, save for a pair of tasteful high heels. The shot has sold a good many tomes, according to a note in the New York Post.
Victoria’s husband, artist Neil Grayson, was recently nabbed by the New York cops for unlawfully pasting up posters for her book. But after he explained that his wife made him do it–and after he presented NYPD’s finest with a copy of the book–they let him go. Apparently they were too busy looking at the back cover to run him in.
To meet the object of all this attention, you can attend one of Victoria’s local signings.
By Stephen Pitalo
It’s not something you see every day.
A photograph of author Victoria Alexander’s fully nude backside graces the back cover of her first novel, “Smoking Hopes” (The Permanent Press, 1996), a warped tale of female strength and issues of power in the world of strippers and hostesses. Considering the book’s acute perceptions and wit, the purpose behind the picture couldn’t be as simple as intentional titilation. Could it? What’s the statement, Ms. Alexander?
“I would like to see nudity become passe,” Alexander told a group gathered to soak in her thoughts and readings at Posman Books in Washington Square. “Also, you’ve probably seen advertisement posters around with the picture from the front f the book, the one with a model’s face. I saw one of these posters on the way here, and it had a mustache painted on it. It makes me glad they didn’t put that picture of me on the posters. Someone might have tried to draw clothes on me.”
Although Alexander rather deftly avoids giving a straight answer, her publisher Martin Shepard of the Permanent Press, will go as far as revealing the marketing strategy behind the …er…behind. “the photo of Victoria leads (readers) to think that she is writing from experience. The photo, shot by Alexander’s husband, Neil Grayson, is a bald-faced (or rather … oh, nevermind) attempt to “draw the attention of a larger, more general audience that ‘literary’ books usually get.”
To further that end (okay, okay, no more. I promise), enter our main character, Charlie Dean, a hostess at a Japanese nightclub. A complex package of self-conscious observation and denial, Charlie spends her days pouring drinks and lighting cigarettes for Japanese businessmen, listening to them blather on about whatever. Tricks are not encouraged, although Charlie ends up become the regular mistress of an Asian fertilizer salesman. She examines most everything about her life–her plastic surgery, her mental state, her manipulation of others–but never seems to reach any conclusions.
Alexander’s writing folds sharpness, fluidity and attention to detail into a salacious feast for the senses, but we still feel a sense of tragedy in her detached tone. The book jacket mirrors the contradictions of the book’s main character Charlie Dean–we see the naked backside, but never look into her eyes.
A first person narrative with a third person consciousness is hard to pull off, but readers sympathize nonetheless, and credit Alexander with a deft hand.The Author does give the heroine a strength of will that adamantly forgoes victimization issues. Charlie Dean does what Charlie Dean wants to do, even though she doesn’t seem to know or care where.
Alexander, a Hunter College alumna and a Ph.D. candidate at CUNY in English, worked in some Japanese clubs in New York and Tokyo to research the work, and has worked as a stripper in the past. The book title comes from a brand of Japanese cigarettes called “Hopes,” capturing the double meaning of the character’s simultaneous wishes for a better life and her willingness to let them wisp away.
Alexander was awarded the Washington Prize for Fiction her manuscript of this book. She’s finished the follow-up, “Trixie, Mad Pixie,” a tabloid tale of life as a stripper, and she is currently writing “The Birdgirl.”
“In many ways, the novel is a continuation of ‘Waiting for Godot,'” Alexander said, “these girls are waiting for Charlie’s husband Gottlieb to return.” When fielding a question on whether she found what Beckett’s nothingness was, she replied, “What I confront was what nothingness is not. More along the lines of the hope for somethingness.”
More question. More smiles. No answers. Good book. I may never get to write these words again, so I apologize in advance: the author has a nice ass. Charlie Dean would agree, and probably pout me a drink, never letting me know what she really thinks.
MAY 16, 1996
Novelist Victoria N. Alexander bursts onto the scene (Meet her at a book signing)
By: Harriet Hiller
There is nothing ordinary about the brilliant, blond literary bombshell, Victoria N. Alexander, whose first novel, “Smoking Hopes,” winner of The Washington Prize for Fiction, is arriving at bookstores as we speak. She will be signing copies at Barnes & Noble in Westport on Saturday at 5 pm.
There is nothing ordinary about Alexander’s accomplishments-her literary criticism has been published in the Antioch Review; she teaches expository writing and is a Ph.D. candidate, English Literature, at the City College of New York, and is the wife of painter, Neil Grayson.
There is nothing ordinary about her first novel, “Smoking Hopes,” that tells the story of a young woman’s obsession with illicit liaisons that takes her on a highly erotic and very dangerous journey through a New York and Japanese world you may not have known existed.
Alexander researched the character of her heroine, Charlie Dean, by working as one of the very few Americans permitted to work as a hostess in a Japanese private club in New York.
Although born in Dallas, Victoria N. Alexander’s roots are in Westport. Her greatgrandfather emigrated here from Poland at the turn of the century; here grandmother, Amelia Nichols, lives here to this day.
At 17, Alexander, knowing she was destined to become a writer since the age of 10, left Texas for the East Village to write songs and play keyboard in a punk band.
At 19, she enrolled at Hunter College, majoring in English literature. She supported herself by working as a bird trainer in Queens, in a German pastry shop, and as a marine operator.
To earn the money needed to pay for her master’s degree, Alexander tutored at Hunter and had an outside job as a strip-o-gramer.
