May 18, 2015
I thought people had given up noticing my novel The Shame of What We Are, but it’s found one new reader: Ken Dowell, who blogs at OffTheLeash.net. Dowell seems to think the portrait of the 1950s authentic: “Art Dennison and I did experience a lot of the same things,” he writes, “beginning with a patch on the right eye to keep the weaker left eye from losing interest.”
That patch may have been a metaphor in the novel—I don’t remember. In our current era, however good your eyesight, I think it’s best to squint. Or cover both eyes, which I’ll be doing tomorrow during my city’s primary elections.
Interestingly, of the several passages Dowell quotes from the book, one is about the political outlook of Art Dennison’s father: “People who liked [Adlai] Stevenson were Communists at heart, he said, or else fools, ‘the type that can’t find their own rear end when they are sitting on it.’” And Dowell comments, “His dad’s political views would have produced a knowing nod from my father.” Dowell also notes that the father is “generally pissed off” throughout the book.
I feel like the novel just got a knowing nod from someone who knows what to nod at. Guess I’ll have to stop being generally pissed off for a while.
March 23, 2015
There’s a forthcoming novel I’m genuinely excited about.
(Stark revelation: People in the literary trades often pretend to be excited when they’re not. Imagine that! But in the above sentence I genuinely mean the word genuinely.)
I happened on the first chapter of this book almost two years ago, on the author’s website. I gave it the first-sentence test:
Once there was a girl who did everything wrong.
Hmm: Good premise, and the tone seems right. Serious, humorous and ironic at the same time. On, then, to the first few paragraphs:
Once there was a girl who did everything wrong. Take the time in 1963 when she took part in a wade-in to desegregate a public pool in Chester, Pennsylvania. She almost drowned. She had been the only white girl in the demonstration. When the crowd took the pool by storm, she flailed and sank, and she was pulled out by a lifeguard who forcibly detained her as her Negro comrades were loaded into vans. The police refused to arrest her. They said she should go home and learn to swim.
“Did she?” Tamara asked. She was sitting in the bathtub, with her knees drawn under her chin. The tub was ancient, and the faucet leaked enough to draw a dull brown line across the porcelain.
“Eventually,” Beth said. “Your daddy taught her.”
So it’s historical, including major political events and social conflicts. But it’s mainly personal, about human beings who “flail” and look ridiculous at times and have to interpret their misadventures for their children. Okay, I was hooked.
Now that novel, Waveland by Simone Zelitch, has found its publisher, The Head and the Hand Press, and I’ve read the whole thing in galleys. It’s about a young white woman’s experiences during the Freedom Summer of 1964, and about her life afterward—working with the Movement, raising a biracial child conceived during that time, enduring the tragedies, breakups and breakdowns. It’s a complicated journey with many ups and downs and sideways slides.
As soon as Beth Fine arrives in Mississippi, she finds out how dull Freedom work can be: she’s assigned to shelve books and clean the floors. Eventually, though, she gets more involved in the field work, finds love and conflict in equal measure, and has her brushes with violence. When a gun under the bed is mentioned early in the book, you can be sure it will be fired at some point.
The novel jumps around in time, and scattered chapters give us three other points of view, widening our perspective on Freedom Summer, the Democratic convention of that year and the tensions pervading the Movement. Yet the book remains primarily Beth’s story. As it turns out, that phrase she uses to characterize herself, “the girl who did everything wrong,” is more than a joke about her social clumsiness and problems in judgment. She’s a person who can’t be dissuaded from doing what she feels must be done. She has a private sense—of justice, duty, love, whatever you want to call it—that impels her, and at key moments she can’t resist its demands even when her brain knows she’s courting disaster. At one point she quotes from Pascal: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” She’s stubborn, headstrong and often infuriating to the other characters. If we as readers fully engage with her, she should sometimes infuriate us too. Damn it, Beth, we want to yell, make the sensible choice! No such luck; she’s not going to listen, and that’s her virtue and her fault.
Simone Zelitch, as I discovered by reading her previous works, has a habit of writing provocative historical novels: The Confession of Jack Straw, about the English peasants’ revolt of 1381; Louisa, about two women who roughly reenact the biblical story of Ruth in post-Holocaust Europe and Israel; Moses in Sinai, about—well, the title explains it. Except for Louisa, released by Berkley, these were small-press books, as is the new one. They deserve a big-press readership.
