Thursday, May 6, 2010

Talking Turkey

I'm now reading The Bigness of the World, a collection of stories by Lori Ostlund, which I found out about through a post at Band of Thebes. The book has won a slew of awards, which is very nice, though as Band of Thebes complains, "Nevertheless, mainstream review attention has been scant. And the book is impossible to find in Manhattan; I've called the chains and the independents. Buy it online and talk it up among your friends." By all means, do. I checked it out of the public library, read the first page, and set it aside until I'd finished a couple of other things.

I have to confess, though, that so far, sixty pages in, I'm not all that excited. Ostlund writes well, and I do appreciate the stories she tells, especially since lesbian characters in mainstream fiction are still too rare. But her work appears to be pretty standard MFA writing -- competent, disciplined, dull. Too much of the GLB fiction I've read in the past few years is like that, which is why I keep going back to writers like Nicola Griffith, Emma Donoghue, Christopher Bram, Rabih Alameddine, Sarah Waters, Sherman Alexie (who may not be gay but writes interestingly about gay and bi characters), Samuel R. Delany, David Levithan.

But don't blame those writers for this invidious comparison. The reason I'm bringing this up here is that I do find sparks of life in Ostlund's writing, like the bit I'm about to quote from "Talking Fowl with My Father", page 59. The narrator lives with her girlfriend of ten years in San Francisco, and keeps in touch with her widowed father in the Midwest. His health is failing steadily and inexorably, and he refuses to follow his doctor's advice.
Years before, when his doctor had first begun to mention diet and exercise, before my father decided to stand firm against anything that might benefit his health, he went through a brief period of highly anomalous behavior -- namely, following his doctor's advice. For almost two months, he and my mother drove back into town each night after dark and locked themselves inside their store, where, for forty-five minutes, they walked. They went up and down the same aisles where they spent their days, past gopher traps and sprinklers and all kinds of joinery, my father in the lead, my mother several steps behind. When my mother accidentally let this secret slip and I asked why, why, when they could be out looking at lakes and trees and fields of corn, they preferred to walk indoors, she said, "You know your father doesn't want people knowing his business."
This reminded me of my parents, both of whom were born in the 1920s. They both had something of this paranoid secretiveness, reinforced by the norms they grew up with. So "paranoid" isn't really the right word: it's not paranoid to keep your business out of other people's sight if those other people are watching you and everyone else to make sure they don't do anything odd, and if those other people regard almost anything as odd. I suspect it's not a specifically Midwestern trait, but like Ostlund the Midwest is what I know, where I grew up.

The anecdote is well-observed and told, but Ostlund won't let it go anywhere. That's what I take to be the MFA part: keeping everything low-key, avoiding melodrama or any "big" events in favor of the smallish, telling, meaningful details. The narrator of "Talking Fowl with My Father" begins by telling how her father wants to FedEx her a pheasant he shot on a hunting excursion, and she happens to know that he hasn't been hunting for at least five years. She knows he's been hanging on to lots of decaying things, perhaps trying to pretend that time isn't passing, trying to stave off mortality by pretending it isn't there. (Again I'm reminded of my father, who refused to take his blood-pressure medicine for years. He still lived to be 81.) Something's missing, though I think it's missing by design. The story is kept heavily restrained, and I wish it would get loose and go for a walk along the highway, out in front of all the neighbors, letting them see its business. I can't help imagining what some of the other authors I mentioned might have done with the same material, even though I know it's not fair to them or to Ostlund.

Still, you might get a sense from the quoted paragraph whether The Bigness of the World would interest you. I'm going to read the rest of the book, just because I consider it important to read the GLBT fiction that mainstream (straight, corporate, male heterosexual) media -- and too many gay people, alas -- ignore. I believe I've complained in this blog before about how most gay people I know don't seem to read any gay-related fiction; to me that would like refusing to breathe. I want a lot more GLBT fiction to be written, published, and read, and I don't mind if a considerable amount of GLBT fiction doesn't speak to me, any more than I mind if every human being isn't attractive to me. Go thou, and do likewise.