The Kindle Deal of the Day is pure evil. Like a shady back alley huckster with a trench coat of illicit wares, it pulls you aside and whispers: “Psst…want to buy this e-book? It’s only $1.99. Look at the paperback price–I’m practically giving this away by comparison!” Thanks to the alluring price point (and the pressure of a 24-hour window of availability), my Kindle is clogged with books I’d probably never purchase at a physical book store for regular price. Winston Churchill’s six volume history of World War II? Sure, why not. The memoirs of actor Michael J. Fox? Uh…okay. I was this close to actually buying the second “Twilight” book before I had to take a step back and remind myself that I shouldn’t buy things with the sole intention of complaining about it later.
Occasionally, these purchases surprise me. A couple of days ago, I bought “Swimming Home” by Deborah Levy. The premise in the blurb wasn’t particularly enticing, but in addition to the normal inducement of price was the fact that the book had been nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Last year’s Man Booker introduced me to my new favorite author (Julian Barnes), so I was more than willing to give this title a chance.
About ten pages into the book, I was starting to feel disgruntled. Maybe it’s an unreasonable quirk of mine, but I simply can’t stand novels with large passages of back-to-back sentence fragments. (This is the reason I can’t bring myself to finish reading “The Hunger Games”). Yes, I know: the fragment is perfectly legitimate to emphasize an artistic point, but after a certain threshold, it begins to grate on my nerves.
Yet, there was something about the rhythmic lyricism of “Swimming Home” that pulled me through the early chapters all the way to the end. After I had finished it, I started thinking about the book and Levy’s writing style. Suddenly, it occurred to me that what I had read was not a novel at all, but a poem masquerading as a novel.
No matter how diverse a writer’s output may be, he or she inevitably receives a label–some sort of classification that allows potential readers to form their expectations. William Shakespeare is thus a “playwright” and Jane Austen is a “novelist” (even though they did write poetry), and T.S. Eliot is a “poet” (despite his literary criticism and plays). Is there something about an individual’s writing style that makes him or her better suited to one genre over another?
Poets seem to have an easy command of words and images. They spin evocative scenes using a few choice words and wring emotion from syllables and the empty spaces between them. A fragment is more than forgivable in poetry; some may even say it is a necessity. The language in Levy’s book functions more like a poem, and at times, I felt as though I was reading a series of poetic snapshots rather than an actual novel. One of the central characters is a poet and the story contains so many poetic allusions and strategies (like repetition) that it would add an interesting layer to think of the work as a poem instead, or at least, some strange hybrid of the two genres. Personally, I can’t say I like “Swimming Home” the novel…but it is a very fine poem indeed.
I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with poetry. It’s like a beautiful foreign language that I will never master. I don’t love individual words; I love sentences and structure. I love the stability of prose, the bones of a narrative frame, the crackling intensity or gentle lilt of dialogue. Some writers may abhor labels and resist any attempt to confine their work to a specific genre or category, but I would be quite happy if people looked back on my work someday and said “She was a terrible poet but a damn good novelist.”
Appropriate Keane song of the day: “Call Me What You Like”