I live a life that is far busier than I want or intend it to be. There never seems to be enough time to get my own work done, let alone go to the movies, see friends, or visit my family. The thing I hate almost more than anything, though, is that I never have enough time to read novels.
I love novels. I love how big they are, how much they contain. I love the way they make my imagination work, how they make it want to work. I love the way a really good one makes you want to devour it and savor it slowly at the same time. I love how novels are like sex in that way. What I love most about novels, though, is how powerful they can be. Because when I find a writer whose work I love, everything else that eats my time takes an immediate back seat: I cancel appointments, call in sick to work, let the machine pick up. I have been known to forgo bathing or brushing my hair in service to the pursuit of a good read.
For me, one novelist who continues to hold this kind of powerful sway in my life is Jane Hamilton.
What I love about her books: The Book of Ruth, A Map of the World, The Short History of a Prince, and, her most recent, Disobedience, is how immodest they are. What begin as seemingly simple pictorial stories of family life quickly spiral into the true complexity of life itself, like looking at a drop of water under a microscope. The voices are vivid and clear, the language beautiful but not too, the stories completely compelling, like gossip without the meanness or judgment: stories of people like us who fall too deeply into the morass of themselves and then have to find some way to dig themselves out. For instance: in Disobedience, the teenage narrator, Henry Shaw, has inadvertently begun to read his mother's e-mail, and has, as a consequence, learned things about her that no one else knows. Here, Hamilton accurately captures the smart child's ability to apprehend information and his less-formed ability to interpret the things he's learned. Listen to the way he imagines his mother with her lover:
Beth Shaw brought his hand to her lips as he spoke and kissed his short fingers. What was the worst thing that had happened to her, or to her family? Minty's brother Clarence had studied art history and become a homosexual, though no one talked about his proclivity. One of the great-aunts had been committed to a mental institution. Somewhere along the line there'd been a couple of alcoholics, a ne'er-do-well, a divorce. No, my mother's sadnesses and the family's failures were common, the simple ones that are bred in the bone. She kissed his fingers and thought, atrocities. It was as if she had been surrounded by history for so much of her adult life, general history, history that did not belong to her or anyone she had actually known, and here, all of a sudden, in the form of an orphan man, was a specific history, a person with something real that had happened to him, that had wounded him. He was a person she might be able to comfort, a man she could lead out of the dark past, going from light to light to light.
Henry's love for his mother, his unfolding jealousy, his desireŘ Oedipal, of course, but how interesting is that? What is compelling, always, is the particularity of the spin on the old myth.
I know nothing of Ms. Hamilton other than that she "lives, works, and writes in an orchard farmhouse in Rochester, Wisconsin," but I imagine her life aside from writing keeps her pretty busy. Indeed, given the nature of the books she writes, how could I envision her life to be anything but? Be that as it may, in my opinion, she has not written nearly enough. I am pleased to use this space not only as an exhortation for you to read her books, but also as a sort of bully pulpit to entreat Ms. Hamilton to write more.