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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

3 Literary Novels that Reinvent Language

For years I’ve been told that my writing is “not safe.” I take this as a compliment. But it’s also the cause for problems: How does an agent sell such work? How can one communicate about it to readers? After much teeth gnashing, my literary agent finally figured out how to place my work in a genre: “You don’t sound like anyone else,” she pronounced. That was my genre—not like anyone else. “Yes,” I said ecstatically. “Yes, and that’s my favorite kind of book to read: writers with original voices.”

Who but Alice Walker could have ever written The Color Purple? John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide in despair and whose mother finally published A Confederacy of Dunces, was one of a kind. And more recently Emma Donoghue’s Room, which is written in a child’s language all its own, was such a hit it has been turned into a popular Hollywood movie. But, except for the rare writer who achieves fame with something out of left field (Haruki Murakami, for instance) and becomes his own "brand," these books are not the rule. Most popular books fit into a standard genre: women’s fiction, young adult, mystery, etc. I like these books too, but the books I love, the ones that get inside me and change me, are those that are written, and had to be written, by writers who used their original voices. Here are three such books:

The Summer That Melted Everything (St. Martin’s Press, July 26, 2016) by Tiffany McDaniel

Imagine the best Southern writers of many eras, plus a serving of a script by Shirley Jackson produced in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, with a touch of futuristic Kurt Vonnegut seasoning, all cooked with an imagination that belongs only to Tiffany McDaniel.

The setting is the fictional small town of Breathed, Ohio, during the abnormally hot summer of 1984. The story is told by a man called Fielding Bliss (son of the town’s prosecutor, Autopsy Bliss)—from his point of view in a future none of us have yet lived.

At Autopsy’s invitation, because he cannot live with being certain and wrong, he invites the devil to Breathed; surely the devil will be someone he is certain about and right. A boy shows up claiming to be the devil. And all hell breaks loose.

This is a poetic parable about how, in fear, driven by our herd instinct, in the high heat of unexamined beliefs, we humans easily and instantly allow common sense to be melted away. It is about our species—beings who have not been accepted as they are, disappointed in themselves, similarly rejecting themselves and then others. Paradise Lost. (Each chapter begins with an epigraph from the Milton poem.)

This book has an epic quality. The writing is unusual. Is life an ongoing tragedy? This story is one to live with and contemplate. And the mystery of how a debut book can be this mature is solved in this interview; it's the "fifth or sixth" book McDaniel has written!

Reasons She Goes to the Woods (Oneworld, 2014) by Deborah Kay Davies

From the first page (which is also the first chapter; chapters are one page), you know that Reasons She Goes to the Woods is not safe writing. This is the story of a child named Pearl who seems sociopathic—all the more upsetting due to the simple, yet gorgeous poetic narrative of actions, such as putting her infant baby brother (“The Blob”) at the top of the stairs and watching him tumble down. This is a physically and emotionally violent story of being crazy and beholden to a crazy situation. If you grew up with any kind of parental insanity you are in danger of resonating with this story and perhaps being deeply upset that you do … or relieved. This is a book people will love or hate, understand or be baffled by. Any which way, it is brilliant and sensual imaginative writing that will haunt you while you’re reading and maybe long after.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Simon & Schuster, 2015) by Emma Hooper

This is the completely original and deeply romantic story, told out of chronological order, of 83-year-old Etta who leaves her husband, Otto, to walk east through Canada to find the sea, leaving a note that says: “I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.”

Along her journey she is accompanied by a talking coyote named James and a journalist. She sometimes dreams she is her husband and sometimes other people she knows. She sometimes becomes her husband (and vice versa) and “loses herself.”

Meanwhile Otto makes papier-mâché sculptures of animals as gifts for Etta on her return. And he visits with his neighbor, Russell, who adopted himself into Otto’s family when they both were children. Russell, too, is in love with Etta and takes off after her, but ends up on his own quest.

Etta and Otto embody a purity and simplicity that I believe is the essence of who we are. They occupy time—as does the story—that is nonlinear and vast. They just love and accept and are one with each other, no matter where or when they are. And each in his and her own way is completely unaffected by the culture of craving, status, and ego concerns.

Interspersed with the present time (when Otto and Etta are in their 80s) are scenes from childhood and Otto’s service during World War II—one of which almost off-handedly expresses the map or theme of this book:
Look, said Gérald [a soldier], it’s just like chess. Sometimes it’s our turn to be moved, either aggressively or defensively. Sometimes we’re not moved for ages. Sometimes we’re moved back to a place we’ve just been. It all seems random from here, but from above, for those who can see the whole board, it probably makes sense.
Does this sound confusing? It does to me, writing it, but, for me, this love story was absolutely comprehensible and necessary to communicate in the unique form and language that belongs only to Emma Hooper (with the faintest echoes of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince).

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