Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer

The opening of Scott Spencer's novel Endless Love is one of the best novel openings of my recent memory because it evokes with great clarity and compassion and intensity how crazy-making love can be, especially when you are a teenager. His more recent novel A Ship Made of Paper again picks up that theme and Spencer again is incredibly good at evoking intensity. His protagonist loves with a level of obsessiveness that should seem creepy and destructive yet Spencer makes it feel so believable and even desirable that you find yourself thinking, why don't I love like that, rather than, what's wrong with that guy. Now, to my taste, Spencer is not so good with plot (or perhaps that kind of love demands a capital B Big capital P Plot that is not to the liking of my quiet little soul) but the novel is well worth reading as a study of how metaphor can sometimes work better than free indirect style (using the interior voice/language of the main character in the narration even though he isn't the narrator) or what I have suddenly (just this second!) decided to call thought captioning (giving the exact words running through the character's head) when it comes to placing a reader inside of a character's emotional experience.

But to be clear, Spencer is good with, and makes use of all three...

free, indirect: "What can the world do to you with its beauty? Can it lift you up on its shoulders, as if you were a hero, can it whoopsie-daisy [that's the most overt example of the free, indirect] you up into its arms as if you were a child? Can it goad your timid heart, urge you on to finally seize what you most shamefully desire? Yes, yes, all that and more. The world can crush you with its beauty."

thought captioning: "So will that be the contest? History in one corner and Love in the other? Fine. Ring the bell. Let the fight begin. Love, he thinks, will bring history to its knees."

metaphor: "Infidelity is an ugly business, but it makes you a stickler for detail. You're an air traffic controller and the sky is stacked up with lies, all of them circling and circling, the tips of their wings sometimes coming within inches of each other."

One interesting element of the novel is how much Spencer wants it to be about race--the OJ Simpson trial is in the backdrop, the protagonist, who is white, has an affair with a black woman, the novel is dotted with incidents of whites denying their own racism and blacks living with it. But the whole thing feels weirdly added on to the novel. I wanted it to work--most fiction ignores race in a way that is not at all realist--yet by including all these moments of racism that tend to go unacknowledged in life (for example, liberal whites who avidly support equal rights but, when it comes down to it, are afraid of blacks) but having characters constantly acknowledge them--the novel felt not quite real. In other words, I certainly believe many if not most people are at times unconsciously racist--and obviously that unconscious racism needs to be analyzed in order to be eliminated--and yet the characters, the unconscious racists themselves, can't really be the ones to do it, it seems.

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