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.



Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

book by Jonathan Safran Foer

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Foer deals with loss through a number of characters in the aftermath of 9/11, primarily through the eyes of the nine year old protagonist, Oskar, whose father died in the attack on the World Trade Center. There was something that rang a faint bell beginning with the spelling of Oskar and about 100 pages in, the book reminded me strongly of Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, another polarizing book. Count me in the ‘admire the writing, didn’t care for the book’ group on both counts. I had a far more negative reaction to The Tin Drum, but it didn’t help my reaction to this book – precocious child wandering through a landscape of loss, tambourine instead of the drum, aftermath of devastating act of man’s inhumanity to man. After this realization, my opinion of the book was colored because it seemed not so much homage (except in the tip of the hat to Vonnegut’s Dresden) as derivative. Most of the writing is very good, the organization of material less so, with the bedtime story about the Sixth Borough seeming more like a stand alone short story than part of this narrative. Foer’s use of repetition was for the most part irritating – “I gave myself a bruise,” “heavy boots,” and “Jose” were not unbelievable for a bright nine year old, just wearisome for me as reader.

Foer has many missed opportunities with the book and it reads like what it is, a book by a young writer with more reading experience than life experience. One missed opportunity was portraying the height of the Twin Towers. He writes about burning jet fuel and the choice to burn or jump (something I spent probably an unhealthy amount of time contemplating as I watched it unfold on TV and since). Years ago, I went to the top of the Towers and it seems like Oskar would have at some point either with his parents or school. It was stunning to step off that elevator and see that view. Some people couldn’t get off the elevator – it was too much like stepping out into space –  and I missed the sense of that in the novel. Other missed opportunities included the grandmother, who could have been the emotional heart of the book, but ended up feeling disconnected. With regard to the grandparents, it would have been nice if Foer had mimicked the areas of Something and Nothing in his narrative in those sections involving the grandparents’ story. Also, there was no satisfactory pay off for hiding the answering machine. It felt like it fizzled away when his mother said she talked to Oskar’s father on her cell. The other glaring missed opportunity was the lack of response by others to Oskar’s relaying of his father’s death. It’s as if 9/11 only happened to Oskar. Even though he’s an unreliable narrator and taking into account the limited perspective of a child, it seems likely that at least one of the people he told his story to would have replied with their own 9/11 story.

I liked most of the pictures, especially in reference to the picture book Oskar collected along the way. He’s on a scavenger hunt he thinks was set up by his father. The rest of the pictures didn’t bother me, but I found them unnecessary, thanks to Foer’s vivid descriptions. By the time I reached the flip book at the end, I was not engaged with the story and it had no real impact on me. This might also be because I had just read Amis’ Time’s Arrow and reread Slaughterhouse Five so rewinding was familiar.

As with All Families Are Psychotic, Foer did not convince me with the character of the mother. She was two dimensional and her reactions seemed off, especially after losing her husband and a child with obvious marks all over him wandering around New York City day and night. The cursory reference to hospitalization and therapy was just that, cursory. The scene when he hides the answering machine from her was poignant, but later when he truly hurts her, while painful, did not have that same kind of emotional resonance and by that point, I was hoping for it, for more to pull me in. Even if the mother didn’t keep track of him (and the explanation that she kept a closer eye than he was aware of seemed like window dressing toward the end), one of the other adults along the way should have behaved, well, more like an adult.

All in all, the book had its moments, but overall was a cautionary tale warning against gimmicks under the sheen of good writing. The ‘look at me’ quality of the writing could have reinforced the character of Oskar. Instead, much of the writing felt forced. It will be interesting to see how Foer develops as a writer after the white hot attention he’s received as a literary wunderkind and the fact he’s already used the two seminal events in living history for his first two books.

The Women

book by T.C. Boyle

annotation by Tina Rubin

My rendezvous with this novel, which was on a sale table at Borders, was too coincidental to ignore. I’ve always loved the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and I always meant to read something by T. C. Boyle. When the two forces coalesced, I was helpless. Of course, this novel is about Wright’s messy relationships with the four women he loved, not his work—but through them and the narrator, we do get a sense of the complete man.

