On 31 Bond Street

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.

Weeks of Dec 26/09 – Jan 26/10

Novel Work

I’ve finally decided to split The Open City into two novels, rather than continue working on it as one project with two distinct threads. Part of the concern was that the single book would be very long, around 700 pages or so. It just didn’t seem feasible to get something like that published, seeing that it would be my first novel. And it would probably take another two years to just get it roughed in. The other things that worried me were more novelistic in nature. The two threads certainly play off each other—and the two novels will still be related—but I’d structured them to alternate in parts rather than chapters. That is, there would be a seismic shift every 100 pages or so, rather than smaller shifts every 20 pages. (Most of the hybrid-historical-novel models I’m using are structured more on the alternating chapters style, such as Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao gives more space to the individual threads instead of alternating, but his threads were separated by only a generation and collide in the end in a way mine wouldn’t.) These seemed too jarring. Just as the story is getting roaring it would jump into another thread. One that’s starting from scratch, essentially. I didn’t really anticipate the historical thread being this interesting or engrossing, which is part of the problem and part of the exciting part. It’s something I feel much more compelled to write, something I feel needs to be done.

Nicole and Maddie flying outside the courthouse.

In any event, I’ve finished a first draft of Part I of what is now titled The Hyphenates of Jackson County, which should be about one/third of the book. The writing of this has gone so smoothly so far. Maybe it’s writing historical fiction, in that I have many sources, photos, and books to draw on when I’m feeling stuck. Or maybe it’s that I’ve been working near-daily as a novelist for almost two years now and am actually getting better at it. Plus a little bit of the family life settling down a bit more, becoming more comfortable as a father, having real office space without radon gas to contend with, and having a nice chunk of property that demands constant physical activity. Let’s say all of the above. But whatever the cause of this good streak, it’s been very much enjoyed. Now it’s just a matter of finishing. And making it great. The rest should take care of itself.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“There was something about Jacob that triggered Mrs. Eigler’s mothering instinct. The way he stared blankly into the street when they chatted in the evenings, as if someplace else; how he merely smiled in silence when at a loss for words, his mind grinding. Women often fell towards mothering Jacob. From the way his hair flopped over his forehead to the cowlick spiking up in back, Jacob unaware until a woman was there to tamp it down for him; and in how he dressed, not quite sloppily, but merely hinting at neatness with an informal comportment.”

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks

Crazyhorse for “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter”; Lake Effect and StoryQuarterly for “The Housekeeper”; Michigan Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, and One Story for “These Things That Save Us”; Barnstorm for “From Indiana.”

Just Finished

Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne. This novel is nearly very good. It’s a book driven almost entirely by the voice of its narrator, which is something I don’t usually enjoy that much beyond the first few pages. Yet, protagonist Karim Issar is very compelling. A programmer from Qatar who strikes it rich in Manhattan while doing some pre-Y2K debugging, Karim is the kind of uninitiated character who so effectively provides context to the culture he’s being introduced to. The main problem I have with Kapitoil is that the secondary characters are flat and ineffective as foils. They can’t challenge Karim, which leaves the main character two-dimensional in important ways as well. It looks like much of Wayne’s background is in doing short, satirical pieces for magazines, so maybe this is telling in that the novel shines when it is merely a matter of voice and gags, but falters on the level of extended plot. This one is really worth picking up, however. Highly recommended.

Should I run for office? Do I look like a county chair?

Now Reading

American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.

The Underworld Sewer by Josie Washburn.

The Book of Genesis illustrated by R. Crumb.

Up Next

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris.

And big props to my friend and colleague Nabina Das, who has been named an Associate Fellow for the City as Studio 2010 initiative in Delhi. Awesome work!