Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Up and Away

A friend of mine scored me a galley of Amy Bloom’s forthcoming novel, Away. The novel is a model of compression—at 236 pages it reads like a much vaster story. Those pages contain a mother’s migration from Russia after her family was massacred during a pogrom, to New York where she takes up life as a seamstress and mistress of two Yiddish actors, onward to Seattle and the Yukon, as she undertakes an epic journey to Siberia where she has heard the daughter who haunts her dreams and nightmares is still alive.

This is a bawdy story, a carnal little tale, since Lillian, the protagonist, will sell everything she has to see her daughter again and this often means selling herself. Still, this is a book that will be around a long time and has much to offer any disciple of the craft. I’d like to explore a few principles of the creative process and focus on what Amy Bloom has to teach us with her splendid novel.

Forward Momentum
On a basic level, any good story must create in the reader a desire to want to know what happens next. Bloom has a knack for the perfect, chapter ending. Here’s the final sentence of the first chapter: “She has gone on, she has traveled through a terrible darkness and come upon Jerusalem surrounded, Jerusalem saved.” In this chapter, we witness the horrifying, dreamlike massacre of her family and also Lillian’s plucky determination in the New World, after she latches onto the Burnsteins who offer wealth and hope to an exile. Bloom’s final sentence is a poetic summary that also propels us deeper into the story.

The Perfect Detail
Lillian takes a deep breath to calm herself, and she smells her mother beside her, perspiration and green onion and the singed, nutty scent of buckwheat groats tossed from one side of the skillet to the other in a perfect, nonchalant arc.”
Lovely, isn’t it? I've never eaten groats, but I can sure see that arc and smell the buckwheat! One single telling image transports us to another time and places us in a deeply sensual moment. Do you believe this story? How you can doubt when the details are so perfectly chosen? This is what art does.

Extended Metaphor
When a cousin brings the news that Lillian’s daughter is still alive, Bloom slows down and pays close attention to the emotional resonance of the moment. Here’s her describing what’s happening to the icy landscape inside Lillian:

“Sophie’s name is a match to dry wood. Ice is sluicing down Lillian now, running off her in sheets. Trees of fire are falling across a frozen field, brilliant orange, blue-tipped and inextinguishable; fire leaps from the crown of one tree to another, until the treetops send waves of fire back and forth between them, tossing flames like kites. Lillian’s hands are bleeding fire, her hands and feet rippling with it. Hawks and sparrows drop down from a blackened sky. Lillian’s face hurts. She stands in front of the window, her wrapper open, and presses her face and body against the cold glass. She has clawed four dark red scratches on her cheeks, and she will have them for weeks and the fire will not go out.
Alive. Not dead.”

This is rich prose, one long extended metaphor that carries the reader into a frightening interior landscape. Rich prose has the pitch and cadence of poetry. Look at all those short sentences, packed with tight details. I am haunted by those hawks falling out the sky. A truly awe-inspiring paragraph that is a doorway into emotion while never crossing over into sentimentality. Despite the length of the extended metaphor, it does not feel extravagant. Bloom shows here how to open up a moment in time using figurative language.

Time and Compression
Part of the sprawl in this short novel comes from the masterful way Bloom moves back and forth in time. While the story is almost always tightly focused on fully rounded scenes, occasionally Bloom will take a great leap, such as here: “Later it will seem to Lillian that only Yaakov Shimmelman was truly her friend and everything he recommended or encouraged or suggested pointed her toward death.” Bloom doesn’t give anything away with this sentence, while still projecting us into the future. Even minor characters take on the flesh and blood of real people, because even as Lillian’s life touches theirs and then moves on, Bloom takes the time to describe what will happen to each of them after Lillian is gone. They don’t just vanish never to be seen again. They live and die within this story.

Using Lists to Create a Landscape
“They walk away and it is darker than before. Lillian can see nothing of the country she is passing through. She smells traces of the man’s bay rum and the woman’s attar of roses. Apple orchards, green, red, yellow, brown, and dark plowed fields and muddy grazing cattle, and hoboes ducking through railroad yards and shoeless children in flour sacks waving to the train as it comes ‘round the bend, and clusters of shacks and red silos and large bodies of water whose name Lillian doesn’t know…”

Here, Bloom deviates from the short, punchy sentences, stretching out her lines. We’re on a train, moving quickly, and through this listing, joined by the word “and” a landscape flickers by. Long sentences, paradoxically, move the reader at great speed, as Bloom shows in this passage, all through smell and the focal character's imagination.

I’ll come back later, because there are few other issues I’d like to discuss about this novel. Read it when you get the chance, when you’re done reading The Night Birds!

1 comment:

Eric Forbes said...

Congratulations on your first novel, The Night Birds!