by Nathacha AppanahBuy at Powell’s »
March 20, 2012
1The Sense of an Ending
So, I am currently serving a six-month sentence in the Outagamie County Jail for a non-violent offense. It’s a bit of a slacker’s paradise in here. The upside is that I can read all damn day long without guilt, if I please. I am a bit of a night owl, and luckily when lights-out is called there are some lights kept on for safety, giving me just enough that I can read from my bunk into the wee hours. The call of duty of being chosen as the 2012 Reader Judge was an open-arms distraction from my infinitely itchy back due to the hard water and meals that consist of bologna with a hyperhydrosis issue and mashed potatoes that could use a dose of Viagra. Not to mention the constant drone of crime-related TV shows. I was more than relieved when my Tournament of Books novels arrived. The book selection in here is appalling, unless you are into detective and romance novels. Didn’t think so.
It was obvious to me that these books were going to be polar opposites just by looking at their covers and reading the summaries inside of the book jackets: The Sense of an Ending on memory, Lightning Rods on sexual fantasy. Both seemed philosophical in their own right, and both seemed that they would show how their respective subjects would or would not work in reality. Memory and sexual fantasy—such unique, personal things that vary from person to person. Put me in, Coach.
I chose to read The Sense of an Ending first, mainly because it was short and seemed to promise psychological intensity. The main character is Tony Webster, a divorced, newly retired man in his 60s who receives an unexpected inheritance that forces him to conjure up memories from 40 years prior: memories of his best friend Adrian’s mysterious suicide, the enigmatic Veronica who was Tony’s first lover, and her ditching him for Adrian, causing Tony to do something rash and impulsive in a drunken stupor that may have played a hand in Adrian’s suicide.
“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as you witnessed.” This last sentence in the first paragraph prepared me for what I thought was going to be an all-consuming read. However, I found the narrator Tony depressing and at times a bit annoying. I had difficulty staying present through his recollections of his coming-of-age years and the incessant reminder of how safely he lived his life and his regrets. I wanted to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head a couple of times. What I really enjoyed about this novel were the philosophical insights about memory and how its perspective changes as you age, but if memories are just a matter of perspective then are any of Tony’s recollections accurate? Can I even trust the guy? This thought process resonates and keeps the hamster wheel turning in my brain still.
Lightning Rods is the kind of book I fall hard and fast for. Clever, a bit absurd, a lot bat-shit crazy. Joe is a struggling salesman who just wants to be successful. Selling vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias and eating an abnormal amount of pie isn’t giving him the gratification he desires. What does give him gratification is sexual fantasies of women with their upper and lower bodies coming through opposing sides of a wall. This fantasy results in the “lightning rod” system being born. A lightning rod is an anonymous woman who provides sexual release for Type A personalities in the workplace, the purpose being to cut down on sexual tension and harassment on the job. How it works is that an invitation pops up on a computer screen, the gentleman heads to the handicapped-accessible stall, a panel in the wall opens, the naked lower half of a woman appears (no worries, condoms are supplied), and, well, “sexy time” ensues. Wait. Whoa. What!? Inevitably dilemmas arise. An example being a possible violation of the Equal Employment Opportunities Act, which is solved with black PVC leggings. Genius.
I found this novel witty and just raunchy enough. I was almost convinced that the lightning rod could work outside of these pages. The last sentence of this kooky, you-have-got-to-be-fist-fucking-me tale sums it up best: “In America anything is possible.”
In comparison, I found that Julian Barnes has a more cerebral and subtle approach and Helen DeWitt is in your face, striking your funny bone and stretching your imagination. I enjoy both styles of writing, but maybe if my window didn’t consist of bars, a screen, and a foot of frosted glass I would have chosen differently. Lightning Rods was such a ray of sunshine within the confines of these concrete walls that I had to push it forward.
By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner
Kevin: Wow. To me, this is the most shocking win of the tournament so far, and not because I disagree with it. Although I liked both of these books, I probably would have chosen DeWitt, as well. But the thing about Lightning Rods is that of all the books in the tourney this year, it is probably the one I would be least likely to recommend. I would have to know you really well before I would suggest that you would like this novel.
