Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Recent reading--Jeffrey Lent, Irene Nemerov and E.L. Doctorow

I went a couple months without much inclination to read fiction, but I'm back in the groove lately. Last week I read a new novel by Jeffrey Lent titled A Peculiar Grace. I think I picked it up originally on the basis of a positive review that I can't remember and because it's in third person and somewhat "contemplative." I guess I mean anything that isn't a shoot-em-up is a book with a certain amount of navel gazing in it. This book shows how gross a generalization that is. It does a really good job of being contemplative but also having a lot of real action in it--human behaviors that are both credible and surprising and suspenseful.

Mostly, anyway. I can think of decisions that the character made "all of a sudden" that I didn't feel like were earned. It boils down to the essential challenge in contemporary literary fiction where an omniscient narrator doesn't spell out every thought and feeling of the character. Has the narrator given enough detail that the reader infer a motivation that hasn't been explicitly stated? In a lot of contemporary fiction, I think, there's a certain laziness of thinking where the writer relies on a sense of apparent mystery to permit plot maneuvers that are not actually set up and earned.

There's a little of that in A Peculiar Grace I think. I don't know why the narrator decides "all of a sudden" to run off to upstate New York. I don't know why he ends up getting it on with the girl--I believed him when he said it wasn't that kind of relationship.

No doubt, this is because I'm a dumbass reader. Anyway, I was usually eager to find out what happens next and the fact that a lot of the plot was moved along between episodes by the contemplation in the main character's mind as he worked or went about his business was interesting to me, because that's so hard to pull off.

I read Irene Nemerovsky's Fire In the Blood last week. Her books collected in Suite Francais have been very popular in the last year and half, and I read those earlier this year also. I'm not sure what to say about them, so I think I'll let them sit for awhile. I'm conflicted about them--there's a lot that's very good--fascinating, and high-quality in the craft. And there's a lot that's unsatisfying about the perspective.

I started re-reading E.L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel the other day. I love everything by Doctorow and read this several years ago. It's a fictionalized account of what the elder child of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg might have been several years later. I picked it up again because--I thought--it's in the third person and it's about a young boy. Now that I'm into it I'm seeing what I had forgotten, which is that it's only partly in third person and about a young boy. It's actually an unusual experiment that switches back and forth between first and third person, Daniel narrating his life and then sometimes talking about himself as if he were someone else. And it spans many years.

I'm actually in the mood to go read it some more right now.

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