The Art of Racing in the Rain

book by Garth Stein

annotation by Lee Stoops

“To live every day as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live…When I am a person, that is how I will live my life.”

~ Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain (160)

Enzo is a dog; a dog, like any other – without a dexterous tongue or opposable thumbs. But he witnesses his life with the mind and intentions of a person. He knows that dogs are the last incarnation of souls before they become human, and he is ready – eager, even – to move into his next incarnation. But, his soul, as a dog, has a purpose and a lot left to learn, as is evidenced by one of the most touching, charming contemporary stories. Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, wrote of The Art of Racing in the Rain, “[This story] has everything: love, tragedy, redemption, danger, and – most especially – the canine narrator Enzo. This old soul of a dog has much to teach us about being human. I loved this book” (from “Praise for The Art of Racing in the Rain” preceding the text). Gruen’s list of included elements in the book is dead on, though it’s her noting of what Enzo’s soul has to teach us that really hits the nail on the head: much.

The story opens in Enzo’s voice letting us know that, while he can’t speak, he can communicate. And, by the end of the first chapter, his personality and perception of humanity is clear and engaging, and already offering some foresight into the story and its tone.

“I close my eyes and listen vaguely in a half sleep as he does the things he does before he sleeps each night. Brushing and squirting and splashing. So many things. People and their rituals. They cling to things so hard sometimes” (8).

Stein’s created a terrifically reliable narrator in Enzo. He is clear on what he knows, thinks, doesn’t know, or confuses him. The typical unreliable nature of a first-person (or, dog) account goes out the window as Enzo honestly shares his witness and role in the Swift family’s life. And he sets up his story by evaluating himself and his species. “I like to think I came from a determined gene pool” (11).  Stein’s given Enzo charge of the Swift family from just before its inception throughout an unimaginable tragedy. Denny, Enzo’s master, is a semi-professional racecar driver. Stein uses Denny’s character, his and Enzo’s bond,

“I laid my head on his leg and looked up at him.

“Sometimes I think you actually understand me,” he said. “It’s like there’s a person inside there. Like you know everything.”

I do, I said to myself. I do” (61).

and Enzo’s love of racing as a way to deliver metaphor after metaphor for life and the human (or dog) experience. “But I am a racer at heart, and a racer will never let something that has already happened affect what is happening now” (75).

Stein’s success in the story lies in the true voice of Enzo and his ability to honestly and emotionally recant his experience and understanding of his place and his (and the Swift family’s) life. Language (and lack of) is the means, not the barrier, for a soul that can’t talk. “The human language, as precise as it is with its thousands of words, can still be so wonderfully vague” (288). Throughout the narrative, Enzo’s character and voice drive the story; at breakneck speeds and recovery paces, the dog works the reader through some of the most poignant examples of what it is to live, and how to prepare for what comes next.

Perhaps Stein’s greatest achievement in The Art of Racing in the Rain is Enzo’s reconciling of life as a racecar driver at heart, especially life when it comes in unexpected and derailing ways:

“A driver must have faith. In his talent, judgment, the judgment of those around him…himself…

As the gravel trap rushes at him, the driver must make decisions that will impact his race, his future…What is to be done?

The driver must accept his fate. He must accept the fact that mistakes have been made. Misjudgments. Poor decisions. A confluence of circumstances has landed him in this position. A driver must accept it all and be willing to pay the price for it. He must go off-track.

…At this moment, a driver feels tremendous crisis. He must get back on the gas. He must get back on the track.

…A winner, a champion, will accept his fate. He will continue with his wheels in the dirt. He will do his best to maintain his line and gradually get himself back on the track when it is safe to do so. Yes, he loses a few places in the race. Yes, he is at a disadvantage. But he is still racing. He is still alive.

The race is long. It is better to drive within oneself and finish the race behind others that it is to drive to hard and crash” (290-291).

With an impassioned narrator, wit, and sensitivity, Stein manages a story arc that is both smooth and satisfying, heart-warming and heart-wrenching. And by the end of the story, the reader is left asking the same question Enzo is left asking: “Have I squandered my dogness? Have I forsaken my nature for my desires? Have I made a mistake by anticipating my future and shunning my present” (315)? The answer for Enzo is as elusive as it is for anyone. But it’s also not what matters most. What matters most is understanding and living the truth: “The car goes where they eyes go” (321).

Of course, writers must the same dogged pursuit of answering those questions, and Stein’s success for other writers is the example of giving the story direction that’s worth following. Stylistically and structural, the story is sound. But it’s in the creation of the story’s narrator, the voice of Enzo that Stein accomplished something to which all writer’s aspire – an authentic and original voice, a sympathetic heart, a truly created and wholly pure, wholly winning protagonist. For entertainment’s sake, it would be foolish for any reader to pass The Art of Racing in the Rain. For writers hoping to one day write that one, true, open-hearted character, there are few examples out there that demonstrate it as well, as uncontrived, and as warmly.

