Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Good Book Is Hard to Find

When I recently posted about Pamela Paul's NY Times article "The Kids' Books Are All Right," I promised that I would return to something that intrigued me at the time: Lev Grossman's statement that more grown-ups, including himself, are reading YA because, "a lot of contemporary adult literature is characterized by a real distrust of plot... I think young adult fiction is one of the few areas of literature right now where storytelling really thrives."  It's an honest statement and perhaps even an accurate one, but there's something odd in it too.  The implication here isn't that YA is giving readers something new, but that adult literature is shirking its duties.  It's a consumer's mentality.  Give the people what they want, he seems to be saying, or they'll (rightly) take their business elsewhere.

At first glance, it seems like Lev Grossman is an odd person to be saying that.  For one thing, he's a contemporary novelist himself, the author of three books for adults (most recently The Magicians, which I adored and loathed in near-equal measure); for another, he's a literary critic.  Recently he got a bit more spotlight than usual, when he did the unthinkable by landing an unabashedly serious novelist – Jonathan Franzen – face first on the cover of Time.  Inside the magazine, Grossman says the Franz "is a member of a perennially threatened species, the American literary novelist... [and] I would argue — that he is the most ambitious and also one of the best."  Later, he praises Freedom by saying, "It doesn't back down from the complexity [of modern American life]."  Yet, despite Grossman's admiration for "ambition" and "complexity" and his apparent awareness that forces in our culture exist to threaten the works of literature that display them, here he extols the superior curb appeal of kiddie lit to adult readers.  What gives?

Some of the answers can perhaps be found in his obnoxiously titled Wall Street Journal piece "Good Novels Don't Have to be Hard" (brought to my attention by alert reader John).  Go ahead and click the link, but be forewarned: qua essay, it's awful, lumping together disparate writers like Kafka, Hemingway, and Proust under the single heading "Modernism," then simplifying their aesthetics to the point of moronic absurdity.  "To the Modernists, stories were a distortion of real life. In real life stories don't tie up neatly... Plot was the coward's way out, for people who can't deal with the real world."  As much as I love the mental image of Virginia Woolf screaming, "You can't handle the truth!" Jack Nicholson-style, I have to point out that shit like this wouldn't fly in a tenth-grader's term paper. 

And it goes downhill from there.  Grossman reaches a nadir of substance when he writes, "There was a time when difficult literature was exciting... But in contemporary writers it has just become a drag," then attempts to "prove" his "point" purely through statistics from Bookscan, without making a single statement about the form, content, diction, or aims of any contemporary novel.  If Grossman's only standard for a book's success is how much money it made the year it was published, he might need to reconsider his opinion of some of those beloved Modernist texts, not to mention his own career as a book critic, which, according to his own logic, was made obsolete by the invention of the adding machine.  Yet, despite the hamhanded anti-intellectualism and flat-out rhetorical laziness of the piece, there's an observation hidden in it that I found pretty interesting.

"Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance," Grossman writes.  "They're forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century."  Unlike the Modernists of old and the unnamed "difficult" writers working today, these authors, he argues, are striking "compromises with the public taste," using humor and suspense and, he implies, sometimes intoxicatingly sniffable glue bindings to keep readers crawling back for more.  With this new postmodernism – the postmodernism of fun, fun, fun! – "the balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader," he concludes.

There's something to what Grossman is saying here.  Going back to Barthelme and Vonnegut there have been postmodernists who have slung their weird capes over the dress dummies of genre.  But we're currently seeing a proliferation of them.  And a few of these wackos are brilliant enough to see by in the dark – in my personal estimation, so good it hurts.  But why are they so good?  Is it because, as Grossman claims, they're caving to the pressure of the marketplace – because they've observed that book sales are on the decline and they've decided to roll up their sleeves and pitch in?  One morning, did Kelly Link sit up in bed and say to herself, "Okay, Barnes & Noble shoppers, you win: I'm chucking my stream-of-consciousness novel of marital ennui.  From now on it's all zombies, all the time"?

