Thursday, March 5, 2009

American Rust by Philipp Meyer

I started reading American Rust by Philipp Meyer last night and am awful sleepy today because I was up late with it. It's rare for me to get a book so new before I can get it at a used price, a best-seller discount or in paperback, but I decided this would be a kind of "work expense." Last week it got a highly complimentary review by Michiko Kakutani in the NY Times, and I was inspired to study exactly how the book works and what lead to the positive review and to see what I could learn from that.

I choose this book for close study like this because there are a lot of similarities to my situation and my book. It's a first novel. He appears to be not far from my age. Like mine, it's in third person, free indirect style with multiple points of view. Like mine, the setting is important and it may play a similar kind of role in linking the individual story with the social context.

So, I'm starting to dig in, and I'm noticing important differences within these similarities. One, the multiple points of view in that case are organized differently than in mine--probably more effectively. In mine, we stick with the main character for several chapters at a time and then break for single long chapters with other characters. One of my fears is that there is a jarring effect, leading the reader to wonder why we're leaving the main character and if this other POV is necessary. My one reader so far has warned me about this. In American Rust, the more frequent and earlier shifts in POV train the reader on what to expect. Arguably when you leave the main character, it provokes a desire to return to him that is a kind of delicious anticipation rather than provoking impatience with the detour. I hope I'm wrong about the potential flaw in mine, because right now I feel like it's in the DNA of the book and can't be undone without a complete rewrite.

Second, the free indirect style in this book has something unique about it--different from mine and different from anything else--that I haven't quite put my finger on. Here's a first-draft attempt to describe what's going on, but not a thesis I'm committed to. (After all, I've only read a few chapters.)

One characteristic of free indirect style is how it "pulses" into and away from the consciousness of the character, in James Wood's words. Sort of like the tide going in and out, the reader is floated in close to the limited understanding of that character and then floated back out to the more omniscient understanding of the narrator. Wood illustrates this by looking closely at the metaphors in the narration. Usually you are getting very free-ranging metaphors that reflect the voice and intelligence of the narrator/author and sometimes you move in close and the metaphor you get is one that only the character you are following would use. It's like you are living in their head for that moment. Wood says there's a kind of magic happening at that moment where the language seems to "belong to" both the character and narrator at once. That's a big part of how the individual consciousness is created in modern literature since Flaubert.

In American Rust, so far to me it feels like that gentle tide floating us back and forth is a rip tide. From one sentence to the next, within paragraphs, we are getting both the character's interior and then the narrator's voice again and then back again. And while we are in the character's head, we are hard in it, much like the stream of consciousness of Ulysses. (I see the author cites Joyce on his website.) Whereas the more customary method is to obscure the distinction a little--to create the sensation that the words are botht he character's and the narrator's at once.

There were a few places where I was aware of that sudden change withing grafs and the spell was broken, but like I said, I was up late reading it, so something about it was working for me. I really do feel like the interiority of these characters--three so far--have been very naturally and persuasively established so that they are alive for me. In fact, the most basic magic that a book has to accomplish, making the reader feel transported by making the situation and characters feel real, has happened for me. I'm eager to get back to it.

Well, I don't feel like I've said what it is exactly that the book does to achieve that effect or how it relates to my own project, but I'll keep studying on it.

No comments: