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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Claire Messud's "The Hunters" - A Lyrical Journey

There's something special about Claire Messud's writing and one has to take time and enjoy, as if for the first time, our lips were allowed to touch the rim of a wine glass containing--none other than--a couple of ounces of 1977 Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine. I am not saying it is an acquired taste, not at all, but tackling "The Last Life" in 2001 left me a little confused. I wonder how it was possible for me (a lyrical and romantic language lover) not to like the stylistic prowess of this excellent writer. Messud made me a convert because no matter how much I struggled with "The Last Life," I was more than rewarded in the end. It wasn't until I read "The Emperor's Children" that I realized here was a real literary genius; a contemporary author with the facility of lyrical and descriptive language few others can match today. I read "The Emperor's Children" during my trip to China in 2008. I began reading the book a few days before my trip, and, although I knew I was going to have a busy schedule during my visit, I took the book with me nonetheless. I am glad I did, as I am glad at the fact that the volume got a much deserved recognition in the award circles (although aside from NYT Best Book of the Year, I don't think it was awarded more). I decided that once I got home from my trip, I would hunt down all of her books and read them immediately.

I found a copy of "The Hunters" (a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist) at a used book store and didn't think twice before paying the hefty $16. for it. I didn't get to read it as soon as I wanted to, but now that I've picked it up, I find it a narrative as close to perfection as they come. This is more than lyricism; the descriptive language (a make or break element in what some critics regard as 'wordy' literature) is Messud's main strength in this collection of novellas. The first, "A Simple Tale" is the story of two women, or actually just one. As the narrative begins, we meet Maria Poniatowski, caretaker for one Mrs. Ellington. The plot revolves around Maria's inability to reconcile her past with her present life in Canada. She suffered greatly during the unrest of World War II in Europe, escaping from labor camps, moved from one Displaced Persons camp to another, until she reached Canada by special arrangement. By this time she is married and has a small child. Adapting by working as a cleaning lady for distinguished families, she beings to feel as Canadian as any Canadian around. But the price of this assimilation has an immense cost. Messud's descriptions are a literary tour d'force, allowing the reader to see it all painted inside their mental vision. Here's an example of how an expert writer describes with such small details so as to bring the reader inside the written picture: "She [Maria] went to the McDonalds on Mondays and Wednesdays all day (they had three children--Jack among them, then a boy of nine--who made quite a mess), and to the Ellingtons on Tuesdays until just after lunch. The Pollocks were on Thursdays, once again through till six o'clock (instead of children, Mrs. Pollock kept a pair of small, long-haired white dogs, with smashed noses and Oriental eyes, who shed indiscriminately and whose chronic, vindictive ill temper created a great need for cleaning: when crossed, they vomited and peed and pooped in tantrum (and occasionally in tandem), and when left alone scratched irritably at door frames, piano legs and upholstery, almost as if they were cats). Fridays, Maria saved for Mrs. Mallow, a genuine half-day--home by 2 PM--spent largely, it seemed, in keeping the old woman company, as she kept her house pristine of her own accord." There it seems to be two ways of writing this passage. For example, if this was a simple schedule that Maria kept week after week, why not detail it and move on? A master describer (such as Messud) is not so easily satisfied. Here we see the addition of information in parenthesis appear like a private detective log. I can't get over the little dogs and the parenthesis within the parenthesis. Visually, descriptive information in parenthesis reinforces the detail of the information being offered. This is the type of small detail that tells a story all of its own; imagine, a story within a story but without having to include a separate story. Let the details do the storytelling. As diminutive as this passage appears, I wanted to quote this one in particular because it really shows talent beyond comprehension.

In the second novella, "The Hunters," Messud tells the story of a sort of academic character whose main attraction was spying on his neighbors. It isn't so much that the story displays a sense of macabre or weirdness; on the contrary, the flow of this little masterpiece depends on much of what I wrote about "A Simple Tale," but in addition to masterful description, Messud also displays she is a force to reckon with when writing dialogue.

This little volume is not a new one (first published in 2001), but I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning how to write description, or simply to a reader who wants to get lost in thought provoking environments of the descriptive mind.

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