It took my book club people expressing total surprise that I liked Bridges of Madison County for me to reflect on why I liked it. I kept saying ‘but it’s good writing’ and they were like… no. They read a few passages out loud. They reminded me of the repeated references to peregrines and the representation of men as total wood-smoke masculinity. And I blushed. They were right. The writing is excessive. The representation of masculinity is problematic. The commitment to soul-mate-love is unbelievable.
I liked it. I liked the frame narrative and its efficacy in trapping me into believing the reality of the fiction. I liked the romance of the relationship with its intensity and improbability and sacrifice. I recognized the limitations of this romance – of course any relationship that lasts for a week can be idealized for the rest of your life, you never have to deal with mortgage payments or diapers or redistributing emotional labour – but still found it compelling and heartbreaking.
So yeah. It’s problematic and not brilliant writing. And I still liked it. Plus it took like ten minutes to read, so there’s that.
Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage is great. It follows Celestial and Roy and the dissolution of their marriage after Roy is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. They’ve been married for a year at the point, and the book explores what the obligations are for each individual in marriage/committed relationships when the circumstances of the initial arrangement change. To what do we owe one another in perpetuity? When do we get to change our minds? What must we sacrifice for the institution, or for the other person, and when do we get to privilege our own happiness? What rights do we have (to be selfish) (to expect steadfast commitment)?
Celestial and Roy’s marriage is constrasted with that of their respective parents. Each set of parents offering up a different vision of the same questions of commitment. I was moved by the scene of Roy’s father (name escapes me) burying his mother and wondered at that kind of grief.
As much as it is a book about the institution of marriage, it is also about manhood. If both (marriage and manhood) are imagined in our current moment to be under threat, or flailing, or failing, this book harkens back to a vision of each that is, if not idealized, than at least coherent. Roy puts forward visions and versions of what it means to be a man, as if to test the hypothesis or to have them rejected. In so doing the reader can also examine whether there is any value to be had in a constellations of qualities we might call ‘manhood,’ or whether this institution, too, has served its function and can be dispensed with like so many fast divorces.
It’s also a book about race and the state. Much of Celestial’s concern about how to respond to Roy’s experience of incarceration is to know that he is a black man in America and that his experience of the criminal justice system is visited upon him and his family in ways that are at once extrordinary in their injustice and perfectly ordinary in their frequency. Celestial must weigh whether she has particular obligations, in addition to those of being a wife, because she is the wife of a black man falsely accused and imprisoned.
Taken together the book explores resonant questions and does so with beautiful, captivating writing. It’s well worth a read before the end of the summer.
Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks is the book you need to read this year. Set in the near future, we find ourselves in an American where abortion laws have not only been repealed, but women are prosecuted as murderers for seeking abortions, in vitro is banned and adoption is limited to two parent families. The pink wall bars women from seeking help in Canada, as Canadian border officials, nervous of losing ground with the country’s biggest trading partner, mercilessly enforce the law by returning women to the States for prosecution. It is, in other words, an altogether too relevant read. Continue reading
The only thing I remember from first year English is a lecture that argued that all creative writing (whether poetry or prose) is about the urge by authors to create something which will outlast them. That every poem or story is, in the end, a valiant gesture toward immortality. And that readers should read with an eye to the way the author intentionally and accidentally imbues their work with this impulse; that is, that the discerning reader will always be able to find evidence of the author’s vanity, of their arrogance in thinking their work will endure. At the time I found the argument moving and persuasive. Since then I think back on it more as an example of excellent teaching, it was a well paced lecture with convincing examples and analysis. Which isn’t to say I now thinking writing isn’t about immortality, just that I haven’t had cause to declare an allegiance in the great What is Writing For debate of humanity. Continue reading