book by Gina Frangello
annotation by Kate Maruyama
The structure of A Life in Men is as carefully wrought as it is difficult to unravel. Gina Frangello keeps us moving, ostensibly through the stories attributed to specific men in her heroine Mary’s life – but there is a larger structure and rhythm that goes on, moving from location to location, back and forth through time. I can only imagine she wrote and wrote – as each scene is fully realized, each of its characters fully honored – and then saw how the scenes balanced against each other. Perhaps she moved certain scenes up, others later, as the life and revelations and observances of Mary and the other characters in the story unfolded. So much of the beauty of the story is in the rhythm of its unfolding as each element of the story reveals itself. “Rich tapestry” would be the cliché compliment here and is insufficient. Frangello has woven what feels like the actual fabric of an actual life with all of its complexities and offshoots. This book is a dynamic example of how writers can pull things apart, out of chronological order, put scenes up against each other and see how they play, creating their own tension. I advise so many writers I know to index card their scenes and try shuffling things a little. Characters are best revealed in layers, and not always chronologically. Sometimes we can use a slice of their past or future to inform events going on currently, and while flashback is sometimes employed, a cross-cutting and shuffling often serves a story better.
Frangello employs other tools in giving us the multilayered lives of her characters. In the midst of an already climactic scene in which Mary visits her birth father, bringing a married man with whom she’s having an affair, only to be introduced to her father’s mistress, Frangello throws in a magical realism omniscient glimpse forward, all the while enriching the scene we’re in:
Two months later, when Daniel tells this story to his artist friends in San Miguel, He will transpose the facts so that it was Eli who called Esther Daniel’s concubine and Esther, standing by, flushed with wine, will not contradict him as everyone laughs. Six years later, when Mary tells the story to Sandor over an Indonesian rijsttafel, she will say that it occurred to her only later that maybe Daniel was lying and Gabriella was completely in the dark–there was no way, after all, that either she or Eli would go up to her and ask or ever mention Esther’s name. Thirty years later, when Diane is at last succumbing to an epic, two decade battle with cancer and Eli is unburdening his soul…(153)
You get the idea. The combination of these different tangents of the story in unison at once, within several stories already working in unison, creates a symphony that frankly, I can only tip my hat to—amazing work. It is a good lesson in remembering that novels take years and layers, and that this level of craft doesn’t come from simply trotting off a story, shoving scenes together and hoping they stick. This level of craft comes from bringing characters to life, seeing how they interact and affect each other’s lives, breathing into the scenes and imagining the ways in which those characters’ lives continue, having spun off from the central story being told.
Frangello keeps us anchored in her deft manipulations of space and time and characters through Mary’s body – its limitations, desires, discomfort and pleasures, and the very way in which she experiences each place she visits, each person she meets. Our heroine has Cystic Fibrosis, which serves not only as a ticking clock, but her changing relationship to the condition and to her body, unfolds with each aspect of the story. It goes from the hilarious, with her keeping it secret with great tension and fear on a visit to Daniel’s only to have her cover blown in an unexpected way; to oddly sexy when her alarming symptoms make her instantly desirable to someone who hadn’t considered her before; to terrifying as she struggles for air far from any help; to devastating. There is something about Mary’s ticking clock, her need to gasp for air, which emphasizes her drive to eat up life; her illness also brings together people who would not have otherwise have met in fascinating and random and life-like ways. So often we forget that our living, breathing complex characters are in our strange, varied, pained, twingy, hungry, sexual bodies. A Life in Men is a study in how a body can keep your reader anchored, can propel a story and can add an underlying thrum to each scene it’s in.
Nalo Hopkinson gave a lecture at Antioch University Los Angeles in December of 2013 talking about how readers are “hungry ghosts,” yearning for the experiences of life. They want to be put inside a story that makes them feel as if they are in a real person, walking around inside a real experience. With Mary’s illness, her deeply felt experiences with sex, food and the richness of different locations as our characters travel from Greece to London to Mexico to Amsterdam to Morocco, and through the broad spectrum of life shown through each narrator’s point of view, including those little jumps into the future, Frangello leaves her reader well fed indeed. And the whirl around Mary, who is a catalyst in so many lives, becomes something bigger, illustrating way in which we bump up against people on this planet, and the very fiber of reality changes and morphs and grows richer as we do so.