Word by Word

ANNE LAMOTT – Bird by Bird

“I worry that Jesus drinks himself to sleep when he hears me talk like this.”

Much can be read from this line that comes from the book on writing and life advice by Anne Lamott.

1: Her mention of Jesus makes one think that she is religiously-inclined, that it is a significant part of her life, or that it plays a pivotal role in her daily decisions. From what I have read, that would be correct.

2: The fact that Jesus himself would become an alcoholic based on the things she says, kind of paints the picture of an insanely articulate yet unhinged, hilarious writer whose bark is worse than her bite, and who manages to make the darkest of themes, like even death, humorous.

From what I have read, that would also be correct.

Lamott has a wicked sense of humour. From the outset, I could tell that I would like her. Her witty, sharp, insightful remarks and views on the world, ability to poke fun at herself and allow us to see and hear all her very real insecurities and jealousies about being a human, and about being a writer, made me immediately sympathetic to her story. She’s honest and real about the struggles in a writer’s world, and let’s face it, trying to get into it in the first place, yet despite her stark frankness in the matter, suggesting that only a small number get to go on Letterman, she has put together this book in an effort to encourage and help aspiring writers, as she has often done in her writing workshops.

“The best thing about being an artist, instead of a madman or someone who writes letters to the editor, is that you get to engage in satisfying work. Even if you never publish your work, you have something important to pour yourself into.”

This book made me laugh, and it made me cry. It gave me some good hard advice, as well as some awesome little snippets and ideas on what I can do in my writing life to just generally be better at it.

So let’s begin Anne’s writing class. (I usually call writers by their surnames in my reviews but after reading this book I feel like I know her so well).

SET THE MOOD

“I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good enough at it…”

I got quite a few good tips from Anne on ways to improve my writing environment. Firstly, it seems simple, but using some kind of external trigger, like a candle, and the act of lighting it, when done repeatedly over time it can serve as a kind of switch for your writing conscious to kick in. This excited me because for my birthday I got given this beautiful candle in a glass jar, and the wick actually crackles as it burns (I actually picked the candle for myself and my parents paid, but same thing). As if I didn’t need further reason to get it, the lady behind the counter said “when the house is quiet, light it and listen to it crackle as you read a book.”

Um, what about write a book? God if she knew. So that will be my thing, the candle, in particular this most awesome-nest of awesome candles, the wicker-crackling candle.

And speaking of the conscious mind. The rational mind is probably our worst enemy. Second guessing ourselves, reading over what we’ve written, trying too hard, sticking to plans and not letting things flow – this all obstructs the natural story-telling and writing process. She says that characters are created in our unconscious mind, the area in which we have no control over, so it would come to reason that we should relax a little, try to listen to our intuition more, and just let the unconscious do its thing. She uses the metaphor of broccoli for her intuition, but whatever ‘voice’ it is that you can’t control within, as long as it works for you. I love the metaphor and vision of the butterfly, and it has significance for me on many levels, and with its random yet gentle fluttering, I’ve decided to watch this creature in my mind’s eye and follow where it leads me. Just as a green vegetable will work for Anne, a transformative insect will work for me.

Preparation-wise, Anne has index cards placed pretty much all over the place at her house, in her car, she even takes them with her on walks in case an idea, thought or inspiration strikes her. I have to say, when I’ve had a great thought and not had the necessary pen/paper/mobile to capture it, I whole-heartedly agree with Anne when she says:

“That is one of the worst feelings I can think of, to have had a wonderful moment or insight or vision or phrase, to know you had it, and then to lose it.”

There’s nothing wrong with needing a prompt to remember things. Being a mother herself, she offers a great insight into one reason you may need these cards in your life, something that despite my uber-organisation, I can totally relate with:

“When a child comes out of your body, it arrives with about a fifth of your brain clutched in its little hand, like those babies born clutching IUDs.”

There will be bad days. You will have writers block, which she says is less about being ‘stuck,’ and more about ‘filling up again.’ She tells her students to try to write at least a page of something, anything, dreams or streams of consciousness or memories, every day, and that on bad days to try and do this just to keep their fingers from becoming arthritic. And in the event of being ‘empty,’ to go out and fill up again.

“Writer’s block is going to happen to you. You will read what little you’ve written lately and see with absolute clarity that it is total dog shit.”