Alexander says, “I did little lingerie routines in restaurants where you strip down to lingerie, give the birthday boy a kiss and a little present and read a poem. Sometimes I had to write the poems myself. “It was a pretty silly, but it was fun. I never had any unpleasant experiences.”
In 1991, Alexander moved back to Westport to help take care of her aging grandmother and to begin writing “Smoking Hopes.” She lived in the small cottage next to her grandmother’s house until she married three years ago.
“The book, which took about a year to write,” Alexander explains, “is really a revision of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” that explores the fear that there is no such thing as God and basically life on earth is a hopeless situation where you sit around waiting for someone who is not coming.
“I don’t like to think that this is what literature is about today. There is still plenty of reason to see meaning in being alive, and trying to be good and to lead as meaningful a life as you possibly can.
“Although, in my book, the heroine, like Godot, is waiting, she tries to take responsibility for her own actions and tries not to depend on anyone else for here own happiness. Her life is up to her.”
The process of getting “Smoking Hopes” published took about five years. A top New York agent represented the novel for a while. “All sorts of interest,” Alexander says, “but nothing happened.” Alexander put the novel on a back burner, started another novel and commuted to New York six days a week, teaching at Hunter College, finishing her master’s degree, and working as a stripper in New York and then at Beamers in Stamford. She corrected her students’ papers in the dressing room and on the train.
“Dancing in a cabaret setting is one of the nicest things you can do, getting up there on stage with soft lights making you look lovely, dressed in the most attractive way, and just dancing to music,” she explains. “I never thought there was anything ugly about it.”
When Alexander married, a new life began. Dancing ended, she began her doctoral work, and decided to move “Smoking Hopes” into prime time, without an agent.
Three weeks after sending out a synopsis of the book, her bio and a photo, The Permanent Press picked up the book. Her life is changing now that “Smoking Hopes” is a reality. “It is very strange to have written alone for all these years and no one really reading it. Now, all of a sudden I have a public life and my work has a public life, and it’s kind of scary. It’s strange to share my work with other people. But, it’s thrilling.”
Victoria N. Alexander is just at the beginning of her career and raring to go. Her second novel is in the hands of an agent. She is on the move, and certainly very much worth watching. And, reading.
by Brian Taraz
I’m a treasure hunter at heart. I pegged Stone Temple Pilots before anyone else. I was digging Jim Carroll a long time, and I know one day y’all will know about the World Entertainment War something for the future). for now though, I found Victoria N. Alexander and her first novel SMOKING HOPES. Found out through a friend of a friend. It’s nice to find, after much literary dis-amusement, something good to read and, more exciting yet, someone with so much promise for the years to come. A keeper. And what a keeper!
‘Kay. An attempted quick synopsis; Charlie Dean, heroine, has surgically built herself into the ultimate object of desire. After her lover Gottlieb left her for a whore named Lola, Charlie entered the world of illicit sexuality, to try to understand the dark appeal that stole her man. We find her in the world of Japanese Hostess bars in NYC. Events happen; she meets Hiro (Japanese Businessman-san), she crosses Hiro, she crosses the Pacific, she gets to Japan, she meets Sexy Death. (I was never a good synopsizer but I think this adequately does the task.)
HOPES are the name of a Japanese cigarette. And by the names Gottlieb and Hiro one quickly gets the sense that the writer is playing with her literature. It is quite clear that this is very much like the early work of a Saul Bellow or Martin Amis. It is a first novel that says; here is a writer with a powerful skill daring to flaunt in the popular forum.
Not making sense too much. Hold on. Interview snippet.
Revolt – so you had an idea about a story in this environment. Did you then actually go work in a Japanese Hostess bar?
VA – “I worked at two in New York and one in Tokyo. It wasn’t as if I was working there first and then thought ‘Oh, my life is interesting. I think I’ll write a book about it.’ Writing is an excuse to have adventures. I never told the Mama San what I was there to do, but, when I sat down with the customers, within 5 minutes, I’d tell them I was there because I was researching a book.”
R – Did that turn them on?
VA – “Well, they all volunteered to be in the book. They were all very enthusiastic. ‘Oh I can tell you, I can explain to you what the Japanese are like. Why we’re here, what we’re doing’ which wasn’t really what I was after. They thought I was going to define the relationship between Japanese with Americans or something like that. And they were quite willing to help me with that. They didn’t know that they were helping me, just not in the way in which they thought.”
There’s a definite Japanese flavor in the book. Even some tricky writing in a Japanese accent. Rike so. But it’s not about Japanese men. Or American hostess girls. It’s about men and how some of them see the process of “getting” a woman. A satire about men in hopes of getting the gal to want them. To get over. And it’s a satire about the women who cultivate hope.
It’s a very sexy book, but there’s not hardly any sex in it. It’s steeped with the eroticism of unfulfilled yearning. It’s about the jones of desire. And, to me anyway, it’s about the almost hopeless struggle for honest love. It would have been easy enough to have taken the context and setting and turned the story into standard American pulp. Alexander pumps through the pulp and plays with the literary pimpishness that so thoroughly permeates popular literature to, in a sense, exploit the prurient sensibility with the intent of raising the BIG questions which are normally the substance of great literature.
