Sunday, March 30, 2008

These Books are the Bomb

Reading other works of fiction, especially novels, is often neither easy nor enjoyable for me. In three years, my top three remains unchanged. I've read each twice, and thank God, in every case, they're just as good the second time around. They are:

Straight Man by Richard Russo

My next pet, regardless of species, will be named William Henry Devereux, Jr. (aka Professor Hank Devereux; aka "Lucky Hank") after the most incorrigible ballbuster in the world of fiction. The challenges of middle age and of navigating the petty politics at a failing university English department collide in this serious and poignant novel, which also happens to be the funniest book I've ever read.

If anyone were ever to read my book and this book, there would be no question who my mentor and soulmate in irreverence is. What Russo taught me in Straight Man is that the more humorous you can be as a writer, the more serious you can be. In truth, the only way I know how to take a serious topic seriously is to look at it first, if only for a moment, through a pair of Groucho Marx gag glasses. Humor gives Russo, and gives me, the freedom to get emotionally charged.

Lucky Hank's dealings with colleagues obnoxious, inept, and devious will inspire you, and leave you in stitches. There's laugh-out-loud moments every couple of pages. But in the end he's a vulnerable man, just like the best of us. I've recommended this book dozens of times, and always make a hard sell. In fact, you may want to wait until you've slogged through a run of books that have done nothing for you, when you're salivating for a guaranteed home run to renew your faith in the magic of narrative. Then read this book, and feel good, both during and afterward.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Welcome to the dark side of the 21st century male. This is what happens when empowered young men have no wars to fight. Voyeurism and role play at support groups. Amateur bare-knuckle boxing as catharsis therapy. Elaborate pranks upon corporate and government institutions that grow increasingly out of control. And lo, these events tap into some unexpected and deep undercurrent, attracting first dozens and then hundreds of aggressive malcontents, propelled by a desperate need to be significant.

Don't let the Hollywood appeal fool you. Palahniuk is a skilled literary author. I don't generally enjoy a style this minimalistic, though I often find myself mimicking his short, punchy sentences because it agrees with my attentional difficulties. It's not for everybody, nor are his dark themes and humor, but if you're into it, you'll be really into it.

His real genius is in story construction. There's nothing predictable about where this underground fantasy goes, but it all makes perfect sense in retrospect. Palahniuk cherry picks from the impossibly weird experiences and details of his own somewhat normal life (sometimes the lives of friends) then adjusts and weaves them together so deftly that I spent years thinking his inventiveness existed miles beyond my own reach as a writer --- very intimidating! What Fight Club taught me is that even the most compelling, original story is not created out of thin air. The skill exists in identifying the pieces, from life, from memory, even from other creative works, and then in assembling those pieces.

But for me this book's even more important than that. Had I never seen the film adaptation eight years ago, I would never have thought I could possibly have a great American novel in me. I haven't traveled cross-country sampling drugs and jazz clubs, never lived in cabin along the frontier, never fired a musket in the Civil War, so what could I have to offer? How about a privileged man's identity crisis? How about Godlessness? How about self-destructive, existential angst? I believe these are important themes for my generation, and though Chuck may have busted the field wide open, he doesn't have a monopoly (wink).

First Light by Charles Baxter

This is the story about imperfect love. Witness the relationship between two siblings told backwards through time, beginning in their middle aged lives, accelerating back through to the day when the brother first lays eyes upon his newborn sister.

I can see several advantages to telling a story this way. But it's how the style lends itself to character development that fascinates me most. Why these two are who they are, do what they do, comes increasingly into focus, and just when you think you're seeing 20/20, something new is revealed, and the subtle "a-ha" moments continue to stack up.

In contemporary literary fashion, Baxter enjoys delving into the mundane, but he also injects (again subtly) a little bit of the surreal and supernatural into each story he writes. In First Light, the brother possesses a certain telepathy, inherited from his mother, that gives him keen insights about people, but which he can't seem to leverage into anything more than a good sales record at a Buick dealership. His brother-in-law and rival Simon (who has inspired one of my own characters) is also a keen observer, and dissects the brother with such uncanny precision one wonders if he's not some watchful demon.

Baxter's willingness to bend reality in his literary fiction has given me license to do the same as a writer --- a huge relief, because I want to be literary, but not boring. Too often it takes more than beautiful prose to make the ordinary extraordinary.

The obsession with the romantic variety overlooks the many complicated and powerful faces of love. I don't cry reading books (that I can ever remember), but not since moving past Young Adult fiction have I had to take short emotional breaks from a novel, so that I could sigh a deep breath and fan myself off.


Manic Mom said...

I tagged ya so you better start thinking of some good stuff to entertain all the girls who will be coming by your blog! : )

Manic Mom said...

You know, I saw Straight Man at the bookstore today but I just couldn't get into it.

Not that I'm not into Straight Men, I just, I don't know, wasn't feeling it.

Not that I don't want to feel Straight Men, it just wasn't happening for me.

Ugh. Ignore.

Anonymous said...

First Light, enjoyed very much. On a scale 1 to 10 (10 being the highest), I'd give it a 7

Fight Club, not so much my type of book, however

Straight Man is my fav book of all time! Got any more suggestions until your book comes out? Who knows maybe I'll have a new favorite