Empire Falls

I am not a litblogger.  That is to say, I didn’t start blogging in order to write about what I read.  I started blogging about a year ago through yahoo blogspot, and enjoyed it well enough. I used (and still do) blogging to start thinking through ideas I hoped could eventually be turned into essays, articles, and short stories – a kind of formalized free-writing.   A few months ago one of my coworkers was investigating the possibility of developing message boards and blogs for a certain subset of employees where I work, and to that end we started reading the blog by the microsoft guy, where I first saw a comment from litlove. I thought her screenname was interesting and so I clicked on it and was directed to her blog where I, like so many others, fell in love with her commentary and criticism. Later I checked out her blogroll, discovering bloglily, bikeprof, dorothy, stefanie, the list could go on and on and I could link and link but then I’d never complete this thought or this post so just, please, take some time to click on my blogroll to meet all of these amazing people, because it will be WELL worth your time, I promise. At any rate, I decided to switch my blog over from yahoo to wordpress and decided on my subject matter, allowing myself a lot of discretion, and found myself reading MOSTLY but not entirely litblogs.  I consider myself extremely fortunate to have found this particular community, but I never did and still don’t imagine myself becoming a litblogger because, having written countless papers for countless classes, both undergraduate and graduate, I still find it distinctly painful to write about books unless I am absolutely burning up with motivation to do so, and I knew there was no way I could keep blogging if I committed myself to one particular subject. So, after that incredibly long explanation, I am going to write about Empire Falls, first proclaiming myself NOT a litblogger – this post will not be replete with the kind of analysis you are used to, but as I was reading it I kept thinking, I need to blog about this book.   With that said…

There has been quite a bit of discussion recently about plot around the litblogging community – what constitutes it, how it’s created, how much of it is necessary, how it works in American versus British novels, in different genres, etc.  One point litlove made that I’ve been thinking about as a writer is the possibility that the “great American novel,”  is often weak on plot (and please, correct me if I’m wrong because I am not going back for specific text as I am on hideous deadlines here at work), instead using characters to fuel any story that happens to be hanging around. In other words, highly developed characters BECOME the plot.  This rang especially true with Empire Falls,   by Richard Russo, but what bothered me even more about this book, which for the most part is very engaging and somewhat disturbing, is the fact that most of the characters driving the plot are reacting to a chain of events that occured well before they were even ‘born.’  Their lives, in a sense, are dictated by actions taken by characters well before any “action” starts – ie, Miles Roby doesn’t live up to his potential and moves home to take care of his dying mother NOT because it’s the right thing to do or something he believes he should do, but instead because years ago his mother had an affair with the town scion, and the scion’s wife has since been subtly and not so subtly punishing the Roby family. Much of the story centers around the sins of the parents being visited on the children, with each generation of Empire Falls progressively growing more hopeless, caught between the desperation of their history and the hope of their future.

It certainly won’t surprise anyone that I have little patience for the Hemingway approach where a hero (never a heroine) is trapped in circumstances beyond his control, all “woe is me, my life is hideous but it’s not my fault, now let me eat and shoot some shit.” I found Miles Roby to be quite a drag, frankly, and his ex-wife even more so, to a point where often I found myself lacking in sympathy for either one of them. Roby takes very little action until the end of the novel, and the action he does take is both fight and flight, reaction to events happened upon him and not occuring from action he instigates. 

I actually thought  Tina, Roby’s daughter, was the most successful character Russo created.  His ability to imagine her teenage experience was heartbreaking.

I think what frustrated me the most about this book, though, was having so much of the action occur before the “story” actually started – forcing the (well-developed) characters to serve as receptacles for all that has come before them. I think it’s easy to fall into such a situation – and as  a writer I reviewed the progress I’m making on my novel to see if I, in fact, am simply creating characters reacting to all that came before them, but I’m not – I’m following a very basic formula – X happens, and then X happens, and then X happens, but there is very obvious cause and effect. 

what am I trying to get at here? I’m not sure myself. I didn’t love this novel as much as I expected to, after hearing so many Russo raves. Litlove wrote that for her, plot is like spice – a little goes a long way, but she needs that little bit for an effective reading experience.  For me, for a totally engaging reading experience, I need a little plot, and I need well-developed characters, and I also need my characters to take act and react. When the core story occurs before the characters in the novel are even born, well, for me it simply isn’t as effective as characters engaged in plot and action of their own. 

