Posts Tagged ‘Novel’

As its title suggest, Life Goes to the Movies blurs the line between reality and that which takes place on the big screen.  Peter Selgin’s second book of fiction—first novel—explores the delusions and detachments of its characters, as well as their search for identity in the midst of chasing their dreams, at an existential time in American history.

Set primarily in New York, following the Vietnam War, the novel stars Nigel DiPoli and Dwaine Fitzgibbon, two aspiring filmmakers who begin their journey together in art school.  While Nigel is the point-of view character, the story focuses on the antics and rantings of Dwaine—D for death, W for war, A for anarchy, I for insane, N for nightmare, E for end of the world.

Dwaine’s self-created acronym points to his tour of duty in Vietnam and how those events affected him.  Serving as a medic, he witnessed death first-hand and was unable to save the lives of men in his platoon.  Guilt and blame weigh on him following the war, and he refuses to share explicit details of the experience with Nigel, saying only that, “Vietnam was like an exploding dog.”

Dwaine constantly puts up walls, keeping Nigel at a close distance.  The information he’s willing to divulge—family history, for one—seems made up; or, at least, Nigel’s unable to tell if Dwaine’s quoting lines from movies or telling the truth.  This, however, doesn’t disparage Nigel.

His first glimpse of Dwaine evokes comparisons to the rough-and-tumble actors he grew up idolizing.  At this time, Nigel ponders, “There’s something altogether dark about him, what exactly I can’t say, but it’s darker than this sheet of paper I’ve just finished covering with charcoal.” The mystery of who Dwaine is and what he’s been through adds to the appeal.  Nigel follows him to skid row, Hollywood, and a number of low-paying, somewhat film-related jobs, chasing their dream of making movies that matter.

Through all of this, tensions—sexually, between the two of them, and competitively, as they both are infatuated with the same woman—begin to grow and Dwaine’s charm seems to wear thin.  Their ideologies on life and film conflict, widening the gap between them.  Nigel believes a movie is an escape from reality, that its “purpose…is to make life less real, less boring.”  Dwaine, however, believes “movies should make life more real, less phony, that not only are they capable of changing the world, movies should change it.”

Nigel is conflicted about his place in the world.  He wants to stay in New York and live out his dream of making films with Dwaine, though he yearns for love and stability, too. Going back home to Connecticut seems to him like defeat, a cop-out of sorts.  On a visit to his parents’ house, his angst toward the malaise of living back in his hometown surfaces:

After two years in New York I found Barnum unbearable…Compared to those of New York, the streets of my hometown looked gutted and radioactive, as if a nuclear bomb had been dropped there, one of those bombs that levels dreams but leaves buildings and people standing…There was nothing worth filming here.

The writing in Life Goes to the Movie definitely fits the bill.  Selgin excels at blending cinematic imagery into a literary narrative.  Each chapter paints a vivid picture of setting, character, and action, setting the scenes with beautifully written establishing shots and smooth transitions that resemble fade-ins or slow dissolves.  It’s like watching a movie unfold on the page.

From his website:

Peter Selgin is the author of two books of fiction, including his first book of short stories, Drowning Lessons, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction and published by the University of Georgia Press in 2008. His autobiographical novel, Life Goes to the Movies, was twice a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and second place winner for the AWP Award for the Novel, before being published in May of 2009 by Dzanc Books. Selgin is also the author of two books on the craft of fiction writing, including By Cunning & Craft: Sound Advice and Practical Wisdom for Fiction Writers (Writers Digest Books, 2006) and 180 Ways to Save a Novel: Matters of Vital Concern to Fiction Writers (forthcoming from Writers Digest Books, April 2010).

For more information and to read excerpts of his work, please visit his website.

The true sign of a good story is that it’s difficult to summarize in a few paragraphs.  When a novel has such depth, so many layers, that it sticks with you, makes you consider its emotional impact on both the characters and the reader, you know you’ve found a story worth revisiting.  C.E. Morgan has accomplished this in her beautifully written debut, All the Living (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

In terms of plot, the novel is pretty straightforward: Aloma, a young woman with virtually no familial ties, agrees to move in with her boyfriend, Orren, on his family’s tobacco farm—this following a fatal car accident involving his mother and brother.  Raised by her aunt and uncle and sent to boarding school during her formative years, Aloma is thrust into a situation where she’s expected to adopt the role of housewife, while Orren attempts to keep the farm afloat in the midst of a severe summer drought.

Set in rural Kentucky in the 1980s, this story shows how desire and love can be confused in the face of loss and loneliness.  There are two houses on this farm: the old one, which is where Orren has decided they’ll stay; and the new one, where Orren’s mother and brother lived before the accident.  It’s easy to assume why Orren doesn’t want to stay in the new house.  He’s clinging to what he’s lost, and he seems determined to preserve the memory of his family by leaving the new house alone and by doing everything he can to sustain the farm.  In doing so, he inadvertently neglects Aloma, putting their future together in doubt.

Initially, Aloma doesn’t see why they can’t move into the new house.  She doesn’t know why Orren’s attention is more devoted to a dying cause than to her.  It could have to do with the fact that she doesn’t share the same notion of loss that he does.  Reflecting on the death of her parents, never having known them, she reveals ambivalence toward loss:

As a child, she’d tried to invent the feeling of loss inside of her.  But like the dead, the feeling simply wasn’t there.  It was not that her uncle and aunt filled up the space that her parents vacated; it was just that the empty space was fine as it was and no more hurtful than being born with four fingers on one hand instead of five.  It was just a lack she sought didn’t mean anything.

The inability to connect emotionally aside, Aloma has good reason to wonder about Orren’s sincerity.  When he proposed, he said: “You gonna be my wife or what?”  She responded, fittingly, with a joke: “Sure, but don’t get too stuck on me—I’m not long for this place.”

At this time, in this old-fashioned farm town, the idea of a couple living together out of wedlock is looked at as being taboo.  In her first trip to the grocery store, she requests that the clerk put her purchases on Orren’s credit account.  When the clerk begins to pry about her relationship to Orren, Aloma doesn’t humor her by answering the questions.  Morgan uses silence to build tension in the scene, releasing it when Aloma decides to pay cash for the groceries.

Tension arises in many forms throughout the novel: the growing strain of Aloma’s and Orren’s relationship, the financial impact of the drought, and the introduction of another man who causes Aloma to question Orren’s love, among others.  Bell Johnson is the preacher at the church where Aloma is hired to play piano.  When the monotony of spending her waking hours as a pseudo-housewife becomes too unbearable, Aloma retreats to the church, her sanctuary, where she’s able to sit at the piano and play—her only outlet.  Seeing Bell more frequently than Orren sparks desire in her heart, and she begins to lust after the preacher.

Bell takes a liking to her, as well.  While talking to her about the drought—its persistence and the farmers trying to wait it out—he says, “What looks like patience tastes like despair.”  It’s difficult not to question his intentions.  He seems to be enabling her into entertaining thoughts of passion—though he’s unaware of her relationship to Orren, he’s still a man of God; but also, he’s only a man.  Aloma becomes conflicted.  She’s not sure what to do about her relationship, she fears what will happen if Bell finds out she’s living with Orren in sin, and she’s tempted to act on lustful urges.

While the story by itself is layered enough to sustain the interest of readers from all levels, what stands out in this novel is the way it’s written.  The rhythm in Morgan’s prose feels very natural.  The descriptions of the land and the insight we get from Aloma follow a musical cadence that help capture the character’s mood, without breaking the narrative dream.  The rich dialect of the characters’ dialogue is so spot on it makes you want to read the exchanges out loud in a southern drawl.

From the book jacket:

C.E. Morgan studied English and voice at Berea College and holds a master’s in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. She lives in Kentucky.”

All the Living is Morgan’s first novel.

To read her short story, “Over by Christmas,” click here.

9780345476029From the publisher:  “The lives of three strangers interconnect in unforeseen ways–and with unexpected consequences–in acclaimed author Dan Chaon’s gripping, brilliantly written new novel.”

Await Your Reply–Chaon’s second novel, fourth book–was released today, and already it’s receiving favorable reviews.  Steve Almond writes in the L.A. Times, “Await Your Reply is a riveting thriller, chock-full of plot twists, and a sober meditation on the erosion of identity in the age of technology.”

The New York Times has posted an excerpt of AYP here, and just as he did with his first novel, You Remind Me of Me, Chaon opens the story with quite a hook.  I’ve ordered my copy and can’t wait to read the whole thing.