White Oleander (Oprah's Book Club)

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Women Have Always Been at the Center of Upheavals: Amber Tamblyn in Conversation with Janet Fitch

Amber Tamblyn and Janet Fitch first met at a tiki bar in Los Angeles in 2010, when Tamblyn was seeking the movie rights to Fitch’s second novel, Paint It Black, which became Tamblyn’s directorial debut. Since then, the two have had an ongoing conversation about feminism, politics, history, aesthetics, sexuality, cinema, tiki drinks, and life in our times. This year, both have new books—Tamblyn’s memoir of political awakening, The Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution, and Fitch’s novel Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, the second part of a duet set during the Russian Revolution, which began with The Revolution of Marina M.

The conversation continues here:

Amber Tamblyn: Janet, you have inspired a generation of feminist writers with works like Paint It Black and White Oleander. Your latest book, Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, the follow up to The Revolution of Marina M., is a full-throttle culmination of all the powerful ways in which you have written dangerously as an author, and also written dangerous female characters. What about this latest collection feels different to you than the stories about women you have told before?

Janet Fitch: My books have always had a feminist orientation, girls and women at agency in their own lives, grappling for meaning and a moral philosophy—though they would not have called it that. But up to recently, I’d written about my characters in a kind of isolation. Though they were impinged on by the structures of society, the thinness of social nets, or class issues as in Paint It Black, it was always about the drama of a few isolated individuals. Ingrid Magnussen, the rebel, was the only one who thought directly about the larger political structures.

But in the books set in the Russian Revolution, my young women, especially my protagonist, poet Marina, and her radical friend Varvara, think directly about society and its future, and their part in its unfolding. Women made the Russian Revolution. They were the ones who said, “No more.” When the women say it’s time, it’s time. They were an essential part of the new government—something that had not been seen in the world before, ever. I often use the voice of the bread queue as my Greek chorus, women expressing the temper of the times. Varvara at 19 is a responsible part of the Bolshevik government. Marina at 17 is already on her own, finding an absolutely new way of living in the world. Their friend Mina is the head of household, making decisions that will affect everyone around her. These women are forces in the world.

I think what all my books have in common is that I take the internal lives and moral development of women with utmost seriousness. What’s different in Marina M. and Chimes of a Lost Cathedral is the extent to which they are directly involved in the social upheaval, the way these questions become inescapable.

AT: This is so fascinating and true: Women have always been at the center of upheavals throughout history. We are seeing that now in the United States in politics as well, where women are finding themselves in unprecedented and necessary positions of power—especially black and brown women such as Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—Women who are our nation’s Varvaras and Marinas; agitators and accomplices to the much needed change we have craved for so long.  It’s one of the things that drew me to one of your previous novels, Paint It Black, because it wasn’t just a love story or a grief story or a revenge story—it’s a story about a revolution. In that case, an emotional and spiritual one, driven by class.

JF: What was it that drew you to Paint It Black, made you itch to make it into a film—this gothic-Noir story about class and rage and female connection in the aftermath of a suicide? What made it worth fighting for?

AT: What made it worth fighting for was the fact that I knew it tapped into a kind of volatility and conflict story often not reserved for women characters portrayed in film—a volatility and complexity that transcends how, exactly, women are allowed to behave and be shown on screen. Paint It Black was about the ugliness of trauma, the underbelly of shame, and how complicated it is for women to confront these things, both in each other and in themselves. I find a lot of value and charge in the uglier sides of women’s thinking and behavior, and the parts of our violence that have not yet been explored or told. What do you find most thrilling and most difficult about the writing process itself?

JF: The most thrilling is when you’re writing and the suddenly, the angels sing.  The writing takes you up and flings you into the air. There’s a rhythm and a sound—it’s like flying, it’s like jazz, what it must be to be Miles Davis out there playing a horn solo, feeling the music pouring through you.  You can’t make it happen, but it does happen more often when you’ve been working very, very hard. Something takes over, you find you’re no longer standing on the ground, and that sound is coming through you. It’s the most glorious feeling, Like the Muse is breathing through you, through your hands.

