Tuesday, February 3, 2009

While reading The Bone People

(A repost from elsewhere - I wrote this a couple weeks back, midway through the book.)

As much as I love TV and movies, they don't hold quite the same power for me as a good novel. When I watch a movie, even something engrossing that I've never seen before, I'm still firmly planted in the real world. While my eyes are on the screen, the rest of me is aware of the lumps in the couch, the heat or cold of the room, the volume of the TV, and whether I should maybe get up and get a drink of water because damn that scene with the river made me thirsty. Stories on a screen are easy for me to separate from reality - I look away from the screen and they fall apart into scenes and act breaks and actors I can look up on IMDB.

Novels, on the other hand, have the ability to suck me in so wholly that when I have to put the book down in the middle of a scene, it's almost disorienting. I'm in a tower on the New Zealand coast watching Kerewin Holmes get this child who's adopted her dressed for bed, worried about the lacerations she's just found on his back and suddenly I'm at the computer lab helping a woman who looks like a meth addict look up Everlast videos on YouTube and what the hell is going on here. Oh, right. I'm at work.

A really good novel doesn't fall into it's individual parts when I put it down - it stays fresh in my mind, like the characters are people I know and the setting is someplace I just stepped out of. At one point this morning, someone in the computer lab was singing mournfully to himself, and for a minute I thought it was coming from the book, because I was reading a scene that took place in a bar where that sort of thing might be background noise.

There's a much thinner barrier between me and the story when I'm reading it off a page versus watching it on a screen. Which is bizarre to me, because that means my brain interprets splotches of ink in a carefully arranged symbolic language as closer to reality than images of real people on a screen. Reading: it is illogical and possibly magic.

To be fair, this doesn't happen with every book. Some books - especially those I read for in-between-assignment fluff - fall apart as easily as The Office when I set them down. (Oh ho, look at that clever scene break! I should write a scene that does that!) It's only the occasional engrossing, character-driven novel that gets my reality and fiction flip-flopped for a second.

The Bone People is doing that to me big time, and I've started to figure out why. It's a novel that's written in an unusual style of prose - something I'd call poetic, except that it isn't trying to be. Everything shifts - tenses, points of view, alignment of paragraphs, punctuation. Normally experimental lit like this drives the proofreader in me up a wall, but Keri Hulme's writing is so...organic. The style or perspective doesn't shift to denote some Grand Significant Theme, it shifts based on how the characters are feeling or acting. Conversations that are awkward or full of pauses have dialogue and dialogue tags stacked on top of each other; conversations where people are responding quickly have the lines of dialogue mushed together, two characters' lines sharing a paragraph. There are moments of stream of consciousness writing that come straight out of the characters' heads. It's a quiet book, with not much physically happening in the first 150 pages besides the characters getting to know each other, but the organic, character-driven prose makes it feel like much more must have happened, because they've grown so much in depth already. It's unlike anything I've ever read before.

I should note, that while I do get that moment of "What? I'm not in [insert story setting here] anymore?" when pulled out of a great book, it's pretty rare that I actually worry for the characters as people. Thinking, "How ever will he survive this?" while I worry about how the plot will twist to save him is a totally common occurrence. Setting down a book and wondering if I should check up on a character to see if he's okay, like he's someone I actually know? That's weird, even for me. And this book has me wanting to call Child Protective Services for one of its characters.

Then debating it because I'm sure he'd never see the main character again, and she's good for him.

Then realizing he's in New Zealand, so CPS wouldn't even have jurisdiction there.

Then realizing he's fictional.

This all happens in the course of a couple seconds, but still. Book totally conned me - I'm impressed. Fiction's greatest strength is its ability to trick us into believing it's real - most books only manage that while you're reading them. It takes something special to continue to trick a reader when she's put the book down and established via a quick scan of her surroundings that she is not, in fact, in New Zealand.

I'll be posting more about this book when I finish it, which ought to be soon. The computer lab is nigh dead over the holiday break*, so I'm getting plenty of reading time. It's fantastic - except for that moment of confusion when the phone rings.

*Except for the neighborhood oddballs who come down in droves when the rest of the school closes down, which explains the mournful singing and whatnot and no, lady, I don't know if the library has a book called "Apricot," as we are not the reference desk, and you wouldn't be able to check it out anyway because you're not a student and yes it costs money to go to school here stop wheezing questions at me I am trying to read

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