Monday. There's a proud place on my bookshelf for meditative books. She mentioned that most of the meditative books she enjoys are nonfiction, often memoirs with a few exceptions, most notably Gilead. But there are novels that invite you into friendship. That's what I'm going to talk about today.
Some years back I joined a book club of fellow teachers from the elementary school where I taught. We read a wide range of novels, always novels. We were a group of story-lovers. We spent the days using the bests picture books and middle readers to egg our students on as writers. At night, we hungered to indulge in adult fiction.
When it fell to me to select the next novel to read, I spent hours perusing Barnes and Nobles, reading back cover copy and first paragraphs. The whole process carried the weight of arranging a blind day for a beloved friend. Little did I know I would fall in love with the book I selected.
If I wasn't reading learning theory or middle readers at that time, I borrowed from my husband's library. Lots of bombs and good-hearted cowboys in there. But in this book I found, no bombs explode. No ranch is threatened by cattle thieves or--gasp!--sheepherders. No enemies of civilization to thwart. The story wasn't a mystery but included a hint of a mystery. Definitely not a romance but the longing of a romance wove through the story. The narrator is young, but it's not a coming-of-age story.
This story and so many of the stories I love are easier to describe by what they're not, but I'll try, through a few examples to talk about these books that defy genre classification. We've talked here about upmarket fiction, a marriage of the literary and the marketable (read that: has an engaging plot). The books I'm thinking of today, however, are a shade different. I mean no disrespect by the name I'm going to give them--good company books. How could I? I abandoned my hard-won career as a teacher and the possibility of a pension after reading this one book when I leapt into the luminous darkness of novel writing.
Some books are (not just or simply) plain good company, certainly not a roller coaster ride of threat and near disaster. Joy School by Elizabeth Berg was good company for me, a harried new teacher with too much life on my plate. It's the story of twelve-year-old Katie whose mother has died, her older sister has left home, and her father has moved Katie away from her best friend to a new army post. Katie sees it all and speaks with gentle honesty about her angst. Yes, she's in love with a married man who pumps gas, but this is a crush, not Lolita, and she's trying to fit in at her new school. That's the plot, but it's ancillary to the real story of Katie learning to deal with her losses.
So what is it about this good-company novel that keeps a reader engaged? Partly, I loved the timing of the story. Katie was twelve about the same time I was twelve. Her mother wore Tabu perfume, and she laid out in the sun with baby-oil laced with iodine. So, perhaps, nostalgia numbs the pain of a inconsequential plot. But what really won me was Katie's voice. Katie muses about getting to know a new friend:
When it's new and important, you have to rest in between times. And anyway, even when I like a person there is a weariness that comes. I can be with someone and everything is fine and then all of a sudden it can wash over me like a sickness, that I need the quiet of my own self. I need to unload my head and look at what I've got in there so far. See it. Think what it means. I always need to come back to being alone for a while.
I'm reading A Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler just now. It's the story of a mid-30s man who has lost his wife when a tree falls on their house. He has no problem accepting her occassional appearances after the funeral, but he believes others find them disturbing.
As with Tyler's other books, the story is more like standing before a painting in a gallery with piano music playing softly in the distance. The sun is shining. No one is two-stepping just out of your peripheral vision to have their moment before the painting. You can stand there forever, drinking in the portrait of grief and longing.
The charm of Tyler's books is how she captures the moments of a pedestrian life poised on the threshold of pain with such humanity and humor. If you're a Tyler reader, you can relax and know that she will give her characters all the room they need to grow and find happiness, so relax and enjoy the journey. This would be the second characteristic I submit for good-company books--they read like a memoir with a satisfying resolution, sort of a year-in-the-lfe-of story. Here, the main character, Aaron, explains the paroxysm of grief:
It's like the grief has been covered over with some kind of blanket. It's still there, but the sharpest edges are...muffled, sort of. Then, every now and then, I lift the corner of the blanket just to check and...whoa! Like a knife! I'm not sure that will ever change.
A good-company book also tends to fire a longing in the reader. Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season did that for me with its strong characters, a spectacular landscape, and uncluttered prose that quickened my pulse. In The Whistling Season, an aging Montana school superintendent must decide what to do about the single room school houses that dot the rural areas. They're terribly inefficient, which makes them too costly. The story is his memories of the 1909 schoolyear, the year his mother died and Rose and her brother Morris came to town. He learned so much. Some of it in the school, thanks to Morris. The story plucked me out of my time and settled me squarely into 1909. In the end, the book is an ode to the single room school house and education that really matters.
Childhood is the one story that stands by itself in the soul.
We can't very well talk about good-company books without mentioning Jan Karon. Twenty-five million people have stepped into Mitford through her books. All that without being reviewed by The New York Times or recieving a nod from Oprah. Impressive. Jan Karon treats her character benevolently and draws them with endearing strokes. Father Tim is far from the Elmer Gantry type of clergyman we've come to expect in literature. The greatest tension in Shepherds Abiding arises from a deadline--Christmas!--for completing Father Tim's wife's present, which he does just in the nick of time. Some people complain about the sugary storylines of Karon's stories, but many find her stories affirming with prose like this: "I believe that's when God first started speaking to my heart--the very day I started speaking to His!"
It's a bit audacious of me to name a genre, but it's Wednesday and I'm feeling a bit careless. Can you add your suggestions for a good-company book? Do you have another name for this type of book? Do you find a steady diet of good-company novels unsatisfying? How do you quench your desires?