The hardest is when you find that you’ve written yourself into a dead end, it’s not going to work, it’s never going to work, and you have to tear it all out back to the crossroads, where you first went wrong. That is a tough place to be. Also when you’ve been writing a long time, five years, seven years, and you wonder if this is ever going to come together, whether you have the chops to pull it off, and why did you decide to do this in the first place?  I had many a moment like that.

AT: Where do you get your inspiration to write during this age of Trump and a world that continuously asks for women’s silence over their rage?

 JF: Like other artists, I am by nature rebellious.  Even as a kid, I was more likely to get thrown out of class for insubordination than sit there politely with my hand up in the air, hoping teacher would call on me. This has always been my inspiration to write—the rage to be heard, for others to see the world through my eyes. But my inspiration to write has been yanked into hyper drive by this current outpouring of lies and cruelty. It makes me want to slap truth up against it, to stir people’s humanity against the brutality.

Yet I’m a writer of fiction. Historically, poets have been literature’s first responders. Poetry is about the unpacking of a moment, turning it around in your hand, letting it catch the light like a prism. Essayists are also quick to respond. They’re already duking it out with this current disaster. But novelists are much slower.  It takes us time to process, and find a narrative that can contain the bigger movements of the times. The danger for many fiction writers is to think we’re irrelevant if we don’t react immediately to every outrage.

But not every writer is a fast writer. What we have to remember is that the times are like the terroir in which our vineyards grow. If we’re writing deeply and honestly enough, our work can’t help but take on the flavor and the temper of the times and say something significant about it.

A mythic battle is being waged now, between truth and the lie, between real reality and claims of “fake news,” between science and commerce under the guise of religion, between reason and propaganda, women and people of color succeeding in making their power felt vs. the struggle of the old white male hegemony to maintain power. I think this epic struggle is going to touch everything being written now. Dark secrets will come to light, or be stuffed down again. Corruption will sink a family. A curtain will be torn back in a relationship. A man’s assumptions about the world will be broken open. The inspiration of this time will manifest in a million ways.

Women are breaking taboos—don’t talk about that! They’re rebelling against the old truisms. It’s the way of the world. Boys will be boys.  We’re seeing how deadly those statements are and how foundational they are to our culture, as women hold a mirror to that behavior and say “we won’t pretend anymore. We will not be silent.” Even the act of holding the mirror is subverting the claim that our voices don’t matter.

Your last book of poetry, Dark Sparkler, examined the culture’s consumption of young women. Your first book of prose, the genre-bending novel Any Man, widened the discussion by putting men into a similar position—victims of not only of rape but the culture of rape. Now you’ve written what I would call a political coming of age memoir, a straight-up call to action, Era of Ignition.  What was the progression here, what was the evolution?

AT: I think, similarly to you and many women like us, I also grew up feeling rebellious. I used to constantly get in trouble for, “my mouth,” for the things I would say as a kid, for the ways I pushed boundaries. Even from a young age as a child actress, I rebelled against my own industry and its sexism. I was already writing poems and chapbooks on the treatment of women and girls in Hollywood. The first poem I ever wrote, which you can find in my first collection of poems, Free Stallion, called “Kill Me So Much” was written at age 12 and is a complete confrontation with the fakeness and cruelty of the entertainment business. I was constantly doing this as a kid, in my writing, but also in life, when I felt something was not just.

Once when I was starring on the television program Joan of Arcadia, I said something publicly about then-CEO Les Moonves, criticizing the direction he had forced our show to go in because he wanted the teen demographic; he had tried to dumb it down by forcing us to do stunt cast (when you cast famous people simply because they are famous). Immediately my manager and agent and everyone on my team freaked out and told me I had to apologize to him. He was extremely powerful at that point and no one wanted him to feel called out by the star of his own television show—a young 21-year-old girl, for that matter. But I refused. Instead of writing him an apology note, I wrote him and double downed. I told him why I thought what he was doing was dangerous for the long-term success of the show and how it might alienate viewers and the real fans who watched us every week because we had an important story to tell, and were telling it in a way that no one had really done before. I tell you this story to say: I am with you on the rebellion stuff and believe that if any of us can afford to put our necks on the line, because of our privilege or access or whatever the reason may be, then we absolutely must. Especially if it’s in the name of protecting another person or protecting art.

Have you ever thought about writing something in another medium? Like, say, a screenplay? Or a book of poems?

JF: I actually went to film school for 3.5 seconds. A disaster.  As a screenwriter, I’m a novelist.  I think my first screenplay was 185 pages. I like to be god of my own planet. Screenwriting is a scaffold for other people to build on. Too spare and elegant a form for me.  I’m in love with describing the world, being able to go wherever I need to go, invading the characters’ heads, using language in its beautiful, powerful extremes.  I’d be more likely to write a book of poetry. I like the power and compression of it, the way you can unfold a moment, sink deep inside.  I wrote all the fictional characters’ poetry in The Revolution of Marina M. and in Chimes of a Lost Cathedral. Marina M. in fact started out as a novel in verse.  I write a lot of narrative poetry.  Maybe I’ll come out of the poetry closet sometime.

AT: This is a brilliant answer. Is there a single instance you can remember early on in your childhood or your teenage years that propelled you into not just wanting to be a writer, but wanting to write the stories of dangerous women?

JF: I still remember my rage and my shame when a substitute teacher challenged my class to name a single woman writer, and I couldn’t think of any.  How smug he was—until a girl in the front row raised her little hand and said, “What about Anaïs Nin?”  He just stared at her…and changed the subject. That very night, I got my parents to take me up to Pickwick Bookstore and bought the boxed set of The Diaries of Anaïs Nin.  I remember the picture on the side of the box, Nin with her strange, Kabuki-like makeup and false eyelashes.  I lost myself in those books.  She was the future I wanted for myself.  Unapologetically sexual, a lover of beauty, creator of a new language—a woman treating herself as subject, rather than object. Determined to have the life she wanted, valuing her own search. I must have always held that picture of her in my mind. When I woke up in the middle of the night on my 21st birthday and decided I was going to be a writer, it was Nin I imagined.  She stood for the dangerous woman, the self-driven consciousness, determined to find her own unique path, no matter what.

AT: This is such a badass story. And in your quest to find a woman writer to connect with, you turned your very own life into subject, rather than what could’ve been object. You became the propeller of your own trajectory.

JF: You’re a tireless battler for justice, yourself—I’ve seen you going out on the campaign trail for Hillary nine months pregnant, riding those buses. You just came back from the border where you spoke to women in a shelter for women and children recently released from detention camps. You talk to women everywhere you go, encouraging them to step up, or to help another woman step up. I have a collage in my study, portraits of women I admire for owning their own power, with a caption I found in some magazine, “What gave her the nerve to send back the espresso?” So, what gives you the nerve to send back the espresso?

AT: What gives me the nerve is watching the suffering all around me every single day, whether it’s immigrant children being separated from their parents on the first day of school by ICE, or whether it’s the suffering of the Amazon burning to the ground while we sit around making up jokes about the size of Donald Trump’s hands. I get it: we all need a check-out sliding scale. We all need a minute to focus on the shallow, or to be cruel back, in response to a cruelty we cannot control. But I have always tried to use my anger as part of my creative tool—no, weapon—and I know no other fight than the fight we are all in now. Because it is the one we have always been in. It is a fight that lives in my DNA, the make-up of every woman who lived before me so that I could exist today. And so I’m done with the politeness of swallowing my fury for the comfort of others. If the Amazon is going to burn to the ground, then so am I. And I will do everything in my power to continue to show up for the world, and other people who need showing up for, even if the world does not always give that in return. Silence is not death. Complacency is.

I’d like to close this interview by writing a short story with you, based on some themes in our interview, in real time. You heard me. Just something off the tops of our heads. Let the readers of our interview see if they can figure out where I end and you begin. Ready? Here we go:

AT and JF: Edwin sat on his porch drenched in sap and sweat, staring across the new tree line he had spent all day cutting for his back yard. Without those few extra trees in the way, you could really see solid skyline. Edwin took a sip of something cool and wiped his dripping forehead with something soft.

In the distance he could hear the ground’s crunch, the sound of something moving up through the woods. Deer, maybe. Although deer don’t usually make that much sound. A bear, he thought. But what bears are in this area? Above the ground, high up in the air, Edwin heard small branches begin to break from their larger trunks. Edwin paused his heavy breathing to listen closer, to try and hear what was coming. All around him, branches severed themselves, large and small, and fell to the ground making the sound of giant birds crashing to Earth. Edwin rubbed his eyes, trying to understand what was happening. Was he dreaming? He stood up, the glass of something cool dropping from his hands and shattering on the ground. He looked around at his beautiful trees, now branchless. Bare.