HOW TO WRITE

E.L. Doctorow once said “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” It was interesting to find this quote in Lamott’s book, because I had just finished reading Loon Lake before getting Bird by Bird, and it was in fact this precise Doctorow quote, reading it literally before his death, that rang very true for me.

I didn’t do a whole lot of research, or any writer’s workshops, or join any online writing groups when I first started on my book. I just went into it, with a handful of characters, some strong themes, and a round-a-bout destination in mind. I knew A, I knew somewhere E was going to come in, but then I didn’t know anything in between, just a rough Y and a hazy Z. It’s always comforting when you read that someone you aspire to, such as a successful writer, does the same thing you do, or confirms something you’ve always thought to be true. I never really thought of a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to write, I think we all just do what works for us, but this above metaphor that applies not just to writing, but to life, rang so true to me. Because from my A, B C and D sprang forward, and just by writing scene by scene, character by character, a whole story formed, and I surprised myself on multiple occasions.

You don’t need to see the path to your destination, nor even see your destination at all. Anne talks about ‘Short Assignments,’ and when you struggle in your writing to just think of getting one memory, one scene, one exchange out in front of you, enough that would fill up a one-inch frame. Focusing on one thing at a time is far less overwhelming than worrying about how your protagonist is going to confront the bad guy three chapters away.

“Your plot will fall into place as, one day at a time, you listen to your characters carefully, and watch them move around doing and saying things and bumping into each other.”

Writing can be a very difficult experience, something she admits for herself and for most writers she knows. Getting by is to write a shitty first draft. In this stage anything goes, even phrases like:

“Well so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?”

You just need to get anything down, no matter what it is. Her friend said:

“the first draft is the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up….And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.”

 “Vonnegut said, ‘When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.’”

This is so comforting.

You can even liken your writing to your dreams – the way one absurd scene just flows into another, so too must your writing be “vivid and continuous.” In discovering plot, Anne says her characters know where they are going, she just needs to stay with them long enough. She needs to care for them, polish them, and then suddenly they will show her the way. Another way to think of it is this:

“they need me to write it down for them because their handwriting is so bad.”

What about me then? I need my characters to do everything for me because my handwriting beats that of a doctors!

In writing, you need to revoke all control you have. You may be focusing on the fence, but the yellow sparkling flower in the corner of your mind-frame starts to sparkle and all of a sudden, it’s stolen the show. You must explore that.

“If you stop trying to control your mind so much, you’ll have intuitive hunches about what this or that character is all about. It is hard to stop controlling, but you can do it.”

Anne says that when she starts writing she wants to fill the page with witty insights so that the world will see how smart she is. Whoops. Where I fall into step with the favourable Doctorow quote, so too do I have to begrudgingly agree that I sing along with this writing flaw. But as you write, you want your characters to act out the drama of humankind, which doesn’t include your witty and ground-breaking life insights.

“…the purpose of most great writing seems to be to reveal in an ethical light who we are.”

FUNNY STORIES

Anne made me LOL so hard, that in my re-reading of notes I was still laughing out loud. Oh geez.

The two below cases in point I think really paint a great picture of the dual character-traits she encompasses. Take the story of when readers were surprised to hear that she didn’t love to garden like one of the characters in her book, that she had in fact been researching it heavily and ‘winging’ it instead:

“’You don’t love to garden?’ they’d ask incredulously, and I’d shake my head and not mention that what I love are cut flowers, because this sounds so violent and decadent, like when Salvador Dali said his favourite animal was fillet of sole.”

Oh my fucking lord. I love it.

(I was on a swearing frenzy following Loon Lake, so screw it let’s go).

(Let’s not make much of the fact that one quote on my calendar once said ‘Swearing exposes weakness not strength.’)

A second moment, where she is talking about paying attention to the world around you and using religious metaphors in doing so, displays the heavy theme of God in her life, while also reminding us that she doesn’t give a shit:

“There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness, a sign that God is implicit in all of creation. Or maybe you are not predisposed to see the world sacramentally, to see everything as an outward and visible sign of inward, invisible grace. This does not mean that you are worthless Philistine scum.”

Her chapter on jealousy is refreshing. If a writing friend of hers is successful with writing, sometimes she wants –

“for him to wake up one morning with a pain in his prostate, because I don’t care how rich and successful someone is, if you wake up having to call your doctor and ask for a finger massage, it’s going to be a long day.”

