In The Huffingon Post, Anis Shivani has an essay that says, in part: “What the fuck does voice mean? I’m clueless. This is just another of those fakeries writing teachers–or writers forced to sit on panels and not having the intellectual honesty to talk about the tough work of writing rather than writing as the festival or conference-goer wishes it–pull out of the hat when they have nothing else to talk about.”
Let’s talk about voice, bay-bee, let’s talk about you and me. I’m reading 3 books: I’ve got the memoir of the dying mother, the novel about a millionaire Ad Man, and the memoir about an Iranian family that reads in a very non-memoirish way. What I’m noticing most, however, is not the difference in the genres. I’m focused on the trichotomy of the narrative voices telling the stories, and what that means to the reader. To Me.
I finally got around to Jasmin Darznik’s THE GOOD DAUGHTER, a story written mostly in the 3rd person. I like that it’s different (who writes memoir in 3rd person?). I like that Darznik’s prose flows like she’s a natural storyteller. I like that she takes 10 audio tapes made by her mother about her secret history of growing up Iran and teaches me about a culture I know little about. The one problem I have is the suspension of disbelief. It’s a memoir, after all, and I keep thinking about the narrator’s voice, the narrator’s truth: “how does she know what the flowers smelled like?” and “how does she know how her grandmother looked at that schoolgirl?” Still. Do I recommend the book? Yes. It’s a wonderful story, well-told. I enjoy listening to the voice telling this story.
I met Charles McLeod in school — he was a Steinbeck Fellow; I a student — and didn’t know him well, but I liked him, and I heard lots of buzz about what a brilliant writer he was. (There’s a great article about him in the May/June issue of Poets and Writers). His novel AMERICAN WEATHER was recently published in the U.K. This might be the smartest, most original, story I’ve read in a long while. It’s like a brutal mirror that stares you in the face and shows you what a hypocrite you are. What hypocrites we all are, no matter what we like to think of ourselves. The prose — the voice? — is exhausting in the way that our real lives can be exhausting: paragraphs that go on for pages, repetition on steroids, one man’s obsessive obsessions. A voice so damned smart it makes me bright emerald green with envy. Recommended? A resounding Yes!
Then there’s Meghan O’Rourke’s THE LONG GOODBYE, a young journalist’s account of her mother’s cancer diagnosis and reflections on their relationship. I’ve been looking forward to reading this book since I read the first excerpt in The New Yorker, and though it kills me to say this, I’m disappointed. The narrative voice is so cold and flat. It’s very this happened, and then that happened, and then, well, that’s what it was, on to the next event. All these pages in, and I have no idea why she’s telling the story, what makes her take on grief something new and insightful, what makes this a story I need to read. Where is O’Rourke’s daughterly voice? (whatever “daughterly” means to her) What is this about???? I don’t know if I can even finish it.
So back to Shivani’s essay and his comment about fakeries and whatnot. He pokes great fun, and I love his twist on it, but I also think he’s full of shit.
The voice is what pulls me in or shoves me off.
The well-tuned voice makes me decide between reading the book or throwing the damned thing across the room.
What are you reading? What is it about the voice that’s turning you on or off?