I read Ellen Horan’s novel 31 Bond Street (Harper, and now in paperback from Harper Perennial) last spring with the idea of reviewing it, but the review just never really came together. However, that being said, I still think the book warrants some comment and I’d like to use this space to give more of a free form appraisal. My main difficulty in reviewing the novel is my inexperience with commercial fiction. (I’m not the type of writer/critic who really gets into “guilty pleasure” reads. Usually I’m so far behind on things I’ve promised to read that there isn’t really time for it. Plus, I really enjoy bad, bad movies–and bad baseball teams for that matter, see kcroyals.com for evidence–so there isn’t much room for more guilty pleasures anyway.) Whenever I thought of 31 Bond Street as a work of literature, I kept trying to fit it into the kinds of rubrics I’d normally use to analyze a book, i.e. high literary forms. But, as 31 Bond Street isn’t a literary novel, it didn’t quite seem fair to appraise it as such, just as it wouldn’t be to judge Pynchon’s novels as to how light and easy to read they are. It’s the basic rule of good reviewing, I think, that the reviewer must judge the book based on its own terms, not some outside criteria imposed upon it. After a while, I just wasn’t sure that I was the best person to review the book. So I didn’t.
This being said, I did kind of like the book, and it provoked some thoughts that I feel are worth sharing–particularly as this is a web site at least partially concerned with the writing of historical fiction. Here’s my thoughts:
-An antebellum New York murder mystery, 31 Bond Street is a lot of fun to read with interesting characters and a great setting, and it’s highly recommended for those who like more commercial historical fiction. The book follows what was the first real media frenzy over a murder in American history, as well-known socialite and dentist Harvey Burdell was found brutally murdered, stabbed and nearly decapitated, in his home. There are no witnesses, no clues, but everyone assumes that his house mistress, Emma Cunningham, is guilty of the crime. A nice premise for an Eighteenth Century police/legal procedural.
-However, by page 65 we’ve already been told that Emma Cunningham is the “perfect scapegoat” and there’s really no doubt that she’s innocent. It’s just a matter of finding out who really committed the murder, of course, although that is put off until the final pages of the novel in what feels like a tacked on ending. The point of view in the initial scenes sets us up against Emma, she’s the only one with access to the room, she has a motive—but then the flashback scenes work to show her side of the story.
-I wondered throughout, who is telling the story? There are many POVs at work here, one close to Emma, another attached to her attorney, and a formal one detached from any one character. It’s almost too simple how the story is told, the POV changing as any scene requires, and it leaves opportunities for voice untapped, the plot often driftless and unfocused. It seemed to me that the history was followed too closely here–without knowing the actual history well–in this way. Horan sometimes spreads the narrative thin by trying to explain too much of the history at once. I haven’t read much commercial historical fiction, though, so that may be an acceptable digression of the form. It’s a hard balance to strike between character, plot, and giving just the right amount of lush historical setting. It’s something I struggle with a lot, so I don’t mean to be a harsh arbiter here.
-Moreover, there’s an intertwined plot in which Horan builds context for the larger plot, taking us on digressions and day trips to survey real estate. But toward what conclusion is all this work done? It’s often an odd strategy that draws attention away from the things that make the novel interesting. Horan’s strength is in the bigger fantastic scenes, in portraying egotistical cops and reporters, and less so in the small psychological details that might make her historical characters become real. I think these kinds of choices are hard for writers to make. Should she have just stuck to what she was good at and ran with that? Or, should she push harder at the techniques and scenes that she’s weaker at, in order to attempt a well-rounded book? I’m not really sure there’s a right answer to this. Usually I try to put my strengths out in my public work, and keep my weaknesses private, in the office or workshop, until they’re stronger. But, of course, nobody gave me a seven-figure advance to write a first novel, so my toiling in obscurity isn’t really a choice I made either.
