Have you ever looked at one of those old-style 3-D viewing devices, steropticons I believe they’re called, that create a three-dimensional image by making you see the same image from two slightly different angles? Or have you ever taken a map-and-compass course (I’m showing my pre-GPS age here) and learned how you can fix your location precisely by taking bearings on two precisely located objects?
As a reader it’s useful to invoke a similar parallax principle by reading two books that address similar issues or use a similar setting or plot.
If you’ve read anything on this blog before, you’ll know that last fall I published a novel called Dadolescence, about stay-at-home fathers suffering personal crises brought on by being men caring for their home and kids.
And if you read the book reviews I posted in a flurry of activity around Christmas, you’ll know that I said great things about a collection of linked stories called The Big DreamThe Big Dream, focusing on staff at a failing Toronto magazine-publishing company.
I’ve just finished recent novels that offer parallax views of both my book and Rebecca Rosenblum’s The Big Dream.
One, The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman, received loads of praise when it was published in 2010. Rachman’s book is a novel, told through a series of short stories, each focusing on a different character at a failing newspaper. Like Rosenblum, Rachman does an interesting thing by presenting characters both as others see them and as they see themselves. And like Rosenblum, he places the big story of economic decline and technological change in the background as characters attempt to get on with their lives in a workplace that is living on borrowed time. And both authors use humour and poignancy to get at the human condition.
But what’s particularly interesting, when you read both books, is to see how each author has chosen to take the setting in his or her own direction. Rosenblum, in the Big Dream, makes a conscious effort to deglamourize the media setting. Her magazine staffers are based in an industrial park near Toronto’s Pearson Airport. More of them work in the call centre and tech support than in editorial. Their stories are often open-ended, defying full closure.
Rachman’s setting is a polar opposite. Although he deglamourizes journalism to some extent, showing the desperate efforts of an aging Paris correspondent to come up with a story and the incompetence and manipulation of a veteran correspondent in the Middle East, overall his newspaper is a pretty glamourous place. It’s patterned after The International Herald Tribune, where Rachman worked as an editor, and set in Rome, for god’s sake. And with one exception (the paper’s chief financial officer) his staffers are all from the editorial side of the paper. He also provides much more closure in his stories. Marriages end, mysteries are solved, careers are ended.
Reading the two books back to back provides an illustration of the kinds of choices an author makes – or that an author’s personality makes for him or her – when turning an idea into a story.
A similar experience can be had by reading my book and following it up with Shari Lapena’s Happiness Economics.
Happiness Economics, published by Brindle and Glass around the same time as Dadolescence, is a satire about a stay-at-home father who is facing a personal and professional crisis brought on by years at home with the kids. Similarities with my novel abound. Lapena’s protagonist, Will Thorne, is a blocked poet who has been working on a novel-in-verse for years. My protagonist, Bill (!) Angus, is a failed anthropologist who has been working on a Phd thesis. Will’s older child is 12. Bill’s only son is 12. And of course both protagonists concoct unlikely schemes to provide the sense of meaning and accomplishment that is denied them by their lack of a paycheque. Indeed, both come up with plans to save their peers, when they ought to be looking at their own problems. Bill schemes to rescue two of his friends who are coping badly with being stay-at-home fathers. Will establishes The Poets’ Preservation Society to rescue fellow poets who don’t have the advantage of a high-earning wife. Both novels even end with an epilogue that wraps up some plot threads.
But as much as our two novels have in common, the differences are also instructive. Bill and his wife Julie, a human resources consultant, are much more middle class than Will and his wife Judy (!!), a high-flying economist and executive who appears regularly on CNN as a business commentator. And more significantly, my book explores the fundamental role of earning a living in the lives of men and asks what it is to be a man without a paycheque. Lapena, in my view, is less interested in the challenge of being a man than in the challenge of being an artist. (Or perhaps she’d reject as ‘essentialist’ my contention that men need to struggle against a hostile world to earn their keep.) Her conflict is primarily one between commerce, represented by Judy and her friends, and art, represented by Will and his.
Lapena’s title, by the way, comes from an article Judy is reading early in the book. “At the moment, she was hastily skimming an article about a new branch of economics called Happiness Economics. It was the first she’d heard of it. She liked the idea that economists could assign an exact monetary value to things like divorce, or the death of a loved one, or once-a-week sex. It seemed inherently right to her to be able to measure human happiness in dollars and conclude, for example, that once-a-week sex offered as much happiness as adding tens of thousands of dollars to your bank account.”
Although both Will and Judy need to learn something in her novel, it’s Judy who needs to go through the more profound philosophical conversion, while in my book it’s Bill who has the most learning to do.
What’s the purpose of this exercise in literary twin-spotting? To me, one of the roles of fiction is to provide readers with thought experiments, to give them a chance to see into the lives of others. And the others they are seeing into are not necessarily the fictional beings on the page but the flesh-and-blood beings who filled those pages. Seeing where different authors have gone from similar starting points isn’t a bad way of conducting one of those literary thought experiments.