It’s fascinating to learn about each of the women and see how the architect, a classic narcissist, interacted with them and others in his world. But Boyle takes us beyond fascination. There are many elements of interest to writers here.

If I were contemplating writing this novel, the first question I would ponder is who should narrate it. Each of the four women and Wright himself—five narrators? Have Wright tell his own story? Use an omniscient narrator?

Boyle did none of the above. He created a completely fictional narrator, 25-year-old Sato Tadashi, a Japanese national whose father has paid steep tuition for him to join the Taliesin Fellowship and work directly with Wright. Intelligent, likable Tadashi was a smart choice for the book. Readers not only see the characters through Tadashi’s cultural bias, which makes this version of Wright’s life unique, but also get a look at the treatment of Japanese in midwestern America during the 1930s and 40s—including a poignant section in which Tadashi is sent away for internment. Bravo to Boyle for finding a way to lobby for social justice.

Tadashi tells his own story in a chapter prefacing each part of the three-part book, then comments in footnotes in the chapters that follow. He narrates those chapters in close third, capturing the voice of the dominant character: Olgivanna (wife three), Miriam (wife two), Mamah (mistress), Kitty (wife one), Frank, or the Barbadian servant, Julian Carleton, who murdered Mamah and seven others and set Taliesin on fire.

Tadashi comes to Taliesin late in Wright’s story (accurately, in terms of the establishment of the Fellowship), when the architect is married to his last wife. Fictional Tadashi relies on opinions from a fictional translator, his Caucasian grandson-in-law, who helps him get at the truth of Frank Lloyd Wright. The device is a bit muddy; Boyle could have carried on without this layer of complication.

However, Boyle does a terrific, fun job of expressing the character of Miriam, Frank’s morphine-addicted, flamboyant second wife (whom he married when Kitty granted him a divorce after Mamah’s murder). The chapters involving the psychotic servant, Carleton, also sing. A caveat: Boyle gives an island dialect to Carleton’s peasant wife, Gertrude. It serves a purpose—to contrast his education with her lack of it—but it made me, as a reader, slow way down to pronounce the words in my mind. Use dialect sparingly, if you have to use it at all. You don’t want the reader drifting out of the story. The Carelton chapters were the climax of the novel, so at least Boyle had timing on his side.

Another choice Boyle had to make was how to structure the story. The logical choice would be to do it chronologically, but that wouldn’t have been the dramatic choice. He introduces Tadashi and then Olgivanna. From there he works backwards, with overlaps. (The overlaps were actually a gift of Wright himself; that’s how the man lived. When one wife refused to grant him a divorce, he simply carried on with a mistress, completely disregarding society’s mores.) At first I was thrown by Boyle’s reverse structure, which (obviously) didn’t move the story forward or build much tension from chapter to chapter, but his reasoning became clear in the end. He closes with Mamah’s murder. High drama. But was it a great structural choice? If the novel hadn’t been about Frank Lloyd Wright, I might not have made it to the end.

Creating enduring characters may be the biggest job a writer faces. The fact that most of the characters in The Women were real made the job easier for Boyle, but he did a good job breathing his own energy into them. Here is passage from Miriam, when she receives Wright’s divorce summons while staying at the home of her friend Leora in Los Angeles:

Yes, she’d left him. Of course she had. Anyone would have. A saint—even the martyrs in their hair shirts and bloody rags. He was impossible, the single most infuriating human being she’d ever met, what with his God complex and his perfectionism, fussing over every last detail as if the world depended on it, his snoring, his musical evenings, the utter soul-crushing desolation of rural Wisconsin where he all but kept her prisoner and every overfed housewife and goggling rube staring at her as if she had the letter A sewed to the front of her dress. Of course she’d left him. But that didn’t mean she didn’t love him still.

In the end, The Women: A Novel is an intriguing, high-energy story with good pacing and some lovely language and imagery. And if one of your characters is a narcissist, as one of mine is, this is the book for you. There’s no better model for it than Frank Lloyd Wright.

