Friday, June 16, 2006

Gone by Elisabeth Sheffield

I'm about 50 pages into it.

It's making me ask myself things like... why are books written? Why are books read? For years I have tried not to read anything written in this century, with very few exceptions including material I am critiquing for friends. I have read a few things but in general I haven't, especially I have tried to avoid other "experimental" writers because I'm afraid of being influenced, etc. I know that is not in the spirit of postmodern piracy and we're all very collectively conscious and text cannot be owned or authored or whatever, but this is just me. I read 19th century fiction, or else I read like... Jan Brett books to my kids.

So this is the first experimental fiction I've really read in a while. I have a few thoughts.

I think that readers naturally try to romanticize things. We try to imagine the settings as beautiful (or at least sublimely ugly) the characters as deep and true, and beautiful, and we want to believe there is significance. We're on the author's team, automatically, because we bought the book (or at least we're spending time to read it). It seems to me, and I could be completely wrong, that this author is trying to undercut my subconscious but earnest attempts to romanticize things in this book. I'm not allowed to believe the main character is beautiful or nice or even wise. Smart, she is. The smartness is packed into every crack of every sentence, with extra smartness crammed in around the edges. And a big fat dollop of smartness on top. Maybe it's droll of me to want there to be some romance here, and I mean, gauziness, not like... true love or anything. I want something to drag me back to the book after I eat dinner, make me consider staying up all night to finish it.

This book has a hook -- it's not lacking in a plot question. But I think the questiony lesbiany relationship burgeoning in old letters is maybe supposed to be the hook. There is also the question of whether the main character will find the painting she wants to find. The thing is... she's kind of rough. She puts on sweaty shirts. I *realize* okay? I realize that I'm not being very pomo and whatnot abotu this. But... I feel differently about reading a book where not only does the main character judge how sweaty her shirts are before putting them on, and sit down naked on the bathroom floor in grit, but that the narrative tells me that pointedly, as if... this is the kind of book you are reading, where the women's shirts are sweaty. Like... in your face, reader.

I am going to finish reading this book -- it's a challenge. There is quite a bit of great, great writing in this book, and I will have more to say later.


I finished it.

Right about page 100, my interest began to pick up significantly. I started having that urgent feeling like I had to know what was going on and finish the book. That feeling is the reason I read books (the reason most of us read books, I bet) and it was a relief when that kicked in. In my exalted opinion, page 100 is a bit late, and if I hadn't been committed to reading this, I would have put it down.

Having got to the end now, I think I do understand what Sheffield was doing. The book is about how women (as represented by the main character Stella), and also readers of fiction that's been written by a woman, assume that men are the villains, that the central female character (Stella's mother), especially if she is artistic, beautiful and from a disadvantaged background, must be the noble victim. This novel takes that expectation and turns it on its ear.

The novel is a mystery, and the reader has to reconstruct what has happened in this strange, exotic family, and figure out, as Stella puts it at one point, "who hurt who." While Stella herself is trying to figure it all out, from old letters and from talking to key players, the reader is always two steps behind her. One step behind, because we have to figure out what Stella already knows, which she does not openly tell us, and two steps because the style of the Stella sections is so difficult to unravel, almost purposefully obscuring what is already pretty murky. It takes a lot of work to get to the bottom of this mystery, and some of it I still don't quite understand... I just didn't pay close enough attention, maybe, to tie up all the loose ends.

The Stella sections are in present tense, and are my very least favorite type of stream of consciousness, where the character seems to think about each step she is taking, literally, where every motion or breath triggers a song lyric association, where there is just a swirling flood of thoughts surrounding the slightest action. Nobody thinks that much, that coherently (even thoug it reads as incoherent) and it makes for a very disembodied, difficult to picture narrative. The book's strongest sections, however, are letters from Stella's aunt, Judith. Those sections are great, at times excrutiatingly emotional, in spite of the fact that they *seem* to be written in a more detached, less immediate and personal style. I connected more with the letters in their stiffness and formality than I did with the rushed breathiness of the present time sequences.

For those who are willing to work this book has rich rewards. There is a very unpretentious and ungauzy portrayal of an artist who comes off as brilliant and believable at the same time. There are lots of motifs that pervade the book, affecting you on that almost subconscious level where you connect ideas as you read. The idea of the missing eye, for example, resurfaces throughout, connecting with many parts of the book and anchoring the theme of absense, invisibility, and what is unseen but still there. I really liked that. Also the idea of value, of copying, of replication, centered around the Winslow Homer that the main character is seeking and played out in her mother's art as well. I liked the idea on page 135 about how two photographic prints of a nonexistent original could hardly be said to be copies of each other. There were lots of smart, interesting ideas in the book, buried under the 'cuz' and 'gotta' and 'gonna' and 'yeah' language that Stella flooded us with.

Once the book takes a hold of you, its grip is firm. I did not love the present tense sections, but I loved the contrast of the letters from Aunt Judith. They were like islands of great writing in a sea of Joycey crazyland sometimes. I didn't like some of the things that Stella did, that seemed completely irrational and weird (like trying to seduce Uncle Buck or reading her own letter last -- I thought she might read her own letter first, and try to *kill* Uncle Buck) but I appreciated how omplicated the puzzle really was, after all the mud had swirled away. The underlying message, too, I think, is a treasure worth unburying.

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