Amy Wilson Sheldon

Amy Wilson Sheldon has worked as a magazine editor and writer, after-school director, and media educator. Currently living in Dublin, Ireland, she works as a freelance copyeditor and volunteers with Fighting Words, a creative-writing center for children.

Noteworthy: #ReadWomen2014

At the beginning of 2014, British writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh sent out some New Year’s cards fashioned like bookmarks. Although the intent of this postal greeting—festooned with illustrations of women writers such as Gertrude Stein and Maguerite Duras—was merely a riff on the VIDA Count, an annual pie chart (created by the organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts) with aims to visually demonstrate the disparity between men and women writers in major literary publications and book reviews, something a little more interactive, specific, and perhaps even activist, took hold. People started responding to—and even better, adding to—the list of 250-ish women writers that graced the back of the bookmark, which Walsh posted on Twitter, soon using the hashtag #ReadWomen2014 and creating its own account and garnering about 6,500 followers. And although the movement has generated a the tiniest bit of criticism in the midst of the celebrations—either due to arguments that “women writers” is a tenuous link between a bunch of disparate authors or because of the suggestion that it’s impossible to have one’s reading mirror an entire population’s demographic makeup—there is talk of continuing the effort into 2015. As Walsh described in an article in The Guardian, the project is focused more on lasting change than flash-in-the-pan publicity:

“Picking up a book may be prompted by a Twitter meme, but it can never be a token effort. As soon as you’re halfway down the first page, you’re engaged (or not – I wouldn’t read any and all books by women, just as I love some but don’t enjoy all books by men).”

The genesis of the project is described here.

On Doyle’s Dialogue

“I see people in terms of dialogue and I believe that people are their talk.”  — Roddy Doyle

Over the years, my family has developed its own code, its own unifying language. We don’t need hashtags to convey the humor or irony in a situation; we do it through speaking. As teenagers, my brother and I would often mutter an “I dunno” or “hmph” when our mom would query about school or particular events that we attended. These were simple exchanges between an attentive mother and two good kids who were just too caught up in teenage moodiness (or just really tired) to answer properly—and the same type of dialogue is unfolding every day, everywhere. In an effort to pull more information from her offspring and hopefully engage in actual conversation, Mom would continue: “Name five people who were there!” And we’d either dutifully reply in sarcastic tones or acknowledge the phrase with an eye roll and a “Mo-oooooom!” Twenty years later, “name five” has earned a respectful place in our family language, for now it is used by any of us—including my husband, who has entered the fold—as a reply when someone is relentlessly chatty or clamoring for non-existent facts or information. Me to my brother: “When will you know if you can get the time off? Have you bought your tickets? Will she be coming with you? When will you know? Have you bought all your Christmas gifts yet?” His reply, in a sing-songy voice: “Naaaaame fiiiiiiiive…” You could say that “name five” has morphed into my family’s own version of a verbal hashtag—it adds color, meaning, tone and history to the preceding statement or question.

Communication reaches beyond spoken words, of course—body language and the choices we make send a message to anyone within reach. But our words, so easily searchable and defined in a dictionary, come layered with background meaning and context. Effective dialogue—both written and spoken—relies on shared experience to sustain it beyond the black-and-white dictionary definitions.

Successful authors know this. Dave Eggers has said about one acknowledged king of the craft: “I don’t think there’s anybody alive that’s better at dialogue than Roddy Doyle.” Doyle’s dialogue is essentially the main ingredient in his first book, the one that put his name on the map: The Commitments. If one does a quick scan of the book’s pages, the sheer volume of em-dashes—how the author introduces dialogue—jumps out so dramatically, as if one is looking at a page of binary computer code. There is very little narration, as dialogue moves the plot forward.

What makes Doyle’s dialogue so smart is that the words and turns of phrases are specific to a distinct group: the Northsiders of Dublin, traditionally working class. There’s a lot of profanity and “slagging,” but instead of being offended, the reader feels drawn into what is, in a sense, a family. We are given a glimpse into the shared family language of, first, a broad community, and, more precisely, the group of individuals who comprise The Commitments, the band formed by Jimmy Rabbitte that reworks American soul classics.

And if one has any familiarity with the book (or, more realistically, the 1991 movie version, which was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe), the fact that song lyrics—their own form of dialogue—take up a great portion of speech demonstrates that something can be communicated outside of a “let’s sit down and talk” setting. When manager Jimmy reworks a version of the soul classic Night Train to include references to Dublin, a shared language comes into being. “We’ll change the words a bit to make it—more Dubliny, yeh know,” says Jimmy. The band’s first gig, where “Dublin soul was about to be born,” is a success, for after their soulful rendition of Night Train—where they’re “Startin’ off in Connolly…Movin’ on ou’ to Killester…Harmonstown Raheny…an’ don’t forget Kilbarrack…the home of the blues…Then on ou’ to Sutton where the rich folks live…Oh yeah…Nigh’ Train”“the cheering went on for minutes.” A new sort of family is created between the performers and the listeners, and this is how they communicate.

