Friday, May 25, 2007

Lord Malquist & Mr. Moon by Tom Stoppard

I've already declared my fandom of Tom Stoppard's plays, so I was excited to see a reissue of his 1966 novel, which was described as "zany" by the Washington Post and indeed it is. The plot includes among other things, a runaway lion, a biographer with a bomb in his pocket (and no knowledge of how it got there, when it will go off or how to rid himself of it), and a lord in a livery coach with a blatantly unfaithful wife, as well as some cowboys. The plot is random to say the least, the dialogue as sharp and funny as you'd expect, and the characters surprisingly warm. Why surprisingly warm? Because one of the things you don't get in a play is point of view (what the characters are thinking), and instead the characters must be warmed by the actors who play them, so it was the thing Stoppard was least likely to be good at. But actually he was good with point of view.

When I read novels like this, which don't have a very sensible cause and effect plot that makes meaning easy to distinguish, I try to figure out what makes the novel still work structurally and in this case it's largely motifs that recur (the lion, the bomb), often in unexpected places, that make the novel feel of a piece. And when I break it down further, the structure is actually quite conventional (yes, the bomb does go off)--while many strange things occur without cause, they generally occur in chronological order and in the end, they affect the characters, especially Mr. Moon, and so a traditional character arc is complete. And further zaniness ensues.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

I'm a fan of Miranda July, who is a filmmaker (Me and You and Everyone We Know), musician, performance artist, and writer. I particularly like her website, Learning to Love You More, which seems to exhibit the world view that life can be one big art project and wouldn't it be better if it were. I'd read some of her stories in various magazines and was really looking forward to reading the rest when this collection came out.

In the end, though, the stories I'd read before were the best ones and as I read the whole book all the way through I thought about the difference between story cycles (in which the stories are linked somehow) and story collections. I'm often an advocate for the collection; I find the recent market-driven decision to turn most collections into cycles unnecessary and a little bit annoying. I think by tying stories together writers often get away with including weaker stories--or doing less work in individual stories to make them great. Great story cycles work both ways--as individual stories and as a greater whole when put together--but great story collections work both ways too.

So back to July--I, for once, thought this should be a story cycle instead of a story collection. July's protagonists are often youngish single women who share the same quirks, concerns, and ways of viewing the world. Now I'm a big fan of this character--who is much like the protagonist of July's film--she is funny and sad and sharply observant with charmingly weird reactions to almost everything--but when you meet fifteen versions of her, you start to wonder if the world could possibly be populated with a tribe of quirky thirtysomethings who were maybe all raised on some remote women's collective together than spread to the four corners--or if this is just the same woman operating under fifteen different aliases. If all of the stories had been linked by one protagonist I think they might have grown in value rather than diminished.

With that said, there are a handful of stories in here that are among my favorite stories of the past two decades--and that's saying something.