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)

The Art of the Deal

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.

 

This week I’m taking a different approach with the kind of book I read. The next novel in my alphabetical list is a real clunker, and I’ve been busy moving and getting married, so I haven’t been able to read as much as I’d like to lately. So, when the opportunity to read something ridiculous and/or amazing came along, I took it. I was at the Poland Library Used Book Store when I found it—Donald Trump’s (ghostwritten) The Art of the Deal, original paperback edition from ’87 or ’88. Perfect condition. 50 cents.

Side note about the Poland, Ohio Library Used Book Store—it’s much better than the library itself. “Travesty! Sacrilege!” you’re saying. I hear you. You’re about to tell me how beautiful the Poland Library is. You’re about to tell me what a marvel of architecture it is. You’re about to tell me that it’s one of the few things the greater Youngstown metropolitan statistical area has going for it (now that Mill Creek Park is essentially a toxic waste dump). Okay, got it, and I don’t disagree with you. Now, I’m about to tell you that the Poland Library is all about appearances. Have you ever been to the actual library part? I could fit their entire book collection in my apartment (slight exaggeration, but not really). It’s a beautiful building that they spent a lot of money on, and it shouldn’t be a library. But their book store is still amazing; it has a decent, if erratic, selection, it has trade paperbacks in brand new condition for a dollar, and it has off-the-wall finds like Mr. Trump’s book for much less.

Now, back to Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump is a professional idiot by many accounts. Those same accounts always talk about his idiocy being connected to his politics and his brash mannerisms and his hatred of immigrants and women. I have no arguments with those criticisms. But a man or woman can be completely hopeless in one area and be amazing in another area. Such is the case with Mr. Trump. Say what you will about the man, but he has a brilliant business mind, and what he says in this book might possibly change your mind about business. It probably won’t change your mind about him, and it probably won’t change your life, but it will make you say, “Huh, I’ve never thought about business in that particular way.”

Most of the book is told through stories of his business dealings and how he outwitted former mayor of New York, Ed “You’re Pronouncing it Wrong” Koch. Did you know Trump made his first big property deal on a crappy apartment complex in Cincinnati? You do now. (I know—which crappy apartment complex in Cincinnati, right? Because there are so many to choose from!) But even in the business dealings we still get smatterings of the Donald’s wisdom. A lot of the time he uses the lessons he learned in his business deals to illustrate points he made earlier, in Chapter Two: “Trump Cards.” These Trump Cards (get it?) are sound, solid pieces of advice that will affect your thinking, especially if you have some of the entrepreneurial spirit about you. Take for instance, on page 48, when he tells you to protect the downside of your deal and the upside will take care of itself… Hey! What am I telling you this?

If I give you all this wisdom you’re just going to try and compete with me and make my life harder, and that’s the last thing I need. You’re going to take all of these useful things I’ve learned about business and you’re going to use them to make your own businesses, and then the banks will give you all loans and won’t have enough left for little old me.

So forget it. I’m buying up all the copies of this book I can find. If I see you reading it, I’ll snatch it out of your hands and run like someone fleeing from the ICE. The only way you’re going to get to read this book is if you find some anti-immigrationist/birther/tea-partier with a copy, and then you’re going to have to fight him (because, let’s be honest, they’re usually men) for it. And you know what? I’m kind of okay with that.

Cool. Now just forget you ever read this.

Should I Have Read These Books by Now?

the stacks

So, after reading this column for a few weeks, you might be asking yourself, “Why is this Drew fellow doing this? Why would a full-grown man be taking up his valuable time reading and reviewing books that have already been published? He’s not trying to convince me to buy them, is he?” True, the books I’m reading are (mostly) not new, and it’s not like publishers have me on their book-sending contacts list (though a full-grown man can dream!). So why am I doing this?

