Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife

A year’s worth of reading

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These days, I’m fortunate enough to have more work than I can handle, which also means that I no longer have much time to read for my own pleasure. The past year, in particular, was all business: I had just over nine months to take City of Exiles from conception to final draft, along with a number of other projects, which meant that nearly all my free time was devoted to either writing or research. All the same, I managed to make time to read a number of books that didn’t have anything to do with my work, either in my spare moments, on vacation, or in parallel with writing the novel itself. (Like many writers, I like to read a few pages of an author I admire before starting work for the day, which means that I tend to read books in piecemeal over the course of many weeks or months.) And while I doubt I’ll ever return to being the sort of omnivorous reader I was growing up, it’s still important to me to read as much as possible, both for professional reasons and for the sake of my own sanity.

Much of this year was spent catching up on books that I’d been meaning to read for a long time. The best book I read this year, by far, was The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, which seems likely to stand as one of my ten favorite novels, followed close behind by Catch-22, which really does deserve its reputation as the most inventive comic novel of the twentieth century. Turning to slightly more recent books, I was able to catch up on such disparate works as The English Patient, Cloud Atlas, and The Time Traveler’s Wife, all of which I admired. Of these, the two that retain the strongest hold on my imagination are John Crowley’s Little, Big, despite my mixed feelings on reading it for the first time, and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which strikes me as one of the most perfect of all recent novels. More disappointing were London Fields, Updike’s Terrorist, and, somewhat to my surprise, A Confederacy of Dunces, which I found clumsy and only intermittently engaging, despite its reputation as a classic.

Of books published in the last few years, my reading consisted mostly of nonfiction, despite my nagging resolve to read more contemporary novels. I greatly enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which is a model of both popular science and investigative journalism. Like everybody else, I bought and read Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, which is short on analysis but long on fascination—more a gold mine of material than a real portrait, but still an essential document. I read The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker partly as background material for my novel, but was ultimately won over by Baker’s genuine wit and candor—it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. And although The Possessed by Elif Batuman was a little thin, like a selection of essays in search of a theme, it made me curious to see what she’ll do next, given a more substantial project.

As for the coming year, as before, I expect that most of my time will be spent on background reading and research. Still, I have a few other authors I’ve been meaning to try. I’m going to read DeLillo for the first time, probably starting with Underworld, and then the later Philip Roth, beginning with American Pastoral. If I’m feeling really ambitious, I’ll tackle Faulkner, Morrison, and Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual as well. Above all else, I’m going to make a concerted effort to read more contemporary fiction. A glance at the bookshelves in the next room—the property of my wife, who is a much better reader than I am—reveals such titles as A Visit From the Goon Squad, Swamplandia!, and The Magicians, all of which have been beckoning to me for some time now. These days, of course, even my leisure reading has something mercenary about it, as I look for tricks and techniques to borrow or steal. As the year goes on, then, I hope to have a chance to talk more about these books, and if all goes well, I’ll have a few useful things to share, too.

A few words on dialogue

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While every novelist should strive to be a perfect writing machine, equally at home in all aspects of the craft, there’s no doubt that every writer has particular weaknesses. For me, at least to my own ears, it’s dialogue. Dialogue in my novels and short stories tends to be purely functional, and while I do my best to make it natural, clear, and concise, I doubt I’ll ever be able to write dialogue like James M. Cain. Yet I find myself writing dialogue all the time: it’s still the most economical way of advancing a story, and since it’s so central to the suspense genre, I’m constantly striving to make my own efforts more readable and appealing. And while the best way to write good dialogue is to study the novelists or dramatists whose work you admire (my own favorites include Cain, Updike, and, in small doses, Mamet), I can still suggest a few general guidelines.

The first point to remember is that dialogue is like any other aspect of fiction: it’s only meaningful as a part of the whole. If a clever line draws attention to itself at the expense of the fictional dream, it probably needs to be cut. Samuel Johnson’s famous advice—”Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out”—applies doubly so to dialogue, where an awkward or precious exchange can pull the reader out of the story immediately. This is true of even very good novels, like The Time Traveler’s Wife, where the dialogue, especially between male characters, occasionally strays into preciousness, and it can particularly be a problem in genre fiction, where writers sometimes feel the need to fill the entire page with banter. A page of nondescript but serviceable dialogue is always better than a page of clanging repartee.

Another point is that dialogue doesn’t need to be realistic in order to read well, or to serve its purpose within the story. On the most basic level, nearly all fictional conversations need to be more direct and concise than the way we talk in real life: characters in a novel tend to be very good at getting directly to the point. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a book like Foucault’s Pendulum is full of conversations and dialogue that, with their density of allusion and information, could never occur in real life, which strikes me as perfectly fine (though Salman Rushdie would disagree). Still, this is a slippery slope: I find the endless expository passages in Dan Brown’s novels unbearable, for instance, and since thrillers are especially prone to this sort of thing, I’m constantly working to make sure that my own fiction doesn’t suffer from the same problem.

In the end, every writer finds rhythms of dialogue that work within the context of the story, which is the only context that matters. And a writer shouldn’t hesitate to violate conventions of accuracy or realism in the pursuit of greater clarity. Writing dialogue for characters speaking in a foreign language, for instance, often requires navigating the requirements of clarity and plausibility at the cost of technical accuracy. I’ve always loved Eco’s description of how he approached this problem in The Name of the Rose, much of which is in Latin:

I have eliminated excesses, but I have retained a certain amount. And I fear that I have imitated those bad novelists who, introducing a French character, make him exclaim “Parbleu!” and “La femme, ah! la femme!”

All the same, a certain amount of artificiality is sometimes necessary. Critics have pointed out that much of the dialogue in For Whom The Bell Tolls, which purports to render Spanish conversations in English, actually results in nonsense when translated back into Spanish: Hemingway wasn’t going for literal fidelity, but a formal, archaic tone appropriate to the mood he’s trying to create. The needs of the story, in other words, trump everything else. Which is exactly how it should be.

Written by nevalalee

July 6, 2011 at 10:10 am

Better late than never: The Time Traveler’s Wife

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I didn’t want to read The Time Traveler’s Wife. For at least two years, my wife had encouraged me to check it out, and I resisted, mostly because it was a first novel, it was hugely popular, and it seemed vaguely girly—three attributes that set off alarm bells, even though I’d seen Audrey Niffenegger in person and had been impressed by her smarts and sense of humor. (It didn’t help that I’d initially confused her book, based on the title, with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.) Finally, though, I ran out of excuses, and brought it with me this weekend on our trip to the Indiana Dunes, where I sheepishly discovered that it wasn’t just a good novel, but close to a great one, even a classic. And while such things are always hard to predict, I think it’s one of the few novels written in the last decade that has a good chance of being read and enjoyed fifty years from now.

Which isn’t to say that it’s perfect. The Time Traveler’s Wife is a first novel with a terrific premise, but it has many of the usual problems of a debut. It’s too long, for one thing—there’s barely a page that couldn’t have been trimmed, and while Niffenegger’s prose is mostly fine, it lends itself readily to skimming. Her portrayal of Henry, her involuntary time traveler, is occasionally a bit fangirlish—his voice is less that of a closely observed character than a woman’s impression of how men talk to themselves. Clare, the temporally linear wife of the title, is more fully realized, but even she remains diffuse around the edges, especially for someone with whom we’ve spent hundreds of pages in the first person. (Niffenegger’s main characters are only truly defined by each other.) And while the ending is one of the most powerful I’ve read in a long time, the details of the resolution, like that last deer hunt in the woods, feel contrived, with the author’s hand visibly pulling the strings. (I’ve heard that the movie version has similar problems.)

None of this, however, should detract from the novel’s considerable virtues. Above all else, it’s a tremendously clever book, with an exhilaratingly complicated timeline and the courage to follow through on the implications of its premise. Like many great science fiction novels, it teaches us to read it as it goes along: the first eighty pages are fairly slow going, as the novel gradually lays out the logic of its narrative, but once the rules lock into place, so does the story, and the rest of the novel flies by. Niffenegger knows how to foreshadow, spell out, and deliver on her story’s major set pieces, like Clare and Henry’s wedding. The result is an intensely moving novel, less in its details, which can be melodramatic, than in its structure and narrative implications. Even when its execution falls short, its raw imaginative and intellectual power carries the day, which is the mark of an author who will only continue to grow more interesting with time.

I’m curious to see what Niffenegger does next. Her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, was met with respectful sales and reviews but nothing like the level of popular adulation that greeted her debut. (My wife, in particular, found it disappointing, and it may be a while before I check it out myself.) It will be tempting for her to coast on the reputation of her first great novel and devote herself to the minor projects that she so clearly enjoys—she’s engaging enough in person to do readings for the rest of her life. But Niffenegger occupies an enviable place in contemporary literature: a mainstream novelist of great ingenuity and imaginative resources, with the willingness to write ambitious books that draw on the best of genre and literary fiction. That’s a recipe for a writer of classics, and she’s already given us a big one right out of the gate. And if she pushes herself to grow in confidence and technique, she’s going to be unstoppable.

Written by nevalalee

July 5, 2011 at 9:41 am

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