Plainsong | Eventide by Kent Haruf

I never posted here when I read Plainsong, because it’s one of those books that defies description. Minimalist prose style — simple sentence structure, no extended descriptions — which is something that usually I’m not so keen on. But the story in Plainsong is compelling, because the characters are. The novel is set in a small town in rural Colorado, and it follows various people who live in that town through about a year. The stories, which seem separate from one another, gradually intertwine.

So I really liked Plainsong, though I didn’t stop to write about it here when I first read it. I’m writing now because I just read Eventide. Which is a sequel to Plainsong, something I didn’t realize or I probably would have read it sooner. The same characters (or most of the same characters) deal with whatever life hands out, starting with the two old brothers who have run a ranch together for all their lives, moving onto a feckless couple who live in a broken down trailer with their two kids and can’t cope. Period. I’m not sure how Haruf made me like and care about some of these characters — especially the brothers — but he did, so much so that when I finished Eventide I was immediately wondering if he was going to write a third novel. He doesn’t tie all the loose ends up, and while some characters end up in a good and hopeful place, others do not. And I’ll continue to wonder about them until (and if) he tells more of the story.

confusing the readers

A comment that came in today:

I have read all the Sara Donati books. Just finished “Fire Along the Sky” and the beginning of Queen of Swords. I am just wondering why Luke Scott Bonner and Hannah Bonner became Luke Scott and Hannah Scott. I thought this was the story of the Bonners. Why confuse the readers?

If I do something like this (and by the way, if Hannah is called Hannah Scott, it’s only an assumption made by somebody else who knows her brother), there is always a reason. Think for a minute about where the characters are, what is going on in the world at large, and about the dangers of the situation.

Though it may seem at times as though I sit up late thinking of ways to be confusing, in fact if I’m up late it’s for the opposite reason. Or because I can’t put a book down. See the next post.

9/11 in fiction

A few days ago somebody (Smart Bitches? Alison? Beth?) had a post about building references to 9/11 into a storyline, and how very delicate a proposition that is. Apparently somebody (and again, my memory is leaking) read a novel where there was a reference to somebody who died in September of 2001, and didn’t clarify until late in the story that it was not in connection with the hijackings.

So I’ve been thinking about this, and I realized that without much thought I have avoided this problem completely. Parts of Tied to the Tracks take place in Manhattan and northern Jersey in about 1998; the rest takes place in northern Jersey and Georgia in 2003. No mention or reference to 9/11 at any point. And it never occured to me to try to build that in. Was this good sense on my part? Sensitivity or cowardice? The short answer (from my perspective) is that the topic is not one I want to pick up in passing. It’s too big and painful to be used in a casual way, so I didn’t use it at all. I suppose in fifty years it might be possible to do that, in the same way that there is a shorthand in place now to make it clear that a character survived the holocaust. But not now.

The only novels I have read that dealt directly with 9/11 are Jim Fusilli’s Terry Orr novels (I reviewed one of them here). Terry Orr and his daughter live in a house less than five minutes walk from the Twin Towers, and all of the novels in the series deal to some extent with that event and its aftermath. Fusilli pulled this off with great sensitivity and in a non-intrusive, thoughtful way. I think he was able to do that in part because he himself is from that part of Manhattan. I am not, and so I leave those stories to the people who lived them.

And now I just realized why I stay away from any mention of the topic at all, and it’s pretty simple. My fear is that no matter how carefully I approach it, I will end up either trivializing the events or exploiting the emotions that are still so raw and close to the surface when we (all of us, everywhere) think of that day.

Of course, it’s also impossible to set any story any place in the days immediately following 9/11 and not mention it. You couldn’t start a story like this:

Dorothy gave birth to her seventh child at eleven in the morning on September 11 at Manhattan General and checked herself out of the maternity ward less than an hour later, taking nothing with her but a pack of cigarettes, two thousand three hundred twenty two dollars in cash laboriously saved up, and the lunch they had brought her, wrapped in a pillow case.

The reader is going to have questions, but probably not the questions you’d hope for. You’d want: what’s up with Dorothy? Post partum depression? Leaving her family for somebody else? Going to jump off a bridge? If so, why the lunch sack? Instead of those questions the reader is thinking: 2001? Was this 2001? And if it wasn’t 2001, why that date? Why pick that date of all dates? What’s the relevance? Did Dorothy leave the hospital because she feared for the rest of her children, and how they were coping with the panic and fear of the attack? Was her husband a fire fighter on duty?

If the answers to that second set of questions is no, there’s no connection between this story and the 9/11 attacks, the reader is most likely going to feel manipulated, and with good cause. It’s in very bad taste, just plain tacky, to flash that date just to get attention. So the only solution (for me, of course — everybody will figure it out for themselves) is to stay away completely. In fifty years time maybe I’ll rethink that (cough) but that’s my policy for the time being.