Sunday, January 16, 2005

Getting Mother's Body by Suzan-Lori Parks

Parks is best known as a playwright, and Getting Mother's Body seems like a logical first novel for a playwright--told in alternating voices in such short sections that they sound like monologues. I'm not a fan of the structure--one beginning novelists seem to love presumably because it makes the whole idea of writing a novel more approachable--because it feels too short-attention-span to me. GMB is about a quest to retrieve some jewels that the primary character, Billy Beede's, mother was supposedly buried with. A number of characters end up going on this trip to "get" the body, each with their own agenda and need to either protect the body or obtain the money for the jewels. This is a great choice by Parks--all the characters feel three-dimensional as a result, however I can't help but feel the novel would have been richer if told from one--or even two or three--narrative voice(s). To me, the voices aren't distinct enough, nor are their points of view so different, for the constant switching to seem necessary. The novel would have to be either alternating first between a few characters or omniscient third because of the secrets that various characters have that the reader is let in on, but either of those would have been preferable to me to the ten or so characters that talk now.

Structurally Parks is smart though, and there is a big pay off scene when everyone has arrived at the burial site (which is in one character's backyard) , and in effect the whole story comes together. (structurally it reminded me of nothing more than the movie It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World, but in tone it is in no way mad-cap). The reader feels satisfied with the journey coming to the physical end that has been anticipated, but without knowing how on earth things will turn out. And Parks takes some truly down-and-out characters and gives them a believable, happy ending, something that is pretty hard to pull off. She manages because her characters while desperate and sometimes cruel or cold in their desperation all have emotional centers that are clear and good. And so when they treat each other well in the end, I buy it, with pleasure.

I'd recommend Parks' play Topdog/Underdog as a stronger model of good writing, however. Her use of sound, with the rhythms of the shell game and the patterns of dialogue within the play can certainly serve as a model for fiction writers.