I've developed a backlog of books I've read and enjoyed over the past few weeks, and will be spending the next few days posting short reviews/glosses on them, for your edification and, with any luck, commentary. Today, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's Ms. Hempel Chronicles.
I glanced at this novel-in-stories at the bookstore when it was published last year, and didn't immediately feel a strong desire to read it. But then I heard a talk given by the novelist Jennifer Vanderbes on the subject of different kinds of motion in fiction, which used passages from this book as examples. And I liked them enough to give it a try.
The book is about a schoolteacher (the Ms. Hempel of the title) in her late twenties, a book lover with artistic leanings (if not ambitions), who has a superficial resemblance to the author. There is no plot to speak of--just a few characters, a few situations (and not even very awkward ones, at that), and a lot of mild cogitation and observation. There is almost no conflict, save for a bit of barely-examined existential angst, and pretty much no drama whatsoever, unless you count a few distant memories about Ms. Hempel's childhood. The language is simple, the pace slow.
So how come I like it so much? I'm still not quite sure. It is a study in ordinariness, rendered with unusual restraint. Ms. Hempel is not a fascinating character at all--and yet I hung on her every thought. There is no suspense, or any other of the usual devices used to move a book along, and yet I turned the pages with real eagerness and pleasure.
This is instructive for me right now, as I am writing a meandering book with no real story, and am feeling increasingly self-conscious about this, as though I will need to add something later on, some kind of structural accelerant to get the thing kicked into gear. But this book reminds me of how little you need to write an interesting book. You just need to render life interestingly.
Easier said than done, of course. The motion here (as Jen Vanderbes said in her talk) is in the flow of one idea to another, in the way Ms. Hempel's mind trips from subject to subject. There is life in her conception of her circumscribed world. The least interesting parts of the book are the ones that seem most intended to captivate: Ms. Hempel's contemplation of her Chinese heritage, a chapter about a colleague's pregnancy. It's when Bynum doesn't seem to be trying to do anything that the novel is most successful: Ms. Hempel's encounters with students, a field trip, banter with her disaffected colleagues.
It's like they always told you in school: be yourself! In a way, it's the worst advice in the world. What if you're a loser? What if you're a dick? Maybe then you should be somebody else, eh? Writing a book like this requires confidence that you're being interesting, and then actually being interesting. And this kind of confidence can be hard to come by.
But Ms. Hempel Chronicles makes me think that it's worth giving it a shot. The petty-crime subplot I have been uneasily contemplating for my book may not be necessary. Which is a good thing, because I don't like it. Here's hoping the world isn't bored to tears in its absence.