Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Thin Place, part two

Part one is here.

Which leaves the real, insurmountable problem I had with The Thin Place. I should start by saying that I like the idea of this book tremendously: In an effort to present a holistic picture of a whole town, Davis dips her narration into the minds of more than a dozen characters--and she doesn't limit herself to humans, presenting the perspectives of dogs, cats, beavers, bears, and even lichen. She is clearly fascinated with the way we live as part of a natural world while we most of the time pretend otherwise, and her quest to present all aspects of that numinous world is admirable and interesting. Her ambition to present so many perspectives in one brief novel, and to let peoples' thoughts be what they are rather than shaping them into standard narration, is what causes her to be compared to Woolf and James.

Where she falls down is in the execution; ultimately, though she moves from consciousness to consciousness, there is a sameness to all her characters' minds that, sadly, undercuts her ambitious aims. Here, for example, are the thoughts of a woman named Chloe:
When she first came back to Varennes, Chloe Brock told herself it would be temporary. It had been hard enough to get away to begin with, hard enough to yank loose the roots ,and then, having done so, to accept the fact and stop feeling like a thinned seedling shriveling in the compost pile. She'd waited to come back until her parents didn't live there anymore. They broke her heart--especially her father, who also made her furious, since the more someone broke her heart, meaning the more obvious their weakness was, the more infuriating Chloe found them.
And here is Chloe's boyfriend thinking about her:
He wanted to get back into bed. He wanted Chloe to wrap her arms and legs around him like a bear climbing a tree. He wanted to forget how frightening she had looked, standing there in the doorway, and the closer she was to him, the easier it would be to do that. Though you'd never mistake what he wanted for intimacy.
Davis's characters' thoughts tend to fall into nature metaphors--much like the narrative voice itself when it pops up--and they also, as the next passage will show when compared to the previous pair, frequently follow a pattern in which a string of thought is capped by a pointed, unexpected, or shocking statement:
If Billie were pretty would Henry's expressions be different? Even her late husband, Dougie, had often failed to find her interesting, though he'd loved her dearly. She'd never doubted that for a minute, even though everything else about Dougie had turned out to be a lie. He wasn't even named Doug.
Even the animals sound like one another--and like the humans, too, if a bit more abrupt. Here's the cat, Gigi:
He did seem a little like a mouse. Pointy nose, dark beady eyes. Too big to hunt down, toy with, kill. Snap off the head and remove the liver and entrails, deposit them near the Girl's shoes, where she couldn't fail to find them. She wouldn't be pleased.

The result of all this is that the many characters remain far too similar to one another, sharing a tone and feeling like greater or lesser variations on the narrative voice, which in an interview at the back of the book Davis admits is her own. Despite the specific content of each character's thoughts, the individuals remain amorphous--and thus even thoughts, emotions, and actions of great moment are stripped of power, seeming ultimately inconsequential.

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