Monday, August 3, 2015

Sumner's One-Stop Literary Joke Shop

Melanie Sumner, How to Write a Novel: a novel

Aristotle “Aris” Thibodeau wants you to know she’s an old soul. Only 12.5 years old (and she doggedly claims that point-five), she’s already endured enough life to understand her mother’s romantic mistakes, grade college-level papers, and tell her own story. Somebody gave her a book entitled Write a Novel in Thirty Days!, and she accepts that challenge. This book, a half-joking satire of postmodern metafiction, is the result.

I can only imagine, after publishing three novels and teaching college writing for over a quarter century, Melanie Sumner has become disgusted with MFA workshop fiction. She lards this novel with in-jokes that writers and writing teachers may find hilarious. I laughed often at Aris’ knowing, winky narration. But I also wondered who Sumner really wrote this novel for. There’s a fine line between satire and being mean to up-and-coming strivers, and Sumner can’t always find it.

Aris narrates a complicated domestic drama that simultaneously echoes and mocks literary realism. Having pronounced herself engaged to a charming, conveniently absent classmate, she sets about arranging her widowed mother’s remarriage to a local handyman whose flaws Aris cannot see. Aris’ mother, whom she addresses as “Diane,” met both her late husband and her handyman at AA; Diane attends meetings so obsessively that she’s clearly traded one addiction for another.

Meanwhile, Aris’ brother Max demonstrates autistic symptoms. Aris pronounces herself Max’s co-parent, and persistently gives Diane unwanted advice. Her childlike pronouncements on romance and parenthood increasingly highlight the gulf between her viewpoint and real life, almost daring us to determine how reliable a narrator Aris actually is. Gaps add up until readers inevitably second-guess everything they’ve read. Maybe Aris wants us to doubt reading itself.

Melanie Sumner
Sumner almost dares us to pass judgment on this narrator and her book. Aris’ narration is a point-for-point mirror on textbook creative writing, and she frequently admits that things happen in her story, not because they happen, but because her how-to guide says it’s time. Sometimes this is funny; other times, it feels disrespectful, rude, and taxing, like Sumner spun a @GuyInYourMFA tweet across 300 pages.

For instance, I struggle with our viewpoint character. Does Sumner intend us to take Aris seriously, or does she see her first-person narrator as a send-up of fake literary children like Scout Finch and Holden Caulfield? Sumner lards Aris’ narration with anachronisms, weird contradictions, and signals that Aris isn’t really writing this book. Then in the willfully ironic introduction, she concedes, “I could be lying about my age.”

Sumner also digs in other literary conventions throughout. Aris’ mother adjuncts at a rural Christian college, which stifles her own creative impulses. Sumner, a tenure-track professor herself, apparently doesn’t realize how little work colleges actually permit adjuncts to do, or their pay scale. Also, adjuncts aren’t “denied tenure,” because they’re not tenure-track, and a fired Christian college adjunct probably won’t subsequently snag full professorship at Harvard.

Aris doesn’t number her chapters. She’ll just toss page breaks in irregularly, and divides “parts” according to stages on Freytag’s Pyramid: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Dènouement. Of course, these designations are ironically disconnected from what’s actually happening on paper. They just demonstrate Aris’ literary knowingness. Events happen because Aris writes them down; basically, she’s writing herself into existence.

How audiences respond to Sumner will depend on what they bring into this book with them. By daring us to judge Aris’ story, by challenging us to separate Aris’ unreliability from Sumner herself, she basically invites MFA instructors, hipsters, and literary burnouts into her circle of self-congratulation. Which isn’t entirely bad; personally, this struggling writer found this book often funny. But just as often, I found it facetiously annoying.

Sumner hit my event horizon with Charles Baxter, one of Diane’s students. Aris develops a creeping crush on Charles while reading his papers, which consist of confessing grim family secrets in playful tones. When Charles actually enters the scene, Sumner clothes him in a zoot suit, letting him demurely confess personal crimes with understated charm, while descending into increasing stereotype. The blatant digs at Iceberg Slim and Malcolm X felt mean.

Reading Sumner’s early pages, I wanted to like this story. Name-checking common MFA foibles and overused literary tropes felt cathartic, with flashes of true humor. But she just kept going. English major in-jokes and literary cynicism kept accumulating past the point of interest, and like that coffee-shop philosopher we all know, the novelty wore off pretty quickly. This is a good, funny concept, but a long, tiring novel.

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