I think Sherman Alexie understands my soul. In a short novel he managed to hit upon all the major themes I'm also working with but will take me severa...moreI think Sherman Alexie understands my soul. In a short novel he managed to hit upon all the major themes I'm also working with but will take me several books and probably thousands of pages to correctly articulate. I'm vastly jealous, but also terribly relieved that I'm not the only one out there thinking about this. The writing is straightforward but poignant, and hits upon a truth I think to be vitally important: that we as humans all suffer universally, even though it can be hard to see it that way. But then it's up to us to make a decision -- do we perpetuate that cycle of suffering and hate, or do we try to rise above it?
The Perfect Player introduces the readers to the world of Caendoria, a place vastly different from our own. But in the seemingly perfect realm of Myna...moreThe Perfect Player introduces the readers to the world of Caendoria, a place vastly different from our own. But in the seemingly perfect realm of Mynae, a place so peaceful their soldiers don't even carry weapons, all is not well...
The story revolves around Marisa, a capricious young woman who is about to take over as leader of the entire township. At the start, she seems woefully under-qualified for the job, thwarting her lessons on leadership to run around in the forest with her lover. That all changes, however, when a huge threat from underground puts not just Mynae in jeopardy, but the whole of the Caendorian world. It's a classic coming of age tale: can Marisa rise to the challenge and defeat the foes around her? Does she have the strength and wisdom to make the decisions that will save everyone?
You'll have to read it to find out.
My one caveat: while Marisa's journey was interesting, I got the feeling there was a lot more going on with the side characters that we did not learn. Ultimately, however, this is a good thing, because it left me craving more, more, more. What made Lamont so twisted? How did Orenda die? Did Donovan, Abigale and Eden have a love triangle going on, or what? What happened to Malia in Nurian? How does Sebastian fit into all this? So many unanswered questions I hope will be addressed in the following installments!
Bottom line: if you're in the mood for fantasy, and are pining away the days until George R.R. Martin finally puts out the next Game of Thrones book, give this a shot.(less)
I have been a long time fan of Wally Lamb’s work. I read his first novel in high school, the second in college, and started this book in grad school,...moreI have been a long time fan of Wally Lamb’s work. I read his first novel in high school, the second in college, and started this book in grad school, when I was working on my MFA in Creative Writing. I’d run out of time to read it from the library, though, and had had to return it long before reaching the halfway mark.
Shortly thereafter, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Lamb in person. He was a guest speaker at Fairfield University’s MFA residency in the summer of 2010. Determined to finish the book this time, I bought a copy and he was gracious enough to sign it for me. He’s a very nice man, Wally Lamb, and when I offered the copy to him, he turned an encouraging smile on me and said, “And what do you write?”
I blinked, ever the shy one when it comes to both my writing and meeting famous people. How could I possibly sum up the crazy novel I’d been working on, at that point, for almost four years? The one whose first draft was destined to break a thousand pages once it was finished? I blurted, completely without thinking, “Ungodly long fiction.”
He laughed. “Well, what do you know? So do I!”
I didn’t get to reading The Hour I First Believed that summer, or the summer after. Soon it was packed away in a box and put in storage with most of my other possessions from my parents’ house once they sold their condo in Connecticut, where I had grown up, in New Mexico, where my dad has been determined to retire all of my life. There it stayed until this month, where I dug it up, going through the boxes that were now stored in the garage of my parents’ new house. I was determined to reclaim at least a few of my numerous books I had left behind when I had, quite impulsively, decided to move back to my beloved city of Boston in August 2012.
I’d been thinking about this book, actually, and was glad I found it. My renewed interest wasn’t just because I’m a fan of Wally Lamb’s work and that I’d started this book and never finished it. But I remembered specifically a bold move on his part as an author: the inclusion of the Columbine school massacre, and not only the protagonist and his wife as witnesses to the tragedy, but killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as characters. Not masked as fictional approximations, but themselves as they had lived and died, committing unspeakable acts of rage and murder.
