Friday, September 4, 2009

Breaking the Rules

Although I am in Bellingham, WA for Valhallacon, the con doesn't start until tonight. The drive up here from Seattle was gorgeous; we Flatlanders don't get to see such mountains at home. Then a pleasant dinner with the convention committee at a local restaurant. Tonight I have opening ceremonies at 6:00 and a bookstore signing across town at 7:00, which everybody admits is sort of a problem, what with that pesky law of physics that prohibits being in two places at once. But nobody seems worried about this, so I won't worry either. Instead, I'll blog about Jennifer Egan's novel THE KEEP, which I read on the plane.

This is a fantasy-murder mystery-mainstream hybrid which debuted in 2006. Egan has been a National Book Award finalist, and THE KEEP comes with enough accolades to earn sainthood, so I was expecting something unusual. I was rewarded, but not before I was totally mystified and saying to myself "What the %@*&%?"

Her prose is lovely from the first paragraph, and so is the depth of her insight. Here is Danny, compulsive about email and Face Book and blogs, finding himself in a place unexpectedly out of touch with the Internet even though he has brought with him a satellite dish for just this eventuality:

"Danny needed [access]. His brain refused to stay locked up inside the echo chamber of his head -- it spilled out and poured across the world until it was touching a thousand people who had nothing to do with him. If his brain wasn't allowed to do this, if Danny kept it locked up inside his skull, a pressure began to build."

I think: Just so. I know people like Danny (and so do you). But by the bottom of this same page (page 12) the narrative switches briefly from third-person with Danny to first-person with someone else I have not met, and I stop dead. I think: Egan is too good a writer to make this kind of mistake, so it's not a mistake. What is she doing?

It takes me the entire first half of the book to find out. By the time I do, she's broken every single rule about point of view. She mixes third and first person, throws in three separate first-person POVs without warning, switches sometimes in the middle of a paragraph for an unpredictable length of time, does not tell you who they are or what their relationship is to each other until you figure it out for yourself very near the end. And it all works.

Why? Partly because she is so good, partly because it's not a parlor trick nor a gratuitous display of authorial skill. These POV pyrotechnics are intimately related to what she has to say about identity, responsibility, and the worst kinds of mistakes people can make with their lives. If the plot occasionally gets too conveniently weird for my tastes -- and it does -- the overall narrative design is so good, and her characters so compelling, that I was completely absorbed. You have to be a virtuoso to pull off this sort of thing, and she is.

1 comment:

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Nancy, isn't the purpose of fiction to =communicate=? To create characters the reader cares about, give them difficulties, and see how they deal?

Last Friday night, I went to the Bottom Line with my cohort Glenn Nataupsky, a =master= bass player who's toured the world. The jazz band played stuff I just did not understand. I (sob) felt unhip and uncool. And between sets, I asked Glenn was the hell was going on. He explained, "Mike, they're playing for themselves. They're trying to impress each other."

Can't that be true with fictioneers too? "Look what =I= can do!"?