The two following books in The Barrytown Trilogy—The Snapper and The Van—continue in this quick-witted and fast-paced vein. The latter two focus on Jimmy, the brain behind The Commitments, and his family: his Da, Mam and raucous group of siblings. The rapid verbal transactions between Jimmy’s family members pepper these books with just enough flavor for the reader to feel welcome in their bantering community, but also—if not a Dubliner—to feel enough of an outsider to understand that this is their own vernacular, their own community. This special language acts as an entry into a group—a group open to newcomers, but one with specific boundaries nonetheless. Non-Irish readers get an exceedingly detailed peek into this group, but infiltrating it and truly understanding it are nearly impossible.

Doyle’s latest novel about Jimmy Rabbitte and the Barrytown characters, The Guts, was released late January in the United States. Jimmy is now 47 and dealing with a bowel cancer diagnosis. What should be an extension of the previous trilogy feels a bit like a tacked-on afterthought, much like when the cast of a beloved television show reunites for a special twenty years after they first went off the air. That’s not to say that The Guts isn’t good. Doyle is a prolific writer—in addition to the previously noted books, he is the author of six novels, three novellas, two short-story collections as well as seven books for children—and The Guts is a well-crafted novel. Given the subject matter, the novel deftly straddles the line between boisterous craic (an Irish term meaning a good time, particularly one that involves spirited banter and conversation) and thoughtful introspection. The novel follows the arc of Ireland over the past ten or so years: the glorious rise in the economy—referred to as the Celtic Tiger, when Ireland finally felt like a force to be reckoned with, when luxury cars dotted the new motorways and mansions obscured thatched cottages—and then its disastrous fall, when a fifty percent plunge in housing prices followed the big burst.

What also happened in the last ten years was a tremendous uptick in the number of people using social media, as well as a rapid upswing in the creation of new platforms to communicate. And this change, of course, is hardly specific to Ireland. The Guts opens with Jimmy’s father, Jimmy Sr., asking his son, “D’yeh do the Facebook thing?” There are a lot of texting mishaps—sending texts to the wrong people, regretting a fired-off message—as well as a YouTube phenomenon, a music company built from a sort of online encyclopedia of Commitments-era Irish musicians, and numerous mentions of Xboxes, GPS systems and smartphones. The Guts is a novel set in a post-2010 world. And despite the “Irishness” of the novel, it boasts a universal tone. Who hasn’t accidentally sent a text to the wrong person? Aren’t Xbox gaming systems and GPS systems ubiquitous in nearly every modern culture? We live in an era where a large percentage of our thoughts are digitally communicated, and where emoji and hashtags help to add a little zing to our online comments and text messages.

I enjoyed this foray into the world of the Rabbitte family almost as much as when I first read Doyle’s books. But Jimmy’s world doesn’t seem as foreign to me as it once did. The easy explanation is that because I’ve lived in Dublin for three years, it’s not as foreign to me. But I think it’s more than that: Our communication is becoming more universal. After all, we live in a world where the “Gangnam Style” dance is a unanimous response at the first sound of those electronic beats.

What, then, makes our communication unique or specific to our own community? Everyone has the same access to these communication tools—or at the very least, the ability to view them. If Jimmy, who travels to the Electric Picnic, an annual music festival in Ireland, sends out a text to his old band buddies about joining him, would he leave a trail of icons—thumbs up, then the anxious” face and lastly a microphone surrounded by music notes—to indicate that he secured the tickets, but they’re a little nervous because they’ll be a good deal older than the typical attendees, but hey, it’s all about the music? Maybe he would (if he could figure out how to use emoji). And, unfortunately, those little icons would convey the same meaning in Ireland as they would elsewhere in the world. They add a little flair to his message, but the tone and humor can be interpreted by anyone. What happened to our shared languages between families, between small and defined groups of people?

I think a shrugging emoticon would be an appropriate answer.

Stories for Social Change in “Flight Behavior” & “The Line”

In early October, on the eve of the first Presidential debate, the social justice-focused Sojourners presented a documentary it had produced about poverty in America. The Line—the title a nod to both the statistical marker of “official” poverty, as well as the invisible fences between the “haves” and “have nots”—profiled four Americans who help to comprise the approximately 46 million people who live below the poverty line. The producer, Linda Midgett, is a friend of mine, and a few weeks ago we talked about the project, as well as the way that Sojourners hoped to present it: The Line first aired in Washington, D.C., with a panel discussion following the screening. From there, Sojourners aimed to equip individuals, churches, and organizations to host their own screenings and use the documentary as a springboard to facilitate discussions. Much like the marketing of “Race to Nowhere,” Sojourners hoped to provide information to propel a conversation forward.

The documentary had an estimated audience of 125,000 online viewers in October alone. It was created not necessarily to get a particular candidate or party elected, but simply to put American poverty into people’s psyches and range of visions. However viewers decided to vote was up to them. But the people behind The Line would like to see this issue become one that is talked about with greater frequency. In its simplest form, the film is a transfer of information, from sources to viewers.