Ug, my office is so loud. There are ALWAYS problems, and always things to complain about around here, and even with my door shut I can hear my coworkers. I’d better return to my job.I fear I didn’t render what I mean very well in this post, but I guess I’ll only improve by trying my hand at litblogging here and there.  Thanks for bearing with this one. You know, it was so elegant, so perfect in my head, but writing about books is HARD. I don’t know how you all do it. I know what I think, but some sort of slippage occurs when I start writing about texts – it always has.  If only I could write what’s in my mind, and not what falls off my fingertips and onto the keyboard…perhaps I can simplify? Go against what I learnedand say why I liked it and why I didn’t?  I liked the way the characters carried me through the story, and I liked the multiple points of view. I did not, and have never, liked characters who exist simply to react to events that occured before them. They may be very true to real life – I recognize that. But for me, there has to be a little something more.

 we have a crisis at work so I can’t go back and proof – please forgive all typos!

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13 Responses to Empire Falls

  1. LK says:

    Geez, Courtney, this is like looking at my own blog in the mirror! Like you, my blog is not strictly about books and wasn’t created as such. And I find myself having a tough time writing about the books I read. Though I desperately want to be part of the wonderufl litblogging community you mentioned. I love reading. I love books. Why, then, don’t I necessarily like to write about reading books? I keep thinking it has something to do with being a writer, first and foremost. I read like a writer, and I want to write. I want to use what I read to write fiction. I don’t want to go back and write about what I read. Though I’m trying. Okay, I’m babbling. In print. I could go back and edit but I won’t. I’m going to lay out the whole bloody thing, raw, and like you, I am distracted by Making a Living, which is really annoying to me, like a big old hairy 300-pound housefly buzzing around my head. I had the same issues with Empire Falls, too, but I think I’ll stop for now and let you and your readers off the hook. Thanks so much for this post!!!!

  2. litlove says:

    Aw, Courtney, you sweetie. I was feeling really down in the dumps today, and reading your kind words has cheered me no end. I loved your review of Empire Falls – found it extremely interesting. And you know what, it is really hard to write about books. I always have something different (and perfect) in my head that comes out entirely distorted on the screen. I just think books are slippery objects that resist our attempts to hold them still.

  3. Make Tea Not War says:

    I like reading litbogs but I don’t really consider myself a litblogger as such either. Nor do I see myself primarily as a writer. In blogging I’m just chatting to the world at large (and sometimes mostly just to myself) about stuff that occurs to me.

    Incidentally I was talking to my sister the other day and she was saying there are some books she just can’t be bothered reading anymore. One is the coming of age novel and the other is the character comes to terms with the past novel- which I think ties in with your comment about never liking characters who exist simply to react to events that occured before them.

  4. Kerryn says:

    I also like reading litblogs — they have been a wonderful source of inspiration and fodder for my to be read list — but find it difficult to write about books. Why? Like LK (and all of us, I suspect) I love reading and I love books. I don’t consider myself a writer though so it must be something more. Maybe. Is it that I feel I can’t offer anything new? Or that I feel my opinions, half formed and somewhat misshapen, are not ready to be let loose on the community that I stumbled onto and now watch from the sidelines? Like you, I don’t know how all those wonderful litbloggers do it. I’m just so glad that they do.

    BTW, I loved the mental image of you, locked in your office writing this, while all around was chaos. Typos forgiven 🙂

  5. Dorothy W. says:

    Oh my GOSH, Courtney, this type of writing is EXACTLY what is so exciting about blogging about books (call it “litblogging” or not) — that the blogger has the freedom to react in highly personal ways and to play around with ideas and not to have to have a thesis or be comprehensive, or consistent, or follow all the “rules.” That’s what’s great about blogging: that there are no rules! I wouldn’t write about books if I felt I had to meet some standard, or had to follow rules, or write like I would for class. God forbid. We aren’t in a classroom here, and I find the freedom of that exhilarating.

  6. BikeProf says:

    This is the sort of post that always makes me happy–I really don’t have anything that important to say, I’m not a lit critic, these are just my thoughts, and then WHAM! brilliant analysis. I also like the free form, with the work noise interrupting and life generally trying to get in the way. I don’t totally agree with you on EF–I did like the book–but I think you make an excellent point about the way the characters are so weighted down with what has come before thm that they really don’t do all that much. I hadn’t really thought of it this way before, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I can see that this is something that Russo does a lot. He must be carrying a lot of baggage himself, or something.

