|Pam and me! At my house!|
Houston says her fiction and nonfiction alike is around eighty percent autobiographical, and being drawn to nonfiction and still sort of unsure about where the boundaries lie, for me personally, between fiction and nonfiction, I loved listening to her read some sections of her newest novel, Contents May Have Shifted, with the narrator named Pam, who is a writing instructor and world traveler, an animal lover and an athlete, as is Houston in for reals life.
The novel is structured in 12s. Each section is titled with a flight number, and then followed by a dozen tiny travel essays. Wow, has she traveled. Tibet, Spain, Mexico, Scotland, Newfoundland, Iceland, France, New Zealand, Tunisia, Laos, Argentina, Turkey. And that’s only a dozen of the places she writes about. Houston doesn’t give us any concrete indicators of chronology, but if you read carefully you definitely see a narrative unfolding. It’s not a new story, certainly (Sam Ligon was known to say there are only two stories anyway—was it sex and death, Sam?), but Houston chronicles relationships and her own vulnerability. The relationships with men change and sometimes end, but her friends stay and accumulate, and the relationships with beloved animals also provide a subnarrative. There is camaraderie and heartbreak, love and loss.
What sets Houston apart from a lot of other folks writing about these same things is, first of all, is that her narrator doesn’t just rattle off flights and trips and terrific emotional struggles. She lays them out carefully, reflecting on each one, sometimes drawing from an earlier story, reminding us of the movement. And there is a great momentum in this novel, as the narrator flies around the globe looking for a reason to live and a reason to love herself. During a few close calls in air travel, the narrator never comes off as frightened, but being left to contemplate herself seems to terrify her. (If you think this novel’s a simple “Why can’t I find love” story, you’re way off. Consider the original ideas for a title: Suicide Note and 144 Good Reasons Not To Kill Yourself). And there’s a soft but definite turn in the novel about two-thirds of the way through, in which Pam the character seems to begin a process of understanding, after the plane she is in is struck by lightning, which takes out an engine.
Where on the continuum I fall, when this kind of thing happens—between Oh please not how that things are finally looking up and Well this sucks but it will sure solve a great many problems—has become my mental health measuring stick in this era of exponentially increased sky traffic, airline bankruptcy and accumulating mental fatigue. This, I understand, is not at all the same as being suicidal.
Aside from the writer at the desk, which us NFers might talk about too much but which nevertheless is critical to creative nonfiction, I find inspiration in Houston’s writing because holy crap, does she care about her sentences. After not reading her work for a year, I forgot how her writing echoes, how it hits you.
He tells me we’ve been put on earth to crack each other open, and then to stick around long enough to watch the thing that, having been cracked open, suddenly shines. He says he knows there is only a thin wall between himself and all that shining, but sometimes he forgets how thin the wall is, because somebody came along when he wasn’t looking, and painted the damn thing black.
That’s a pretty good description of good writing, too, I think. Cracking ourselves open and looking for the thing that shines.
Not even counting the depth of the narrator’s insights, though, I appreciate her sentences on a very individual level. In grad school we talked some about weighting sentences. What word do you want to hit? How do you want the sentence to build, or to die down, or to peak in the middle? That takes exquisite attention to every sentence, each and every word. “Dawn breaks over camp, rose-colored and cool on the San Juan River in southeastern Utah, twenty miles downstream from the town of Mexican Hat.” First of all, I love the Homer reference here. Rosy-fingered dawn, anyone? Second, this line is so rhythmic I stopped to scan it. I’d hit “Dawn”, “rose,” “cool,”, “San Juan,” the first syllable of “Utah,” and “twenty,” and then hit “MEXican HAT” hard right at the end. The last line of the book fades, leaving a soft impression: “Eventually, on that long night over the parts of the globe I’ll never see, the sun rose over Myanmar, and in Rangoon, where the Yangon River meets the Adaman Sea, the turrets and domes of the temples lit up as soft and gold in the early light as a fairly tale.”
There are stories within stories within stories, the narrator always being reminded of something, which reminded me of the way David Sedaris writes. Houston’s not without wit, either: “Bruce says he hopes they turn the burger barn into an exotic dance club, and he’s barely said it before I realize the exact translation of those words if you put them in a woman’s mouth is It’s such a beautiful day. I think I’ll put on my new leggings and do some stretches in the park.”
|Pam and Spokane-fab writer Jess Walter|
Parts of some of the sections seem parenthetical, but it’s those parts that pack the most punch of all. Like this one, which had me unexpectedly sobbing near the end: “I didn’t trust it at first, the way Madison and I fell for each other. ‘You don’t even like kids,’ she likes to say now, flirtatious as hell.”
Houston doesn’t like to draw the line between fiction and nonfiction with a thick pen, and I’m right with her. She didn’t want to pick teams, but she had to. No matter what she’s labeled as, though, Houston has a lot to teach me about using metaphor, about structure, about playing Operation with sentences. My verdict: Read it. Read it now.
Cross-posted at Bark.