Novels that venture into the minds of multiple characters, or sprawl into a number of different eras, satisfy the greedy reader in me; I want as much access to the writer’s fictional world as I can get my hands on. I still recall the scene of Levin with his scythe, nestled like a secret beneath many pages of Anna Karenina — ahh, I thought, what a kaleidoscopic universe Tolstoy is offering me. This access is partly why I loved The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, and why I’m looking forward to tucking into Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon. (See also: my love for The Wire, or for gossip.) Tell me everything, that’s my motto.
Or that’s my motto…sometimes. I also like a svelte novel with a narrow aperture, its focus sharp and expert. These books venture immeasurably inward. Sometimes a single character’s story, told under the constricts of a clearly delineated span of time, reveals something deep and startling. It’s why The Great Gatsby persists.
It’s no wonder, though, that small-scale books inspire unauthorized sequels or spin-offs. A good novel asks questions as well as answers them, and at its end readers are left to consider the events therein, and also all that didn’t make it onto the page. If that reader is a writer, he might take matters into his own hands. Jean Rhys offered Jane Eyre’s Bertha a chance to tell her story in Wide Sargasso Sea, and in Finn, John Clinch explored the life of Huck’s father. And let’s not forget how much fan-fiction has been written about Bella and Edward. A besotted reader doesn’t want the story to end.
It’s in that spirit that I’ve collected a short list of the spin-offs I’d like to see. Please feel free to add your own wish-list in the comments. Perhaps we’ll inspire someone to get writing…
1. Eloise’s mother from Eloise
When I was younger, I didn’t wonder much about the parents of Eloise, the six-year-old heroine who lives with her British nanny in the Plaza Hotel, putting sunglasses on her dog Weenie and combing her hair with a fork. Now when I read the book to my son, I think about them a lot. It’s wealth that allows Eloise’s mother to neglect her daughter, and it’s the mother’s absence that haunts the book. What do we know of the woman? Eloise tells us that she is 30 and has “a charge account at Bergdorf’s.” Her mother knows Coco Chanel, and has AT&T stock and “knows an ad man whatever that is.” Sometimes she goes to Virginia with her lawyer. Eloise’s father is never mentioned. (Is the lawyer Eloise’s dad, and Eloise just doesn’t know it?) I’d love to read a novel narrated by Eloise’s mother. She’s a rich fuck-up, to be sure, maybe a functioning alcoholic with a penchant for Bloody Marys at breakfast and champagne every afternoon. She loves her daughter, but can’t stand to be around her for more than a few minutes. She jets off to Milan, to Paris, forgetting to remember her offspring back in Manhattan. There would definitely be a strange and/or degrading sex scene involving the owner of The Plaza.
2. Easter from State of Wonder
There are so many magnetic, compelling characters in Ann Patchett’s most recent novel, a knock-out of a beach read if you’re looking for something to take to Hawaii this summer (poor you). The character I want to read more about, however, is Easter, the native deaf boy who accompanies Dr. Swensen on her trips into and out of the jungle, and who ignites protagonist Marina’s maternal instinct. (He also almost gets squeezed to death by an anaconda, so there’s that…) This gentle and goofy kid was adopted into the Lakashi tribe, but is actually a descendent of a nearby cannibalistic tribe, a fact that comes to bear at the end of the novel, when Marina must make a gut-wrenching choice that calls into question Easter’s destiny. I’d love to see him a few years from this point, and I think someone — Patchett herself, perhaps? — could write a challenging and compelling first-person narrative for Easter that echoes Faulkner’s Benjy, or Barbara Kingsolver’s Adah, the silent daughter from The Poisonwood Bible.
3.The Monkey from Portnoy’s Complaint
When my book club discussed Alexander Portnoy’s nearly 300-page potty-mouthed and hilarious rant a few years ago, one of our members said she’d like to read a novel called The Monkey Speaks, which would tell the story of Portnoy’s ex-girlfriend, the shiksa underwear model who used to earn more money in an hour than her “illiterate father would earn in a week in the coal mines of West Virginia.” I agree. I am dying to read a report from this “pathetic screwy hillbilly cunt,” perhaps one that includes a Rashomon-style retelling of her threesome with Portnoy and Lina, the Italian whore with, according to The Monkey, tremendous tits. Men aren’t the only ones who need analysts.