  7. LK says:

    Yay, Dorothy, Yay BikeProf, Yay TEAM! 🙂

  8. Emily says:

    I’m not a litblogger, either, but like you, find myself in the great company of all these litbloggers who’ve accepted me, which is wonderful. What happens to me is that books just seem to sneak themselves into many of my posts whether they’ve been invited or not. So congratulations on taking the plunge and writing about a book and doing such a great job! I absolutely love to hear people tell me why they didn’t really like a book that I loved, especially when they do so as eloquently as you have. Now, if only you lived next door, and I could come over with some tea, and we could sit around and chat about it for hours…

  9. LK- I LOVE your post – I’m a huge fan of the bloody rawness of it all! Those of us who are hoping to make our livings writing, and in the mean time simply making our livings, MUST unite and support one another! Viva the writing life!

    Litlove, oh, I’m sorry you were having a rough day yesterday! I’m glad I cheered you up, and I love the idea of books as slippery objects we can’t hold.

    Make TEa – LOL about not being bothered by certain books. I definately agree with your sister about the coming of age novel, although I am still (ashamedly) a fan of the “moving home and coming to terms” novel.

    Kerryn – I too am completely grateful for our litblogging community – it is a continued source of inspiration!

    Dorothy – it’s so funny to hear you say you wouldn’t litblog if you had to follow a certain format – I am always so impressed by the way you write about books, which seems far beyond what I could do.

    Bikeprof – Unfortunately, I ran out of time before I could talk about the things I LIKED about Empire Falls, which were actually plentiful. I do think it’s a great novel – but I just happened to have all those discussions on plot in my head and it so certain elements stuck out to me.

    Emily – as I mentioned to Bikeprof, I actually did enjoy the novel, and I will be lending it out to friends and family – just didn’t have enough time for a full discussion. I wish you could come over for tea, too – nothing sounds better, in fact!

  10. Barry says:

    I find I have to defend Empire Falls. All apart from the end, I really liked Empire Falls, because it portrayed the kind of small town community I could totally relate to, not necessarily like, where you are never free from the past in the way you can become in a big city. These communities have long memories. And for those who come into that town, they’re arriving mid-story, needing to piece together the past to make sense of why there is tension over there, what makes one place the place to go and the other the place to avoid, and its not like it is going to be the daily conversation of the residents. We readers are like that, in entering any fictive world. I sometimes find fiction a bit too obvious and inauthentic, when it tries too hard to make sure readers are brought up to speed.

  11. bloglily says:

    One way blogging about books differs from writing a formal essay is that your thinking about the book can lead you to meditations on subjects that have only the most tangential relationship to the book. And that is completely okay. So a description of a book can lead to the weather, the chaos in your office, what you were like when you read it the first time, that sort of thing. And you can interrupt yourself and make a joke, or even add a picture. But you still get across some essential reaction to a book — and, perhaps because it’s so personal, it reaches people quite effectively, inspiring them to think and read more deeply. I like that about your writing and the writing of every person I read in the comments above, on your blogroll, and your blogroll’s blogroll (how biblical that sounds). Keep it coming!

    As for Empire Falls — I really like Richard Russo, for his evocation of a certain kind of loser catholic upstate new york life, for his wonderful sense of humor, and for his compassion toward his people. The trouble with Empire Falls, a fine book even with its troubles, is (a) he needed a better editor because it just goes on for too long and (b) someone should have told him that the ending was a mistake, that in mirroring current events he would lose credibility among readers who believe in his world because it’s not “topical” but timeless.

    Oh, and one more thing — your point about characters reacting to the past seems to me to be a larger concern with how the forward narrative of a novel can account for the past without losing a reader’s attention. Sounds like he didn’t do that so well in this book. Makes me think about who does it well. Dickens is full of this sort of thing, and yet the narrative doesn’t bog down. Think about Great Expectations which is all about the past or Bleak House.

    You’ve got us all thinking, that’s for sure!

    Best, BL

  12. Pingback: On being a litblogger (or bookblogger?) « Of Books and Bicycles

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