The Difficult Thing About Novels

So I read Purity. I know there is a lot of talk flying around about Jonathan Franzen, and it's all too likely that he is a terrible asshole I am sure (so many of us are). But I really liked The Corrections a lot, and I thought The 27th City was pretty good, and while I didn't like Freedom, certainly 2 of 3 (one of which I liked a lot) was good enough odds. 

And so I read Purity.

I started out skeptical (due to Freedom no doubt), and stayed skeptical, even hostile, for about 200 pages. And then, oh reader, it was fun! It flew!

There's something so thrilling when a story rounds a bend into the open country and start galloping. God, how I love that soaring feeling. 

There are whole long stretches of this . And then—I don't know how to say this other than: the feeling went away. Is it me? Is the story? Is it a strange atmospheric disturbance? I don't know. I only know that I hit the ground with a thump (yes, sorry, I'm going to extend this metaphor just as far as it will go) and had to walk most of the way back.

I look for this soaring feeling everywhere. I've found it in opera (I saw Pagliacci this past year, for the first time, and there are some notes that seem to actually ring out inside me). I find it in books. Sometimes when swimming.

But the terrible thing is that when you find it in a novel, and then the novel lets you down, you can't believe in it as a novel any more. At least, I can't. It's not that I would say it was bad. In fact, I think it was good, if flawed (oh the humanity!) and I am now urging Strider/Aragorn, Son of Arathorn/the Ranger to read it so I will have someone to talk to about it.

But in truth, I fear that when a novel has part that is broken, the whole is broken. Which seems both unfair and difficult. Does this make any sense to anyone?

Resistance Is Futile. But Relevant.

Whenever I read a novel with a tough-as-nails protagonist, I wince. Or really, it's more than wincing. I lower my head (metaphorically) and glower (also metaphorically). It always seems like posturing to me, particularly when it's first person and involves a lot of sleeping around and drinking. Particularly, I have to shamefacedly admit, when the protagonist is a woman doing these things. It feels a bit "I think thee doth protest too much." I feel, too, in my self-centered defensive way, like the character is indirectly calling me out, saying "You're weak and soft." 

So it was with great resistance that I got through the first chapter of the terribly titled The Scamp.

First of all, let's look at what an image search for The Scamp turns up:

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Now let's take a look at The Scamp I actually read.

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Yes, in addition to a terrible title it is a terrible cover. (The faint of heart should be assured that The Scamp in fact refers to the name of a camper type trailer, not to a person.)

But here's the thing: the tough-girl voice pissed me off. The cover pissed me off. Everything about this book pushed me into a state of powerful resistance, which meant I had to complain to poor Aragorn, son of Arathorn, "I hate this book, it's just the kind of book I hate. I mean honestly, fine, so you drink too much, so you're really cool and tough…" while he (maybe not so patiently) wondered why I kept reading it then.

But I kept reading. And at some point I must have let my guard down, because I ended up being captivated by it. It's sort of a mystery, but not really a mystery. It's a love story and a road trip and a strange and compelling voyage through a world I don't know or understand at all. And all of a sudden I was in that place where I kept looking for moments when I could read it some more. 

This is why I read every book all the way through—in the hopes that I'll find out the problem is really me, and once I open myself amazing things can happen. Note: Your results may vary. But still. It's just nice to get over yourself every once in a while, isn't it?

Freeing Your Daughter, and Yourself

This is a novel written for adults.

However.

I can see that it might be just the thing for girls who are torturing themselves, in one way or another, about their weight, as so often happens. For them it will either be the wakeup Feminism 101 call so many people experience in college, or…or I don't know what. Maybe it will be their doorway to enlightenment. Or maybe they'll just think it's funny and great. Maybe it will be too much for them? But for most teens, I don't think so.

Enough dithering: the book is Dietland.

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It's a coming-of-age, coming into one's own story of a revolutionary. And the revolutionary? She's a fat girl. This book traces her funny yet rage-filled journey from self-hatred, to dawning consciousness, to rage, to self-acceptance, to POWER.

What I think is awesome: We don't talk so much about how our culture views fat, and fat people, especially fat women. And it's important to see it, own it, and understand it. And we don't hear so much about how it feels to be fat, fat enough that people comment on it, and I am so glad to get that voice out there. We also don't get to see so much rage coming from girls and women, and it's (for me) incredibly refreshing. The book goes far—so far!—in its radicalism, and while I don't know that I could throw myself behind every one of its precepts, I am so gratified that Walker did. She committed herself fully and thoroughly, and that is inspiring. Also the ending: what an ending! Hooray for good endings! Hooray for exciting and unexpected books!

What was not so awesome: Some of the rage splatters a bit. When lashing out at the hurtful world, our heroine sometimes went for what read to me as homophobia, and it bummed me out. There was no narrative acknowledgement of how this might be problematic—she accuses some nasty men of wanting to be with little boys, and it just—it just felt bad to me. There are some patches in the writing where it felt more like notes rather than a fully fleshed out novel. Sometimes the book felt like a great kind of raw, and other times it felt like "this could be more cooked" kind of raw.

All in all though, it was fun and interesting and somehow thrilling to read. I would be all for leaving it out on the coffee table for any girl (or boy) to read, fat or not, because like all good books it will increase their world. 

I haven't run it by Chestnut or Diana yet, as I gave my copy to my best friend. Which says it all right there.

When I get another copy, I will leave it out for them to read. I can't wait to hear what they will say.

What We Lost When We Lost Print—Uncensored!

OK, it's been a decade or two of adjusting to vanishing newspapers, dying magazines, and the steady ant-like forward march of e-books. And I like to think I haven't been too big a baby about it.

I still get my newspaper delivered to the house like the old days, sure. But I read the newspaper online too, during the day sometimes. I can't get with the Kindle, but I've downloaded a book or to to my phone. I'm trying, OK?

And I try not to bitch about it too much, mostly because I think revolution can be a really good thing. I write so many more emails to my friends than I ever did letters, and I am grateful for that. 

Still, I hadn't realized—until yesterday—what we were really losing, until I was sitting on the couch with Chestnut, reading my alumni magazine of all things, and I started to read aloud to her from the personal ads.

Remember the personal ads? And don't start with the whole OK Cupid/Tindr/Craigslist, because THE WHOLE POINT (to me, anyway) is that with the olde tyme personals they were right there in the paper! Or the Pennysaver! Or The New York Review of Books! (the best and saddest ones). You didn't have to go searching them out. And they weren't just people looking for each other either (though those are great), but also crazy job postings and bizarre research requests and, and, and…everything! And these ads—you just came upon while reading about other things.

That's what I miss. I know it's easier now to find things, but it's harder to stumble across them. You have to go down long dark internet halls, when things used to just turn up on random pages of the paper you were reading. I miss that. I miss the hodge-podge of it, the ridiculous inappropriate disjointedness, the mix you'd come up with. 

I feel a certain randomness is gone, and oh how I miss it!

HOWEVER. May I recommend you start your teens, particularly the soft-hearted ones, on the personal ads in the New York Review of Books, your alumni magazine, or any other PG venue? If Chestnut is any guide, they'll immediately begin trying to match the letter writers up with each other, and it will rocket you back to everything tender and painful about being 13, and the two of you can hang out together and it will be excellent.

Mad! Or, on Unresolved Endings

When I was little, my babysitter was Mrs. Clancy, who wore polyester pantsuits (with the top part sleeveless, over a turtleneck) and a rhinestone letter A necklace (she was Alice Clancy). SHe smoked Kools, menthol. She was old and a little bit crotchety but in the most loving way imaginable, and she used to watch her stories in the afternoons and play solitaire at the table, and she was altogether the best babysitter in the world. I think of her often, but I think of her now, because she once told me that when she read Gone with the Wind, when she got to the last line, "I threw that book against the wall. Ooh, I was so mad! 'I'll think about it tomorrow?' What the hell is that? I wanted to know what happened!"

See, Chestnut read My Real Children.

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I'd brought it home from the library, and she snatched it off the coffee table and proceeded to devour it. She read it upstairs and downstairs and she carried it and read it walking down the street—you know the drill. And then the next day she came downstairs, furious. "It ends, but she doesn't tell you how it ends! I'M SO MAD!" She was the unwitting victim of…lack of closure.

There's a lot of lack of closure out there. You've got Eleanor and Park, which ends … tantalizingly. There's Inception. (I know, a movie, but still.) What's your feeling on this? Personally, I like closure, it's so satisfying! We never get closure in life, at least I don't mostly, and it's weirdly reassuring to know what happens to those fictional people you fell in love with. But I know, too, that there is a case to be made for loose ends. And lifelikeness (I know, not a word). 

What do you think? Do you get pissed off, like Chestnut? Are you more easy-going, like no one I know? What does it mean for a story to end anyway?