Monday, March 15, 2010

Malena Watrous

After graduating from Barnard College, Malena Watrous eventually taught English in Japan. She was placed by the Jet Program in Shika-Machi, the nuclear power plant town in which she set her debut novel, the newly released If You Follow Me.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Lit is the first book by Mary Karr that I’ve read. In addition to rarely reading books about writing, I generally prefer novels to memoir, but I heard Karr talk about the book on the radio and I liked her dark and irreverent sense of humor, so I ordered Lit on my husband’s new Kindle and ran out of battery power that night, about three quarters of the way in. (This is the new way of saying, “page-turner,” since I was pushing a button instead of flipping pages). Not having read any of Karr’s poetry, nor her previous two memoirs, The Liars’ Club or Cherry (which I picked up after finishing Lit) I wasn’t versed in Karr’s “apocalyptic” Texas childhood. I met her as a young poet, married to a man as chilly and controlling as she was warm and veering out of control. She was attempting to take off as a writer while also taking care of her new baby, and drinking an awful lot, from early morning on. Although she wanted to be different in every way from her own alcoholic and mentally ill mother, she was clearly following some familiar patterns. Throughout the book, she writes vividly of her descent into alcoholism, hard earned recovery, and almost accidental quest for some kind of spiritual practice. Karr is such an incredible writer and storyteller that it barely matters what she’s writing about. It’s always apparent that she’s a poet first, not because her language is flowery or needlessly ornate, but because she leads with powerful and precise images, trusting her sensory details to evoke feeling in the reader. No matter how ugly her subject or scene, she can always find redemptive humor in it, but she manages to be funny without sacrificing vulnerability. By the end of the book, the extremely simple title had taken on multiple meanings, as Karr braided together narratives about being “lit” on alcohol, about her literary pursuits and achievements, and about seeking some brighter light than her own.

I picked up After The Workshop, by John McNally, while in Iowa City, where the novel is set. This is a bitingly funny satire of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and while I derived particular pleasure from reading it there (this is another book I devoured in one big gulp) I think it would appeal to anyone with a prurient interest in the contemporary literary “scene” (unglamorous as it is), and anyone who has been in enough writing workshops to become versed in their clich├ęs. McNally nails the details. The main character is a workshop graduate who has stayed for a decade in Iowa City, working as a “literary escort” to the writers who come through town to read at Prairie Lights bookstore (where I bought this novel). He had early success, publishing a story in The New Yorker (though he has good reason to doubt whether it got in on his own merits) and now he is stuck in every sense—a recognizable Iowa City type, most frequently seen at The Foxhead bar. Whereas Lit is a book on a serious subject by an author who can’t help but infuse it with her darkly comic sensibility, After The Workshop is a blatant and unapologetic comedy, by an author who manages nonetheless to bring surprising depth to his main character and his concerns. Who hasn’t felt left behind, insecure, stuck? At the same time, while he may have spent the last decade in stasis, the novel takes place over just a couple of days in which we see him make one brilliantly glaring mistake after another, all of which combine to somehow (mostly believably) get him un-stuck.

Another great novel that I read most recently was one that I reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle: The Gin Closet, by Leslie Jamison. This is a novel about a young woman who discovers that she has an aunt she never knew existed, a sort of prodigal daughter who ran away to the desert of Nevada, where she has been living in squalor in a trailer, after working most of her adult life as a prostitute. The setup is extreme, but the characters are heartbreakingly real. Jamison’s novel alternates between the first person voices of the niece and the aunt, very different but equally strong and compelling. Flannery O’Connor famously wrote that the end of a story should be at once surprising and inevitable, and Jamison somehow manages to achieve this neat effect on the sentence level. While I was definitely drawn in by the bigger story, and wanted to find out what was going to happen to these two troubled women, I savored the novel for its sentences and actually read it slowly on purpose, because I didn’t want to miss any luminous moment.

I also want to recommend a beautiful and chilling novel called My Abandonment, by Peter Rock. This novel came out in 2008, but it’s one I can’t get out of my head, and I don’t think it got as much attention as it deserves. Rock writes absolutely persuasively from the point of view of a homeless teenaged girl, living with her dad (at least we think he’s her dad) in a park just outside Portland, Oregon. They have been living on the fringes of society and off its dregs for almost as long as she can remember, and they have their systems down in a way that’s fascinating to read about. I love how deeply Rock inhabited this young female character, how well he captured her voice, how he made her extreme circumstances seem almost normal, almost enviable at times, but also how he left murky things murky. Is her father her biological father? Should we root for the girl to get caught by the system the two of them are so hell-bent on avoiding, or should we accept that this life they lead is freer and suits her? This is a spare and economical novel that dramatizes questions of what it means to be “civilized,” and whether someone can or should be allowed to live completely on their own terms. The book doesn’t end the way I expected it to, and yet it’s a perfect ending for this novel, one of the reasons why it continues to haunt me, like an unresolved chord.
Browse inside If You Follow Me, and learn more about the book and author at the official Malena Watrous website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue