21 November 2010

Balm to the human soul

Above embedded: the latest episode of the web TV series "Cooking the Books," in which Emily Gould makes food with authors. Here's author Marcy Dermansky has to say about her novel BAD MARIE:
"I was having fun with coincidences in this book. I mean, it's preposterous what happens in a way -- Marie reads a book when she's in prison by a French writer and she goes and she finds her friend. Her friend's husband, of course, is that writer. I think when you write things you can do whatever you want."
I recently finished Joanna Smith Rakoff's A FORTUNATE AGE, another novel I think has fun with coincidences. I really liked the book -- following a group of Oberlin friends through post-college life in New York City -- but I think at one point it stops just a twist short of being totally unbelievable. (It's the scene where Emily goes to Caitlin Green-Gold's apartment, the first time, if you've read the book.) I almost picked up my disbelief at that point, but I went on, and the way it was woven into the rest of the book it almost made sense... but not too much sense that I wouldn't mistake it for life.

My craving for realism, particularly in books set among people I seem to know and places with which I'm familiar, could be a critical weakness but I keep feeding it anyway. Certainly there are sad or depressing coincidences out there, but what do people normally say when faced with one: Oh, how funny! What a small world! Usually it's a source of delight. A novel flush with coincidences, if written well, provides us with those little sparks of delight when a character just happens to bump into her old college nemesis, or watches his bandmate fall for the woman he's been trying to pursue for years. Even if we haven't had those things happen to us, we could point out a similar exchange. It's only when authors overuse this device (or use it poorly) that we remember the book is not life.

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