Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Guest Post: Why Salvage the Bones Didn't Make the Cut

Today is the first "guest post" on this blog. I hope to have others in the future. My guest, Amy, has some great thoughts to share on the National Book Award winner, Salvage the Bones, especially why it may have made an early exit from the Tournament of Books. Without further introduction, here is Amy.

Amy here. Jonathan invited me to share my literary thoughts in his turf.

I read Salvage the Bones a few months ago -- here was my take, and why I wasn't too sad to see it fall in Round 1 of the ToB. 

Salvage the Bones has the makings of a fine novel with a lovely series of mythological echoes. It has passages of beautiful writing, a memorable cast of characters, and some truly wrenching moments. But the author also made a fatal error in judgment which robs the reader of much of the pleasure of reading a well executed novel: she doesn’t trust her readers to arrive at her intended conclusions unaided. Rather than letting her Hurricane Katrina story grow organically out of the seeds of her own experiences and of the myth of Medea, she arms her fifteen-year-old heroine with a volume of Edith Hamilton, improbably assigned (we learn on page 7) as the one required book of pre-junior-year summer reading, and inserts syrupy poetic musings about Medea and Jason into the girl’s otherwise believable thoughts about love and sex, survival and family.

The problems with this are many. For one, Ward doesn’t seem to realize that the true pleasure of reading a novel with classical themes can be in detecting them, in watching for ripples and echoes. And Ward displays a damaging lack of faith in her readers. She is a veteran of the University of Michigan’s MFA program and of workshops associated with Stanford’s Stegner Fellowship, and is now a teacher of creative writing, so I find it especially surprising that she doesn’t seem to have learned that the readers almost always spot interesting resonances that the writer did not intentionally plant. By so blatantly flagging her intended invocations of mythology, she may well have lost this contribution, this third voice in the dialogue that ought to include writer, text, and reader.

But perhaps more troubling, the explicit references don’t feel authentic to the character who makes them. Once or twice, there is a mention of the character reading the book. But there is no sense that she is generally a reader, that she experiences the world through books, that anyone else in her life is this way, that her house is one with books (or that she is the misfit for being the reader), no indication that the assigning teacher is an influential presence – you get my drift. It almost reads as though the book were written without that overlay, and then the author went back and inserted the references at appropriate places. It has a sort of photoshopped quality, the shiny pieces in a different light than the background they’re pasted on, not quite to scale. Something doesn’t belong.

And this is a damn shame, because the authentic voice of the book – the book I would’ve read if I could somehow hit “undo” on that insertion, or perhaps hire an enterprising middle school student to go through and white out all the references – is a lovely one. Ward has indicated in interviews that the central action in the story, involving a family’s surviving Hurricane Katrina in a rapidly flooding attic, are drawn from her own experience, and this shows in the rawness of the description. The book also contains some very moving meditations on motherhood by a pregnant teenager whose own mother died years ago, whose lover has betrayed her, and who helps her brother deliver a litter of puppies produced by his prized pit bull, who also seems to have a complicated relationship to motherhood. And though Ward, who is young in age (she was born in 1977) and in her writing career (this is her second novel), clearly can’t accept the fact, this is enough.

Ward has written a book about poor black people in the South. But rather than bringing her own perspective, after years of education and distance to bear on the tale through authorial choices and subtle shaping, she has forced those thoughts clumsily into the mind of a narrator who has no reason to be thinking them. There are some looming presences in this territory, writers both black and white who have managed, to great effect, to impart their own insights about their characters and where they fit in the patterns of things without sacrificing the integrity of those characters’ identifies. Faulkner comes to mind (As I Lay Dying, we learn, was our heroine’s convenient summer reading assignment in the previous year), as does Toni Morrison. Perhaps this is what the National Book Award committee was thinking when they overlooked this glaring rookie mistake and chose Salvage the Bones over the much more subtle and skillful Tiger’s Wife, which uses its ancient stories to much more startling effect.

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