Thursday, March 6, 2008

I finished reading Laura Lippman's What the Dead Know last week. Although I don't read a lot of mysteries or crime novels, it's a pleasure to read one of this caliber. Suspenseful, well-drawn characters, and a structure (interspersing flashbacks and present time) that increases tension and keeps pages turning.

A different kind of reading experience: Alice McDermott's After This--a literary novel about an Irish-Catholic family in Long Island-- where the tension arises not so much from events as from the characters' inner lives and complex relationships with each other. Close observations, lyrical, gorgeous but precise language that the author is known for. The structure--chapters that are vignettes really-- includes small but important moments, with foreshadowing that at times takes your breath away (hints, for example, of how a character will, years later, die). I once had the honor of having Alice McDermott as my workshop leader at Sewanee Writers Conference, and the most important lesson I took away from it was her insistence that scene breaks, the space between chronological events, leaps in time--are ways to let the air in and, as she put it, "lets the reader make the connections."

Case in point: Jane Hamilton, in her review of After This for the Washington Post, observes how one character's fate (rather than being covered specifically) is "embedded in details throughout the book":

The oldest Keane child, Jacob, a quiet, fragile boy, goes off to Vietnam, but McDermott does not devote a discrete section of the novel to his tragic experience. Rather, his story is embedded in details throughout the book: in the neighbor's experience in the war; in the story of Jacob's namesake, who died in the trenches in France; prefigured in his mother's viewing of Michelangelo's Pieta at the New York World's Fair, when Jacob is still a child. The war is there on the dune when the little boys play with toy soldiers and again when they climb in the jungle of a fallen tree in their yard. Jacob's time in Vietnam is not specifically told because it is a story, after all, that is as common as dust: a boy killed for nothing far from home. That void in the novel, and the fact that Jacob lives only in the grief of his family, make his loss all the more sorrowful.

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