Maybe she did: I don't know the chick.  But I do know her work, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say I don't think it's the result of a series of "compromises with the public taste."  I don't think it compromises at all.  And, although her writing is certainly accessible, I don't think that her story collections (which, I'd imagine, do not Bookscan in the millions) are great because of their widespread appeal, or, to put it more bluntly, their sales.  I think they're great for the same reasons Grossman calls Franzen's work great: because they don't shy away from the complexity that they present.  Because, although they're small in scale, they're imaginatively, aesthetically, thematically ambitious.  Because – and this is something Grossman doesn't quite say – the form and content are of a piece, neither artificially imposed on the other.

In "Good Novels Don't Have to be Hard," Grossman's fatal mistake is, I think, overlooking that last point.  He seems to think that the form of a novel can be "compromised," made palatable to readers, without altering the content.  But I don't think Kelly Link's zombies, or Chabon's comic book superheroes, or Lethem's gumshoes, or Clarke's magicians (or Grossman's magicians, for that matter), are just a concession, something tossed in to keep antsy readers placated and entertained.  I don't think they could be swapped out and replaced with something trendier (OMG vampires!!1) without some intrinsic meaning being lost.  These authors aren't Jerry Seinfeld's wife, disguising the vegetables of literary merit inside the junk food appearance of genre.  Genre is part of their work's DNA, its birthright, part of what it wrestles with and makes sense of – it's no more arbitrary or extraneous to their books than middle-class American pseudo-realism is to Franzen's.  The forms these authors use aren't impressive because they hide the content; they're impressive because they're inextricable from it.

 Thank God the new postmodernism doesn't leave kale stuck to the back of your throat.

And, in the same way, if a "difficult" book succeeds as art, it's not because we have decided "pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience," as Grossman says (there's his consumer's mentality again); it's not because we're willing to strain our eyes peering through the clouded lens of difficulty to glimpse the work's true subject.  It's because that particular difficulty is part of the work's subject, and not in a vague, general, and therefore uninteresting way ("The Modernists' idea was life is, like, way complicated, y'know?"), but in a way that's concretely, specifically tied to the unique vision of that novel.

Which raises the question: what is this "difficulty" that Grossman and I keep referring to oh-so-vaguely, without providing any examples?  The flip response, which is also partly true, is that there are as many different kinds of difficulty as there are readers, since different things are tough or unfamiliar or simply disagreeable to different people.  But in my next post, I'm actually going to talk about what I think makes certain pieces of fiction difficult for me, and why.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Being Difficult

Back in 2002, Jonathan Franzen took a lot of flak for an essay he wrote for the New Yorker, entitled "Mr. Difficult."  It was, in part, about the works of William Gaddis and the changing relationship Franzen had to those works over the course of his life – and about the conclusion he ultimately arrived at, that at heart Gaddis's writing (after The Recognitions) coldly and unrealistically demands that readers "renounce the sinful pleasures of Realism and cultivate a selfless and pure love of Art."  Franzen writes that he believes there is no person in the world, not even Gaddis himself, who would rather read JR than watch The Simpsons, and concludes, "To serve the reader a fruitcake that you wouldn't eat yourself... this violates what seems to me to be the categorical imperative for any fiction writer." 

Numerous writers, perhaps most notably Ben Marcus in a lengthy Harper's take-down, weighed in on this piece, many denouncing what they perceived to be Franzen's weird anti-intellectualism (an anti-intellectualism that was expressed in an impassioned and pages-long discussion of the entire oeuvre of a notoriously challenging and cerebral author, addressed to the readers of the New Yorker).  Had I been blogging at the time, I no doubt would have joined their chorus: there's something off-putting about Franzen's tone throughout the piece, something uncomfortable about the assumptions he makes of his reader, as if on a first date some dude reached across the coffee shop table to straighten the strap of your bra.  "The work of reading Gaddis makes me wonder if our brains might even be hard-wired for conventional storytelling, structurally eager to form pictures from sentences as featureless as 'She stood up,'" he offers in an aside.  To which I'd be inclined to reply, "You don't know the first thing about my brain, 'Mr. Chomsky' – and I'd advise you to keep your hands to yourself." 

And yet, I've thought about that essay many, many times over the years, because in a certain way, I know he's right.  Not about Gaddis, necessarily (I've only read A Frolic of His Own, which I actually thought was a hoot), but about the subjective experience of difficulty, which few critics or essayists really ever discuss. 

Part of what makes reading fiction intense and passionate for me is the fact that it's personal, immersive, one-on-one: that when I am deep inside a book, it's as though I have the author all to myself.  The observations he makes feel almost like they come from inside my own consciousness; the characters' faces and mannerisms, their inflection, are supplied by me from the storehouse of my own experience.  Yet the flip side of that is that when I'm reading and I get confused, lost, I'm in that all alone too. 

In the time I've lived in New York, I've become adept at noticing the exact moment in my interaction with another person when I realize she's insane – actually, certifiably insane.  It happens more often than you'd think.  Once I was at the post office, waiting in an epic line, and the woman behind me and I were commiserating. 

"But you're shipping that domestically," I suddenly observed, noticing she held a Priority Mail envelope.  "You can just use one of the automated machines for that, you don't have to wait here." 

"Oh, I can't do that," she explained.  "Then the government would have my credit card information and they'd track everything I do."

Shields go up when I realize I'm speaking to someone I don't, can't understand.  When I'm reading a book, and it becomes difficult – really thwartingly, incomprehensibly difficult – shields go up, albeit slightly different ones.  Because the thing is, no matter how daunting and impenetrable I find a text, I basically assume that the person writing it is capable of communicating in a straightforward human way.  The fact that they're not, that they're choosing to be opaque, to talk crazy without being it, generally summons in me some knee-jerk feelings of resentment: feelings that are often dispelled by some purpose revealed later in the work, but that well up nevertheless.

"There is nothing like the headache you get from working harder on deciphering a text than the author, by all appearances, has worked on assembling it," Franzen writes. I've had that headache quite a few times myself. And yet only rarely do you see that experience acknowledged or talked about in the (rare) reviews of serious avant-garde fiction. In large part, people prefer to vaguely praise, vaguely criticize, or simply avoid writing about these books at all.  The difficulty – which might be the first (and last) thing many readers take away from their experience of the work – is ignored, making anyone who attempted to read the book feel even stupider, even more resentful, even more alone in his experience of what seemed like the writer's hostility to him, the wall going up on every page. 

There's a Kids in the Hall sketch where Kevin McDonald and Dave Foley play two businessmen meeting for the first time at an office party.  A coworker introduces them, then leaves them alone together.  McDonald tries again and again to engage Dave Foley in conversation, but Foley simply stands there and smiles (the man has an eerie, Cheshire-cat like smile).  When the coworker returns, Foley immediately speaks up and tells him horrible lies about McDonald – I think he calls him a bedwetter.  For many readers who are not writers themselves, this must be the experience, in a nutshell, of taking on one of the more "difficult" writers working today.  You try to engage with this author, you work hard to connect with him, and then as soon as someone else shows up, he makes you feel like an idiot.

The face of contemporary difficult fiction?

But why is it that we seldom talk about difficulty – that we so frequently exclude it from the conversations we have about books?  One reason, the most obvious, is that no one wants to sound like an idiot, even if he feels like one.  But another, equally strong reason is that there's a perception (and not an unfounded one) in the contemporary writing community that our art form is dying, and that it's time to circle the wagons to protect our own.  The very worst thing to say is that a book is so tough to get through that even another professional writer had to struggle mightily to keep turning the pages.

I have a friend who occasionally writes poetry reviews for an online journal.  The editor of this journal told my friend, in so many words, that they do not publish negative reviews, not of any book, ever.  The Believer takes a similar tack, and I'm sure they're not alone.  The idea behind this behavior is of course that negative reviews discourage book sales, and no one wants that – better that readers should approach a work with inflated expectations than not approach it at all.  But I would imagine that the actual result of this is not that "average" (i.e., not professional) readers read more literary books – it's that they don't read literary books or the publications that review them.  They feel excluded from the conversation, and so they leave it entirely.

To a certain extent, this can't be helped.  The fact is, some people eventually lose interest in reading anything with more substance than an InStyle article.  I call these people "Philistines," but to each his own. (There are plenty of art forms I know fuck all about myself – architecture, modern dance – so clearly I'm throwing stones from the roof of a greenhouse.)  But what makes me sad are the people who still have a craving for fiction, but seek out and read only kids' books or trash.

Which brings me back, in a long way, to the subject of my last post.  I think there's something to what Lev Grossman said in in the otherwise heinous Pamela Paul NY Times article "The Kids' Books Are All Right," about the way that YA fiction allows plot to thrive, and I'm going to ponder that more when I write on here next.  But one thing that I feel sure YA fiction offers people is the feeling that they are qualified to take part in a conversation about it, that they won't embarrass themselves like poor Kevin McDonald.  And to me, the fact that things have come to that pass is something that should make all of us feel pretty stupid.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fahrenheit PG-13

Earlier this week, I made the mistake of reading this article by Pamela Paul over at the NY Times, and promptly went through all five Kubler-Ross stages of grief in alphabetical order, thus ending with depression.  I considered writing a blog post, but the only way I could imagine expressing my feelings was by somehow rendering a likeness of myself lying dead on a tumbled heap of Nabokov and Barthelme, Yates and Carver, my ruined heart overspilling itself, my face stained with tears of blood.  And I don't know how to work the timer on my camera.

It would've looked something like this.

But a couple beers later, it occurred to me that maybe I should put the goth face paint away and try to figure out exactly what it was about this article that upset me so much.  Because the thing is, as I said in my blog post about the show Avatar, I sometimes do enjoy narrative art that's intended for children, and so do a lot of other people I like and respect.  Among their number I'd even count Lev Grossman, the author of the very captivating, very flawed novel The Magicians who's quoted here (and whose point about plot I'll return to in my next post). 

I've written before (here and here) about the phenomenon of adults reading books for kids, and I stand by most of the points I made, especially that defensively snarling "at least I'm reading!" should not work as an excuse for anyone over the age of thirteen.  But when I think about it, I don't consider the real problem here to be what people read as much as the way they read it.   

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a huge believer in ignoring the artificial boundary lines of genre and often even "good taste;" of following one's passions and interests wherever they might lead.  In a recent essay for the NY Times, Rivka Galchen writes about super-brain Borges's eclectic, sometimes-slumming literary tastes: "If serial rereading is one way to define worship, then one of Borges’s most revered gods was Robert Louis Stevenson. This even though in Borges’s time, Stevenson’s work was basically considered kid stuff... Borges not only commented on books that didn’t exist. He read books — pulpy and arcane alike — that few others bothered to see."  It's this kind of promiscuous reading that makes contemporary postmodern fiction possible: where would we be if Pynchon never read a boy's adventure novel?  Understanding high and low art, its devices and conceits and diction, reading it with an eye for what it leaves out, what it unquestioningly upholds, is absolutely essential for any writer (or reader) who wants to inhabit voices that are not her own.

And in a broader sense, the smartest, most interesting people aren't always interested in the smartest, most interesting things – I'm thinking here of David Foster Wallace's essay "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," about his falling in, and quite rapidly, out of love with a (most likely ghostwritten) sports memoir, or of the fictional Perkus Tooth's weird and sudden obsession with a mediocre Steve Martin movie in the wonderful Chronic City, or Wittgenstein's fondness for the laconic heroes of American cowboy movies, or the many other anecdotally observed cases of writers and intellectuals honing in on shitty, seemingly random pop culture ephemera, which sometimes serve as the subject for art or criticism but most often don't. These brief passions, lavished on the least deserving of objects (literary and otherwise), can be refreshing, even necessary, for intellectuals, providing something that the highest art cannot: a temporary refuge from the genius of others – a space to think for oneself.

But the thing I find disturbing about the phenomenon of adults reading YA in general, and the Pamela Paul essay in particular, is that these people (with some exceptions) aren't looking for a space to think; they aren't looking to think at all.  They're looking for pure entertainment and escape, and even worse, many of them have seemingly forgotten that art can offer more than that.  According to this article, anyway, they're not reading these books with an eye for what's been elided, what's been neatened or smoothed for the sake of the tweens.  They're not looking for a brief respite from the emotional and intellectual demands of serious literature.  They're looking for an out-and-out replacement for it.  And honestly, all their perky talk on the subject brings to my mind another genre: science fiction.

"Good Y.A. is like good television," says historian Amanda Foreman, who has the glassy, smiling eyes of a Stepford wife.  "There’s a freshness there; it’s engaging. Y.A. authors aren’t writing about middle-aged anomie or ­disappointed people.  Ever since I started taking Soma, I've felt so much less afraid." 

"They’re also easier to read, and people are tired,” author Lizzie Skurnick chimes in.  I see her as smartly dressed, with a chin-length bob and only a little of her brain dripping from her ear to the table.  "Here, try some Substance D.  You'll like it – everyone does."

"And none of it feels like homework," writes Pamela Paul from her desk in the Ministry of Truth.  "The themes are serious and the discussions intense, but the books are fast-paced and fun.  And there's always enough Victory gin to go 'round."

So tell me: am I overreacting?  Am I wrong?  And are you already one of Them?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Driving Sideways

Awhile back, I blogged about blogging, or more specifically, not blogging -- about the temptation to pick at my posts endlessly, or, when that's time prohibitive, simply not to post at all.  In her amazing memoir Writing Past Dark (which should be required reading for everybody seriously pursuing fiction in or out of the MFA system), Bonnie Friedman writes about what she calls "anorexia of language" -- a far more accurate term for writer's block, in my opinion.  Not-writing is a kind of perfectionism, a way of seeking control over the messy, primal process of creation.  We love our work so much that we're afraid to touch it.  We want so much for it to be flawless we're afraid to let it grow.  And so it starves in the dark.

Yesterday, I saw this blog post about the artist Dalton Ghetti, who carves tiny sculptures from the lead tips of pencils.  As a writer, they appeal to me for obvious reasons: a writing utensil re-shaped into a tiny world of its own probably has metaphorical import for anyone who's ever scratched out a story longhand.  Specifically, it reminded me of a possibly apocryphal anecdote I heard about Victor Hugo and the creation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame: he considered titling the novel What Is In a Bottle of Ink, since he wrote the entire thing by dipping his pen again and again into a single well.  The way that art, specifically language, can open up a tiny space -- turning a pencil into a monument, a page into a window, a keyboard into a galaxy of swirling possibility -- is magic, pure and simple.

But the part of this story that struck me most was the pencil graveyard, the place for sculptures that Ghetti's accidentally broken while working on them.  "People might think it’s weird I keep them but they’re still interesting, " he says.  "I worked on them for months so they might be dead now but at one point I gave them life."  It occurred to me that maybe the pencil graveyard itself, rather than the perfected sculptures, is the best metaphor for writing, or at least writing of a certain kind.  On a blog, for example, where the emphasis is on process over product -- where the past's ill-considered relics greet you every time you scroll down the page.  It can be dismal, at times, to look at all the ways I've fallen short as a writer, intellectually and at the level of language.  But Ghetti explains that, in order to keep doing his nerve-wracking work on his miniatures, he had to change his attitude, to say, "This will break eventually but let’s see how far I get."  From now on, I'm going to try to start thinking about my own prose more that way.  Instead of focusing on reaching my destination, I'm just going to aim to get into the most interesting wrecks I can along the way.  Fasten your seat belts.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Larger Than Life