One by one, each branch began to move. To lift their own wooded bodies. To stand, like men. Edwin stepped back and braced a hand against the doorframe of his house, his mouth frozen ajar. He watched as an army of twigs slowly made their way toward him, as if alive, as if embodied. Some even rolled. One by one, they piled themselves on top of each other right in front of him, at the bottom of his steps. They piled for so long, and so high, he could no longer see his precious sky. When they were finished, a silence struck the entire forest. Not even a bird called to its mother. Not even the stream heckled its rocks. Edwin began to tremble, then cough. He coughed until he felt something loosen from his throat. He dropped to his knees lunging his body forward, until finally from the depths of his throat, out fell a matchstick.

What did they want from him?  He was sorry! He was so sorry. He hadn’t realized this could happen. They were just trees! Blocking his view of the city.  That million-dollar view. Actually $2.5 million but this was not the moment to quibble. A few trees more or less, he’d thought—what difference would it make? A little more yard, a little more for him.  Don’t do it Daddy, little Rachel had said, crying, hugging the whatever it was, crabapple. Winesap.

He knelt and wept.  Don’t kill me.  He’d loved those trees, he didn’t know how angry they would be, that they would strip their very limbs in fury. So he’d cut a few, editing the view. Isn’t that what people called it?  Buying the skyline, a little more light, a little less lawn litter, those berries that stuck to the kids’ feet, the leaves he had to rake in the fall, those fucking little apples.

Now the branches where whispering to each other. Rattling their leaves, shaking as if there was a wind through this ghastly wall of torn limbs—though there was no wind.

The match ignited itself. It stood up on his back step, the smallest tree of all.

A Year in Reading: 2014

This series was first conceived in 2004 as a way to get a fledgling website about books through a busy holiday season. Realizing I had spent much of that year with my nose in books that were two, 20 or 200 years old, I was wary of attempting to compile a list of the year’s best books that could have any hope of feeling legitimate. It also occurred to me that a “best of” list would not have been true to the reading I did that year.

Instead, I asked some friends to write about the best books they read that year and was struck when each one seemed to offer up not just an accounting of books read, but glimpses into transporting and revelatory experiences. For the reader, being caught in the sweep of a book may be one of a year’s best memories. It always feels like we’ve hit the jackpot when we can offer up dozens of these great memories and experiences, one after another, to close out the year.

And so now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, please enjoy these riches from some of our favorite writers and thinkers.

For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.

We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2015 a fruitful one.

As in prior years, the names of our 2014 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way.

Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See.
Haley Mlotek,editor of The Hairpin.
Jess Walter, author of We Live in Water.
Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
Isaac Fitzgerald, editor of BuzzFeed Books and co-founder of Pen & Ink.
Emily Gould, co-owner of Emily Books, author of Friendship.
Blake Butler, author of 300,000,000.
Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander.
John Darnielle, vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats and author of Wolf in White Van.
Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams.
Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves.
Eula Biss, author of On Immunity.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Laura van den Berg, author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth.
Hamilton Leithauser, frontman for The Walkmen.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Good People.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Ben Lerner, author of 10:04.
Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres.
Phil Klay, author of Redeployment.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of Station Eleven.
Tana French, author of Broken Harbor.
Yelena Akhtiorskaya, author of Panic in a Suitcase.
Philipp Meyer, author of The Son.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite.
Maureen Corrigan, author of So We Read On.
Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning.
David Bezmozgis, author of Natasha: And Other Stories.
Lindsay Hunter, author of Ugly Girls.
Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names.
Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman.
Rabih Alameddine, author of An Unnecessary Woman.
Walter Kirn, author of Blood Will Out.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Kaulie Lewis, intern for The Millions.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-creator of Six-Word Memoirs and co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House.
Gina Frangello, author of A Life in Men.
Hannah Pittard, author of Reunion.
Michelle Huneven, author of Blame
Lydia Millet, author of Mermaids in Paradise.
Michele Filgate, essayist, critic, and freelance writer.
Carolyn Kellogg writes about books and publishing for the Los Angeles Times.
Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers.
Ron Rash, author of Serena.
Darcey Steinke, author of Sister Golden Hair.
Tom Nissley, author of A Reader’s Book of Days and owner of Phinney Books in Seattle.
Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans.
Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses’ Bridles.
Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth.
Bill Morris, author of Motor City Burning.
William Giraldi, author of Busy Monsters.
Rachel Cantor, author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario.
Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of You Should Have Known.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, writer and project assistant for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Robbins, author of The Second Sex.
Charles Finch, author of The Last Enchantments.
A Year in Reading: 2014 Wrap-Up

