Oct 13, 11
Read in October, 2011
If I were Carol Birch’s writing teacher—an absurd supposition because she is a better writer than I could ever hope to be and I would be lucky to be a student in her writing class—I would give Jamrach’s Menagerie an A+++ for evoking emotion and vividly describing sensations and an F--- for choosing subject matter.
As likeable narrator Jaffy describes wonders and horrors on his first ocean sailing voyage aboard whaler Lysander, I eagerly see, hear, taste, touch, smell everything. I have never been so amazed by a writer’s gift for simple, exact descriptions as I was awed by Carol Birch’s in this book. When the shipwrecked sailors take desperate measures to survive, however, I can still see, hear, taste, touch, and smell everything—but I no longer want to. I felt tricked, lured by Birch’s siren song, into living this fantastical voyage with Jaffy, only to be party to his revulsion as well.
I can see my reader’s voyage as part of Birch’s brilliance as a writer. I experienced what Jaffy experienced. It was hard, painful, stomach-turning, but it happens. But I can also see the plot as yet another cheap answer to the question people seem to ask more and more often in the trendy quest for extremes: What can we do now to shock people even more? Reminds me of one writing teacher’s challenge to me: Writing about everyday life will never sell; you can’t just have this girl in a bar—have an alien land in the bar and abduct her!
I think life’s most exciting drama is in everyday relational challenges, not in pursuit of outrageousness. Many of society’s problems exist precisely because we don’t see loving difficult people, overcoming common fears, handling disappointments, and making tough choices (to name a few everyday issues) as the most rewarding adventures. As for the argument that sometimes we read novels to escape everyday life and Jamrach’s Menagerie is certainly a fabulous escape, I go back to my grades at the opposite ends of the spectrum. I reveled in every cool descriptive droplet spraying my face as I gripped Lysander’s railing. I sailed high on waves of Jaffy’s victories in establishing relational footing on a slippery deck. (See four examples of issues above—Jaffy faced them all.) But what Birch’s story is ultimately the story of is not something I enjoyed escaping to.