Sunday, November 30, 2008

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

Years ago Kate Atkinson wrote a literary first novel that I loved--Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Then she wrote a literary second novel that I also loved but that was rather similar to the first. Then she wrote a third that wasn't that appealing to me (but which still got good reviews). But for her fourth novel (Case Histories) she was suddenly reborn as a mystery writer. And it really worked--her way with language, her characterization all made for a really appealing commercial novel. I suppose she's never looked back (or been allowed to by her publishers). But the nice thing about a literary writer turned mystery writer is how clearly it demonstrates that the lines between high culture and low aren't always so thick and that masses of people enjoy a well-written book. And When Will There be Good News? is a well-written engaging mystery. Bound to be another bestseller (especially now that Janet Maslin has named it a favorite of the year).

Lately I've been collecting lines of characterization that I especially like and here is one: "She [Reggie] didn't add that Mrs. McDonald was rapture ready, that she embraced the end of all things and was expecting to live eternally in a place that when she described it sounded a bit like Scarborough."

(if I may blur blogs for a moment: consider describing a character's conception of heaven as an invention exercise)

Most mysteries have a detective protagonist--usually either a girl (or boy) detective, a world weary cop, or a beleagured private investigator. One of the clever aspects of this novel is Atkinson has all three and they start out with three separate story lines, but ultimately converge to make a funny little crime-solving "family." Awhile back I had the epiphany (while watching the film The Darjeeling Limited) that it's all well and good to write about partnerships between two people, but when you add a third there's a good deal more opportunity for tension and variety. (I guess this is not a particularly revolutionary thought, but there it is).

Atkinson also has the good sense to create a truly heroic dog. I mean this is like a superhero dog in the manner in which it protects the novel's beloveds. Heroic people need to be a bit magic, we don't really believe in them anymore, but a heroic dog just needs to have been top of its class at doggie school.

I suppose my one quibble with the novel is the unnecessary coincidence that gives it a poetic ending. Some consider me an over-zealous crusader against coincidence in fiction, but that's because they seem so convenient. So written. Coincidence in life is appealing because it's so hard to believe and yet it's true. So how to convey in fiction something that is hard to believe but true? The problem is it's not true. The reader knows it's made up. It's like the wizard having the curtain pulled back. But then again coincidences do happen in life so they ought to be allowed in's a conundrum.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lush Life by Richard Price

Fans of the television show The Wire, which Price was a writer for, will certainly like this cop procedural, which is fast moving, engagingly written, and realist enough to be taken seriously. But it's definitely a genre novel. The dominant protagonist is a cop, left purely to type (as in not a real person). He's a bad dad, a touch of an alcoholic, burnt out. But he's merely the guide through the novel, the thing that makes it accessible to the bulk of bestseller readers... there are however some much more real characters who get a lot of play, and there is lots of social commentary slyly built in. For example, one character--a twentysomething white guy who's writing a screenplay while working at a bar--is witness to a murder and when he's brought in for questioning the police clearly think he did it. He's traumatized by their questioning and as a result refuses to cooperate once they realize he is innocent and in fact their only witness. Now as a plot point this is clever--lots of drama in the police interrogation and it allows most of the novel to pass without the witness identifying the killer (we, the readers, know whodunit from the start). But it also works as a coded explanation as to why so many residents of the projects won't come forward and help the police solve the crime. If Price had used a poor black guy instead of the middle class white dreamer, a lot of readers (readers who would not consider themselves racist at all) probably would have balked--said why on earth isn't this guy cooperating. But by using a witness who is more like his readership, those readers are more likely to imagine themselves in the situation and then hopefully be able to step back and understand, oh that's why it's hard to get police cooperation, lots of people feel the police aren't on their side. Which is not to say all of Price's readers are middle class white folk, but realistically--lots of them are. And also not to say that Price is criticizing the police--he's very careful to create good cops and dumb cops, good criminals and dumb criminals...

