As I finished reading Serena last week, my thoughts turned to teaching it. A Southern Gothic novel with the feel, and some of the form, of Elizabethan drama, it’s well-suited for courses in world literature as well as Southern and Appalachian fiction. It’s a regional novel that’s universal, as all the best “regional” writing is.
In an interview in the journal Grist, Serena’s author, Ron Rash,said: “To me, one of the most interesting aspects of literature is how the most intensely ‘regional’ literature is often the most universal. There’s no better example of this than James Joyce’s Ulysses. The best regional writers are like farmers drilling for water; if they bore deep enough and true enough into that particular place, beyond the surface of local color, they tap into universal correspondences, what Jung called the collective unconscious. Faulkner’s Mississippi, Munro’s Ontario, and Marquez’s Columbia are exotic, and they are also familiar” (5-6).
Rash “consciously evoked MacBeth,” he said in his Gristinterview but “see[s] the book more in the tradition of Marlowe’s plays, which are always about the will to power” (8).
Talking about Olive Kitteredge Thursday at the Highland Coffee House marked a couple of firsts for me: my first book club meeting, and my first discussion of a book with a group composed neither of students nor colleagues. Our conversation offered me a welcome reminder of the lives of books beyond the classroom.
The members of the Coffee Talk Book Club, sponsored by Caldwell County Public Library, read constantly and widely. The June, July, and September selections (the club takes a holiday in August) reflect the members’ penchant for variety: a recent Pulitzer Prize winner, a courtroom drama, and a nineteenth-century English classic.
We considered Olive Kitteredgeas a collection of linked stories, but our talk focused primarily on matters of character and theme. I’ve been meditating on the book’s structure though, because I plan to grow a novel from one of my own stories. After examining how the stories of Olive Kitteridgeform a novel, I’ve concluded that three could be omitted. And I’m curious about the book’s genesis.
The two stories that Thomas refers to, but doesn’t name, are “Ship in a Bottle” and “Criminal.” Both feature a former student of Olive’s who recalls something that Olive said in her seventh-grade math class. In “Ship in a Bottle,” Julie tells her younger sister, Winnie, how Mrs. Kittredge said, “Don’t be scared of your hunger. If you’re scared of your hunger, you’ll be just one more ninny, like everyone else” (195). In “Criminal,” Rebecca remembers Olive once stopping her in the hall and saying, “If you ever want to talk to me about anything, you can” (242).
Both stories appeared in the pages of magazines years before the publication of Olive Kitteridgein 2008. (“Ship in a Bottle” as Running Away” in Seventeenin 1992, and “Criminal” in South Carolina Reviewin 1994.) When Elizabeth Strout wrote those stories, had she begun thinking of Olive as the anchor of a book? Whatever the case, Olive’s mere mention doesn’t warrant the inclusion of either story, and the novel doesn’t need them. Nor does it need the “The Piano Player.” Though it’s an admirable story, the life of of Angela O’Meara, the piano player of the title, doesn’t intersect with Olive Kittredge’s. Olive simply passes through the piano bar. Her cameo prompts me to wonder if Strout drafted “The Piano Player” sans Olive, adding her later only so the story could serve as one of the novel’s chapters.
W. W. Norton’s decision to replace its Scholar’s Prize with the Writer’s Prize reflects some recent and not-so-recent changes in undergraduate writing assignments. From 1998 to 2008, the Scholar’s Prize recognized what Norton calls “an outstanding undergraduate essay on a literary topic,” an essay of the sort that many of us who teach composition frequently wrote when we were freshman. Our own students write fewer literary analyses than we did, because many composition courses are no longer literature based. Instead, they’re interdisciplinary.
I’ve been thinking about these changes for the past few days as I’ve reread my students’ work to select something to nominate for the fourth annual Norton Writer’s Prize, a competition that invites a broad range of submissions, encompassing the variety of writing that’s now typical of composition classes: “[l]iteracy narratives, literary and other textual analyses, reports, profiles, evaluations, arguments, memoirs, proposals, mixed-genre pieces, and more: any excellent writing done for an undergraduate writing class will be considered.”
For their final major writing assignment of the school year, my students wrote ethical reasoning arguments per program requirement. But over the course of the year, they also wrote blog posts, snail mail, personal narratives, timed essay exams, cover letters, résumés, and highly imaginative scripts in which they placed themselves in conversation with the writers of some of the articles and essays they’d read. For some students, those scripts evolved into traditional research arguments. For others, the process of working with those sources revealed that their real research interest lay elsewhere.
I wish I could have nominated more than one piece of writing. For reasons of privacy, I won’t address the particulars of the one that I chose, and I won’t offer any details from the nominating letter that I wrote to accompany it. I will note, instead, how many students shone brightest when an assignment took them by surprise, asking that they write in new ways.
Early in the novel Mountains of the Moon, Louise Alder recounts how her teacher Miss Connor read Louise’s (Lulu’s) story aloud in class because Miss Connor “reckons I got a good way of putting things” (65).
Author I. J. Kay (a pseudonym) has a good way of putting things as well. But that good way of hers makes for no easy read. Though the first American edition of her debut novel appeared last July, it’s no beach book. Kay’s fractured narrative forces us to read carefully for shifts in diction and setting that signal the age and whereabouts of Louise (a.k.a. Kim, Beverley, Jackie, Dawn, and Catherine) through a parade of squalor that ends with her release from prison for a crime she may or may not have committed.
Confusing? Yes, but keep reading. Chances are, you’ll find yourself less confused. And more and more impressed with Kay’s achievement.
At thirty-one, after her ten-year prison stint, Louise travels to Uganda to see up close those mountains she first saw as a child in the pages of her book on Africa, a gift from her grandfather.
As a young teenager, she receives another book as a gift from a father figure. “The Velvit Gentleman,” as she calls him, a surreal sugar daddy—Professor Higgins and lover—gives her Lord of the Flies, which she slings across the floor of the psych ward after reading the death of Piggy.
“I wouldn’t have given it to you if I’d thought it would upset you so much,” Anton, “the Velvit Gentleman,” says. “Will you continue with it, though?”
“Seems rude not to,” Lulu answers. “Was a shock how bad I believed it. You said it was fiction, lies, but it int. It int.”
“Good,” Anton says. “That’s the point; stories tell lies in the service of truth” (287).
Kay’s own lies in the service of truth ring truer than those that shock her protagonist. Lulu’s no middle-class kid stuck on an uninhabited island. Donning a Masai’s red cloth and wielding a spear or not, she’s more warrior than any of Golding’s boys.
What makes her a warrior? The mountains (of the title) that dwell in her imagination, the ones she dreams of and writes about on wallpaper “wonky where the pattern is bossed” (87) to counter violence, poverty, and neglect.
Though flawed as all novels are—and undoubtedly some of its shortcomings escaped me—Mountains of the Moon shines with fresh language, Kay’s “good way of putting things,” that invigorates Louise’s story, reminding us of what novels can achieve but rarely do.