4. Sirena from The Woman Upstairs
Claire Messud’s newest novel is like a Zoe Heller and Vladamir Nabokov mash-up, with its narrator — single, elementary school teacher Nora Eldridge — telling a circuitous and unreliable tale of her love for and obsession with the Shahids, a worldly and exotic family whose presence in Nora’s life magnifies how lonely, predictable and stale her days have become. At the center of the story is Sirena, the wife and mother in the family, whose success as an artist inspires, entices, and provokes Nora. If Sirena got her own novel, I’d of course long to hear her version of the events that Nora recounts with such fastidiousness. It would be more fitting and poignant, however, if Nora were barely present, meriting no more than a paragraph. And I’m sufficiently enamored of and repelled by Sirena to want a whole book with just her, her, her.
5. Richard from Treasure Island!!!
Sara Levine’s wickedly fun novel is narrated by an f-ed up young woman who leaves her job as a clerk at the Pet Library in order to pursue a life like Jim Hawkins’s in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel. She steals the Library’s parrot (Richard) and proceeds to be ghastly toward her family, her boyfriend, and to the poor bird. Just because Richard repeats inane phrases like, “It’s big, it’s hot, it’s back!” doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a rich inner life worthy of a novel. By the book’s end it’s intimated that the bird has witnessed a lot, and, my lord, do I want to know what his little black beady eyes saw before he — oh, but I shouldn’t spoil the book for you if you haven’t read it.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
At the end of July, I went to North Carolina for my family reunion. Every other year, we rent houses on the beach in Ocean Isle, and for one week we swim in the ocean, drink, play boardgames, and eat boiled peanuts. It’s divine. As with all of my vacations, I take time to log the books I spot.
I’m happy to report that, for 2009, literacy is alive and well on the east coast! I saw people reading! The woman next to me on the eastbound flight chuckled at an Onion article on her Kindle, and then turned (clicked?) to Finn by John Clinch, and kept murmuring with admiration. (I made a mental note to check this title out.) A businessman across the aisle read a hardcover about smart management. I think another woman nearby was reading The Bible, though part of me wanted it to be a tattered first-edition of some Henry James novel. Mass market mysteries abounded, as did self-help books like The Power of Now. A mysterious man in the Charlotte airport perused a collection of T.S. Eliot poems.
My grandmother–whom we call Grammie Kids because she is a mother of six–was reading an issue of Reader’s Digest and an old mass market edition of Skipping Christmas by John Grisham. She said Granddaddy wouldn’t let her pack anything else, and that he had only allowed her to bring light and thin books. (Her revenge? She “forgot” to pack his underwear.)
My eighteen-year-old sister flew through a few books while we were there, namely American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld and Frenemies by Megan Crane. She reads about a book every two days over the summer, and when I ask for a review she always says, “Good.” As is the case with nearly every family vacation, people passed around Philippa Gregory’s books like they were crack; I haven’t tried them yet, namely because my mother describing the plot of The Other Boleyn Girl (“And then…!”) is about all I can handle. My poor sixteen-year-old brother–who will probably be valedictorian–insisted on bringing his school assignments, and spent two weeks not-reading a brief history of FDR’s first 100 days. (I remember in Hawaii he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X; the spine fell apart after the first couple of days and so he started bringing individual chapters to the pool.) In Ocean Isle, he spoke longingly of the Sookie Stackhouse series–those “True Blood” books–that he wanted to start.
