Giselle Renarde, $5.99
Contemporary Fiction, 2018
Tragic Coolness is a modernized take of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, only this time the whole thing is laid out in conventional narrative instead of verse. Thank goodness, because most forms of verse either give me flashbacks to literature classes taught by sourpuss teachers or put me to sleep. I don’t know why, but somehow, despite my general aversion, I am fond of those by DH Lawrence, Robert Frost, and especially WB Yeats. Maybe it’s because those guys were easy on the eyes. Yes, I’m shallow, so sue me.
Oh yes, this story. Basically, it’s the same story as that of the original. Eugene Onegin is a self-absorbed, callous fellow that rarely considers the feelings of other people when it comes to his actions. Naturally, Tatyana, the younger sister of his good friend’s fiancée, is infatuated with him, because we all know that good girls are secretly horny for bad boys.
Is it considered spoiling if I touch on the plot developments of a story that was written over 200 years ago? To be on the safe side, if you are not familiar with either that original Russian version or this version, you better stop reading now.
You still here? Alright, let’s talk about Eugene Onegin. This story was pretty noteworthy for its time because in a time when heroines were often portrayed as martyrs that would endure all kind of crap the hero threw at them, all in the name of love, this one had Eugene treating Tatyana callously, only to decide that he loved her only when, conveniently, she was already married to someone else and hence, he didn’t really have to commit to her even then. Well, too bad for him—she rejected him and walked off, living him to molest only his regrets to keep him warm at night.
Tragic Coolness follows the same story line, with basically cosmetic changes made to set this story in the present century. Hence, readers that are familiar with that original story or various adaptations or incarnations of it that came later would find few surprises here. Maybe some minor suspense can be had from anticipating as to whether the author will have this Onegin deliberately shoot his friend in a duel or it is an accident, as different interpretations of the original story tend to present either one or the other. Personally, I don’t care too much about that because, to be honest, the character of Eugene Onegin is actually boring where I am concerned. Hence, for me, the allure of this story hinges on how the author presents the story in her own style and manner.
I don’t like the style at all.
The author wants to portray Onegin as this tragically cool fellow, hence the title of this story, but the title can also describe the presentation of this story. Maybe the author is aiming for some kind of poetic effect, but she loves to have her characters converse by including a word or a variation of that word over and over again. The characters will repeat the word each time they speak, often echoing what the other person spoke previously, to the point that I sometimes feel like I am reading about two parrots that have just joined art school and learned all about being pretentious twats by the end of their first term.
“Yeah, you wonder why I’m sick of kids now.”
Larina chuckled gently. “You are not sick of kids.”
“Sure I am.”
“You’re not sick of your grandson. You talk to him on that fancy phone of yours forty times a day.”
This short excerpt doesn’t seem too bad, right? Now imagine longer conversations in the similar manner, with each person involved in the scene using the words “sick of” non-stop until you feel like snapping at these people to stop trying so hard to come off like sitcom extras.
This story also makes me cringe a bit because it, intentionally or not, embodies the more pretentious desire to be cool. Early on, for example, two characters keep parroting about the awesomeness of Leonard Cohen’s music and book, and I am reminded of all those eye-rolling fans of that poor fellow. You know, those fans that deride everything else about music as rubbish while thinking that they have the right to decide who can perform Hallelujah and where. I like Leonard Cohen’s music, but my god, his more insane, pretentious “I am cool because I am a fan of this bloke and I hate everyone else” fans make it embarrassing to admit that I think Did I Ever Love You is a much better song than Hallelujah. Jeff Buckley did Hallelujah better, alright—he made that song the illicit aural erotica it was meant to be, while Mr Cohen, bless his soul, sounded on that song like a worn-out chain-smoker trying to pick me up at a bar. No contest as to which bloke I would let myself be picked up by!
Oh yes, this story. Where was I? Right, the presentation. My biggest disappointment with Tragic Coolness is how, ultimately, it sheds no notable new insight into the main characters. Maybe it’s because the author doesn’t want to deviate too far from the original story, I don’t know, but Ms Renarde squandered quite a number of opportunities here to build Onegin to be the Heathcliff of Mother Russia. For example, the first act of a dozen pages or so is wasted on Tatyana’s mother and some annoying woman squawking about being sick of kids and going menopausal with Leonard Cohen, when these characters don’t really matter for the rest of the story. Why not explore the characters of Onegin and Tatyana better instead? Let me inside their heads, so that I can understand their motivations better. Instead, I’m told rather than shown crucial developments in the relationship of these two.
The author finally hits the right note in the last few paragraphs of this story, when melodramatic yet somehow poetic actions and gestures finally provide a pleasant diversion to all the pithy, hollow conversations and shallow posturings littering the pages up to that point. My heart actually stops for a second or two at the sheer beauty of the last paragraph of the story, and in that insane moment, I imagine that the author has finally elevated her story. Of course, this moment comes too late, and serves only to accentuate my disappointment with the rest of the story.
Because the main characters never really come to life to me, I never experience any of the hedonism or nihilism that is said to drive Onegin’s character. I certainly never get the impression that Tatyana’s feelings for Onegin is anything more than a girl’s first crush. This story is just Eugene Onegin in prose rather than verse, and because it adds nothing to the legend of the tragic douchebag, it also feels unnecessary in every way.