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Reading the Real

I had an interesting sensation this morning as I left my commuter train and made the six-block walk to my office. During the commute I started reading Volt, the debut short story collection by Chicago native Alan Heathcock. The first story, “The Staying Freight”, is set (as apparently are all of the others in the book) in the rural American West, and right away I was drawn in by the protagonist’s domestic tragedy and his sudden and not-quite-explained departure from home. He walks on and on, first through remote yet cultivated farms and finally to wilderness, growing ever more feral and savage along the way. By t he time my train arrived and I had to stop reading, a chance encounter has thrust him partly back to civilization as he takes a job at a turkey farm.

Though I was fully aware of my surroundings as I read – a packed train car chugging through dilapidated city neighborhoods – I was still so immersed in the story that when I got off the train, it felt disorienting to be walking city sidewalks, obeying stoplights and surrounded by honking cars and office workers scurrying toward their desk jobs. Heathcock totally immersed me in his rural physical setting, and though the story is gritty and not terribly pleasant, I almost found myself longing to be there instead of having another ordinary day at the office. The story feels palpably real.

This feeling contrasts sharply with the last two books I’ve read, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Charles Dickens’ Great Expecations, which I labored through from June through mid-September during my annual Summer of Classics. Though I enjoyed both books (Hardy much more than Dickens), reading them felt more like observing relics in a museum than experiencing the vivid reality of “The Staying Freight.” And I don’t feel like my Hardy/Dickens distance problem is simply something that’s inherent to all classics of bygone eras – one of the best classics I’ve read during these past summers is O.E. Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth (1927), a Norwegian pioneer epic set in South Dakota that is as far removed from my personal experience as the lives of Hardy’s Jude and Dickens’ Pip, and just as densely written. Yet I enjoyed Rölvaag much more than either Hardy or Dickens, because it felt real to me. Just as real as Heathcock’s story.

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  • Jeff McMahon September 19, 2011, 12:03 pm

    Pete, what do you think it is about Hardy and Dickens? Is it content, as you suggest here, or could it be style?

  • Pete September 20, 2011, 1:12 pm

    I’m fine with the content of both – though especially in the case of Dickens, there’s far too much content (characters and subplots) stuffed into there. Instead my problem is more about style.

    Dickens wrote GE as a serial, and it shows – what begins as a study of social class and ambition somehow morphs into a rollicking adventure tale, as if Dickens changed his mind halfway through, but with the earlier portions already published, it was impossible for him to go back and change them to creates a single cohesive narrative. Because of this, the story meanders all over the place. (And I absolutely wanted to slap Dickens for the ending – after being overly wordy and painstakingly explicit throughout the story, he suddenly gets enigmatic and ambiguous in the last two pages, and leaves the future of Pip and Estella completely unresolved.)

    Hardy’s JtO is more straightforward and linear, but the pace is exceptionally slow, especially when Jude and Sue launch into monologues (on love, religion, etc.) while ostensibly in the midst of conversation with each other. The narrative is also overloaded with literary allusions (many of them directly quoted by Jude) which require either a classical education or frequent flipping back to the endnotes, just to make sense of them.

  • Kellie September 24, 2011, 6:33 pm

    I’m enjoying reading your adventures into (especially Classic) literature. Thanks for that.

    re: Dickens: Remember that not only were many of his stories serialized; serial publications were often paid by installment. The more installments, the more the author got paid. As you suggest, there is also the issue of the story being delivered as it is still under construction. I believe Jude, too, was written as a serial: I wonder if Hardy may have had a better idea of where he was going (or perhaps a lesser idea of financial solvency).

  • Pete September 26, 2011, 9:47 am

    JtO was indeed serialized, but it looks like Hardy edited the installments for the published book. It’s certainly more streamlined and focused than Great Expectations, which is one reason I enjoyed it more than Dickens. In the future, I’m much more likely to read one of Hardy’s other novels than anything by Dickens, but even with Hardy it will be quite a few years before I dive back in.