A book excerpt. Charlie’s accidentally been hauled into the audience of an off-broadway play:
“When my eyes adjust to the dim light, I read the back of the program with fascinated glee-because it’s so obnoxiously trite and yet so oracular, sound and staid. BAD GIRLS GO EVERYWHERE is the name of the play, intellectualized pornography. The ambitious playwright, who does not realize theories are deadly to art, contends that a preference for wanton women is quite natural. I myself had spent a great deal of time wondering about the undefinable connection between sexual desire and the forbidden, the lewd and shameful- the almost certain physical link between the gonads and the funky cerebral wrinkles in the naughty side streets of Greymatter, USA. With the mirth of a child who has just ‘discovered’ some elemental law of nature and rushed in among grown-ups mad with her wisdom. I’m overjoyed, as if the same thought, the same revelation were spontaneously germinating everywhere. Too bad the revelation should be found among such untalented players.”
I’ll admit it. Typing this out, having talked to the author today, I’m getting a little hot right now.
The book reads like you’re inside a sexual experience. You can feel the characters, the ideas, the environments. The Lower East side of New York is rich with the smells, sounds, details, the cultures, the vibrant displays of pointless aliveness among rubble. The hostess bar is alive with nuances, longing, motions and sequences of activity that can’t be just simply imagined. Later, as Dean crosses the ocean in a rickety, sad excuse for a floating casino the intricate yet spare details give passage to the reader as well. At times you can smell Charlie Dean. Know what I mean?
The crux of the matter is this. Alexander’s book won’t be out till May. And when it comes out it’ll be in hardback. And I remember once lamenting about the sea of books at Barnes and Noble in NYC, which makes me think how easy it would be for this little gem to get lost in the flood of hack publications. But the good part is, it’ll be easy to remember Alexander’s book; hers will be the one with the nude author photo on the back. This gal’s pretty friggin’ smart, not to mention beautiful to look at.
Maybe Alexander’s too smart. On the phone we talked about hope, about desire, love, God, etc. And one thing she said is just making sense now. Her favorite book is Lolita; Nabokov her favorite and most influential writer. And that’s how SMOKING HOPES feels; like Lolita writing with the mind of Nabokov. Is it innocent? Is it evil? My guess is that not so many women will be crazy about this first novel, but it’s almost like a sacrificial lamb to an industry that almost uncategorically demands of women either trite fantasy and gossip or else relegates great female writing talent to the narrow domain of women’s issues or lesbian tales.
Alexander’s got a great man’s mind filled with great male concerns. She’s also a hard body, stripper that teaches at the university level and has crticism published by the top literary journals. Underneath it all bubbles the furious energy which has been patiently disciplined and harnessed with the intent of unleashing on the print world an intellectual, erotic, female powerhouse author. This author intends to play hardball with the big boys and this is just her first pitch; fastball, straight down the middle.
A final thought:
In SMOKING HOPES you get the feeling that the author is watching you watch her do her writing dance. It seems she is narrating your experience much like Charlie Dean lives her first-person narrative reality with a third-person consciousness. Alexander slowly brings you in beyond the book, offering you an invitation to closeness. Perhaps her last words in our interview regarding the masochistic attraction of the strip and hostess bar tease that makes them so successful are applicable to understand why Alexander will be so big.
PIF Magazine Oct 1997
Winning the Washington Prize for Fiction for your first novel shows incredible talent, of which, admittedly, author Victoria Alexander possesses a lion?s share. She is a seemingly brash and witty woman, not entirely unlike Smoking Hopes? heroine, Charlie Dean, who worked part-time as a stripper and a ?hostess? to collect material for her first novel. In many ways, while reading Hopes you can?t help but wonder where the boundary between autobiography and fiction lies.
The heroine of this story is a bleached blonde bombshell who’s had more body work done on her than Michael Jackson. From the nose, “sculpted into a work of art, minuscule, dainty,” to the collagen injections, the enhanced cheekbones and chin, the initial breast enlargement, the ribs that were removed to give her a “Barbie waist,” the additional breast enlargement, then the follow-up ? and, whew! There is a point where art becomes abomination, though it is oftentimes mistaken for extreme beauty, a barely discernible difference. The point is, the physical structure of the character is in direct antithesis to the plotting, scheming, articulate, and self-aware creature that we find in Charlie Dean. And this, if nothing else, is where the beauty of the story lies.
Charlie is an intelligent woman; an intellectual who enjoys Eliot and Joyce. She spends the majority of her days dreaming of an old lover named Gottlieb, and works at night as a ?hostess? in the Club Kiki, a Japanese hostess bar where the Mama-san works behind the scenes to see that her customers are not offered more than just a beautiful woman to dance with. Hopes is a brand of Japanese cigarette, and the air at Club Kiki is filled with their smoke, and hope of another kind. Prostitution is not allowed by the Mama-san, and neither Charlie or her compatriots dare cross their employer. But the good life beckons. The Japanese customers offer many of the women gifts of jewelry, vacations, apartments on Central Park West. Money is a powerful aphrodisiac, and eventually Charlie succumbs.
His name is (how phonetically fitting) Hiro. He?s a very wealthy man with extensive business in the States who is only too happy to throw large, expensive gifts in Charlie?s direction. In one instance she is severely sunburned while sunbathing at a beach hotel she has accompanied Hiro to and, when he asks if there is anything he can get her, she tells him yes: A bottle of Aloe Vera and an emerald ring. He returns, dutifully, with both items, never a word said. Throughout the beginning of their ? well, courtship, she regales in telling herself tales about how Hiro pines away for her, ever penitent, ever patient. At one point she even admits that she loves the man, albeit in a financial way. She charges him $500 the first night she has sex with him.
