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Book Review: Hating Olivia by Mark SaFranko

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At the end of the new edition of Mark SaFranko’s Hating Olivia, the author attaches an afterword which he calls “On Writing, Discipline, and Perseverance.” He talks about what made him decide to be a writer. He talks about his writing career and his difficulty getting published in the United States. He talks about the writing of the novel. And one thing comes across loud and clear, as if it hadn’t already been manifest from a reading of the novel: this is a writer that for better or worse owes a significant debt to Henry Miller. It is from Miller and writers like him that he found his voice, the voice at least that speaks in Hating Olivia.

“One day I pulled a book called Henry Miller On Writing off a shelf in a Trenton, New Jersey, bookstore and the world was transformed. The author’s straits were similar to mine.” Miller wanted to be a writer, SaFranko goes on, but he had to figure out how to go about it for himself, and figure it out he did. He made mistakes, but he kept on plugging away, and here he was to tell the rest of us “wannabes” how to do it. “I damn near underlined every sentence of that book. And I was on my way.” It didn’t happen overnight, but it was a beginning.

What he found in Miller and other writers of his ilk was a kind of confessional voice that gave the impression that what was on the page was really reality thinly disguised as fiction. There was a feeling of authenticity about it. It was as though the author had laid himself bare. I don’t know that it actually needs to be authentic; it simply needs to make the reader feel it’s authentic.

Now while SaFranko explains that much of what happens in Hating Olivia parallels much of what was going on during a certain period in his life, it would probably be a mistake to equate the author with Max Zajack, the protagonist of his novel. Both fancied themselves artists, but had little to show for it other than the fancy. Both found the conventional workaday life oppressive and confining. Many of the menial jobs that Max takes in the novel are jobs that SaFranko says he had at that time of his life — delivering newspapers, desk clerk at a motel. Still it is one thing to use material from one’s life in fiction, it is quite another to equate fiction with autobiography.

Max may be the protagonist of Hating Olivia; he is far from a hero. Since the story is narrated in his voice and we see everything from his point of view, it is very easy for the reader to take what he says as gospel. On the other hand, first person narrators are not always all that reliable; their accounts need to be examined critically. Max is pretentious and self indulgent. He reads Celine and masturbates to Playboy. He plays at being an artist. He feels smugly superior to most everyone he comes across. He is satisfied living in a roach-infested boarding house. He is willing to live off Olivia after they become involved. He is willing to indulge her in the excesses he blames her for. If things go wrong in their relationship, it would seem that he was as much to blame as she. Moreover, to see Max as an unreliable narrator makes the book that much more complex and interesting. Otherwise, it just reads as self-serving whining.

Hating Olivia is a novel about youth, passion and irresponsibility. Conventional social values are ridiculed — work, education, family, none of these things is important. Yet in the end, youth and passion do not last. Eventually the idyllically named Olivia Aphrodite wants things, clothes, jewelry, even a dog; she begins to act more and more crazily. Sex becomes an act of aggression. The demands of everyday living make some kind of employment necessary. Hair gets gray or disappears. There comes a point when even a little fat dumpy guy begins to look good. The passions that seemed so important in youth no longer seem so significant. Even understanding them no longer seems necessary. As an older Max asks in an epilogue: “What was all that insanity about?” “Long ago,” he concludes, “I gave up searching for answers.”

If your literary taste runs to writers like Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski, Celine and Anais Nin, Hating Olivia is a novel you’ll like. If your taste is more conventional, this is a book you’d best avoid.

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About Jack Goodstein