Book Review: ‘The Performance,’ by Claire Thomas

Book Review: ‘The Performance,’ by Claire Thomas

Book Review: ‘The Performance,’ by Claire Thomas

Book Review: ‘The Performance,’ by Claire Thomas

“Happy Days,” published in 1961, pivots on an arresting and disturbing image: The main character, Winnie, is trapped in a mound of earth. In the first act, she is buried to the waist; by the end of the second, only her head is visible. Beckett’s cultural endurance stems from his ability to capture some timeless essence of human being (“I can’t go on. I’ll go on”) — but Thomas also identifies what makes “Happy Days” particularly relevant in 2021: “We humans, all of us, are stuck on a dead planet with extremes that are more extreme. We humans, all of us, have to distract ourselves with denial and busy business.”

Indeed, Margot, Ivy and Summer move between attention and distraction, outward engagement and inward contemplation. Winnie’s concern about the sun (“Did I ever know a temperate time?”) reminds Summer of the ozone hole and, later, climate change. An onstage squabble between Winnie and her husband, Willie, reminds Margot of her husband, John, whose recent mental deterioration has led to shocking episodes of physical violence.

Sometimes the novel’s digressions drift far from their original association, which might stretch the patience of a reader looking for traditional plot. The sight of Winnie holding a parasol leads Summer to reflect on subjects that include a Kundalini yoga class, a pyromaniacal boy she once knew, a participatory art piece that she and April attended in the Botanic Gardens, and the night she spent with a fellow acting student in a shrine dedicated to victims of war.

Thomas is a fluid writer who stitches these topics together, but the effect is still meandering and stream-of-consciousness. All three women are haunted by fears about the future of the planet, and they struggle with how best to take action in the face of immobilizing anxiety — but this, too, can feel enumerated rather than explored. “There were neo-Nazis on the beach over summer,” thinks Summer, “spitting their hate onto the sand. And swastikas sprayed on nursing home walls. And police officers displaying white pride. And hate speeches in Parliament. And mass shootings inside churches and mosques and schools and concert halls and malls.” I found myself wishing for the novel to do more with this raw material, to synthesize these awful facts instead of merely stating them.


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