-One of the better aspects of the books is Horan’s use of historical artifacts, in the form of period newspaper clippings and lithographs, to frame the story she’s telling. (And I think it was this idea that led to her getting that huge advance, if memory serves.) The use of historical artifact as a framing device, or packaging, is not exactly a new idea. It’s somewhat similar to what Aleksandar Hemon does in The Lazarus Project, although not as well integrated into what Hemon was trying to do with his prose. Printing clips from actual period newspapers seems like something that might be gimmicky, but I like how the material is used in 31 Bond Street, and thought that more could have been made of it. It’s almost a deconstruction of the historical novel, printing a source within the novel’s very text, laying bare the process of inspiration and its associated dramatization. After all, we know that a historical novelist pulls their material from somewhere, through research of source material or by examining photographs or interviews, so why not own the process by allowing the reader to indulge in these artifacts as well, sans the droll, and perhaps odiferous, hours spent in the microfilm room of a public library. After all, isn’t it the thrill of discovery that drives historical fiction, if not all literature? The idea of finding something vital and interesting that has existed under our noses for our entire lives? If yes, then go for it. Share this thrill! This would have made for an awesome multimedia project.
-In sum, 31 Bond Street is a good read, one I don’t feel “guilty” having read, although I think it falls short of being a good book. There are a lot of nice things working here, but, as I mention above a few times, the opportunities didn’t seem to fulfill their potential. Particularly with the packaging, but also in terms of suspense and characterization.
A lot has been made of in the past few years of all the huge advances first-time novelists received in the last decade, money which has since dried up, we’re told. The school of thought is that it’s a very bad thing for a writer, or any artist, to get too rich, too quick. That you need to grow slowly, in obscure poverty, perfecting craft, finding a sure, mature voice, or else you will flame out. (Dani Shapiro wrote an awesome essay on this for the LA Times that you should definitely check out: “A Writing Career Becomes Harder to Scale.”) There are many examples that bear this out, and I can’t help but wonder if this phenomenon hurt 31 Bond Street in the end. It was such a promoted advance–awarded before the novel was written, of course–that it would be hard for the book to live up to such billing, particularly when written on deadline, as the author’s first book. To me, that just seems like an impossible way to write a book.
There’s still one more recap post about my Kimmel Harding Nelson residency on the back burner, but I wanted to get a weeks in review post in here too. And since I had two stories accepted for publication last week, this seemed like a good time to do that.
On Tuesday of last week I learned that MARY Magazine will be putting “Let Your Hair Hang Low” in their summer edition. This is a story I’ve been working on since the fall of 2002 and am very glad to find a home for it. Then, on Wednesday, I received an email from the Kenyon Review letting me know that “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter” will be running in their Spring 2011 issue. This was another story I’ve had for a long time, starting it in the spring of 2005. It was originally written as a flash piece in the format of an actual step-by-step manual, basically what the title says it is, but I soon scrapped that idea and wrote it as more-or-less a traditional short story. I’m so excited for the opportunity of being in TKR. I’ve had a few big publications before—in Best New American Voices, twice in Boulevard—but adding the Kenyon Review to my credits feels like another breakthrough. It’s doing something with consistency, rather than isolated flourishes.
Needless to say, both of these stories have gone through countless drafts and rewrites, and have been in and out of the hands of editors for a long while. These stories have received ninety-seven rejections between the two of them, in their different forms. I’ve read that, on average, published stories receive around twenty-five rejections before being accepted by a journal. And even that number surprises other young and emerging writers when I bring it up. In that context, ninety-seven seems absurd, a number too embarrassing to admit to. But there it is.
