The Ecology of Storytelling: Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith

marrow-islandAs a girl, I consumed everything terrifying and twisted. It’s a habit I’ve never managed to shake. To this day I’ve seen nearly every horror and thriller film I can get my stubby fingers on. So I couldn’t help but pick up Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith.

Smith utilizes the novel form to create a sense of urgency and tension. We are enveloped into the fabric of the story from the first stunning handful of pages – ripe with the kind of action that marks a successful storyteller.

Smith propels us into the strange new terrain of the Pacific Northwest. And yet, it’s not new. I’ve heard of Spokane; I’ve read Sherman Alexie. I know how to point out Oregon and Washington on the map. The landscape never seemed so different from other parts of the United States. But somehow I feel as if I’ve entered undiscovered territory. I’ve stepped away from the Midwest and entered the scathing and glorious forests and islands of the Northwest. I’ve learned a new love for the fascinating relationships between organisms and their environment.  It isn’t until now, at the end of my journey with our main character, Lucie, that I see the thread of ecology tying the whole novel together.

I wonder why Smith’s novel is structured in a nonlinear fashion. Why do we move between past and present, beginning with the lynch pin prologue? Why not include the prologue as a dated entry like the other chapters? I understand why the first scene had to come first. It’s like jumping into the splintering cold river and feeling the shock of death that the cold can bring so close. We feel Lucie’s shock and her traumatic departure from Marrow Island in our guts. It’s an interesting and also gratifying way to begin a novel. And we end Marrow Island with a cleansing of fire, where Lucie’s hope of revealing the evidence that her first love, Katie, visited her before her death is lost. Smith’s choice to end the novel on such a tense scene is masterful. However, everything that comes between feels shallow. Perhaps it’s Smith’s ability to craft spectacular nature scenes and her ability to play with narrative time during pivotal moments that leaves me feeling cheated. The book felt too short. The encounters on Marrow Island in particular could have been expanded. I couldn’t figure out why we were getting Lucie’s present perspective with her new lover in Oregon – until Lucie explained that she was having a hard time looking to the past while writing her book. Then it began to make sense, and I saw Smith explaining her choices within the text. Lucie is not only the narrator but this book is also the depiction of the story she is struggling to write. I still would have liked to have more of Lucie on Marrow Island, more of her relationships to the people there, more of their relationships to each other. That’s where it felt the real story was, where I was reading on the edge of my seat. While I appreciate Smith’s choices to craft the novel by Lucie’s voice and instinct, I wonder if there wasn’t another way.unnamed1

What I appreciate most about Smith is her willingness to explore desire and sexuality. I wasn’t prepared for the tender moments of love and connection between Carey and Lucie or between Lucie and Katie. I wasn’t prepared at all for Lucie’s romantic love for Katie, but I was excited to see this accurate depiction of sexuality and love. It felt like Smith had finally ushered fiction into the realm of reality, where life is fluid and unpredictable, and people have love and desire beyond the societal binary.

I’ll be looking forward to Smith’s future work and hoping I find some the same narrative elements that appear in Marrow Island.

June 7th, 2016

Hard Cover, 9780544373419, $23.00 (USD)

Lucky Jim

Each week Drew Wade will attempt to read and review a book by an author who’s new to him, and then he’ll tell you if it’s worth your time or not.

I’m making rapid progress through my bookstacks, but I’m still in the A section. This reminds me of a man with a reputation as a fast walker deciding to make his way through Texas. (“What did you think this was, son? Rhode Island?”) This week I’m hitting Kingsley Amis, who, besides having the coolest first name I’ve ever heard, has a son with an even more stellar reputation as a novelist. But more on Martin (who doesn’t have nearly as cool of a name as his dad) next week. I’ve wanted to read one of Kingsley’s books for a while now, mostly because he comes up as part of the crowd who started changing British literature after World War II. I figure he’s worth the read.

