The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies

GalenPikeCoverOn Stories that Undermine Assumptions

Carys Davies’s second collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike, is one of those books that I raced through in one go, and then went back and read more slowly over the course of the week. Granted, this book is short (131 pages) so my all-in-one-go read isn’t that impressive. That said, the fact that it hooked me that hard is.

This collection gave me that weird, awesome, anxious feeling that you sometimes get when there are too many choices on a menu. It’s exciting, and the thing that makes it exciting is really cool and kind of rare – every single story in The Redemption of Galen Pike sets up an expectation and then thoroughly subverts it.

This is a tricky one to keep spoiler-free, so I’m going to focus on just one of the stories and hopefully not spoil too much. “Wicked Fairy” is one of the quieter stories in the collection. While they all defy expectation differently, “The Wicked Fairy” does it with a sort of ironic silliness that carries you through, even though you know how it’s going to end.

We open with the narrator, a guy named Lenny, noticing a girl at a wedding. She’s dark and thin and she’s carrying a pie. Over the course of the next two pages, Davies creates a sort of Atwoodian (I’m totally making that a word) dystopia, wherein this girl with the pie is a silent, unnoticed threat. Except that Lenny notices. He notices but doesn’t say anything, not even when the voice in his head screams “LOOK OUT DON!!! THERE’S A GIRL HERE WITH A PIE!!!!”

When she finally throws the pie, its impact on Don’s face reads like a gunshot, and you’re left with the image of social horror – a horrified crowd and a pie-covered groom and a dazed, empty-handed girl, standing there as if she’s shot him.

I love what Davies does with this. In films, this kind of scene usually unfolds in slow motion and ends in an assassination. So what’s Davies doing when she assigns all of those JFK cues to a jilted girl with a pie? She’s playing two things off each other.

The first is the seriousness of the jilted girl’s feelings. She wants to hurt Don and she’s going to do it…with a lovingly described cream pie. And that pie is the opposite of serious.

In playing those two things off each other, Davies sets up a situational dissonance ie: the is really serious!…but it’s a pie.  The pie itself is the subversion of an expectation – one that involves real violence and tragedy. And yet, the pie is never treated as anything but a very real threat. So, in the world of the story, she might as well have pulled a knife.

So, what’s the point? Here’s how I read it. In subverting the seriosity of a familiar situation, Davies is implying that pie or no pie, the girl’s hurt is a powerful force. The fact that she doesn’t actually hurt him is beside the point. Within the context of the narrative, the social damage she’s caused is equally violent, which makes it a great commentary on the importance people place on big, elaborate weddings, rigid social structures and the power of public humiliation. All that from subverting one assumption – oh, no! She has a gun! with a different, equally threatening (in the story’s context) reality – oh no! She has a pie!

I’ll be honest, I laughed both times I read “The Wicked Fairy” because, for all that geeky analysis, it really is funny. As one of the lightest pieces in the collection, it did a great job of quietly satirizing all sorts of things while giving the reader a bit of a break. Some of the other stories are beautiful, powerful heartbreakers, all of which are so worth reading. In fact, however, you end up reading it, this collection is very much worth reading.

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H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

On Narrative Flow

For my first official post on Reading Like a Writer, I want to talk about Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk.

I almost called this post “In Praise of Narrative Flow” because that’s what initially pulled me into H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald’s crazy-natural use of narrative flow.

But before I get into that, I should say up front that I kind of loved everything about this book. In a very personal way, it was exactly the right read at exactly the right time, so I can honestly say without any reservation that it’ll probably be one of my favorite books of 2016.

Now, to get back to narrative flow. What I mean by narrative flow is how the writer’s use of pacing, rhythm and execution, and how they interact with the reader. Here’s an example from Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”:

The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.

Side Note: If you haven’t read Hemingway, goddamn, check out his short stories. I’m not a huge fan of his novels, but his short stories are a-maze-ing. He really was a master of the form.