Charlie is a woman caught between two elements: the customers?, then Hiro?s expectations of the physical person she has become, and the romantic aspirations of a little girl lost. Her soulful moments of introspection are rare, most deal with the superfluous daily goings-on of her life and trade, but when they do come ? when Charlie dreams and sees herself sitting in the rooms of her past, waiting for her lover, Gottlieb ? they are explosive. Alexander’s ability to weave the thread of Charlie?s explorations of love and hope leave your breathless at times. This book quivers with a sense of the unspoken, while at the same time resonating with the clatter of needless conversation; that chatter that people who have nothing to say, say to avoid the silence.
All in all, it?s a wonderful read, and I recommend the book highly to anyone who’s been looking for something a little different than that offered on Border?s Selection-of-the-Week shelf.
She booked out of Dallas right after graduating from Walden Prep School at 16 and worked her way through New York’s Hunter College as a stripper at a Manhattan joint called The Doll House. Got your attention? OK, skip to the present, when 37-year-old Victoria Alexander, now living in SoHo, is the highly praised author of two novels: Smoking Hopes, which was published in ’96 and deals with life in an Upper East Side Japanese hostess club, and her most recent, Naked Singularity, which addresses the subject of euthanasia. Publishers Weekly calls the latter “gut-wrenching and eloquently written.” Nothing is ordinary about this rebellious and gifted writer who says the reason she left Dallas for New York was because “it’s easier for a nerd to fit in up here.”
“Daddy’s Girls” by Clay Reynolds
Naked Singularity by Victoria N. Alexander.
(Sag Harbor, NY: The Permanent Press, 2003. 208 pp. $24 cloth)
Dallas native Victoria Alexander’s second novel, Naked Singularity, examines the relationship of a marginalized daughter attempting to come to terms with the painful death of her father. Hali, the youngest daughter of David MacDonald, a moderately successful Dallas journalist, has made her life away from her father and family. Married to a wealthy artist and well established in New York City, Hali is pursing her doctorate in the philosophy of science when she receives word that her father, an inveterate pipe smoker, has been diagnosed with cancer of the throat and larynx. She returns home, perfunctorily at first, to offer titular and somewhat sentimental support as he goes through various treatments to shrink and possibly destroy the tumor. She hopes that his growing debilitation will be less a prelude to a painful loss than merely a bump in the smooth road her life has become.
Her visits home during this early stage of her father’s treatment bring her to a new awareness of his personality. She discovers how alike they are in some ways and yet how polarized they remain owing to her perception of him as a somewhat aloof and recalcitrant individual, given to drink, to battles wit her mother and his ex-wife over religion, and to a kind practical flippancy about life that she initially saw as shallow and lacking in philosophy. As they associate more closely with one another, discussing films, and arguing cosmology and metaphysics, though, she finds herself drawn to a closer understanding of this man who has had such an impact on making her who she is. Although he lacks the formal instruction in which she has so completely immersed herself, his views and conclusions make striking sense to her and tend to simplify that which she had previously seen as highly complex. Unlike her sisters, who are far more conventional in their lifestyles and achievements, Hali sees that she is very much her father’s daughter.
The realization is not entirely comfortable. As his cancer goes first into remission and then emerges more virulent and threatening than ever, she understand that he is dying, that he will die soon, and that his death will be both painful and to some extent humiliating for a man who has always been fiercely independent and self-sufficient. Initially, she tries to run away, to escape her responsibility to him, but this, she finally acknowledges, is no answer. Returning to Dallas, she is confronted with his recognition that he is dying and also with his decision to commit suicide rather than face a prolonged and pitiful end. He takes her into his confidence in the matter, but she soon realizes that his attempts are not going to succeed, for in spite of his protestations of agnosticism and an eagerness to accept death, he is afraid.
As she becomes closer and closer to this man who sired her, reared her, and now relies on her utterly, she comes to a deeper and almost shattering realization. Rather that being independent and free-willed, Hali finds herself alone and manipulated by emotions she cannot control. Her husband, Seth, a philandering dilettante who is far more interested in his own father’s death, in his art, and in his money than in what Hali is going through, provides no meaningful support. Referring to her as “Halibut” (a bottom-feeding fish), he seems constantly to be using her as some sort of prop, a necessary element of the perfect life of the artist he has created for himself. Her sisters, helpless in the face of their grief, become distractions to her purpose and offer no consolation. Her mother is only concerned about her ex-husband’s rejection of the church, and David’s second wife, Candice, devoted as she is to her husband and respectful as she is of Hali’s special relationship to him, becomes an impediment to her purpose.
Hali’s attempts to assist her father are ineffective, and she winds up enlisting the support of his nurse, a shady figure who clearly has more interest in Hali, in her money and her sexuality, than in any sense of compassion for David. Together they manage, at last, to ease her father out of his pain and out of this life. The consequences, though, become telling on her, not only from the potential threat represented by the nurse, but also on her view of herself.
This novel works well because of the way Hali’s character develops. At the outset, she is a highly confident “contemporary woman,” one who relies utterly on the epistemology of science and the certainty of physical reality. She has arranged her life and set her course on the predicate of her supreme self-confidence. She knows she is intelligent, talented, beautiful, and, thanks to her marriage, wealthy. She relies on her mind and her abilities to sustain her against any self-doubt or penetrating questions that might undermine her surety.
In a sense, this novel is about the “meltdown” of a singular personality, about the slow erosion of confidence in the face of a grim and harsh reality. Hali realizes that cold intellectualism cannot displace human emotion, cannot provide substantial answers to vague questions about life and death, and, more particularly, about love and compassion. This discovery ultimately leads her to questions that she cannot easily answer. And finally, it merely leaves her insecure and afraid.
