Attachments: Chick-Lit for Nerds

The epistolary novel has been dead on arrival for a long time, maybe since even back in the day, but then my memory of anything by Samuel Richardson, force-read in intro classes in college, is hazy as hell. Even Austen, 200 years ago, rewrote “First Impressions”, an epistolary novel, into what would become Pride and Prejudice, and bless her heart for that. (Especially because I just recently read Austen’s Lady Susan, which was never re-written, and I could feel how the novel suffered from its epistolary format.) As a novel style, letter-writing hung on in Gothic longer, though I couldn’t exactly say why. Frankenstein, Dracula, and if my Internet search is to be believed, House of Leavesand The Historian are all epistolary, and slightly cheesy for it. It’s a weird way to have characters interact, maybe not a hundred years ago, but certainly now, and even a hundred years ago, letter-writing stories stripped out the narrator, who is the ace up the sleeve of any writer. Maybe. Don’t hold me to that statement.

Which is why it is fairly astonishing to find an epistolary novel written in this century (hell, even the last century) which works. Beth and Jennifer are both employees at a Midwestern newspaper, and friends; Lincoln is the man tasked with reading the emails flagged by whatever metric flags inter-office correspondence. In rom-com style, Lincoln reads the emails between these women, and becomes more and more smitten with the unmarried-but-attached Beth, while trying to cope with his life as it is: living with mom, hanging with his D&D crowd, being paid to be a voyeur. This is set right at the millennium shift, because even a decade later (now), such a scenario is unlikely. We all know what exact crap the work overlords are flagging or blocking, and get around such things using smartphones or off-work email. But I knew a sys-admin back in the day who had to read through a whole horrible romance with one of the company employees and a – for lack of a better phrase here – corporate spy from another company who was obviously using her for her corporate knowledge. My friend was so horrified and grossed out by reading this correspondence, which was both intimate and, knowing what he did about the other dude, totally Browning-esque in its damaged narrators. Which is a weird thing to say about real life, but art and life, etc.

Anyway, point being, I pretty much loved the ways Beth and Jennifer interacted in their little illicit emails. They are snappy are funny, maybe even snappier and funnier than is likely, but then I know and correspond with a lot of funny folk, so it really isn’t a stretch except for in narrative unity stylins, which is more than ok for me in a novel. Lincoln’s sections are not in epistolary form, which is good, and I generally appreciated the ways the other characters were, um, characterized. Like you do. He’s got this absolutely foul-mouthed friend who ends up being a rigid traditionalist in some ways, and I totally know that guy. I know the attachment parenting friend who plays D&D with the guys. I know a lot of these people. It’s possible I even am some of these people, but, like, less quick to the quip. That I feel that way at all is fantastic, given that I usually want to strangle rom-com people until their tongues loll out. 

Which is probably the thing: this sort of careful, almost deliberately casual, snappy Gen-X rom-com is only going to work for certain types of folk. I mean, duh, any book at all out there is going to have its readership and not another – that’s presumably why we’re out here at all chattering about the books we read, trying to marry a book with its best audience – but I felt that decidedly here. While I know that this term is trouble, and I don’t want to get into a big fight about it, I feel like this is chick-lit for nerds, and as a nerd who has read the occasional chick-lit, hoorah. I’m too lazy to check if Bridget Jones’s Diarycounts as a epistolary novel – diary-form being somewhat more solipsistic, blahity blah – but Attachmentshit the same part of my brain that enjoyed that, in that it’s girly and fluffy while being smart and lightly allusive, and I appreciate the heck out of that. 

I’m not going to say it’s perfect – the crisis and denouement are rushed and somewhat unbelievable, not crediting the real ethical problems of voyeuristic email-reading like maybe you should – but whatever. I’m still back on jazzed as hell that a novel that falls into the dreaded category of women’s fiction doesn’t fail the Bechdel test, and doesn’t fail it hard. Love is great and all, but I’m so happy to find female friends who talk in the way female friends do about all everything and whatever. If you’re in the likely readership for this book, you know what I mean.

Revival: Speaking to My Soul

Oh dear. I adored this.

One’s obsessions are hard to sort for their influence in affection. Revivalcertainly plays to some of my obsessions: the undead, the bleak midwinter Midwestern locale, the Gothic/Noir sensibility that relies on understatement more than worn tropes. Like in Raising Stony Mayhall, these are heartland zombies, flyover zombies, more concerned with the strange (dis)function of small, isolated communities than screaming bloodbaths. This blood creeps instead of splatters. I fairly loved both Revivaland Mayhall, but another should-be slam-dunk for me, Ashes, with its Wisconsin winter and plucky teens, didn’t work at all for me. The play out of one’s personal obsessions doesn’t always run to something that sinks into the skin.