Straight Man

STRAIGHT MAN is one of the funniest and most entertaining novels I’ve read. A professor, William Henry “Hank” Devereaux Jr., our straight man, is determined to apply Occam’s Razor (if you have two theories that arrive at the same conclusion, the simpler theory is the best choice) to every situation with hilarious consequences. There is excellent character development and complication of events grounded in a well-written narrative. Below the playfulness are serious considerations about life and missed opportunities. Russo knows the value of enhancing funny with sad, something I now keep in mind.

The novel begins with the literary equivalent of breaking the fourth wall in theater and whenever an author addresses the reader, it is often to achieve the familiarity and conversational tone to draw the reader into a kind of intimacy.

Truth be told, I’m not an easy man. I can be an entertaining one, though it’s been my experience that most people don’t want to be entertained. They want to be comforted. And, of course, my idea of entertaining might not be yours. I’m in complete agreement with all those people who say, regarding movies, “I just want to be entertained.” This populist position is much derided by my academic colleagues as simpleminded and unsophisticated, evidence of questionable analytical and critical acuity. But I agree with the premise, and I too just want to be entertained. That I am almost never entertained by what entertains other people who just want to be entertained doesn’t make us philosophically incompatible. It just means we shouldn’t go to movies together.

Richard Russo exemplifies a compassionate and complex view of humanity in his work and STRAIGHT MAN is no exception. Russo, in addition to David Lodge, taught me that when you put your characters through the wringer, you can maintain the sense that they had opposing dreams and intentions, that they didn’t wish to end up where they did. There is a stronger sense of that dynamic in NOBODY’S FOOL, but it’s here as well with Professor Devereaux. Russo is an excellent example to learn the art of creating very human characters who still are very funny.

This comic novel also illustrates the accessibility of writing like you talk, in this case, like an academic. Richard Russo uses it to great effect with deadpan humor. Because his main character is trying to distill events to the simplest explanation, the author simplifies his language and descriptions to mimic that action. When Professor Devereaux reads the “…cinematically inspired – that is, uninspired…” and repugnant story of his student Leo, he describes the process in a long paragraph that reports the content, concluding,

He wonders if the rape scene is overdone.  And he wants to assure me that the narrative is not finished.  Originally, he’d thought of it as a short story, but now he suspects it may be a novel.  Next to the query concerning the rape scene, I write: ‘Always understate necrophilia.’ Then at the bottom of the final page, ‘Let’s talk.’

The professor has pared down his comments, then Russo uses the professor’s last phrase, ‘Let’s talk’ to segue into the next paragraph, as well as the next action, by having another character answer, “Okay let’s,” thereby paring down the narrative, mirroring his advice to Leo.

Russo uses direct, first-person, present tense that is erudite and often hilarious. The narrative is marked with repetitions of words and phrases such as ‘needless to say’ and ‘indeed’ to achieve the tone of an academic:

Needless to say, we end where we began, unpersuaded. My argument, that comedy and tragedy don’t mix, that they must remain discrete, runs contrary to their experience. Indeed, it may run contrary to my own. These students have watched this very class begin in low comedy and end in something, if not serious, at least no longer funny.

In writing the literary comic novel, Russo includes touching moments in difficult relationships as in Professor Devereaux’ relationship with his father and problems as a father with regard to his daughter’s choices – something I keep in mind in order to add depth to comedy, even slapstick, laugh-out-loud comedy. He creates an entire world and just as you accept that this is a complex novel, Russo has another trick up his sleeve: pointing out just how simple life is. Touché.

All Families Are Psychotic

book by Douglas Coupland

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Coupland has written an occasionally entertaining, somewhat unsatisfying book that takes satire to dizzying heights. However, the characters do not have distinctive voices, the narrative point of view is inconsistent and although fun in places, became more of a negative example of a plot-driven book containing so many coincidences that it felt like a string of incidents rather than a story.