These images are so clear and paint such a humorous picture, and the fact that she does it all, making it appear so effortless, makes you realise how great of a writer she really is.

I can re-type countless funny moments and stories of hers, but I just need to do one more, I promise. I love the following mental picture. When researching for the name of the ‘wire thing’ used for wines, she called a winery to try and found out its proper name. The receptionist there didn’t know the name of it either so she transferred her to:

“a two-thousand year old monk. Or at least this is how he sounded, faint, reedy, out of breath, like Noah after a brisk walk.

And he was so glad I’d called. He actually said so, and he sounded like he was. I have secretly believed ever since that he had somehow stayed alive just long enough to be there for my phone call, and that after he answered my question, he hung up, smiled, and keeled over.”

Oh God. I love it!

Okay, back to the serious writing stuff (clears throat). Writing can be hard (duh Fred). Even for published professionals such as herself, there is still a lot of staring at clocks, staring at blank screens, and yawning. Making phone calls and distracting oneself with other tasks other than writing, is very normal. Sometimes voices would continuously harp at her, and she’s use a tactic a hypnotist once suggested to her, to imagine all the voices as mice, and to one by one drop them into a jar, turn the volume on the jar up and then down, and watch them claw at her as she then muted them. It’s interesting she mentioned this, since I have a kind of different picture, just something I use for when someone I can’t stand is driving me insane in my head. I imagine them as a ball, and with a baseball bat (for some reason it’s baseball, maybe because the ball appears to go very far during that game) I strike it so hard and so out of view that they are no longer seen, or heard.

Perhaps slightly violent, but it does the trick. You can use that for yourself, tell me how you go.

Anne talks of the publishing fantasy, and how it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. She mentions the early draft process, and when she gets her friends to initially provide her feedback on her work. When she doesn’t hear from them by the next day, she starts to think –

“… about all the things I don’t like about either of them, how much in fact I hate them both, how it is no wonder neither of them has many friends.”

When she gets to sending her writing to her editor and agent, her thoughts are equally as insane and hilarious, if not more so. She convinces herself that they are in cahoots, laughing their arses off over her book, now proclaimed the worst book ever written.

“At one point your editor is laughing so hard that she has to take some digitalis, and your agent ruptures a blood vessel in his throat.”

But it doesn’t stop there. On the date of publication, the blow to the ego comes when your phone ISN’T ringing off the hook, and the 5 people that turn up at your book signings, as well as the review that likens your book to dog poo, just makes it all seem not worth it. Additionally, dealing with people who ask “have you written anything I might have heard of?” while others claim they read everything and yet do not know your name, leaves little to be desired in the world of publication.

She makes the process sound quite shit. She is a great writer after all.

SAD STORIES

Just as I laughed, so too did I cry.

The sad moments made me tear up, quite bad, punching me hard in the heart. Perhaps some of the saddest material came in her section on ‘Letters,’ where she suggested that if you’re stuck in your writing, write an informal letter to someone you know. This has not only been a beautiful present to the person in question in her own life, but has captured a moment of time that will never be forgotten.

The three letters she speaks of are the ones she wrote to her Dad, her best friend, and the couple of a boy who passed. The first two ended up being published books, with both her Dad and best friend getting to read her book dedicated to them, before they passed. It was especially hard for me to read the part of her Dad dying, since I have someone in the immediate family who died from the same thing that struck her Dad. It was shocking, and frightening, to say the least. The fact that she got to write something for her Dad and he read it, and it got published, is heartbreakingly bittersweet.

I was almost crying my eyes out at her third example of an informal letter. A couple she knew had lost their son at 5 months of age. He had been called ‘Cloud Boy’ by his mother’s friends: because he had been resuscitated at birth, he was neither here, nor there. She wrote a piece about him and it was broadcast on radio, and the fact that I had earlier been very cranky with baby girl, just broke my heart. My note on this read:

‘Makes me feel guilty for getting upset earlier at baby girl –big hug later :)’

Page 205, has quite frankly the best story of giving, EVER. It is so painfully moving and inspiring, that I cannot will myself to re-tell it here, in fear of butchering it to death. So just do yourself a favour and get the book and read the damn thing, especially page 205.

