Last summer I took a craft class at Bread Loaf with Mary Akers called “Getting Away with it.” The class opened with a quiz that asked us to match excerpts from works of classic and contemporary literature with the “rule” they broke. Some examples were simple, such as “Never begin a story with the main character waking up,” while others were much more difficult to pin down. The exercise challenged me to think about the way I abide and ignore rules. Are there rules I religiously follow? Or am I compulsive real breaker? If so, what are they, and what does this attitude toward them say about me?
Those who feel that fiction shouldn’t be limited by something so prescriptive as a rule, haven’t served as a slush pile reader, graded a stack of freshman composition essays, or worked at a literary agency in December when all those NaNoWriMo manuscripts come crashing through the transom. From publications that purport to cash-in on help authors achieve their dreams of becoming published writers, to cheeky collaborations regarding ‘what not to write about,’ one can be forgiven for thinking that to make it as a writer one must be skilled at following instructions. As the gentleman at the traffic school I attended a few months ago noted, “Without laws, there be chaos.”
Behind every “How to” lurks an avalanche of “Don’ts.” No one knows this better than the debut novelist. If I were to make a list of all the stumbling blocks that bedevil debut novels, I’d find most of them in Patrick Somerville’s book. In fact, The Cradle would make a great case study for Akers’s class.
The novel opens in 1997 with Matt and Marissa, a young married couple who are about to welcome their first child into the world. We find Matt reluctantly preparing to embark on a quest to find and retrieve a cradle of Civil War-era vintage. The one-time family heirloom disappeared shortly after Marissa’s mother walked out on her family, and it has taken on totemic importance in Marissa’s imagination.
“There are two kinds of people in the world,” Marisa said. “There are people who understand that everything matters and people who don’t understand that everything matters.” How Marisa it was to say that. (6)
Six pages into the book, it’s clear the cradle is valuable as both an object and a symbol, a psychologically loaded link between a murky past and an uncertain future.
The action shifts ten years into the future to another anxious household where Renee and Bill try to come to terms with their son’s imminent deployment to Iraq. Her boy’s decision to fight in a war Renee cannot condone leaves her feeling helpless and betrayed. So much so that during a trip to the local donut shop, all she can do is look out the window and turn words over in her head as she reflects on her son’s request not to “get all weird,” (25)
She ate one donut and they each ate four; they had coffee and she had water in a Styrofoam cup. As they talked she looked out the half-frosted window at the whitened street, saw cars sliding here and there, and thought: not weird but displaced. Not weird but discord. Not weird but unexpected. Not weird but inharmonious. Not weird but unexpected. Not weird but improper. Not weird but juxtaposed. (26)
The author of a popular series of children’s books, Renee returns to her first love—poetry. She deals with her disillusionment and despair by pouring her heart into a manuscript, which awakens old secrets that have lain dormant for years. A shaggy dog tale, a road trip, a weepy poet. On the surface, there’s not a lot to recommend here. However, Somerville’s approach to navigating this plethora of pitfalls is to turn so-called weaknesses into strengths.
After all, who needs a plot when you can send your characters on a quest? The road story is a holdover from the oral tradition. Orators trafficked in stock characters and invented new adventures for heroes. As long as the story-teller sticks to familiar themes the stories can go on forever. (Nice work if you can get it.) But a series of vignettes does not a novel make. The Cradle isn’t a picaresque–it isn’t even a hero’s journey, though it follows the paradigm. Somerville sends Matt on a not-so-wild goose chase but uses the time he spends on the road to deepen our understanding of his character, “There were, he reflected, only three feelings in his heart’s repertoire: worry about money, love for Marissa, and a somewhat more mysterious attraction to the simplicity of one simple day.” (39) It helps that Matt is an immensely likable character. The reader wants to understand him and know what drives him.
But when an author starts packing multiple points of view, multiple settings, and multiple time periods into a single novel, he risks wearing out the reader. Many debuts take a kitchen sink approach to world building, but instead of being layered and deep they come off as shallow and diffuse. We know a little about a lot, and not much else. Somerville takes the opposite approach. He doesn’t aim to teach us anything we don’t need to know, i.e. it’s all about the characters. Everything springs from the primacy of the “heart’s repertoire.”
Of course, it’s a lot easier to flesh out a character’s background when there aren’t a lot of people in the picture, ergo the preponderance of orphans in debut fiction. But beginning writers often make the mistake of assuming that a character’s longing for an absent family is better than the real thing. Families may be complicated, but they’re interesting. The Cradle features not one, but two orphans and others who have been physically and/or emotionally abandoned. But Somerville doesn’t take the easy way out. He leads the reader to moments when the primal terror of being separated from one’s parents is viscerally, palpably felt. This is far messier than a sprawling family, but Somerville skillfully knits the lives of these orphans together in a way that will leave you wondering how he did it.
Whether it’s a case of self-love or self-loathing, writers love to hate books about writers, (even though we keep reading and writing them). A novelist writing about a writer has a bore for a protagonist. And a children’s book author who broods over a poetry manuscript in progress has “deal breaker” written all over it. Renee’s purpose is to summon the words that none of the other characters can say. This makes Renee essential to the novel. She’s the classic poet/oracle and, you’re probably thinking, a sodding snooze.
Not so. Terrified of flying, Renee loads up on sleeping pills for a flight to Hawaii. Only she’s miscalculated and taken Adderal instead. The author who makes drug-taking his subject risks alienating his audience for a number of reasons, the biggest being that drug trips are like dreams in that they are generally meaningful only for the people having them, and typically not for reasons that can be easily put into words. A drug-taking writer, then, is a double whammy. Trapped in her seat, Renee resolves to write her way through the flight. The woman who couldn’t put a coherent sentence together in the donut shop, faces her fears and overcomes them. It’s a high-wire performance fraught with tension and suspense and when it’s over, everything we know about Renee–and the rest of the novel–changes.
At first blush, Somerville’s debut endeavors to explore territory that many writers have stumbled over (and stumbled badly), but Somerville doesn’t miss a step. The Cradle is more than a high concept hook, it’s a hugely engaging read with characters you’ll fall in love with and a plot full of surprises. There be chaos in The Cradle, and plenty of it, but the end result of all Somerville’s rule-breaking is something orderly, unusual, and oxymoronic: a tightly plotted road novel.
Jim Ruland is the author of the short story collection Big Lonesome and the host of the L.A.-based reading series, Vermin on the Mount.