Monday, March 9, 2009

Finished American Rust

I really liked American Rust by Philipp Meyer a lot. It deserves all the praise it's getting, I think, and I'm on the bandwagon. I have some quibbles, but I have quibbles with everything.

My initial comparison of it to James Joyce turns out to be pretty obvious. The stream-of-consciousness style becomes more and more the means of moving plot forward as the fat middle of the book settles in, and eventually there is also a big billboard in there inviting comparison to Joyce.

The thing I would have liked to see different has to do with the old saw about show-don't-tell. No doubt the author knows the old saw, so I assume he thought about this and made a deliberate artistic choice different from what mine would have been, and I respect that. But I think a lot of what the narration told us about the setting--the near apocalyptic decline of the region--was satisfactorily shown early in the book. The point was frequently revisited throughout the rest of the book without adding anything.

Maybe this is less a point about showing/telling than about making sure not to keep showing over and over unless there is some new meaning or interpretation or understanding or depth that is being added. Even when the environment the characters are operating in is vividly shown with new detail or metaphor, with a couple of exceptions, I don't think any new understanding is added. I don't see any artistic, thematic or narrative advantage to interrupting the present action for more scene-setting exposition after the first few chapters, and we were still getting it in regular doses up to the climax.

An impatient reader might respond to that choice, "OK, I get it, enough already." But you can see why that doesn't happen with most readers in this case. The book pulls off the single magic trick that good books must--creates characters that feel real so that the reader can't help but keep wonder how they're making out with that trouble they're having. I think the lesson is that if a writer can do that then readers will forgive or not notice just about any other imperfection in technique. I also assume that the author knows some old saws about how to summon that magic (I wish he'd tell me) and made the appropriate artistic choices deliberately, and it's impressive how good he is at it.

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