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What I've Been Reading



Lately, I've been thinking about novels that have two narrative lines, one central and one peripheral.  It came to my attention while I was reading Scott Spencer's, A Ship Made of Paper, a novel about an affair between a white lawyer in a small town who is all but married to the woman and her young daughter that he shares a house with, and a very married African American woman, living in the same town, who has a child his daughter is friends with.   I think an illicit affair is  a fairly pedestrian subject for a novel, but this one is spiced up by the unorthodox choices Spencer has been making in his recent books.  In his new novel, An Ocean Without a Shore, we are asked to believe that a white, presumably straight author can write about a closeted gay man's life-long attraction to his old college roommate.  I am a long-time fan of Spencer's work and this means that I do believe, furthermore, that I hold that writers should give free rein to their imaginations, no matter how vigorously the publishing police try to establish rules.  In A Ship Made of Paper he writes about an interracial affair, successfully inhabiting the point of view of his black characters. 


But that's not really what interests me here.  Rather, it's this business of two narrative lines.  The peripheral narrative in this novel is ongoing and linear like the central narrative, but it's limited to a short, italicized section at the beginning of each chapter.  These sections narrate an event that will take place much later in the novel when the lawyer and the husband of the woman he will have an affair with are wandering through the woods together during a party, looking for a blind girl who has gone missing.  It's a brazen fast-forward into the future the reader will eventually reach two hundred pages later, and what it does, is instill suspense.  Who is this blind girl who has wandered away, why are these two men, one a local white man and the other a very elegant, well-spoken black man who spends most of his time in New York City, so uneasy with each other?


I admired the energy that this alternate timeline gave to the plot, creating something for the reader to look forward to.   And in the spirit of inquiry, I remembered another novel that also had what I will call "chapter tops," insertions in a different typeface at the beginning of every chapter that comment on, or sometimes contradict the central narrative.  Does anyone remember Annie Proulx's debut novel, Postcards, first published in 1992?  I read it when it first came out, and I remember I didn't like it.  I am from that generation of fiction writers who chased epiphanies; that is, a story or novel moved me only if it showed a character struggling towards some kind of awareness or understanding that had previously eluded her.  And Loyal Blood, the protagonist of Postcards, never achieves that in his long, wandering career after secretly "offing" his girlfriend when she wouldn't have sex with him. 


The novel begins moments after sexual rage has consumed him. He buries her body under a falling-down stone wall that runs along the top of a field on their farm, and in an equally spontaneous burst of energy, he abruptly leaves the family and the farm he has cared for all of his life.  Loyal crosses the country, working as a miner, a fossil-digger, drinking companion and observatory builder, an agricultural laborer, never again getting close to another woman, living a solitary life working shoulder to shoulder with the men he befriends.   The narrator tells us "his loneliness was not innocent," and as Loyal solves the challenge of finding the next job, he ignores the more difficult challenge of that long-ago murder.


It's an American novel in the sense that he travels the entire country, looking, listening, and writing postcards to the family back home, his father Mink, his mother Jewell, his brother Dub, and his sister Mernelle.  The backs of the postcards, containing short, handwritten messages are reproduced at the beginning of every chapter.  But the chapters are short and there are lots of them and so Loyal's postcards are mixed in with postcards to and from other members of the Blood family.  All of them, except Loyal's, reflect the passage of time and the changes weathered by the family farm.  The omniscient point of view moves from Blood to Blood and so while Loyal travels the country, Mink and Dub set the barn on fire and do a stint in jail for arson, the farm is sold, Mernelle gets married and moves away, Jewell moves into a trailer, and finally, an enormous trailer park takes over the remaining acreage.  Though decades have passed, Loyal writes to the still life of the family he left at the farm in Cream Hill, Vermont.  It becomes clear that his emotional life stopped at that moment and even in his imagination, he cannot move forward. 


As chapter-tops, the postcards are an efficient way of showing that, despite his peripatetic existence, Loyal is stuck in one place.  In addition, they initiate point of view changes as the omniscient narrator moves us into the lives of the other Blood family members.  Their lives are far more complicated than Loyal's because they are full of  challenges other than mere survival: his siblings, Mernelle and Dub, find people to love and get married, and his mother, Jewell, discovers independence after years of suffering the chaos caused by her husband's rages.  


The postcards at the start of each chapter are a neutral force.   They instill a different kind of point of view, one that is merely an objective chronicle of the passage of time.  That objectivity creates energy.  It pauses the frenetic pace of Loyal's restlessness where "he had come around so many corners they all looked the same," and renews momentum.  In both novels, the chapter tops provide relief from the tyranny of self-defeating characters. 


Almost thirty years later, rereading Postcards, I was more patient with Loyal's self-defeating impulse.  I was no longer such an innocent myself, which means I was ready to accept the shortcomings of this flawed character, enjoying how his story was told without looking for the moment when his anger would lift.  It never does.

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by Daisy Johnson



chapters shift between first and third person point of view.
Johnson explores the ambivalence in sibling relationships in this short novel about a mother who escapes with her two teenage daughters to a beach house after an unspecified horrific event at their school has made their lives in the old location impossible.  The beach house, which is old and has been in her deceased husband's family for decades, has a forbidding presence, and while Sheela, a children's book author, isolates in her room upstairs, her daughters are left to their own devices. The pattern of their relationship quickly becomes evident: While the mother is mostly absent, a dynamic that we suspect is always at play, and not just during this unusual period, September reigns over the younger July, teasing, tempting, pushing her towards danger. The mystery of the event at school that up-ended their lives persists, growing more ominous as it becomes clear that September was seeking revenge for a cruel trick some girls at school played on July. 
Normal teenage preoccupations--alcohol, first sex, binging on TV-- are minimized by the always looming threat of September's changing moods.  She is like the tiger that roams the house in Julio Cortázar's short story, "Bestiary," (from the collection, Blow-Up and Other Stories), as the house's human occupants dodge the animal's moves.  Even though September can also be loving and generous, more often she orchestrates their games towards danger.  July's first person narration is filled with kinetic awareness, based in feeling and observing as she hides from and alternatively searches for her sister.  Their version of Simon Says is "September Says."  "'September says eat all the mayonnaise,' and I groan but get the jar from the fridge and sit on the sofa with a spoon."  July never says no.  She eats the entire jar because it is easier to submit than to cross her sister, but more concerning, she has accepted her role as her sister's minion and in the process, has lost her voice.   She narrates a large portion of the novel, telling the story from the perspective of a person who is subsumed.  Chapters from the third person point of view of their mother, Sheela, provide an adult contemplation of the daughters' relationship and balance the emotional tangle.
The lives of these sisters, like the lives of all teenagers, are body-centered, and Johnson's rhythmic prose infuses their social and physical isolation with energy as simple things beckon: the beach, the sea, television, food, and memory.  The malevolence that seems to lurk in the corners is the effect of September's moods; Johnson's great accomplishment is her ability to suggest the ways that an older sister's desire for power and disruption permeates shadows, corners, walls, even a bird-watching hut on the beach.  The house is solid and still, but lives are filled with movement: "Everything flurries and barks and continues around it."  That flurry keeps the reader engaged as the narrative inexorably approaches the final surprising reveal.  Writers can study this novel for its kinetic prose, use of atmospheric detail, and what I admired most, the masterful build-up of suspense and mystery. 