In her next book after Waveland, an already completed novel called Judenstaat, Zelitch tackles an imaginary past—what might have happened after World War II if the Jewish state had been carved out of Germany rather than Palestine. This novel won her an NEA fellowship, and it has recently been signed by Tor/Forge, the Macmillan imprint known mostly for sci-fi and fantasy. It’ll be back to the big presses for this persistent, thought-stirring, hard-to-classify writer.
In the meantime, check out the girl who can’t do anything right. She’ll agitate and charm you in equal measure. If you want to order a copy before the official release date in May, The Head and the Hand Press is offering a prepublication deal.
March 5, 2015
On this snowy day in March, when my hometown Philadelphia is pretending to be Boston and Boston is pretending to be Baffin Island, I’m taking a break from shoveling two sidewalks (office and home) and inventing ways to torture the groundhog who predicted this weather.
Now would be a perfect time for reading a novel. Lately, though, I’ve been pondering the frequent reactions I get when I recommend a recent novel to friends or acquaintances.
Sometimes it’s a pained, put-upon look, as if I’d suggested they shovel the snow from my 100-foot driveway. (Strictly a metaphor; my driveway is only 6 feet.)
Sometimes it’s an unbelieving, disdainful grimace as if I’d offered tickets to a Justin Bieber concert.
Sometimes it’s even worse: a repulsed glare as if I’d dragged my friend to an expensive restaurant for a feast of earthworms, sycamore bark and raw mutton. (Metaphor again: Philly doesn’t boast such a restaurant—yet.)
The people I’m talking about are urbane, well-educated folk who must, at one time or other, have read a novel. Why does the idea repel them so much now? I’ve come up with several possible explanations.
- Middlebrows like me, they need all their spare time for watching British costume dramas. Maybe, like me, they’re still trying to figure out why any eligible bachelors tolerate Mary Crawley.
- Implying that a friend would read a book for fun is an insult, really. It’s like saying your haircut is so perfectly 1974.
- Given the dire condition of the world, they may agree with Elena Ferrante’s character Franco Mari, a political activist who declares to his ex-girlfriend, “[T]his, objectively, is not the moment for writing novels” (from Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay).
- They may see contemporary novels as gimmicky and trivial. Partly true.
- They may see contemporary novels as wordy, opaque, unfocused and boring. Also partly true.
- It’s a pain to read a lot of text on a phone, and what other way is there to read?
- If the friend is male, he probably views novel-reading as beneath his serious manly dignity, like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice: “Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but, on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels.”
You know, after all that, I’ve convinced myself it’s foolish to waste time on fiction. I think my companion has a better idea for a wintry afternoon.
February 5, 2015
Cleaver Magazine has been ramping up its review section, and today there’s an excellent review of a book I love, We’ll Go to Coney Island, a novel in stories by Barbara Scheiber (Sowilo Press, 2014). The reviewer, Ashlee Paxton-Turner, is given plenty of space (more than 1,500 words) to discuss the work in detail, and she’s quite perceptive.
Early on, Paxton-Turner tells the remarkable story of the Walker Evans photo used on the cover. The book’s linked stories are loosely based on the author’s own family history, especially her mother, her charismatic and philandering father, and her stepmother. While she was writing the stories, she happened to see the Evans Coney Island photo in an article about an upcoming exhibition. Though the man in the picture has his back turned to the camera, Scheiber instantly recognized him: her father! with his mistress (later her stepmother)!
That’s a great background tale. The stories in the book itself are just as good, and the arrangement adds to their power. Chapters set in 1915–1916, when the main character Minna is a young girl, interweave with chapters from much later years, in which Minna becomes a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Here is Paxton-Turner’s take on the technique:
Scheiber uses the form to tell two parallel narratives—past and present—that taken separately are rather linear. Once she puts them together, the linearity is distorted. This creates emotional resonance: the past and its formative memories does not yield or relinquish its hold on the present; it continues to resurface, even when Minna, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is left in the barren room of a nursing home.
Right. The past informs the present and vice versa, as much as in any time-travel sci-fi novel.
One other note of interest: The author, a first-time novelist, is in her nineties. I take that to mean that for all of us who have been dull and unimaginative for decades, there is still hope.
