There was a huge range in quality in what I read for the panel. A few books were agonizing to reach the required 50 pages. A few I plowed through hoping for a surprising or at least interesting ending that I didn't get. As I mentioned in my previous post, a few started out fantastic only to lose their way, and not in the post-modern Pynchonesque characters wandering in the void of existence way of losing their way. And a few were fucking fantastic. Here are the two best books, according to me, from the panel reading.
If Only You People Could Follow Directions by Jessica Hendry Nelson (Coming out in January 2014)
My first thought when I started reading this book was: “Great, another addiction and dysfunction memoir, just what the world needs.” Though in many ways, Nelson's memoir is just that, she has made a narrative breakthrough that propelled her book to the top of the non-fiction heap. Rather than trying to jam the chaos of life into a chronological story-arc based narrative, Nelson explores her life through a series of essays that revolve around certain themes rather than certain times. Nelson bounces around in her life, she struggles with the ideas of her experiences and not just with the emotions of them, (though, also with the emotions of them) and through this has written a memoir that acts and feels like memory. Though the coping with addiction and dysfunction was compelling, the essay that convinced me of the depth of this book's value was “The Dollhouse,” in which she explores a very different kind of person.
Up till that essay, the book dealt with people we already knew from the genre of addiction and dysfunction memoir; the alcoholic father, the enabling mother, the brother following in the father's footsteps, and the troubled but charismatic best friend, but Cynthia, the focus of “The Dollhouse,” is an entirely different character. And though she is only the subject of one essay, she is as fully formed as any of the familiar characters in the book. That essay marks a thematic turning point in the book as afterward, Nelson explores more of her world outside of the dysfunctions she grew up with. We see her at a job in college, in New York, finding a partner, deciding to write, and finally, moving to Vermont where this collection was written and assembled. Which is not to say that everything in her life gets tied up in a neat little “struggle through strife to success package,” but that Nelson, despite how important the dysfunction was in her life can see and explore beyond it. Dysfunction is a part of her story, but not a part of her self.
There were a lot of typical ways Nelson could have presented the events in her life. The materials for the typical lurid memoir of drug, alcohol, and mental illness (probably) induced squalor are there. Instead, Nelson approached her life almost the way a critic would approach a work of literature; exploring the central themes, looking beyond the core characters, imagining other ways of being. Nelson has taken a genre that tends to be voyeur-bait and written a work of art. I hope more memoirists follow suit.
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (Coming out May 2014)
There are three narrative currents in Faces in the Crowd; the narrator living in Mexico City with her husband and children trying to write a novelization of poet Gilberto Owen's time in Harlem, the narrator remembering her time as a translator living in New York City that was the source of her idea for the novel, and the novel itself. Luiselli brilliantly weaves these currents together into a meditation on the nature of creation; not just creation of novels and poetry, but the creation of self and identity. The currents bleed into each other. Her husband reads over her shoulder. He leaves her or does not. Gilberto speaks in her prose. Translation hoax. Ghosts on the subway. The mix of fact and fiction both on the page and in the mind of the narrator.
One of the big weaknesses I saw in a number of the other books is the inability to differentiate character voices. Despite being different people, too often, different characters had the same narrative voice. In my own work, I've often found this process of differentiating voice the most difficult and time consuming part of the writing process. (see my earlier concerns about editing) In early drafts, all the characters sounded like me, in later drafts they all sounded like slightly different versions of me, rinse and repeat over the course of drafts (and years) until all of the characters had distinct, but not caricaturish, voices. So it is actually a fairly important demonstration of the bedrock quality of the work that the first-person voice of Gilberto Owen is very different from the first-person voice of the narrator describing her time in New York.
As a writer, I'm interested in how the author of a book earns my trust, how he or she proves to me the effort I'm going to put in to reading their book is going to be rewarded. For me, with Faces in the Crowd, it was the voice of the narrator's pre-school age son that earned my trust. Even more specifically, it was the word “workery,” the term the boy used to describe where his father went during the day, that showed me Luiselli was on to something. That one word demonstrates the character's playfulness, cleverness, and imagination and gives him an instant and recognizable voice. I dog-eared a dozen pages for brilliance. And in the end, we don't get a conclusion about the nature of poetry and identity, of authenticity and dishonesty, of art and self, but a moment of violent disruption that transfers the responsibility for further exploration from the narrator to the reader.
There were other good books in the pile for this panel, but these two blew the doors off everything else. Innovative. Sophisticated. Daring. Beautiful. I didn't know it at the beginning but If Only You People Could Follow Directions and Faces in the Crowd were exactly the kind of books I was hoping to discover this summer.