Why We Broke Up

book by Daniel Handler

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I was in a workshop in grad school and the workshop leader asked, “Why do you write?” She was asking for a grander summation of what we write for and the answer came more easily for me than I thought. I’m interested in and writing at love in all of its horrible and wonderful variations. I wrote romantic comedies for years, trying to get into the nitty gritty of that first blush, when things don’t work out, trying to get to the center of the horrible overwhelming awkwardness of dating and falling in love. My first novel is a romantic tragedy about trying to make love work when one of you is dead. My next about how making life choices despite love can screw things up—for generations.

So Why We Broke Up is totally up my alley. I’m not sure how Daniel Handler manages to fully capture the voice of a teenage girl—being a dude and all–but Min’s voice is genuine, immediate, awkward, terrified, clever, funny and fully herself. The book is in second person—only not. Second person irritates me for long patches, but Handler uses it as a launching point for our story. Ed, the object of Min’s love and the reason for her broken heart is the “you” in this story as Min recounts the relationship—ostensibly in a letter. But while Min addresses Ed directly, Handler is careful to reserve second person for dramatic effect and to flow back into Min’s first person account of things.

Min is delivering a box of memories collected from her relationship with Ed, the high school basketball co-captain. Each chapter begins with a picture of said object, illustrated beautifully, in vibrant color by Maira Kalman. Movie tickets, beer caps, rose petals are the detritus of a relationship clearly gone awry. I had a bit of burning covet over this device, as I’m enamored of the way physical objects can become milestones in emotional territory and I touched on it in a piece of flash fiction. But there’s covet and there’s “wow you really wrote the shit out of that.” Handler really wrote the shit out of that and with the bright and painted images given extra weight through the stories behind them, my hat is off.

Another device I totally covet, is Min’s world of old movie references. This was an affliction of my teenage years—okay, and my twenties—and maybe a little bit now. In the novel I’m revising, a woman in her twenties is plagued by the same tendency as Min—to transpose movie life onto real life, her affection for movie actors onto real people. But Handler took it one step further and creates a fictional world of old movies complete with titles, plots, stars and real-life tales. There is such singularity to each of Min’s movie references, sometimes deliberate, sometimes off-hand, that they have a truly authentic ring: “Lottie Carson sleeps in the igloo alone and Will Ringer, frost on the beard he’ll shave off for her, because she asks him to, because he loves her—he sleeps with the dogs.” (p.29.) In that one line, Handler creates not only a vivid old film, but Min’s mooning, breathless, girlish and romantic lens through which to view it. Handler could have taken real older movies and thinly disguised them, but that would have taken the reader off the page. Instead, he creates these hilarious and delightful fictional movies that broaden the fabulousness of his main character.

But the book goes beyond devices and is a terrific reminder that while we can litter our prose with clever asides, funny moments and vivid objects, the characters at the book’s center and the various ways in which they do and don’t get what they want are where the heart of a story lies.  This book has a strong beating heart and it is Min’s. She carries us from first infatuation, through awkward love, to social pressure and inevitable breakup in terrifying, exhilarating, mortifying and genuine moments. Every secondary character in her life, from her best friend and gourmet cook Al, to Ed’s wry and clever sister or his worldly slightly trashy ex-girlfriend is vivid and genuine. While these are high school characters we recognize enough for them to resonate, they are their own people on the page.

And while Min has these “quirky” (I hate that word, usually applied in a condescending way by people who find quirky “cute” or who say “interesting” when they really mean “weird”—but would doubtless be applied by one of Ed’s friends, and therefore fits) qualities, it is her raw, close emotion that makes her so real. Like any rapidly growing exposed-nerve teen she can become consumed by her own self-loathing doubt, “I’m not a romantic, I’m a half-wit. Only stupid people would think I’m smart. I’m not something anyone should know. I’m a lunatic wandering around for scraps, I’m like every single miserable moron I’ve scorned and pretended I didn’t recognize.” (337)

Handler creates such a balance of clever and real, hilarity and heartbreak that coveting can only get us so far. Time to get back to work.

The Family Fang

Imagebook by Kevin Wilson

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Facebook brought me to THE FAMILY FANG. I’ve been fortunate to experience the acquaintance and generosity of some well-known authors, including Nick Hornby. He posted that THE FAMILY FANG was his favorite book of 2011. Since my mentor, Rob Roberge, recommended I read Hornby as I was writing my own comic novel, WRESTLING ALLIGATORS, I was curious to read Hornby’s recommendation. I was not disappointed. THE FAMILY FANG is a lot of fun. It also illustrates one of Roberge’s maxims: funny and sad go together in order to make funny work. 

A short digression… in college, I attended a theater conference in Los Angeles and within it some performance art pieces (and I use that term loosely). I sat next to David Antin as he apologetically passed me a pile of rabbit droppings on a silver platter. That was one “performance” without a point and even the lack of point wasn’t the point – it was just bad. Anyway, I attended my share of odd performance art and avant-garde plays in New York and L.A. and met people like Caleb and Camille Fang, the performance artist parents of the novel. Wilson nails it.

Camille and Caleb use their children, Annie (Child A) and Buster (Child B), in their pieces. Examples: Annie on guitar, singing with Buster as they sit on the street beside a guitar case with the sign, “Our dog needs an operation. Please help us save him.” As the “piece” develops, a man heckles her, ending in shouts and a smashed guitar. That man is of course her father, unknown to the “audience.” There are also pieces featuring Buster in drag to win a beauty contest and one with the children complicit in a fake shoplifting. Some pieces are innocent, some are exploitive, and some are cruel.

For the parents, “art, if you loved it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain. If you had to hurt someone to achieve those ends, so be it. If the outcome was beautiful enough, strange enough, memorable enough, it did not matter. It was worth it.”  Everything is in service to Art. The parents are oblivious to the effect of their lifestyle on their children, but mirroring them are two children who are oblivious to the gifts (awe, wonder) their parents have provided them in the midst of the pain. It is no surprise that though Annie and Buster try to create lives for themselves, they fail and return home. This delights their parents. “We’re a family again,” their dad cries. “This is what the Fangs do. We make strange and memorable things.” Their mother adds, “We distort the world; we make it vibrate.”  

The cycle of art begins again, but then the parents vanish at a roadside stop, apparently the victims of foul play. Or are they? Is it art or did something actually happen to them? This mystery propels the reader forward as Wilson explores the limits of familial relationships. The questions surrounding their disappearance that he sets up so well – well enough that the reader can imagine the book going either way – is something I want to explore in my own writing. I haven’t used the reader’s participation and curiosity to the degree that Wilson has here. He not only keeps ratcheting up the stakes, but creates tension in his use of our revulsion over the performance pieces even as we are sucked into fascination over what will happen, with the parents’ elation, and the children’s emotions over the outcome, good or bad. He makes great use of the small telling details that enhance a good story, “Annie felt her fingers snap into fists…then she felt Buster’s own hand slowly uncurl her fingers until they were straight and steady.”

Fine details, vivid characters, an outrageous yet realistic premise that builds over the course of the narrative with increasing stakes add up to an entertaining book that resonates more deeply – and ends with more impact – than one might expect from a comedic novel. Funny and sad indeed.