Commonwealth: Time, Memory, Appropriation (and a digression about Joseph Boyden)

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I haven’t read Bel CantoAnn Patchett’s (most?) famous novel. I probably should because everything I’ve read by her provokes some kind of… reaction in me. Commonwealth was no exception. The novel moves around in time, place and narrative point of view, but in each cascading chapter the reader is working out the question of what happened to the Cousins and Keating families: specifically how one event in the children’s lives functions as a pivot for each member of the family, with subsequent decisions (and indecisions) all read as consequence or reaction to this event. The event itself is shrouded until late in the novel, and so the earlier chapters read with an urgent questioning of who did what and when and how the chapter’s present came to be. The telescoping and glossing of time makes sharp for the reader how we each assign significance and power to particular ‘chapters’ in our own life, glossing the in-between periods of relative routine and allowing only those with the greatest resonance, pain or to stand out. Indeed while this one event is certainly a pivot point in the family, each of the six children in the two families have their own independent moments of decisive change, reminding readers that what we remember, and what we see as the critical moments in our lives, can be at once externally wrought and independently determined.

Of the characters I found myself most drawn to Franny, an almost-lawyer, turned cocktail waitress, consummate reader. Franny finds herself – places herself? (because yes, the novel is also about what we choose for ourselves versus what happens to us) – married to a once famous, now something of a has-been, author. In the course of their courtship she tells him the story of her family. So dramatic is their tale that the author feels inspired to write again. And write he does. The published novel of her family’s story re-establishes him as a great writer, spurring book deals and tours, celebrity and the associated trappings including beach houses and lobster. Of course the use of her family’s experience also traumatizes her siblings and parents, bringing to public attention their private lives. Franny realizes too late the cost of giving away what was never properly hers, and we witness her attempts to reconcile with herself this guilt and belated recognition of her share responsibility for family story. (The author, meanwhile, remains convinced that her story simply ‘inspired’ him, rather than – as it is – a wholesale appropriation of their experiences for his commercial and personal gain).

Of course I couldn’t read a novel exploring the rights and responsibilities of authorial power without thinking about the Joseph Boyden story saturating the Can Lit world. Boyden’s story is one of misrepresentation and appropriation, as it is of the Canadian colonial project intent on assimilation and having comfortable representative voices. It is also a story that has assigned responsibility for misrepresentation to the author, casting readers as passively duped. I think it useful in our engagement with Boyden to consider one of the threads Commonwealth explores and that is the extent to which the reader holds responsibility, too, for imagining a single literary work as representative of a people or as a work that can be read in isolation from its context and production. With Boyden I was – as a white settler – only too happy to read his works as a lens to explore indigenous history and present in Canada. It is easy to be – as I often am – a lazy reader, content to see a novel in isolation, to fail to bring that novel into conversation with the context of its production and its reception. Boyden has much to answer for, as do readers.

Blame is easy to assign, but as Franny grapples in Commonwealth, so must I as a reader think through and attempt to reconcile my share of responsibility. And (as we did at book club this month) engage in conversation about authorial appropriation, what stories can and do get told and privileged.

So sure. Commonwealth is worth a read.

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, New York Times Notable

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