My mother and I once had a conversation about hometowns, about how people talk about them, and how we take those conversations personally. She’d had a conversation with someone who said some flip disparaging things about her hometown. They were true things to say, as far as observations from outsiders go, but to say those things to the local… maybe this was badly done. I’ve been careful since then about what I say to people about where they grew up. However, I love what I feel like are rightful depictions of the people I grew up with, the land and landscape, blahity blah, &c. Which is maybe why I never cottoned to Ashes: the opening was Wisconsin enough for me, but the whole cult-town thing felt like it was from central casting, one of those fictional places that could be anywhere (but you know, ultimately nowhere). Which is fine, and certainly not every book has to adhere to my sense of regionalism and placement. But good lord, when it happens, I flip the hell right right. When you speak to me from where I’m from, in the idiom of my location, I’m going to lose my shit.

The undead in Revivalaren’t biters, to steal terminology from Mayhall. One day, the day of revival – and I think only on that day – all of the dead in a small area around Wausau, Wisconsin get back up. It’s not a lot of people – 23 I think the authorities know about – but then there are the undead who aren’t known to be undead – at least the one who’s a main character anyway. There are also…other things. While the perspective is not overly tight on any one character, it’s got that situated near-locality that only glances at the larger picture. This is the locality of trauma, relayed in conversations and status updates in the days and weeks after the event.

It wasn’t so long ago that I watched horrified while a friend in Bryn Mawr, a neighborhood just on the edge of downtown here in Minneapolis, watched the bloody unfolding of the workplace shooting from split blinds, updating on facebook as it happened. It was awful, and it got worse last week with the school shooting in Connecticut. I stood in the snow waiting to get my kids that day – they the same ages as those gunned down – and the other mom whom I chatter with daily and I couldn’t meet each other’s eyes or we would lose it. “It feels like 9/11,” she said. Yeah, I thought, it does. I’m just as trapped miles from where it happened with my imagination running wild. All those classes letting out, their bodies whole and un-riddled with bullets.

Civic trauma is local, even when it happens a thousand miles away. The area around Wausau in this book is quarantined, for lack of a better word: CDC roadblocks set up, for fear that this revival might be contagious; local police working through the usual round of domestic disturbances and drunk drivers, while also trying to manage the suspicion of the motivations of the dead. One woman, an elderly revival, pulls her magically regrowing teeth out with a pliers because if she didn’t, her false teeth won’t fit. Shudder. Shudder, shudder. And shudder some more with how her story plays out. The time scale shifts and moves, not with strict linearity, but the bright hardness of events that matter. There’s the thin edge of how the larger world is sorting the local traumas, but it’s just a thin thought, a moment in the larger smallness of how life plays out, the cabin fever of trauma.

comic panels showing a zorse panicking then dying in the snow

There are points when this civic/personal trauma is maybe cut too obviously in the book, like when the CDC doctor dude – a man whose parents are strict Muslims – notes the parallels between the suspicion for the revived with the suspicion for the Islamic – but it still worked. Especially given his half-out-loud conversation with a near-girlfriend back east, who can tell he’s started smoking again by the quality of his voice, the deepening of utterance in the wake of some fucked up shit. The way no one ever says straight out what they mean, or what is going on between them, this is the left-out communication of my people, my landscape. Mum recently joked about reading Main Street and wondering why no one ever said what they meant, but she’s not a Midwesterner like I have grown to be. Not-saying is the language I understand.

So, the only complaint I have about this story is that I want MOAR and I want it NOW. This is pretty much the perfect package of my Midwestern cold and avoidance made inevitable and bloody and strange. This is all my obsessions made manifest, their closed mouths saying as much as blood in the snow. Uff da.

Divergent

This review also brought to you by cold medicine. 

Not so very long ago, in review not so very far away, I stood up for the present tense and all of its breathless immediacy, at least in regards to the young adult fictions. I’m not going to do that here. In Divergentby Veronica Roth, the present tense maybe wasn’t a mistake, because it works at the end, but it makes that beginning so horribly hard to get through it might not be worth it? As usual, it is hard to imagine readers other than myself, because I am self-involved like teenagers, so I can’t say for sure. All I know is that it took me well over 100 pages and a sinus infection to get over the clunky ass opening of this story and get into it. 

Beatrice lives in a frankly laughable post-apocalyptic society, where everyone has been split into like-minded factions: Dauntless (courage), Amity (love), Abnegation (selflessness), Candor (truthiness), Erudite (Goodreads). You know, to keep people from fighting over perceived differences that are inconsequential. (Pause for laughter.) At 16 you have to choose your faction, and Tris chooses Dauntless despite her Abnegation upbringing. And despite the fact that her test scores come up inconclusive – she’s the dreaded Divergent who has aspects of all of those things in her personality. Ahahahaha. Omigod, teenagers, you freaking kill me. Why wouldn’t everyone have more or less of these…forget it, I’ll just take it faith for the moment.