The answer is complicated. One reason is that I’ve just graduated with my Master of Fine Arts degree, and I’m fighting the urge to veg out on the couch for the next few months (most of the time doing it unsuccessfully, thank you), which means I need to keep sharp through reading and writing. Reading a book a week is very doable, and writing a few hundred words a week is still writing something, so this column is a way of me getting my mental exercise. I’m trying to prevent my brain from atrophying. (I learned that last word from a book.)

Another reason is that I need to get out of my literary bubble. I’m not bragging when I say that my novel collection is extensive (and growing, if you ever want to get me a gift; I hear Nick Hornby has a new book out), but I always seem to gravitate toward the same set of writers. I have hundreds of writers on my shelves that I’ve never read, and maybe I’ve become a bit stunted in my habits. Who wants to be stunted? There’s nothing worse than people who limit themselves, whether that’s in the genres of books they read, or the foods they eat, or the places they go on vacation. Okay, I’m sure there are worse things, but not any that I can think of at the moment.

Do you want another reason? Okay, I’ll give you one. Reading these books, and jotting down notes about them, is making me more careful and observant. Not all of you know me, but those of you who do know that writing is a huge part of my life. What’s more important to a writer than being observant? I don’t know. Okay, maybe grammar is more important, but that’s what editors are for, and you can pay people to do that job. If you can find someone who is paid good money to observe things for other people, give me that person’s number and I’ll call him or her and make them feel really strange with how much I beg them to give me a job.

One more reason? Fine. What about the sheer joy of introducing other people to books they haven’t read yet? What if I find a book that has gone unnoticed for a long time, and I just have to tell you about it, and it ends up changing your life?

Of course, there’s always the possibility that I’ve been avoiding these books for a reason: mainly that they’re either boring or awful. But at least I will be able to say that I’ve read them, which should count for something in conversations at cocktail parties. Not that I ever actually get invited to cocktail parties.

So here are the rules. I’ll start in the A section of my shelves and work my way alphabetically through my books, reading a representative book by each author I’ve never read. Along the way I’ll pass books that I’ve already read, and I’ll mention them to you, either for good or bad. If I have other information about any of the authors I pass—what the heck, I’ll throw that in, too. I’ll view this as a quest, the object of which will be to find whether I actually should have read these books by now or not.

And there have to be worse quests than the one to become well read. Right?

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.

The Disappearance of Seth

This week in my literary quest to become a better person, or at least a better-read person, I’m visiting an author by the name of Kazim Ali.

On my bookshelves, Mr. Ali comes after one of the better modern authors, Sherman Alexie. I have a few of Alexie’s books, and I particularly recommend his short story collection Ten Little Indians. One of Alexie’s biggest strengths is his wide range of interests—he doesn’t just stick with short stories or adult novels; he has written screenplays and young adult fiction as well. Also, his technique is brilliant. He’s a writer who will make you laugh and care and think about the world—how unfair and how beautiful it can be. Yes, I recommend Sherman Alexie.https://www.flickr.com/photos/cuppini/522966079/in/photolist-NdkAx-py3r7n-go63Mg-4invaw-nVM9y5-ioVvTi-7oB47Y-3kGuk8-rb6u2t-i5uQt2-4G2RCt-5WDAmR-9L6oEF-9ZGBTo-dyPy9e-5UNJAW-gt4kTn-yLHgN-jyvi7p-wQuSJ-q3fBgd-fSGnXm-eJDgek-9XJxiL-ew5YuR-3Td2yS-rPy3MY-ezmJBR-r9Qr3L-4bLr7L-fSTii8-aqVmdS-pUG1nn-e989VL-2gALk-6PXp85-nEVaB8-48uECw-dR7hg-2c8JE-4r9DNc-ouFQBd-8CXt3q-JgGGQ-kyC9t1-d3Tj9E-6vZ7kR-4siW5H-ecah1D-s782T6

Another thing I should explain up front is why I’m reviewing a second book by Etruscan Press within two weeks (yes, the infamous Zarathustra Must Die was put out by them, too). Trust me, Etruscan Press is not paying me to review their books (I don’t know if they have the budget for things like that). The explanation is: a few years ago, when I was still an undergraduate, I won a one-page story contest for a great journal called the Penguin Review (shout out to their former editor, Tom Pugh), and part of the prize was the near-complete collection of Etruscan Press books published up until that point. Most of what EP puts out is poetry, but they’ve done quite a few novels, too. My whole point is, this is not the last time I will be reviewing one of their books.