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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Janet Fitch In Black & White

“Don’t read this book if you are depressed. Yikes.”–Amazon.com reader review of Paint It BlackJanet Fitch has a new book out, Paint It Black, and so that this dark etching might be properly framed, and hopefully some light then cast in its direction, some background information will prove useful. Fitch’s first book, White Oleander, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club shortly after it was published in 1999 (a movie followed in 2002.) This after Fitch had labored in relative obscurity for years in her home town, Los Angeles.Oprah Winfrey, TV’s well-read matriarch-cum-regent, has anointed more than a few deserving authors over the years.Jonathan Franzen is a member of some standing, though he has openly discussed the stigma of being a Book Club boy or girl. Oprah has moved mountains by moving Americans to read more, more Faulkner, more Garcia Marquez, more Carol Oates, Steinbeck, and – Sydney Poitier? In any case, Oprah has also moved a few books for hucksters like James Frey, a few more for the good people at, oh, Amazon.com. A writer would be right to wonder about the implications of being in The Club, because they are probably not all as easy to recognize and identify as the sudden affirmative media attention – and the accompanying thunderclap of fall-off-your-chair sales figures. For instance, what if the follow-up to your breakout book just isn’t very good? Franzen has had less to say on that subject.Without discernible irony, Janet Fitch once professed to maintain a shrine to Oprah in her home, something besides a television. And why should she not? After all, Oprah’s induction of White Oleander into The Club made Janet Fitch an overnight success, validating years of work. The question is, what reader has a shrine to Janet Fitch, whether the devout Oprah acolyte, or, like me, just someone who picked up White Oleander at the sincere urging of a non-televised friend? And how many of the Fitch faithful will keep the candles burning for her now that Paint It Black is out?It is hard to imagine that, with Paint It Black, support from the Oprah camp – surely the rock on which Fitch’s wing of her publishing house, Little, Brown, rests – will not to some degree erode. More pointedly, Paint It Black will confound the serious reader engaged in a comparison of the book to its predecessor. It’s not just that Paint It Black is a weak sophomore effort. It’s that what preceded it was of such quality, and soared to such great heights.White Oleander does run before some powerful winds. It is written with a soulful savagery, the language never failing to try to capture both the broadest sweep of earthly beauty and the innermost essence of personal pain. The narrator, Astrid Magnussen, is fourteen when she begins her journey down a twisted chain of ever more fantastic and frightening L.A.-area foster homes. Astrid’s mother, Ingrid, a noted poet, is sent to prison for poisoning a man who was her lover. Yet even in prison, where her notoriety and artistic standing seem only to grow, Ingrid Magnussen maintains a profound, almost malevolent influence over Astrid’s life. Central to the book’s success is Fitch’s inspired evocation of the psychological connection between this mother and daughter, in all its complex, contradictory, and adversarial intensity. So, White Oleander not only floats, it slices over water into which other books sink.Of course, White Oleander has its little leaks, and its leaks hint at some of the problems that sink its successor. It is too long – too much ballast, as it were, in the form of at times achingly florid, fulsome prose. In this passage, Astrid’s voice rings with a concise clarity: “Niki and Yvonne had pierced my ears one day when they were bored. I let them do it. It pleased them to shape me. I’d learned, whatever you hung from my earlobes or put on my back, I was insoluble, like sand in water. Stir me up, I always came to rest on the bottom.” But it keeps going, so on the same page: “I had been in foster care almost six years now, I had starved, wept, begged, my body was a battlefield, my spirit scarred and cratered as a city under siege.” Fitch trips herself up when she indulges in such passages, running on (literally) with these broadest of brushstrokes. Then, maybe an author deserves to be spared the criticism of reaching a bit too far if she proves, as Janet Fitch has with White Oleander, that she is capable of rendering a nuanced beauty, and a dignity, out of the often pitiable human condition.Enter Josie Tyrell, protagonist of Paint It Black. She is a humble Bakersfield bean sprout