To get to Mr. Amis, I had to pass through Julia Alvarez and Jorge Amado. Can we talk a little about Alvarez for a second, please? She is amazing. What’s that cliché that critics sometimes use for books by people like P.D. James and J.D. Robb—“un-put-downable”? Alvarez’s books, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, were like that for me. Here’s the problem: I can only remember the vaguest details of what’s in them. Something about the Dominican Republic and four sisters—are there four sisters in both of the books? Is one a sequel to the other? Help! I don’t know. In cases like this, my suspicion is that the books were so good because of the writing style itself, not because of the plot details. Which is fine with me, because I love beautiful writing. My favorite memory of reading them is when I was late for a class on the other side of campus because I’d been reading one, and I decided that I just had to walk to class and read at the same time, because I didn’t want to stop reading.

Jorge Amado is a mystery to me. A couple of years ago I read The Double Death of Quincas Waterbray. I couldn’t tell if it was magical realism or not, and that might have been the point. The closest work of fiction to it that I can think of is Weekend at Bernie’s. If you like very short romps set in Brazil starring friends who can’t believe their other friend is dead, you’ll like this book. I don’t know what I was expecting with Amado. I’m going to have to re-read him one of these days and give him another chance. (Can you tell that I don’t care too much for Weekend at Bernie’s?)

Now on to Kingsley Amis’s first novel, Lucky Jim, which is about Jim Dixon, a young professor who isn’t tenured, who is shat upon by his overseers, and who has to put up with academic hypocrisy and pretentiousness all the time. What’s that you say? You think this book was written last year? Aha! You’re wrong! It was written in 1953. Some things don’t change—varying levels of academic-related stupidity among them.

This novel has many charms, though it starts a little slowly. Amis has a keen ear for dialogue and for bringing out the humor in the ordinary things that people say. I guess this helps the mild brand of satire that Amis uses, and I think it would have been really funny back in the Fifties. And it did push boundaries, if ever so slightly. Although none of the characters swear or have sex on the page, these things are mentioned. I wonder if thirty years before its publication authors just pretended that swearing and sex didn’t exist.

The smaller-issue problem I have with this book is Jim’s casual sexism and how that makes me unsympathetic towards him as a character. (I know, that sounds like a big deal, but wait until you hear the larger-issue problem I have.) Jim Dixon is clearly meant to be a sympathetic figure, and sure, we pull for him when his boss is equivocating about Jim’s future, but Jim is utterly, unapologetically focused on women for their appearance. “It was a pity she wasn’t better looking,” he thinks on page 37, going over his reasons why he isn’t going out with a female professor. That is just the first instance I can think of, but it happens quite a bit. This wouldn’t even be so bad if the double standard weren’t so apparent—on page 2 we get a picture of Jim as a short, rounder, weak-shouldered man who doesn’t have much going on in the looks department. Not only that, but Jim is an alcoholic, and he’s borderline sociopathic (calling up his romantic rival and pretending to be a newspaper reporter, lighting his host’s bedsheets on fire, and finding his waiter after the bill has been paid and taking the tip back). Even all that wouldn’t be so bad if the point of the book wasn’t that the older generations have really mucked things up for the newer ones, and society has to change in order to improve. It makes Jim look like a hypocrite, since he’s clearly taking his social cues from that same older generation—taking them right into the second half of the twentieth century.

In spite of its sometimes-cringe-worthy attitude, the book is good fun—which brings me to my larger problem with the book. This book was written in a different time, when books, even serious books, were meant to be consumed as entertainment. Lucky Jim has some genuinely funny parts, but it’s not as funny as, say, a Wodehouse book, and it doesn’t rely on any gimmicks to keep the reader interested. In other words, it might not flashy enough for today’s readers. It’s just a book about a professor trying to make his way in the world—not that in addition to also trying to stop Lucifer from rising from Hell, to give one example of a book that might go over well these days. It’s low-key, and would make a fine rom-com with Katherine Heigl (Is she still a thing?), and it would be completely unpublishable were Kingsley Amis writing it today. Books like this can’t be written anymore, because people don’t read for entertainment nearly as much as they used to, and that makes me sad.

I’m not going to whine anymore. If you don’t read it, it’s your loss—as long as you can get over the outdated attitudes and general unpleasantness of the main character. It’s enjoyable, and laugh-out-loudable, and I especially recommend it if you have a bit of Anglophilia in your veins.

