Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Novels as Good Company

I loved Katy's post on 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?


Susie Finkbeiner said...

I do enjoy the good-company novels. I instantly think about the Jane Austen novels. Her characters are endearing and become good friends. I'm only an occasional partaker of good-company books, however. If I read too many of them my writing suffers. I need to get back to more meaty novels to remedy that.

For me, a good-company novel is for a day of leisure. They're my "day off" reads.

Anonymous said...

Patti, what a lovely, lovely post. It's been evident for a long time that you and I love the same books and authors. I love Elizabeth Berg but haven't read Joy School, and Anne Tyler has long been an author I enjoy, but I haven't read The Beginner's Goodbye, so I look forward to reading both of these this summer. I love how you describe good-company novels as like standing before a painting with piano music playing softly in the distance -- and with no one hurrying you away from the painting you're perusing. Jamie Langston Turner's novels are like that for me. I love her writing. Lots of narrative, but beautiful narrative. Beautiful character development. Good-company novels. Oh, and I love Jan Karon's Mitford series. Love Father Tim and Cynthia and not even a little embarrassed about it. Thank you for drawing me into your post today.

Anonymous said...

That comment wasn't from Anonymous, Patti. It was from me. Blogger is doing its thing again -- aaarrrggghhh!!!

Patti Hill said...

Susie: I'm with you. I prefer a variety of stories and love a "meaty" treatment. I think the most distinctive element of good-company books is this sense that we're flies on the wall of a life, bumbling or otherwise. And they should be artful, some more than others. And perhaps the pace is a bit lumbering. I could go on and on.

Anonymous: I'm especially in awe of authors who can load a book with narrative and enrapture me with the sense of story. Turner's books are a great example. Also, Barbara Kingsolver. Who esle?

Patti Hill said...

Sharon: I should have recognized your voice!

Kathleen Popa said...

Patti, what a great post. I love people who really get why the novel matters. Must be why I like it here so much.

Megan Sayer said...

I love this description: "Good company novels" are exactly what books like that are about. I'm reading one at the moment, and it's structure and style made me really curious. Nothing much happens in it, and it's a bit episodical. And I can't put it down. Strange, strange combination, but this is it! I'm reading it for the company, because these characters have fast become my friends, and I don't want to know so much what happens to them as much as I want to know how they react. I'm loving this one, a definite keeper. It's by some American lady...great writer. The book's called Tuesday Night At The Blue Moon.

This leads me to another thought too: it's good-company novels that stay in my mind long after the book is finished, whereas ones with a stronger plot I tend to move on from more quickly.

Funnily enough Susie my reaction is just the opposite to yours - for me Good Company novels are for snatching space in the middle of the busyness, for ten minutes of peace when life is crazy. If I've got a day off, a day of leisure, I'll throw myself into something meaty : )

Patti Hill said...

Katy: I'm glad you stopped by so I could thank you for making the fabulous graphic with Ivan Doig's quote. It's PERFECT!!!

Megan: I do believe you're talking about Debbie Fuller Thomas. Great characters. Wonderful story. I wanted to hold the young girl's hand and walk with her for a while. Loved her.
These novels do have a way of staying with you.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Good-company books, let's see, that would be the box marked, "Essential books," that is just light enough for me to carry and fits precisely in the footwell of the rear passenger seat. The box goes with me when I move, even and especially if the move is forever and all my earthly goods must fit in my Subaru. Contents of this book box? Entire C. S. Lewis collection, ditto for Tolkien, Austen and MacDonald. If I had to pare it down? The Marquis' Secret (MacDonald), Perelandra (Lewis), Pride and Prejudice (Austen), A New Kind of Christian (McLaren), Return of the King (Tolkien)- But Tolkien pares down nicely into DVD so I would probably sub one movie.

Patti Hill said...

Cherry: Are you sure my name isn't on that box? A smile and a wink.

V. Gingerich said...

I've read this post and the one before it a couple of times each. Slow reads and good company're talking about some of my favorite things.

V. Gingerich said...

I've read this post and the one before it a couple of times each. Slow reads and good company're talking about some of my favorite things.

Patti Hill said...

Wanderer: We're glad you're finding companionship among readers and writers who share your heart for a good read.