By March 29, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

Entering Through the Flaw

Here’s a great technique for kicking off a provocative conversation about a book. I’ve used it often enough now that I know it works. I got the idea from Rumi and a sex addict.

The two lines out of Rumi that triggered this idea would run something like:

Keep looking at the bandaged place.

That’s where the light enters you.

And the comment made by my sexual athlete friend was, “After the first hundred beautiful bodies, it’s the flaws that are erotic.”

These two thoughts came together decisively in our book club discussion of Pat Barker’s Life Class. Though I’m filled with admiration for the book, I can’t help but notice that the character of Teresa, the sexy model with the abusive husband, dominates the first 80 pages and then virtually vanishes from the novel, which then proceeds on to deal with its central theme, art and World War One. What exactly the Teresa section has to do with the book as a whole is troublesome. The hero, Paul Tarrant, gets quite a beating from Teresa’s brutal husband. But what exactly does this have to do with the theme of art and war? Possibly not much. One reader noted that the character of Teresa in the first half balances the character of Lewis, the Quaker ambulance driver, in the second half. Possibly. In dissecting the role of Teresa in the novel, we got an angle into discussing the novel itself, a passionate and lively discussion.

Here’s another: Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon begins with one of the most startling opening sequences in years. In the very first pages the old professor Gregorius is rushing onto the bridge to stop a desperate young woman from jumping off, she turns around, and to the reader’s amazement writes a phone number across Gregorius’s forehead. The last thing you’d expect her to do! Well, he walks away from his job of thirty years and goes to Lisbon to research a fascinating Portuguese author, but does he phone the number? No. The reader waits and waits. Finally, hundreds of pages in, he phones the number and when someone picks up, Gregorius disconnects. That’s it. You’ve learned all you’re going to learn about that phone number. He’s not interested in it. And it’s never mentioned again. The grabby beginning is just one big red herring. So is it a flaw? Is it an early plot device that no longer works, left clumsily in place? Or is it the philosopher in the novelist saying, not everything adds up? By discussing the flaw, you discuss the novel.

The Booker-shortlisted Animal’s People by Indra Sinha is narrated by a nineteen-year-old street kid named Animal into a tape recorder. Instead of chapters, the book is divided into tapes. Animal has a distinctive voice, tough and concise and slangy. It feels like he’s really talking. But near the end of the book, in a moment of suicidal depression, Animal administers to himself a nearly fatal overdose of datura. For page after page, the drug overdose is simulated in disconnected, poetic fragments trying to approximate the experience. It’s flashy language, linguistic pyrotechnics, but it’s not Animal narrating. I’ll be very interested to see how our book club defends or explains that curious departure from the rules of the game.

Marisa Silver’s The God of War (coming out April 29) is so dang perfect there almost isn’t a flaw. Narrated by a twelve-year-old boy who never breaks character, it’s an intimate family drama, centering around his irresponsible mother and his protective affection for his mentally-damaged younger brother, whom he dropped as a baby. The book is funny, tragic, shocking, moving. Even the cover is awesome. But one thing troubles me, and that will be our avenue into the discussion, because I don’t know the answer and I’m hoping someone in our book club will. Why does the book have that title? There are some obvious reasons – someone is shot, and the narrator’s name is Ares Ramirez, Ares being the god of war, but Ares isn’t the killer. Why name the book that? It’s not at all a title that invites a reader into an intimate human drama of a mother and her children.

Looks like a flaw to me. But then, Marisa Silver does everything else in the book brilliantly, so why not the title? A slip or subtlety? What am I missing here?

It’s times like this I’m really glad I belong to a book club.

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