THE OLD FORT: A MUSING FROM THE OIL SANDS
Jennifer Quist’s Marvelous Work of Literacy Art
You’re reading a book. It’s a damn good book. Your wife comes in and says, “I need you to take out the garbage.” You want to tell her that you already did so, but there is no easy way to express the past tense when your author is writing everything in the second person. It’s as if you, the reader have become the character. Then you realize it is not happening in the book; your wife is actually standing next to you.
UNLESS YOUR JOB INVOLVES WRITING ON A DAILY BASIS, most of you are not overly focused on the grammatical person that something is written in. If it is pointed out to you, you will likely nod your head and say, ‘Ah, I see’, without really caring.
The first person, where the author writes as if he is the character in the story, is fairly common in certain types of books; detective thrillers like Parker’s Spenser for example. The first person is autobiographical in nature. It inserts you into the story and the writing can feel personal and intimate.
When you write in the third, universal person, then you as the writer take the omniscient viewpoint. In a way you hover over the top, able to see all viewpoints as the writer shows them to you. Most fiction is written in this way as it allows multiple characters and settings. Gone with the Wind is a classic example as are the Harry Potter books.
Now, the second person is different. It feels reported and immediate, which is why many columnists use it, but it is too detached to be intimate. Everything up till now in this column has been written thus. It is sometimes used as trickery to create a sense of urgency and acute present tense. It is not often done in fiction because it is just so damn hard, although it is used in cookery books and perversely works rather well, (you take two eggs and crack them into a bowl…).
What can seem like flowing and urgent reportage (or recipe) in 600 words can in the wrong hands be dreary over 60,000. Not many writers try to write in the second person, and of those that do, few succeed.
Some of the greats have done it, once: Atwood, Calvino, Faulkner, Hawthorne,Tolstoy. Jay McInerny is the author most often mentioned, for his book Bright Lights Big City. And now we have Jennifer Quist.
Love Letters of the Angels of Death is a strange title, and it is a story about a strange topic. Nearly everything about her opus seems strange. Even her name, Quist, looks like it came from a Star Trek script – the new alien officer, third from the left, wearing the red shirt. The only thing that is not strange at all is the story Quist tells. For truly, this is a beautiful book.
Is there anything more evocative of Fort McMurray than this?
“The neighbour looks over and laughs – making it even harder for me to figure out what he’s saying to us. I’ll get used to the sound of accents like his soon, but for now I’m still ignorant enough for it to take two repetitions – each louder than the last – before I understand that he’s identifying a big black bug sitting on the walkway. He calls it a tarsand beetle and claims it’ll bite us.”
Love Letters of the Angels of Death, Jennifer Quist’s first book, is a charming story, yet if I try to describe it my categorizations may turn you off. It is a love story, and a collection of wonderful vignettes. Yet it is also a complete whole as a tale and a loving homage to our part of Canada. It is so intimate that in the chapter that deals specifically with their move to Fort McMurray, (Nineteen), I find myself reliving my own move here eight years ago, yet seen through a richer light and a keener eye. Intimate, but it deals with broader universal themes as well.
Love Letters also deals with some uncomfortable topics but done in such a real way that I found myself, towards the end, reading as fast as I could to get to what I had suspected was coming, indeed had hoped so: but also dreaded.
Jennifer Quist has been published several times in Northword, Fort McMurray’s own Literary Journal, something she makes much of on her website. I suspect in time to come the shoe will be on the other foot as Northword will be able to make much of them being among the first to spot her talent. She writes in such a way that she takes you to the bottom of the page and forces you to turn, and again, and again, and again.
This is a literary book, but if saying that scares you off as the latest Ondaatje or Morrison might, don’t let it. It is also an excellent holiday read, and a great book to pick up as you are going through the airport. My literary poison of choice generally trends towards Lee Child, Linwood Barclay and Peter Robinson, and I initially said to my editor that I was having a hard time of it. That was my fault. Buy this book if you like good writing, buy it if you like parsed, pithy prose where every word is valued for all it says, and the sum of their parts is exponential. But also buy it if the literary genre scares you, because this book will not. Hell, buy it because it’s a damn good read and it will generously subsume you into its fascinating world, if only you let it.