Price gets a lot of love from people who don't usually give love to genre novels--and that's because his novels aren't escapist. They are entertaining, but not mindlessly or falsely so. One of the elements he adds to the cop stuff is a sense of history. The setting is lower Manhattan and the buildings are old tenements that show a history--in their very walls--of their Jewish past. And Price nicely builds that in to the writing. Readers are reminded that these stories--of poverty and oppression and trying to get a leg up--have been going on for generations, sometimes shifting from one minority group to another. Price gets lots of attention for his dialogue--which is great, tv ready for sure--but it seems to me the other stuff that really adds a deeper layer.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

I'm a big fan of Kelly Link whose short stories tend to be fairy tale-fantasy-gothic literary hybrids. She's always attentive to character and language, so she's one of those crossover genre/literary writers. But she's also a crossover between the young adult and adult audiences. And I first saw this new collection advertised as a young adult title (it's her first book put out by a major trade publisher, Viking, rather than by her own small press, Small Beer Press) but when I bought my copy (the book is available in the usual locations but if you buy it from her website she'll sign it--there are also free downloads available on the site) I noticed it doesn't bear any indicator of being a young adult title. I loved the book, loved the stories which are in the same vein as her stories in Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners, but what really interested me was this marketing issue.

In my workshop on Writing for Young Adults we start each workshop with a discussion of what age group the submission seems to be intended for. Sometimes these discussions can be a little perfunctory, sometimes a little like guesswork, and sometimes a little contentious. Because, of course, age is not a solid indicator of reading ability, emotional maturity, or life experience. But kids do tend to fall in ranges, and their interest tends to lie in characters just a little older than themselves, so it's a doable exercise. But is it a pointless exercise? I don't think part because publishers, librarians and teachers (not to mention parents) worry a lot about what is age appropriate. And writers should too--kids change a lot year to year--and I suspect it would be naive to imagine that you can just write a book for this market and simply let it find its audience. Because writers don't always match voice to content... those of us who write for the grown ups don't tend to worry too much about stuff like that. With a collection like this--grown ups like me (who hold a strong attachment to the things they loved as children) can absolutely enjoy it. Though the stories are all about young people, the character-driven stories are not emotionally simple, the scary stories are scary at any age, and the language is accessible to younger readers but the imagery, metaphors, and narrative voices are still compelling for older readers. But I'd say it's a book for high school on up.

There's a movement on lately to label young adult and children's books with a recommended reading age--and apparently a lot of authors are against this idea. I need to educate myself further as to why, but personally I think parents need help finding books for their kids. There are a huge number of books being put out for kids every year and parents generally aren't reading book blogs and reviews and magazines that analyze these books. They're picking them up in the store and the library and looking at the cover and flipping through. And a label might help them make an educated decision. Most parents will know if they have an eight year old who is mature or not so mature, and presumably will adjust according. Though I'd suggest a removeable sticker or band so eight year olds don't have to over think the fact that they're reading books aimed for six year olds or ten year olds. And I also suggest really sensible people make these decisions--a single word--like say scrotum--does not make a book inappropriate for young readers.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Home by Marilynne Robinson

My reaction to this novel falls in between the deep and abiding love I have for Housekeeping, Robinson's first novel, and the admiration I have for Gilead, her second. I was truly attached to the main characters of Home, who appear on the periphery in Gilead (in a nice touch the central characters of Gilead appear on the periphery here), but one of the most noticeable qualities of the novel is how dialogue-heavy it is. These aren't characters who do; they are characters who talk. But what I really want to point out is the crying. I am constantly drying the tears that flow in my students' stories. Now obviously I know people cry and therefore fictional characters should cry, but you wouldn't believe the weight of these tears--they are constantly soaking garments, dripping to the floor, leaving salty trails everywhere. And generally it's not a bad sign that my students write so much sobbing--it means the characters are in high stakes emotional situations which typically are good for fiction. It's just that it's practically impossible to describe crying in a way that doesn't sound cliched, melodramatic or sentimental. One of my favorite moments in Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day, which is about an emotionally repressed butler, is when someone has to tell the butler that he's crying. He's so out of touch with his own emotions that he hasn't noticed his own tears. So his crying is revealed via the dialogue of another character. And this is exactly what Robinson does. Glory, the protagonist of the novel, is a cry-er. Mostly because her brother Jack--the prodigal son returned--drives her to it with his sad past, his lost love, his alcoholism and his general despair. But somewhat weirdly--though interestingly--Robinson never says, Glory cried. Certainly there are no salty trails. Instead she has Jack tell us via his, "There you go again," or "Are you crying" or "You're crying;" and even though I admit I found this pattern a little distracting, it does serve the function of making Glory's tears a burden to Jack rather than a burden to Glory. Glory doesn't mind that she's crying--she can't help it--but Jack certainly feels that he's the one making it happen. Sometimes he teases her, sometimes he feels guilty, but always, the reader is reminded, the problem is Jack and the tears ostensibly belong to him.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008