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3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting debut novel of identity and desperation, 6 Nov 2012
Paul Bowes (Wales, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: How to Get Into the Twin Palms (Paperback)
'How To Get Into the Twin Palms' has been described by Gary Shteyngart as an example of '1.5 generation' literature: writing that draws on the experiences of young Americans who immigrated as children, and find themselves positioned uneasily between cultures - neither 'first generation' products of the old culture, like their parents, nor completely assimilated, 'second-generation' immigrants, speaking English as a first language. This generic pigeonholing might seem to make Katerina Waclawiak's debut novel of limited interest. But the central character's rootlessness and sense of displacement resonates more widely; perhaps because it is increasingly the common experience of urban youth, growing up in a world in which rapid, disorientating change mimics the older disruptive role of geographical displacement.

It is also about Los Angeles. As such, it takes its place in a long line of attempts to grapple with the marginal and transitory nature of life in the paradigmatic city of the modern, where identity is provisional by design. Waclawiack's Los Angeles is at once a city of arbitrary ethnic concentrations - much of the novel is set in the Russian section of West Hollywood - and an edgeless, centreless, fluid territory, transected by freeways that facilitate rapid but somehow meaningless spatial transitions. Ultimately, 'Twin Palms' is about identity: not just immigrant identity, but personal, existential identity in a city that seems indifferent to notions of stability, history and continuity.

The novel's protagonist is a young Polish-American woman - unusual in a genre dominated by males - living alone in LA (Waclawiak, now based in New York, lived in LA for ten years at about the same age). Like the city, 'Anya' - not her real name - has identity problems: in her case, an unsatisfactory and rebellious relationship with her Polish inheritance that has stalled her attempts to forge a new, more viable identity in the sainted Reagan-land of freedom and opportunity. Street-watching from the balcony of her flat, she finds herself fascinated by people entering a private club: the Twin Palms, patronised exclusively by Russians of a glamorous and potentially dangerous kind.

As a Pole, she is excluded from the mysteries of the Twin Palms: here in the New World, in theory a blank canvas of desire, Old World prejudices and mutual suspicion still operate. Piqued, she pursues what is less a considered plan than a spur-of-the-moment gamble: she will try, as 'Anya', to shuck off her unsatisfactory Polish identity, to pass for Russian, to seduce a man who can get her into the Twin Palms, where...what?

Waclawiak uses this story, with its California noir-ish flavour - the indifferent, soiled city, the reckless, self-doubting heroine, the ill-advised and morally ambiguous quest - to explore the bases of identity, which to Anya's dismay prove more deep-rooted than a change of name and colour of hair. Russian or Polish? 'Good girl' or kept woman? Career person or nihilist? These binary choices fail to describe her world or resolve Anya's ambivalence.

Waclawiak's protagonist, with her personal carelessness, obsession with smells and tastes and small details of appearance, her barely suppressed desperation, seems to have strayed from the pages of Joan Didion - if one can imagine a Didion deprived of her insider status and guilt-tripped over the phone by her devout Catholic mother - but Waclawiak is still learning to handle language with Didion's surgical precision: apparent banalities that in Didion would be pregnant with unstated dread in 'Twin Palms' too often fall flat. Anya is marooned in the banal, timeless interval between a shallow-rooted past that supplies no sustenance and a future that she can neither believe in nor bring into being. But can the author make us care?

Working part-time as a bingo caller, Anya is bullied and mothered by the octogenarian Mary, who treasures the memory of her dead husband and her youthful beauty, is still avid for life, and is adamant that even in old age Anya will never be free of sexual desire - another element of identity that suddenly seems non-negotiable, more of an imposed burden than an expression of free choice. That Mary seems so much more alive than the younger woman is the first intimation that Anya's whimsical project may be masking a greater lack.

As Anya's half-conscious determination to make something - anything - happen sees her life begin to crumble at the edges, the reader may be haunted by echoes of other California fictions: by John Fante and Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, in whose writing glamour is rarely more than a false promise, a deceiving skin over a more essential seediness, and the presumed void of a life without direction, centre or foundation, governed only by amoral impulse and irrational desire. But Waclawiak - oddly, for an author who trained as a screenwriter - lacks the strong visual sense and the irrepressible vernacular energy of those earlier writers. Nor is this a thriller: the motor of plot runs in fits and starts towards no obvious goal. Just as Mary's presence erases Anya, so 'Twin Palms'' low-key retelling of disaster stubbornly refuses to drive its more vivid precursors out of the reader's mind.

An interesting book with some promise for the future.
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How to Get Into the Twin Palms
How to Get Into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak (Paperback - 14 Aug 2012)
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