Beautifully written, Naked Singularity effectively ties disparate philosophies together. Demonstrating that the relationship between the hardest, coldest picture of the universe and the inexplicable pattern of human life and the mysteries of the human heart is far more complex than any quick analysis can explain, it reveals something meaningful about the way our contemporary world works and demonstrates that, in the end, no matter how much we learn or think we know, we are still our fathers’ children.
Oct 1, 2002
A far cry from the hot-hostess high-jinks of Smoking Hopes (1996), Alexander’s first novel, this is a painfully personal tale of Daddy’s Little Girl come home to Texas to agonize over whether she should help him die quietly, thereby avoiding his gruesome end from throat cancer. Hali may be diminutive, but she’s no lightweight, being a PhD in teleology and a major babe besides. When she arrives on the scene from New York, however, where her “open” relationship with an artist on the cusp of fame has hit a rough patch, she`s already aware that she may have to fulfill a tough special role for the family. At first, there’s hope, as Dad reads optimism in his doctor’s evasions and the punishing therapy seems to be having its desired effect. Father and daughter discover a renewed appreciation for each other’s cosmological interests and similar philosophies. But not many months pass before a different scenario emerges: last-chance surgery is ruled out as the cancer spreads to his spinal column and Hali is at Dad’s bedside when he speaks privately to her of helping him out. Eventually, she agrees, and with the help of a muscle-bound drifter in nurse’s garb she becomes the family Kevorkian – except that Dad won’t die no matter how many drug cocktails they give him, and Hali and the nurse feel increasingly the tugs of a fatal attraction.
The emotions are raw at times, but there’s a cool tone of postmodern post-mortem throughout as well, raising hackles and sympathy from first to last.
November 4, 2002
Alexander (Smoking Hopes) takes on a gut-wrenching topic in this ambitious second novel, which tells the story of a Texas woman who returns home to care for her dying father and faces a profound dilemma when he asks her to help him commit suicide. Hali is helping her father, Dave, in his battle against throat cancer, a fight that seems winnable when his chemotherapy works and the cancer goes into remission. But Dave’s respite proves brief, and when the cancer begins to advance again, Hali knows the request her father will soon make. At first, the plan seems simple: Hali and Thomas, one of the two nurses who provide round-the-clock home care, will administer a lethal but painless mix of morphine, alcohol and other painkillers. But the first hit of morphine fails due to Dave’s tremendous resistance to the drug, the other nurse begins to suspect euthanasia, and their plans go dangerously awry. Alexander writes eloquently about the family’s daily emotional pain. The lurid, macabre ending, which involves the attraction between Thomas and Hali, a climax that seems barely believable. (Dec.)
A Novel Explores the Spectrum of Euthanasia
Reviewed by Kurt Johnson
“Death’s inevitability is the Great Teacher” tradition quotes the Buddha as saying. This novel confronts death with a similar passion. In Naked Singularity (“Your last metaphor for God was the Singularity” [p. 22]) Victoria Alexander examines and grapples with the conundrum of euthanasia.
The book’s subject is no surprise to those who know Ms. Alexander’s biography. A relatively recent PhD graduate, she has published scholarly work in literary criticism, science, and teleological philosophy (of teleology Webster says “the character…attributed to nature or natural processes of being directed toward an end or shaped by a purpose”).
The heroine of Naked Singularity is also a teleologist, as well as a woman with a tortured relationship with her father. Now dying, he has been source of her life’s greatest angst and inspiration. Fitting the teleological theme, this chimeric paternal relationship has predicated her other bonds with men, including both husband and lovers. She is both deeply intellectual and an extremely sexual being.
Into this fertile ground for story-telling– confronting questions of love, impermanence, betrayal, inevitable death, assisted death, the hopeful and the jaded– Dr. Alexander introduces the inward-most existential thoughts of her heroine (often fond or discordant remembrances of her father) italicized, and used to set-off, or break, portions of the storyline:
“I have often heard you say that a fatal action began when your father had yelled at your mother, Get in the car, and she had obeyed. …Easier to attribute death to the mysterious purpose of some greater power than think it might have been avoided”. (p. 44)
This device allows the author to introduce multiple-angled views on the question of euthanasia through the thought-struggles of her characters. In life, Dr. Alexander specializes in “mechanistic teleology” (wherein direction emerges from within–“in the rearview mirror all is determined, if not inevitable.” [p. 64]). Where has musing ended and the story line begun again? What is really real here? What has really happened? If I felt this way, how would I act?
In the story, of course, it is this dying father who expects this “courageous” “renegade” among his daughters to be the one to mercifully “snuff him out” when he has finally had enough. Can she? Will she? And, if so, who can she trust to help?– all questions by book’s-end rendered into a maze of philosophical alternatives left by Alexander, apparently on purpose, for the reader to sort out. Publishers Weekly found the book’s ending “barely believable” but perhaps that reviewer missed what may be Dr. Alexander’s precise point– that none of us can be exactly sure about what is true in our lives and none of can be exactly sure of what we might do if faced with such a request by one of our most loved ones.
Other reviewers have called this book “painful”, “raw”, “gut-wrenching”, “lurid” and “macabre”– yet also “profound”. Metaphorically, perhaps the best way to read this book is to simply bring your own baggage, get on the train, and see where it takes you. There is very little in the spectral question of assisted death that is not explored in this relatively short novel, which can be read in one sitting. One may feel quite blank by the time one has gotten to the end, but perhaps this is the point. As Dr. Alexander’s heroine muses to herself, hearkening back to the Big Bang:
“Old light, tired starlight, climbing out of the last planetary abyss, tell us what you know. What agency broke the primordial symmetry? Who gave us these frozen accidents, our laws? But there was no answer to the question because of the way it was posed. They failed to understand that a Naked Singularity would not be like a god at all, except in his absence. He would have no throne to squat upon, no object in view. He would be but a symbol, bubbling up in the rolling void. Nothing so grand as anti-entropic entities like you and I, builders, painters and celestial mapmakers”. (p. 92).
The reader is left to ponder whether the daughter’s acceptance of her father’s ultimate request would be entropic or anti-entropic after all, and, lastly, what could be measured of its grandeur.
Kurt Johnson is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture and the National Service Conference of the AEU. With a doctorate in evolutionary biology, he has published widely concerning conservation and ecological issues and is also active in inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. Originally in the Christian religious life, Dr. Johnson spent a year during that period working with dying children.
A father’s love and assisted suicide create “Naked Singularity”
April 17, 2003
Section: Arts & Entertainment
“Woven into ‘Naked Singularity’s’ metaphors and narrative is a profound understanding of current ideas on chaos and complexity,” said James P. Crutchfeild of the Sante Fe Institute. “It renders esoteric constructs concrete, and in a setting none of us can escape.”
When Hali’s father discusses the different methods of suicide available, Hali accepts what she is expected to do. But when the time comes, emotions and a childhood remembrance of God come into play.
Hali’s love for her father creates a twisted paradox and she seeks help from her father’s male hospice nurse to assist in the complicated suicide.
The book cover elaborates, “Naked Singularity” as portrait of love between father and daughter, done with grace and humor and without sentimentality. That statement is highly disagreeable.
The sentimental implications in the book are secrete and complicated, “involving misplaced love, manipulations and a slow and painful end. Singularities are believed to lurk at the hearts of black holes, which conceal their existence from the outer world. A naked singularity would be a singularity bereft of a concealing black-hole shell, and therefore visible, in principle, to outside observers,” says Hali.
The only things other than singularity that will be left naked after reading this book are your emotions.
Reviewed of Naked Singularity
by Bill Creasy,
Washington Secular Humanists
Euthanasia is a medical ethical problem that is simple to state in general as a right to die or a right not to suffer. It is much more complex in practice, though. A terminally ill person, who may not be able to make decisions, must rely on family members who are emotional, grief-stricken, and vulnerable, and who are forced to make painful decisions.
This is the subject of an excellent novel by Victoria Alexander. The novel is about a young woman, Hali MacDonald, whose father has terminal cancer of the throat, after a lifetime of pipe smoking. He asks her, rather than her two sisters, to help him perform euthanasia if it becomes necessary. The novel follows her conflicted thoughts and actions as she tries to fulfill his wishes. Meanwhile, she must cope with her sisters, mother, stepmother, and husband. To add more conflict, two nurses are hired to care for the father; one is close to turning Hali in, and another helps her for his own questionable motives. The characterization of all these individuals is convincing. The relationship between Hali and her father is very touching and illustrates the way that interactions between fathers and daughters change over time.
The novel is written in an interesting style that is not strictly linear, but is more like memory. In the course of the events, the heroine reflects on questions of the meaning of lives and actions in a secular humanist framework. For example, Hali thinks, “The body is a thing. A man dies, and that is all of him. All that he ever was was in his movements.” The Naked Singularity of the title refers to the first uncaused cause of the Big Bang and the universe, which Hali thinks of as a physical effect, not God.
Euthanasia is an important subject, and Ms. Alexander has done a commendible effort in examining a morally and emotionally difficult situation.
Alexander, Victoria N. Naked Singularity.The Permanent Press, 2003, Sag Harbor. 189 pp. One of the many dark beauties of Victoria N. Alexander’s new novel is that, not only is it the proverbial good read, it is also an aproverbially brilliant one. Alexander–holder of a Ph.D in English from CUNY, Graduate School–has dished up a heart-stoppingly beautiful heroine who holds similar degrees in teleology (the study of why) and she thinks, and writes, like a dream. Witness this sample from a soliloquy by Hali on death: “You had thought death would at least be romantic, but now you realize there is nothing to be thankful for–how vacuous, how colorless, how without pity, how without regard for your intentions . . . . ” This, from a piece of popular fiction, is almost asking too much in the matter of sheer, unabused style.
Unfortunately, both narrator and author have run up against that same ontically insurmountable obstacle as described above: Hali’s beloved father, former pipe fiend Dave MacDonald, is, as we join the proceedings, being slowly undone, in sickbed and out, by a gross cancer that proceeds from mere discomfort of the throat areas to grueling pain of the neck and head, a progression unforeseen by his bubble-brained doctors to the utter despair of this wife and three daughters, including Hali.
There’s darker to come. On one of her trips to Texas from New York–where Hali resides with her husband Seth, a slightly noble, thus not completely understanding, type–Hali’s father asks her, his youngest, if she will privately assist him in bringing about his death, before nature can take its grisly course. Hali–perhaps more to the reader’s surprise than her own–agrees, not wanting to see her father reduced to the level of disfigured effigy, long-suffering or short. ‘Tis a consummation, they both agree, devoutly to be wished, and brought about.