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News of the World

By Paulette Jiles

Set in the sparsely populated state of Texas in 1870, this is the story of a relationship between Captain, a seventy-two-year-old man who makes his living as a reader of the news in small towns in northern Texas, and a ten-year-old Indian captive he is returning to her German relatives outside of San Antonio.  This long and dangerous journey through the uninhabited territory of Texas is the action of the novel.  It unfolds in a mostly linear fashion with few flashbacks.  The Captain and Johanna are an odd pair in their small, light excursion wagon with the previous owner's business, "Curative Waters," lettered on its sides, one horse pulling, one horse following, and side curtains protecting their belongings which include a small cookstove the Captain teaches Johanna to use.
The Captain is a veteran of three wars and his knowledge of people, native tribes as well as the inhabitants of the towns they pass through, shows the reader that he is a careful, discerning, and moral man, who takes his duty seriously, even though his reluctant charge only wants to return to the Kiowa tribe that held her for four years and then sold her back to the white man.  Johanna thinks of herself as Kiowa and has forgotten English, German, and the habits of white people, including the wearing of dresses and eating with forks.   She is a warrior at heart, fighting the Captain and the ladies he pays to bathe and clothe her and at every opportunity, trying to escape.  When he teaches her how to cook on the stove, she makes their meals happily, but when he shows her where he stores his extra ammunition (in the canister of flour) and how to use the shotgun that is backup to the rifle he carries himself, the reader suspects he is too trusting.  But the gesture proves to be wise because slowly, Johanna becomes a true partner.
We learn about the Captain's previous life through backstory; before marrying and settling down in San Antonio where he had two daughters with his beloved Mexican wife and ran a print shop, the Captain was a messenger for the military. Those early years, carrying messages from one calvary unit to another, were happy ones, as is his present occupation as a news reader.  He is a nomad at heart, Johanna is too, but the Captain, as careful and wise as he appears to be, as knowledgeable about guns, is not a true warrior like his young charge, he is not even carrying enough ammunition for his rifle.  When they are attacked by a curious threesome who have been tracking them since their journey started, a white man who wants to steal Johanna for prostitution, and the two Caddos Indians that travel with him, the battle that follows may be the most exciting in all of literary fiction.  The Captain quickly runs out of bullets and they appear to be beaten.  That is when the child warrior comes into her own and they vanquish the enemy by brilliant and unusual means.

For the last hundred pages the dangers continue, but there is a new respect between them, even love.  The Captain thinks he is finished with love, but although they outwitted the evil pedophile, the journey to return Johanna to her relatives is not over yet, and love will call on him once again.

News of the World is a masterpiece of character development because Jiles is a supremely visual writer.  That may be a curious thing to say, but I believe that is the quality that makes it truly exceptional.  The narrator's eye in this third person novel (mostly limited to the Captain's point of view, but with occasional forays into Johanna's point of view as well as the point of view of a horse and a bird, so I will call it omniscient), continually shows us what things look like.  We see how the land changes; we see how the rigors of the journey alter the Captain's appearance, and we see how Johanna wrestles with the dresses she is imprisoned in, at one point tucking the annoying skirts into her belt so she seems to be wearing pantaloons.  These visuals mark the changes in their behavior and attitude; when Johanna braids her hair, she is preparing for battle, when the Captain puts on his worn and stained travelling clothes, he is no longer the elegant old man reading the news, but an armed nomad.
It is a cinematic novel, but what drew me in, from the beginning, and kept on feeding me as I read, was the pleasure of the language.  The sentences flow nimbly, words and punctuation are chosen for the rhythm and sound that will reveal the Captain's deepest thoughts.  Interiority is always accompanied by the visual.  As you will see in the following excerpt, the character's revelations feel anything but arbitrary because they're rooted in the concrete world and expressed though the, by now, familiar rhythms of his thoughts.  "He sat on his carpetbag and leaned against a wheel.  His mind kept going back to the fight and to put it aside he watched Pasha graze and drank black coffee and smoked his pipe.  Johanna played in the stream like a six-year-old.  She turned over rocks and sang and splashed.  To comfort himself and slow down his mind he thought of his time as a courier, a runner, and Maria Luisa and his daughters. Maybe life is just carrying news.  Surviving to carry the news.  Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed."
By the end of their journey, the reader knows what that message is, even if the Captain professes ignorance.  The reader has received it, and for this reader, it is radiant. 


