Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Promise of Anne Lamott

This past summer, I read several books by novelist and essayist Anne Lamott. Someone suggested I read Bird by Bird, which is Lamott’s book length reflection on the process of writing. Not only did I read it, I reviewed it and blogged about it.

Then I read some more Lamott and blogged some more.

Finally, in July, I began reading Crooked Little Heart with a public declaration that I would share my reactions. Reactions which might now seem long overdue!

But ripe or not, here they are.

Lamott opens Crooked Little Heart with this sentence: Rosie and her friends were blooming like spring, budding, lithe, agile as cats.

To my ear, that’s two stale similes in one very important sentence: not a good way to start.

If that were the best a writer could do for language, she would need a very, very strong story. In fact, Lamott delivers a fine, well-crafted, engaging story; good conflict, good resolution, plenty of side plot to keep the reader wanting to go forward.

But here’s a frustration. Lamott is actually very capable of outstanding language. Within pages of that disappointing opener, she refers to a man named “J. Peter Billings” as one who “parts his name on the left” –- certainly to me a bright and vivid capture. She gives us “low rolling lion-claw hills.” At one point, a teenage girl is “as broody as a gaunt young buffalo,” and another, elsewhere, “snores like an ancient pug.” And I could continue.

So why open with a bomb? That seems sloppy.

As for sloppy – Lamott continues in CLH to slip and slide around within a point of view frame. As in Rosie, she has a narrator with access to the interior lives of two characters –- but inconsistently. The reader is treated to the thoughts and feelings of the daughter sometimes and the mother at other times. When those two characters are apart, this troubles the reader little. But when the two characters come together, an odd thing happens; the narrator suddenly seem only to know what is going on with one or the other. Why is that?

The problem here may be more in the evolution of narrative technique than anywhere else. We readers have been trained in a tradition: the writer is expected to establish and then maintain a particular point of view. There are a number of options, but once set, the reader expects consistency. Any number of outstanding contemporary writers duck this expectation at random points with -- strangely enough -- no negative impact on the reader’s comfort and acceptance.

Why it works sometimes and does not work at others is beyond my capacity –- at least so far -- to parse.

But leaving aside such quibbles -- and they are definitely quibbles -- Anne Lamott writes stories and essays that are worth every minute you will spend with them.

Put her on your reading list.

Or, to put it another way:

Accessing the work of Anne Lamott

Was a task I ended liking a lot

While not quite top tier nor highly prolific

I find her delightful and pretty terrific.

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