annotation by Talya Jankovits
I am not proud to admit this, but sometimes I get writer’s envy. When I got word of Téa Obreht, I almost fell over with jealousy. Born the same year I was and she was already published in places such as The New Yorker, Harper’s and The New York Times, as well as voted in for The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” and The National Books Foundation’s “5 under 35”. Her novel, The Tiger’s Wife, is a New York Times bestseller, a 2011 National Book Award Finalist and the winner of the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. So you better believe that I, with a handful of modest online publications (thank you Annotation Nation!) and a novel still four years in the making, watched my hands grow green when I picked up her novel. I tried to put petty jealousy aside when I began her book and instead set out to learn from a peer and figure out what she did that I need to do. Surprisingly, I also figured out what she did that I don’t want to do.
Without sounding condescending, (and really, how could I, she’s the one with a national bestseller, I’m the one still pulling out repetitive clichéed imagery from my novel) Obreht’s writing felt beyond her years. I was enthralled with her imagery, her description, moments of writing that made me keep glancing again at her very young looking photo in the back of the book, trying to convince myself that yes, this young woman really wrote these sentences. She captured the young, the old, the foreign, the magical and she delivered lovely word by word fresh imagery, rich metaphors and breathtaking descriptions. While recently revising my own novel, I cringed with shame when a generous reader pointed out that I had used “thin lips” about a half dozen times in a dozen pages. Language is vast and supple with variety and Obreht utilizes all of it in her novel. It was a good kick in the writer’s gut to remind me that language is endless and profoundly important, you don’t want to just write a story, you want to write a story well, and write well Obreht did. But that isn’t enough to earn you the kind of acclaim that The Tiger’s Wife earned Obreht, and I’m sorry to say but the buck stopped there for me.
Obreht is a storyteller, that’s for sure. She can tell a story in a post war-torn Balkan country, she can paint you a tiger’s wife and a deathless man and she can lead you to a small village with big superstitions and she can capture the persona of the young and the old, but despite her ability to captivate me in various chapters, I was constantly left with questions, holes and confusion. Where Obreht soared in writing, she slumped in plot. Chapter chunks seemed like short stories strung along with barely a thread connecting them. The main character, Nadia, is on a quest to understand her grandfather and his death but all Obreht did was lead me down a wild goose chase of story clumps that dizzied me and left me wondering exactly what the novel was about.
As a reader and a writer, the importance of plot to me is incomparable. My own novel stretches across time, jumps point of view and countries. Something I am very aware of is being sure that everything comes together, that I am writing a story in which I am posing questions that get answers, that everything is serving a driving purpose towards the ending, in other words, that a novel is taking form. And no matter the novel, no matter the plot, be it linear or non-linear, but it in various POVs or one, there should always be a beginning, middle and end. There should always be continuity, regardless of structure. Even if plot plays second fiddle to language, it still needs to be addressed cohesively. Obreht had too many pages of opportunity to fix her plot blunders and it made me wonder about the value of editing, revision and clarity of mind. Putting writer’s envy aside, I was disappointed with what, at the outset, felt like a promising read.
Whether or not I’ll ever make the New York Times National Bestseller list, I do hope to achieve smaller and more doable accomplishments, such as completing a novel where I can attain the same level of language as Obreht, yet remember the importance of something as basic as the purpose of plot. In writing, it all matters.