Madeleine's Reviews > American Decameron

American Decameron by Mark Dunn
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's review
Jun 20, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: head-in-the-clouds-nose-in-a-book, our-libeary, books-with-buttons, 2012, blogophilia
Read from October 04 to November 12, 2012

Creatively constipated in New Jersey

Maddie stares at her work monitor -- the third machine she's attempted her American Decameron review on, a review that has hit more brick walls than a driving-school vehicle -- with her fingers poised over the keyboard and ready for speedy transcription of all the ways she wants to gush about Mark Dunn's newest gift to the world, a gesture as fruitless as her fervent hopes that staring at a computer screen long enough will magically produce words.

"Fitting," she grumbles to herself, only half caring that her officemate (who's well-versed in her special breed of crazy) might overhear, "that a book comprising 100 stories would take 100 attempts to write about."

The joy of finally finishing a book in the face of natural disasters, a thankless job's busy season and other, more pleasant assorted things that prevent her from falling into what would be her ideal natural state of existence (i.e.: bookworm hermitage) waned considerably as the frustration of reviewing being a use-it-or-lose-it skill grew like... like.... like what, Maddie?

"Fucking similes," she mutters with an inappropriate degree of hatred, for Maddie is nothing if not a classy lady as her fondness for expletives shows. "Fucking stupid review. Why can't you just write yourself?"

She sighs as if the world were ending, then rereads the paltry dross she's managed thus far:

Mixed emotions always accompany the news that Mark Dunn is publishing a new book. On one hand, it's always a cause for celebration when one of my favorite living writers blesses the literary world with a new work; on the other, it's impossible to predict how much of an optimistic cock tease the initial expected publication date is versus the harsh reality of the much more distant one. Fortunately, this is one of those times I was rewarded for not being a technological curmudgeon: While the hardcover's expected publication date has jumped around the 2012 calendar like an overzealous child playing hopscotch, the Kindle edition was there to ease the terminally delayed gratification that's so inherently intertwined with the advent of a new Dunn offering.

"Too boring," Maddie says to herself while shaking her head in self-disgust and not caring that she probably looks like Tippi Hedren to anyone neither inside her head nor in front of her computer screen.

Still, experience has taught her that nothing plows through writer's block quite like hammering out whatever comes to mind so she continues with the unsatisfying direction her review has taken:

I'm never really sure what to expect from Dunn as a writer so I suppose the surprise release dates are rather fitting for a scribe whose playwright and novelist hats both suit him to equal success. As far as Dunn goes, this ambitious book is markedly lacking a kooky hook: It's not an epistolary novel that takes increasing liberties with spelling as the available alphabet diminishes, it's not a biography rendered entirely in footnotes, it's not the tale of a modern-day Dickensian society sequestered in Pennsylvania or extraterrestrial-fearing neighbors sequestered in each other's homes. What it is is 100 individual stories that serve as a better American history lesson than any American history textbook not written by Howard Zinn (though it's definitely more life-affirming than Zinn's fare).

On a totally superficial level, one could erroneously call this a short-story collection but it really isn't (much to the relief of my indomitable but ill-founded bias against short stories). Even if the bookending chapters didn't tie everything together by showing how many of the characters populating Dunn's 100 American tales have crossed paths to (mostly positively) results, the overriding theme of each story being part of something bigger is present without being intrusive. And it's the way that the macro- and microcosms play against each other that highlight my favorite thing about Dunn's writing, which isn't his snazzy word play and his clever presentation -- it's the palpable humanity and innate goodness he infuses into the staggering majority of his characters. More on that in a sec because, really, who needs to organize their thoughts?

This is where Maddie lets loose an unladylike but totally characteristic snort over her own blatant cop-out. The thing is, she doesn't want this review to become a gush-fest about how the characters in this book, the forward of which betrays the non-fictitious nature of much of the cast parading through this book's 700-some pages, give her hope for humanity, just as Dunn's books and plays usually do. But Maddie is also deeply cynical about the goodness of people, despite her desperate (and, admittedly, more successful than she had anticipated) efforts to change her own mind. And she doesn't want anyone to know that her soft heart has been bleeding more than usual lately.

Dunn covers a lot of ground, both in terms of time (all of the 20th century, occasionally punctuated by lapses into the past and flash-forwards to the future) and geography (50 states, one district, various airspaces and bodies of water -- including at least two oceans -- and Botswana). This is a day in the life of an American year as seen by seemingly inconsequential, everyday folks. Some of the personal stories collide with the bigger front-page stories (like journalists investigating the plausibility that the Wright brothers' incredible flying machine is a credible, airborne success), some are outright influenced by them (like Lusitania survivors bonding over an accidental encounter) but most illustrate how history affects people and how people affect history incidentally. Humanity and history are the main characters here, and Dunn breathes life into both intangibles with great deals of sympathetic realism.

"But.... but... there's so much more to it than that!" Maddie almost exclaims, forgetting where she is in the throes of her needlessly intense internal battle. She sighs again, is briefly rocked back to reality as her coworker asks if she's okay, and finally concedes that she can't do in a Goodreads review what Mark Dunn's achieved with his daunting accomplishment of a far-reaching, far-sighted tome.

And she also admits that, like every other book she's read, this one was all about how she related to it, a justification she makes by telling herself that books do not exist in a vacuum and serve to delight, entertain, challenge and otherwise move readers. And what better way than by finding the human connection in a book that is, at its core, all about human connections.

She gets teary-eyed as she grapples with recounting the specific ways that the 1988 installment -- "Stouthearted in Florida," in which a teenage girl goes against her mother's wishes to sneak her ailing grandmother's lesbian lover into the hospital -- absolutely tore her up inside but abandons the effort, knowing that no one can express the gamut of inherent goodness and love of which people are capable as well as Dunn illustrated with this and all of his other works.

"Fuck this," Maddie proclaims, wiping at her eyes as surreptitiously as possible before emerging from the safe blockade that the monitor allows her. "I'm going to lunch."
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Reading Progress

11.0% "Bibliophilic in New Jersey" 3 comments
21.0% "Anachronistic in Pennsylvania"
32.0% ""Were the children safe? How about the farm animals?""
40.0% "Chequamegon National Forest towns REPRE-FUCKING-SENT."
56.0% "Without power for 36 hours in New Jersey"
71.0% "Reading about gas lines when they're making a comeback? Not cool."
86.0% "Book, I am determined to finish you this week."

Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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Madeleine Boooo to the actual book's release date being pushed back, like, a month; yay to Ruggles the Kindle saving the day and thus sparing me the heartache of Under the Harrowesque eternally delayed gratification.

message 2: by Derek (new)

Derek This looks verrrry interesting. I read Welcome To Higby years ago and thought it okay-but-not-great, but it looks like he's continuing to put out very inventive works. I might have to give him another try.

Madeleine I think that 'inventive' is the most accurate summation of most of Dunn's novels (and some of his plays). I'm only a few stories in but this one is making me pretty happy so far.

I have such a soft, special spot in my heart for this guy. "Higby" wasn't his strongest work (though not without its charms because, for me, Dunn's strength is the way he writes people), though I feel unfair saying that because it's more of a straightforward novel than an experimental one, like "Ella Minnow Pea" with its gradually diminishing use of letters (which is also one of my desert-island books) and "Ibid," which is told entirely in footnotes.

Madeleine (It goes without saying that you DO need to give him another shot buuuuut I know you've got one hell of a to-read list dogging you, too.)

message 5: by Derek (new)

Derek True that, but if I see anything of his on the 'used book' shelves I will definitely grab it.

Madeleine I like your style. That kind of thinking is how people (well, I) wind up with to-read queues in the three digits. :)

message 7: by Derek (new)

Derek You ain't kidding! That's how my queue would stand if I counted all the books I *intend* to purchase on top of the ones I already own.

message 8: by Jason (new)

Jason Dost thou have stage fright?

Madeleine Jason wrote: "Dost thou have stage fright?"
It's either that or performance anxiety. Which I guess are the same thing?

I'm told it's a perfectly natural thing that happens to everyone at some point.

message 10: by Jason (new)

Jason Just write for yourself. Pretend we are all in our underwear.

Madeleine Jason wrote: "Pretend we are all in our underwear."
Oh, like I haven't been doing that already....

(Mostly because I refuse to believe that I'm the only one who enjoys pantslessness this much. Either way, challenge accepted!)

message 12: by Jason (new)

Jason Haha, awesome. And for the record, your opening paragraph is not in any way boring.

Madeleine Jason wrote: "Haha, awesome. And for the record, your opening paragraph is not in any way boring."
Thank ya kindly, sir! Your very generous comments always rock my day.

I just felt like the way I agonized over this review is not at all proportional to the final product. But, meh, such is the plight of the control-freak perfectionist.

message 14: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark Beautifully wrought! You justified the hell out of this book!

Madeleine Mark wrote: "Beautifully wrought! You justified the hell out of this book!"
Aw, thank you so much, Mark.

I love how consistently warm and friendly and encouraging you are. You're so totally one of the people who make me feel like I'm missing so much when I disappear from this site. Stupid life!

message 16: by Mark (new)

Mark Dunn Madeleine, may I post your incredible review on AMERICAN DECAMERON'S Facebook page?

Madeleine Mark wrote: "Madeleine, may I post your incredible review on AMERICAN DECAMERON'S Facebook page?"

Oh my goodness, of course!

Thank you for making my day, good sir. :)

message 18: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark Awesome!!

message 19: by Mark (new)

Mark Dunn Actually, you made MY day, Madeleine when you wrote it. Blessings to you for helping to get the word out about this under-discussed latest endeavor of mine.

Bobby Nelson I thoroughly enjoyed your review!

message 21: by David (new)

David Awesome review!

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