The book cover above links to the Amazon page for the book. Here is the link to the Cleaver review.
January 5, 2015
The novel features a brain-damaged alcoholic who calls herself Allison Wonderland, along with her eccentric, half-blind lover Leigh Berry, who speaks in his own semi-invented language. A “normal” friend of theirs, Connie Bowers, tries to guide them through their misadventures, while assorted other colorful and wacky types, including a giant imaginary ape, play supporting roles. (Note the ape peeking out at the bottom of the cover.)
The book is kind of about “disabilities,” in all senses of the word; kind of about spirituality; and kind of just crazy. I hope some readers enjoy it and none accuse me of exploiting innocent apes for commercial gain.
August 19, 2014
Robin Black’s novel Life Drawing is remarkable in many ways. So many reviewers have praised the book already that there’s no need to add to the chorus, but I want to note one element in particular.
A bad thing happens in this book. A big, bad thing, with a clear victim and a clear perpetrator. But what makes the act unusual is that everyone is guilty in some sense. The victim bears some guilt. So do three other people who did not commit or encourage or sanction the bad thing but nevertheless helped move it toward fruition.
That strikes me as more true to life than we care to acknowledge on a daily basis. We may nod at the author’s wisdom, but in real life we prefer to get outraged. We like to draw hard lines between the innocent and the guilty, point our fingers at the bad guys and clamor for justice. For just a moment, think of how often we do this when discussing, say, Palestine, gun violence, political rebellions, multigenerational poverty, _____ [insert controversial subject of your choice].
Ms. Black’s one sin against realism in Life Drawing is that she allows her characters to recognize how much they have all contributed to the evil. In real life, we won’t admit any such thing.
If only we could be as smart as our best novelists …
December 18, 2013
My wife recently read Blue Nights by Joan Didion, a moving memoir about the author’s loss of her 39-year-old daughter. Like many other readers, Peggy admired the book but remained puzzled about what exactly killed the still-youngish woman. The memoir is “a little less than clear on the events that took place.”
I haven’t read the book myself and have little right to comment on it. The link on the quotation above leads to an article that discusses the possible diseases involved and reasons why Didion may have dodged the issue—if indeed “dodged” is an appropriate word for a deliberate decision by a well-respected writer whose recent work has courageously been “turning the scalpel on herself.”
My point here is that, in a novel, the author would not have been able to conceal or evade such a basic fact. If the daughter were a fictional character, readers would demand to know what was going on, and editors would demand that readers be satisfied. Perhaps one could structure a novel so that the mystery itself, the unknowability, became a central theme, but that’s a different question.
I’ve been pondering this matter in connection with two Philadelphia-area authors who will be reading at Musehouse in January: Lauren Grodstein and Susan Barr-Toman. Both tackle difficult subjects without flinching from the details. Grodstein’s 2009 novel A Friend of the Family centers on a suburban doctor who has clear and reasonable ideas about right and wrong and who gets into deep trouble, personal and moral, when he tries to act on those notions. Her latest novel, The Explanation for Everything, features a widowed biologist whose trust in science is challenged by a student who believes in God. Not the usual pattern of religious faith undermined by science, but the reverse—and though there’s plenty of humor in the situation, the novel takes the challenge by faith quite seriously. The protagonist’s science begins to fail him; his experiments go wrong, and his Darwinist convictions bring him little solace for the death of his wife. Enter a Christian student—a nubile female, no less—who offers both personal and spiritual comfort…
Susan Barr-Toman’s novel When Love Was Clean Underwear, winner of the Many Voices Project award, was published by New Rivers Press in 2009. It begins with an elderly, terminally ill woman demanding that her live-at-home daughter help her commit suicide. The mother prepares a series of index cards with detailed instructions for each step: “Number One: Place pillow over my face and apply firm but gentle pressure for a minimum of five minutes.” After the suicide/murder in the first chapter, the introverted and now-culpable daughter has to make a life for herself—and that’s the story for the rest of the book.
Most fiction writers choose easier topics, of course. But the genre allows us—indeed, challenges us—to explore the hardest truths in depth, without flinching. And that’s why I think fiction is often truer than memoir, truer perhaps than what we call real life, which for many of us teems with artificialities.