How Fiction Works

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The writer Vu Tran read at Powells last night — in support of his new novel, DRAGONFISH.

Vu stayed at the house — he’s an old friend of Peyton’s from Iowa — and the three of us talked about writing and reading late into the night. Okay, that’s a lie. We stayed up until ten. But — with kids — your sense of late is… well… somewhat altered.

Vu said this: Between reading the work of his peers, and the work of writing, itself, he’s really been struggling to read with wonder — like he remembers reading many years ago, as a young man.

It is something I’ve lost, too.

Part of this, of course, is just age. At 39, I simply don’t have the ability to encounter things the way that I used to — for the first time, and with an open, joyous, thrilled, rested mind. The kids, God bless them, ensure that.

The essayist Tim Parks, in a New York Times review of the new Sven Birkerts essay collection, “Changing the Subject,” writes that:

“The ideal situation, repeatedly evoked, is that of the rapt reading experience of the child; literature… distances us from sensory reality, but it does so in a focused way that consolidates our habit of self-narrative and indeed of reframing and possessing the world in words.” 

And so — yes — this is the reading experience I’m reaching for.

A reframing of the world. A new possession of it. Because this is what books did for me, once upon a time. They changed my very perception of what life could be. What it was. And so perhaps the problem isn’t the books — but rather the overly developed, calcified sense of possibility that I have, in my daily life. A book can’t change my worldview, as readily, because it is a smaller and smaller percentage of that worldview, as I age — and read more books.

I don’t know.

But I do know one thing, for sure. Since I haven’t been teaching, I’ve had a bit more time to read, and well… It’s been revelatory. I’ve felt “it,” for the first time in years. That joy. That reframing.

And so I’ll write a little bit in the coming days about the books I’ve been reading. Right now, I’m ten pages from the end of James Woods’ How Fiction Works, and about halfway through Michael Ondaatje’s 2014, The Cat’s Table. 

They are both splendid.

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