Finally, the following poem is one she re-tells, as having thought of it in regards to a student of hers who wasn’t doing so well in his writing. Its fragility is touching.

“Above me, wind does its best

to blow leaves off

the aspen tree a month too soon.

No use wind. All you succeed

in doing is making music, the noise

of failure growing beautiful.”

LIFE

The title of Anne’s book Bird by Bird comes from one of the best stories, in my opinion, to come out of the book (apart from page 205). It is so relevant to life, that I’ve found myself quoting and muttering it ever since I finished reading it.

Anne tells of the story of when her older brother had a report due on birds the next day, which he had had 3 months to write. Close to tears, surrounded by bird info, and overwhelmed by the hugeness of the task, his Dad had put his arm around him and said “Bird by bird buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Now I find that I’ll be doing something and I just go ‘bird by bird.’ Some passer-by may think it means I’m collecting the aviary kind, but the significance is just so great, I can’t help but to say it out loud.

She discusses libel, which is one of the most memorable and humorous lessons in the book. If you must make someone horrible from your life a character in one of your books (God help me, I threaten every twerp I meet in my mind with ‘oh you wait ‘til I make the world hate you in my novels, mwa ha ha!’) change all their traits so they can’t sue you, and make them impossible to trace and identify from the people in their life… and of course give them a little penis so they won’t come forward even if they’re suss on you.

It’s Okay. Anne says this every so often, and always with a capital ‘O.’ There is some significance, and I’ve been trying to work out what… suggesting that Okay is a state of being, holding much importance, it all goes back to being alright…. You got me, I’m not sure. But just remember all you writers out there, it will all be Okay.

She talks about all the great things about being a writer, which hey, we all knew already, right? (And if you didn’t, what kind of masochist are you?) Even though she says that publishing is in fact, a fantasy, telling her students that in writing “… devotion and commitment will be their own reward,” she also says:

“But the fact of publication is the acknowledgement from the community that you did your writing right. You acquire a rank that you never lose.”

Writers “get to stay home and still be public.”

Something I’ve always believed: you get the best of both worlds. I did come to question myself, as I have on so many occasions: why do I do it? Why write? Why do I feel the pull, the need, the obsessive urge to get everything down on paper? I journal passionately, having captured my entire pregnancy, the first year of baby girl’s life, and I have since continued, picking up from where I left off years ago and beginning to journal all of my life again.

There are many reasons. First, so we are not lost. One day we will die, and all that will remain of Hubbie and I, which our children will be able to hold onto, are photos, memories, and this. My journals. My journals will give them a view into our worlds like no one else can. Despite our absence, our stories that we’ve passed on to them, and my words, will still be alive.

This is something that I find so magical. That I can be reading ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ written by Shakespeare, and laughing out loud over the lines he wrote hundreds of years ago. That is amazing, that is inspiring, that kind of life-transcendence, for a story to be living and making people feel long after you’re gone.

Of course, I love to write. It is almost an obsessive urge in me, where I need to get stuff down. Additionally, I have a tremendous story in me that just needs to be told. I believe so whole-heartedly that it will resonate with people out there, that I simply must do whatever it takes to get it heard. I will try.

I don’t always love to write. But I always have to do it.

“But the tradition of artists will continue no matter what form the society takes. And this is another reason to write: people need us, to mirror for them and for each other without distortion…”

The world will always need writers. Stories have existed from the beginning of time, and will always be a necessity. You don’t have to write just for yourself: “Risk freeing someone else.” Make someone else’s day, help someone going through the troubles in their life, by telling them your story.

One of the greatest things her father taught her was to pay attention. And that in itself is beautiful. Going somewhere with a sense of purpose, noting things down, whether because you’re going to review it later (a restaurant you’ve been to, or a book you’re reading) or simply to capture the details for a written piece, either fictional or personal.

“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore.”

In closing, this is a tremendously inspiring and informative book, one all writers should read, published or not. I’m not sure whether it is better than Stephen King’s ‘On Writing:” that I would need to read again, since his I read during my writing book process, and Anne’s one came much later in the game. But both are equally entertaining in their own way, and really, we should be grabbing ALL the advice that successful writers send out to us, and not question it! Take it, absorb it, memorise it, and then with your arms full run for the hills.

