Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: November 2006

Review: Other People’s Worlds

Other People’s Worlds, by William Trevor
9/10, a lovely, sad story of several unfortunate people brought together by another unfortunate.

William Trevor specializes in writing Irish stories, which are not only stories that take place in Ireland, but stories in which sad things happen to good people in beautiful, lyrical ways. His books (the two I’ve read) stand out in that they chronicle events that would be fairly dramatic, if summarized, but they happen in the least dramatic way possible. There is no lingering over the moment when the earth-shattering telegram arrives, no attention paid to the flood of emotions in the wake of betrayal. He chronicles lives rather than events, seeking to show how each of the things that happen to a person make up that person’s character. The Story of Lucy Gault (previously reviewed) focused on the lives of Lucy and her parents; in Other People’s Worlds, he spreads a wider net.

Julia is the nominal heroine of the story, excited over her engagement to Francis, a young actor she recently met. Trevor switches points of view throughout the book, and immediately after we experience Julia’s happiness, we see from Francis’s point of view that he’s happy as well, but for a different reason. It isn’t as simple as a scheme to steal Julia’s land or money; he really is happy to be with her, but he’s happier to be playing the role of the groom. As the story progresses, we are introduced to Doris, a previous girlfriend of Francis, and her (and his) daughter, ironically named Joy.

The unfolding of the wedding, the honeymoon, and, in larger part, the aftermath, form an intricate braid of characters. Julia, Francis, and Doris find their lives intertwined, with Doris’s mental health particularly suffering, and it is Julia’s quiet acceptance of her fate and attempt to understand and help others that carries us through the book. Although Francis does terrible things, Trevor makes him nearly a sympathetic character, so that by the end of the book, you’re left with the overwhelming sense of feeling sorry for everyone involved, and admiring the steady Julia for making the best of a bad situation.

Trevor writes characters and settings beautifully, and even though the book is fairly languidly paced, there’s never a drop in interest. You can see where most of the events are going, but he sneaks a few surprises up on you in the way P.G. Wodehouse can do (though to tragic rather than comic effect), or Kazuo Ishiguro. Above all, this is a book about people, and if you like meeting flawed, sad people, do not miss this book.

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An excerpt

I’m currently reading Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler, another author from my Fabulist Class. Full review eventually, but I wanted to share this excerpt as well, about a girl growing up in the late 1800s:

“As a child she’d been passive and biddable. […] But just beneath this tractable surface lay romance and rebellion. She loved to read, engaging books with such intensity that her parents had allowed only the dullest of them, and then curtailed the time she spent with those. Her mother was quick to spot the symptoms of overstimulation, and Lizzie had spent many hours lying in bed, sentenced to absolute inactivity until she could be calm again.
“It was an ill-conceived punishment. With everything but her imagination forbidden to her, Lizzie’s reveries grew ever more fevered. She could lie without moving for hours in the semblance of obedience, and all the while an unacceptable cascade of pirates, prophets, and Indians pounded through her mind.”

Review: A Long Way Down

A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby
8/10, a darkly humorous (laugh out loud at times) novel with four main characters and an unsatisfying ending

If there’s one thing Nick Hornby does well, it’s characters. I can’t remember the name of the record store clerk in High Fidelity, but I can’t forget his penchant for making lists, nor his hiding in shame in a neighbor’s flower bed for most of an afternoon. Marcus from About A Boy (whose name I only remember because of the wonderful movie) and his intelligence and inability to fit in are as memorable as Will’s self-enforced isolation from the same book. Even Fever Pitch features the narrator himself as a character charting his own fortunes with those of his favorite team, Arsenal.

A Long Way Down is no exception. Hornby branches out to four characters this time, all so well drawn that he might have entirely omitted all the dialogue attributions. The interplay and dialogue is terrific between Martin, a fallen former TV personality; Maureen, a despondent housewife; Jess, a precocious and outspoken teen; and J.J., an American ex-musician. They all meet on the roof of a notorious suicide spot on New Year’s Eve, having gone there with the intention of enhancing its reputation. Through an amusing series of events, they talk each other out of their suicide attempts, but if you were expecting that they would show each other the value of their lives immediately and renounce the thought of suicide, you don’t know Nick Hornby. They are only postponing their suicides, because the moment has clearly passed.

The thing is, that little secret bonds the group together despite their wishes to fade to their respective blacks. Jess is the energy in the group, but Maureen is really its focus, and they are such different people that their interactions remain fun and real throughout the book.

The problem with the ending is that Hornby sets up the characters to say that they aren’t going to make any big changes in their lives. This sort of paints him into a corner. By the end of the book, the characters have changed frustratingly little, and even a cute metaphor with the London Eye (which you almost have to have seen to appreciate) can’t save you from the feeling that there’s more to the story–or that there should be. In all the books I mentioned above, the characters change and grow in believable ways over the course of the book. Here, I think the setup almost doomed him: you want to feel by the end of the book that none of them will contemplate suicide again. But if he were to present that, it would invalidate the premise by implying that their original reasons for committing suicide weren’t substantial. Hornby being the talented writer that he is, he does as well with that premise as one could hope, and while I loved the journey, I wanted more from the ending.

Rolling downhill

A problem I tend to run into while writing is that when I get near the end of a story and I know I’m near the end, I “hurry up” the scenes to get to the ending. That finish line is a great motivator–perhaps too great, actually. People have actually remarked that the ends of some of my longer stories seem to take place fairly quickly, and when I go back and edit now, it’s something I look for.

A corollary to that is a little enjoyment I get out of books when I’m not completely absorbed in the story. It’s fun to imagine the author writing the story, wandering about enjoying the landscape in the beginning, getting excited as the plot picks up the pace, and relaxing as everything winds down. That kind of thing comes through in your writing, which is why I always tell people that if they’re not enthusiastic about what they’re writing, if they’re just writing to get to the scene that interests them, skip it. Go right to the fun parts. Your enjoyment–more generally, your attitude–communicates itself to your reader.

I’m trying a tactic with a story I’m working on now where I’m sending updates to the person who provided the idea, and trying to make sure that each update ends with a “what will happen now??” moment. Not necessarily a cliffhanger, but something that catches the imagination. This is a trick from film and is stolen from the screenwriting class I’m taking now, but it applies to stories too, I think. Good practice for keeping the reader interested in your story as it goes along.

Chapter 2 of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” ends with the sentence, “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” I remember reading somewhere that “the title of Chapter 3 may be the least-read chapter title in literature.”

I like that notion.