Monday, August 08, 2005

Genre Confusion

Continued Commentary on: Melissa Bank, The Wonder Spot (Viking, 2005)

I definitely wasn’t bowled over by The Wonder Spot in the way that I was by Bank’s first book, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. I can’t say precisely why without rereading the latter, but I think that I just didn’t like the main character, Sophie Applebaum, as well as I liked Jane Rosenal. Jane was smarter and funnier. Sophie has a wry, engaging voice, but her determined mediocrity frustrated and baffled me. This sounds like a subjective preference which is not a valid basis on which to criticize a book, but I think that my response to Sophie points to a deeper problem.

Over the course of the eight stories that make up the book, we track Sophie from age twelve well into her thirties. While her voice remains consistent over that time span, her character doesn’t. Of course one expects character development over the course of years, but that’s not what I’m referring to. I don’t mean that her character changes and develops. On the contrary, Sophie seems to stagnate through much of the book. I rarely understood why she made the choices that she made, and why she continued to make the same mistakes again and again. Just as Sophie the character keeps other people in her life at a distance with her wit, Sophie the narrator keeps readers at a distance. While I was entertained throughout, at the end it seemed extraordinary to have spent 300+ pages with a first person narrator and to have learned so little of her inner life.

When I say inconsistent, I really mean inconsistent, to the extent that in some of the stories I felt as if, were it not for Sophie’s trademark cigarettes and wisecracks, the main character could have been someone else entirely. Let me give you just one example. Two-thirds of the way through the book, in “Teen Romance,” Sophie takes an art class. In the twenty years we’ve already spent with Sophie, she gave no hint of an interest in art. What prompted her to sign up for this class? In the very next story (“The One After You”), Sophie spends a day with her mother and her brother Jack. Her mother and Jack decide to go to a gallery and they don’t bother consulting Sophie about which one because: “They knew I didn’t want to look at art; I’d go wherever they went and endure whatever exhibit they chose.” (244) What happened to Sophie the art student? A little later she mentions in passing that she took an art class once, but this seems tacked on as if calculated to gloss over the inconsistency for any reader that caught it.

Of course, the inconsistency only matters once the stories are strung together. Both “Teen Romance” and “The One After You” work brilliantly independent of one another. The latter is the strongest story in the collection. This brings me to the whole question of genre confusion that I raised in my previous post. Not the chick lit versus literary fiction debate, but the question of whether The Wonder Spot is a novel or a collection of short stories.

Before I had the book in my hands, I feared that the confusion among reviewers on this point stemmed from the marketing campaign. Had the publisher marketed a collection of linked short stories as a novel in an attempt to boost sales and, in so doing, done the author a serious disservice? The publisher had not. The word “novel” is not emblazoned on the cover or anywhere else. The Wonder Spot is presented unapologetically as a short story collection. So why the confusion?

Let me begin by expressing my complete lack of patience for those who view the novel as a higher art form than the short story and who thereby regard any short story collection as a failed novel. Janet Maslin doesn’t go quite this far in her review, but she comes close in referring to “the not-quite-a-novel format” and in expressing “doubt about whether Ms. Bank can write a more cohesive book, a full-fledged novel able to interweave narrative threads and add up to more than the sum of its parts.”

Meeting the book on its own terms, how does it hold up as a short story collection? Several of the stories can stand on their own as very accomplished, sometimes brilliant, short stories. But others can’t. I’m thinking of two in particular (“The Boss of the World” and “20th Century Typing”) that together comprise more than a third of the book. They’re well written and full of interesting detail but both read like excerpts from a novel. Structurally, neither works as an independent story.

It seems then that the stories need each other. This is why reviewers are looking for consistency, continuity and development. But that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that the book ought be judged as a novel. There is an in-between genre which is well-established in the US and elsewhere: the story cycle. This is where the The Wonder Spot fits.

Gerald Lynch cautions against judging the short story cycle by the standards of the novel as follows: “The series of flashes signals a different code altogether from the steady beam: the world as seen by stroboscope, held still momentarily, strangely fragmented at other times, moving unfamiliarly in the minds of readers accustomed to novels. The steady beam, itself an illusion, is here broken up, perhaps intentionally disrupted.” Indeed, he says that the short story cycle can be regarded as “an anti-novel, fragmenting the lengthy continuous narrative’s treatment of place, time, character, and plot.”

If this is so, what lends unity to the story cycle? On this point, Lynch quotes Robert Luscher: “As in a musical sequence, the story sequence repeats and progressively develops themes and motifs over the course of the work; its unity derives from a perception of both the successive ordering and recurrent patterns, which together provide the continuity of the reading experience.” Lynch adds: “In such a pattern, the first and last stories are of key significance, with the final story of the cycle being the most powerful, because there the patterns of recurrence and development initiated in the opening story come naturally to fullest expression.”

The foregoing bit of theorizing helps me to hone in on what works and what doesn’t work for me in The Wonder Spot. The strongest, most complex, and interesting aspect of the book is the unfolding relationships between Sophie and the various members of her family, particularly her brothers. Here we have the sort of repetition and progressive development described above as the hallmark of the story cycle. To a lesser extent, Sophie’s female friendships also get this treatment. We don’t meet the same friends threading their way through the narrative; rather one continually succeeds another. Sometimes this is a bit jarring. For example, when we meet Dena Blumenthal half way through the book and learn that she’s been a close friend of Sophie since grade school, we wonder why we haven’t so much as glimpsed her before. Nevertheless, there is a subtle evolution in Sophie’s handling of these successive friendships that provides a sense of progression throughout the book.

In contrast, Sophie’s work struggles and her romantic woes play out in a flat line. Here repetition just feels like repetition rather than any sort of cyclical progression. It becomes frustrating and a bit boring. There is a moment in the penultimate story, “The One After You,” when it feels as if Sophie might have moved forward, but the next story, “The Wonder Spot,” undercuts this. Sophie’s tone in the final story is more world-weary, but she doesn’t appear to have arrived at any new insights that make the latest romance seem any more likely to succeed than the last.

Turning to Lynch’s point above about the significance of the final story in a story cycle, I think that The Wonder Spot would be a more effective collection if “The One After You” had been given the final slot in the book, and the title story, “The Wonder Spot,” left out altogether. “The One After You” is a much stronger story in itself, but it also gives a sense of coming full circle and of moving forward. In it, Aunt Nora and Cousin Rebecca from “The Boss of the World” reappear and once again play host to the Applebaums. All of the key themes from the previous stories recur and are amplified here. As the closing story in the book, “The One After You” would have offered an appropriately complicated and tenuous sense of closure. Whereas, the actual final story, “The Wonder Spot,” is thin and unsatisfying.

The Wonder Spot is worth reading. It abounds with complex and engaging characters, evocative images, and beautiful sentences. But ultimately it's a flawed book.

1 comment:

K said...

I agree with your evaluation, particularly your points about the last and second-to-last stories.