The Bluest Eye — Toni Morrison
I was 24 and teaching first grade in New Orleans the first time I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I’m hardly the first person to have attested to as much, but this novel broke my heart in a way that few books ever have.
Of course there are the painful and cutting shards of racism and poverty that puncture the skin of a number of characters in the novel — experiences that are so eloquently and honestly and empathetically brought to life by Morrison that the reader would have to be inhuman not to feel sick after reading them — and these hit home particularly hard for me, at the time, given that my students looked like and were only a little bit younger than the novel’s main character, Pecola.
But sort of omnipresent beneath the more singular punctuations of racism and indecency that Pecola experiences is a more fundamental human pain: That of feeling perennially and hopelessly inadequate. That of feeling beholden to satisfying the elusive expectations of someone or something that is entirely separate from yourself and your radius of control.
A Visit From the Goon Squad — Jennifer Egan
The fractured, kaleidoscopic narrative structure of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad changed the way I think about novels, about the way stories can be told. It tells a story from a variety of vaguely interconnected vantage points that seem to revolve most magnetically around the carnivorous nature of the appetite of time — the nature in which people change over the course of their lives, how relationships morph and bend and brake. There’s an almost hallucinatory quality to Goon Squad, one that reminded me of a more fleshed-out and broadly-scoped Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Of course, underpinning the twists and turns of the narrative is Egan’s writing, which is quick, intelligent, witty, and chameleonic — no two chapters, these songs that comprise the larger, cohesive sonic whole, are alike. The prose in each chapter varies depending on who’s narrating the chapter; in this way it reminds me of a less arduous As I Lay Dying.
Goon Squad impressed upon me the idea that I didn’t have to abide by a linear outline in my writing, and that regardless of how sensuous your sentences are, regardless of how exciting the plot of your story is, a writer can ultimately only impact a reader by connecting with them through their characters. Indeed, what makes Goon Squad work so well — what brings it all together — is the tenderness and humanity that Egan imbues each character with. Additionally, each character is dynamic; each character changes, experiences pain or overcomes the less admirable and more flawed aspects of themselves.
Building character has always been something of a deficiency of mine, I think, and Goon Squad has proven to be a powerful text in teaching me how to overcome that.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again — David Foster Wallace
Like many writers, my relationship with David Foster Wallace is fundamentally and necessarily complicated. It’s complicated namely because anytime I read DFW, anytime I wade into the glistening yet pirohanna-filled lake of his freshwater mind, I walk away perhaps subconsciously enthralled in the effort to match his ability and lyrical dexterity in my own writing; of course, in the process, I only manage to mimic it. And mimicry, being inherently disingenuous, almost always results in shitty writing.
And so I’ve had to learn to temper my propensity for mimicry that without fail reveals itself any time I go back and read DFW’s stuff. This is one reason that I tend to stick with DFW’s nonfiction: It’s more straightforward. And of all of DFW’s nonfiction, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, in my mind, exemplifies the aspects of DFW’s writing that’ve always struck me as most powerful.
I’ll focus my reflections on the titular essay of the collection, Wallace’s famous recollection of what it was like going on a 7 day Caribbean cruise. The essay is a relatively straightforward account of Wallace’s experience and of what it taught him about the more unfortunate aspects of entertainment, leisure and humanity. It’s largely free of the psychological convolution that so thoroughly entangles and frustrates much of his fiction (although of course there’s much subtext to read into). But and so this allows for his seemingly super-human writing skills to shine. More importantly, it allows his humor to shine. I consider Wallace far and away the funniest author of my cadre of favorite authors, and his ability to describe aspects of his time on the boat intelligently, astutely and revealingly ultimately results in a thoroughly hilarious examination.