Monday, February 07, 2011

House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer's Journey Home by Mark Richard

When I was in the middle of this memoir I thought, I should only read books this good. Wouldn’t my life be better if I only read books this good? But truthfully, not that many books are this good.

Many times over I’ve read (or let’s face it, written) a piece with a strong, compelling voice right at the beginning that then switches over to a weaker, more conventional voice. And the reasoning is either—I, the writer, couldn’t sustain that voice over a long period or the reader wouldn’t want to read a whole book in such a noticeable voice. Well. This is a case for committing, for stick-to-it-iveness, for not underestimating the reader. I know Richard wrote the essay that became the opening to this memoir about fourteen years ago, and given that the memoir is out this month, I have to assume there were quite a few years in between the essay and the developing of the essay into a book. But the voice. It never falters. The moment where the essay leaves off is invisible.

So let’s talk about the voice. It’s second person. An entire memoir written in second person. I think on principle most people hearing of such a thing would just say no. The guy who came up to me when he saw me reading the book at the airport said, “that would never fly in workshop” (he was coming from the same writing conference I was; I don’t think random airport travelers know about workshop). But there are a couple of reasons a book-length second person isn’t a problem, at least in this case. For one, Richard isn’t writing in scene so you don’t get awkward dialogue tags. And for another he almost never writes action. So you don’t get a lot of You do this, You do that. In fact “you” rarely starts a sentence; it is almost always buried inside. Now before you go all “show don’t tell” on me, let me explain that while Richard doesn’t write much dialogue or action (otherwise known as scene), this memoir does nothing but show. It’s just expositional showing. It’s like a memoir of every striking image, Richard has ever seen. And you quite literally see the world through his eyes, and as a result you feel like you know him intimately (probably much more so than if he gave you the usual blend of scene and reflection).

Case in point: “The snake gets in there and unhinges its jaw and starts to try to swallow the baby headfirst when the mother comes in from the neighbor’s laundry and the baby is screaming with a snake on its head like a skullcap with a length of yellow and brown tail.”

Full disclosure: One of my favorite memories of graduate school is Mark Richard reading the "Why I Write" essay that opens this memoir to our class. And he gave me a copy of this book for free, which was really nice. The even nicer thing is reading the book made me think, Good grief, I need to work harder.

No comments: