The Virgin Suicides


book by Jeffrey Eugenides

annotation by Heather Luby

I was surprised and refreshed by the unique narrative craft in this novel. As a writer, I was astonished and moved by the language and description, but I was even more captivated by Eugenides ability to use a multiple person point of view to present the events of the novel in a way that gave them greater wisdom and meaning. Even though the novel centers on the suicide of five teen girls, the book did not rely on the shocking subject matter to engage the reader in the story. Eugenides tells the reader from the beginning what will happen to the Lisbon sisters and the reader is directed to focus on the landscape, the community, and the interior lives of the narrators — the things that will continue to exist, altered and maimed by the events, but alive.

All of this is possible because of the narrative device of first person plural utilized by Eugenides. The multiple narrators, all unknown, but alike in characteristics, gives the book a point of view that feels more comprehensive. These grown men looking back on their innocence and youth paint a layered and complex tapestry of emotion. Eugenides could have used this device and made it much more overt, depending on it as a crutch or gimmick to carry the story. But while the multiple narrators lend a depth of credibility to the story, he does not focus on the shifting POVs; instead they are seamless and almost completely unnoticeable.

As a reader I felt that that this type of narration allowed me to feel like are part of the collective, part of a conversation. While told form the male POV, I never felt alienated. It made me feel as if I were part of the story too and simply trying sitting around with friends trying to recapture something from the past. I’m sure others might disagree, but I felt that the use of “we” made the novel very intimate.

While the men telling us this story are bookmarking this stage of their life with the suicide of the Lisbon girls, we all bookmark our lives with the remembrances of the inexplicable in our lives. The true mastery of this novel lies in Eugenides precision in observation, so that we feel we are part of the collective memory of the narrators, not just simple readers safe in our beds, but part of the gang still trying to make sense of the world around us.

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Point Dume

book by Katie Arnoldi

annotation by Rob Roberge

Once, years ago, when my first book came out and I was enormously excited about said book coming out, a much more experienced writer told me, “One’s a good start, but it’s not a career until you have three out.”

“Really?” I said.

“Over fifty percent of first-time novelists never publish a second,” he said.
This scared me a bit, since it had taken me ten years to learn enough to write my first and I’d thrown away at least two bad novels before finishing my first (or, third, depending on how one looked at such things). “So why isn’t two a career, then?”

“Well, it’s like in math. One doesn’t mean anything. Two can be a coincidence. Three’s a pattern. Until it happens three times, it’s not a pattern. And a pattern is what constitutes a career. It means that’s what you do, for better or worse. You’re a writer.”

I’d never, at that time, heard of this fifty percent deal with first-time novelists, but it turns out, according to various studies in publishing, to be true. A lot, if not a clear majority of writers have only one book in them—which stunned me when I first heard it and still surprises me now. Why would you go through the effort and labor of learning the very difficult craft of putting a book together only to stop after the first? But I guess some writers only have one in them—one thing to say, and then they get on with the rest of their lives.

And the second book not making you a career writer? I suppose that’s open to debate, but it is true, in both math and in publishing and murder (you’re not a serial killer, after all, until you hit three, either, though I heard that is being challenged by certain FBI profilers, among others) that three is a pattern and it means that you’re probably in it (whatever your “it” happens to be) for the long haul.

So, enter Katie Arnoldi’s POINT DUME (Overlook Press, publication date, May 10th), which is as you may have guessed from this preamble, her third novel. Arnoldi, best known, perhaps, for her first novel CHEMICAL PINK (which was a long running LA Times bestseller) has returned, in many ways, to the overall feel, characters, structure and pace that made that first novel such a hit. In between, she published THE WENTWORTHS, a dysfunctional family drama/satire about a wealthy Westside LA family from 2008, which showed a growing confidence and ability in her craft.

POINT DUME is, in short, a combination of the best aspects of her earlier two books. It has the edge and grit and unconventional characters and unexpected scenes of CHEMICAL PINK along with the refined craft and narrative chops exhibited in THE WENTWORTHS.

The novel, while brief and breakneck paced, takes in a wide range of subject matter and characters. It is, in fact, one of the longer short novels you’re likely to read this year (in the best sense—the way THE GREAT GATSBY is a long short novel, surprising for all the ground it covers in a relatively few amount of pages). Arnoldi balances five major POV in the novel—from the memorable self-reliant surfer Ellis, the eccentric pot-dealer Pablo, Janice a bored and quietly despairing homemaker and one of Pablo’s main clients, Janice’s husband Frank (who’s mid-life crisis infatuation with Ellis he misreads for love), and the sad and trapped Felix, who’s been recruited (forcefully) by the Mexican drug cartel to grow pot in the public lands around Malibu in the hills around all of the other character’s homes.

