PAYOFF & PAGE COUNT

Spring & Mulberry Streets, NYC 1976

Spring Street at Mulberry, New York City, 1976

City on Fire
by Garth Risk Hallberg

What do Frank Rich, Andy Cohen and my cousin Peter have in common? They were all disappointed in City on Fire, a 911-page first novel by Garth Risk Hallberg that follows the interwoven stories of several subsets of New Yorkers between 1976 and 1977. Typically, the individual and collective opinions of these three wise men could probably sway me toward or away from a particular book, but in this case the premise was too intriguing for me not to give it a go myself. (I’m a sucker for epic, 20th century historical fiction, particularly from the century’s 2nd half. Lately it’s been all about The Americans and Halt and Catch Fire when I prefer to watch, rather than read, late 20th century historical fiction.)

Back to the book. Up until page 623, I was in. And then (semi-spoiler alert), the story abruptly jumps ahead 30 years. The jump is temporary, but I found that the technique pretty much killed all the tension the author had been building up to that point. And as I continued to read, I began to realize that of the many seeds planted earlier in the book, very few were actually going to bloom into anything significant. Yet amid my own chagrin, I understood why all three of my wise men had read the whole book before deciding they were disappointed – by the time you get to page 623, you’re finishing the damn thing.

Unfortunately, stringing along an audience for that long breeds a level of antipathy not found among those who put something aside after 50 pages. (Or, say, five episodes. You former LOSTies out there know what I’m talking about.)

In the past, I’ve found it funny when people complain about the length of certain books, regardless of their interest in the content. Recently, I observed my father cautiously survey a book purchase he’d made, wary of its heft. His comment was something along the lines of, “I hope it’s not too long, I don’t want to be saddled with this thing all spring.” Keep in mind that this was not a gift; it was a book he’d proactively gone out and purchased. It’s a strange logic to me: wouldn’t one rather read one good, long book rather than two or three mediocre short books in the same time span?

In considering the disappointment around City of Fire (my own included), I’ve begun to recognize the role risk plays in one’s reading choices. When someone starts a lengthy book, they feel they’re making an investment of their precious reading time, so they get edgy about the possibility of the investment not paying off. And the more we invest, the more we want in return. All that good work an author did early on to gain our buy in feels like that much more of a loss when he can’t pay it off over the course of many pages. Disappointment has a price. His readers are annoyed and resentful. Their early enjoyment is forgotten and in its place, their frustration is multiplied. They decide the book in its entirety is no good. To torture the idea one step further, you could say it feels like a literary pyramid scheme (minus the callous intentions).

Call me a gambler, call me a reckless risk taker, I’m willing to keep rolling the dice on big books. But if time really is money (or at the very least a valuable commodity in its own right), I can appreciate why others may not want to spend theirs in the same way.

 

AN UNEDUCATED GUESS

The Neapolitan Novels
by Elena Ferrante

A couple weeks ago, I happened to find myself in the back corner of a Sarasota (that would be Florida) bookshop, perched on a folding chair, talking about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a group of women who had at least a generation on me. Because this is what I do. I travel to destinations even sunnier and warmer than where I already live to participate in book clubs of the elderly. (And/or my mother happens to be quite good at coming up with creative cultural activities when I’m in town.)

So the ladies and I were rapping and inevitably the conversation turned to the question that fans of these books seem anxious to answer: Who is Elena Ferrante? Funny how when a writer uses a pen name, people immediately want to know their true identity. Perhaps they feel it will give them a deeper understanding of the book, one they could not possible have otherwise. Yet once the author’s true identity is revealed, I wonder how much it actually brings any new, significant insight versus simply pacifying the public’s curiosity.

When it comes to uncovering the real Ferrante, the literary gumshoes out there seem to be focusing their detective work on people whose lives are/were very similar to the novels’ narrator, the fictional “Elena Greco.” What’s particularly strange to me about this line of investigation is that if someone has gone to all the trouble of publishing pseudonymously and even in the midst of international acclaim has yet to come forward, would she really veil herself so thinly in the story itself?

I’m thinking the author is buried a little deeper within these books. The series does have two protagonists, after all. The yin to Elena’s yang is Lila, Elena’s lifelong frenemy, muse, cheerleader and antagonist, all wrapped up in one very troubled, brilliant woman. Unlike Elena, Lila never makes it out of their insulated neighborhood in Naples and consequently, she never experiences the academic or professional success of Elena. But Lila is innately intelligent and clearly has a gift for writing from an early age. And it is her talents and example that spur Elena on.