If the author had concentrated on the Wade character, having him live up to his name by wading in to the lives of his dysfunctional family, it would have improved the book. Far fetched doesn’t begin to describe it. The main problem I had with the book is that I didn’t believe any of the premises, beginning with a one handed astronaut. Tom Robbins would be able to pull this off but this reads more like warmed over Robbins with some interesting descriptions and pop culture references. I revisited Robbins to try to pinpoint the difference and found that style and voice are the likely culprits. Robbins uses a series of declarative sentences to comment on our culture such as, “The brown paper bag is the only thing civilized man has produced that does not seem out of place in nature.” He then follows it up with a very long sentence in the lyric register that begins, “Crumpled into a wad of wrinkles, like the fossilized brain of a dryad…” Coupland is a talented writer, capable of striking descriptions, “his face stressed and lined as a trussed-up pork roast,” but he also falls into using pastiches of imagery and there’s nothing that reinforces either earlier images or the theme. For example, he refers to Sarah as “a tiny fern among her two sequoia brothers – even with Bryan younger than her – but she was definitely the one running the show.”  There must be a more effective metaphor to get that point across. It might have worked if he was writing about a forest ranger or if ferns secretly dominated sequoias. Coupland also describes some of the families of astronauts, “They’re practically astronauts themselves – shoes buffed like mirrors; too many teeth; half of them are military and talk in barking Navy SEALs voices.” Yes, it’s clever, the play on barking seals, if he was discussing drill sergeants, not here.

I grew up with a man who became a real life astronaut, following a similar path to that of Sarah, the scientist astronaut in the book. Very little of her action or dialogue rings true, let alone her being cleared as an astronaut with one hand. If an author is going to create this kind of alternate reality where there are one-handed astronauts, he’d better be able to convince the reader why it is possible in that world. Robbins, Vonnegut, and John Irving were all successful at that kind of warping of reality to make a point. Part of it was establishing a consistent absurd tone, authority in their noun usage; the similes and metaphors used meant something to the larger work, and they didn’t write out of snark.

Coupland doesn’t quite get the character of the mother right and she’s a tent pole character for the book. She finds a talent for organizing group discussions late in life, but he’s already painted her as a well-organized mother with grown children. She was established as involved in their lives growing up and this so-called talent would not have come as a surprise.

Coupland strikes me as thinking up interesting situations, then cramming his characters into them. HIV, AIDS, and I know! let’s have a bullet go through one and infect another and just to really twist it, make it mother and son. There isn’t a strong enough world created for me to accept such things as anything other than artifice in the service of convoluted plot. Disappointing for a book with promise from a talented writer.

Getting Mother’s Body

book by Suzan-Lori Parks

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Getting Mother’s Body is an entertaining novel about Billy Beede, sixteen years old, pregnant by a man whom she discovers has children and is married to someone else. She travels from Texas to Arizona with the objective of digging up her mother’s grave to claim the jewels believed to be buried with her mother. Each chapter is told from the first person POV of one of the characters, with everyone having more than one turn. Even the dead mother, Willa Mae Beede, has chapters, mostly consisting of blues songs. We get to hear different perspectives on the same events and varying opinions of the cast of characters. It also solves the ever-present problem of exposition and backstory, allowing bits and pieces to emerge without overwhelming the narrative.

Parks writes with authority. She uses unconventional spellings, such as “yr” for “your” and “wichu” for “with you.” This device conveys the language patterns of the characters. Parks clearly thought a lot about the spellings which could have undercut the 1963 time period and looked like text messages, but the author seems aware of this danger and avoids it. The unconventional spelling did not make the book difficult to read and added authenticity to the dialogue.

Even though there were clues along the way, I did not know what to expect at the end. Parks is expert at narrative sleight of hand, redirecting the reader’s attention while laying the groundwork for a satisfying and realistic plot resolution. For one thing, she knows that there’s no such thing as absolute silence in a story. In Little Walter Little’s barbershop, “We go quiet. Just the sounds of the scissors going around our heads.” She incorporates small moments of sensory detail like these throughout the narrative, allowing the reader to get lost in the world she creates. Meanwhile, she’s building a credible sequence of events about incredible acts.