Someone in my extended family was reading Finger Lickin’ Fifteen by Janet Evanovich (she’s from South River, New Jersey, where my dad’s from, although this isn’t his family we were visiting). Everyone was passing around a memoir about fishing; the title escapes me, but I do remember that the author grew up in Spotswood, New Jersey, just like my mom and her siblings. At the end of the trip, my mom started The Condition by Jennifer Haigh. She bought it because, except for a single letter, the author’s name is identical to my aunt’s. The marketing department couldn’t have predicted that, could they? My mother had also recently finished The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff and kept referring to my Aunt Jennifer as her “sister wife.”
And me? I read three books on the trip. The first was Woodsburner by John Pipkin, recommended to me by my friend Steve. This wise debut novel is inspired by a little-known event in Henry David Thoreau’s life: a fire he accidentally started in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, a year before he built his cabin on Walden Pond. Not only do we get a fictionalized Thoreau who, “hugs his knees tightly, watches the half-mile-wide fire, and considers the many individual acts that led to this moment,” but we get a cast of other characters also affected by the conflagration. My favorite is Oddsmund, a Norwegian immigrant with a “dead infant tooth wedged alongside his adult incisors like a misplaced apostrophe.” He’s so in love with his employer’s wife that his lust leads to a night-time liason with a pumpkin. Predictably, this was the point in the book where I decided I loved it. (On Goodreads, someone suggested that if the novel were called Pumpkinfucker, sales might improve.)
My next book was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. The hype on this Swedish thriller is well deserved. After a boring opening chapter about finance scandals (really, it was awful), the story picked up, and, man oh man, it didn’t let me go. The plot is terrifically constructed–I’m certain I learned something about the beauty of story–and I loved the cold weather, the aquavit, the endless cups of coffee. I’m not sure I can wait for the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, to come out in paperback. (Although, and I must say it: I did wonder if the cliches in the book, like “pretty as postcard,” were exact translations. I’ve heard Sweden is boring, but, really? In the prose department, I wasn’t wowed. But, and maybe for the first time in my life as a reader, I didn’t really care! )
There was also a real pleasure in reading a popular book. Usually, I’m reading something no one has ever heard of, and I’m occasionally ignorant of huge bestsellers. When Grammie Kids described to me the runaway hit The Shack by William P. Young (“And God is a black woman. She looks like Maya Angelou!”), I had never heard of it; cut to a week later, I’m at the airport, and I count two copies in my gate alone. Sometimes I feel like everyone’s eating this thing called scrambled eggs (What are those, I wonder. They look good.), while I’m enjoying a delicious chantarelle and pecorino frittata. What a snob I am.
My last book was Bonsai by Alejando Zambra, from the Contemporary Art of the Novella Series published by Melville House. This is a beautiful-looking gem-of-a-book, which I read–tired, sunburned on my kneecaps, and terrifyingly freckled–during my flight home. Actually, it was so short, I read it as I enjoyed my $8.00 in-flight meal. I was smitten by Bonsai, with its story-within-a-story-within-a-story, and confounded (in the best way) by its end. I need to re-read it, if only for sentences like this one: “Julio and Emilia’s peculiarities weren’t only sexual (they did have them), nor emotional (these abounded), but also, so to speak, literary.” Ah, chantarelles!
For Book-Spying-Trip #2, I went to Laguna Beach. I’m sorry to say that I spotted very few readers there. (Oh, California, I thought, don’t embarrass me further.) Most of the adults were too busy swimming or chasing little kids around. The teenage girls spent a lot of time spraying Sun-In into their roots as their male counterparts tried to make them laugh. There was one gorgeous sixteen-year-old girl whom I was mentally casting in a French film. She might have been wearing lipstick. On the beach! Almost all of the teenagers were tattooed (none with dragons); one girl, she couldn’t have been more than fifteen, had a tramp stamp. Really. Clearly, I wasn’t doing much reading myself. The man next to us, however, was very studious with copies of Hemingway and Arthur Miller, and he wore a beanie like an old-timey Stevedore. I made up all kinds of stories about him: his delicious loneliness, his journal of beautiful sentences by dead authors, his tiny sand-crusted apartment with the bad overhead lighting. That was a good novel, this one I was writing in my head. On sale, summer 2012.