I'm currently reading Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod. It's a book of short stories written by the son of one of Canada's literary greats, Alistair MacLeod. Light Lifting was nominated for a Giller Prize -- a great achievement for a first book.
I'm reading the book for a number of reasons. First, because I am a big fan of Canadian fiction. Second, as a short story writer myself, books of short fiction are always great sources of learning. Third, I'm reading this particular book because two people recently told me the same thing about it: they loved the first story ("Marathon Mile" is a great story told in basic beginning to end fashion) and then they got lost in the second story. Something about it took them out of the book and neither has gone back.
This made me very curious about the second story, "Wonder About Parents." Right away the tone is different. Short, choppy sentences. The narrative skips around, leaving it up to the reader to figure out where we are in the story. And then MacLeod weaves in excerpts from a non-fiction book Rats, Lice, and History by Hans Zinsser. The guy actually exists. He was an American bacteriologist who also wrote poetry. At first, the narrator mentions his reading of the book to find out more about head lice, since his three children have brought them home from school. But soon, there are breaks in the story where MacLeod inserts seemingly haphazard facts or quotes from the book.
In other words, the author asks the reader to make some connections on his or her own.
This modern take at storytelling, which I admire and have tried in some of my own stories, does make demands on the reader. However, I am willing to trust that the author has a reason for using this format. After all, this story about lice jumps around from one man's head to another's.
I also understand why this story, after the incredibly successful first story that immerses the reader into the world of elite runners and never lets go, creates a break for the reader. As if the first story sets up a promise -- you are coming along for a ride -- that the second story can't fulfill -- and now we're stopping in random places while I take a look at this and check out that.
So I'm going to ask both of the readers who fell out of the book to go back and give it another try, and I specifically want them to read the fourth story in the book, "Adult Beginner I." There are elements of both types of storytelling at work here -- a more traditional beginning to end frame with a few flashbacks out of order in the middle. It guides the reader, with a nudge here and there, through a coming of age story about a young woman who is testing her limits, moving beyond her fears and who may push too far.
The story grabbed me on a few levels. Personally, I recognize myself in the main character because, like her, I almost drowned as a child and have a deep-seated fear of deep water. MacLeod seeds his stories with truths, little gems that the narrators hit upon. In this story, Stacey realizes that "Fear is our most private possession." This gem resonated because as a writer, this is how I know my characters. What do they want? And what can't they have it? In every case, there is a fear that limits them. Maybe they think it is a belief (the world is a bad place) that stands in the way, but when you dig deeper, you see that the belief is really based on fear (people will hurt me).
In many ways, we are all adult beginners. Each new job, new relationship, new circumstance puts us back in a position where we must learn and adapt and overcome. Each new challenge gives us another opportunity to face our fears. Hopefully, we make progress along the way, we move a step beyond our comfort level. We learn to swim with grace.