So, narrative flow. This quote captures the tone of the story – staccato, disjointed and ambiguous. Things are said in this story through what is not said – the way the woman looks at the girl, the way the girl is looking off, the way the hills seem separate from the land. The flow is a little choppy, a little disorienting and that’s perfect because it mirrors the heat of the day and the girl’s state of mind. In this case, the narrative flow feeds into the story’s overall tone. It’s brilliant.

Helen Macdonald does something equally brilliant in H is for Hawk. Narrative flow is important regardless of what kind of narrative it is – fiction or nonfiction, short or long. Whereas Hemingway used flow to give his short story a visceral impact, Macdonald uses it to a different effect – she weaves a tapestry with it so the reader becomes wrapped in her grieving state of mind. And yet, the hawk remains firm and clear in the middle of her grief. The hawk is always the focal point.

The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.

Macdonald’s imagery is threaded through her prose. It’s sensory and very specific. It also accurately reflects how thoroughly the hawk will come to define her life for a time. There are a million gorgeous quotes I could pull from this book, but they all have this quality – the prose is packed with more than words. Expand that out to the entire book and you get narrative flow.

There are two main threads in H is for Hawk and I’ll admit that, at first, I didn’t quite buy into one of them. In addition to her own autobiography of grief, Macdonald weaves in a mini-biography of T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King, as well as, (more importantly for this book), The Goshawk, an account of his failed attempt to train a hawk. In the beginning, the White chapters felt a bit strange and intrusive. But slowly, they began to make sense. Slowly, they begin to reflect Macdonald’s fears and isolation as she trains her own goshawk, Mabel. The White chapters become critical to understanding the depth of Macdonald’s grief and how falconry becomes a metaphor for the process of healing.

They also act as a counterpoint to her relationship to her own hawk. White botched his hawk’s training horribly. Macdonald, by comparison, is hyper-aware of the bird, to the point that she begins to over-identify. As she does, the flow becomes leaner, tighter, and narrower, almost reflecting the pinpointed focus of the bird she’s training. Then, as the training progresses and she processes her grief, the focus slowly expands. The flow loosens. Macdonald’s narrative develops a rhythm that underscores her emotional experience. That alone helped me, as the reader, to connect to the book on a basic, instinctive level – it bypassed my brain and hit my emotions, which for me is where it counts.

And that’s the power of narrative flow – it’s a way to by-pass the reader’s logic and burrow under their skin. I’m sure there are other names for it, but that’s essentially how I think of the structural rhythm of a book. Some writers engineer it ahead of time, but that almost never works for me. When I write, the flow kind of just happens in the first draft. Then I hone it through revision and edits. Macdonald’s narrative rhythm feels so natural, so deeply tied to the text, that I wonder how much of it was engineered and how much of it just happened. If I’m ever lucky enough to talk to her someday, I would love to ask.

Reading Like a Writer

Black and white photograph of a woman looking out from a clock tower for Reading Like a Writer post by Malin JamesI’ve been thinking about how I want to approach writing about books. I used to write fairly standard reviews and that was fine but, honestly, there are so many good review blogs at this point that adding my opinion doesn’t feel particularly necessary. I can talk about what I liked or didn’t like about a book, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. And who knows, maybe there is nothing new to bring, but I want to try.

The fact of the matter is that my opinions aren’t unique – they’re personal and informed by my experiences – but so are everyone else’s. Generally speaking, my opinion doesn’t carry much weight for a person who isn’t me. That’s why I’m going to avoid the temptation of giving a general opinion and focus on something specific instead, something informed by the way I read.

The way I read has changed a great deal over the years. I used to read purely for entertainment. Then catharsis. Then curiosity. Then entertainment again. At this point, I read all across the board for a lot of reasons and, while I’m attracted to a different kind of book than I used to be (more on that in a post of its own) the fact is that I read widely from all sorts of genres and styles for all kinds of reasons. The only through-line in my reading is that I have an agenda. In addition to reading because I love to read, I read to become a better writer.