Interwoven but ultimately divergent, the paths of these two characters could be seen as two tines of a fork in the road; each can see in the other what her life may have been like had she made different choices. Or maybe the two women are meant to be two sides of one person. Maybe a female born in 1944 Naples wouldn’t feel “whole” following one path or another. Maybe none of us do.

For my money (and I have people in Sarasota willing to back me on this), the real Elena Ferrante isn’t someone whose life has been like that of the fictional Elena. It is someone whose life has been like Lila’s. Rather than re-hashing a semi-fictional version of her own experiences, wouldn’t it be more interesting for a writer to explore what it would have been like had she taken another path?

 

HANGSAMAN

This book's weird title comes from an American folk song.

This book’s weird title comes from an American folk song.

Hangsaman
by Shirley Jackson

One of the things I find most interesting about adolescence is the fact that it’s such a new phenomenon. The teen ages (and puberty) have always existed, but for the majority of human history, ages 13-19 were considered a part of a person’s childhood or adulthood, not a separate developmental stage. While there isn’t an exact moment in history when the teenager emerged, in the U.S., it was really not until the mid-20th century that teenagers became a separate group. There are a lot of reasons for this. As earlier 20th century economies shifted from an agrarian economy to an industrial one and the Great Depression took hold, laws mandating compulsory education and child labor protections went into effect. Suddenly adolescents from a wider range of social classes were attending high school in much greater numbers and through this shared experience, a communal culture began to form. Marketers caught on and in the 1940s, they coined the term “teenager” for their newfound customer. The rise of the automobile is also considered a major factor in all this.

It was with some of this context in mind that I recently read Shirley Jackson’s 1951 novel, Hangsaman. You’ve probably all read The Lottery, Jackson’s short story about a town that holds an annual lottery to determine which of its members will be stoned to death by their neighbors. Hangsaman is equally dark in its own way. Its simple premise is this: a young woman begins her freshman year of college at a fictional version of Bennington (at the time, an all-women’s school for daughters of the upper class). But this is not your standard Bildungsroman, my friends. The story is much closer to a psychological thriller. With humor. It’s pretty bizarre.

But a mid-century gothic horror story is hysterically appropriate for a book that follows a hypersensitive, hyperaware young woman as she analyzes every last painful detail of both her family life and her introduction to college. Because what could be a greater “terror of the soul” than adolescence? It’s fair to say that this oddly named, oddly written book captivated me until its clever conclusion. I enjoyed Jackson’s metaphor of female adolescence as a neurotic nightmare.

And then I realized that 1951 was also the year that The Catcher in the Rye was published. It occurred to me that Catcher could be seen as the teenage boy’s neurotic nightmare. Yet The Catcher in the Rye is, well, The Catcher in the Rye—a classic, a part of the canon—and meanwhile who the hell has ever heard of Hangsaman, even with a title so weird it would be hard to forget.

Now you may be thinking, oh boy, here she goes, she’s going to try to tell us it’s some sort of a gender thing and that if Shirley Jackson had been a man, we’d all have read this blasted book back in the 10th grade and it too would be a modern classic. Honestly you guys, I’m not sure it’s quite as simple as that. First, I could never deny the genius of the narrative voice in J.D. Salinger’s book. Jackson’s book is good, but I don’t think I’d use the term “genius.” And I don’t know enough about the history of either book’s publication to say what would have or could have been. But I do find the duality of the two books interesting.

Both Salinger and Jackson were doing something utterly unique when they wrote their novels – they were chronicling the anxiety and alienation of a new demographic, the adolescent. Both were years ahead of the social upheaval of the 1960s, a time when many social factors would converge to create its particular climate. Certainly one of the biggest of those factors was the disillusionment of the teenage population. Both authors understood the psychology behind that disillusionment years before the zeitgeist caught on.

 

IN A COUNTRY OF MOTHERS

IACOMIn a Country of Mothers
by A.M. Homes

Do you remember the books you read?

As some of you know from recent posts, I’ve been working on a tidying project around the house, inspired by the brilliant Marie Kondo and her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. One of Marie’s recommended stages in the tidying process is the curating of one’s books. Given all the moving I’ve done in recent years, I knew my book collection was pretty well-culled, but as a faithful acolyte of Marie’s, I was curious to take a look at my collection using her criteria.