A month or so ago I was in a coffee shop before school with my five-year-old and a few mothers from the neighborhood who were also there with their kids. Someone asked me what I was reading and I said a book called Lightning Rods, and they asked what it was about and I opened my mouth to reply and I looked around at these three women, friends of mine, all of them, and I looked at their preschool kids, and then I looked at the moms again and I had a hell of a time even describing it.
It was also the last time they asked me what I was reading.
It’s an extremely difficult book to discuss in a casual conversation, which makes it almost a miracle that it got published at all. Word of mouth is probably the most powerful bookselling tool of all, and I really think Lightning Rods is severely handicapped in that area, especially among the demographic that reads and buys the vast majority of fiction in this country. I have to believe there was an acquisition meeting at a publisher somewhere in which somebody was like, “How are you going to describe this thing to your book club?”
Somebody else in that meeting must have said “fuck it” though, and I’m glad they did.
John: If this New York Observer profile of Helen DeWitt is to be believed, the journey to publication for Lightning Rods was as strange and random as you’re imagining. Apparently, it was born out of DeWitt’s frustration with the company originally contracted with publishing her first novel, The Last Samurai. After instructing her agent to retrieve The Last Samurai from the publisher, she went off and conceived Lightning Rods. According to the article, “She wrote it, she said, because she ‘felt like she was getting fucked from behind through a hole in the wall’ by the publishing industry.”
The rest of the profile details a writer veritably obsessed with the presentation of her work, and while it seems as though the article mostly wants to detail Helen DeWitt’s oddities, I was more impressed with her integrity, her insistence that everything be “right.”
I think anyone who has even attempted to write from one’s imagination knows the feeling of the actual product diverging from the ideal that exists in one’s mind and spirit. The sensation that you’re just getting it wrong can be a hard one to overcome. When something ultimately feels right, it’s awfully hard to retreat from that position at the behest of others who certainly haven’t been thinking as long or as hard about these things as the author.
In Helen DeWitt’s case, it seems like she has a low tolerance for others (editors, designers, copyeditors) making things wrong when she’s already decided they’re right and because of this, she’s apparently eccentric, or worse.
I’m certainly aware of the alleged “runaway author” problem, where megastars supposedly get too big for their britches and refuse any editorial input, and maybe 1Q84 is an example of the phenomenon in this year’s tournament, and it’s possible that all of Stephen King’s books could be much improved, but I tend to feel the opposite way.
I’m a huge believer in the importance of editors and their ability to improve on an existing work—I hope so, since I spend huge chunks of my time doing it—but I also think that in the end, creative works are better served by giving the creator as much freedom as possible: final cut, if you will. Where you’re most likely to hear authors complain in this area is their covers (not me, though; Soho Press gave me significant input and control), but I think it extends to other areas as well.
While it’s clear that Lightning Rods is not going to be universally loved, imagine if it had been tinkered with by committee into something less than Helen DeWitt’s original vision? You’re looking at a book that offers very little of interest to anyone. Even if someone’s only reaction is, “I can’t believe someone wrote a book about corporations sanctioning glory holes in their bathrooms,” that’s something better than nothing.
It’s much better to say, “fuck it, let’s do it,” than “let’s do it, but first we need to change a few things.”
In the comments on the opening round matchup between State of Wonder and The Sisters Brothers, there was a mini-discussion regarding believability in fiction. In one part, Patchett was dinged for some errors of fact regarding life in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area, which is then extended to what some see as implausibilities or inconsistencies in her storytelling. The minor errors invited close-to-the-point-of-perhaps-unfair scrutiny of these deeper elements. For some readers, Patchett lost trust, and once lost, it played a part in the experience of the rest of the novel.
Lots of interesting takes on believability and accuracy followed, and if I’d been in front of a computer at the time, I probably would have joined in, but at least I can do so now.
What I think matters more than anything is a work’s integrity. Accuracy is part of this, as is believability. Details matter, which is why one of the things that most brings Roxy Reno’s judgment to life is learning about the cop shows always on the television in prison, or the soggy bologna.
But for me integrity goes beyond accuracy, or is maybe a heightened accuracy. It’s a kind of state of being where the work is somehow true to itself, that it makes its own set of rules and then doesn’t cheat. Writing in an essentially realist mode, Patchett cheats by not getting easily verifiable things right.
I had some trouble with The Art of Fielding, and there are some whopper implausibilities when measured against the realist yardstick, but I think the reason it’s found so many readers and been read so favorably is because it does have integrity. Lightning Rods obviously has it in spades, and I think that’s one of the reasons I feel so warmly towards it.
Kevin: Wow. That Observer article is fascinating.
In the abstract, Helen DeWitt’s uncompromising approach to her art is admirable, but in reality a lack of self-doubt is a poor measure of genius. Most of the writers who hold such an attitude are delusional. The fact that DeWitt has managed to produce two excellent books by treating her editors as adversaries is testimony to her peculiar talent, but it makes for a terrible example.
Let me try to defend the editorial process, just from my limited experience. Surely having a contract giving you final say on every word in the book is unusual for someone with DeWitt’s limited track record. I didn’t have that, obviously. But through two novels, every single time I rejected a proposed change from my editor (or a copy editor), I got my way. They gave me that deference because I took their suggestions seriously, and when I thought a change improved the story I made it with enthusiasm.
Things like changing “OK” to “okay” or “15” to “fifteen” are house style issues. I suspect most authors are neutral about them and the copy editor makes those changes automatically. But I find it almost impossible to believe that any copy editor (or editor for that matter) would willingly disregard direct instructions from the author, whiting out her notes and replacing them with his or her own.
It’s easy to romanticize the creative process as being mysterious and sacrosanct, even when the work is your own and you should know better. If you’re not careful you can become incapable of prioritizing, of making decisions about what is important to your book and what isn’t. Every indefinite article becomes as important as every adjective and noun and you’re unable to throw any of them away. You become a hoarder of your own words.
I’m skeptical that DeWitt is a genius driven mad by her inferiors in the publishing business. She appears to be a brilliant but troubled woman who became increasingly frustrated when the people she was working with—people who, trust me, feel very passionately about bringing great commercial art to the marketplace—wouldn’t willingly become her enablers.
I knew that Lightning Rods was something of a response to her experience in publishing, but I had no idea it was such a multi-layered response. You could, in fact, read it as a manifesto on the primacy of the artist—The Fountainhead for the 21st century, only with the hero building glory holes instead of gas stations and without the graphic celebration of rape.
One wonders if a morally reprehensible political philosophy will one day be built from it.
John: I feel like I’m arguing in favor of the creation of the literary equivalent of Heaven’s Gate or Ishtar or John Carter, which is not a comfortable place to be.
It sounds to me like you had a kind of de-facto final cut in your novels, as I did in mine, and to your point, a significant reason I was given that latitude is because I was open to and eager for editorial guidance from someone I trusted. When I read the cover letter from my editor fronting his comments from the novel, I had a warm glow from feeling that I’d found a reader who “got me.”
I try to do the same things for writers I work with when I have my editor shoes on (they’re actually slippers, and pink), by showing them that I’m serious about making their work as good as possible, but I’ll also always defer to their wishes (after a nice/spirited debate) if that’s how they want something, since it’s their name on the piece, not mine.
Maybe I’m gunshy from the recent Mike Daisey revelations, but I’m not sure I trust that Observer profile as a definitive guide to Ms. DeWitt’s mental health. To me, it reads like maybe there was a narrative in mind (crazy genius) and some of the incidents were worked to fit said narrative.
I don’t think Helen DeWitt is a genius driven mad by her editors, but I do think that DeWitt’s madness—if that’s what it is—is quite possibly exacerbated by these interactions that are possibly conducted in ways that are ultimately not necessarily designed around making the most compelling book possible.
I also don’t believe that Helen DeWitt valuing everything in her book or an inability to prioritize is a sign of being mentally unstable. I think it’s unusual. I think I wouldn’t do the same thing, but to her, if every last bit of it is important, I don’t see the harm in treating it that way, particularly if she’s spent so much time considering it.
Certainly an unwillingness to compromise won’t serve every author who desires to be great, but maybe this is the exception that proves the rule.
Kevin: Looking at the results of the Zombie poll, The Sense of an Ending did not get enough votes to put it in the top two. But before we let The Sense of an Ending go, I’d like to point everyone to an excellent comment from the opening round in which reader Jessica links to a post on her blog about the controversial ending of Barnes’s book. Full of spoilers, but a great read if you’ve already finished the book.
And I’ll say it again, but make sure you come back and read the comments after each match. The discussion there has just been terrific.