Writing negative criticism about books is something I dislike. Instead, I tend to avoid writing about the books I don’t wholeheartedly admire. This isn’t because I think I’m not entitled to my opinion. People have vastly different reactions to fiction and writing styles and everyone has their own personal aesthetic preferences so sometimes this is all it boils down to. But I still tend to omit a lot of my negative criticism unless I can find very specific reasons why I didn’t like something. I love picking fiction apart, discovering why I reacted positively to something, why something else put me off, where the tension comes from, how the dialogue works and on and on and on. In that vein, I’ve spent the last few days thinking about why I didn’t love my most recent re-read of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams.
Animal Dreams (1990) was Kingsolver’s second novel and there is a lot to admire, in particular the sections in third person narration about Homer. The writing in these shorter sections is really powerful and the emotional structure intricate – Homer’s shifts in lucidity give the narrator the opportunity for both honesty and denial and those two moods generate a lot of tension in relation to the main story. He also muddles the past and the present in such a way that scenes spill into one another; that fluid movement provides the basis for a large chunk of the story’s revelation.
The main story is a first person narration by Codi, Homer’s daughter, who has recently returned to her childhood hometown, for several reasons – her father is suffering from Alzheimer’s, her sister has recently gone south to work in war-torn Nicaragua and Codi is newly separated from her longtime lover. She is unmoored. She also harbors an immense distrust for the city she feels somewhat forced to return to.
There are moments in Codi’s story that get it just right, where her voice and the images she chooses to illuminate her thoughts or feelings strike all the right notes:
Hallie had never left me before. It was always the other way around, since I’m three years older and have had to do things first. She would just be catching up when I’d go again, swimming farther out into life because I still hadn’t found a rock to stand on.
Carlo was a rolling stone: an emergency room doctor, which gave him a kind of freedom almost unknown to the profession. You can always find work if you’re willing to take up with the human body as soon as possible after one of life’s traumas has left off with it.
But there are other moments when I wished she’d let the reader do more of their own thinking. There was very often a sentence too much or a line of dialogue that could have been left unsaid. I’m being super nitpicky but when you’re writing I think it’s important to pay attention to this sort of thing. Below is one of the passages I’m talking about:
We hadn’t been together since the Holiday Inn lounge, two years ago, but from Doc Homer you didn’t expect hugs and kisses. (He was legendary in this regard.) Hallie and I used to play a game we called “orphans” when we were with him in a crowd. “Who in this room is our true father or mother? Which is the one grownup here that loves us?” We’d watch for a sign – a solicitous glance, a compliment, someone who might even kneel down and straighten Hallie’s hair ribbon, which we’d tugged out of alignment as bait. That person would never be Doc Homer. (Proving to us, of course, that he wasn’t the one grownup there that loved us. )
I put parantheses around the sentences I think we could remove. They end up taking power away from what is ultimately a very compelling paragraph. This happens again and again in Animal Dreams. It’s something I see often in first person narration. Like the author wants to make their point over and over again, just in case the reader missed it. This certainly doesn’t destroy a book, but it can really slow it down.
Toward the end of the novel this excess writing happens a lot and this is where I think I started getting really frustrated. If you’ve decided to give your novel a happy ending I still think it’s important to resist the urge to tie everything up in a neat little package. The reunion scene between Codi and Loyd (her love interest in the novel) is just screaming daytime drama. But it didn’t have to be that way.
Shortly the train began to move again, very slowly, the speed of a living creature. You could still run and catch it. Loyd and Roger kept walking toward me without seeing me. (Standing there watching him, knowing what he didn’t, I had so much power and none at all.) I was on the outside, in a different dimension. I’d lived there always.
Then he stopped dead, just for a second. I’ll remember that. (The train moved and Roger moved but Loyd stood still.
He caught up to me in an instant, with a twinkle in his eye and his bag slung over his shoulder like a ready traveler.
“Thanks for the ride,” I said.
He put one arm around my neck and gave me the kind of kiss no fool would walk away from twice. )
This is the end of a chapter and I think where I’ve suggested ending the scene infers everything about the rest, without giving us the cheesy line of dialogue and that awful twinkle in Loyd’s eye. Her lines about the train and the hint about running and catching it are just wonderful, they show us Codi’s ambivalence about her decision to stay without hitting us over the head with the idea. Those lines are subtle. Those other last lines are not.
I’m sure some people might disagree with me, since, as I’ve said, we are talking about aesthetic preferences. I think Kingsolver is an accomplished writer and I’m eager to read her most recent novels like Prodigal Summer and The Poisonwood Bible (which I read maybe eight years ago but without such an intense look at the writing) to see if this is characteristic of her style in general or was it something she did in the beginning. I can’t help thinking of it as a beginning writer thing – something we all do when we’re still learning how to trust our instincts and the story itself. Any thoughts?