Friday, April 28, 2006

Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg

A charming novel from the point of view of a tortoise who really lived in the garden of naturalist Gilbert White during the 18th century. Now anyone who has taught an undergraduate fiction workshop has seen more than one story from the point of view of a fuzzy friend or even an object without a brain. I've seen numerous dogs, a mirror, flags...and when you see this kind of thing a lot you want to ban it and simply tell students it's a bad idea. But it's not the idea that's bad, it's just dependent on how well the writer works with the limitations of the idea--and undergraduate writers often aren't yet skilled enough to pull it off. So this novel was a reminder that, like most techniques, non-human point of view can be taught--in so much as I can point out what has and hasn't worked in the past.

And what works here is that the tortoise point-of-view is essentially treated like a human point-of-view, just a human with a tortoise-like personality and tortoise-like interests. Klinkenborg does not limit himself to what a tortoise could realistically know (not much)--but gives Timothy a god-like omniscience of the village, the humans who surround him, and his own past. Rather than a god on high, he is a god down low--paying particular attention to the things that would matter to that tortoise in that time in that place. So the point-of view, as it should be with any first person narrator, is particular to his character. It's not particular to all tortoises (whatever that would be), but to Timothy, who has a particular history, a particular experience, and a particular personality (abject--the one word that for me makes the title great).

Because there isn't a lot a tortoise can do physically this is not a plot-driven narrative. Part of its cleverness comes from the form of the novel--it is much like a naturalist's meditation, but instead of a human naturalist observing Timothy through a human lens, it is Timothy observing the humans through a tortoise lens. There is one surprise revelation in the middle of the novel, but I won't give it away.

In addition, Klinkenborg doesn't forget to give Timothy a unique voice. He speaks largely in sentence fragments, which operate sort of like line breaks in a poem, giving the whole novel a rhythm that is slow and steady--tonally appropriate to the tortoise pace.

A sample: "The fable that humans love to tell. One bright morning the prodigal tortoise sallies forth. Rich in notions. Wealthy in prospect. But the world is an unrelenting place. Lonely. Coarse grass. Weeds. Imaginary females. Alas the comforts of home. Luxuries of the garden. Old settled ways. Rejoicing over the lost sheep. Fatted calf. A mammal's tale told to the sound of a crackling fire. Never leave home unsure of your next good blaze."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Sssh, Reading in Progress

A teaser from the novel Timothy; or Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg:

"I am not taken in by the tide, borne up by the counterpoise of the deep. I sink. The water doesn't sustain or welcome me. It soaks me like a week's worth of washing. I am merely a long-pampered tortoise--decades removed from my natural life--standing on the bottom of a water-tub in the south of England. Two male humans in wigs look down with expectant, distorted faces. Waiting to draw the proper inference from my unhappiness.
Next day they weigh me, and my unhappiness is complete."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Swivel magazine: A Nexus of Women and Wit

A moment of self-promotion: I have a story in the current issue of Swivel, a relatively new literary journal of women's writing and art, all with a humorous vibe. I'm in the same issue as Stacey Richter, who wrote one of my favorite short stories, "The Beauty Treatment." Fun for me. Check us out at

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames

I'm planning one day to teach a graduate course "Allowing Influence" that will be about deliberately taking on other writers, other texts and allowing their influence into our writing. This novel would be a definite candidate for the reading list. Wake Up, Sir! is essentially an American's take on Jeeves. Or rather an American's take on Bertie Wooster. Ames' novel is about a goofy, young, alcoholic, suddenly-wealthy, orphaned American writer who has hired a valet named Jeeves. Ames acknowledges straight on the reference to Wodehouse's butler, but never lets on that Alan Blair is very much a Bertie Wooster gone wild. The novel--which is very very funny in many places and clever in all the rest--works because it uses the Wodehouse voice and the Wodehouse character of Jeeves directly, but adapts Wooster. So the reader who loves Wodehouse will recognize the voice and Jeeves (as well as the heist-related plot), but not feel like the book is an attempt to write Wodehouse. Because Blair is far more troubled, and far more R-rated than Wooster, he reads like his American cousin. And as a result, the book rather than being an imitation becomes a comment on the differences between Brit lit and American, as well as Brit behavior vs. American (if I may generalize, a bit). So there is influence but not pure imitation. Clever indeed.

Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

An intriguing first novel about a Nigerian-British girl who has a mysterious (imaginary? ghostly?) friend, Tilly-Tilly, who gets her into trouble. One of the most noteworthy things about the novel was I actually got a little scared while reading it. That hasn't happened since I was 14 and had to go outside to read the last hundred pages of Cujo (for some reason outside seemed less scary than in). To be honest, I'm scared easily, but by visual images not written ones. I think maybe it was the thought of the young protagonist in danger that got to me. Or maybe I've just been avoiding scary books for twenty years, and this one--a literary novel--caught me by surprise.

But my main thought on Icarus Girl has to do with what I think is the author's one big mistake. The novel is third person limited (to the protagonist) for probably 90 percent of the book. But one major scene is through the perspective of the protagonist's friend (not Tilly-Tilly, another girl). And it felt immediately to me like a cheat. The author needed to get some information out that the protagonist didn't have access to. But when I talked about that scene with others--non-writers--who read the book, they weren't troubled by it. So I entered a moment of crisis wondering if the rules we tend to insist on in workshop (like maintaining point of view) are actually a matter of indifference to the majority of readers. But then my mom said that scene really bugged her and she just couldn't figure out why--so I've gone back to believing in my rules.