And what do we do when information—facts, stories, evidence, and data—is put in our lap? More importantly, where does this information come from? One can argue that solitary “information” doesn’t pose a benefit unless it’s applied toward an outcome. Otherwise, facts and figures and even anecdotes sit in the belly of our being, only exhumed in Alex Trebek fashion at dinner parties or job interviews. While it’s not a surprise that every person filters even the most concrete of fact through her own schema, we must acknowledge that these schemas are also informed by the communities where an individual spends the majority of her time. In fact, Marshall McLuhan, grandfather of modern media theory, wrote, 40 years ago:

Our Western values, built on the written word, have already been considerably affected by the electronic media of telephone, radio, and TV. Perhaps that is the reason why many highly literate people in our time find it difficult to examine this question without getting into a moral panic.

Issues often become framed as “right” or “wrong” due to community input. However, despite the undercurrent of “liberalism” at Sojourners, one has to assume that some viewers would walk away from watching The Line steadfast Republicans while others cling to their Democrat ideals (not to mention all the “undecideds” and third-party supporters). The point of the film is not specifically to help elect a particular candidate, but instead is two-fold: It presents straight-up information, and it gives a voice to those whose desires, struggles and needs are often voiced through well-intentioned, but one-step-removed, third-party organizations and agencies. The goal of The Line is simply to make people and candidates aware. (Pre-election, a “tell your candidate about this issue” button appeared on the project’s website.) “We were conscious of not employing narration,” explained Linda. “I don’t want to add to their story. I just want to tell it well.”

And when we have people’s stories—their information—what do we do with it?

“Information is all we have,” writes Barbara Kingsolver in her new novel, Flight Behavior. Following small-town Tennessean Dellarobia Turnbow and her discovery of a multitude of migrating monarch butterflies that have roosted in the trees on her husband’s family’s land, Flight Behavior plays with the intersection of media and one’s reality and how to decipher the information provided by both. As she did with her previous novels, most notably in 2000’s Prodigal Summer, Kingsolver uses environmental issues to point out the conflicts between the unintended consequences of technological advancement and the immediate needs of those who rely on jobs or technologies that can also be called damaging. Protagonist Dellarobia, a young mother wondering how she never managed to escape small-town Feathertown, finds herself somehow straddling the two camps, as her world begins to open up and new knowledge is presented before her. Despite her unhappiness in her marriage to Cub, she tries to keep him happy and live the life she thinks she’s destined to: “She took this vow as regularly as she breathed, and reliably it was punctured by some needling idea that she was cut out for something more.” In typical Kingsolver fashion, a sophisticated and educated character (in this case, an entomologist named Dr. Ovid Byron) bombards a small town, and his scientific career as well as his passion for understanding—and slowing down—climate change, mark him as a know-it-all outsider.

The people of Feathertown live in a ubiquitous bubble: a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business and no one seems to leave, except perhaps to Cleary, a somewhat larger town 15 miles away. In a community where the high school football coach also teaches math, and outsiders—particularly from other parts of the country—are viewed as suspicious interlopers, Dr. Byron’s presence ripples through the community. He punctures the bubble and allows confusing—and therefore unwanted—information and attention to seep in.

How easy, therefore, it is for the reader to assume that it is Feathertown—and Dellarobia—alone that should be stretched out of a bubble. For the people of Feathertown, a ruptured bubble means facing politics they don’t agree with, engaging with people from different ethnic backgrounds, and interpreting the unspoken code of people who are more “educated.” Raised in rural Kentucky, Kingsolver knows better than to dumb down an entire community whose gifts, although perhaps not a result of an expensive university, are just as worthy. The author gives Dr. Byron and others like him their own fair share of bubble-worthy moments, such as when Dellarobia deftly repairs a zipper on a researcher’s name-brand jacket that would have been otherwise thrown out. Instead, the book’s ire is directed toward mass media—particularly television and the internet—and the farcical way Dellarobia’s discovery of the butterflies is twisted and convoluted using sly editing and the manipulative tools of the internet.

Kingsolver doesn’t necessarily condemn bubbles—these communities that we are often born into and have the power to inform its members about anything and sometimes everything. But do we have a obligation to seek information from atypical sources, such as directly from people themselves? When Dellarobia begins to understand that she belongs to a community—Southern, poor, and rural—that is often poked fun of in the media, she also resigns herself to the fact that changing people’s opinions is difficult. The comedians who laugh at people like her “would never come see what Tennessee was like, any more than she would get a degree in science and figure out the climate things Dr. Byron described. Nobody truly decided for themselves. There was too much information. What they actually did was scope around, decide who was looking out for their clan, and sign on for the memos on a wide array of topics.” Dellarobia’s understanding of how humans filter information heightens when she meets her son Preston’s classmate and her family. Josefina and her parents have migrated to Feathertown from Michoacán, Mexico, which is where the monarch butterflies originate from. Their arrival in Feathertown follows a devastating flood that destroys their entire town. Dellarobia soon recognizes that “You could feel more decent watching [television news] when the victims weren’t sitting on your sofa.”