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A Passage to India

 by E.M. Forster



Forster's subject is India under British rule and his principal character, the very dignified Dr. Aziz, is a Moslem who works in an English-run hospital.  Secondary characters in this third person omniscient narrative are English, Hindu, and Moslem.  Published in 1924, its subject is friendship across racial and cultural boundaries.  The love between Aziz and Mrs. Moore, an elder English woman who is in India as a visitor, and Cyril Fielding, an English resident, unfolds through dialogue that expresses their deepest feelings.  That these moments of honesty rise up within a racist society makes them seem even more remarkable.  Forster skewers the English, making them appear ridiculous, culminating with Miss Quested's sexual hysteria, moving her to accuse Aziz of an unspecified impropriety we are meant to assume is rape.  That it happened inside a cave, a dark, damp, echoing setting, is wonderfully comic.  But Forster's objective is more complicated than simple ridicule of the English, or simple exposure of their cruelties.  After all, Aziz, the accused, is locked up in a jail cell because bail is not allowed for so "heinous" a crime.  Forster has a greater, more inclusive vision and we see it at play in the courtroom scene as Miss Quested testifies.  In the course of her account, she has a moment of clarity.  She finds her way through the blur of racist paranoia to an actual memory, and realizes, as all eyes are upon her, that Aziz had not been in the cave at all.  She was mistaken.  She recognizes that the heat, the darkness, and the terrible echo had produced a hallucination and she emerges from it, just in time, and in a very public way, to save the life of a respectable and good man.  


This courtroom scene stretches across sixteen pages.  Miss Quested is brought into the courtroom with her English friends and seated.  There is a change in seating, a chant from outside as Indians call for a missing witness, and the back and forth between lawyers and officials, yet despite this busyness, Miss Quested, experiencing a moment of true existential aloneness, slowly reviews the details of the day the attack occurred.  The reader feels the pressure from the English seated around her, hears their racist remarks, and understands how easy it would be for her to give in to their view.  But Miss Quested, a confused and pathetic woman, raises her eyes.  She sees the criminal, she sees his friend Fielding with a native child on his lap, and she recognizes many of Chandrapore's residents in the audience though she doesn't know them personally.  It is a tense and pregnant moment.  And then she says, "I'm afraid I have made a mistake... Dr. Aziz never followed me into the cave."  It is perhaps one of the most dramatic reversals in all of literature and the sixteen pages that create the heat, chaos, and tension within the crowded room make it utterly believable.  The English immediately desert her, the Indians applaud her, and it is Fielding, the outsider, Aziz's friend, who gives her shelter after the debacle.  


A Passage to India celebrates truth, beginning with the chance encounter in the Moslem temple between Aziz and Mrs. Moore, who has wandered there from the "club" and knows she must remove her shoes before entering.  It is a sign of respect that surprises Aziz and opens the door to his appreciation for her as a human being.  They have a remarkable conversation, honest and heartfelt, but from there, the thread of truth that winds through the narrative, goes into hiding, and won't appear again until the dialogue that develops the friendship between Aziz and Fielding.  It is finally brought out into the open with Miss Quested's unexpected embrace of it.  Truth matters, and friendship across racial and cultural differences nourishes and protects it.  This is a vision that speaks to our era with the same urgency it must have had in the 1920s.  
This novel has been on my shelf for years.  I'd probably started it once and discovering that the opening moved at a slow pace, put it down.  This time I was ready.  During the pandemic, I'm very far from my beloved Central Library of Brooklyn, and though I can still access their vast digital collection, and I'm grateful for that, I needed to have the pleasure of a book with actual pages where I could make marginal notes.


And make notes I did.  Because although the build-up, or, according to the Freytag triangle, the rising action, happens at a more leisurely pace than a contemporary reader is used to, the climax in the courtroom is worth waiting for.  It is a scene of great emotional richness, and all of the elements developed during the rising action, are crucial to its effect.  The falling action is a true unraveling of expectations, and in terms of novel structure, the climax happens exactly where it should, three quarters of the way through the narrative with a steep denouement involving much chaos and re-ordering.  