The opening parts are really summer camp movie-esque, if you will allow me to coin an awkward phrase, and have the sort of fun frission that Ender’s Gamehas, but without all the nudity. The world, the politics here make zero sense, and Roth even knows it, drawing out Tris’s understanding and misunderstanding of the senseless world she inhabits like a revelation. Omigod, the electoral college makes no sense at all!!1! You guys! Listen! 

After just an appalling beginning – I am still somewhat miffed about how boring that opening is – the book begins to pick up steam, drawing out action sequences and tight, whispered conversations with force and verve. (Um, did I really just use the word verve? I blame cold medicine.) I know I had some thoughts at some points about how this compared to The Hunger Games, but I feel like I’ve forgotten all of that. 

Oh! I know! It was that while the factions here might seem like the various Districts in The Hunger Games, the better analogy is/are the Houses in Harry Potter. The districts are geographical, and although the separate districts have their distinct industries and cultures, they aren’t so much self-selected as born into. Harry Potter has a distinctly summer camp vibe (or boarding school, if you’re British, but then you have the whole born-into thing of the British caste system, which is not something an American writer would do. Could I be more confusing please? Gawd.) 

Anyway, point being, I think the factions in Divergent work pretty well as a metaphor for the emotional code switching and cliche-forming that goes on in adolescence. Find a group of like-minded people, claw your way in, develop and enforce the norms that the group adheres to. Cry in your pillow when you don’t even fit into a group you yourself joined and maintained. And then figure out there is an epic conspiracy that will shake your dumb little schematic world and render everything you know obsolete: you’re going to graduate. Just kidding! But also for serious. The later half of Divergent is super fun, full of really action-y action and what would be almost trite revelations if they weren’t so badass. My parents areadults who have histories and secrets! Boys are fun to kiss! OMG! The two-party system feels occasionally rigged! 

So, in sum, I really liked the end of this, enough for me to want to read on, but I’m still not going to forgive that opening section for being so boring and clunky. I’m reasonably sure this isn’t cross-over YA material – like, if you don’t like or read YA, this is not a smart thing to start with – but if you have a sinus infection and have already gotten through the first boring 100 pages, it’s going to be just absolutely perfect.

The Whole Stupid Way We Are

This is the kind of book that gets me right between the ribs like a blade, but softer, like I’ve been running and my own body cuts itself as my breath heaves. Trying to talk about this book is a blinding overshare in the offing, my desire to remember myself as I was in a series of cutting anecdotes and sloppy regret almost overwhelming. I’m not going to do that this time, but that is just an accident that never happened, but could, and did, and will. 

The Whole Stupid Way We Areby N. Griffin is written in the present tense about two teenagers, Skint and Dinah, in a series of building days, in a place that feels like my snowy Midwest, an adolescence parceled out in hats unworn and coats outgrown. Lots of people hate the present tense, which is fine, you’re welcome, but here it is the breathless presence of adolescence, that moves along presently until that final blinding tense shift at the end. The one that put the blade at my ribs solidly into my heart.

I honestly don’t know that this book will track with young people, which is the usual shame of youth being wasted on the young, or them being cursed with it. I’m not even trashing young people here; I didn’t know like Dinah how all of my present tense flailing was going to turn out. Skint and Dinah are fierce friends, on the edge of something more serious than simple sexual attraction, running bullshit and antics. Dinah, she can almost see the shape of Skint’s damage, his coatless pain and anger and violence, but she’s too happy and grief-stricken and herself to see him in a resolution that makes sense. 

It’s all a long breathless anecdote: I had this one friend. One time, I got a call from my grandmother that Grandpa was dead. I brought videotapes to my sister when she was sick this one time. A million stories that I’m not going to tell. One time, Dinah and Skint saw a dancing donkey, and waved to two old people on a porch. One time there was a box of food in the food shelf, and freezer full of fish. Once, Skint thought so hard about Dinah that he almost put her through a wall. Memory is violence that never happened, or could have, or did. Once, I grieved for myself and everything I did wrong trying to do right. Memory is holy because it is profane, because it is mistakes unmade and in the making. 

I don’t know. This book is beautiful, stark, voice-driven young adult literature of the highest order. I love it. I love it like grief and my present-tense adolescence that cuts a stitch in my side if I think about it too much. It’s the brutal, gentle ‘I am’ that puts me right through the wall.


(I received an ARC from a bookseller, but no expectations were put on my review.)