transplanted in the big, bad city. Josie’s Harvard rich kid-turned-artist boyfriend, Michael, has a problem: he has just killed himself. Now Josie must struggle to find out who he really was. It’s tough. Along the way, Josie forms an unlikely bond with Michael’s overbearing, patrician mother, while occasionally navigating her way through the cemetery at Griffith Park, and the wilds of the 1980 L.A. punk scene, as it were, as it was, as it may have been. The book opens with Josie observing how an artist friend of hers, whom she poses for, becomes misty-eyed while listening to a John Lennon album in his studio, Lennon having just been killed. Josie’s take: “people were playing the same fucking Beatles songs until you wanted to throw up.” This is her disposition before she learns of the death of the love of her own life, but in any case, we’re off.The trade winds that propelled White Oleander to welcoming shores have somehow conflated into a perfect storm of literary peril, and Paint It Black is a balky boat. Like that of the former, the tone of the latter is heavy, yet somehow hollow, so that a passage such as the following: “How right that the body changed over time, becoming a gallery of scars, a canvas of experience, a testament to life and one’s capacity to endure it,” which so closely echoes the passages from W.O. cited above, here seems so painfully self-conscious, more of a glance behind the curtain than into the heart of the character on the stage. Fitch relies so heavily on this sort of weight-of-the-world internal monologue; it quickly becomes redundant, like slapping a corpse. Part of the comparative problem is the use of third person in Paint It Black, where White Oleander was told in the voice of Astrid Magnussen, who is, after all, a teenager, not to mention an extraordinarily compelling character. Josie Tyrell, not so much, though Fitch seems literally to want to crawl inside her skin, and maybe should have. It’s tempting to judge third person narration more of a challenge because, unlike first person where the story is one big stream of monologue, the protagonist’s voice does not automatically set the tone. To borrow a hackneyed writer’s workshop phrase, the omniscient narrator must rely more on show than tell.Fitch still shows a lot, a lot of Los Angeles, between Josie’s two spheres, the jaded punk-rock bohemia, slowly choking on its own vomit; and the coldly cultured upper-crust, slowly, well, choking on its own vomit. There’s vomit and excrement in every corner of this town. Witness this exchange between Josie and an exiled German punk rock hellion, Lola Lola:”Americans insist on the superior shit, consuming acres of bran cereal, the better to have big attractive ones. Did you know that all the best perfume has a little bit of shit in it?”Josie shook her head. A little turd floating in the Chanel No. 5.Still with us? Okay then; moving on.Fitch does know L.A. and, like a Joan Didion or a Mike Davis with a novelist’s elan, she reaches yet again for something lofty: a description of the cultural anthropology of Los Angeles itself. White Oleander accomplished this feat so thoroughly that the book could be required reading in such a course of study. But in Paint It Black, the vision, the spheres, never coalesce into something true, or even plausible. Paint It Black is never quite dull, though, and therein lies perhaps the best evidence that the soulful savagery Fitch conjured in White Oleander still burns.At bottom, what awaits people who read and enjoyed White Oleander when they pick up Paint It Black is perhaps just a letdown. This idea has something to do with the reason why White Oleander was chosen by Oprah for The Club, now 55 books strong, or thereabouts. The letdown has to do with confronting a character, a young female protagonist, Josie Tyrell, who, though outwardly similar in some ways to Astrid Magnussen, is in fact fundamentally her opposite. There may come a moment when the reader realizes that Josie Tyrell is categorically unstable, the anti-Astrid. The book as farce is an interesting way to read it. And maybe, just maybe, this is where Fitch jumps the mic on what was almost certain to be labeled an Oprah letdown, a sophomore slump, or what have you, this second novel of hers. Perhaps, shrine notwithstanding, Fitch was discerning when it came to confronting the curse of The Club, and set out to create the anti-Oleander, something cunningly irredeemable. Something for critics to crow about – or not, as the unfortunate case may be. And something for Oprah to ignore.These two books are black and white, and there are exhausted homunculi out there for whom they may someday be read all over.

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