Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Projection and Susan Choi

If I remember my high school psychology, "projection" describes the tendency to notice in others one's own faults, especially the faults one is most anxious not to have exposed. I suspect myself of this tendency sometimes in my response to other writers--whatever it is I'm worried about in my own book at the moment I seem to be hypersensitive to (or imagining) in the published work I'm reading.

That may be going on now during my reading of Susan Choi's books, especially her first, The Foreign Student, which I read over the last few days. Like I wrote before, I gobbled up her second book, American Woman, but the bloom started to come off toward the end of that, and I only got a little ways into her third book, A Person of Interest, before giving up on it.

I had a more favorable response when I got to The Foreign Student, but all the way through I noticed and was often puzzled by and sometimes annoyed by the same quality that nagged at me in the other books. And not coincidentally, it's the same quality that I strongly suspect I need to tackle in the next draft of my book. That's the tendency to include digressions that are at least unnecessary and possibly unhelpful or distracting.

In my own book, I need to decide about several scenes, first, is this necessary? The answer is probably always going to be no. And probably that should be the end of the thinking, and I should just cut it. But usually I'm trying to rationalize keeping it, so the next question is if the digression is at least helpful or pleasurable in some way--if it is worth the trade off of departing from the core story. How far a departure can I get away with?

The ultimate question should simply be "Does it work?" Leaving aside traditional narrative structures, does this break from form somehow still work? And with that question in mind, I'm trying to be open to what Choi's books actually do and not judge them by what I'm trying to do with mine. All of her present-action scenes are so vivid and engaging that I lap them up, and I long to be in them. I assume someone who writes that well is making deliberate decisions about the structure, and I try to be open to their choices.

But I just don't get why her first book is organized the way it is. It is titled The Foreign Student after all, and it opens from the POV of that student. The reader is presumably being promised his story, presumably about the time in his life implied in the title--when he is a foreign student. Some amount of background to explain the factors that influence his story makes sense. Some shift in POV isn't unheard of, if following those other characters gives some insight about the foreign student's character and story.

But probably half of the main character's story is flashback to before the present action. And the other half of the book is about another character--his love interest, Katherine. Much of that is also in flashback to decades before the present action and regarding the childhood origins of her relationships with other characters, only one of whom has any bearing on the main character and only in a minor way. I never understood why we had wandered off like that or what story we were following.

In the end I could see how it all "came together" in the sense that I could look back and i.d. how everything related. But I couldn't say how all the other stuff was necessary in retrospect and I definitely couldn't understand while I was reading it why it was necessary. I don't think it does "work." The digressions--if you can call them that when they make up so much of the book--don't serve the story. I could be engaged by individual episodes, but I could never feel like the stakes in a given story were getting higher and that things were getting more complicated, because I couldn't see how any of it related.

At the end of American Woman, when the narrative is driving toward the conclusion of the AW's story, we are interrupted to get backstory on other characters, from their POV, for the purposes of complicating the AW's story. In that case, I would say the whole novel works despite that. It feels like an annoying disruption of a narrative flow that I was really engaged in, and it felt like late in the game to introduce those complications. I think those complications (e.g. the father's painful history, which we can see in retrospect has indirectly three steps later influenced the behavior of the central character in the present action) ought to have been introduced earlier, in briefer form, and in a way that is integrated more fluidly with the present action.

Which is word-for-word almost exactly what my readers have been advising me to do with some particular episodes in my book. So I tend not to trust my own reading. Perhaps I'm projecting my problems onto her books. But I honestly don't think I am.

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