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The Corrections

book by Jonathan Franzen

annotation by Talya Jankovits

It started off as a crush. I was feeling flustered and warm with each rich sentence, his detailed imagery, the way sound greeted me through my eyes and I discovered that a stack of bills could be made interesting. At the same time, I also found myself rolling my eyes and skimming eagerly to reach the next relevant scene or narrative. Jonathan Franzen’s The Correctionsis an exhausting work of fiction that left me both panting and out of breath with want for more as well as feeling condescended to and abused. I was in turmoil reading this novel; was I in love or was I being driven mad? I decided it was okay to feel both.

My Infatuation:
Franzen’s novel is a story without a story. A funny thing happened while reading. I kept wondering when it was all going to come together and at first I was disappointed to find out it never actually comes together but still works brilliantly. Franzen takes a family of five, two aging parents, and three adult children and reveals the stories of these characters’ lives through the ultimate, larger but mostly irrelevant story of a quickly ailing and demented father who meets his end by the final chapter of the book.

Recently, I am finding myself drawn to novels, short stories or creative pieces that don’t have an ultimate goal of selling you on some sort of convoluted and dizzying plot, but find the story in the mundane, the every day, life as we know it. (Granted there were some grand elements, but when you’re talking about a novel that is close to 600 pages, 40-80 pages of grandeur is really not much to talk about.) This fiction was not fiction at all. I felt as if somewhere, someone is living one of these lives. They were so real, so devastatingly flawed, a smorgasbord of richly textured humanity. I almost felt a part of this dysfunctional group of fictive genes.Franzen paid attention to the nuances that don’t usually get attention and made a novel of it, a particularly lengthy novel of it.

From the first sentence, I knew I was in for a writing treat. Franzen is so detailed that you can hardly go more than a few sentences without being greeted by a beautiful image, a clever metaphor or a breathtaking string of adjectives and nouns. Just after reading a few pages I wanted to run to my own novel and find ways to make it “prettier” to enhance my  images and descriptions, to pay attention to the sound of a screeching tire or the color of a mole on an elbow. I was so driven to write after reading that I did. I’m pretty sure that’s enough in it of itself to assert a bit of an infatuation. But infatuation is usually fickle.

My Contempt:
If I had to read one page more of this novel I would have thrown this book in the dishwasher, cleaned it up and made Franzen wash his mouth out with soap. About a quarter of the way through this book, I began to feel like I was out on a date with a gorgeous guy who was smart and funny, but by the time the appetizer arrives I realize he is dominating the conversation to hear himself talk about and assert his own cultured, well rounded intellect and opinion on just about anything. Franzen is a great writer, but at times I felt that entire scenes were inserted totally unnecessarily; I began to feel taken advantage of, as if Franzen created strikingly different characters only in order to assert himself in all things. The character of Chip seemed to be invented purely for Franzen’s philosophical appetite. I felt drained reading hypothetical conversations between Chip and his grad students that went on for pages discussing the ethical responsibilities in mass media commercialism. Greg was an opportunity to explore stocks and business (where I had to read through an entire conference on an imaginary drug with irrelevant characters participating in banter with the drug reps,) Denise was a field day for sexual appetite and food connoisseurship and Aurthur became less of a character and more of an excuse to explore scatological images. Reading this novel was like having my eyes held open and being force fed information. Now, either this actually happened – characters were created to feed Franzen’s frantic appetite for self assertion – or something went terribly wrong during editing.

I am currently in the revision stage of my novel and have gone through multiple drafts and something that comes up frequently is finding irrelevant scenes or lengthy narratives that don’t contribute to the characters, the plot or my readers need to relate to the characters and the plot. What frustrated me in Franzen’s novel is that I felt I was reading lengthy narrative that didn’t at all enhance the reading experience for me and left me feeling drained, so drained that all the beautiful writing I was so excited about at first began to fade before me and leave only the constant barrage of information. My lesson – don’t overload, everything in moderation. Even the luscious writing began to become too much.

My Compromise:
I thought annotating the novel would help me gain clarity on my perspective and writerly gains or losses, but I’m still as torn as before. There will be a second date – I will read Franzen again, to feed my need for glitzy, detailed writing but I will also remind myself during my revision process of the importance of staying honest to my characters and stories, small or great, and staying committed to making sure every page of my novel matters. Because at the end of a novel, its not how much you’ve written or how much you know, but how well you know what you write.