Jeanette Winterson is always interesting, always risking something with her prose. I’d finished Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder in two days, a near miracle for me these days, and I wanted more, but neither the regular bookstore nor the used bookstore had Bel Canto. Yes, I missed Bel Canto. So I picked up the beautiful little PowerBook by Winterson, along with Rowell’s Angles of Ascent, the new Norton anthology of contemporary African American poetry that caught our eye back at AWP.
I brought only four books to the cape this week. Patchett, Boyle’s Talk Talk, the final book in Mankell’s Wallander series, and my very first ever e-book, Firethorn, by Sarah Micklem. I’d set down the Boyle a couple months ago. I never have enjoyed it very much but friends said, read it. I set it down again for the second and last time, halfway to the end. Boyle’s prose flows, his narrative arc is tight and there is much to like in the book. But the reason I’d picked it up–eager to read a book with a deaf protagonist–left me irritable, because Boyle does this thing I loathe in certain books about women (protag in this book happens also to be female) and about people of color, when such books are authored by white men (sorry, boys–if it doesn’t apply, just walk on by): the Other is viewed almost exclusively as submerged in dominant culture. In this case, the protagonist is a profoundly deaf individual who functions almost entirely within hearing culture. So every little sniff of her world is through the dominant culture filter. For the first half of the book we don’t once get to see her interact with another deaf person–not one single, solitary time. Deaf culture is quite a distinctive community in the US with a lot to teach the rest of us. It just eludes comprehension how a writer would select such a protagonist and yet withhold any exploration of such a rich world, apart from a few throwaway internal observations by the deaf character which I’ve read more than once in writings by hearing people (such as the celebration of deaf parents upon learning their newborn shares this trait). One of the most satisfying parts of reading is being drawn into a previously unknown, maybe even unglimpsed world. Patchett does this in spades in State of Wonder, and Boyle does it too in Talk Talk, but what he chooses to illuminate is the inner [and outer] life of the psychopathic character, the identity thief. Fine, if that’s your cuppa tea.
It reminds me of comic books that have a token female character, or adventure stories. Or films that take a narrative supposedly of rising civil rights and spin it totally around a white player, as if the people of color in that story were merely peripheral to the shining white hero of their own struggle.
Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of room in the literary universe for a set-up like Boyle’s, it’s just not the view into deaf culture that I was hungry for. And I’m about up to my eyeballs in stories with a psychopath as a main character (not the deaf woman, here). I can only stomach so much of that. So, sorry all you Boyle fans–maybe another of his books will “take” with me. Meantime Angles of Ascent offers a kind of welcome antidote, though it seems daunting to claim to offer such an encompassing work, and inevitably one wonders at the exclusions, the balance of content. Nevertheless it is a beautiful collection.
Micklem’s book has its charms. I have not read a science fiction or fantasy novel for years, and this is a rich world she weaves, with the quintessential too-smart-for-her-circumstance protagonist and plenty high stakes. I don’t enjoy reading it as an e-book but I need to understand that experience from the inside, so I’ll persist, even as I pine for the gorgeous cover and deckeled edge of Patchett’s physical book.
Mankell has been leant to one of our party. Not easily leant, possibly the mark of how deep is our friendship, as I have looked forward to that book, and precisely for this vacation.
There are plenty and diverse reasons to dive in, every book provides its pleasures. Patchett’s was the perfect synthesis of riveting story and remarkable economical craft. Winterson is beyond economical, she’s practically telegraphing her message directly into the reader’s brainpan, and then suddenly, the twist at chapter’s end.
The dune grass like green fur on the sand, the bay a ridiculously deep azure blue literally sparkling with sunshine, the tip of the cape curled across the water as if you could touch it, and the coffee freshly ground, freshly brewed, and hey, it’s from Joe, possibly the best cafe, anywhere. I’ll stand by that claim. I’d like to sit here and read some more but there is a solitary umbrella down beside the bay, and beneath it a single silhouette–also reading, lucky person who can read on the beach, undeterred by the distractions of wind and water and light–and it’s time for me to stretch my bones across the sand, towards the water, beneath the arc of kite-specked, gull-sliced sky.