Monday, August 11, 2008

Once again, serious fiction worth reading

I've nearly stopped reading serious fiction since I've acquired a miserable track record picking books that I like. Instead, for the most part I find myself reading crime fiction, which has the virtue of not taking as long to read, or as many brain cells to appreciate (plus, the excellent nearly-local bookstore The Poisoned Pen always has great selections and recommendations). The last literature that I enjoyed was nearly a year ago, which I wrote about here. But a fortuitous impulse purchase a month ago at Moby Dickens, an amazingly good bookstore in Taos, New Mexico, has led me to Marianne Wiggins, whose novels are so enthralling that I've already read two of them, and I'm awaiting delivery of a third.

Her 2007 novel The Shadow Catcher was the impulse purchase. With a blurb promising a mystery and an Edward S. Curtis photograph on the cover, I was taken in with the suggestion of some kind of tale of the old west. Couldn't have been more wrong, but what I found was a Calvino-esque novel where Wiggins is a main character in the novel, one of whose current efforts is to sell her novel about Edward S. Curtis (the very novel we're reading) to Hollywood for a screenplay. (I'm not giving much away here, this is all in a very early chapter.) The writing here is dazzling, turning on a dime from settings across time and space, with digressions that spin off into separate plot lines. Rarely have I read a novel that plays with fairly avant-garde concepts in such a readable and entertaining manner.

Working backwards, the second Wiggins novel I read was Evidence of Things Unseen, a 2003 novel nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Her protagonist here is also a photographer, one Ray Foster, this novel is a much more straightforward narrative than The Shadow Catcher, covering Ray's life starting from his service in World War I and proceeding for the next forty years through his subsequent life around Knoxville, Tennessee.

I don't want to spend any time giving away much about the plots here, because there is a lot of plot in both novels. Despite some implausible coincidences at the ends, they both manage to find a symbolic sense of closure, all the more powerful because my sense of the novels at midpoint was, where the hell is this going? Both novels deal with children whose incomprehension of their parents' behavior becomes part of their personal neuroses as adults. Both novels use photography to meditate on the differences between the photographic art that fixes time in place and the novelistic art that evolves across time. Both novels communicate a specific historical time and place through the accumulation of small details, so that I got a very real sense of what the culture of the time and place might have been. And both novels have very strong characters, men and women, none of them ideal but all very tolerant of their imperfections.  Both novels have reassured me that there is still good writing out there, and good stories worth telling well.

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