Overall, the books I’d chosen to keep made sense. But there were three titles—two by A.M. Homes and one by Mary Gaitskill—that I could not, for the life of me, remember reading. What’s really strange about this is that I’m certain I’ve been carrying these three books around with me for the last 20 or so years. I believe I bought them back in my early days in Boston and most likely they were on the recommendation of my cool, all-knowing and still dear friend, Michelle. Back in Boston, Michelle was one of the only people I knew who’d taken more women’s studies classes and had more bookshelves than me and to this day, has more moves under her belt (in other words, serious soul sister).

When I say I couldn’t remember reading these books, I’m not talking about major plot points or the full roster of characters, I’m talking about that shadowy presence a book leaves on you once you’ve read and absorbed it. That presence may tell you that you liked it or you didn’t or you were bored. Even if you can’t remember the specific details, there’s some remnant of a recollection rattling around in there. Yet with these three books (one of which was In a Country of Mothers, in case you haven’t already guessed), it was like a selective form of amnesia.

By my count, I’ve moved eight times since I purchased these books; each move an opportunity to let go, a moment when I stopped and asked, “Is it worth it to pack, unpack and pay someone to transport this?” Each time, I said yes to these particular titles – why?

As I held them in my hands and considered the outdated author photos and copyright dates, it struck me that these particular books and their writers were so very much of a particular time to me, which is how I can tell you with confidence that I bought them in Boston in the mid-1990s on the recommendation (or at least the influence of) Michelle. A.M. Homes and Mary Gaitskill were exactly what a couple of gals working at the women’s clinic, reading a lot of hip female authors were into at that time. It was the experiences they represented, more than anything within their covers, that had compelled me to keep them all this time.

So last week, I pulled all three books from the shelf and added them to the unrelenting “to-read” pile, arbitrarily deciding that In a Country of Mothers would go first. Did anything come back to me once I cracked it a second time? Not really. I’m guessing I didn’t completely “get it” on the first read. But now? Like all the best relationships, the story had matured and so had I. We were ready for each other. I’m so glad it was right there waiting for me.

 

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU

H Halloween

Z Halloween

Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng

(Note: This book has nothing to do with Halloween, but accompanying pictures were too cute to ignore)

The surface story of Everything I Never Told You is a mystery. It is the spring of 1977 and sixteen-year old Lydia Lee has been found at the bottom of a lake in her small Ohio town. These tropes may sound familiar but I promise, this book is the farthest thing from formulaic. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this before.

At its core, this is a story about disappointment; the searing, haunting disappointment of having one’s dreams fade away unfulfilled. As a first-generation son of Chinese immigrants, Lydia’s father has never fit in among his white peers, even after marrying a Caucasian woman. Before they met, Lydia’s mother was a science whiz and planned to become a doctor. Neither of their lives has worked out in the ways they wanted, but even more tragic is the alienation they’ve experienced as a result, an alienation from themselves and each other. As the title implies, this is also a story about the tragedy of failing to communicate.

“Geez, T,” you might be thinking, “that sounds like a real buzz kill. I don’t like to read anything depressing.” So yes, this is a sad book; I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you. But it’s good sad. In fact, the small cast of characters is so well wrought and their emotions feel so genuine and true that I found myself whipping through the book, compelled by the tension of their emotional lives. Through gradual reveals that flash back to the characters’ individual histories, their inner tensions are woven into the story’s surface mystery.

Beyond doing a really fine job of telling a story about a family and its failings, Celeste Ng manages to tell a more universal story about the ramifications of institutionalized discrimination. What do people do with their frustrations? If they can’t talk about them, how do they deal? Do they end up expecting more from other people because they’re not satisfied with themselves? For some, they project their quashed hopes onto their children. They begin to conflate their sense of self with their child’s identity. But this desire to want for one’s children what you couldn’t have for yourself can be a dangerous, destructive force. Ng’s powerful depiction reminds us that systems of oppression don’t disappear in one or two generations’ time.

On that happy note …

Next Up: The much-anticipated new release of My Very End of the Universe by hometown hero and old friend, Mr. Chris Bower (and others). Look for an upcoming interview (a first for this blog) with Bower and some other new features in honor of his publication!