Reasons to adore Sherman Alexie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

2. His unrelenting humor.

3. His honest commentary on racism.

4. His understanding of human nature.

5. Every short story he’s ever published.

My first exposure to Alexie’s work happened in my classes in college. I was shocked to realize the existence of such a talented and comedic writer. I don’t remember the name of the first short story I read by him, but I remember the first book. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a knockout, and I am excited to read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

If you have a moment to do so, pick up one of his books. I promise you won’t be disappointed. You may be disappointed that you laughed so hard you peed, but you won’t be disappointed by his story-telling.

Celie’s Button and the Perversion of Homosexual Desire in The Color Purple

To say that Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is not a homosexual suggests that her love and sexual liberation is invalid. A fellow student in one of my classes recently stated that he believed that Celie is a victim of homosocial desire rather than identifying her as a homosexual.

I had already planned on presenting to my classmates the idea that Celie was homosexual. It just seemed so obvious as I read. I was curious how they would react. Although homosexuality is tolerated amongst my peers, there is still discomfort when they must face it.

My professor, Dr. Tiffany M. B. Anderson, was aligned with my own personal analysis of Celie’s sexuality, as she had never before heard anyone disagree. But the majority of my class seemed opposed. They preferred the less challenging argument of homosocial desire. Because at a basic level, it makes sense.

Homosocial is a relatively new term to the literary community, and it refers to the relationships between men in classical literature. There are times, such as in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice when characters appear to be much more affectionate and loyal toward the same sex. To a modern mind, this appears as homosexuality. Clearly these two men are gay if they are this affectionate toward one another. And anyone who reads Shakespeare knows that you really have to read between the lines to understand his innuendo. In 1985, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick popularized the term with her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. She presented the literary community with a solid explanation of these unusual relationships between men to the modern reader. Homosocial by itself simply means social interactions between people of the same sex. Homosocial desire as a complete term signifies the desire for the power and comradery of the same sex.

Now, before I go on to say that the homosocial argument is invalid, I’d like to explain why it can actually work. Celie is a submissive woman. She is abused by men and victimized by women. She is incapable of gaining her own control or power as a human being let alone as a woman. The presentation of Shug Avery provides Celie with a model of feminine power and how to achieve it. Shug is also the object of her sexual desire. But the power that Shug holds over men and other people in general is intoxicating to Celie. It allows her to become a sexual being rather than a victim of male desire. In this sense, Celie has homosocial desire for Shug Avery. There is no denying that.

However, I’d like to define what homosexuality is. The concept is foreign territory and tends to elude those faced with it. If you are not homosexual, you may not have a very solid foundation of what it means. Let’s just be honest, it is confusing. But the term homosexual just means people of the same sex. That’s it. That’s all homo (person) and sexual (of, relating to, or involving sex – most often just meaning biological reproductive capabilities that define gender). The term has come to define the romantic desire for and sexual intercourse with a person of the same sex. More accurately, Celie is a lesbian.

I’d love to agree that Walker presents us with a simple case of homosocial desire. It would be easy to create this as an argument. It would be easy to agree with, if it weren’t for the textual evidence that Celie is a lesbian – or at least has lesbian tendencies. This evidence includes her biological/natural desire for Shug. She feels a tingling that a woman might feel for a man when she first realizes her own bodily desire. But in addition to that, Celie is jealous of Shug’s love for Mr. And in addition to even that, Celie loves Shug. She has emotional desire for a woman. All of these contribute to the message that Celie is a lesbian. Now, does that mean she is solely a lesbian? No. But there is further evidence. She continues to have sex with Mr., this time altered by Shug’s interference, where she and Mr. attempt to have more pleasurable sex, and Celie doesn’t enjoy it. The evidence that Walker gives us points to a single conclusion. Celie is a homosexual.

Yes, she has homosocial desires. I would argue that these align more with her relationship to Sofia than her relationship to Shug. But in terms of Celie’s desire for Shug, it clearly crosses over the line of social to sexual. As Sedgwick asks us not to pervert the classical relationships between men by simply categorizing them as homosexual, I ask that we not pervert Celie’s lesbianism by simply saying that her desire is only homosocial.