So in order to invoke change—in whatever form—is it more important for an entire community bubble to transform or break, or should we perhaps just be paying attention to our individual bubbles? Who do we let in? For all of our emphasis on the good qualities that come along with community, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to consider how an individual’s acquisition of information—in other words, puncturing one’s own bubble—might eventually benefit an entire community. In Flight Behavior, as far as the reader knows, an entire community doesn’t transform. Rather, Dellarobia allows her own bubble to be infiltrated by other’s stories and being open to the possibility that other perspectives can co-exist with hers.

And what about real-life issues that people attempt to tackle outside the pages of a novel? Although The Line profiles—using their own words—four Americans living in poverty, the film also includes one more subject: Rev. Julian DeShazier (or J.Kwest, as he’s known when he raps). Part of his ministry is working with youths who have dropped out of high school and “adding creativity to their lives—creativity and dignity,” as well as the requisite practical help in obtaining a GED and other skills. He explains how he addresses the people he ministers to: “You have a story to tell. You’ve seen something. And what I want to do is help you tell that story. We want to help you tell that story because once you can tell that story, you can own your life. You own your identity.”

There are a lot of big issues in this world. How do we hope to address them all? Perhaps we can start by listening to a story from an actual person.

Ambiance: Where Details Are Everything

When I told my book club – an international group of women – that the “general themes” of the book we were reading were universal, my thoughts were met with a few raised eyebrows. It was the Egyptian novel The Yacoubian Building, and Egypt had been in the news with increasing frequency. I argued that a good story takes the severity or exactness of particulars and somehow finagles into the reader’s mind a familiarity, an understanding. I’ve never been to Egypt, but the fact that the novel was set there provided a springboard to gleaning more from themes (oppression of women and religious fanaticism, for example) that can shape any society.

A narrative, whether it’s a novel or a person’s life, is shaped by its location and people’s responses to it. Yet, the location – the setting – must add something, for why would we read books (or watch movies) that don’t enhance or illustrate basic human emotions?

Just like in the previous two years, I’m currently preparing to fly with my two children to somewhere in the western United States, meet my mom, and drive across the country – following a route that would make AAA cringe. Though our starting point changes each year, our destination is always Newport, Rhode Island, and my parents’ two Shih Tzus are proud passengers number five and six on this journey. So far, we’ve clocked approximately 5,000 miles, traveled through 19 states, and mastered the logistics of pit stops that involve gasoline, dog food, leashes, and two children.

We make this trip not just because it’s an easier way to transport the dogs to Rhode Island, nor simply for experiencing multi-generational bonding. Even though we may barrel through three states in one day in an attempt to “catch up” after spending the day at Laura Ingalls Wilder’s homestead in Missouri, this trip provides us – and more importantly, my children – a taste of setting. I want them to see other places and get a glimpse, however small, of how life unfolds outside of their own setting.

So, as we book tickets and attack the end of the school year with a tenacity that shows we know summer’s coming, the American west is on my mind. Last summer we began at my parents’ home in the Phoenix area, so really, it is Arizona on my mind.  In an attempt to transport myself back to the desert, I read Half Broke Horses, a “true-life novel” by Jeannette Walls of The Glass Castle fame. “I hadn’t been on a horse since leaving for Chicago, and it just felt right” writes Walls in the voice of her grandmother, who lived primarily on ranches until decamping for the “big city” of Phoenix in the 1930s. In response, I wonder about other works set in Arizona, so I unearth Barbara Kingsolver’s novels from the tall bookshelf and re-read how the author weaves important thoughts about immigration, assimilation, and differences in these desert tales. Next up is Sherman Alexie’s story, “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.”

Each of these written works provides a rich setting, using different styles of language and each based on the author’s experience or research. Reading these authors’ words is my attempt at creating ambiance in preparation, and I long to head west.

Arizona is a repository for people – lots of them, as Arizona is the most populous land-locked state in America. The snow birds, the people seeking healthy respite in a drier climate, the immigrants. It’s also a repository for me, for although I’ve never truly lived there, it’s where my family now resides and a segment of my roots stick wherever my parents may live.

—-

Last summer: Driving north from Phoenix, and then east, moseying diagonally through Arizona and straight into the Four Corners, the drip-drop-splash of life transforms into more of a long drawn-out murmur. The colors change. Perhaps an absence of most color more accurately describes the landscape, as one starts to notice the subtle shades of brown since it seems like all the other colors have dissolved into a far-away mirage. Despite Crayola’s insistence on experimenting with its tried-and-true colors, almost all the nuanced browns still exist. Burnt Sienna, Tan, Sepia. So, like that oft-ignored section of brown crayons, subtle differentiations between the sandy brown of the ground and the mahogany-brown of the peaks placate our eyes.

We tend to look for variances however we can, don’t we?

The Superstition Mountains on the outskirts of Phoenix.