And full, it must be added, of misjudgments and misintentions, not so much on the part of Hali, but the tortured psyche of slim-hipped, drawling, East Texas night nurse they’re hired to while away Dave’s nocturnal hours. In ungracious cahoots with Hali, Thomas, as pictured by Alexander, does for euthanasia what Raskalnikov did for murder: Dave MacDonald is subjected to a steady stream of lethal drugs (injected through a feeding tube implanted in his stomach) including morphine, Valium, Vicodin, Dilaudid, even Nyquil–all without any effect except to plunge Hali’s father into one faux-coma after another.
At times, the coloring of the whole affair becomes so dark as to make us believe we’re in the midst of some whopper of a black comedy. But as Dave’s wife and daughters begin to fall apart, singly and collectively, as Hali spends her afternoons running ten miles at a clip, and blackmail abruptly becomes more than a subtext, we begin to see far more clearly the true themes of Alexander’s novel: the savage intractability of life, equaled only by the dauntless superiority of death, the terrible malfeasance that seems to have brought all of it on, and the state of ontological vacuum resulting, with each as culpable as the next, and no one safe from death except death itself.
I’m not going to reveal the conclusion of Naked Singularity, except to wonder out loud if Hali is ever going to be free of Thomas, even with that noble Seth–noble, and newly nasty–standing by. I promised you a good read, and guarantee you’ll get it. But you’ll also get much more, much of it existentially inconvenient, much more lagniappe for the soul.
Victoria N. Alexander’s first novel, Smoking Hopes, was published in 1996. Though it has been seven years, Naked Singularity is well worth the wait. Told in events current and taking place in flashbacks, Alexander takes the reader down an intriguing road loaded with questions and choices, none of them easy.
Hali is the youngest child of divorced parents; she has two sisters, and their past is dark and haunted. Growing up, her father was an abusive alcoholic and her mother was something of a loser; the girls were left to fend for themselves. But now, she, along with the rest of the family, is struggling with her father’s cancer. What the rest of the family does not know is that her father has asked her to help him commit suicide.
Of course it is not an easy decision to make. She hates driving him back and forth to the hospital for painful treatments, engaging in discussions about Shakespeare and beliefs. She cannot see why, if he is bound to die, that he should be forced live the rest of his days suffering. But when she learns that her father is afraid of dying, everything becomes that much more complicated. Unable to do it on her own, Hali looks to a nurse for help. And they soon learn that a mercy killing is not as easy as it sounds, and life spins out of control.
Alexander’s writing is poetic as she allows the reader to feel without telling them what it is they are supposed to be feeling. Naked Singularity is sad, touching and heartfelt, a taut story about love and living, hate and dying. I only hope fans of Victoria N. Alexander’s writing do not have to wait nearly another decade for more of her wonderful storytelling.
Not only is she a talented novelist and a Ph.D., but Victoria Alexander, like the heroine of her first novel, used to be a stripper in New York. Her novels are fascinating because they incorporate so many different perspectives. They’re sexy, smart, and creative.
Victoria is known for her work in “teleology,” which she describes as “the study of the belief that things are meant to be.” She was trained by leading physicists at the premier center for complexity sciences, the Santa Fe Institute. She is also an arts community leader as co-founder and President of New York based Dactyl Foundation for the Arts & Humanities, which has featured programs with such diverse participants as science writer, Stephen Jay Gould, film director Larry Clark (who did Kids and, more lately, Ken Park), actor Willem Dafoe, veteran film director Norman Jewison, photographer/ music video director Yelena Yemchuk (of Smashing Pumpkins fame), and professional skateboarder Jason Dill, who was recently featured on The Osbournes.
Okay, so Victoria does a lot of different things. What is different about her work? In Naked Singularity Victoria uses physics to explore questions about the origins of order or the existence of a god. She relates this to difficult moral decisions like euthanasia. The novel tells the story of Hali whose terminally ill father asks her to help him commit suicide. She agonizes for months then finally decides to secretly slip him a fatal dose. But her first attempts fail, and she is forced to accept the help of a shady hospice nurse who’s either fallen in love with her or is out to get something. It’s a beautifully written story and well as a dramatic one. It would have been easy to write a senselessly bleak postmodern version of these events, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t regress to ‘nostalgic humanism’ or ‘essentialism’ either. The story reflects Victoria claims that Derrida’s post-structuralism is a theory based on a dubious understanding of the origins of structure. (So all of you who said you would “wait for the movie” rather than read Derrida’s painfully boring books, don’t feel obliged to see the new documentary on his life that’s just come out.) Victoria says, “I want to go forward. I want art to get over the slump it’s been in for the past fifty years or more.”
Post-structuralism has been compared, by its own inventors, to masturbation without climax. If you look at it this way, then you can see why someone like Victoria might get tired of it. It’s nice to find someone actually achieving something in the art/literary world.
Equal Time for Freethought WBAI
Radio Interview with Victoria Alexander
Janurary 3, 2004
Alexander discusses her work in bringing together the art and sciences at Dactyl Foundation and studying non-linear dynamics theories at the Santa Fe Institute.
6000 intriguing people you want to meet online before you die.
Who will make the list tomorrow?” (Edited by Cliff Pickover, http://www.pickover.com, author of “The Math Book.”) Victoria N. Alexander is Director of Programs for Thought for the The Dactyl Foundation. Alexander is co-founder and president. She earned her Ph.D. in 2002 in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY and did her dissertation research in teleology, evolutionary theory, and complexity science at the Santa Fe Institute. Alexander has investigated the use of chance in books by Martin Amis, Saul Bellow, Louis Begley, Henry James, Milan Kundera, Nabokov, C. S. Peirce, Thomas Pynchon, and Shakespeare. Her novels Smoking Hopes and Naked Singularity pursue similar themes involving coincidence and emergent intentionality. Her honors include a Rockefeller Foundation Residency, a Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women Fellowship, two Art & Science Lab Residencies (Santa Fe), Alfred Kazin Award for Best Dissertation, and the Washington Prize for Fiction.
Carrolton Book Club Review
Pixie, the narrator of Trixie, is unreasonably attracted to someone who does not seem to be the person the narrator says she is. The narrative is layered with irony, introspection, and self-doubt that alerts the reader to the narrator’s frustrated desire to make the love object into something that she isn’t. Poignant and haunting, Alexander’s third novel successfully relates the strangeness of love that is too often tragically self-reflexive. There is, however, one very powerful triumph in the story: Even though love may be a failure for Pixie, her self expression is a success. We do understand Pixie, even if we don’t understand her attraction. A very strange, funny, and moving story.
Not A Women’s Romance
The narrator, “Pixie,” is the daughter of a famous cabaret stripper, who was murdered in the 1960s. In flashbacks, she describes that tragedy, which has filled her with loss and longing. Pixie admits that she has a thing for “girls with meretricious charms.” After college, she becomes a stripper herself and meets Trixie who reminds her of her mother. Trixie, she tells us, is also killed. The story unfolds as a kind of whodunnit and why.
Max, a car dealership owner, is a regular at the Girlie Playhouse, who thought he was happily married until he met Trixie. Meanwhile, spurred by changes in the law and licensing for his bar, the owner begins to turn his homey, old-fashioned cabaret into a table dance club, hiring several new, not-so-nice dancers. Also meanwhile, the bouncer, Calvin, shows interest in Pixie, but she rejects him and immediately regrets it. Pixie, like her mother and like Trixie, does not want to stop dancing. None of the women is hard up for cash or of limited means. At this point one begins to wonder, If the objective of this eroticism is not to attract a male or to make money, then what is its purpose?
Then Max wins seven million dollars in the lottery, and he takes Trixie and six friends away for the weekend, and gives them each a red sports car. The press has a field day. They are especially fond of making fun of Trixie. Things degenerate considerably. Calvin quits. The club is a travesty and now features headliners with names punning on “breasts,” the worst is M’am Mary, painful to watch, but funny! Max seems to be falling out of love with Trixie and demands that she stop dancing. She wants to save the club’s tarnished name and redeem herself.
With poetry and paradox, Trixie isn’t a women’s romance but it will appeal to a more empowered feminine audience, crossing over to lesbian fiction (as did Smoking Hopes), and even speaking to men, who will be surprised to find they actually relate, as I did.
In her new [comic] novel, Alexander (Smoking Hopes, 1996, Naked Singularity, 2003) pulls back the curtain on strip clubs and the women who work in them.
A pale waif with dark hair, Trixie is the newest stripper at the Girlie Playhouse, and no one seems able to resist her beauty or allure, [according to] the narrator, Pixie–a topless dancer who works with Trixie and whose most notable characteristic, in addition to her almost see-through blond hair, is that fact that her stripper-mother was [shot by a preacher] in front of her. Set up as a Daisy Miller-like figure, Trixie meets equally tragic results. And thus the novel [is] Pixie’s [unreliable] retelling of how Trixie gets involved with Max, a married man who wins $7 million in the lottery and spends it on seven strippers, and of how she meets her untimely death, with [false] parallels drawn between Pixie’s mother’s life and [assassination]. Alexander should be praised for vividly depicting Pixie’s [loneliness] and sense of self-expression through her body, all themes [not] reminiscent of Mary Gaitskill’s women. Likewise, the book should be commended for exploring a world not often depicted in fiction and for not relegating the men who visit the Playhouse to stereotypes [since this reviewer is one of them]. But while the mystery around Trixie’s death is [not] supposed to be what the draw that pulls the reader in–How does she die? Does Max kill her? His wife? Maybe even Pixie?–the [solution] is the novel is [not] centered on a heroine that never feels fully formed. [Even though Trixie seems like an ordinary stripper to the reader], the [narrator] repeatedly [tells us] how much Max and [she] love Trixe and how every one in the strip club is drawn to her innate magnetism. [The real story is the narrator’s loneliness, tendency to dream and to always paint a favorable picture.] And for a book that is [entirely] about voyeurism [–as well as] individuals heavily attuned to their bodies–the fact that the [object of Pixie’s attention] is difficult to [really know] is especially [appropriate]. With this disconnection to Trixie, investing in [Pixie’s] story and the novel becomes difficult [for a reviewer who doesn’t get irony and believes Alexander’s novel is a romance not a comedy].
An intriguing concept that [hits] the mark.
A fine pick and will entertain as it enlightens —
If you think they’re just a piece of meat for you to ogle, you’re doing it wrong. “Trixie” follows one stripper as she faces her life and author Victoria N. Alexander hopes to teach readers a little something about life and where it’s going, and why some women go down paths others may feel degrading. With plenty of food for thought, “Trixie” is a fine pick and will entertain as it enlightens and is highly recommended.
2003 Asian American Bookview
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1997 P.I.F. October
1996 Skip Sheffield The News (Boca Raton) June 14
1996 Shannon Warmann Metrocrest News (Dallas) June 13
1996 Transpacific Magazine May
1996 Rose Sung Hunter Envoy May 7
2003 D Magazine: Front Burner Dallas, TX