Neck Deep and Other Predicaments

Please post blogs about Neck Deep and Other Predicaments by Ander Monson here.

9781555974596

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Lola’s House: Filipino Women Living With War

Please post blog responses here.  Also, please note that we don’t want to critique the writing of the lolas, but rather look at the way those transcriptions work in the context of the book as a whole.  How does the weaving of the author’s story with the lola’s story work?  What can we learn about writing a book like this (not primarily about oneself)?  I’d also like you to think of some questions you can ask Evelina herself when she is with us in a couple weeks.

 

lolas-house

Safekeeping

 

I took a few minutes looking up Abigail Thomas’ other books and her website while trying to collect my thoughts on Safekeeping. I needed to know if she used the same style of writing across all her nonfiction work, or if the short, and sometimes overly simple sentences were deliberate. I read the descriptions of Thomas’ other memoirs, A Three Dog Life and What Comes Next and How to Like It, and maybe a dozen non-professional reviews. I was dancing around the fact that while Thomas had written about a several moving experiences, I felt like I was missing out on what critics and other readers were experiencing. I’m going to try and not dwell on that, and instead focus on what makes Safekeeping an effective piece of writing.

Safekeeping is divided into three sections, “Before,” “Mortality,” and “Here and Now.” I expected a biography, though told through the medium of flash nonfiction. The book is that, but the thread that I see tying it all together is not Thomas or her children, but her second ex-husband. His death is the event where everything previous is “Before,” and punctuates the middle section “Mortality.” I think I could spend days discussing why this is significant, but that’s not the point of this exercise.

What is significant in terms of craft is how Thomas switches point of view throughout the book. The first chapter, also title “Before,” is Thomas speaking in first person to her dead ex-husband about her life before she met him. This POV continues, but sometimes Thomas alternates, watching from outside herself in omniscient third person. The change creates distance between Thomas as the narrator and herself the character, giving her freedom to describe events she wasn’t present for, like her husband’s reaction to her threat of having an affair in “She imagines His Side.” The self awareness at the end of this piece is delicious when Thomas writes: “But don’t forget, this is how she imagines it. Perhaps she has unwittingly loaded the dice in her favor” (73).

Another interesting device Thomas uses in addition to alternating POV is inserting pieces that consist of conversation between Thomas and her sister. In “Spelling It Out,” the sister makes Thomas describe each of her three husbands. “Somebody’s going to get confused. Maybe even annoyed” (13). Later the sister shames Thomas for taking money from her boyfriend instead of an apology. In “Where Are the Kids?” Thomas must explain to the sister why her children don’t play more of a role in the book. “Their lives are their own,” she tells her sister and the reader(123). “A Present,” late in “Here and Now,” is Thomas’s answer to the sister late in “Here and Now” about the purpose of this collection of stories. If not for the brief descriptions of Thomas’ early life, I would doubt that her sister exists, as she functions as a self-insert for the reader1. It’s an interesting device because it provides opportunity for Thomas to answer tough questions without bogging down “the story.”

 

Afterthoughts:

  • I had a difficult time writing about this book. I had a lot of thoughts, some of them were not nice.
  • The conclusion I came to about Thomas’ writing style in Safekeeping was that it was deliberate. It seems like the people that had less than stellar reviews for this book read it after A Three Dog Life, which is apparently more traditional and linear.

Jess Miles Response to Safekeeping

(I didn’t see a thread already started for Safekeeping so I just figured I’d make a new post? Hopefully that works.)

Throughout Safekeeping Thomas masterfully incorporates both dialogue and inner monologue with varying degrees of quotation marks, paragraph indents and speaker tags. Most obviously are the sections where Thomas is speaking with her sister, dropping both punctuation and speaker tags at various points, giving the conversations and informal “standing in the kitchen” feeling. One of her more extreme examples comes in the section “Bluefish and Her Father,” writing: “Come out of there, everybody screamed, it’s a school of blue-fish! They’re feeding!” (96) I enjoy the way dialogue without quotations or indents allows the reader’s eye to travel across the page faster and the conversational tone. I am fascinated by Thomas’s mastery of this element of writing, because it often confounds me in my own writing, especially when dealing with speaker tags and punctuation other than a period.

However, I could not determine if Thomas had a pattern or method to her decision on when to use quotation marks or not. One question I’d like to pose is regarding the rules or techniques (if there are any) regarding punctuation and/or speaker tags around dialogue.

Both Brevity’s nonfiction blog, and American Literary Review note that Safekeeping has a poetic feel to it and one-way Thomas does this effectively is by telling a secondary story through short sentences. For example, in the section “Unfamiliar” Thomas uses short sentences such as “he didn’t knock,” “it was past midnight,” “he was in a furious rage,” “he was nineteen,” and “I felt bad,” giving more insight into her relationship with her first husband by implying he was prone to angry outbursts. In “Coming Home Tomorrow”, it’s short sentences like “she looked at him again,” “he was losing ground,” “she didn’t know,” “he tried to smile,” and “it was over” that sum her second husband’s cancer battle. In both cases, the short sentences offer a poetic element and reminded me of poems from A Sand Opera by Phillip Meters. This is especially true in “Coming Home Tomorrow” where Thomas repeats the line about her husband not being able to raise his arm or sit up at the beginning and end of the section. I also like the idea of “hiding” a deeper meaning behind a surface level one that requires the reader to find it.

Finally, I was taken with Thomas’s use of repetition. Not only that, but the repetition of things three times. Thomas was married three times. The number three holds a lot of significance for her. In “Married Men” Thomas and her sister talk about her eating her cake three times. Thomas and her third husband go on three dates before they’re married. Her third husband doubts her about a rocking chair three times. Thomas ends “Weather” and “What Goes through the Mind While Stripping the Meat from the Bone” with three short sentences and will often repeat phrases in sentences three times. I thought the repetition of things in threes was effective through the book and I am curious about the idea. I’m interested in exploring the idea of if there is a number (or I suppose an object) that holds significance for an author how to carry it through a work through repetition.

***

This is not part of my official blog, but I wanted to point it out. Of course, one of the first things that stood out to me (and which I am envious of) is Thomas’s ability to switch between points of view throughout Safekeeping. The one NY Times review Ifound of Safekeeping by Nora Krug argues that the POV switch makes Thomas’s character too elusive. I tend to disagree, I don’t think it made Thomas too elusive because for me at least it was always clear (except for maybe one or too very brief spots) that Thomas was talking about herself. In an interview with American Literary Review, Thomas mentions that she was trying to paint a portrait of her life no matter how messy. I like reflections that are more ambiguous and focused on trying to capture the feeling or essence of someone rather than trying to pin something concrete down. Thomas also mentions in this interview that she used different points of view because she didn’t want to paint herself as either a saint or a victim, and I think she ends up accomplishing this goal, not only for herself but also all of her husbands.

I am interested in what everyone else thought on how effective they thought the different points of view were in Safekeeping.