One of the first serious writing projects I worked on was intended to be a science fiction epic, the "redemption of science fiction as a serious art form"
(PRO-TIP: it isn't a good idea to embark on any serious project intended to redeem anything unless you have at least twenty or twenty-five years of disgust behind you.)
The science fiction I had read at the time was bland. What I disliked most was this sense that the interesting details of sci-fi worlds were being de-emphasized or just straight-up not properly imagined in full detail. Detail was sacrificed for ideas that drove the plot. The work I read didn't engage with the sense of presence and wonder we get from "serious fiction" and in the world, our world, that it's meant to reflect. Why, if you set your book in a massive bubble city licked by flames from Saturn's core, does the plot inevitably have to involve the city being destroyed or war being averted or whatever? Why couldn't you put a bunch of time and effort into building a bubble city at Saturn's core and then just use it as the setting for a breakup story, or a story about two strangers who feel a sudden futile sense of one another as separate human lives on a cable-car streaking below the inner mantle? That is the kind of frivolous wastefulness that makes any work of fiction infinitely more excellent (example: The Divine Comedy.)
My big project was this: take a ludicrous sci-fi setting--a self-contained sky city with its own bizarrely ingrown laws and freeloading lower-class types tapping into the resources of the city through arcane yet jovial means--and make this setting interesting by cataloguing the details that ordinary sci-fi would miss: the hum of distant motors, dead birds and debris on the decks, the subtleties of expression in passing faces cut off from one another by invisible barriers. What "serious fiction" does for our world, in other words, but with the added work of building and peopling mysterious societies with mysterious laws and mysterious passions. I thought this would be like so awesome.
I spent days imagining this sky city and recording every detail I thought of, sentence by sentence, nothing left out. I wrote some twenty pages of this, twenty pages in which the main character slowly walks to a bar and orders a drink. I sent it to a friend who made it through four pages before telling me it sucked.
An accretion of details is neither honest nor compelling; it's lazy. Fiction can and must be honest. But honesty in fiction shouldn't be confused with fidelity. What I totally lacked at the time was the ability to turn the lies I was writing about this sky city into lies that people wanted to believe, lies that people mistook for truth and wanted to mistake for truth. In the best case, lies that were better than the truth, as far as that whole understand-and-predict-human-behavior thing goes. I lacked the power to lie like that. A lot of serious fiction does.
I'm talking about all of this because I was totally blown away by Chavisa Woods' Love Does Not Make Me Gentle Or Kind, which is one of the more painfully honest books I've read recently despite in no major way seeming to resemble the strict truth.
Yes, the best story in the book, "Never Enough", is also the one you're most tempted to read as autobiographical. Maybe it is the included photos of locations from the story that give this impression. But it's hard to escape autobiography in anything written, no matter how veiled and shuck-and-jive autobiography comes on. Where the book generally succeeds is when it slips free of fidelity to the autobiographical facts in favor of honesty, honesty so searingly imagined and embellished that it's impossible to ignore. I haven't read a book with this kind of narrative authority in some time, and that authority derives from the book's willingness to pursue truth by other means.
Are small towns racist? Yes, so much so that kids need to find Michael Jackson's secret cache of invisibility potions in order to fit in. Is it hard to be an outsider? Yes, so much so that you have to wander with the migrating buffalo for three years, engaged in a torrid affair with the shaggy dark leader of the herd. Is depression brutal? Yes, so much so that it will lock you in a room for one hundred years, murder you every night in a new and better way, and leave you whole and untouched in the morning, the pain inside never visible on the exterior.
In the wrong hands, this approach could be disastrous: frivolous and trivializing. But Woods understands the weight of the material. Understands is insufficient: Woods knows the weight of the material and remains true to it despite the disguise she applies to it. It helps that she's mad good at this writing business, knowing the importance of the bizarre detail, knowing that it's possible to break the telling/showing rule, knowing that so much depends on sinew, the scent of honeysuckle, the shape and feel of corn stalks against skin.
There are excesses, yes. "Define definition" is not the best way to start a story, the weight of surreal imagery and sometimes dialect can get very much out of hand, and although the plot of "Mr. Bunny" is tight and horrifying and fun, taking an O. Henry approach to rape and murder in a small town, the climax to the story is in the end kind of silly. If you don't really love a book, excesses and blemishes are an excuse not to take it seriously. If you do love a book, excesses and blemishes disappear--or rather remain visible but cease to matter, and in time become the point altogether. From the book:
This is the moment I realize there are always conditions. There is no love without question. There is no love that sacrifices me. Because there is no love of me. There is only what people choose of me to love. Only the imagined taste they divine from the senseless fruit. And I am unconscionable, spilling into the ocean.
And what is the point of it all? There's one story in the book that's split into three, the parts re-arranged: "Kicking", "Dolche", and "The Smell of Honey", numbered in that order. The book starts with "The Smell of Honey", a section about a brutal ax murder in response to a brutal domestic beating. That's the end of the story. "Dolche", however, is the end of the book: the girl Marie's discovery of her mother, battered and beaten and initially unrecognizable on the sofa. And "Dolche" ends with Marie cleaning her mother's wounds as her siblings slowly arrive home.
You're either going to love this book or you're going to hate it. What you can't do is ignore it, treat its point of view and the stories it tells about that point of view as if they don't exist. The book will not let you. And that's all we can ultimately ask of fiction: that however much it lies to us, it allows us to believe.
Posted by future on Sun, 29 Jun 2008 18:55:13 -0400 -- permanent link