Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

For the most part I enjoyed this semi-comic novel about women whose kids are growing out of their dependent stages, and one of my favorite aspects was the way Wolitzer periodically broke out of the box of the expected structure. At the novel's center is a group of four women friends, but Wolitzer feels free to sometimes pull back and write semi-grand lyric sentences about women in general (e.g. the opening line: "All around the country, the women were waking up.") and also to write occasional short chapters that follow a woman only tangentially related to the central characters (these include their mothers but also Margaret Thatcher's personal assistant, Magritte's wife, and Nadia Comaneci). While the specific stories of the main characters obviously stand for the lives of many women of today and readers could certainly have extrapolated that on their own--I thought many of the novel's most surprising moments came from those times when Wolitzer illustrated their stories with these out-of-the-box add ons. It's a good reminder that novels don't have to be story-tight.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

What Maisie Knew by Henry James

It's easy to assume that the current state of things where children of divorce get shuffled between parents is a modern development, but James' novel of 1897 makes clear that while it may be a current issue it's not a new issue. Maisie's parents get divorced and she is to split her time between them, but the novel's comedic commentary and its drama are drawn from the fact that neither of her parents want her much. And with re-marriages, affairs, and the like, Maisie ends up with all kinds of different people parenting her. I once heard the critic James Wood lecture on free, indirect style using this novel as a model, and it is the perfect example. The novel is third person but at times we are very much in the voice of Maisie's head. But what I kept thinking of was how brilliantly it is titled. My theory on titles is they must work first to raise our curiousity before we have read the novel (check: what DID Maisie know, I've been wondering for years--hmm, guess it didn't work that well since it took me years to get around to finding out) and to raise our understanding after we have read the novel. And it is in this second matter that I found the title most effective. It wouldn't have escaped many readers that Maisie, as a child, has limited understanding of the shenanigans (turns out I don't know how to spell that word) going on around her, but by making that thematic element the title, you spend a little more time pondering exactly what she understands, what she learns, and how she changes as a result. It makes the novel thematically focused in a way that is useful since the drama is confined to her perspective (the big scandals involving maids, governesses, counts, etc all happen off stage so there's not a lot of tension in the scenes we do see--unless you consider them from the perspective of what Maisie does and doesn't know).

All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen

With all the buzz and backlash about this novel by one of the founders of the excellent literary magazine N+1, I never really registered that it's a comedy (or as they might say in tv-land, a dramedy), and I found much of it really really funny. Partly because some of the behaviors of the sad young literary men are highly recognizable to me from my collegiate and post-collegiate years. While some readers automatically react against Ivy League novels (demned elitism, they cry), I think lots of people would find this novel funny.

But for budding novelists, the thing I'd most like to point out is that Gessen, like any number of novelists, writes about a group of characters and rotates sections between them. A lot of writers when creating a group choose one of each--a blonde, a brunette, a redhead, or a bad boy, a good boy, a funny boy, a serious boy (you know, John, Paul, Ringo, and George)... what I'm trying to say here is they create characters who are noticeably different in some way. Partly I suppose to set the sections apart and partly to be able to write about different behaviors. And often that works just fine. But one of the effective elements of this novel is these three guys are pretty similar. Of course they have their distinctions and different things happen to them, but they are, as so many friends are, overlapping in lots of ways. And because Gessen still keeps each of the sections/characters interesting (and different enough) the novel ends up having a wider and deeper scope then it might have otherwise. It's a novel not just about three different guys who have loose connections to each other, but it's about a certain type of person at a certain point in his life. And we get to see that type engage in slightly different behaviors etc--so he feels pretty well-examined, satsifyingly so, by the end.