Monday, May 26, 2014

Prologue: It's Gillian Flynn's Fault

I remember, somewhere around the age of six or seven, sitting at a faux-wooden dining table, oval-shaped with seating for four, and dinner almost concluded. My older sister had already been excused, and my stepfather had retired to the living room where, comfortably entrenched in a recently purchased Naugahyde recliner, he settled in to watch The Huntley-Brinkley Report. I, with a nauseating portion of canned lima beans still littering my otherwise empty plate, sat across from my mother, who was damn well going to make sure that I finished every last one

I’ve just read several chapters of a book that made me feel exactly the same way. 

Honey in the Horn won the 1936 Pulitzer Prize in the “Novel” category (later renamed “Fiction”). It’s the story of Clay Calvery, “a hard-mouthed young hellfry” and takes place in Southern Oregon back in the homesteading days of the early twentieth century. The New York Times Book Review lauded it as “honey in the literary horn,” and described it as a “gallery of frontier Americana like none other on earth.” 

That last I’ll agree with. I certainly find it “like none other on earth.” I’ve read some bad novels in my day and this one’s up there near the top—despite having one Joseph Pulitzer’s venerated Prize.

So, you may ask: Why am I reading it?  Because of Gillian Flynn.


Perhaps a bit of explanation is in order.

I am a self-described “serial obsessionist,” someone who lives a life of sequential immersions, moving from topic to topic based on whim, fancy, and serendipity. I have a compelling need for projects, something to which I can attach a goal, an achievement. When I don’t have one I get fidgety (my wife would say “cranky”) and I find it difficult to relax over even the simplest of tasks.

Case in point: Not long ago I spent a couple of days recovering from some minor surgery. I faced, briefly, a mostly sedentary existence. My wife suggested I just try to relax. Read a bit. Watch some television. Do some writing. 

Said recovery conveniently occurred right around the time of Doctor Who’s 50th birthday party. I had never seen a great deal of Doctor Who, but knew it as a cult classic and recently popular revival. As a science fiction fan I had always meant to get around to it and, since great celebratory gobs of the Doctor and his companions were now available OnDemand from BBC America, the opportunity seemed rather fortuitous.
I sat down to watch a couple of episodes and was quickly hooked. (Don’t ask why; when it comes to the Doctor, you either get it or you don’t.) I then proceeded to devour all ninety or so available episodes (the full seven seasons of the revival, along with the various specials that had aired during that time), then realized there was even more. I nestled in and watched the two-hour retrospectives of all the earlier Doctors (there have been quite a few of them since, as many know, the Doctor “regenerates” into a new form every few years, allowing one actor to replace another actor rather easily). 

By this time, obviously, I was well recovered. But no matter: the obsession was in full flight. Soon, the available On Demand episodes weren’t enough. I headed over to Amazon, where my “Prime” account gave me access to many, many more episodes for free. I watched Tom Baker (the 4th Doctor) with his long scarf and jelly babies, then screened a few episodes of the 7th Doctor with his odd hat and anti-hero companion. I tracked down the 8th Doctor’s single appearance—a TV movie with Eric Roberts apparently meant as a pilot for an American version. Then I found the spin-offs. I watched every episode of Torchwood and several of The Sara Jane Adventures. And the spoofs (including an absolutely hilarious one with Rowan Atkinson). 

My surgery now lay well in the past, but not so my new obsession with all things Doctor; I headed over to Barnes and Noble and began buying a few Doctor Who books. Then I joined several Facebook groups dedicated to him. I even wrote a small poem in the style of Dr. Seuss. I titled it “Horton Hears a Doctor Who.” My fellow Facebook fanatics deemed it well-“liked.”
Etcetera, etcetera.

Lest anyone think that my obsessions are always so frivolous (though I’m not saying that Doctor Who is frivolous!), here’s a more substantive example. 

I once spent about two years immersed in Christian theology. That particular journey began when my wife asked me to attend church with her, something I had never done. (My only previous church appearances were for the obligatory rituals: weddings, baptisms, and funerals.) I agreed but knew (without ever consciously thinking about it) that if I was going, I was going all in. In this case that meant books. Lots of them.

I started with the basics, reading the Bible twice through, along with a few exegeses and an analysis of the Synoptic Gospels. Then I really got going. I read Iraneus, Tertullian, Origen, Arius, and the Cappadocian Fathers. I read Saints Anselm and Augustine. I read Ambrose and Cyril and Jerome and Gregory and Hildegard and Hugh.  I even read Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a man whose very name included words I didn’t understand. 

I went forward in time a bit and devoured Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Sienna and Julian of Norwich before slipping forward toward Luther and Calvin—and then further forward into Barth and Bultmann, Neibuhr and C.S. Lewis, Chesterton and L’Engle. I scheduled time with my wife’s pastor (by now mine as well) to discuss various theological dilemmas.  All the while my wife looked on in awe: “I just wanted someone to sit next to me and sing the hymns,” I believe she muttered.

But those examples pale next to my biggest, most energetic obsession, the one that informs the effort now beginning. 

That one began a few years back at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel where, about to embark on a ten-hour flight and realizing I had nothing to read, I picked up a copy of Seeing by the Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago. I’d never heard of Saramago, but the airport bookstore’s selection of English-language books was pretty thin, and since I wasn’t much into bodice-rippers or Dan Brown, only a slight number of books were potentially interesting. I figured that I probably couldn’t go wrong with someone who’d won the Nobel Prize.

As I turned the last page somewhere over Newfoundland, those very special neurons fired and it occurred to me that there were many works of great literature I would never get around to reading, would perhaps never even know about.  I decided right then that it might be fun to read a book by anyone who had ever won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  And I did. All one-hundred-and-something of them.

By now you can probably see where this is heading.


So where does Gillian Flynn fit into all of this? Why is it her fault that I’m slogging through Honey in the Horn?

A few years back The New York Times Book Review, in an effort to respond to its readership (though some might say “in an effort to pander to its readership”) introduced a column entitled “By the Book” in which famous authors are asked facile questions like “Who is your favorite author?” and “You’re hosting a literary dinner party. What three writers are invited?” In the May 11, 2014 column the interviewee was one Gillian Flynn, the noted author of Gone Girl. In the interview we learned that Ms. Flynn is overly fond of Flowers in the Attic and is absolutely (some might say “annoyingly”) over the top about Joyce Carol Oates.

But what struck my attention was a quote from her answer to this question: “What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?” 

“Several years back,” she replied, “(and by several, I probably mean 12), I decided to read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in chronological order.”

Gillian Flynn, I love you. No, truly. I love you. You may be the only person in the universe who truly understands me.

So there you have it; a new obsession triggered.


I’m not going to worry, though, about chronological order. Instead, the first thing I’m going to do is tackle Gillian Flynn’s plate of lima beans. I've found myself an old, used, two-dollar copy of Honey in the Horn, ordered it up, and now I'm diving right in. Might as well just get it out of the way. After that, the rest will seem easy.

So thanks, Gillian. (Can I call you Gillian?) It’s all your fault.

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