I want you all to take these two quotes I present from Anne’s book, and use it to fuel your story, your passion, and your purpose.

“All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions.”

“Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.”

And now run.

Please let me know your thoughts on Bird by Bird in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you. 😊

A Loon-y journey

loonlake

E.L. DOCTOROW – Loon Lake

“You are thinking it is a dream. It is no dream. It is the account in helpless linear translation of the unending love of our simultaneous but disynchrous lives.”

There are so many things to think and talk about when discussing this book by E.L. Doctorow.

It is about obtaining love.

It is about wanting more from your life.

It is about the many forms of isolation.

It is life’s perversion at its finest worst.

And it is a random bunch of episodes, warped and brutally honest moments that are individual and yet oddly parallel to one another, leading to the same universal goal, that somehow makes it an unexpected whole, a whole that makes sense, yet still leaves you scratching your head.

Confused?

Questions abound in the reading of this novel. From the blurb, you know half of what to expect when you begin to turn the pages. Joe is on the run from authorities, and decides to follow a train’s route when he sees a flash of important people in the carriages pass him one night, including a young woman looking at her naked image in the mirror. Drawn to the obvious wealth present on the train, and hypnotised by the woman’s beauty, he follows the train to its resting point at a very wealthy man’s estate.

‘Very wealthy’ doesn’t begin to describe how wealthy this man actually is. The owner Bennett has his initials on everything, down to the cigarette boxes.

“He was very rich. He owned thirty thousand acres here and it was just one of his places. He owned the lake itself, the water in the lake, the land under the water and the fish that swam in it.”

”But not the dogs? (…)”

“Oh, no (…) Those are wild-running, those dogs.”

And here we have present a hint of humour, something also prevalent in Loon Lake. It is hard to focus on any one element in my review because they are intertwined and dancing with one another in sporadic points, but there is definitely some black humour popping up at various intervals.

With the humour often came some interesting life insight, such as this:

“I could tell that each of them felt badly used to be taking care of some tramp who had wandered onto the grounds. It was an affront to the natural order which made service to people bearable because they were higher than you, not lower.”

And this which I loved:

“And as for Mr Penfield I knew in my bones I didn’t have anything to fear from him. He had a way of canceling himself out if you let him talk long enough.”

So back to the story. What I thought would be the basis and location of the story, Bennett’s estate, ended up changing half-way through. I naively had believed this would be the scene of all the action, since that was all that was mentioned in the blurb. However, the story went further and deeper and darker than just wandering around some enormous estate, looking at lakes, and trying to catch the fancy of the prettiest girl there.

Not that those parts weren’t entertaining on their own. I guess the way the story stops and changes pace and moves in a different direction, often taking other character’s points of view, is something you would liken to real life: how sometimes we go here, we stop; we go there – but wait that didn’t work; we revisit this place, but only in our minds; and then we go back to where we started.

My first thoughts of the book were not much. There was swearing in the first page, which made me think perhaps I could do the same in my writings, however it’s something that I think is a bit borderline since my work is geared towards a young adult audience. Still, I was happy to read:

“Streetcars rang the bell on the whole fucking neighbourhood.”

This definitely was not the sole instance of swearing, and the crudeness continued not only in terms of language, but in behaviours (pissing was a recurring one), events, and really, really horrible circumstances that made you question humanity. The crudeness continued in the written word too, with Doctorow placing some really interesting ‘I’ references that jolted me out of my reader-state and ‘broke the wall,’ so to speak. Lots of jumping from one character’s point-of-view, to the narrator (author) back to the character in a matter of paragraphs. Without warning. Also the character never continuously spoke in the first person, with Doctorow often injecting a different narrative voice just to make you wonder what the hell was going on.

In one instance, the character Warren Penfield is speaking from his point-of-view, and then it changes to this:

“I acknowledge Warren’s lifelong commitment – cancel lifelong commitment – fatal attraction for any kind of communication whether from words, flags, pigeons or the touch of fingertips in hope of a common language, but we must remember how we are vulnerable to the repetition of our insights so that they tend to come to us not as confirmation of something we already know but as genuine discoveries each and every time.”

At first all of this was very jarring, but like the first time you read Shakespeare and needed to get used to the old-style language, or when you read Trainspotting and had no idea what was going on until half-way through the book when their lingo became second nature to you, so too did I eventually become very well-acquainted with his jumpy style of writing.