If you shuttled in from, say, New England in the autumn, the monotony of the landscape could easily jar your finely tuned sense of beauty. Instead of rolling hills of red, yellow, orange foliage, a casual observer might see a lot of nothingness. It is rocks and dust and a wee bit of green, often of the prickly sort. But if you’re there long enough, you might start to think, “That stack of rocks juts out a little more harshly than the mound back there.” Or, “The dust seems to billow more here.” Through Tuba City and Tonalea, a sparse and careful habitat overtakes. It’s not precious. Sharp and straight, like a large percentage of the state’s borderlines, the flatness is punctuated by ascending peaks that seem to jut at ninety-degree angles. Rolling hills or verdant glens or even bubbling creeks are non-existent. Similarly, in this part of the state, the conventions and conveniences of an exotic suburbia disappear. McDonald’s provides a reminder of mainstream America, but otherwise, mangy dogs run free, children cavort in the beds of pick-up trucks, and roadside stands sell produce and crafts and one wonders how they make a profit because the number of cars driving by is minimal.

We can’t stand monotony, so we adjust our eyes, make them more attuned to what’s around, not just what’s in front.

—-

I think of a recent Arizona shooting that I read about in the news. A “militia man” who made illegal immigration his cause d’etre. I follow up on the progress of Representative Gabrielle Giffords. And Sheriff Joe Arpaio being sued. I learn that the State of Arizona celebrates its centennial this year. Does the idea of the Wild West exist anymore? I think of backyards full of grapefruit and orange trees. The red rocks of Sedona. And of course, that natural wonder – the Grand Canyon. Plus, Arizona doesn’t participate in daylight savings, so I’m always confused as to what time to call my parents, no matter what time zone I may be living in.

And I wonder how anyone can understand anything about this place if, to them, it’s just a location that appears in news stories or cowboy art.

But I’m not sure that I – someone who has a modicum of familiarity with Arizona – know much about it either. Like anywhere else, it’s a place full of conflict and also full of beauty. As Taylor Greer, Kingsolver’s protagonist in The Bean Trees, says, “Sometimes I feel like I’m a foreigner too. I come from a place that’s so different from here you would think you’d stepped right off the map into some other country. … People don’t look the same, talk the same, nothing. Half the time I have no idea what’s going on around me here.”

The smells, the sights, the distances traveled all make me adjust my eyes and understand a setting more fully. I drive through Arizona and learn to retrain my eyes and tease out the nuances of an environment. Although I might see more, I don’t necessarily see more clearly. Just as friends visiting my family’s new home in Dublin might understand the context of where we live a little bit better, they don’t really know what it means to start a new life with small children in a new country. Similarly, my family’s experience – so similar on paper to other families relocating to other Western European countries – is not the same of our friends who moved to England.

—-

And what about The Yacoubian Building? I think I was partially correct at my book club – human emotion is universal. But the details matter, and even if I someday travel to Egypt and experience the vistas, the sounds, and the people, the setting is not mine. In the meantime, I’ll take a road trip in my mind, and sit, stew, and observe the goodness of a setting. Learning to study a setting, like a text, is invaluable. The setting helps to tell the story; to enhance it. But the setting isn’t the story.

 

The Sense of Redemption

At the creative writing center where I volunteer, we engage children in writing fiction by presenting them with four basic tenets of a story: a main character, a sidekick, the main character’s greatest wish, and his or her biggest problem. The children compose the beginning of the story as a group and then create their own endings and grapple with how they want to solve the character’s problem. Without knowing it, these students are, in some small way, learning to write about redemption – of a character and the ensuing dilemma.

Redemption: It’s what allows us to look more closely, more admirably at something – a person, a town, a movie – that we may have earlier deemed uncomfortable, or maybe even repellent. To move from hopeless or helpless, to saved and restored is what differentiates redemption from “improvement.” If a happy – or happier – ending ensues, we feel that some sort of justice has prevailed. This movement from struggle to triumph guides politicians – which is why Rick Santorum references his coalminer grandfather while supporters cheer the grandson’s prominence. The phoenix-type story of victory also colors the revival of towns and cities lost to modernization and the economy. In February 2011, the New York Times Magazine profiled Braddock, Pennsylvania, a blighted town resurrected by a group of artists. The town’s motto? “Reinvention is the only option.” And this idea of rescue and repair is what drives the booming business of life coaching. We need the good guy to overcome and prevail.

Redemption: It’s also what we look for in literature and has been a barometer of a book’s success in the book clubs I’ve frequented. Wine is poured, crackers and cookies are grabbed from the table, and the act of imposing our own life and values begins in earnest as book club commences. Compare yourselves to the protagonist and the set of circumstances that he or she faces: Ready, set, go! Books that are generally well-received promote discussion. On occasion, however, a book that gets a thumbs down from a group of readers ushers in a slew of thoughts about how a character failed to live up to one’s expectations or refused to co-opt a cultural norm of moral “betterment.” In other words, there was nothing redemptive about a book’s set of characters or its plot.

Readers expect so much from their characters: a desire for them to be restored to a good nature and a protected life seem to transform the author’s words into gospel. When we are enveloped by a character – when a novelist is doing a good job of attaching the reader to his or her creations – our heart aches with theirs and wants them to recover. Even if the character fails to live big or really “make it” and still has sadness around his circumstance, we set the bar low and figure that any baseline improvement – or at least a character’s acceptance of her fate – is better than none. Books that fail to tidy up any aspect of the protagonist’s life have the potential to leave a reader cold.

But what happens when you’re truly engaged in a book, yet the denouement is just that – an ending that provokes a shoulder shrug and the thought that, at its core, life is really tedious and uninspiring? Redemptive is not a benign word. Nor is it subtle, and when applied to a work of fiction, I wonder if it’s asking too much.

“And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, follows Tony Webster from secondary school to middle age. While nothing dramatically distressing happens to Tony – he does endure divorce, the suicide of an old friend who he had been out of touch with, and an adult daughter who flits in and out of his life – Barnes writes his protagonist not in a tragic light, but more with a broad brush of melancholy and weariness. Instead of questioning the subtle slights and hurts that have seemed to encompass his life, Tony accepts them as part of the aging process. He “get[s] on fine” with his daughter Susie. He still gets together regularly with his ex-wife, Margaret, and relies on her surety and clarity of purpose. And while he mourns the death of his former classmate (and the quest to retrieve part of his journal, which was bequeathed to him by the mother of a former girlfriend), Tony approaches the event with a matter-of-fact tenacity. He’s certainly not a charismatic person; or at least the glimpse that the author has given us doesn’t point toward a man full of passion. He, the narrator of his own story, says, “How few of us – we that remain – can say that we have done the same? We muddle along, we let life happen to us, we gradually build up a store of memories.”

Tony Webster isn’t on a murdering rampage, a drug binge, or a life of obvious self-destruction, and finding a point in this book where he embraces life and wants to do more than endure it is difficult. Barnes puts these words in Tony’s mind:

“Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got.”

How does one improve upon general malaise or indifference?

Despite Tony’s constant ruminating about his life, he seems to view aging in a hands-off, resigned, and casual fashion. I liked The Sense of an Ending a lot, which confused me since no one in the book seemed to feel joy, pleasure, or even contentment. Instead of earning clarity or a concrete purpose, Tony seems to delve further into befuddled acquiescence of his future – in the novel, he doesn’t experience a grand redeeming event. What we, as readers, often desire is someone to announce life’s difficulties, and then embrace the great rewards and ecstasy that can be found one way or another. We yearn for redemption, however small, because we’re uncomfortable with others’ suffering.

Whether or not we deem a character “redemptive” has less to do with the actual characters, and more to do with the achievements of others that we hang our hopes on. When someone we view – whether in a book, or a stranger in real life – reaches the supposed glory of recognition, happiness, or success, that triumph draws us closer to our own goals. But that’s based on information we’ve been presented with. When others view us, what do they see? They see what we present, and they see it through their own lenses.

While it can be argued that The Sense of an Ending offers a realistic, non-air-brushed idea of life, maybe it is because that is all that Tony Webster and his author allow the reader to see. What we, as readers, forget is that a book doesn’t tell the whole story. Except for perhaps in Barnes’s mind and notebooks, Tony’s childhood, the entirety of his married life, and his time with his grandchildren, don’t exist. These hidden facets of his life remain unknown to us. Perhaps Tony threw himself on the ground after processing the news of his friend’s death. Or maybe, despite friendly appearances, his wife cruelly berated him during their marriage. We just don’t know. So how can we judge the character by the selected plot that the author has put forth? In fact, Barnes writes from Tony’s point of view, the following:

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.”

The 150-page text doesn’t tell a story of stereotypical redemption that we might hope for; Julian Barnes hasn’t embedded a 180-degree turnaround or even a glimmer of hope in his story. After all, the last paragraph of the book is this: “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.” But the story itself can be redemptive because in some other, unknown dimension, that’s not all there is. We can take hope in the fact that our lives are more than “just the facts.” Although Tony feels “unrest,” one has to hope that rest may be found. I liked it precisely because “unrest” connotes that at some point, the converse must be true: there must be rest. In fact, Barnes’ title – The Sense of an Ending – implies that something is not quite finished, not quite ready to rest, even though we think it is.

 

And Then Came Sebastian Barry

As a young girl, my fictitious heroine was Anastasia Krupnik, the star of Lois Lowry’s acclaimed (and sometimes-banned) series of Anastasia books. Despite Anastasia’s comparatively more remarkable life – her father, a poet; her mother, an artist; a childhood spent in Cambridge at Harvard’s doorstep before a move to the suburbs – she and I held a desire in common: a constant wish to have something “interesting” happen in our little lives. Anastasia’s numerous notebooks held lists, wishes, dreams, as well as observations about her environment. I did the same as a young, pre-teen girl, yet a dramatic life-shaping event seemed to stay away. I was just plain old Amy, the girl with the same moniker as thousands of other girls born the same year. Like so many other children and teenagers, I sought to forge some sort of unique identity for myself via the clothes I wore, the music I listened to, and other superficial markers. Somehow, Anastasia’s ability to project herself seemed much more effortless. Over time – between navigating adulthood and all that comes with it – the longing to be “known” in some quirky, out-of-the-box fashion weakened. A simpler – not to mention humbler – comfort replaced that.

