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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Novel, by James A. Michener

Started 4/6, finished 4/11

This was a lovely read. I've only read one other by Michener, The Source, a brilliant history of monotheism and the "big three" religions. I'd recommend that one to anyone.

I'd recommend The Novel to fans of Michener. I'd do more than recommend it to writers, though. I'd probably assign it as required reading if I were teaching a class on "The Novel", both for its examination of the business of writing, and for its nontraditional structure and points-of-view.

It takes place over a year-long period, between the completion of a novel and the beginning of the promotional phase of the final product. Along the way, we get insight into a writer's process, the publishing business, and the different people involved in the production of the written word.

The Novel is divided into four parts, roughly equal in length, and each narrated by a different first-person voice:
  • The Author
  • The Editor
  • The Critic
  • The Reader

And you would think that each section would slip into an easy-way-out "day in the life" account of the dreariness and self-importance of each personality. Michener never gets lazy. Each narrative section builds upon the previous section, but each section is wholly contained in that person's point of view. There is no narrative omniscience or mugging by the characters who appear in other characters' sections. The interests of the different characters are segregated, compartmentalized--and understandable.

With the Author, Lukas Yoder, you see a man whose rise from obscurity to worldwide fame was arduous and inspiring, and owes a great deal to the Editor. You're then surprised to find that the Editor who stuck with Yoder through four books that didn't sell 5,000 copies between them, doesn't particularly like his books. She's his champion, the editor of all our dreams, the cheerleader who will never let him down. And she's doing it (gasp) because it's good business.

The Editor, in fact, doesn't really talk about Yoder, except in terms of the baksheesh his eventual success gave her in her own career. Her section is more of a biography, a history of a career in a business that (even in the late 80s) was moving from a mid-list, many-talented group of publishers to what we have today: about 5 giant bohemoths who run the whole damn thing.

The Critic dislikes Yoder's work, but greatly respects the man. As he does his own fascinating and often tragic work as a professor of literature, he comes to understand the difference between Yoder, whom he sees as a hack, and some of the newer authors (I suspect he is either modeled upon or loosely inspired by Vonnegut) who are transforming the fundamental nature of the novel. The beauty of this section is seeing the inner-workings of a mind that refuses to accept a straight narrative. It's a mind that I would disagree with to a great extent, but without whom Vonnegut and the like never would have existed. My response was "well, at least Yoder probably wasn't as bad as Dan Brown".

The Reader is a wealthy widow whose grandson is a brilliant young mind in the literary world. She is devoted to him and, as a result, forces herself to understand his work, his life, and the works of the writers he admires so much. She is fierce and confident, and works against all instinct to pry open her own mind enough to accept the new generation of writers.

Not only does it come together beautifully in the end, but you can't help but wonder that this is James A. Michener. As I read it it became obvious that Michener thought himself the Lukas Yoder character. He felt trapped in his own style, his own genre, and at the same time he was contemplating retirement, he was asking himself whether or not he could add something to the canon of the "new works". Michener wrote so many novels I don't even know if you can count them all. I'm not joking when I say that every single time I've looked for a Michener book at a bookstore or Amazon, I've come across one I've never heard of. The Novel was the same way. I had never heard of it when I saw it on top of a stack of Michener books at an outdoor book market in New Delhi.

But most Michener follows a pattern: let's describe the foundations and eventual evolution of a society in a way that is interesting, sympathetic, and truthful (at least as I see it). I thought the Source was brilliant, but I couldn't even get a hundred pages into The Covenant (there was this one sentence near the beginning that I can't get out of my mind for its clumsiness: "Like a swarm of beautifully colored birds, the black-and-white animals scrambled up the dusty bank on the lake and headed for safety"). My father tells me that after a while, Spain and South Africa and Hawaii and Texas and the South Pacific all sound like the same place. That you should space out your Michener reading, so you have a chance of keeping it separate in your mind.

I think the Novel is Michener's grand departure from Michener. I can't say it's the best book I've ever read or even in the top 20 or 40 or 100, but structurally, it's fascinating. Michener's commitment to each character's persona is quite a technical feat. At the end you feel like you've learned something, and if you're a writer this can be a lot like reading Miss Snark: you need the information, but you don't want the information. The information can help you, but the information can also help you quit. That's where it's up to you, or me, or whoever is trying to make it in this business.

Book #10 will be True Evil, by Greg Iles



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