f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 1 of <i>Saint Maybe</i> – Literary Does Not Equal Incomprehensible

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Day 1 of Saint Maybe – Literary Does Not Equal Incomprehensible

Hello, all. I’ve returned from the Windy City awash in new and sparkling information from the ECPA Publishing University. There were good parts (meeting colleagues from other houses) and bad parts (somebody commenting that the blogging community should simply be ignored) and parts I’d rather forget (i.e. “webinars” and “incentivize” are not words.)

On my flight in I finished Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler and so I thought we’d spend a short week on it.

It was a rare book about which I knew virtually nothing before starting it. I didn’t read cover copy, only head that it was worth reading. In some ways it’s a very straightforward story—a family drama of guilt and forgiveness and reconciliation that plays out steadily over about 24 years—and in others ways it surprised me. Characters I assumed to be minor were suddenly narrating entire chapters. Characters I guessed would be important vanished. It kept me on my toes.

The other comment I’ll make today is that it’s a wonderful book to examine in terms of whether it is “literary” or not. This is a debate that always rages. (It’s progressing here at the moment, actually, a thread that is VERY worth your time.)

I think Anne Tyler qualifies as most people’s example of a literary author. She won the Pulitzer. The review acclaim at the beginning of this books is five pages along. And yet her writing is deceptively simple. There’s almost no showiness to either her language or even her syntax or diction. It’s all very straightforward. Still she manages to create unique voices for each of her characters and draws you through twenty-four years of a family’s life without all the sturm and drang that accompany so many family dramas. Let me quote you a representative passage:

“In the dining room, Lucy bounced the baby on her shoulder while she talked with Bee. She still had her coat on; she looked fresh and happy, and she smiled at Ian without a trace of guilt. His mother said, ‘Ian, hon, could you fetch the booster seats?’ She was laying a notched silver fish knife next to each plate. The Bedloes owned the most specialized utensils—sugar shells and butter-pat spears and a toothy, comblike instrument for slicing angel food cake. Ian marveled that people could consider such things important.”
What Tyler does, consistently, throughout the novel is stay true to her characters’ voices. Told through their third-person perspective, she does not “novelize” their thoughts as many authors do. If a word is not in their vocabulary it doesn’t enter the narrative—hence the “comblike instrument for slicing angel food cake.” Ian didn’t know what it was called and so he couldn’t name it…even if Anne Tyler the author could.

It’s a rarity, I think. I’m rereading Richard Powers’ Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance and he takes a completely different tact. His inner-narration is interpreted through his incredibly verbose authorial translator. It’s actually a bit distracting, this time around. The book I loved the first time through now seems concocted and a tad overwrought. Tyler’s book has a freshness and naturalness to it.

Just something to think about. Literary certainly doesn’t need to equal incomprehensible.
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Go to Day 2 of our discussion of Saint Maybe.