The novel models these craft issues for writers:


 use of setting; modulation of narrative distance; building of hallucinatory experiences, both ecstatic and paranoid; development of a believable reversal; dialogue that develops and reveals character

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Everything Under

by Daisy Johnson



I've been living in a Daisy Johnson world after reading her collection of stories, Fen, and her first novel, Everything Under.  It's a world where the landscape is active, one where reason and logic are always subservient to imagination, where dreams and intuition rule.  Fen, her story collection, is raw and ragged, and even when the stories are less successful, it's not for a lack of boldness.  The women in these stories often identify with animals and nature while the men are possessed by a need to dominate both.  The female characters in these stories are cunning and smart, and they either overpower, slip away, or confront.  


These themes continue in her first novel, Everything Under, a retelling of the Oedipus myth through a gender-fluid, time-fluid story of a daughter searching for the mother who abandoned her.  It's set in the lawless houseboat communities on the English canals where shifting reflections and murky depths confuse the characters' lives, and soon, the daughter and a trans son, independent of each other, are searching for the same woman.  Despite having two point of view characters and many shifts in time and place, Johnson is a brilliant guide, teaching the reader how to navigate this restless narrative.  The story unfolds in the only way a dream-like story should, in bits and pieces, setbacks and revelations, with a mix of reality and myth.  The title is perfectly descriptive for a novel that illuminates the deepest, inchoate desires of our primal selves, the two characters groping in the watery darkness, looking for the mother who brought them into her secret world and then tossed them out, over and over.  Johnson's great accomplishment here is that she creates a formal narrative with a cohesive, logical structure and all the signposts necessary for a reader to find her way, but nevertheless feels evolving, casual, urgent and immediate.  These are all the elements of a good mystery, but this one has its own peculiar and wonderfully strange narrative force, a result, I think, of characters who were taught a secret language and eschew rational, goal driven lives.


Craft issues for writers: 


POV: a blend of first person and limited third: the sections narrated by the daughter are in first person and the sections from the point of view of the trans son are in limited third.


I admired the lack of mundane detail.  Johnson refuses to dabble in the minutiae of undramatic detail, nor does she worry about getting a character from one place to another.  This means that the details she does provide are charged, potent, active.  For example, in an important scene that takes place in a Chinese restaurant where "there was chips and macaroni cheese on the menu along with the spring rolls and chow mein," Fiona and the first person narrator, Gretel, order many platters of food.  "The dumplings were thick.  The pork had a layer of fat which had burned to crackling. The dan dan noodles had hidden caverns of mince buried beneath them.  I gave up on the chopsticks, asked for a fork." In this scene, as Gretel waits for Fiona to deliver an essential bit of information, information the reader already knows but is curious to see if Fiona will deliver, the food details are sensuous, and the act of eating is labored, building anticipation.

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Proulx, Annie, Postcards, novel

Johnson, Daisy, Sisters, novel

Jiles, Paulette, News of the World, novel

E.M. Forster, A Passage to India, novel

Johnson, Daisy, Everything Under, novel

Livesey, Margot, The Boy In The Field,  novel

Spencer, Scott, A Ship Made of Paper, novel

Greer, Andrew Sean, Less, novel

Parker, Michael, Prairie Fever, novel

Lee, Jonathan, High Dive, novel

Maksik, Alexander, Shelter in Place, novel

Shattuck, Jessica, The Women in the Castle, novel

Salvatore Scibona, The Volunteer, novel

Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone, novel

Susan Straight, Take One Candle Light A Room, novel

Esi Edugyan, Washington Black, novel

Jamel Brinkley, A Lucky Man, stories

Deborah Eisenberg, Your Duck Is My Duck, stories
Louisa Hall, Trinity, novel
Joan Silber, Improvement, novel
Melanie Finn, The Gloaming, novel
Rebecca Lee, The City is A Rising Tide, novel
Rebecca Lee, Bobcat, stories
Robin Romm, The Mother Garden, stories
Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda, novel
Moshin Hamid, Exit West, novel
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First published in Rain Taxi, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 2010

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