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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Reading as a Writer: literature and history

One of the few reviews of Blue Duets was written by Roger Brunyate for the MostlyFiction web site.  It's a kind and generous review, but he comments in his paragraph of misgivings (he still gave BD 4 out of 5 stars) that "There seems no reason for the 2002 date other than to get in a few spurious references to Bush and Iraq."   Actually, the date is quite purposeful:  Rob's big scene (no spoiler alert) comes at an anti-Bush, anti-war demonstration, so 2002 is integral to the character's development.  Also, I actually checked the weather for 2002 and the length of days in Montreal, mostly to provide me with a suggestive background to paint my characters' lives on.  So when, toward the end, Lila watches the days get shorter from her mother's room in a palliative care home, I'm being quite accurate.   

But there's also a philosophical and aesthetic reason why each of the chapters is dated.  Most simply, it gives the reader a sense of the novel's pace and allows them to see that I'm not giving my characters much time to reflect before they tell their part of the story.  But on a larger scale, the dates come out of my sense that literature is always already embedded in a historical moment.  When I teach almost any class, I appropriate a story Thomas King tells in his Massey Lecture, "'You'll Never Believe What Happened' Is Always a Great Way to Start."  He opens this lecture by telling the First Nations story about how the earth "floats in space on the back of the turtle."  After some play with an audience that knows this story and is enjoying his particular way of telling it, King admits "It's turtles all the way down."  For me, it's history all the way down.  Perhaps what Brunyate caught was that I haven't thoroughly learned how to do this yet.

So in the reading I'm doing this summer before I sit down to pick up the threads of the next novel, Soul Weather,  I'm watching to see how writers accomplish this marriage of fiction and history.  In Franzen's Freedom, the larger structure of the novel, its concern with the damage we're causing to the environment, ties it to the last part of the previous century and the early part of this one.  But Franzen is also good at name-dropping, mostly of pop/rock musical groups and artists and songs.  Like Nick Hornby, he realizes how resonant popular music is, how  the mention of a  song or a group (particularly the music from our own youths) can evoke a particular time and space.  Unfortunately, this isn't a trick I can pull off, being blissfully unaware of trends in popular music.  Franzen is also quite good at recognizing how child-rearing styles change; he can plant you in a particular moment by referring to a parent's beliefs or practices.  I thought this was an uncanny bit of social history; if even child-rearing can be historicized, you know it's turtles all the way down.

I've just finished re-reading Carol Shield's Larry's Party.  I still remember Carol mentioning in a CBC interview that she wrote her draft, had a bevy of men read it, and then revised with fine-grained sandpaper, ensuring that she didn't leave any sharp, harsh unsympathetic corners on her depiction of Larry's character.  Her chapters are dated and titled; a close reader will see repetitions of background that point to the fact that this is almost a collection of short stories.  Carol throws in a ton of detail to contextualize the lives of Larry, Dorrie, Ryan, and Beth:  what they eat and what they drink, what they wear, how they shave, whether beards are in or out, where one goes on trips, the styles in furniture and particularly kitchen furnishings, styles in gardening, the names of maze styles and the names of the shrubs you can successfully build a maze out of.  Sometimes this detail seems like a surfeit, as if there's too much there and the reader can't sort out what's important and what's not.  And then we come across a moment when a single detail blooms into the illumination of character, a revelation about the human condition that Shields wouldn't have arrived at without the particular object Larry holds in his hand or in his mind's eye.  At the outset of the novel, Larry picks up the wrong Harris Tweed jacket in his favourite coffee shop--a better jacket:  "The fabric swayed around him, shifting and reshifting on his shoulders with every step he took.  It seemed like something alive.  Inside him, and outside him too.  It was like an apartment.  He could move into this jacket and live there.  Take up residence, get himself a new phone number and a set of cereal bowls."  This is what we love Shields for:  her detailed, meticulous, nuanced ability to get inside our minds and our bodies, in this case to illuminate (that word again!) how it feels physically and psychologically to occupy a piece of clothing that suggests there's an incipient new you waiting around the corner.

The other characteristic of this novel, a notable stylistic strength or quirk (depending on your viewpoint)  is its tendency to let the big events, like deaths or marriages or farewells to your husband or wife, happen off stage.  In many ways, though, this is linked to all that detail.  If there's a philosophy inherent in the style of Larry's Party, it's a celebration of the daily, the sense that it's through our daily lives and through our contact with ordinary objects and  routines that we take the opportunity to reflect or meditate on our lives and make our own personal meaning out of an otherwise arbitrary sequence of events.  This is the other reason we love Carol Shields. 

On an entirely different note, Veronica and I are leaving tomorrow morning for an apparently cloudy New York City.  I'll be blogging, of course, but Veronica suggested that we pair her photographs with my postcard stories or poems.  Look for those here in the days to come.


You can read all of Roger Brunyate's review of Blue Duets at http://bookreview.mostlyfiction.com/2010/blue-duets-by-kathleen-wall/

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