Drama and spectacle attract people. We can call it quirkiness, suspense, conundrum, but a dramatic bang makes us perk up and pay attention. Although we may not want our own lives to follow an overly dramatic arc, it’s often what propels and energizes us. From college essays to job interviews, people bring out their “hook” – their defining, but perhaps embellished, narrative – to differentiate themselves from the masses. And with the ubiquity of the internet, anyone can vie for attention via blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. Drama – hair-pin turns in a person’s narrative – is what makes the entertainment industry spin. It’s why books like Room (ripped-from-the-headlines heartbreak and despair), Little Bee (global, political, and personal tragedy), and The Time Traveler’s Wife (scientifically impossible plot) crash into our psyches. I enjoyed all of these books, but these novels grabbed me partially because of the complete unfamiliarity and distance from my own life. The plot, rather than the language, drew me in.

And then came Sebastian Barry.

I read a new-to-me book by Barry that I had never read before: Annie Dunne. Despite the fact that his novel The Secret Scripture was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and should have been on my radar, I was unfamiliar with him. The reason I sought out one of his books was because I had just moved with my family to Dublin, and he is Irish, residing in the county south of ours. A relative had recommended I read his work. I bought Annie Dunne on a trip to the Dublin Writers Museum.

Initially, it didn’t captivate me. When we’re conditioned to be wowed at every page turn, an ordinary story feels plodding. The plot? Two small children come from the city to live with their great-aunt Annie on a farm in Wicklow, while their parents seek employment in London. A local farm hand feigns interest in her cousin, Sarah, who has passed middle age without a husband, like Annie. A few noteworthy events pass, yet Barry does not dwell on them – these events could be primed for drama, but they don’t affect the plot directly. Rather, these events inform our protagonist’s emotions. The primary plot caterwauls on, just like life at Kelsha, the Dunne family farm. The tension in Annie’s heart arises not because of what has happened to her, but rather as a result of reflecting on what has not happened: namely, she does not have her own children, and caring for her great-niece and –nephew has stirred this in her, a husband-less, hunchbacked old maid.

But I stuck with it. Annie Dunne is not necessarily a book that can’t be put down. At times, I had to force myself to read a few pages. Annie’s heartbreak starts to crescendo, yet Barry never employs tricky plot twists: his protagonist doesn’t contemplate suicide, run away, nor dramatically alter her life by joining a convent or other mode of escapism. She simply continues to grapple with her sorrow – and surprisingly, this affected me deeply. Barry’s subtle language and deft forwarding of his story caused me to put the book down, sigh, and simply sit. He writes:

“And when now and then rarely I saw another bowed-back girl, all my instinct was to jeer her too, although I had no license to. This afflicting music of my childhood was hard to hear then, but I o’ercame it. It is now, oftentimes lying these decades later on a flattening mattress with a ticking of old goose down, that I am gripped by fearsome rages, to think of it. Never kissed, never fondled, never embarrassed by a boy’s desire! It is a wretchedness.”

A few pages later, when Billy Kerr, the farm helper who pines for her cousin Sarah, lambastes Annie and verbally lashes, wounds, and damages her, the emotion welling in my heart is like nothing I’ve ever experienced while reading a novel. Just like Barry writes from Annie’s perspective, “Then an emotion larger than a horse invades me.”

The way that Barry slowly develops his characters by using words instead of action builds a different kind of book than one that seeks to thrill.

If a book, in its simplicity, engaged me so dramatically, then perhaps I could read my own life in the same fashion. Here’s what I mean: if suspended in a reality mush that whistles and whizzes and otherwise attempts to astonish the reader by teetering on that elusive line between reality and what I’ll call “reality-plus,” a book essentially relies on that aforementioned balance instead of the stringing together of specific words and phrases and precise use of punctuation. Maybe the beauty of life doesn’t lie in its uniqueness, but rather in the simple way our experiences weave together to form something subtler, something richer. What if we are “known” – not because we position ourselves so far from normalcy and convention, but because the quiet ways we live our lives reflect unexpected beauty, like Barry’s prose.

Can language – our lives – instead of an actual event, stir up as much emotion in one’s soul? Is it the plot, or is it the words? When it seems that the publishing industry is on the prowl for some “wow” oriented books that will provide an eye-catching cover or marketing materials, it’s easy to ignore the structure of thousands of words strung together to create one enormous tapestry.

So, as I notice my own daughter picking up Lois Lowry’s beloved books and diving into the world of Anastasia’s escapades, I think I’d like her to know that perhaps a book – and a life – is not simply about the story, but also about how it’s told.

Cat’s Eye

Oh, Margaret Atwood, how could you have known – approximately 20 years before the advent of Facebook – that there would one day be a place (a cyber place, no less!) where ordinary people eagerly test their hypotheses about long-lost friends and acquaintances who once would have been relegated only to an aged yearbook or photo album? In light of our obsession with reconnecting with everyone from every facet of our lives, Atwood provides a story that allows me to ruminate on whether or not this “closure” – this attempt at connecting all the tentacles of our lives – is appropriate.

Atwood wrote a novel called Cat’s Eye. A more civilized version of the movie Heathers, perhaps, as it hosts a cadre of “mean girls.” However, I’m not sure that Atwood would posit her work primarily as an ode to childish rivalries. Instead, she focuses on the longing to figure out what becomes of the people who we leave behind as we move on to new ventures. After all, the scenarios that we make up provide a barometer – accurate or not – of our own accomplishments. Did she marry? Where does she work? It’s only natural to wonder, right?

