Chimera Song Mosaic
Friday, June 27, 2003
So yesterday I spent two hours reading the most recent issue of Poets & Writers cover to cover. In an article about how books get picked for review (from the editor’s perspective), I learned that this review on Amanda Eyre Ward’s Sleep Toward Heaven (that I completed two days ago) breaks at least three rules commonly established by . . . uh, well . . . the establishment:

1. Don’t review someone you know (or someone whose career you have an interest in advancing).
2. Don’t use your review as a vehicle of airing your own personal theories.
3. Don’t rehash the dust jacket copy.
4. Don’t compare fiction to nonfiction (okay, I made that one up, but it makes sense, right?).

Here is the rule-breaking, unofficial review of Amanda’s novel (I figure I can break the rules because I am not getting paid for this):

Review by Univeristy of Montana Alumnus of Novel by University of Montana Alumnus:

I just finished reading Amanda Eyre Ward’s Sleep Toward Heaven, and I have good things to say about it! First of all, since Amanda went to the University of Montana, I might not present the most unbiased review. The second reason why you might want to balance this passage with that of another reviewer is because Amanda does what I want her to do: she presents a very objective and nonjudgmental view of Texas (its many pleasures as well as its shames), which is something that I respond to and enjoy. In fact, some would say I demand it. The joke about the gun-toting, wife-beating, racist, ultra-conservation redneck is an easy one, and I think writers who perpetrate this sensational stereotype are doing themselves and their subject a discredit, as well as doing the opposite of what good writing should do—challenge its readers.

It’s not that such embodiments of the above stereotype do not exist in Texas; they do, but they exist other in places as well (as Bowling for Columbine points out, they exist in Michigan, Colorado, etc.). However, to be honest I hesitate to condemn any human to stereotypical effigy. In my experience, when you take the time to get to know a person, they make many efforts, conscious or otherwise, to separate themselves from such categories. (I’m not saying we should all embrace and attempt to understand KKK members, but then again, I’m not saying that we should not. You can take this theory as far as you want to or avoid it altogether).

(I can’t believe that I just wrote KKK in my blog. What kinds of banners am I going to get for this one!)

What Amanda’s book does, then, is apply a gentle touch to such issues of controversy as capital punishment, health care for the terminally ill, HIV, lesbianism, revenge, marriage, religion, hickdom, cosmopolitanism, altruism, infanticide and other kinds of murder. I’m not saying that she fully addresses all of these issues, builds cases for all opposing perspectives, and offers a panacea—if she did that, she would have not just written a good novel but a new ethical/moral/religious text for the 21st century. No. The book’s not that ambitious. But it is ambitious in other ways.

Instead of offering the easy judgment, she offers acute observations and reportage. She is so good at not overly romanticizing/exoticizing/vilifying/criticizing unfamiliar surroundings that I think she should consider some travel writing on the side. Why? Because travel writing should go beyond reinforcing the expectations of the intended audience—we have heard too many times: “ . . . the thin brown villager crouched in the corner, gnawing a crust of bread . . .” It should do something more intelligent; it should respect the intelligence of the readers and encourage their ability to empathize and commune with fellow humans. It should offer insight into a culture for the sake of appreciation and knowledge and example—not entertainment or esteem building.

Amanda is writing from an outsider’s perspective. She is not from Texas, but she has made it her home for these past five or so years. Although the book makes a few minor slips (Chinese food is not hard to find here), for the most part her reports are deliberate, accurate, and kind. Maybe that is what I am looking for—a writer to take Texas seriously and not feel the need to apologize for being here just to satisfy the assumptions of literary-minded readers (assumed to be from one of the two coasts, or to have lived there once, or to have adopted coastal sensibilities).

I can compare this novel to Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liar’s Club. Whereas Karr seems primarily embarrassed by her background in Leechfield, Texas, Amanda takes Texas seriously—but not too seriously, of course. Readers will still laugh (or be comically horrified) at her description of a local diner in small-town Texas: she mentions a saw painted with a nature scene hanging on the wall. At first when I read about the saw, I was thinking, “What the—?” Then I realized I had seen it before many times. It seems so funny out of context and it begs the question: who would find this attractive? But someone does; it’s obviously someone’s idea of a decoration. I wouldn’t like it in my living room, but it some places, it just fits in.

