We all have certain authors, or even individual books, we return to over and over. Some qualify as comfort food to get us through those dark nights of the soul: P.G. Wodehouse, H.H. Munro (Saki), Somerville & Ross, W.W. Jacobs, James Thurber, O. Henry, The Wind in the Willows. Some qualify as old friends, the ones we turn to in moments of leisure or despair, not to harp on the rejected manuscript, the financial straits, the acid words spoken in anger by a child or spouse, but just to hear a known and friendly voice, see a friendly face, acknowledge a shared and treasured past: anything by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, William Trevor, Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington, certain mysteries and certain poets, The Old Man and the Sea, The Great Gatsby, The Reivers, The Bear, so many others, all those links that can only be broken by our own passing.
The comfort food and the old friends both wrote compelling stories, but the old friends also wrote marvelous commentaries on the human condition, holding up the mirror on aspects of ourselves that were true when they were written, true today, and true ten-thousand tomorrows from now.
Which brings me to what it is I dislike about so much of today’s American literary fiction.
I have not read all, by any means, but with a few obvious exceptions, most of what I have read seems to focus in lengthy, neurotic detail on the microcosm of contemporary middleclass suburban life, as if the authors had taken too much to heart the aphorism, “write what you know.” That’s great advice if what you know, what you have witnessed and experienced, is worth writing about, but it is also some of the most crippling nonsense I have ever heard. Taking it to heart we would never have had anything by Edgar Allen Poe, as an obvious example, or Ray Bradbury, or Ursula Le Guin, or most of the great mysteries that have entranced generations of readers. But if you are going to limit yourself to writing about what you know, for God’s sake dip below the surface and look at some of the universal qualities of the human psyche that make people extraordinary, interesting, and memorable. Hold up the mirror on what endures, not on the unmemorable and transitory surface. And memorable is my personal yardstick: if, a year, a month, a week later, I can’t remember who was who in a novel, the odds are pretty good it was a novel not worth reading. Rather than give you an example of the boring, the hackneyed, the neurotic surface-scratching, let me give you an example of a novel with absolutely unique and unforgettable characters: No Country for Old Men. You may love or hate Cormac McCarthy, but you can’t deny that he creates some of the most indelible characters in all of modern literary fiction.
I recently read Innocents and Others, by Dana Spiotta. Dana Spiotta is one of the hot and hip young darlings of the modern American literary scene, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. Whatever else you might think about Dana Spiotta’s characters in Innocents and Others, they are, by God, memorable. With one exception they are all freaky, dishonest, self-absorbed, oblivious to anyone’s needs but their own, oblivious sometimes to their own selfishness and cruelty, frequently not very likeable, but all are memorable.
I’m not intellectual enough to know if Innocents and Others qualifies as post-modernist, or deconstructionist, or fabulist, or meta-fiction, or any one or all of the dozens of other precious labels given to equally precious works, but if another yardstick is the desire to keep reading and learn what happens next, Spiotta achieves that.
Her style (and I’m sure there is some label for it I am not well-educated enough to know) is a pastiche of past and present, first person, third person and omniscient, straight forward story-telling and personal essay, epistolary (if you can use that word in association with email and blog comments) and movie-script, truth and bullshit, with the not unnatural result that the reader—or at least this reader—is always kept on his toes. It may be nothing more than a fairly common, up-to-the-minute way of writing, but it was new to me and—at least in Ms. Spiotta’s hands—very intriguing.
Equally intriguing to me personally was the story’s background in movie-making; not just in Hollywood, but in old films and both famous and obscure filmmakers that the two friends, Meadow and Carrie, obsess over and whose work they analyze and try to learn from.
The third character in this odd and strangely seductive book is the most sympathetic, a fat, lumpy, unattractive middle-aged, visually impaired woman who seduces men—total strangers—over the phone. No, contrary to any reviews you might read, it is not phone sex. Rather, it is a bizarre, emotional reaching out on the part of a woman who knows that in our youth- and beauty-oriented society, where gorgeous young things with perfect bodies and perfect skin and gleaming lips pout at us from every row of the magazine rack at the supermarket, her only assets are a beautiful voice and an exceptionally keen and accurate ability to understand and engage the men she talks to, engage them both intellectually and emotionally. And the needs and isolation of that character say more about our society today than the rest of the book.
The rest is a meditation in part on reality, in part on friendship, in part on art—or at least on what constitutes art—but all those things are the abstractions within the tangible construction of memorable characters.
Innocents and Others is unlikely to ever become anybody’s comfort food, but Dana Spiotta may turn out to be an old friend.