Friday, May 20, 2011

"Editorial" by Arthur Graham and "Lief" by Ryan Tressel

I have just finished reading Arthur Graham's Editorial and Ryan Tressel's Lief. They offer an interesting contrast in authorial voices. On the surface, the books are remarkably similar. Each follows a main character over a disjointed timespan: in Editorial we follow mostly one character over thousands of years (he is apparently immune to the nuclear catastrophes that kill off most of the world's population, and in one guise clutches a black leatherette notebook that serves as the tale's Maguffin) and in the other book, we follow the title character, Lief, at four-year intervals (she is a Leap Year baby) that go back and forth through her life.

EditorialAlthough Editorial switches between the first and third person (and between human and snake species as it indulges in a little shape-shifting), this reader was at a loss to identify any emotional investment in the characters by the author. If someone spends time as either a human or a snake, I want to know more about what it is like to, pardon the expression, experience humanity through snake eyes, and vice versa. I want to know what the kid being raised by an “aunt” and “uncle” really ate for his meals, why he exulted in their frequent fights, how he learned to read and write when being raised on dirty magazines (almost as an afterthought, deep into the story, we learn that he also attended school). The protagonist talks about using sex for currency in the world economy (I imagine it would make it very complicated to go to a movie) and generally displays a misanthropic Weltanschauung (“And this was what the people of the world, if they learned anything in their short, ignorant lives, learned on that day.” … “An ugly man and woman and their doubly ugly children [what happens when ugly multiplies] sat continuously yammering … ”) that, in itself, could still make for interesting reading if it weren't for the overall impression that Graham doesn't underpin the complicated narrative with much in the way of character development. There are scattered illustrations (one of which my Kindle couldn't handle), but they don't really add much.

LiefLief is a woman whom we glimpse every four yeas on February 29, from age four to forty, but out of order. We are invited to read the chapters in any order, but this reader chose to read them in the order written, which is still non-chronological. One is given a vague sense that she, too travels in time in an unusual manner. She is a rather ordinary person, a bashful child and a slightly anxious adult who goes to college and tries to sort out her complicated familial and social relationships. But the level of emotional investment by Tressel in his characters is what transforms the story. Leif is shy. Her mother is a left-wing radical who occasionally ignores the children when she is caught up in her political campaigns. The father is quite affable, and gives everyone nicknames (he reminded me, for some reason, of the father in the movie Juno). The mother dies offstage, as it were, and when we notice the name of the brother changes and he is not an older brother but a younger one we fear that he, too (the older brother), may be dead, and are relieved when we learn he was estranged from Lief and later takes steps to get back together. These are the things that draw the reader into a story, any story. Lief often refuses to wear her glasses; she has an occasional problem with excess saliva that leads to apologies and self-deprecatory remarks. If she existed as a snake for part of the narrative she would be self-conscious over a patch of dull scales and would worry about where she was going to lay her eggs. She is always cold, because it is always February 29.

Both books need editing. Both use the term “alright,” which to me is like fingernails on a blackboard. One is not squeezed in a vice but squeezed in a vise. On the plus side, I learned a new spelling for “jissom.”

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