Monday, August 19, 2013

At Last by Edward St. Aubyn

At Last by Edward St. Aubyn is the fourth novel about Patrick Melrose and his family; the others are Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk. You don’t need to read them to enjoy At Last although it would help.

St. Aubyn, like the characters in the novel, comes from a wealthy English family. He, like Patrick, was raped by his father as a child. He, like Patrick, is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Indeed, given the facts of St. Aubyn’s life, I find it remarkable he is alive and functioning, let alone that he writes brilliantly

In 2006, he told an interview from The Observer, “Once I started writing, I decided to stop the analysis. I didn't need it any more. But I knew it was good because I went to see my analyst after making a suicide attempt. I was very, very precarious and then I felt a lot better. I stopped feeling mad; there was some sense of order.” The reporter asked whether  writing its own kind of therapy? “If it does have any therapeutic value,” said St. Aubyn, “the only way to get access to it is to write without any therapeutic intent. You transform experience into, for want of a better word, art. I'm interested in structure and character. Otherwise it would be very boring for everyone else.”
Which is my feeling about alcoholic, or drug-addicted, or insane (or all three) main characters. Because they can do anything, have little or no self-awareness, and have little or no thought of consequences they are too easy to write, and as St. Aubyn says not interesting. It is, I think, the problem with fiction versus reportage. Our real lives are filled with accidents, extraordinary coincidences, inexplicable events. A novelist has to be careful about using these attributes of reality or readers are liable to feel cheated. Most readers expect a novel to make a certain kind of sense. A novel can do things reality cannot (for example, give us a person’s private thoughts, contradict known physical laws, invent impossible landscapes), but it has to make sense on its own terms. An extraordinary coincidence that becomes dinner table conversation in your lived life will cause a reader to throw your novel across a room.
An alcoholic, drug-addicted, or insane main character is easy to write because you have no constraints. The character by her nature doesn’t have to make “sense.” She can be one way today, another way tomorrow. Her primary wants can change five times on a page. She has no solidity, no verisimilitude. Somehow, however, through the glitter of his writing and our access to Patrick’s thoughts St. Aubyn manages to make him engaging and sympathetic.
The action of At Last takes place during a few hours of a single day—the funeral of Patrick’s mother and a family gathering afterward. While Patrick is the main character, the point of view shifts from character to character within a chapter and even on a page, although I had no trouble keeping up with who was observing what. I did have some trouble at the beginning of the book keeping the characters and their relationships straight,
I’ve mentioned St. Aubyn’s writing. Here are a couple examples:“Emily Price had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions.” “He knew as deeply as he knew anything that sedation was a prelude to anxiety, stimulation the prelude to exhaustion, and consolation the prelude to disappointment, so he lay on the red velvet soft and did nothing to distract himself from the news of his mother’s death.”
Most of the characters are thoroughly dislikeable. They are cutting, snobbish (with little to be snobbish about), and self-centered. The exceptions are Patrick’s two sons and his ex-wife. Part of the book’s enjoyment, of course, is the nastiness. But also St. Aubyn’s observations and descriptions. By the end, I felt that Patrick—now an orphan, now divorced, now sober, now (relatively) poor—has a positive future. Altogether satisfying.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tenth of December by George Saunders

George Saunders doesn't need me to recommend his work, but I will anyway. He's received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Tenth of December, his 2013 collection of stories, is the first of his seven books I've read. It will not be the last.

The ten stories are all different, all original, all amazing. Saunders does things in his fiction I didn't realize you could do in a short story. Like change point of view several times. Like use a corporate memo format with virtually no characters or dramatic arc and still have an interesting story. Like write a 32-page story with 15 separate chapters. As Karen Russell (Swamplandia) is quoted as saying, "[I] read Saunders because he alwasy makes me want to write. He reads like he's having such a good time and I love his humor so much. . . He was one of those writers—he just opened doors for me."

Because Saunders is so original, it is difficult to talk about the stories, but I will anyway. One of the things he does incredibly well is write as though he is simply recording a character's thought process: ". . . People were amazing. Mom was awesome, Dad was awesome, her teachers worked so hard and had kids of their own, and some were even getting divorced such as Mrs. Dees, but still always took time for their students. What she found especially inspiring about Mrs. Dees was that, even though Mr. Dees was cheating on Mrs. Dees with the lady who ran the bowling alley, Mrs. Dees was still teaching the best course ever in Ethics, posing such questions as: Can goodness win? Or do good people always get shafted, evil being more reckless?"

Saunders also manages to engage with topics that might seem too massive for a short story. "Home" is narrated by a Marine returning from combat; "Escape from Spiderhead" is narrated by a prison inmate who is being used as a human subject in drug tests. In neither story (in fact, in none of these stories) does Saunders draw any neat, moral lesson. Things happen. People make choices. Characters act or don't act. Readers are left to make of what they've just experienced what they will.

I agree with Karen Russell. Saunders makes me want to write. And read more of his fiction.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Girl in the Photo

My new novel, The Girl in the Photo, is about to be published. I'm at the stage of a final check of the printed page proofs. It looks fine on the screen, but there may be typos or formatting problems that I have not caught or did not translate from screen to page. Here, however, is the cover, designed by my brilliant and creative friend, Susan Brier of the WriteDesign Company.

We did not want to give away too much of the story away, so this is the description of the book: "In this novel about love and longing, regret and renewal, a brother and sister discover a surprising secret after the death of their father: a photo of a young woman who was his lover decades before and half a world away. Even as they mourn their father, an eminent surgeon, David and Abbie question what they thought they knew about his life—and theirs—as they struggle with conflicting memories, unexpected emotions, and new possibilities."

As soon as the book is available, I'll let you know.