Language is much on my mind as I watch Lady Baby put it together using nouns, a sprinkling of verbs, adjectives, and the tiny connectors making sentences of meaning. She’s on the early end of the novelist’s trade. How to use words to express one’s feelings, what kind of words, how many words.
How a reader feels about a novel is such a tangle of reaction to setting, characters, plot, and above all, language. Rarely does one book hit on everything – and never for every person.
Long airplane trips make for much reading time. I left the U.S. reading “The Luminaries” by Eleanor Catton, the 2013 Booker Prize winner, and flew home reading Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch.” Both are long and very good, and I read them with pleasure on my pink birthday present Kindle.
I’ve been thinking about them, and about a third novel, John Williams’s “Stoner,” a novel of far less renown than the others – but maybe more perfect.
Catton’s book is truly unusual, but I confess to reading it as a straight narrative, a story that follows a group of people in gold rush, 19th Century New Zealand – at its heart a whodunit.
The setting is barely there – the goldfields themselves, the harbor, hotels and bars of a gold rush town. Catton introduces her characters along with their moral makeup and Zodiac sign (if you select a name as you read in an e-reader you get reminded, which is helpful since there are so many male characters). Astrological signs and the movements of plants have meaning to the overall book, but I never puzzled this out, it would reward a second reading.
I loved what Catton said in an interview after the Booker was announced. Asked if she was surprised, she said something along the lines of you never know, do you, because it is so subjective, but you hope the jurors will recognize that this is something “unique to you.” It truly is.
“The Goldfinch” is Donna Tartt’s third book, the first two came 10 and 20 years ago, and I remember reading each with great pleasure. This time Tartt’s fictional world begins with a terrorist attack and traces the journey of the treasured painting of the book’s title. “The Goldfinch” is closer than “The Luminaries” to the kind of language I love in a novel, delicious excess, paragraph-long sentences rich with words describing a scene in luscious detail – New York, Amsterdam, antiques and art.
I began it as we took off from Heathrow and settled into the long day with that illicit feeling of nothing to do but read this terrific book. And I stayed with it for a long time happily. But somehow, once home, and the reading richness became redolent of drugs and crime, Tartt lost me a little. I wanted to stay and I did, but (in the useless way of readers) I wanted it different.
The third book “Stoner,” seems perfect to me. The quietest book I can imagine, one man’s life, an English teacher at a Mid-west college, an often, but not always, sad life, pain from cruelty, moments of joy from love and work.
Nothing I say will convince you it’s the wonderful read it is. The young writer gave it to us for Christmas, and she, too, was at a loss to explain why it so captivates. A deliberate book, that sometimes hurtles along with a paragraph full of life changes. I stayed up till two one night reading, not something I do often.
The week I nearly finished it, The Workroom group contemplated Toystoy’s three conditions necessary for art: individuality, clearness, and sincerity. I think the answer lies there. Williams’s work is best described with those words.
In “Stoner” and “The Luminaries” every word tells (as E.B. White cherished), but in “The Goldfinch” the excess is often what I love. Luckily we don’t have to choose.
Oh what good winter reading!