Aside from this jumpiness in many character point-of-views, changing from 1st to 3rd person, going back and forth in time between the two main men Joe and Warren, and a good smattering of poems, death notices (and one death notice where we are actually introduced to the character whose future death is foreshadowed before we meet him) there is the case of the run-on sentences. This is normal:

“The track went through some woods circled around a small mountain lake and then it started up a grade a long slow winding grade, I was not already in love with her but in her field of force, what I thought I felt like was some stray dog following the first human being it happened to see.”

This doesn’t show the full extent of the much-often absent comma, as the best example is at the end of the book, when Warren’s POV goes a full two pages without a single full stop. At an average of 11 words per 62 lines, that equates to approximately 682 words. That’s a lot of ideas in one sentence. Without googling, this must not be Doctorow’s first work. I’m sorry, but a first-time author would NEVER get away with that (and it kills me that so many things are out-of-bounds for us).

However, Doctorow does it all so well, and so absurdly, breaking the rules that it actually makes sense. He keeps us confused and guessing, up until a certain point before we are about to break with insanity, and then reveals the information we need so we don’t think we are going crazy with misinformation. He keeps us on our toes.

The above quote doesn’t just show how thoughts change abruptly, displaying the real nature of the human mind, but it shows a beautiful element of Joe’s character, and despite the questionable acts he has done in the past, and does continue to do, he has some tender moments. Take this:

“She was happy on the move, alert and at peace, all the inflamed spirit was lifted from her. She had various ways of arranging herself in the seat, legs tucked up or one under the other, or arms folded, head down, but in any position definitive, beautiful.”

And my favourite, this one:

“Her grey eyes shone, her mouth stretched in her tremulous overbitten smile. I danced her out of there out down the corridor doing a fast fox trot full of swirls while I hummed the tune I had heard the night I came ‘Exactly Like You,’ Libby laughing and worrying at the same time, telling me to hush, looking back over her shoulder, giggling, falling against me every other step, brushing my cheek with her lips. And the light lay like a track along the carpet and shone in golden stations of the open doors.”

The crudeness of the novel had rubbed off onto my notes as I was reading, with the following associated with the above: “This guy can fucking do beautiful poignancy!” As another nod to how his themes intertwine and repeat, there is reference here to the terms ‘track’ and ‘golden stations,’ homage to the train he followed to make it to Loon Lake.

Ahh, the elusive Loon. First mention of it comes from a poem by Warren Penfield, before we even meet Warren! This spiked my curiosity, as I didn’t know what an actual Loon was, or even if it was anything, maybe a particular name or place. It is in fact a bird that grabs fish from the lake of the esteemed estate that it’s named after it. This following poem captures the metaphor of the bird, and the story, and the dual nature of things often present in this book, perfectly:

“A doomed Indian would hear them at night in their diving

and hear their cry not as triumph or as rage

or the insane compatibility with the earth

attributed to birds of prey

but in protest against falling

of having to fall into that black water

and struggle up from it again and again

the water kissing and pawing and whispering

the most horrible promises…”

Beautiful imagery is present there. Doctorow makes stunning use of precise details, painting vivid pictures, like this:

“The chief is not cold. He sits at his desk in a short-sleeved shirt. Arms like trees. His wrist watch appears to be imbedded in the flesh. His badge, pinned to his shirt pocket, pulls the material to a point.”

And this, which tugged at my heartstrings with its sadness:

“Warren knew they were poor and lived lives the colour of sag.”

I’ve mentioned crudeness, but the other notable theme is that of poverty, something both of our protagonists share in. Going back to the beginning, we discover Joe has had a fairly pathetic upbringing, and learns to become street-smart in order to get by. He is an interesting protagonist, because he makes choices that would normally make him a very complicated bad guy, only slightly worthy of redemption, rather than the man we are rooting for. Despite the fact that he is on the run at the beginning of the novel due to theft, we come to like him because we see that he’s clever.

He tells the story of how in his early years he stole a cart full of groceries from the fat delivery boy, and instead of taking the groceries for himself, delivered them to all the intended customers, brought the trolley to the store man, and gave him all the money down to the very cent. He scored a job out of this, and it is this event that we start to see, hey, this isn’t some ratbag kid chasing short-term goals. He is in it for the long-term… until he steals the wrong person’s property that is.

