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."

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