Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

This short memoir was blinked out letter by letter by its author, the former editor in chief of French Elle, who could move only his left eyelid after suffering a massive stroke. The context of its writing is impossible to ignore--of course, his condition is also the subject of the memoir, but knowing how it was written shades how you read it--making it good evidence for how readers bring their own emotions to the table. You forgive the memoir its shortness, its gaps, its lack of total honesty (the movie version, a more artsy endeavor yet seemingly a little more true, makes the author less sympathetic and more suffering) because its creation seems so impossible.

On the one hand, if you are immobile in bed with a fully functioning brain, what else could you do but tell yourself stories, on the other, how badly must you want to communicate if you blink out every word letter by letter. But what's amazing is how crafted the sentences, paragraphs and sections are. These are no noun-verb straightforward constructions; they are rhythmic and long. And Bauby, who died shortly after the book's publication in France, would memorize each paragraph before dictating it.

But back to my point--as readers, we are often intended to place ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist or memoirist, but how often do we really do it? It's pretty easy to read from a semi-indifferent remove, but Bauby makes his extraordinary situation so real via detail (looking in the mirror, he writes: "Reflected in the glass I saw the head of a man who seemed to have emerged from a vat of formaldehyde. His mouth was twisted, his nose damaged, his hair tousled, his gaze full of fear. One eye was sewn shut, the other goggled like the doomed eye of Cain. For a moment I stared at that dilated pupil before I realized it was mine.") and so interesting via reflection/metaphor/imagination, (the paragraph continues: "Whereupon a strange euphoria came over me. Not only was I exiled, paralyzed, mute, half deaf, deprived of all pleasures, and reduced to the existence of a jellyfish, but I was also horrible to behold.") that you actually want to imagine yourself there--and then gratefully return to your own reality. It would have been just as easy, I suppose, for Bauby to blink out a novel instead of a memoir, but it's telling that instead of choosing to spend his time escaping his own reality he decided to confront it head on, and write the inside story that nobody else has been able to tell before. It strikes me as just the kind of thing nonfiction can do best.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Gathering by Anne Enright

If you love language and aren't too fussed about plot, then you ought to enjoy this Booker Prize-winning novel. I've been interested lately in novels that work more with narration (so called "telling") than with scene (so called "showing"), and this novel pulls that off so well I barely noticed the lack of scene until I was two-thirds of the way through. The center of the novel is a wake (we're in Ireland) for the narrator's brother who has committed suicide and the chapters are all spokes off that center--memories related to her brother, present moments related to the death, and imagined memories of the narrator's mother and other characters. And the shuffling between those times makes you feel like you're moving forward even though we're pretty static in the present moment. But it all works (for me, at least) because the narrator has a strong voice, interesting observations, and an emotional intensity that makes even the imagined memories feel high stakes. So I was happy to spend time with her--it's a case of wanting to get to know the narrator better rather than wanting to know what happened.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier

There are some books that I fall in love with because of character and voice (Owen Meany, The Giant's House, Harriet the Spy) but there are a handful of books that generate a different sort of love in me that runs even deeper. I think it's a more personal reaction to the feeling that the book creates--a sense that the world is big and strange and a little bit magic--the kind of feeling that one gets most often as a child. Franny and Zooey is that kind of book for me, as is Wind, Sand and Stars... and now so too is The Mystery Guest. Which is not to say that this short memoir by a vulnerable Frenchman who is invited to be the "mystery guest" at a famous artist's party by an ex-girlfriend who deserted him many years ago in a brutal way (that he seemed to deserve) is going to last as long as those books (who knows?) but that it generated a feeling of wonder in me that was really pleasing to find again. The book's strength is the author--a man who has taken to wearing turtlenecks all the time even though he hates men who wear turtlenecks--and his willingness to admit to how high the stakes are in seeing this ex-girlfriend again. And somehow in telling his own odd story he makes it okay to be human and frantic and a little bit weak--and in fact finds the beauty, the wondrousness, in those very qualities. Beginning writers often make the mistake of thinking a sense of universality comes from creating characters who are undefined (the better to fit your own shape into) but this book is a good example of how the exact opposite is true. I bear little resemblance to this author--not in life experience, not in philosophy, not in nationality, gender, etc etc--but he rendered his experience so clearly, so specifically, that it felt like my own. You want readers to recognize the truth in what you describe, not to have to insert their truth into it.