I’m not saying that Etruscan Press puts out poor-quality books; I like their books, for the most part (last week’s selection aside). They are small and relatively obscure, but I think we need more publishers like them. Why? They don’t compromise. I get the sense that most of EP’s authors are full-time professors who, because of the fickle nature of modern universities, have to keep publishing, or else they perish. These writers don’t care about sales, but they do care about putting out a good product, according to their exacting, sometimes quirky standards. That’s honorable. I would love to have that option someday. EP realizes that literature is about more than entertainment—sometimes it’s about trying to wrap your mind around the things in life that are hard to understand.

Speaking about things that are hard to understand, let’s get down to this week’s book. The Disappearance of Seth is everything I was just talking about—uncompromising, hard to follow, daring you to try to understand it. And it still manages to be successful, being easy to read at the same time as being hard to follow. How does that happen? I have a theory: Ali is a poet, first and foremost—he writes like a poet, in clipped, beautiful phrases that sometimes don’t even make it to the level of sentences. He uses odd punctuation and weird tense shifts, and they actually work, most of the time. My theory is that Ali’s book is easy to read because he uses small, beautiful sentences and his section breaks push the momentum—this book is designed to keep pushing you forward, even if what you’re reading doesn’t become clear all at once, or at all.

unnamedMomentum is key in this book, because the plot is not linear, and it’s also key because of the subject. Seth is about 9/11. For something so heavy and humorless as 9/11, we need the pace to be quick, otherwise we bog down in our own sorrow and personal memories. Ali does a good job of keeping us moving, even though it’s tough for anyone to read a book about something as politically loaded as 9/11 in the way it was intended. And are we too far away from that day to remember it in all its rawness? I guess what I’m asking is, can this still be an effective book? If this were just a book about something as broad as 9/11, I don’t think it could, but it is about more than that—it is personal. The “Seth” of the book’s title makes it personal.

Our main character, Seth, has died in the Twin Towers, or so the other characters think. Seth is the thread that connects all of the book’s characters together, and really the only thread that connects the book together. The other characters reflect on how he has touched their lives, and what he meant to them, and how he has changed them. The book becomes a meditation on loss and how trauma affects us, and it becomes a meditation on the things we cannot say—how we handle grief. As such, it’s a beautiful story, if unclear at times, and the way that the death is only indirectly approached echoes how we try to avoid coming to terms with loss in our own lives.

Seth is thoughtful, deep, and potent, and Ali writes his characters’ thoughts so well that their reflections become the biggest emphasis of the book. These are thoroughly developed characters, never feeling anything less than real.

That is not to say that this book does not have flaws, because it does. Ali’s use of odd punctuation and tense changes mostly work, but sometimes this technique just comes across as though he needs an editor. Need an example? “He stops by a dusty car parked at the curb and fumbled with his map, trying to unfold it” (p. 175). Most of the time I try to leave technical issues like this alone, but in Seth it happens too frequently to ignore. Trying to figure out Ali’s reasoning in these cases distracts from the rest of the book, especially when these slip-ups do not look like artistic decisions as much as they do mistakes.

Another flaw in the book is the “twist” at the end, which I won’t reveal, in case you decide to read it. Good literature, I’ve found, does not need twists to make it interesting—the writing is interesting enough. This twist is not deep enough to change the meaning of the story, and it feels a bit tacked on.

Other than those problems, however, I gladly recommend The Disappearance of Seth. It’s for you if you enjoy difficult texts that reward your effort. It’s also for you if you want beautiful, koan-like paragraphs that you can really sink your mental teeth into.


 

Ali, Kazim. The Disappearance of Seth. Etruscan Press, 2009. 197 pages.

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.