Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ethan Canin's 'America America'

Jodi blogged about Ethan Canin's new novel America America a bit ago and, based on her euphoric reaction combined with Ethan Canin reading tonight at Magers and Quinn, I decided to move it to the top of my reading queue.

America, America was a journey. That's the best way I can describe it. Not a "trip" journey, but a journey of the self where you go through an experience and you end up someone different at the end than you were when you began. Like the main character, Corey, I began America, America as a child, naive in the ways of journalism and politics. As he grew up, so did I. There are definite shades of The Palace Thief, echoes of corruption and power, who has the power and who REALLY has it, and the idea that the relationships we have aren't always the relationships we imagine we have. And while Corey was feeling his way through his life, I turned page after page, balancing my own assumptions with what was truly happening. I had to check my expectations fairly early on, because part of the art of Canin's novel is that we are all children when we begin this book. Everything you think you may know, everything you expect, will eventually be turned on its head.

True, there are parts where Canin plays "coy" as Jodi describes in her review, a serious charge to level against a writer. So much so, in fact, that I very nearly put the book down twice. Once when he used the sentence "In the distance, a dog barked" (a sentence so writer-workshop-cliche I actually gasped when I saw it) and again when I picked up on what I thought was a coyness and im-ed Jodi saying "If __________ happens I will not go to the reading." She said "Oh." And, of course, I was right.

But the most rewarding journeys are the most difficult to endure. There are places along the way where you want to stop and say 'forget it.' Either because you're scared and you know it or because you're scared and you're hiding it by pretending to know it all. My readiness to put down Canin's novel is how I sometimes want to handle hard journeys---stop immediately and go back to my comfortable life. I didn't, and thank God, because I would have missed out on one hell of a ride. America, America scared me because of how good it is. How real the characters are, and how, though somewhat predictable in parts, very true the events are. It's a fine line for the writer between what "rings true" to the reader and what is "I've seen this before." Canin mastered that line, though I didn't see it right away. Why did some characters and plot points seem familiar? Not because I've seen them in literature before--because I've seen them in LIFE before.

America, America is not light summer reading. It's a book that will change you. It will change how you see politics, how you see the news, and how you see the class system that thrives in our great country. It will change how you see love, family, and devotion to the people who fall somewhere in between those two. It is a long journey--bring your water--but also bring your camera because the view at the top is nothing short of spectacular.

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