Friday, July 10, 2009

Ms. Hempel Chronicles

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.


5 Red Pandas said...

John, I liked the book for many of the same reasons you did. It's very simple, but engaging.

I did, however, have a strange encounter with the book. It turns out that the school she has fictionalized is actually a school in NYC, and I happened to work there two springs ago. I mentioned this on my blog, only to have it confirmed by the author when she e-mailed me because I figured it out. When discussing the book with people at the school (I did my student teaching there this spring)one colleague told me the things that were "true", and it was strange to have them recount their impressions of the author. It all got mixed up in my head, and I'm not sure that I enjoyed that. I didn't really want to know what was "true", even though I couldn't help listening to their thoughts on the book and how it was received in their small community of teachers. I felt very much like an outsider eavesdropping on a conversation that I wasn't meant to hear.

I believe that people want to know what parts of a fiction are actually "true", but in the end it really doesn't do much to add to the experience, and in fact it could detract from the experience.

jrlennon said...

No, you definitely don't want to know the truth! It didn't actually occur to me that the book had come THAT much from life.

Rhian ought to comment here about how her novel was received in the VERY tiny town that inspired it...

christianbauman said...

Well, here's the thing, JRL: 70% of the world might just be bored to tears. Then you have to decide whether you give a shit or not, and write for yourself and the other 30%.

Your description of this book and author comes very close to a description of Penelope Fitzgerald, one of my all-time favorite writers. There is a through-line in Fitzgerald's novels, there is a plot. But it's sometimes not until the book is over that it all clicks together for me. It's on reflection that you see it. And it's beautiful. Entire days of reading seem to go by and not much is happening on her pages, just the characters being themselves, usually quietly, being themselves in their world and interacting with their world. It's amazing, really. I love it.
I was accused in some circles of the same with "In Hoboken" ("great characters...not sure what it's about."). I lost no sleep over it. It wasn't my intention to write about anything...except to make a portrait, a miniature in small strokes, of these characters and how they interacted with their world and how they interacted with the passage of time over a year. I struggled as well, JRL, with whether or not and how much to impose a plot device(s), and on going back to that book now I find the parts where I succeed the least are the parts where I know I was trying to impose that. The best parts of that novel are when I let go and just let those people breathe in their own space and carry the story simply by being the story.
I'm so glad you brought this up as topic, because it's something I've been thinking about quite a bit lately...the primary project I'm working on now is a novel that goes even further in that direction, I think. And I'm still struggling with the part of me that wants to/needs to impose a plot device, and it's even harder with this one. And as I'm writing it (as with going back and looking again at In Hoboken) I find I'm happiest at the end of the days when my characters had no author-induced agenda. They just did what they and thought what they thought and moved around the page not doing much based on their own devices, not mine. Curious. Not sure what I'm going to do with this. But, again, unlike my 29-year-old self writing The Ice Beneath You, my 39-year-old self is really beginning to not care.
(Having said all that, one of the minor projects I'm turning around in my head right now and working on from time to time is a fantasy novel for kids and purely plot and device driven...but that's what the project stands on.)

A final note: I'd LOVE to hear Rhian comment on the After Life town. The whole way reading that I was wondering how close beneath the surface was a real town, and what would their reaction be.

In the original draft of In Hoboken, I'd changed the names of everything in Hoboken. My editor convinced me to change them back...and so we have a novel set largely in and around Maxwells, which is a real bar, and in fact we had one of the release parties for the novel at Maxwells. Now, this was easy: it was a fairly flattering view of Hoboken that I portrayed in the novel.

But I could see where the residents of Rhian's town might feel differently. A shame if they did, though. I'm ten years out from reading your novel, Rhian, but my recollection was that I was reading something that bordered on a love letter (dark love, mind you, and complicated, but...) from author to town. Curious to hear your thoughts.

jrlennon said...

I like Fitzgerald, too! And in point of fact, I am not a very insecure writer...when working on a first draft, I generally think it's great (and then am forced to backtrack in the next eight drafts).

My mind naturally turns to plot, because it's something I enjoy reading. But it isn't the only thing I enjoy reading, and it's useful to remind myself of that now and again. The book I'm writing is more like Mailman than any of my recent stuff--less structured, more cerebral.

You and your editor made the right decision, BTW--everyone would have known what bar you meant!

christianbauman said...

I hear ya about confidence followed by forced backtracking. I always think whatever I'm writing is brilliant...while I'm writing it. (I think you need that kind of uber-confidence just to get it down on paper.) It's the hangover look in the mirror that's always sobering, so to speak.

Slack-jawed, staring into the monitor: "Who wrote this shit?"

And the dread answer, "Oh. Me."

So here's another thing, JRL: enthusiasm. You mentioned writing plot because you like to read plot...among other things. And that's it, right? Because as writers it's pretty much a given we're voracious AND omniverous (?) readers. Penelope Fitzgerald in the morning, Stephen King in the afternoon (your King essay was dead-on, btw). Michael Ondaatje on the train, Alan Furst for the ride home. Oui? So here's the thing with that: I don't know about you, but I want to write all that, as well. We're driven to write what we love, but what if we love everything? One of the reasons I admire M. Chabon is a seeming lack of pretense, and a complete wallowing in re-creating his reading loves through his writing. The voice is his, of course, and the twists and the lens (otherwise you'd just be regurgitating). But it's nice to see someone say, "I love ALL of I'm going to DO all of this." He doesn't always hit what he swings at, but the swinging is to be admired. You seem to be on a similar path, JRL. I admire it. As writers, we all have a rampant follow it with a rampant diveristy of output is, to me, very cool.

jrlennon said...

Hey, thank you! Yes, it sounds like we have similar philosophies. I didn't used to be a huge fan of Chabon's, but he really got me with Yiddish Policeman's Union--you got the sense that he was just enjoying the hell out of himself, trying to create this new thing out of all his influences, high and low. I have a lot of affection for writers who cherry-pick genre elements, for whom creativity seems to just be one big thing they're drawing upon freely.

Good work begins with superfandom, I think. At least it does for me.

rmellis said...

I totally ripped off a real town in my novel. I mean, I don't think I changed a single physical detail. I added some streets, I think, maybe. But I made up all the people and events. One or two people have attributes that I stole from real people -- if I had it to do over, I wouldn't have even done that -- but the bulk of the characters were 100% made up. NO events were real.

I think the combination of real town/fake content was difficult to accept, and as a result, I got some negative feedback. Lots of people read stuff into the book that wasn't there, saw people that weren't in it. I tried to avoid ALL feedback from that novel, but you know, the lady who lived next door to me growing up wrote an article about the bad reaction for the local paper... and how can you avoid that? Ugh.

I have to say: it left me with a bad feeling about the book. Here is my advice for the young writer: INVENT IT ALL. Or, if not, disguise like hell.

Lily said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this --I've been trying and trying to remember the name of this writer and the book after reading an excerpt in the New Yorker. At the time I didn't think much of it, but there is something about this clear and graceful voice that stayed with me. And now I can read it all, thanks to you.

jrlennon said...

The bit from the New Yorker is the least interesting part...

bloglily said...

then it will be wonderful -- because I remember liking the New Yorker excerpt!