Reading Like a Writer
Zinzi Clemmons's What We Lose is about many things, but most profoundly it's about the death of the narrator's mother, examining the loss in ways that are both unusual and devastating.
The structure of the book is slightly unusual. The story follows the same character and seems to always employ the same voice, yet sections are distinct, even fragmented, and chronology is loose. Interspersed with narrative passages are philosophical musings, historical analyses, journalistic essays, and even a few graphs. They're all about the novel's themes, but they don't build in the way most of us are used to. I'd like to look at some techniques Clemmons uses to hold this book together, despite the disparate-seeming parts.
Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones is the story of a family caught in Hurricane Katrina. It's also about lost mothers, new mothers, dogs, and community. The narrator is Esch, a fifteen-year-old girl who is newly and secretly pregnant and who grieves deeply for her mother, who died a long time ago.
I'm interested in the way Esch's memories of her mother affect her storytelling style and the greater narrative.
Katie Kitamura's The Longshot is about a mixed martial arts fighter who has a rematch with the first fighter who ever beat him, back when he was winning, and he hasn't really been a winner since. It's about the journey from the top of a career to understanding himself as something else.
Good writing about competitive sports makes bodies present and physical, but still acknowledges the brain's involvement and the games it plays. In elite athletics, the mind and the body act together, but they might also work against each other. The Longshot makes that strange and nuanced mind/body relationship come alive.
Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream (translated by Megan McDowell) is a beautifully frightening novel. I don't want to give away the precise circumstances because the suspense is so well rendered, but I will say the dangers are psychological, chemical, and mystical—all wrapped together and teased to a taut and chilling terror. The first page sets the tone.
When the mind is made to contemplate the paradox of opposite actions happening in the same time and space, one image lies on top of the other and expands the space needed for a single moment of thought. In this way, a carefully contradictory description creates a sense of depth. The fast and the slow happen together and the reader's mind expands to encompass it.
When Ai-ming surprises me, I suspect that she surprises the narrator—and thus, that the narrator is not just making her up. Because her actions imply thoughts that I can't see and didn't even expect, I develop a theory of mind in relation to those actions; I infer a consciousness, a decision-making faculty, a will. The surprising act doesn't need to have meaning to the reader for it to signal that there's meaning inside the character. Even if we never find out just what makes her tick, we can see that she's freaking ticking!
The Vegetarian, by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith), tells of an unexpected vegetarian in South Korea and the destruction of her life and family as she turns into a tree. It's told from the perspectives of Yeong-hye's husband, brother-in-law, and sister.
It also employs some exceptional techniques for portraying strong emotion. In particular, we can learn from the brother-in-law's reaction to Yeong-hye's suicide attempt.
Toni Morrison's Jazz is about Harlem in the 1920s. There's a central incident involving love, betrayal, and violence. Joe Trace has an affair and murders his lover, Dorcas. Violet, his wife, shows up at Dorcas's funeral to cut her face. But the story spins outward from the central events and characters, encompassing the neighborhood and making secondary characters as real as primary ones. Even tertiary characters, background characters—those who often just take up space in a narrative—become real people.
So how does Morrison make the minor characters real? I'd like to look at Sweetness, a character as tertiary as they come, for some good techniques to do this.
Every time I pick up Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox, it becomes something different. (Next read, I'll put it down at other moments to see what else is there.) It's known as a retelling of Bluebeard, which is one thing it becomes. It's about domestic violence—that's another. It also becomes an entanglement of the body and the imaginary, an exploration of the ways the two can trade places and enable violence and of how an "imaginary" woman fights back. It's beautiful and complex and engages with ideas that are big and profound.
Despite all that, I'm going to look at one very simple sentence from the middle of the book: "Fear pressed her tongue against her gums."
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma is about four brothers growing up in Nigeria. It's also about the ways a mind can be poisoned and how an obsession can destroy you.
The scene I'm about to discuss is not pleasant. Two children are murdering a man to avenge their brothers.