Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Completed: Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England


I'll give a brief synopsis of the book first. The main character, Sam Pulsifer has just been released from prison at 28. As a teenager, he "accidentally" set fire to Emily Dickinson's home and didn't realize there were people upstairs. They died in the fire and he spends 10 years in prison. Upon his release, he meets a woman and marries her, but doesn't reveal his past (apparently Google doesn't exist in this book?). The novel follows the unraveling of his life as other writers' homes in New England start to burn down.

I actually enjoyed this novel more than I thought I would, but for a strange reason. Allow me to explain. And it's going to take a little bit of backstory, and there are 3 important parts that will eventually lead up to me talking about the actual book.

1. Last week was my first English department meeting of the new school year, and I always enjoy catching up with the other readers in my department. (It's sort of cheap shorthand, but there are more writers than readers in our department. I tend to have more in common with the readers than the writers.) Brandon and I were talking about a book we both loved, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. One of the things we discussed was audience: who is the author writing the book for? In the case of BtWaM, we agreed that Coates is writing for a black audience. White folks might read the book, but he's not writing it for them or to them. We also talked about how this was the author's intention: he knows who he's writing for. He's not dumbing anything down for a white audience. He's not explaining the basics. It's important to note that the author's intention is congruent with the outcome---he knows what he's doing.

2. I then mentioned Long Division, and how I thought one of the most powerful scenes in the book is also about audience. Remember when City visits the local library and thinks, "But the Bible was better than those other spinach-colored Classic books that spent most of their time flossing with long sentences about pastures and fake sunsets and white dudes named Spencer. I didn’t hate on spinach, fake sunsets, or white dudes named Spencer, but you could just tell that whoever wrote the sentences in those books never imagined they’d be read by Grandma, Uncle Relle, LaVander Peeler, my cousins, or anyone I’d ever met." In this scene, we have a character reflecting on the fact that he has no choice but to read books for which he is not the intended audience. But there are no other options: no one writes books about people like him, and no one writes books for people like him. What's also implied is the intended audience for books about white dudes named Spencer is that they would never have to read books about City, Melahatchie MS, or any of the struggles or triumphs these characters experience. [Hence, the We Need Diverse Books campaign.]

3. Brandon then said something Very Interesting. The kind of Interesting where something starts working differently in your brain. I LOVE it when that happens. 

He talked about Jonathan Franzen--that dickhead has a new book coming out this week--and Brandon said (I'm paraphrasing): I feel that way when I'm reading some white male authors, like Franzen. That world he describes is so foreign to me. But the thing that's interesting is that I don't even think Franzen knows he's describing a white world." This is the unspoken implication of point #2 above: If all you ever read are books about white dudes named Spencer, if all the media you consume is with white men (like most movies), if you are surrounded by only white people...do you even know what you're writing is predominantly about white culture? I think it's pretty safe to say that Franzen absolutely does not. 

But it also helped me understand why I was slightly more forgiving of AGtWHiNE [hilarious acronym], because this question: Does the author know he's writing a WMFUN? This was at least a mildly interesting way to interrogate this book as I was reading it.

Pretty early in the book, before the conversation with Brandon,  I had noted the following passage. Sam was in a bookstore and making fun of memoirs (Ha! I enjoyed that!) and as he's browsing the bookshelves, he said, "I passed through the fiction section. I felt sorry for it immediately: it was so small, so neglected and poorly shelved, and I nearly bought a novel out of pity, but the only thing that caught my eye was something titled The Ordinary White Boy. I plucked it off the shelf. After all, I'd been an ordinary white boy once, before the killing and burning, and maybe I could be one again someday, and maybe this book could help me do it, even it if was a novel and not useful, generically speaking. On the back it said the author was a newspaper reporter from update New York. I opened the novel, which began, 'I was working as a newspaper reporter in upstate New York,' and then I closed the book and put it back on the fiction shelf, which maybe wasn't all that different from the memoir shelf after all, and I decided never again to feel sorry for the fiction section, the way you stopped feeling sorry for Lithuania once it rolled over so easily and started speaking Russian so soon after being annexed" (88).

I remember stopping and thinking that something interesting was going on there. This was a WMFUN that seemed to be admitting what it was right off the bat! How refreshing! It wasn't until my conversation with Brandon that I realized why the passage about struck me as so different. One of the reason I'm so annoyed by most WMFUNs is that they don't even know what they're doing. The author's intention is to write "Literature", but instead they're writing WMFUNs. And because they are men, they get away with it! The literary establishment fawns all over them. But when women write books like this, they are "chick lit." If a woman wrote AGtWHiNE, I bet it would have been classified as YA. 

And, really, it's lucky that I had this conversation while reading this book. Honestly, it really did make the entire thing more bearable. As it was, the book is sort of stupid and messy. The author crafts some nice sentences and is an acute observer of human behavior. There were several passages I marked because they were so true and real. For example, Sam says, "Sometimes when you're sad...you have to sit around and wait for your sadness to turn into something else, which it surely will, sadness in this way being like coal or most sorts of larvae" (164). I thought this was an interesting analogy---how much of our other feelings are fueled by the coal of sadness? Quite a lot, is my guess. 

Or here's another observation that feels really true, at least to me: "I'd never been on vacation myself, not really, and now I know why people did it. People went on vacation not to get a break from their home but to imagine getting a new home, a better home, in which they'd live a better life" (190). This is totally me! We don't go on all that many vacations, but every time we do, I like to imagine my life in that place. I'm always a more exciting and fun person on vacation. 

However, these perfect little sentences were not enough to make this a truly enjoyable book. In the classic way of these WMFUNs, Sam is a self-identified bumbler. He does dumb, inexplicable things and it's not even all that clear what the book is trying to achieve. Ultimately, the real story is about his return to his family of origin. But the relationship with his parents is unsatisfying and unbelievable. The characterization just seemed weak, and I didn't care all that much about any of them. Most annoyingly, it has a SUPER DRAMATIC ending, which it frankly doesn't earn and just feels silly. 

I would say that the book deserves credit for knowing what it is and acknowledging that; but it's not a book I enjoyed reading.