There was a pragmatic reason for searching out this book after three years as well as an emotional one. Since the summer I told Mr. Lamb about my piece of ungodly long fiction, it has mutated into something even bigger: three books now, possibly four, with my intensive measures of revision being done on the first installment. I have worked on these revisions at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square for about a year now. Which means this past April, although I was not there the day it happened, two more angry young men left bombs practically on my doorstep and caused another tragedy.
In the ensuing weeks, while trying to make sense of the Marathon Bombings, I have thought both of my own writing and The Hour I First Believed. My series was born of a lot of things, but one of the simplest is a hypothesis I first formulated back in the wake of Columbine: what if, instead of killing themselves, Harris and Klebold had had somewhere to go? What if some underground society existed that would have embraced their broken selves, even after they had done the unforgivable? They always kill themselves, these people who do these horrible things. But what if they have a chance to live? Then what?
This question was exacerbated in April, when reports broke about the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Instead of dying for whatever cause reportedly fueled himself and his brother, he ran for his life. He lay bleeding for nineteen hours in a boat before finally surrendering, unarmed. And again, I wondered: where did he try to go, instead of forfeiting his life? Was he regretting the decisions that had brought him to this terrible crossroads? Was fleeing more cowardly than dying, or braver?
And once more my thoughts returned to The Hour I First Believed. And I knew the time had come to read it, to see how another author had handled tragedies of this ilk, to see how it might be able to inform my own writing.
I’ve now read the entirety of the novel, and I know one thing for certain: Wally Lamb and I have been staring into the same abyss. Much of this novel hit me very hard, and my emotional response to it was more intense now than it was when I started the novel for the first time in 2010. I appreciated the themes, particularly the cycle of victims creating more victims. Maureen was victimized by the Columbine shooters and her own fall from grace resulted in a murder, although unintentional. Caelum’s sordid family history was chalk full of the same cycles – victims who become perpetrators who then try to bury their misdeeds, hoping ignorance will cover it up and keep it from repeating. But it doesn’t. Caelum himself becomes embittered and unable to connect emotionally, and it damages his multiple marriages, alienates his friends, and possibly keeps him from preventing another rampage by his own student, Kareem Kendricks, years after Columbine. And of course, there’s hope there too: the adoption of Velvet Hoon by the Quirks, who goes from a troubled young woman to a redeemed aspiring artist and expectant mother. The Micks escape tragedy in New Orleans and start their lives over at the Quirk farm, an act of kindness which enables Caelum’s family history to come to light so he can finally come to terms with the past. The application of chaos theory, that once one explosive event shakes up the order of things, it might resettle into a different pattern or disintegrate entirely. And that’s just how human life is. We experience tragedy, hardship, chaos, and we either adapt or we die. There is comfort to be found there, but of course, there is also sadness.
But what I find so interesting in comparing this book to my own writing is that while trying to make sense of the same chaos, Mr. Lamb and I have invented two different reorganized systems. The Hour I First Believed is about surviving tragedy inflicted upon you. I have chosen to write about surviving tragedy you have inflicted on others. And just as many times as Caelum Quirk imagines being Maureen, squeezed inside a cabinet, listening to the killers' taunting and gunfire, writing a message on the wall to say goodbye to her husband, I have imagined being on a crowded sidewalk on a sunny day, the weight of my cargo heavy on my back. And then cocooned under a tarp, dizzy with pain, scrawling a message on the wall of a boat. A message that will read less like a dedicated manifesto and more like I’m trying to convince myself that this was somehow necessary, that I haven’t just lost my brother and thrown away my entire life for nothing.
