Friday, February 12, 2010

Notes from a Reading

Originally, I expected to be spending most of this week in Albuquerque, where I was to be giving a talk on E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India and presenting an ecocritical reading of the landscape used throughout the novel. But as I’m sure you’re aware (unless you’ve been snowed and frozen in a cave for the past few days), the entire eastern seaboard got canceled this week--including my flight out of Harrisburg.

So, I ended up being in Lewisburg for the week, which gave me the opportunity to hear Christine Schutt read from her novel All Souls yesterday evening. Schutt is the author of four books: the novels Florida and All Souls, and the short story collections Nightwork and A Day, a Night, Another Day, Summer.

After an introduction from Porochista Khakpour at Bucknell Hall, Christine Schutt took to the podium and gave a few introductory remarks about All Souls. She noted that she wrote the novel while she had a fellowship in California and was 3,000 miles away from the sorts of New York parochial schools, where she has taught for many years and that inspired the characters and situations of the novel. Schutt said, “It figures: You go 3,000 miles to get away from a place and you can’t think of anything else.”

It was that time in California that gave Schutt the distance from the private, all-girls schools described in her novel, which thereby enabled her to write the book.

I’ve written about Schutt previously here on The Penguin in the Machine, and attending her reading last night reaffirms my opinions on her prose. Schutt’s style is at once minimalist and expansive, an exercise in creative atomic physics: Although her prose is sparse, spare, and powerfully compacted, the words press against each other and explode into images that are evocative, reeling, nuclear--the sensations of her prose leave readers emotionally charged, glowing and warm, for hours after reading Schutt’s prose or hearing her clear voice.

Schutt manages details expertly, positioning them to stand against each other and cast shadows and reflect glows, as depicted in All Souls when Carlotta goes to visit her friend Astra, suffering from a rare disease, in the hospital: “By the time Car got to the hospital, visiting hours were almost over, but Astra was awake, and when the girls saw each other, they cried. Astra was hooked to machinery and fenced off behind a castered table, so that Car stood aloof and cried….And what had she brought to show Astra? Old photos, the colors too bright; the beach, a hurtful white against the blue of everything else. Astra in a tented costume and Car in a bathing suit, and both of them laughing at Car’s father, who had taken pictures then.”

Schutt is a fantastic writer--a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist--and yet I hadn’t heard of her work until December 2009. If you haven’t read any of Schutt’s work, I recommend doing so; hers is a voice that shows that there is still experimentation, edginess, and beauty in American prose.


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