At some point I probably should have given up on these pieces. But there was one thing that really kept me going—besides a stubborn belief that they are good stories and that I could make them work—and that was encouragement from editors. Of those ninety-seven rejections, twenty-nine were of the “nice” variety. The notes that said the piece was close or requested that I send more work their way. I’ve come to feel differently about these notes after reading for Prairie Schooner the past couple years. I used to disdain them a little bit, saw them a tease, I guess. It upset me that I could be close to publication without actually getting in, because there’s no consolation prize. But now I know how complimentary these encouragements really are. As a literary journal reader or editor, there are so many stories you enjoy reading over the course of a year, but only a small percentage of these can even be sent on for final consideration. And only a select few of those can be printed. So I’ve learned to appreciate the notes as the encouragement they are, and take heart to keep trying because of them.
Dispatch from “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter”
“I didn’t tell anyone this, but if it had somehow been necessary that Brandon die at that particular time, then I wished that he would have killed himself. Then there would have been something to blame. Somehow this was a more acceptable cause and effect. Suicide was a seductive death full of self-hate that seemed more gratifying to an adolescent mind. I’d heard of this happening, at least, learned about it on TV. There would have been physical satisfaction in imagining this. The cool metal slipping between his lips. The buzzing, blooming sensation at the back of his cranium. Then the click. I could have understood that. It would have made sense for him to jump off a boat into the mouth of a waiting shark, but not asthma. How Brandon died was obscene, but it fit the surroundings. I had to remind myself that it was late November in Nebraska and the dirt would soon be frozen. My half-brother hadn’t wanted to die, after all, he hadn’t planned any of this.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
Ploughshares for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Post Road and One Story for “The Day After This One”; Avery Anthology for The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; Contrary, Eleven Eleven, and Spectrum for “You Know That I Loved You.” Also, “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” was a finalist in the Summer Literary Seminar Unified Fiction Contest, as judged by Fence.
31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan. An antebellum New York murder mystery. A lot of fun to read with interesting characters and a great setting. Highly recommended for those who like more commercial historical fiction. I may be writing a review on this but I haven’t decided for sure yet. There’s a very quaint handling of race that I gives me some pause.
The Underworld Sewer by Josie Washburn. I was reading this mostly as research for the novel I’m writing, and I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed it too. It’s basically a compilation of early 1900s street pamphlets decrying the social evil of institutionalized prostitution, but it has some nice information on the Nebraska and Omaha of that era. It also looks like I can work Washburn in as a character in the novel, which is pretty fun too! There are a few years of her life when she’s in Omaha, after the book has been published, and they just so happen to be unaccounted for in the historical record—which is really a great gift to a writer.
The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. I was going to write a fancy review of this book that talked about the perils of having a narrative structure that imitates the mental disorder of its main character, but decided against it. For one, this book has been reviewed a bunch of times already, and secondly, most of those review were negative too. No need to pile on at this point. Ferris is still a talented writer and hopefully his next book will be great.
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño.
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill.
Did I mention we went to New York last month?
Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County
“The sidewalk was cluttered with her belongings, her furniture and clothes, a Victrola phonograph cabinet and a stack of records, a crate of wine bottles, a small painted portrait of a girl who could have been Evie standing on the plush cushion of a high-backed chair. There were several lounging chairs the men brought out too, upholstered with threadbare green fabric, small pillows to match. They were cheap pieces, second hand, perhaps, but nicer than what most people had on the Ward. And maybe her furniture didn’t look so shabby in a dark room, Jacob thought, out of the sun. It was very bright suddenly, the air warming on what was becoming a cloudless August sky. Jacob could feel the heat of it on his skin, through his shirt.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
American Short Fiction for “The Current State of the Universe”; Salt Hill and The Missouri Review for “The Housekeeper”; Hunger Mountain for “These Things That Save Us”; Identity Theory for “You Know That I Loved You”; Makeout Creek for “Lycaon” and “From Indiana.”
Point Omega by Don DeLillo. Mostly it’s enjoyable for its language, with some nice plot here and there too. I didn’t really go for much of the eschatological theory, although that might be how it’s supposed to be taken.
The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. I thought this started off horribly slow and redundant, but have been getting into after the first hundred pages.
31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan