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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Why McPherson should have written a memoir

Abbreviated book-group meeting (only 4 of us) last night discussed William McPherson's Testing the Current (ca 1980), a pick we regretted as few were even able to finish the book. We all agreed: McPherson had a prodigious memory and summoned up the events of a year in his childhood (this is a personal narrative thinly disguised as a third-person narrative work of fiction), so the first chapter or so of the novel seemed promising as we meet some eccentric characters and McPherson clearly establishes a sense of time (the 1930s) and place (a well-to-do Midwest Protestant summer colony replete with all of the racial and anti-Semitic prejudices of the day). But as we proceed through the novel it becomes increasingly apparent that ... nothing happens! At best we can say that McPherson is diligent about creating a view of the world strictly from the POV of the 8-year-old Tommy; we see everything as Tommy sees it, and as a result we get no narrative guidance about any of the horrors or scandals - drug addiction, racism, marital affairs, e.g. - taking place all around; Tommy sees, remembers, doesn't quite understand. Nevertheless, in any worthwhile novel the lead character needs to develop, change, or at least participate in some kind of action. McPherson creates many opportunities for the novel to open up, and we all agreed on these in discussion last night: Tommy sees Mr. Wolfe try to sneak into the house at night while Dad's away; it's obvious to us though not to the child that there's an affair going on. Why not have Tommy blurt something out (why was Mr. Wolfe crawling into Mommy's bedroom window last night?), creating a crisis. Ditto for the explosion at the factory: Shouldn't that lead to some moral or at the least political anguish in the family after 3 men die in dad's factory? But, no - nothing happens. Other examples abound. As I have noted in previous posts, today (or even by 1990) any editor would have said trim, cut, and rework this as a memoir - which would at least give it the stamp of credibility (memoir was not yet in vogue when McPherson wrote this; he was about a decade ahead of his time). I personally am not a huge fan of memoir - I prefer authors who shape their experience into art - Proust, Powell, Knausgaard, to cite 3 of my favorites, each quite different - but McPherson's work misses the mark as a novel and he was, sadly for him, a bit ahead of his rightful time.

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