Conflict and thwarted desires are the steam engine of fiction. If we don't have a character wanting something they cannot have, be it love, community,...moreConflict and thwarted desires are the steam engine of fiction. If we don't have a character wanting something they cannot have, be it love, community, or a pair of shoes, then we have no forward thrust. Kurt Vonnegut famously said, "Make your characters want something right away even if it's only a glass of water."
In Matt Bell's mythical debut novel, "In The House Upon The Dirt Between The Lake and The Woods" thwarted desires and conflicts run amok. The book is a long rumination on the tragedy of a marriage that is built upon desire for a child and what happens when that desire remains unfulfilled.
At the beginning of the novel, a newlywed couple (who remain nameless throughout) strike out to build a home in a vague, unpeopled land far from their populated native land. The homesteaders work to establish a life. The husband builds a home and furnishings. He traps their meals in the wood and fishes in the lake. The wife grows vegetables and with her beautiful voice sings into being their other belongings. They strive to raise a family in this mythic place, but pregnancy after pregnancy fails and the husband becomes child obsessed:
"The dirt's wettest season swelled, and then its hottest burst the world into bloom, and through those tumid months my wife swelled too, expanded in both belly and breast until the leaves fell -- and afterward came no more growth, only some stalling of the flesh gathering within her. Even before it was obvious that there would be no baby, even then my wife began to cry, to sing sadder songs that dimmed our already fuel-poor gas-lamps, or cracked cups and bowls behind cupboard doors.
"I angered that we would have to start again, and if my wife was not to birth some son then I wished only for that pregnancy's speedy end, so that she might not suffer overlong, so that another child might be put in this one's place."
If the first sentences of a novel are meant to teach you how to read the book, this opening paragraph sets a tone of curious formality. The language is stilted, fabulist, nearly biblical. Time is marked by the seasons, imagery is fecund with swelling, and bursting and tumidity. The inclusion of old-fashioned words like "overlong" seems to cue the reader that this fable is of great import.
Also, we are being told this story. Most of the action is summarized by the husband as if we are watching it unfold in another room rather than being plunked down in the midst. Dialogue is rare and buried within paragraphs so we don't exactly "hear" it in the same way we do conventionally written dialogue.
These choices, the stilted language, the dominance of summary over scene, the nameless characters, the rare opportunity to "hear" them speak, the feeling that we should glean a lesson from the pages, held me at bay from the characters. I should care deeply about a childless couple that goes to wild extremes to build a family. Somehow, I don't.
There are beautiful and lyric passages, in fact entire chapters, that sing, just as the wife sings things into being. When the husband's act of violence drives away his wife and boy (a foundling), the two descend into the earth. The wife sings into being a labyrinth of rooms, a "memory house," unearthing her story as she buries herself and her son further and further below the surface. Each room becomes a tribute to an emotion or action.
"And in this room: The number of times my wife hurt the foundling, even accidentally. A number so close to zero.
"And in this room: the number of times the foundling touched me without fear, counted up and counted through, each enumeration instanced, made distinct: Here was the foundling wiggling his tiny fingers in his crib."
At this moment we understand and feel the husband's yearning. For the intentional pain he caused his family has driven them away and driven him to this lonely quest to reunite.
Bell's writing is wildly original. The novel includes an angry bear, a mysterious, monstrous squid, an evil fetus, strange couplings and an army of zombie children. There are many battles, lots of ash and blood and viscera.
A blurb on the back of the book states that the Bell's "wild manipulation of form and genre makes the bulk of contemporary fiction feel bloodless and inert...." Well, bloodless in the concrete sense, to be certain, but inert or lifeless?
It is when connected to another human experience that I feel most alive, my very breathing changes when I am caught up in a character's pain or joy. "In The House Upon the Dirt Between The Lake and The Woods" didn't provide me with enough of those connected moments. (less)
The audiobook production of this novel was fantastic. I found myself talking to my dog with a Southern accent as we traipsed around the neighborhood l...moreThe audiobook production of this novel was fantastic. I found myself talking to my dog with a Southern accent as we traipsed around the neighborhood listening to the excellent voices of the narrators. The book kept me rapt, interested in the ticking bomb of a plot, waiting to see what consequences would befall Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. The writing was sometimes lovely. Particularly the Aibileen sections when she was interacting with the children under her care. Ms. Stockett truly wanted to explore the complicated relationships between races, the sexual roles and generational differences in the South of the 60s. The actual political events that she included kept the tension ratcheted up as we readers knew in advance what was to come. While the novel is plot driven, I found myself caring deeply for the 3 main characters. Where I think the work suffered was in the oversimplification of the most villainous character, Hilly. She was greatly lacking in nuance and contradiction making her seem flat and entirely predictable. The plot point that revolved around a chocolate pie also felt very overworked to me. Many days, while listening to the novel I extended my walk. So, I can say that in addition to being a satisfying read, the book had a healthful outcome for me as well. :) Now, if only I can find a recipe for Minny's Caramel Cake!(less)
When Thurlow Dan, the isolated cult leader who dwells at the leading edge of crazy, a man idolized by thousands yet loved by no one, cries out to his...moreWhen Thurlow Dan, the isolated cult leader who dwells at the leading edge of crazy, a man idolized by thousands yet loved by no one, cries out to his followers, "Tell me something real," I leaned forward in my seat. I wanted to hear what Fiona Maazel's new novel, "Woke Up Lonely," had to say about estrangement, within a marriage, a family, even our own hearts. We've all been pressed beneath the weight of loneliness at one time or another. Pining for true connection captures the zeitgeist of our culture as we check for new Facebook likes, tweet, and IM into the wee hours before we succumb to sleeping alone.
Thurlow Dan continues, "... loneliness is changing our DNA. Wrecking our hormones and making us ill ... how many of you feel disassociated from the people you love and who love you the most?"
Alas, the cumbersome and absurdist plot of "Woke Up Lonely" got in the way of a true exploration. Dynamic and wildly imaginative, this loop de loop roller coaster ride through cults, North Korea, the CIA, underground bunkers and a hostage crisis kept the characters and their real-world yearnings at bay.
A family lies at the center of this satirical novel. Esme Haas is a CIA agent who has made her career trying to keep her ex-husband out of trouble, and Thurlow Dan, said ex-husband, is the leader of Helix, a cult he began in order to beat back his feelings of isolation by employing speed dating and confession sessions. Esme is so busy donning outlandish disguises (noses melt off at times) to chase Thurlow that she has no time to spare for their isolated 10-year-old daughter, Ida. Much of Esme's face time with Ida is via surveillance camera as she spies on her girl, unawares and alone in her bedroom. She's also wiretapped Thurlow's paid companion's (read hooker's) molar. Often communication comes through at the point of climax. Wiretappings rather than nerve endings are the fragile bonds that keep this estranged family connected through much of the novel.
A foursome of secondary characters caught up in the elaborate plot add their brands of loneliness: a young woman, a survivor of sexual abuse and cancer, perpetually yearning for love; a husband whose addiction to online gambling fills a black hole of loneliness and isolates him further from his pregnant wife; a man who discovers that his adoptive parents rejected his twin and thus a part of his life was cleaved away; and a middle aged man renegotiating his relationship with his family.
Yet for all of this loneliness, there are only glimmers of compassion. One moment, early in the marriage of Thurlow and Esme, Thurlow finds his wife's hair in the drain and is mystified by his reaction.
"I'd been disgusted. By my own wife. The shock of it made me feel woozy, and I pressed my head to the wall tile. Then came a siege of misgiving."
It's a small moment to be certain, but one that we can identify with, a time when we've felt ourselves pull slightly away from the person we love most because of their humanity. Here was a moment when Thurlow's loneliness could become our own. I wished for more of such moments.
No doubt a novel that explores loneliness has to sidestep sentimentality, but "Woke Up Lonely" overcorrects by ignoring intimacy and burying insights beneath shenanigans. (less)
This book was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Gillies is both a terrible and a great writer. Her charm comes from her clear and distinct v...moreThis book was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Gillies is both a terrible and a great writer. Her charm comes from her clear and distinct voice, her ability to make the reader feel like a friend and confident. What the book lacked was careful and lovely prose. Though she did have one quite lovely passage describing the difference between sadness and anger.(less)
I thought there were some hilarious moments in this book. Semple is a master at one liners. She is excellent at rendering stereotypes, ridiculous situ...moreI thought there were some hilarious moments in this book. Semple is a master at one liners. She is excellent at rendering stereotypes, ridiculous situations, and does an amazing job using email as the major mode of storytelling. However, all of those skills failed to round out these characters. The people were flat, like a sitcom. Of course I cared about sweet Bee, the daughter, but the others...I felt no connection. Which of course is why I read, to feel connected to the characters and to learn a little something about people.(less)