The most helpful element for my writing was on page 37. Parks has a character let us know that the mother’s jewelry was never buried with her. Normally, I’d expect to find that at the end, but she slaps it right up front in a chapter from the POV of Dill Smiles (how great is that name?), one of the dead woman’s lovers, who not only took the jewelry, but sold most of it. All of this information is repeated again at page 116, “I took them and I sold the pearls one by one, for a hell of a lot more than ten dollars a piece, to keep myself afloat and I weren’t wrong to sell them. And when I need to sell the ring, I’ll sell it.” I wasn’t sure about the repetition of information, but my best guess is that Parks tried the book with and without this reinforcement and found that she needed it in order to make the end work. It turns out to be half true. Dill did take the jewelry, but only half of that jewelry was real. There’s a great image at the end of her checking the ring, narrated by Billy, “When we rode back from LaJunta, Dill rode in the truck bed. She didn’t want to drive and she didn’t want to talk. Every once in a while she would take something out of her pocket. She reached up and ran the thing across the back of the truck cab window. It didn’t cut the glass. Teddy and June didn’t see but I seen. It was a diamond-looking ring Dill had. Then I knew Dill had tooked it from Mother and if Dill and tooked that ring then she had tooked the pearls too. Maybe real pearls maybe not real pearls, we never did find no kind of pearls at all, but I wasn’t gonna ask Dill about them while we was riding back home. I wasn’t never gonna ask her.” Amazing image, beautifully done and through action. The reader can see Dill testing the stone in the ring and, from Dill’s earlier chapters, imagine her body language and expression. Parks has laid all of the groundwork and earned every pay off for her conclusion. The reader believes that there are no jewels to be had, and thanks to another setup of the mother’s past behavior sewing valuables into hems, Billy finds the real ring and it’s a surprise, believably executed.

Parks also sets up multiple tensions that I found helpful to study. There is the tension of whether or not Billy will get an abortion, whether it’s too late – the choice of ‘it’ or baby – and how she would cope if she does have the baby. Parks sets up a number of obstacles to Billy getting the treasure: whether the jewels are there, that Dill seems to have them, whether to go dig up the mother, how to get to the gravesite, the reality of looking at the corpse – all very well drawn. It’s utterly believable that Billy’s perspective on life and on her mother would change when she sees the skeletal remains of her mother. Death becomes real and sharpens decisions she makes about her life. There’s the added tension throughout the book of whether or not she is her mother’s daughter. She desperately does not want to be like her mother and yet there are many ways Billy does follow in Willa Mae’s footsteps, even literally as a child in wet sand walking behind her mother. “Once, when me and Billy went to Galveston, we had our shoes off and was walking in the wet sand. Billy walked behind me putting her feet prints where my feets had already made a mark. Good Lord, I thought, my child’s following in my footsteps. But I tried not to worry. The way I see it, you can only dig a hole so deep.”

The novel is funny, wise, and heartbreaking in its sadness. Parks manages to include social commentary through an expertly woven narrative that provides a sense of justice and a satisfying conclusion. The end is not over the top, but a quiet conclusion of the twin realizations of Billy and her uncle, both transformed as they both come face to face with the decay of old ghosts, he with the obliteration of his old church and she with the reality of her mother’s death.


book by Marylynne Robinson

annotation by Philip Barragan

Marilynne Robinson created a unique, magical and somber world in Housekeeping. Unique for her story about three independent women with no significant male characters. And in spite of this, Robinson’s story stands strong as a novel for everyone. Magical for blending together the empirical, physical world with the ethereal world of ghosts and the imagination. And somber for the storyline about loss, abandonment, and the different steps we take in order to survive.

Throughout the book, there were many moments of lyrical writing. Robinson has a strong command of poetry and her prose is filled with lyricism. On page 92, Robinson glides effortlessly into her poetic hand:

It was perhaps only from watching gulls fly like sparks up the face of clouds that dragged rain the length of the lake that I imagined such an enterprise might succeed. Or from watching some discarded leaf gleaming at the top of the wind. Ascension seemed at such times a natural law…For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?

The New York Times Book Review described Robinson’s novel as “So precise, so distilled, so beautiful,” that I wanted to know how Robinson utilized her words. Among the many examples, this line seemed to make the case for me: “And we glided across the ice toward Fingerbone, we would become aware of the darkness, too close to us, like a presence in a dream.” This simple foreshadowing paints the background for the story. The reader is advised to hold on for the bumpy ride.

Robinson’s executed great skill in describing her world. Her attention to detail was a fine example of how to bring the reader into your story: “…and never since then had she been so aware of the smell of their hair, their softness, breathiness, abruptness. It filled her with a strange elation, the same pleasure she has felt when any one of them, as a sucking child, had fastened her eyes on her face and reached for her other breasts, her hair, her lips, hungry to touch, eager to be filled for a while and sleep.”