So that’s what I admire the most about this novel: the beauty of context. Context is created through precise observations of surroundings, not judgments. When a writer offers judgments that challenge a reader’s assumptions, learning can happen. Creative thought can flourish. Ideas can be exchanged. But when a writer simply confirms assumptions, he or she invites readers to turn off their brains.

Okay, now that I have probably established myself as an overly-sensitive, love-it-or-leave-it-type, I would like to move away from that image a little and re-clarify: I am not asking writers (or people in general) to offer some kind of politically correct, emotionally sterilized, and colorless depiction of Texas: I am merely asking that Texas be given a chance. Of course do not deliberately cover up reality, but recognize that reality has many angles. Be aware of the seduction of stereotypes, and don’t be seduced (or bullied) by the sensibilities of your intended audience. Texas is not all big hair, embezzlement, racism, 10-gallon hats, oil wells, and Republicans. There are other people who are from Texas—not just George Bush and Diane Zamora. Sadly, these other people just don’t seem to admit it. Maybe they don’t feel like they can.

So what is the book about? It’s about the lives of three women from different worlds who find their future lives to be irrevocably tied. Sounds like something you might read on a dust jacket blurb, right? (Maybe that’s where I got that from.) Also, it doesn’t sound too interesting, right? At least, it sounds like something we have heard before. But the way Amanda handles her loom makes the character’s connections feel like both a surprise and a relief at the same time. Amanda does not tease or keep readers in suspense overly long—she just eases them in, addicts them, let’s the stories of the women wash over them, overwhelm them. That’s how I felt when I was reading this novel: overwhelmed. It’s really about human sadness and recovery; it’s also about loss and reclamation of control.

Expect to find three characters: one woman on death row, awaiting her execution (she’s a prostitute in the Hill Country); one woman staging an escape from the construct of her life (she’s a doctor in Manhattan); one woman attempting to recover from the loss of her beloved husband, the dissolution of her “perfect” life (she’s a librarian in Austin). Expect also to find many other characters, some formed perfectly and some oddly offering no contribution to the story (that I can see). Expect also to ask yourself a lot of questions about victims and their survivors, about criminals and what happens to them when they survive.

As I said, some of the characters miss the mark; some of the dialogue is incredible (I mean some is incredibly good and some is not believable). Add this to some major editing and proofreading concerns (I saw some blatant errors as well as erratic punctuation and even some contradictory details about the physical qualities of some characters), and you could get a little annoyed while reading this. But the cover is exquisite, and I have a crush on Amanda’s middle name, so I wasn’t overly distracted by these problems (and that’s saying a lot since I teach grammar and am somewhat of a perfectionist).

One other thing that concerned me is that the jacket blurb said that the novel spanned small-town Texas (but of course; Texas is always small-town’d) and urban Manhattan (is there any other kind?), and in reality the novel has very little to do with Manhattan. Amanda is from there, and one of the central characters has her professional roots there, but is oddly willing to give up all of her [character’s] other ties to NYC. So why does Manhattan play such a big role in the blurb? Possibly because the blurber didn’t finish the book—possibly also because he or she don’t think the book would sell if it didn’t have some kind of link to legitimacy in the literary world. (There are other possibilities, too, but these two intrigued me, conspiracy theorist that I can be.)

So maybe this one was a little rushed to the press, but overall it is a wonderful read. Some people find it strange that the state would execute its civilians (and so do I), so we all need to know more about this. But of course, this is not an informational pamphlet; it is a novel, written with a novelist’s sensibilities and attraction to heartache. The topic is sensational, but the approach is infinitely caring, morally (if not historically) responsible. A reader finds very little of the gory details in here and surprisingly finds himself or herself not wanting to read that stuff anyway. What is more interesting is not the specifics of the crime but the survivors of it—the victim’s loved ones, the criminal herself—and how all parties come to fit the parameters of victim.

Maybe what fascinates me about this equation is that the question is not so much of what happens to us when we die, but what happens to our loved ones and our murderer after we die—this is much more of a mystery. This allows for the eternal questions of “Where do we come from?” and “Why we are here?” but blows “What happens to us when we die?” right out of the atmosphere. The only two possibilities: the afterlife and the absence-of-life are—artlessly, unequivocally—given equal ground.

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