With my son’s fifth birthday a mere five months away, he is frantically putting together his wish list of presents. For days, I’ve heard, “Please, I want a LEGO Batmobile. Please, I really want a LEGO Batmobile. Mom, I really, really want a LEGO Batmobile,” like a refrain, or an uninspired Greek chorus.
It doesn’t take long for the voice of my sixth grade English teacher to kick in, ripe with certitude and rules: “No repetition. In the English language, we have an abundance of wonderful words. Let’s use them.” We were required to buy and bring to class a thesaurus, and every essay, every memoir, every argumentative piece had to overflow with new and unique words. This was how we earned an A. Continue reading
Why do I keep re-reading Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland?
I just finished it for the third time. By now, the plot is well-known to me. After 9/11, Dutch banker Hans van den Broek and his wife separate, with Rachel taking their son from New York City and moving back to London. Hans stays in New York, where he rediscovers cricket, and in the process he meets Trinidadian Chuck Ramkissoon, who dreams of an America that embraces its cricket-playing roots. “Cricket has a long history in the United States, actually,” says Chuck. “Benjamin Franklin himself was a cricket man.” The book opens with Hans receiving a call in London from a New York Times reporter, telling him Chuck is dead. The news causes Hans to reflect on New York and his relationship with Chuck.
A plot can sustain you for one reading, offering the buzz of what happens next? But after that is spent, where does a book’s energy come from? And why do I keep reading Netherland? Continue reading
Nearby there’s a house half standing. Most of the roof is gone, there are no front stairs. The windows are smashed and ivy has claimed a wall. When I drive by, I always slow down. Last time I saw among the weathered gray planks specks of bright yellow—the color that the house used to be.
The half-existing house captivates me. I’m reminded of Louise Gluck’s essay, “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” in which she talks about the power of the unsaid in poetry. “The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied.”
There’s a song on the radio, and so quickly it burrows in, all the way in, the low notes and high notes. They are strumming along to some innate rhythm in your brain, or maybe your heart, but you don’t mind. You love this song, like a companion, a best friend, murmuring right along with the swish of your blood, the inhale and exhale of your breath. It makes you happier to be singing this song, even though, when you listen to the words, you realize it’s incredibly sad.
This is how I feel reading Melanie Rae Thon’s writing. Her sentences possess the quality of a beloved, great song, with an almost alchemic quality of tunneling in. You carry them around for days and days, happily, because something is happening: you are more open, exposed, feeling the world profoundly.
I unloaded my little gathering of groceries on the conveyor belt. I’m usually at the market early in the morning, which is Lisa’s shift, and over the years we’ve had the same conversation, except today it isn’t the same.
“What are you reading?” I said.
The store was, for the most part, empty—no one standing in line, glancing at a watch, tapping an anxious toe—and so we could indulge in a long discussion about whatever books we’re reading. What is compelling? What holds your attention? What’s different? Unique? And always at the end, as if we were saving the most important for the end: Would you recommend it?
“Nothing,” she says. “I put the book down.”
“I don’t know.” She rings up my carton of eggs. “The sentences. They were just so… flat.”
Ah, yes. In this age of information, where words—sometimes not even words, but the suggestion of a word—serve as conveyor belts of facts and advertisements, can anyone craft a sentence that fills the brain with hyperbolic joy? Something that breaks up the crushing barrage of workhorse prose? A sentence that veers from the traditional subject-verb linear line to make us see anew?