Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Thin Place, part one

I wanted to like Kathryn Davis's The Thin Place (2006). The reviews it received when it came out made it sound like something truly original and strange; in Harper's, John Leonard, whom I always appreciate even when I disagree with him, compared her to Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and Thoreau. The book's title, too, made it sound promising, a thin place being, in myth and religion, a place where the walls between the physical and spiritual worlds are unusually thin, to the point of being permeable. And the book opens with reasonable promise:
There were three girlfriends and they were walking down a trail that led to a lake. One small and plump, one pretty and medium-sized, one not so pretty and tall. This was in the early years of the twenty-first century, the unspeakable having happened so many times everyone was still in shock, still reeling from what they'd seen, what they'd done or failed to do. The dead souls no longer wore gowns. They'd gotten loose, broadcasting their immense soundless chord through the precincts of the living.
There's no doubt that this is the sort of paragraph that will make a person keep reading: the fairytale description of the girls sets a tone, and while the lines about the unspeakable might not hold up to close scrutiny, they're at least unexpected, a statement right up front that this book will be governed by a strongly expressed sensibility.

But there is also, already in that first paragraph and getting worse as the book progresses, a forced combination of weightiness and casualness to the prose, driven by a pretense of bouncing quickly from thought to thought, unconcerned, as minds are, with underlying structure. But this forces Davis's sentences into an oddly mannered slackness, where clarity (along with, at times, grammatical structure) is sacrificed. Meaning becomes unclear, odd constructions trip up the reader, and the flow of the telling is disrupted. Take this paragraph, for example, which follows a page or so written from the perspective of a pet dog, then a paragraph that seems to be in the voice of the omniscient narrator:
Poor beavers. So shiny and sleek--no wonder women wanted to put that fur on their bodies. Of course they didn't love the fur the way they loved the beloved--they didn't want to slip into the beaver's fur the way they wanted to slip into the beloved's coat or vest. They didn't want to be thought of as beavers. They just wanted to be admired. Also they wanted to stay warm.
It's unclear to me whether these are the narrator's thoughts--in which case, "beloved" could mean the men in the women's lives, and the women really do want to slip into those men's coats--or the dog's thoughts, perhaps--which, though less likely, would make the odd note of the word "beloved," and the idea of nuzzling into a vest, make more sense. The final sentence, meanwhile, seems to be so affected as to be in a sort of limbo, neither a tossed-off joke nor an actual observation.

I understand that passages like the above may not really be a serious problem; they may only grate on me with particular force because I do a lot of editing and therefore spend a lot of time thinking about structure and clarity. It's possible that most readers could pass over them without trouble. And the passages that tripped me up are intermingled with sharply written lines like these:
"It was only seven-thirty, and the study was like an oven, his hair like an animal sitting on his head."
"Outside in the parking lot, the air was hot and humid and as swarming with bugs as a brain is with ideas."
"'Time's up,' Piet said, trying to tip [the cat] Gigi off the pillow, like a ball or shoe, something without claws."
The effectiveness of such compact, clear images goes a long way towards mitigating my irritation with Davis's cloudier efforts.

Part two tomorrow.

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