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What I learned about my craft by reading

February 17, 2014

I’ve been trying to expand my literary reach lately, so I’ve gone to the Book Riot list of 100 books to be well-read. I read a fair amount, but there’s a certain sameness about the latest Lee Child or Ace Atkin’s latest Spenser. Why not read something new?

My first choice was Gone Girl, mostly because it seems like it’s been in the best seller section at Barnes & Noble since about 2003 (an exaggeration). It wasn’t bad. It set up the scenario, got you thinking all kinds of evil things about the protagonist, this guy you were supposed to like to some degree–then turned everything on its head. The ending was less-than-satisfying for me, but that’s the way the world works sometimes.

My section choice was American Pastoral by Philip Roth. As I compared various best-books lists, this title seemed to come up a lot. Why not?

As I read it–I’m about a quarter of the way through–it’s different than most things I’ve read. It’s different from anything I would dare to write. So far, there’s not a lot happening. Oh, there’s been the set-up of the back story, which I won’t reveal here. And there’s the establishment of The Swede, the protagonist’s childhood boy-crush and how things seemed to turn out fifty years later, followed by an explanation of the way things really turned out.

But there’s a massive amount of exposition. So far, the majority of the story has been told from deep inside the mind of the protagonist–and sometimes it’s a little much. I find myself skimming, looking for dialog ahead, getting lost in some of the expansive sentences that seem to meander like and old river, threatening to cut off some of the larger curves as their own little oxbow lakes.

Ox-bow lakes form when a river meanders so much it touches and forms a new river, cutting off the former curves. Mister Trivia, that’s me.

And yet, I’m happy for reading this book, regardless of the way it ends. I’m happy for it because the themes being explored are, in some ways, larger than the story story in which they’re presented. It’s not just about how generations interact, but why they interact that way–as much sociology as psychology, but woven through the memories of this one man.

They’ve made me consider the depth at which I know my own characters–and the astounding fact that while I know my most recent protagonist very well–that I would be able to accurately predict how he would react to almost anything–I don’t know why. I don’t know about his own underlying structure. I don’t know if his grandfather came through Ellis Island, and whether his grandfather’s straight-ahead work-focused approach would allow for a guy who makes a living talking into a radio microphone.

In short, regardless of how this book works out for me, it’s been worth the read.


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