Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Where are the authentic monologues? In The Feast of Love

The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter (Vintage, 2000, 308 pages).

In my shallow career as a fiction reader, I have wondered how an author writes good dialogue. One thing that has irritated me about my favorite authors (Carver, Coupland and Baxter) is that their dialogue sometimes seems contrived. Do people really talk about this stuff? Maybe people wonder about the same thing about people like me--he talks about that stuff?

Charles Baxter came to (then) Mankato State University during my first term there after I transferred from the University of Kansas. I had rediscovered my academic passion after my poor-to-mediocre first three years. I was voraciously reading and sucking the marrow out of collegiate life--attending lectures, readings, campus events, and getting involved in campus ministry. I attended a public reading by Charles Baxter for his collection of stories, A Relative Stranger. It was my first reading by a published author, ever. Though I had sworn off journalism for the time being, writing and literature were still keen and developing interests. Though I remember little about Baxter's dialogue, he bacame an example in my fiction writing for details and lists that gave information about characters without action or dialogue. Probably a basic for fiction analysis and writing, but new to me. In Feast of Love, Baxter is still good at those details.

The dialogue is still labored, but I learned so much about the characters and relationships in short, descriptive monologues about their relationships, that the dialgoue doesn't seem to matter as much later in the novel. The monologues were effective to me because of their authenticity. As a pastor, I feel like I get a lot of inauthentic communication because so many people are trying to filter their stories in a religious/spiritual/faith setting. These are the kind of stories shared with a hair dresser over several years. But these monologues are shared with the author, Charlie Baxter, about whom the reader learns very little, except that he is an insomniac. Because of the authentic monologues (sometimes graphic, but never gratuitously so), I cared about the characters and their paths more deeply than I can remember for any characters in my reading memory. The conditions for these monologues also speak to the human condition: I think people are looking for a safe place to tell their stories, but people are also a bit narcissistic. They want their story to be out in public (reconfigured to protect the innocent) to assure themselves of meaning in their lives. Maybe I should speak for myself, but I identified with these characters for this reason. They desired to be understood and have meaning for their stories.

I like this book more the more I think about it. Which for me is the sign of a good story.

I picked up a copy of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I don't think I'll be reading this as quickly as Feast of Love, but I need a shot at literary redemption.

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