Housekeeping is a fine example of a polished work filled with beautiful descriptions and lyrical prose. The story is simple and shows how good writing can bring the story to life, brilliantly, and let it shine.

A Gate at the Stairs

book by Lorrie Moore

annotation by Heather Luby

This novel by Lorrie Moore, her first in over fifteen years, tries to do many things. Moore casts her net wide and tries to bring to the reader a story that is both coming of age, and a reflection of the time (post 9/11), but mixes in with these things love, tragedy, wit and the bizarre.

The story is told from the perspective of Tassie, a country farm girl who seems to both embrace this aspect of her identity (she enjoys helping her father in his organic potato fields) and yet it also seems a source of embarrassment. Even though Moore would like to have her reader believe that Tassie is a unique and quirky, it seems more likely that Moore has been removed from this age for too long to appreciate the very ordinary desire of all young people to feel they are different, smarter or more enlightened than their parents, and that in the end, just simply misunderstood.

Moore strives for humor with Tassie, and succeeds to a certain degree, but even her wit is tainted a bit with an underlying resentment or anger toward those around her. Much of this is focused at Tassie’s parents – her mother in particular – and seems to be grounded in nothing more than a selfish and immature attitude. While this makes her character very authentic – what freshman in college is not insufferable with their newfound knowledge and independence — it doesn’t make her likely to connect with most readers.

In addition to a coming of age story, centered on the small town farm girl going off to college and being wooed by the intellectuals, Chinese food and Silvia Plath, Moore is also telling the story of Sarah Brink, Tassie’s employer. Tassie is nanny to Sarah and Edward, who adopt a bi-racial baby. Moore dives into a world of marital unhappiness, the struggles of adoption, parenthood and the challenges of a white couple with a little biracial girl, and she does all this while also commenting on the prejudice and contradictory nature of the world around them.

More tragedy is introduced as Tassie finds out about the death of Sarah’s first child, when Sarah was actually called Susan, and did I mention that this is all going on while Tassie is falling in love with a student who might be a terrorist? And one more thing, the plot goes on to include her brother Robert, who graduates from high school and joins the Army, only to be killed in action.

This is not to say that Moore doesn’t do several things very well. She intertwines a world of humor, of clever observation, with a world cast in the shadow of impending doom. Moore gives the reader a dark foreshadowing incident and then follows it up with something humorous and wise so that later, when that something awful occurs, we have already forgotten that we should have seen it coming. This ability to move the reader back and forth is fluid and flawless. Her use of language, her descriptive passages of nature and of her surroundings are breathtaking – if not a bit distracting at times – and it is polished to perfection. And to a degree, Moore captures the angst of a teenage girl, especially in the paragraphs that detail her first sexual experiences and the inevitable breakup.

As much as I would like to praise the novel for these things alone, I feel it was too ambitious. Moore did many things well, but the large scope prevented her from doing any one thing great. It makes me think of movies with too many big name stars — you have high expectations — but in the end all the big egos in the room prevent you from really experiencing the story.

If you can ignore the plot contrivances, it becomes apparent that Moore is most interested in her narrator, in character development and what her characters have to say to the reader. This only leads me to wonder why she spent so much time weaving a complicated plot – full of unlikely situations — that, in the end, she ultimately felt abandoned and misused. Just as Tassie is crafted to be a clever, an insightful observer and commentator on the world and people around her, you never really see her character grow or mature. She is shallow and selfish in the beginning and is the same at the end.

A perfect example is how she can make commentary on a post 9/11 world and on the war, but when her brother emails her to say he is joining the Army and wants her advice on whether or not he should do it, she is so self absorbed in her own little world that she doesn’t bother to write him back. Once he joins the Army and is killed in action, she has this wrenching moment at his funeral where she crawls inside of his coffin and lies down next to him. But the time she spends actually contemplating how things would have been different had she written him back is nothing but a paragraph.