The protagonist of Cat’s Eye, Elaine Ridsley, is an artist returning to Toronto for a retrospective of her work. She is hesitant to revisit a city that holds all her childhood memories, yet she longs for some intangible connection with girlfriends past – particularly one domineering one named Cordelia. The ringleader of their girlhood clique, as well as the inflictor of brutal one-upmanship to Elaine, Cordelia becomes the mythical “stand in” for Elaine’s conflicting emotions of where she came from and where she is now. Twenty years after she’s left Toronto for Canada’s west coast, Elaine incessantly attempts to analyze what has transpired in an attempt to make sense of the rest of her life.

Brought back to Elaine’s childhood, the reader discovers that Cordelia instigates a controlling and authoritative hold over Elaine. She and her “followers” chastise Elaine for the way she walks and the way she speaks. And on a snowy day, they toss Elaine’s hat down a ravine and demand the girl fetch it. Then, with other girlfriends in tow, Cordelia leaves Elaine to nearly freeze to death.

What makes Atwood’s work so enthralling is the nuanced way in which Elaine handles her cohorts. Cordelia and the other girls still want to be her friends, for what fun is exerting power if the powerless don’t participate? There’s no dramatic hair-pulling or damaging public revenge. Instead, Elaine slowly and expertly extracts herself from the group and wields her own power: disinterest. And then, in early adulthood, Elaine simply “drops” Cordelia.

With her protagonist now safely ensconced in adulthood, Atwood writes about Elaine’s desire to reunite with Cordelia, if only to provide some sort of elusive closure:

“I think of encountering her without warning. Perhaps in a worn coat and a knitted hat like a tea cosy, sitting on a curb, with two plastic bags filled only with her possessions, muttering to herself. Cordelia! Don’t you recognize me? I say.”

And further:

“Cordelia must be living somewhere. She could be within a mile of me, she could be right on the next block. But finally I have no idea what I would do if I bumped into her by accident, on the subway for instance, sitting across from me, or waiting on the platform reading the ads. We would stand side by side, looking at a large red mouth stretching itself around a chocolate bar, and I would turn to her and say: Cordelia. It’s me, it’s Elaine. Would she turn, give a theatrical shriek? Would she ignore me? Or would I ignore her, given the chance? Or would I go up to her wordlessly, throw my arms around her? Or take her by the shoulders, and shake and shake.”

If only Elaine had had access to the internet. For what she wants is a simple touchstone – a quick glimpse into Cordelia’s present life. She merely wants to know what has become of Cordelia, years after she inflicted this hurt. Because despite the fact that Elaine has moved on, the mystique and aura of Cordelia still permeates her life. Her artwork represents those years, as visages from this clique of girls inch their way into paintings. And on some level, does she not want to “show” Cordelia just how well her life has turned out? This longing for a fusion between past and present pervades Cat’s Eye. It’s a simple wish, but one fraught with high emotions.

But in the end, she doesn’t reunite with Cordelia. Her questions about how she would have handled this encounter remain unanswered.

Like Elaine, I’ve experienced that hunger to reunite with someone from my past – with many people, actually. Although I have no “mean girls” to exonerate, there are those who I inexplicably longed to investigate. So, when Facebook came on the scene, the easy access to everyone created a longing to play the “whatever happened to” game with people I had mostly forgotten.

Now, in the 21st century, these Elaine-Cordelia connections do, in fact, happen. Past and present are fused together. Elaine and Cordelia could easily uncover information about each other. No stone is left unturned in our quest for fitting all the pieces of our puzzled lives together. In the past, any visit to my hometown would be peppered with concern over whether or not I would bump into one of them. But now, because of the internet, the mystery is gone. I check out their blogs and look for context clues in the photos they post. We have the same KitchenAid mixer! She goes on interesting vacations! What makes these little touchstones so jarring is that I’ve kept these people in the contexts of when I interacted with them. And I’m not sure if I prefer thinking of them as the whole beings that they are or as snapshots.

So which is it? Has Facebook given its users a glimpse into how we – and others – should truly see each other? Since, intellectually, we know that we can’t totally obliterate (suppress, perhaps) facets of our being and that they exist for a reason, is it the right thing to have all life experiences fused together into one? I imagine that this is how God sees us, after all. From birth until death, with all experiences intertwined and relevant. Or should we, like Elaine Ridsley, be allowed to move on and become different people (even though we know that our histories reside within us)? Despite the fact that we only put forth what we want others to see, is Facebook as close an approximation to our true personas as possible? Perhaps in our attempt to know – and be known – fully, our “community” expands to include anyone and everyone who’s touched our lives.

I think that in theory, these cross-current lives are a good thing. But because I don’t want to fully engage (I don’t post photographs of my own, nor have I ever written a status update), I’m left like Elaine, who at the end of Cat’s Eye, says, “This is what I miss, Cordelia: not something that’s gone, but something that will never happen.”