This unlikely cast of characters is brought together in a series of events that always arise organically out of character desire—never because they’re forced into action by the author. Arnoldi writes in a manner that Flaubert talked about—the writer being invisible, filing her nails while the characters act of their own accord. There are two dominant schools of thought about the author’s job. Some believe the author, like a good baseball umpire, should remain unseen. That the only time he or she is noticed is if they’ve blown a call or made a bad move. Then, of course, you have the overt stylists, calling attention to themselves (either in obvious ways, such as in the metafiction of writers like Ray Federman, or the high-wire “look no hands” prose styling of someone like Lee. K. Abbot, who reminds you he’s there by showing off the conscious beauty of his own prose). Arnoldi falls into the former category—never showing the puppet master’s strings on the movements of the characters.

And it works very well. The book hits on a lot of major issues—obsessive love and desire, the death of surf culture invaded by materialistic trend seekers…people who used to be called yuppies (god knows what name they carry these days), illegal pot farms on public lands (an increasingly large issue in California), the savage, dangerous and thoughtless use of human trafficking, the increasing presence of Mexican drug cartels in California, and the environmental cost of it all.

In the end (without giving away the plot twist that brings all these character’s lives together), Arnoldi’s realistic novel takes a turn toward the Naturalistic novels of Zola and Frank Norris. The book’s climax, in many ways, is reminiscent of Norris’ amazing (and, sadly, largely forgotten) 1902 masterpiece THE OCTOPUS (a Naturalistic history of the building of California in the late 1800’s), with the earth re-establishing its dominance and its inevitable lack of concern for the petty desires of humans.

Along the way, you get a rollicking ride. The book is full of memorable characters, tight, lean prose, better sex scenes than most people seem to write these days (why is sex so awful in most books?) and filled with some downright funny and harrowing scenes. It’s, in the best sense, a well-paced, well written page-turner.

~ Rob Roberge’s WORKING BACKWARDS FROM THE WORST MOMENT IN MY LIFE will be published Fall 2010 by Red Hen Press

Tinkers

Normally, I prefer coming into a new book cold, not knowing the particulars of the author or reviews (I also don’t like movie previews). However, I did hear a few things from a publishing insider before reading Paul Harding’s Tinkers. After many rejections, the book was published by Bellevue Literary Press, an imprint of the NYU School of Medicine. Word of mouth built through independent book sellers and the book just won the Pulitzer. Why mention this? Because we often write with an eye on the audience. Tinkers doesn’t. Of course a prominent literary mentor helps (see below). The best thing an author can do is to write and worry about the rest after the book is done. The other piece of information that perhaps made me a bit more tolerant of the structure was hearing that Harding sat down with the entire manuscript (not long at 191 small pages), cut it up and pieced it back together. When faced with some structural changes in the novel I recently completed, I sat down on the floor with the physical manuscript and moved things around, not to the degree Harding did (not appropriate for this book), but it was very helpful to work with the actual rather than virtual pages. In Tinkers, there is a certain patchwork quality that reinforces the jumble of memories that come to a man as he dies and I found it interesting to consider both of those processes as I read the book. There is not always such a clear opportunity for narrative and theme to mirror each other, but when there is as in this case, it’s an effective tool.

What I was not aware of ahead of time, but what is unmistakable, is the influence of Marilynne Robinson, particularly Gilead. The tone, mood, language choice, the son with a minister for a father are all similar. I found it less derivative, more inspired by Robinson, but that’s a fine line depending on whether one enjoys the book or not. Harding does have his own distinct poetic style and (also like Robinson), he puts it to use to observe the world in remarkable detail. There is no earth-shattering plot here, just a quiet finely tuned story about a dying man. Harding is a good example of keeping language simple in order to be effective.

His sentences are often long, “The weaver might have made one bad loop in the foliage of a sugar maple by the road and that one loop of whatever the thread might be wound from – light, gravity, dark from stars – had somehow been worked loose by the wind in its constant worrying of white buds and green leaves and blood-and-orange leaves and bare branches and two of the pieces of whatever it is that this world is knit from had come loose from each other and there was maybe just a finger width’s hole, which I was lucky enough to spot in the glittering leaves from this wagon of drawers and nimble enough to scale the silver trunk and brave enough to poke my finger into the tear, that might offer to the simple touch a measure of tranquillity or reassurance.” (54) I don’t always consider sentence length, particularly not very long sentences, as a way to control the pace of the narrative and it’s a device to keep in mind. More importantly, when I write, I tend to gallop ahead to the next conflict and then go back to fill in detail. Such a minutely observed narrative shows the power of slowing way down and as I begin the next novel, I will try to stay in the moment in order to mine all of the sensory detail before moving on.

The other striking thing in Tinkers is that Harding changes tense, moving from first to third to second person. This is not something to be undertaken without purpose. Here it serves the notion of the dying brain and a narrative that begins, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” There are quiet pleasures, from the building of a bird’s nest to the inner workings of watches and clocks, that can be read in a sitting. Harding is a solid example of the treasures found in a meticulous novel that has more to tell than the story of a man’s death.

Mrs. Dalloway

book by Virginia Woolf

annotation by LeVan D. Hawkins

This book examines a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway and all the characters who intersect her life emotionally and physically, as she prepares for a party. The reader is allowed access to the inner thoughts of the pivotal characters surrounding Mrs. Dalloway which creates back story and motivation for the current tensions that underlie the story.

Woolf uses inner monologues to reveal her characters’ personalities and their thoughts on the others who cross their paths. The reader is also privy to their histories with the others and how their relationships overlap. This information adds an additional level of conflict and texture to the story. Linking the stories together is a narrator whose voice and tone reflects Mrs. Dalloway’s: upper-class, feminine, gossipy and slightly superficial and materialistic. This voice segues to a narrator voice reflecting whatever character has transformed into the active character at that moment. Eventually, the narrative voice reflects the inner life of that character until it gradually returns to the dominant narrative voice of the voice resembling Mrs. Dalloway.

Woolf uses a variety of techniques though there is rarely any doubt when the shift is occurring – She is very deliberate and forceful in her approach. Among the ways she makes her transitional shifts: physical and local similarities, dialogue transitions, location changes, changes in narrative voice, inner monologues and often, simply by mentioning location and names. Her approach has taught me I need to be more definitive and detailed when I am changing time and location and that there are many approaches I can use.

Drive

book by Rob Roberge

annotation by Antonia Crane

Instead of a coaster, which is what I use many of my hardcover books for, I keep Drive by Rob Roberge open on my coffee table to use as a road map for great storytelling. It is a book that had a permanent impact on me, like a black and white Herman Leonard photograph. When you look again, you notice something strange and beautiful beneath the smoke, something that you missed before. I use Drive as a vehicle to improve my writing and keep me excited about literature, reading sections compulsively to study the dialogue and scenes on the page.

I’d be lying if I claimed that my adoration for the author had nothing to do with my devotion to the text. Sometimes you get a mentor whose mind and work speaks to you louder than anyone else’s and for me, Rob Roberge is definitely that guy.  Regardless of who the author is to me, Drive is an entertaining, smart story about a rogue basketball team lead by painter-turned coach, Ben Thompson. It takes structural and narrative risks that made me re-think the way that stories are told.  Drive helped me become a better writer by giving me clues about how to proceed. For instance, my punctuation tends to be sloppy, my dialogue can be elementary and I’m tense-lexic. Drive showed me how to stick with a tense and how play with it, how to vary my sentence structure as though it was music, as well as changing up chapter length. Some chapters in Drive are a paragraph long and they are just as satisfying as longer sections.

Roberge crams texture into his scenes, which reminds me that every section needs sound, dialogue, tension and physical sensation like this: “I can’t miss. It’s been years since I had this feeling. Just you, the ball and the rim. Nothing else exists in the world. It’s like those pictures of the Earth from outer space, only there’s you and a hoop and nothing else. I stop counting and just focus on the rhythm. I’ve got the touch and start shooting threes. The floor shines like a bowling alley, the bleachers rock and creak under the kid’s feet, and everything I throw up falls in like it had eyes.”

Drive showed me how to add layers of life to my pages so that my characters aren’t one-dimensional, silent, or seated – unless they need to be.

Roberge’s sentences buzz and sing with life. It’s the music of lonely, sad people striving to connect and succeed as well as the long road between where they are and where they’re trying to go. Thoughtful, snappy dialogue erupts from the page, but Roberge isn’t only occupied with being clever, he also fleshes out his characters in surprising ways. For example, the ‘man behind the curtain’ is The Chicken Man, aka Rube Parcel, a Hee-Haw suit on TV yapping at insomniacs with the IQ’s of doorknobs, but his logic makes sense. He’s the guy who owns the basketball team. He has corporate, selfish motives, but he’s so logical and true that  I couldn’t help but like him.  The topless cleaner, Sean who’s writing her dissertation on feminist theory is my cup of tea, but I often disagreed with her, just as I would a real person.

There’s nothing typical or simple about Roberge’s characters or scenes, but his sentences are sharp and clean. He makes basketball sound like Beethoven. Women are hot PhD-wielding topless house cleaners as well as brilliant basketball stars with wrenches who know how to jimmie a broken starter.  The action on the basketball court is exciting with a string of characters that the reader instantly cares about.

Drive has all of the humor and camp one expects from Roberge. The larger story he tells is about the subterranean struggles and irresistible urges that drive us to survive and succeed. Sometimes you feel can’t miss and you don’t. Sometimes you fail.

Coach Ben Thompson’s voice drives the plot, but the pages turn because of the quiet moments of tension that drive Roberge’s players. One by one, they get under the reader’s skin. Creepy, sexy and weird, Bone, Money and Hedda are in turns dignified and defiant as they play hard and discover their strengths.

Roberge has a knack for twisting the normal into the perverse and sad, as with a cow hitting the outside wall of Ben Thompson’s building making “a tortured and lonely sound.” He also knows joy, which comes through in searing moments of hope on the basketball court, like a dance in the sunlight: “It’s just me and the ball and the rim and the sun might burn out and the world might stop turning before I miss again.”

~ DRIVE, hardcover now available, softcover from Hollyridge Press this fall