She spends a great amount of time sizing up the faults of her mother, but even after she discovers the glaring and unforgivable flaws of motherhood committed by Sarah, she never has a moment of clarity or perspective where she might see her own mother in a different light. Worse yet, after she is no longer Sarah’s nanny, she seeks out a possible position working for Sarah at her restaurant, all the while maintaining the distance between herself and her own mother, believing her mother has nothing to teach her.

I generally do not believe that characters have to change in a novel. But I do believe that characters must have the potential to change, or that as a reader, I should see the hope for them to change in the future. In this novel, I feel as if all the events in Tassie’s life so far have not given her the tools for proper self examination and self growth, then I have no hope for her. This aspect, more than anything else, is what I feel was lacking in this novel. If Moore intends to use plot only as a device to reveal character, and if character is the most important element of this novel, then why not give Tassie more depth?

As a writer, this book showed me that if you are doing to dismiss the importance of plot, you must get the characters right. Moore did not accomplish this with Tassie. And if you are going to concentrate on plot – and to me a white couple adopting a biracial baby had the most potential – then you have to pick the right narrator for that story, which also was not Tassie. In a perfect world, a talented writer can do both things. While I think Moore is a talented writer, I think she got a little off track with this novel.

East of Eden

book by John Steinbeck
annotation by Tina Rubin

If I ruled the world, East of Eden would be required reading in every creative writing curriculum. Yes, it’s that good, and no, I don’t know how I missed it. Steinbeck’s classic novel, which parallels the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, spans three generations and two families in California’s Salinas Valley.

The point of view is interesting and employs concepts I explored in grad school. The story is told by a first-person narrator, John Steinbeck (one and the same), who was a child as the action was unfolding. The narrator, looking back now as an adult, relates the story using an omniscient point of view. He comes back to the first person pov only now and then—to make an observation or express an opinion and thereby anchor the reader. The narrator clearly could not have been privy to each character’s thoughts and feelings, yet the omniscient point of view works—at least after the first occurrence, I stopped thinking, “Hey, how could he have known that?” I’m still trying to figure that one out, as I learned that a first-person narrator must have been present in order to use an omniscient pov. But that’s the power of Steinbeck.

The narrator editorializes as he opens many of the early chapters, and these were the chapters I really loved—ones where I got a clear sense of who the narrator was. A classic example is in chapter eight, which opens with “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.” He goes on to set us up for the introduction of Cathy Ames (mother of the twins Caleb and Aron), who functions as a force of evil in the story. Another is in chapter thirteen, which opens with the narrator describing the feeling of “glory” that lights a man up now and then, as when he finds a good woman:

The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes . . . a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose….

One of the great moral lessons of the novel comes in its theme, which is the Hebrew word timshel. It translates as the idea that man has a choice, he can choose to commit evil or not (this stems, we are told, from varied translations of the story of Cain and Abel.) The narrator expresses his own opinion in a direct conversation with readers, telling us that we all have “a secret pond where evil and ugly things germinate and grow strong. . . it would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.” Steinbeck created two heroic characters, Samuel Hamilton (based on his own grandfather) and Lee, the Chinese-American servant, around whom swirl discussions of this theme, and Steinbeck plays it out in remarkable symmetry among the generations and in repeated symbolism throughout the book.

I can’t claim knowledge of the Bible other than studying it as literature in college, so I’m sure some of the symbolism was lost on me. But it was easy to recognize Steinbeck’s use of the initials of Cain and Abel for the key characters (Charles and Adam, brothers; Cathy and Adam, husband and wife; Cal and Aron, twin boys) and his consistent subthemes of a parent seeming to love one son more than the other and, in turn, one brother feeling murderous towards the other; the marking of both Adam’s brother and wife with scars on their forehead (Cain’s protective marking by God as he wandered in exile east of Eden); and the philosophical question of whether Cal was destined to follow the dark tendencies inherited from his mother or could choose otherwise.

The novel was a lesson in characterization as well, with the personalities of each character being expressed not only through his or her actions but also through in-depth discussions in which each one’s point of view was unmistakably that person’s alone. And as honorable and complex as Samuel and Lee were, that’s how dark and complex Cathy (later “Kate”) and those in her world were. Steinbeck’s Alice in Wonderland references during Kate’s death were the perfect metaphor in what must come close to being a perfect novel. At least from this writer’s point of view.

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