Even when a story has completely gobbled me up, part of my brain is whirring away, deconstructing and noticing and trying to figure things out. I love the craft of writing. I love technical elegance and subtle, inventive structures. I love the little mechanisms that make, or fail to make, a piece work. Sort of like a person who disassembles clocks, I love to dissect stories to see how they tick.

I’ve always done this to some degree, but the habit got formalized in college and grad school when I started applying theory to what I read. Later, when I started teaching myself how to write fiction, I applied the same principle. I found writing books that emphasized reading for different aspects of craft, from characterization and structure to pacing and voice. Slowly, I habituated myself to noticing these thing regardless of what I’m reading. That was more than twelve years ago, and that anatomical approach is just how I read now.

That’s why I talked about the structure Sarah Waters used in Night Watch and noticed the different way Muriel Spark manipulates the reader in The Driver’s Seat. It’s why I love Helen Macdonald’s use of a loose narrative style in H is for Hawk (there’s a post coming up on that). It’s not about me being all Miss Fancy Pants – it’s just the way I enjoy books.

So, rather than blog my general opinion, as scintillating as it may be, I’m going to write about the book from a writer’s perspective, hopefully in a way that isn’t totally boring for non-writers too. If nothing else, it’ll give me a chance to talk about two of the things I love most – stories and how they’re made.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Cover image of The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark for Mean Fiction by Malin James

On Mean Fiction

It took me all of an hour to read Muriel Spark’s novella, The Driver’s Seat. It’s lean and  incredibly mean in the way children can be. There’s something viciously natural in the way adolescent social politics play out, with mutable hierarchies determining social life and death.

That same, subtle viciousness underlies The Driver’s Seat, not in any textually obvious way, but in how it engages the reader’s sympathies, as well as that adolescent sense of assumption and judgment. I’ll be honest – it’s not a comfortable read, but it’s also why I loved the book. That subtle, dark, destabilizing meanness is what makes the story so very wrong, and so very good.

I don’t like doing plot summaries, but in this case, I think a brief one is important. The Driver’s Seat is about a woman named Lise who goes on holiday, ostensibly looking for her “boyfriend”. Lise’s goal for the trip deceptively simple and she executes everything with mad sort of meticulousness. It isn’t until towards the end that the reader fully grasps what her goal actually is.

What makes this book brilliant, is that the entire book hinges not so much on what happens, but on why and how it happens. In fact, Spark reveals Lise’s fate within the first few pages, but it doesn’t actually matter. The narrator drip feeds the reader a string of seemingly random oddities in Lise’s behavior, and she does it so effectively that you almost feel safe in what you’ve been told is going to happen. In fact, there were times when it felt like the narrator wants the reader to pass notes behind Lise’s back. After all, it’s obvious that Lise is unhinged but…not in the way Spark wants you to expect.

So, how does Spark play with the reader? She does it through Lise and how we’re meant to engage her. Lise’s oddness compounds itself in unsettling and somewhat ridiculous ways, from her hysteria at being told that a dress is stain resistant, to her single-minded search for her “boyfriend”. Spark plays on the reader’s empathy (or lack of empathy) in a very personal way, tapping into those early adolescent social experiences and memories – the ones that might prompt the reader to either feel sorry for Lise or laugh at her (or possibly both).

Everything in the way Lise interacts with people is not quite right. She’s a very deliberate portrait of what happens when a normal woman becomes unhinged, and the reader becomes complicit in that portrait. Our reactions to her are, in many ways, the reactions Lise has most likely experienced for a great deal of her life. We become part of the world she navigates, if only for the sliver of her life that we witness.

As a character, Lise feels dangerous and unpredictable, but only because she subverts our expectations of what a lonely spinster should be. Spark gives her a dismissable, almost laughable veneer and then slices it away to reveal an almost terrifying degree of personal agency in Lise. It’s that determined, single-minded agency that is, in fact, the novel’s central threat.

That trick of drawing the reader in and then destroying their expectations it what gives The Driver’s Seat it’s deep, satirical bite. It’s also what makes it such a marmite book – people either love it for its meanness, or they hate it. Becuase it isn’t a comfortable read – I knew that going into it (thanks to this awesome discussion) but I was still shocked at thoroughly I was manipulated, even as I admired Spark’s subtlety in pulling it off.

The triumph of all of the darkness and bite is that the reader becomes complicit in Lise’s fate, and her fate is not nearly as simple or straightforward as Spark implies at the start. It’s what makes this novel an experience as much as it is a story. In the end, it’s a tremendous portrait of a woman’s desperate, single-minded pursuit of autonomy, but whether or not she’s successful is left unclear. I may need to read it again to sort that out.

51FB7KX99ML._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_Side Note: 4/12/16

I just finished Aiding & Abetting, also by Spark, and it’s another example of author manipulation and reader complicity, though in a totally different (completely hilarious) way. Ultimately, in both novels, as different as they are, it’s Spark’s brutal lack of sentimentality that makes the dark, serrated edges work. She has razors in her fingers and I love it.

She once wrote that she “aims to startle as well as please” and, for my money, so manages both like a boss.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

night_watch_318x500
On Structure and Chronology

There aren’t many writers I trust completely, but Sarah Waters is one of them. Regardless of where she takes me, I know she’ll get me there and back safely, whether it’s a Victorian insane asylum or an ambiguously creepy manor house post-WWI. In fact, her writing is pretty much guaranteed to do three things for me:

1. Emotionally affect me, often in very uncomfortable ways.

2. Challenge my expectations.

3. Teach me how to be a better writer.

Her fourth novel, The Night Watch, which has been sitting on my shelf since 2006, (I was saving it for a rainy day), does all three things so well that it may replace Affinity as my favorite of her books.

What surprised me most about The Night Watch was the structure. I know that doesn’t sound super exciting, but everything about it, from plot to characters, feels heightened because of it.

Rather than adhering to a standard, chronological structure, the narrative unfolds in reverse, starting in 1947 and moving backward through to 1941. The effect is amazing – events that would have struck me as suspenseful became massively poignant because of structural hindsight. The reader knows what’s coming, but the characters don’t, and yet, Waters balances that readerly omniscience with a lot of unknowns. She opens the novel with a clear picture of the characters’ fates, but you don’t understand the significance of those fates until the very end (or rather, beginning) in 1941. The tension that created anchored me to the book so hard I couldn’t put it down. (That’s where #3 – Teach me how to be a better writer – came in).

The Night Watch is comprised of the seemingly separate stories of three women and one man, but they are, in reality, tightly interwoven, a fact that Waters reveals slowly as their histories unfold. I don’t want to get too deep into how their stories interweave because spoilers would really ruin it, so instead I’ll talk about the characters who touched me most…which is to say, all of them – even the ones who were awfully flawed.

It’s the trick that Sarah Waters always manages to pull – that of putting difficult things in front of you while compelling you to read on. And I was compelled, just as I always am. The characters in The Night Watch ache with love, jealousy, desperation, fear, shame and the longing for things they can’t have. But while there is a lovely sense of hope for some of them, the future, for others, is left opaque, most affectingly, for me, the ambulance driver, Kay.

Kay may win or Kay may lose, but to see her win, Waters would have to allow us to see past the chronology of the book. The fact that we can’t might drive some people nuts, but it made me love the book even more. It underscores the fact that Waters is only giving us a sliver of their lives, which made their difficulties bear even more weight while casting the good in an even more poignant light.

I’m a glutton for that kind of thing, which is why I’m a fan of Sarah Waters. Though it took me ten years to read The Night Watch, I’m glad I waited for that rainy day. As a reader, I brought much more to the table at 38 than I would’ve at 28. That said, I’m going to try not to make it another ten years before I read The Paying Guests.