Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Internal voices

I can't remember the last book I read that relied so heavily on internal voices. John Pipkin has written a remarkable book, Woodsburner, that not only takes on a fascinating little blip of history (the day that Thoreau accidentally set fire to the Concord woods) but that does it through the thoughts of a kaleidoscopic collection of characters. There is very little dialog in the book--it mostly occurs only as the characters remember the past.

All the characters are suffering from some level of crisis whether it be spiritual, ethical, or emotional. Eliot is the excruciatingly bad want-to-be playwright--a man who desperately wants to be perceived as artistic and literary, but who can't appreciate what he has and does well. There is Caleb, a self-righteous guilt-riddled, hellfire-spouting and opium-addicted preacher. Oddmund is probably the most sympathetic character, a humble almost to the point of invisibility immigrant who silently loves his employer's wife. Emma, the rotund recipient of Oddmund's adoration, is a barely literate lover of books. There are a pair of strange old women, Anezka and Zalenka, who bring a touch of magical realism to the proceedings. And of course there is the star of the show: Thoreau.

Because you are inside the character's heads, there isn't much back story--there's no external narrator who brings you up to speed. This results in some really lovely reveals: the characters' pasts come out unexpectedly. There are delicate inferences which help move the book along, crucial for the pacing since without it, the internal nature of the book might get claustrophobic and leaden.

The fire serves as the catalyst and the crisis for each of the characters. It motivates their thoughts and propels their actions. The ending is beautiful and liberating: all the characters have had their trial-by-fire and all come out the other side transformed, liberated, and changed though in very different ways.

I thought the author did particularly well with Thoreau's voice. We follow Thoreau's mind through complicated shifts from desperate panic trying to stop the fire, to justifications and excuses that he comes up with to shift the blame for the fire off of himself, to the exhilarating pleasure that he takes in the force and intensity of nature. It has been a long time since I read Walden but I remember a bit of these shifts--methodical accounting, lyrical enjoyment of nature and underneath, some justification sneaking in ("I didn't ask my neighbors to feed me a nice dinner so I don't really have to incorporate it into my narrative of simplicity and living off the land"). Pipkin doesn't come right out and say "the fire led to Walden" but he makes his opinion about the cause and effect nature of the actions clear and well reasoned. It seems almost duplicitous that people teach Walden without this piece of authorial context.

About half-way through, I did think I'd need to start a drinking game where I did a shot every time Oddmund sucked on his tiny dead tooth. That repetition started to drive me a bit batty and I think about half of the instances where the phrase was used could be cut. But that's a tiny quibble with a really remarkable book.

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