A book that is having a big effect on me right now is NO MORE CLUTTER: HOW TO CLEAR YOUR SPACE AND FREE YOUR LIFE by Sue Kay. Her book was listed by the bookshop at Friends’ House as one of their books of 2006 and it chimes in with the Quaker ideal of simplicity. There is a good word, ‘cumber’ which it was used by the early Quakers and could be usefully revived. It is very expressive of the spiritual weight of having too many material things. And it is how I feel: encumbered. I just have too much stuff. It doesn’t help that my husband is an academic as well, so we have a houseful of books and journals. Reading NO MORE CLUTTER has made me realise that I have been asking the wrong question when I have tried to clear the house. The wrong question is ‘can I imagine circumstances – however remote – in which I might one day want this?’ The right question is ‘Do I really need or value this?’ Am I ever going to need a run of the journal of ART HISTORY from the 1990s or thirty pairs of old tights? I think not. Actually William Morris said it all: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ It should be easy to get rid of the rest, but somehow it isn’t. The value of Sue Kay’s book is that it takes you through the process step by step. It’s goodbye, clutter: hello, charity shop, dustbin and e-Bay.
I was drawn to Rosellen Brown’s novel because it is written from an unusual combination of viewpoints. It begins with a crime – the murder of a seventeen year old girl – which is seen from the points of view of the mother and father and sister of the boy who is responsible. The quirk is that the father’s point of view is first person male and the mother and sister’s third person. I am particularly interested in viewpoint at the moment and wondered what I could learn and how she got away with this. And she DID get away with it. The book made the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list. Once I was into the novel, I soon got used to the shifting viewpoints and it turned out to be one of those books that you don’t want to stop reading. There is never much doubt that the boy is guilty, and the considerable suspense lies in the contrasting attitudes of the parents and how these will effect the outcome of the trial. The father’s instinct is cover up for his son, the mother’s is to let the truth prevail and I found myself being swayed first by one argument and another. It has only just occurred to me as I write this that Brown may have chosen the first person for the father as a more persuasive way of presenting an argument that on the face of it is unacceptable.
At any rate, she writes superbly and this is a terrific read. A tour-de-force.
I’m between drafts of a novel and have been roaming around my collection of books, picking up this and that, while I mull over various problems. This is the first time I’ve written a novel in the third person and from more than one viewpoint and I’m also having plotting problems. It always helps to see how other people have managed. John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels are in the first person, so not much help as regards viewpoint, but he is a terrific plotter and the books are compulsively readable. They are set in Florida over a time-span of over twenty years and are a fascinating reflection of social history from the drugged-up sixties to the chilly eighties. It is a pretty dangerous thing to be an attractive woman in Travis McGee’s life as, despite his best intentions, they usually wind up dead. Still he is a engaging character, and his hirsute intellectual chum, Meyer, even more so, to my mind. And the novels are an object lesson, too, in how to keep a series going, though they are not quite of equal quality, and there are occasional repetitions. New readers might start with THE SCARLET RUSE or THE DREADFUL LEMON SKY or PALE GREY FOR GUILT(great titles).
I’ve been rereading Ann Tyler’s novel for my book group tonight. And I’m very conscious of how my reading style has changed over the years. In my teens and early twenties I read voraciously – sometimes reading just to plunge in and loose myself in the narrative, sometimes from a lit crit point of view looking for patterns and symbols ( I did an English degree). Later as an art historian I tended to read novels for sheer pleasure and escape. But when you become a writer yourself, you lose your virginity as a reader. So that reading A PATCHWORK PLANET, which has a first person male narrator, though I was quickly sucked into the story – she is above all just immensely readable – I was also asking myself, how does she do this? And: has she pulled it off? To write a short story from a male viewpoint is not too difficult (I’ve done it myself) but a whole novel is a tour-de-force, especially in the first person. Jane Austen famously avoided even having two men talking without a woman present, and a male narrator would have been unthinkable. Tolstoy on the other hand got into the head of Anna Karenina to write perhaps the most brilliant novel ever written. LARRY’S PARTY by Carol Shields springs to mind as an admirable effort to present a male viewpoint, even though it’s not in the first person, as I recall. So how does Ann Tyler do in the cross-dressing stakes? Not bad. Sex is always difficult to write about anyway without sounding clinical or crude or unintentionally funny but she manages by not being too specific about what’s actually going on. I think Carol Shields is better at imagining what it is like to actually live in a male body and have a masculine cast of mind, but for an exploration of the cruel dynamics of family life in scenes that are both funny and painful (here a mother and son relationship what would give Woody Allen a run for his money), it’s hard to think of a contemporary writer who can equal Ann Tyler.