The Errol Morris television show “First Person” boasted the memorable tagline, “Spend some time in another person’s mind.”  That statement was absolutely true for the program, which revealed the inner mental lives of a diverse assortment of individuals, including a giant squid-obsessed scientist, a neurotic former “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” contestant, and a babe who dates only convicted serial killers.  But it’s also true of first person as a point of view for a work of fiction, at its best.  Most readers of contemporary fiction are familiar with the device of the unreliable narrator.  I'd argue that, in fact, the appeal of any first person narrator lies to some extent in his unreliability, his elisions and generalizations, the limits of his diction and the colors that particular desires and fears paint his reality.  The setting isn't just a physical place, but the inside of someone's head.  In a first person story, the meaning of the narrative is doubled: we wonder not just what will happen next, but why the speaker feels compelled to tell us about it – what he’s getting at.

First person draws greater attention to this question, I think, at the moments when it oversteps its traditional boundaries: when a narrator relates scenes or incidents for which he could not possibly have been present.  This can be a masterful move.  As I noted in an earlier post, one of the only good things about Eugenides’s sloppy, emotionally dishonest behemoth Middlesex was the confident way the speaker reached generations back to lead up to the inciting incident of her/his own birth.  And the shimmering architecture of Lethem’s Chronic City is dotted with several open windows, moments when narrator Chase Insteadmen’s tender observations of his friends allow him, for a moment, to actually step outside himself to inhabit their twitchy, itchy, off-balance selves.  But these moments are stunning not by accident but necessity.  When an author breaks all the rules, there needs to be a payoff, something that makes the gesture a revelation rather than simply a mistake.

This is all a long way of leading into the point of today’s blog post, which is that Tiffany Baker's The Little Giant of Aberdeen County is the worst book I’ve read all summer – the sort of thing airport screeners should forcibly remove from luggage, along with combustible liquids, loaded revolvers, Ebola monkeys, and any other items known for ruining vacations.  And, in my opinion, the first of its many faults is its blatant misuse of the aforementioned device.  In the book, the title character not only steps out of her own subjectivity to narrate scenes for which she couldn’t have possibly been present; she does it to the detriment of the story’s world and the development of the other characters.

 Her narration overshadows everything else.

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County tells the story of one Truly Plaice, a genetic anomaly whose overactive pituitary starts her growth off at lightning speed and keeps her expanding exponentially long into adulthood.  Her monstrous birth (along with a conveniently timed breast lump) destroys her mother, leaving Truly and her lovely, delicate sister Serena Jane in the hands first of their alcoholic father and, after he drinks himself to death, with appointed guardians in town: the Rev. Pickerton & fam for Serena Jane, the down-and-out, ramblin’ gamblin’ Dyersons for Truly.  Serena Jane wants nothing more than to high-tail it out of ol’ Aberdeen to Hollywood, but shucks, fate has other plans in store for her.  She’s date-raped by Bob Bob Morgan, the son of the town’s doctor, and, since in a novel like this a single ejaculation inevitably packs more dramatic punch than a heat-seeking missile, instantly becomes pregnant.  She marries Bob Bob, bears a son, and then disappears, leaving Truly – for some convoluted and underexplained reasons – saddled with the twin burdens of keeping house for her pure-evil husband and raising her odd-duck child.

This is not a subtle book.  This is the kind of painfully folksy yarn where the narrator’s philosophizing about euthanasia is explored through the metaphor of whether or not it’s right to shoot a horse with a broken neck (in case you’re wondering: “You go and get your shotgun and you shoot it right between the eyes, hard.”); where she comments on the differences between herself and her sister with faux-profundities like, “Pretty can’t exist without ugly”; where the daily life of a town is compressed into meaningless generalizations like, “We in Aberdeen are pure creatures of habit” and non sequiturs including, “One of the things you learn growing up in a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business is that desire is communal.”  In telling the story of her life, Truly Plaice takes her own gigantism as a free pass to cast every individual around her, good or bad, as a character straight out of a fairy tale.  Her sister is a “china doll,” with “Kewpie lips… black fringed eyes… flossy yellow hair.”  Evil Bob Bob has “the semblance of a hairless wolf.”  “Without her church face,” we learn, “Amanda Pickerton almost looked like a fox,” but down-at-the-heels country wife Brenda Dyerson is pretty when she stops kneading bread long enough to let it show.  And the problems Truly describes all of them facing are hardly a full step removed from the old vaudeville parody of standard melodrama: “You must pay the rent!” “I can’t pay the rent!” “I’ll pay the rent!” “My hero!”

Now don't get me wrong.  The idea of a gigantic dying narrator who views her world through the narcotizing haze of sentimentality is actually, to me, incredibly compelling, even heartbreaking.  I love the idea that Truly’s isolation, her circumscribed experience, her lack of book-learning and intellectual curiosity (“Me, I’ve never been a big reader.  I figure that if a secret has an answer it’ll out on its own if it’s meant to”) might limit her perspective so much that, like the long-suffering butler in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, she finds herself unable to see what’s right in front of her face in her community and in the lives of people around her.  It would be tragic if she considered her sister a beautiful princess, for example, the jewel of the town, whose prized virginity was snatched by a dastardly usurper, when in fact her sister was an attractive but average girl whose high school boyfriend knocked her up; if she saw her teacher (named, I shit you not, Priscilla “Prissy” Sparrrow) as a lonely, desperate spinster as a way of projecting her own teenage sexual frustration onto a nearby target; if she imagined the cruel, manipulative Morgans ruled the town and everyone in it with sneaky maneuvers and outright strong-arming, when in fact their only advantages were the typical ones allotted to the wealthier and better educated members of any American community.  Misperceptions of this kind wouldn’t just lend poignancy to the otherwise irritating down-home voice; they would help to explain why Truly remains so inexplicably passive, kowtowing to authority figures and viewing herself as a victim for most of her life rather than actively shaping her destiny.  Bloated with a diet of half-digested Frank Capra storylines and rural truisms, Truly could have been the best kind of unreliable narrator: the kind whose exaggerations and contradictions reveal larger, more disturbing truths about the culture from which she springs.

But Baker leaves no room for us to question Truly’s version of events.  Instead, she actually grants Truly greater authority by bestowing on her omniscience, allowing her to routinely relay information that she couldn’t possibly have access to.  These moments are never bracketed with caveats – “I imagine” or “she later told me” – and they aren’t mere asides: they’re given to us in full scene, as if Truly were truly there. 

Yet in these moments, the fact of Truly’s remove, her position as observer rather than participant, is also oddly emphasized.  In one of the weirdest passages of the novel, she depicts the scene of her sister’s date rape, prefacing her description with this statement: “What can I say about the events that followed that evening between Bob Bob and my sister?  Only that Serena Jane always wanted a starring role in something, and she finally got it… Thinking about all of this – even now – is like watching a movie for me.  There’s the urge to scream at the person on the screen, to warn them, but of course, doing so only results in a sore throat and nasty looks from everyone else around you.”  Highlighting herself as viewer – as voyeur – may seem bizarre, but it serves a purpose: it makes it more difficult for the reader to reject what follows as hearsay or supposition or outright fabrication.  Truly can see what happened, frame by frame.  She is a camera (here, that metaphor is explicit), and everyone knows that cameras don’t lie.

In this way, Baker is successful in discouraging the reader from approaching Truly’s narration critically.  But the larger effect of this is to make the story’s world not more real, but less.  We’re given no alternative to viewing the other players in this story the way Truly does, and thus the stereotypes she presents us with are externalized.  The haughty princess, the calculating villain, the gentle gardener, the spinster schoolteacher are not timeworn paradigms a miserable woman employs to make sense of her frustrated, stifled existence; they’re the actual figures present in this town.  And so, reading this book isn’t allowing us to spend some time in another person’s mind; it’s sentencing us to a prison term in a town built from the ground up of everyone’s clich├ęs.  No wonder so many people in this community come to Truly begging for death potions to help them finish themselves off peacefully.  Once you realize you know everything that’s coming, it can be a chore to wait for the end.