Sunday, April 29, 2012

Two Writers to Watch: Paula McLain and Dana Spiotta

     The Paris Wife by Paula McLain saw excellent reviews last year, sold well, and even made People magazine’s Top 10.  I bought the book because I met McLain at the Books on the Banks event at the Cincinnati Convention Center in October.  I found her to be wryly amusing with a cool haircut.  Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta was nominated for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award (the only American book award that counts).  I was looking for this book ever since I heard
Maureen Corrigan first speak about it on NPR in September because it sounded so intriguing. 

     Both novels deal with artists and those loved ones in their orbit.  However, they question the price of fame and success and whether they’re legitimate as definitions for artistic value.  Career achievements and sustained personal happiness are mutually exclusive and the plot trajectories of both works examine what happens to families when the ‘star’ member is unable to have them simultaneously or even at all.

One of Hemingway's Cats That Looks Suspiciously
Like an Ancestor of Dexter
     McLain’s novel describes Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, which was to landed St. Louis heiress Hadley Richardson, but it is from the wife’s point of view.  McLain captures Hemingway’s style – elegant expository narrative that is rarely metaphoric.  With Hemingway, the reader fills in the interior, emotional life of the characters through the exterior description.  She also nails his style of dialogue, which can be simultaneously multi-layered and precious.  That preciousness is usually unexpected and somewhat annoying.  I assume it reflects, to some degree, how the cognoscenti spoke in the 1920s.  She also convincingly recreates the Paris of that time and the Lost Generation in a myriad of subtle details from eating, partying, and shopping habits all the way down to sanitary arrangements.

     There’s a tension in Hemingway’s work between the macho – almost brutal – exposition and the delicacy of the dialogue that almost seems to foreshadow a breakdown on the characters’ parts, thereby actually reflecting much of Hemingway’s and his biological family’s life.  McLain mirrors this in The Paris Wife, but it’s thrown into a greater relief for most readers who probably know that this relationship won’t work out.  McLain builds suspense beyond the historical facts by utilizing narration that is first person singular, rather than the third person singular of Hemingway’s work.

Paula McLain
     The problem with this novel is that Hadley isn’t as intriguing as Ernest.  We know he’s very complex – sensitive, unstable, generous, selfish, loving, and extraordinarily insecure, but this is off-set by the fact that the reader knows he’ll be lauded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century once he gets The Sun Also Rises written and published.  However, this also destroys their marriage.  Hadley, on the other hand, is worried about money, about her man, about their circle of friends, and then about their son Bumby, and their constant traveling.  I never had much of a sense that she did any of it very well.  She was always calling Marie Cocotte, who was both her housekeeper and babysitter/nanny, even though she keeps saying they don’t have any money.  (I’d love to know what Marie Cocotte thought of the Hemingways and how she survived the Occupation fifteen years later, but no luck there.  Yet again, the working class benignly helps out the middle/artistic class and we know nothing else of them).

     I know I was supposed to find the plot tragically romantic, but I didn’t and it was because of Hadley.  McLain is very talented and I plan to read more of her work, but she deserves stronger material.  Serious readers of Hemingway already know his A Moveable Feast.  An acquaintance of mine thought that some of this novel closely mirrored that book.  I know I’m asking for a different novel, but I wish McLain had focused on Gertrude Stein or Coco Chanel or Marlene Dietrich i.e. a woman in Hemingway’s orbit that was on his level in terms of talent and charisma.

     Dana Spiotta takes a different route with Stone Arabia, which I think is destined to be a classic.  How did I know it was so good?  Because after I finished reading the final sentence, I almost dropped the book.  It just hit me somewhere emotionally and profoundly so.  Yes, the ending is the epitome of “Epiphany”, one of those dreary literary terms we had to memorize as undergraduates. I picked up the book and re-read the last chapter to figure how Spiotta had so casually pulled the reader into her joyous and shattering conclusion.

    Stone Arabia is the type of work that I can write about, but readers have to experience for themselves because I cannot fully do it justice.   Firstly, because it’s about music, which is the most difficult art form to portray or describe because it has no narrative strand on which to tie prose and, more specifically, the way it acts as an undertow in people’s lives.  Nik Worth is a songwriter/singer/guitarist who almost makes it in the early 1980s, but is betrayed.  Instead, he creates a whole alternate faux history that continues in a series of chronicles while he privately records a series of albums that he shares with a select few and scrapes by working as a bartender in a dive.  His younger sister Denise both hero worships him and has his number.  

Dana Spiotta
    Spiotta moves between different narrators while showing how rock music transformed a single parent working class family over a forty-year period.  It’s a short novel, but it feels epic.  Spiotta covers a lot of ground in the story, but she also daringly takes on a Brechtian Epic technique by having Denise trying to organize her own memories and feelings in terms of major news stories that have nothing to do with her, but with which she wants hopelessly to interact.  As she tries to connect with the world on a larger scale, Nik retreats further into himself and his art.  

     Not only does Spiotta use these siblings and their relationship as a synecdoche for the Blank Generation that came of age in the late 1970s, but she can suggest so much about the music that Nik creates through her prose that she simultaneously creates a world while viewing that period.  Nik is entrancing because he hasn’t succeeded in a larger sense, but his talent is unquestionable.  Denise’s simultaneous compassion and desperation is a powerful armature for a reader’s empathy.  This is a novel that takes off from some of the themes and formal concerns of Don DeLillo and Joan Didion, especially those works from the heyday of the Blank Generation, but it never feels forced or self-conscious even though the characters are searching for their selves.   She makes the music, the California working class, and the joy of music her own.

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