He has many ‘save the cat’ moments. There is much I want to say, but I’ll refrain for spoiler’s sake. Let’s just say that he ends up at a carnival, and there are a lot of really sordid, sad scenes. One scene that comes later in the book during a kind of flashback, was really, really distressing to me. I remember finishing that section late one Sunday night and just feeling so low, so crap. Knowing that somewhere in the world, not perhaps that particular thing, but something of the sort, was happening, and had happened, and maybe even would happen again, just made me so sad. Joe is an explosive kind, and despite his own very, very dubious actions, redeems himself in key moments.

“I wanted to do to her what had been done to the Fat Lady, I wanted the force of a hundred men in unholy fellowship, I went at her like a murderous drunkard.”

The whole reason I had sought out this book in the first place is because I had heard of a quote by him that really grabbed my attention:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

When later that week I was in a library, I went in search of some of his name and found Loon Lake. I hadn’t really looked into much of his work, or even been recommended any particular book, but seeing the mysterious tones mentioned in the blurb it seemed within my field of interest.

Despite my initial confusion with almost ALL elements of the novel, I still revelled in it, as I like going out of my comfort zone and exploring different forms of storytelling, be it in movies, music or books.

Confusion abounded in Loon Lake: Joe and Warren’s point-of-views were eerily similar, with similar heartbreaking backgrounds, had travelled similar paths to Loon Lake, and later, were in love with the same girl. Their personalities were so different, yet their journeys so symmetrical, that until they actually met each other, I was convinced they were the same person, just bipolar. However the events leading to their meeting, the events that unfold, and the things that happen after Loon Lake are truly fascinating.

The story felt goal-less when Joe was on the run at the beginning; I realise the enticing incident was the authorities chasing him, making him move on, but there were many pages and many continuous moments of crossing land where I just thought “what is pushing the story forward? What is Joe’s motivation?” I guess this story does mimic real life, as I mentioned earlier in Joe’s jumpy thoughts, where sometimes things just move along, move along, and then BANG! you’re given a reason to run.

Just like life, this story has everything: it has the ultimate goal, searching for love, searching for the one, and searching for the life that you believe you deserve. It does this in a perverse way. It has humour. It has sadness. It has desperation, and it has manic moments. It has frightening insights of bleak honesty, so harsh and eerie that it makes you shiver. There are scary moments – scary from humans, and scary because of life. Some things feel like a dream, things go back and forth, and you question many, many voices that are presented throughout. Like the Warren quote mentioned above where Doctorow ‘breaks the wall’ and begins with “I acknowledge Warren’s lifelong commitment…” this passage is also telling in the random thoughts and flashbacks of Warren’s, including one of his repetitions which is identical to another but refers to two separate incidences. When you read it, you’ll know what I mean. But it had me flipping wildly to the start of the book, muttering “I’ve read this before!”

Still, despite the frequent bleakness, and the fact that I probably won’t read another Doctorow book until I read a few really happy novels first, I did enjoy it, and it did have enough humour and insight that I appreciated. I would read another book of his. Just after a blindingly cheesy-happy one.

The ending is not really an ending: not to me anyway. It definitely isn’t one in the Hollywood movie-ending scheme of things, if we’re talking karma and what not. You don’t have very many answers as you go along, and it kind of just ends there, just kind of like life. Some things are tied up, and sometimes, some things are not.

All in all, this novel is a f*^ked up accomplishment of sorts. It has everything, as it had me feeling, and thinking, long after I finished reading. Well done Doctorow. To make a reader feel and think so hard, is testament to your form. Also, to read a book that has so many analogous yet confusing elements in it, yet still giving enough that allows the reader to make sense of it all, is an achievement. If you only like shiny happy things, you’ll walk away screwed up. You’ve been warned.

I’ll end on this page 76 quote that interestingly foreshadows the future of the story while also painting a terrific metaphor.

“…a loon was coming in like a roller coaster. He hit the water and skidded for thirty yards, sending up a great spray, and when the water settled he was gone. I couldn’t see him, I thought the fucker had drowned. But up he popped, shaking and mauling a fat fish. And when the fish was polished off, I heard a weird maniac cry coming off the water, and echoing off the hills.”

Please let me know your thoughts on Loon Lake in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you. 🙂