Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Plain Sense of Things

Have you ever read a book by a writer you wish you'd never heard of? A book a friend gave you because you’re a champion of regional fiction? A collection of short stories so flat and grim that even 221 pages feels too long?

Pamela Carter Joern’s The Plain Sense of Things makes little sense. This minimalist collection of linked short stories, set in western Nebraska, follows three generations of a family from 1930-1979. Wow, a quick trip, you may think. Maybe it’s like Kate Walbert’s beautifully-written intergenerational novel, A Short History of Women. But while Walbert has a gift for revealing her likable characters through vivid vignettes, Joern has a philosophy of ellipsis. Her prose is so pared-down that one continually expects supporting sentences that never appear. The characters are surfacely so hard and empty that I became squeamish. These downward-spiraling farmers and their wives don’t seem to feel much. They’re uneducated and crude (do you have to be educated to feel?). Sometimes they escape or are driven from the farm, but life is atrocious. Joern describes in a clipped, sometimes poetic, style the bitterness of ignorance and disappointment. A despairing widow, Mary, hits one of her teenage stepdaughters when she lags behind at housework. Later, Mary can’t get out of bed to attend another stepdaughter’s graduation. In Denver, two of the stepdaughters, one married and toting her child with her, pick up two men in a park. On the farm, a young boy masturbates while he watches his aunt nurse her baby. Jake, a failed farmer, takes second place in a singing contest, only to find that the radio station will not air the prize-winners’ performances after all.

Some of you will like this: it's not for me. Here is a typical paragraph.

“A year later, on a Sunday afternoon, Mary sits at her kitchen table snapping beans. Libby’s got Ruth outside dangling her feet in the horse tank, Edward’s checking on the cattle in the south pasture, and Helen is down for a nap. timmy and Nick walked to Pumpkin Creek with their fishing poles. Grace is hovering over the cook stove and worrying about whether her rice pudding will set up right. Mary has shown her a dozen times how to do it, but Grace doesn’t have the knack.”

I enjoy other minimalist writers: Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Raymond Carver, and Frederick Barthelme. But Joern’s economical descriptions of farm life don’t seem real to me. These characters are so beaten-down, and so undeveloped. Granted, part of it is set during the Depression. But the Depression seems like the highlight for some of these people.

I haven’t finished this book, though I will. My antidote for this super-depressing read is to read cozy Miss Read, a writer I've never enjoyed. Village School is about all I'm up for right now, though.

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