Books 9/14/04

I finished Dorothy Parker in Her Own Words, and enjoyed it despite the fact that I’d read most of the quotes or exerpts before. The book was organized by topic rather than chronology, and that served it well I think.

I also finished The Little Women by Katharine Weber, and I have to admit to having jumbled thoughts about it. While it appears to be both an updated version of Alcott’s Little Women, and a deconstruction of it, I really don’t know if it’s either. I’m going to work through my thoughts here, so hold on to your seats here, this could get messy.

The novel by Katharine Weber is, in the world of the novel, actually a novel written by Joanna Green, one of the characters of the novel. It’s the somewhat fictional, somewhat factual, story of the year that she (Jo) and her sisters (Meg and Amy) ran away from home. Her sisters are not happy that she’s written this novel about them, and have an agreement with her that they can insert comments into the manuscript where they deem them necessary, which they do quite often. These comments generally center around the difference between fiction and reality, and also serve to give more insight into the “real” characters of Amy and Meg. So really, we have 2 sets of characters: the “real” Jo, who is writing a novel, and her sisters Amy and Meg who are commenting on it; and a “fictional” Jo, Amy, and Meg.

What results is a twist on the postmodern authorial voice, as the author (Weber) intrudes into her novel but uses a fictional author to do so. An example may be in order. As the novel begins, background is given about the girls’ parents. Partway through, Meg (the real Meg) inserts the comment: “Boring, boring, boring! This is totally dragging! How much family history will most readers be willing to tolerate?”. If this was a regular postmodern authorial voice, one would believe that this comment was meant ironically, and one that was more cynical would believe that it was also meant to dissuade critics. You can’t fault something for being boring if the author admitted it already, can you? But in this case, it gets tricky. Is Weber trying to protect her novel through Jo’s defense of it? Or is she making a comment about authors who use that defense?

This confusing of authorial responsibility continues throughout the book. The story isn’t really an update of Alcott’s story, as the real sisters live in a world where Little Women is a book and they’ve been named after the characters in it. Their life mirrors the book only in certain moments: Meg works as a governess; Amy is a painter, and brings treats to school and is chastized by a teacher; Jo is a writer and turns down Teddy. The question becomes, how much of that is intended by Weber to be created by Jo? If Weber’s novel is supposed to be a new version of Little Women, its really not a very good one. If Jo’s novel is supposed to have elements of Little Women, then the effect is different- it becomes an attempt by Jo to create literature out of her life so that she can deconstruct it and find meaning. She is, in effect, deconstructing both her own life and Alcott’s novel.

Perhaps that’s the meaning of the entire book. Jo makes the statement at one point that , “The meaning of the story is the story”, but to which story is she referring, and is that authorial voice Jo or Weber? Is Weber telling us to look not at the story that Jo is telling, but the story of her telling it? The novel that Jo writes really isn’t all that great. It’s firmly rooted in the school of “tell not show”, a fact that her sisters call her on. Emotional moments are skipped over and just alluded to. (Amy’s description of Jo’s reason for this is hilarious- she recalls that when Jo was little all of the people in her drawings had their hands in their pockets since she couldn’t draw hands, and her skipping the emotional moments is the eqivalent in writing.) The story ends abruptly. I thought as I read that the inserted comments were intended to flesh this out, to tell the additional story of what happens when someone writes fiction based in real events, but I think it’s more to give us the story of Jo’s attempt to make sense of her life.

I still don’t know for sure how much of the twist on the postmodern voice was planned, and how much was just an actual postmodern defense mechanism. It’s complicated by the fact that near the end of the novel there’s a whole twist on the authorial voice that I just can’t get into because I’m already confusing myself trying to write about all this and be clear who everyone is. I do know that it all made me think about Alcott’s Little Women, and what her Amy and Meg might have to say about the way her Jo presented the events of their lives. So I guess in a way it deconstructs Little Women by ricochet.
I have no idea if any of that will make sense to anyone other than me, but this exercize has proven to me the statement that you can’t really understand something until you’ve written about it. I don’t feel like I completely understand what Weber was trying to do, but I think I’m closer. Anyway, the book was good, and definitly thought provoking.

My favorite bit was commentary sniping between Jo and Amy:
“Author’s Note: Wilde said that there is no such thing as a moral and an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.
Reader’s Note: I didn’t suggest that the novel was immoral. I was referring to the author. AG”

Current total: 90
Just Finished: The Little Women by Katharine Weber
Next Up: Tokyo Suckerpunch by Isaac Adamson

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