Thursday, March 09, 2006

Household deer

Oh dear, it was about midnight and though I spent the evening at an interesting talk about pandemics I felt like I needed something really mentally stimulating; the pressure of having all of these library books that must either be read or (horror of horrors! this is my least favorite thing, and must be avoided at all costs even if it means reading to the point of disgust) returned unread by May 19 having exerted its force, I picked up Girl in Landscape with the goal of advancing the whole reading Jonathan Lethem backwards project.

I had an uncanny feeling in the first chapter of rereading some lost-in-my-distant-past young-adult science-fiction novel from the eighties (you know, what you found in battered paperback on those wire carousels), and then when I got to the scene where the children's mother tells them about the household deer on the planet they were going to go and live on it came back to me: I had read this book before. Really read it, I mean, not imagined reading it.

(As for not remembering name or author, I can only say that I read a lot of novels, and that I almost certainly plucked it off the shelf of the public library in New Haven in 1998 or 1999, read and enjoyed it without having a mental pigeonhole to put the author's name in, and only realized now that this book fits with Motherless Brooklyn/Fortress of Solitude guy.)

It's very good, a verging-on-great bildungsroman whose treatment of female adolescence rings true with me & also reminded me of a host of other literary treatments (there is a whole Western/John Ford thing going on here that I am not qualified to speak about since I am almost completely ignorant of such things): The Awkward Age and What Maisie Knew, of course, but also The Death of the Heart and Sybille Bedford's wonderful and underread novel A Compass Error. There's a great part in the middle where the Western-style guy comes up beside the heroine Pella Marsh and says "Pella Marsh. What do you know." And it's a sardonic exclamation of mock-surprise and also a question at the same time, as really this book (like all novels of adolescence/development, maybe? That's why the Henry James "What Maisie Knew" title is so brilliant) is all about what Pella knows.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading it again, it's very good (and more moving than it has any business being, it's fairly slimline but very effective). It made me think about my relationship with crime versus science fiction/fantasy fiction. I don't know, I've never counted, but I expect I read a lot more crime than sf/f. Partly that's because there just is a lot more crime fiction out there (I'm not wrong in thinking this, am I?), and thus a lot more really good writers; but also crime is loosely aligned with style (think all that noir stuff) while sf/f for better and for worse (there are obviously also some exceptional stylists working in these genres) is affiliated with ideas and the imagination, both the rational (novel as social argument) and the fantastic (novel as vehicle of the uncanny/the intuitive). And I care a lot about style. And also I read a lot of books from libraries and crime fiction is more respectable and thus more likely to be purchased than sf/f. But there is something in sf/f that really calls to me, maybe its huge compatibility with the novel-of-development thing (and maybe also the way it is so well set up to negotiate the relationship between reason and imagination, something crime fiction can't really be particularly good on); you hardly ever read a crime novel that really would count as something like a bildungsroman or coming-into-culture story, that is just not how they work, whereas a lot of the best (or at least my favorite) sf/f stuff foregrounds education and culture as well as ideas more generally. All this is to no particular end, just trying to clarify a few things for myself that I've been thinking about for a while.

I think I need to read another book now for more stimulation.

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