Monday, June 11, 2012
Historical fiction and personal narrative - Train Dreams
Have just started Denis Johnson's novella "Train Dreams," and am caught up so far. TD was one of the finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, that the irresponsible Pulitzer judges declined to award - I guess in their august opinion(s) there was not a single worthy book of fiction published in the U.S. in the past year! I don't think Train Dreams should necessarily have won, no matter how good it is - I am a little puzzled as to why the review panel would have selected a novella, even if published in book form, that first appeared in a magazine in 2002 or so - however, something should have won. Anyway, I'm always looking for good novellas, which I've found to be particularly effective and provocative in our book group - and TD is our June selection. First scene is very engaging, as the main character, Grainier (?) gets drawn into an arrest of a Chinese worker accused of stealing from the company store - it's 1910 in the Northwest, with a crew that's building bridges over those deep valleys of the west - enabling the railroads to run faster and smoother and to carry lumber out to the coast. Johnson is a writer who, from what I know of his work, rarely draws from personal experience: his settings are generally either historical or entirely imaginary. He's known as an author who never or rarely gives interviews, but in fact I did interview him on occasion of his 2nd novel, Fiskadoro, and I remember asking him about the setting - the Florida Keys, if I remember - and being surprised that he'd never been there. Some writers do work well this way, wanting the freedom of imagination rather than the obligation of factual and geographic veracity. I have no idea of Johnson has ever been to or lived in the Northwest (he seems a bit peripatetic - when I interviewed him he was living on the Cape), but it wouldn't surprise me if the setting of TD is entirely of his imagination - though the factual grounding in the work camps seems quite detailed and vivid (he is pretty well up on the names of all the positions in a logging crew) - and I give Johnson credit, he very smooth, seamless, in his historical research: his work does not feel studied or musty but it seems rather, almost as though he has lived the experience - even his historical fiction feels like personal narrative, quite a feat.