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Recently, I was forced into a few days of mild convalescence. Armed with a stack of library books, crossword puzzles, some brand new Ticonderoga pencils, my laptop, my phone, a small dog, a kitten, and a bad attitude, I felt well equipped to pass the time. I started with a goal of productivity. I spent some hours staring at my novel-in-progress, trying to figure out whether this scene was really necessary and why that character wasn’t living up to his potential. One thing I discovered was that reading my work while the room went spinning was not nearly as much fun as it had been in college when I often polished my papers while still intoxicated after a night out at some club or party.
I decided to take a more passive tack and read some other people’s work instead. I’d started off the year by (finally) reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates and I was looking for a change of pace. I picked up the Joyce Carol Oates collection of short stories from a few years back, Wild Nights! Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway. Let me just say that if you’re looking to induce nightmares, this is a good choice. Oates is a bit like a drug to me. Ever since I read “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction” in Tenth Grade English class, I was hooked. But, much like a drug, I find that I am less and less satisfied with her work as the years pass. I still reach for it like an addict, but I often finish it with a bad taste in my mouth and a vague sense of regret. As an example, this particular collection features a story in which a manufactured version of Emily Dickinson is adopted by a bored couple in some futuristic tale of suburban ennui (Revolutionary Road meets Twilight Zone?). The artificial intelligence version of Dickinson (EDickinsonRepliLuxe!) is small as a child, because apparently copyright laws won’t allow for life-sized versions of famous people and Dickinson was kind of petite to start with. Creepiness ensues with tea-drinking, marital discord, and scribbled verse galore. I’ll say no more lest I spoil it for a future reader. I’ll admit that I may have been unfairly swayed by my state of wellness at the time I was reading, but really it was just not my cup of tea. For a far more positive take on the collection, I refer you to this 2008 review from the New York Times.
I moved on to Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead. My husband often comments about how my reading choices are not exactly uplifting and in this case even the title suggests morbid content. Potential nightmares aside, I settled in to read about a world in which the dead live on as long as someone in the actual living world remembers them, or so the theory goes. The chapters about the world of the dead are interwoven with chapters about a woman lost in the Antarctic on a doomed expedition. A deadly case of a virus known as “The Blinks” spreads through the living world while the inhabitants of the world of the dead try to figure out why some exist while others just disappear. Many of you have probably already read this novel, especially since a portion of it was printed as a short story in The New Yorker in 2003 and Brockmeier has been widely praised. However, I am incapable of keeping up with the next big thing in novels and novelists and so I’m just now getting around to reading it. I’m about halfway through and I’m hooked. Despite the fantastic premise, I find it completely believable, familiar even.
Why is that? Why is it that some books get you right in the gut and pull you into whatever world the author has created so completely that you can feel disoriented when you set the book aside? Is it the language? Well, yes. Also, the characters, the situation, the plot. Mostly, however, I think it’s the details. It seems that the key to creating a really believable world, whether apocalyptic future vision or Memphis 1999, is in the details. Brockmeier chooses wonderfully specific details to describe the world of the dead. One of its main inhabitants prints a daily newspaper on an old mimeograph machine. I cannot hear the word mimeograph without flashing back to third grade math class where we passed back sheets of slick, almost damp, paper printed with smudgy purple text. And the smell! You know what I’m talking about, that sweet chemical scent that just begged to be sniffed. So, there. One word and I am floating in sense memory. Also, the choice of the mimeograph says a lot about the technological advancement of the world of the dead. That one detail does so much work and there are plenty of other hard-working details in the book, as well.
I stand in awe of the hard-working detail, because I’ve been struggling with the details in my own work. I find myself putting in little bits of information that I hope will provide the reader with a greater understanding of the world in which my characters live. Then, I find myself removing those same bits for fear that they are superfluous or clichéd or just dull. I have inserted and removed certain phrases, sentences and paragraphs a dozen times now and I’m just about ready to resort to coin-flipping for final decisions.
Better yet, I guess I’ll just keep reading books and stories that do that elusive world-building thing really well and hope that I can learn by osmosis. I’m wrapping up the Brockmeier now and I just got an email from my library that the Jennifer Egan book Andrea Dupree recommended a few posts ago is waiting for me on the hold shelf. I’m prepared to be dazzled. And humbled.