Why the difference here? Why do most people jump to identify with the victims of tragedy when I jump to identify with the suspects? And I’m not faulting Mr. Lamb for doing this. I think he handles both sides of the coin well, and there are numerous examples in the book of how people who resort to terrible things were also suffering from illness, prejudice, or just plain bad luck. Their accountability is intact, and so is their humanity. But I find that at the crux of the issue, in the case of the Columbine shooters, this book just doesn’t quite go there. Partially it is due to the protagonist, of course: Caelum has no desire to understand Harris and Klebold’s actions. Given everything he and Maureen suffer as a result, I don’t blame him. But I also wonder about Harris and Klebold’s purpose as narrative devices. Were they not given that extra dimension because of sensitivity issues? It is a risky move to put actual killers in your novel. But it was glaringly obvious to me that in a book so full of complex humanity, Harris and Klebold remain static. Caelum even describes them as such when watching their basement tapes: “I’d gone looking for a monster and found it in the darkened room of a municipal building, on a television monitor hooked to a videocassette player inside which tape spooled from left to right”(309).
I find the use of the word “monster” to describe the perpetrators of actions like this endlessly fascinating. With one word we strip them of all their humanity and don’t have to deal with the reality that these “monsters” are, or at least were at one point, just like us. The imagery in this book is rife with opportunities to point that out, too – that whole section about Caelum teaching Greek myths at Oceanside Community College involves the story of the labyrinth and the Minotaur was a great one. But it never entirely goes there. Harris and Klebold laugh ghoulishly at Caelum from the recesses of his memory, but it never quite connects. Again, this might be a failing of an emotionally bereft first person narrator, but in a book that goes over and over and over the shift of victim to criminal, a little more outside evidence that Harris and Klebold might have been pushed to their actions (especially after the scrutiny given to negative effects of bullying in the years since Columbine) would have created a powerful parallel.
But perhaps my bias is personal. In his author’s notes, Mr. Lamb confesses that this book took nine years to write. I sympathize. I am now nearing the seven year mark on my own project, and am just now feeling like the first installment is closer to its conclusion than its inception. But this also means I have now spent seven years thinking like criminals and other ostracized members of society, and maybe I have just trained myself to constantly wonder these things about people like Harris, Klebold, and the Tsarnaev brothers. The core of my story is not the core of The Hour I First Believed, even if Wally Lamb and I are pondering the same mysteries. But keeping that in mind, I still suspect that in this book I’m meant to look at Harris and Klebold as clear villains. In my own work, however, when I have drawn from real life, I ask my audience to look at the same type of characters as human beings, not villains. Not monsters.
Is that riskier, I wonder? Or is it braver?
I don’t know. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I feel like I read it when I really needed to read it. And I look at our two different works, our ungodly long fictions, and it’s nice to know that while Mr. Lamb and I might not be proposing the same solutions, at least we’re asking the same questions. That’s the important part. The only way to reorder the universe after senseless tragedies like Columbine and the Boston Marathon Bombing is to turn them into art. To quote Amanda Palmer, “If we don’t make art out of chaos, that’s when the chaos wins.”
Kudos to you, Mr. Lamb, for not letting the chaos win. I am trying my damnedest to do the same.(less)
I was happy to be caught up with this series, but my god did this book drag. For every compelling plot twist, I feel like there were 100 more pages of...moreI was happy to be caught up with this series, but my god did this book drag. For every compelling plot twist, I feel like there were 100 more pages of nearly pointless dialogue, war counseling, and eating scenes. C'mon, GRRM, you gotta pick up the pace, you're not getting any younger. (less)
Oh my God, I could go on and on about this book, but it's almost 3 am so I will not. I just have to say it was absolutely essential for me, especially...moreOh my God, I could go on and on about this book, but it's almost 3 am so I will not. I just have to say it was absolutely essential for me, especially given things that have been on my mind lately. A gorgeous and heartbreaking account of life in Iran in the days leading up to the revolution and the years that followed. An extremely eye-opening tale about the necessity of fiction and its ability to tell the truth, teaching, the abuse of religion for power, being a woman under oppressive circumstances, and empathy. So much empathy.
One of the best books I've ever read. Hands down.(less)