My own shelves are crammed with books I mean to get around to sometime. Yours probably are, too. What if I told you that this novel, of two loners on a mission to liberate the sea turtles from the London Zoo, is like a lot of things you already like, while being so much its own stupendous thing that it's become one of my literary yardsticks?And what if I told you that my shelves, too, are crammed, with books Ed has convinced me to read (while his, I suspect, groan under a similar weight in return), and that those I've followed through on (Charles Portis! Charles Portis! Charles Portis!) have taken their place among my favorites? When Ed Park tells you to read something, trust him.
He's right about Turtle Diary, too. Told through dual (not quite dueling) diaries, it comes to life through the voices of its twin narrators, William G. and Neera, and the wild (and often hilarious) peregrinations of their strange, solitary thoughts. On the first page alone, William dreams of an octopus, then looks up a picture of one in the bookstore where he works:
Their eyes are dreadful to look at. I shouldn't like to be looked at by an octopus no matter how small and harmless it might be. To be stared at by those eyes would be altogether too much for me, would leave me nothing whatever to be.From that unexpectedly bleak thought, within sentences he's on to this:
They're related to the chambered nautilus which I'd always thought of only as a shell with nothing in it. But there it was in the book full of tentacles and swimming inscrutably."Swimming inscrutably." Perfect, and perfectly strange. A later entry opens:
Briefcases. Businessmen, barristers carry briefs. When I was in advertising we always talked about what our brief was. Brief means letter in German. Brief is short. Life is a brief case. Brief candle, out, out. In the tube there was a very small, very poor-looking man in a threadbare suit and a not very clean shirt, spectacles. He made a roll-up, lit it, then took from his briefcase a great glossy brochure with glorious colour photographs of motorcycles. Many unshaven men carry briefcases. I've seen briefcases carried by men who looked as if they slept rough. Women tramps usually have carrier bags, plastic ones often. I carry one of those expanding files with a flap. Paper in it for taking notes, a book sometimes, sandwich and an apple for lunch. The apple bulges, can't be helped.Lately I've been admiring Alice Thomas Ellis's ear for the quiet, often punishing asides we deliver, sotto voce or even silently, in the interstices of difficult conversations--and her ability to render their often unsettlingly oblique quality. Hoban has a similar skill with what we say truly to ourselves, the altogether more benign jokes and tangents that pepper our thoughts throughout the day, and that in quantity and importance often outweigh the words we speak aloud.
(My favorite of those? This one, which I have found myself thinking about pretty much every day in the month since I first read it:
Two of the turtles at the Aquarium are green turtles, a large one and a small one. The sign said: "The Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas, is the source of turtle soup . . . " I am the source of William G. soup if it comes to that. Everyone is the source of his or her kind of soup. In a town as big as London that's a lot of soup walking about.How can you resist that?)
The voices, and the underlying sensibility, are what draw you in, but Hoban doesn't rely solely on that--he instead sets his two seemingly inertia-ridden characters in motion and works them through a plot, and even a romance. If the plot is a bit fractured, if, as Ed puts it, "the dramatic mainstays of love and death . . . are not necessarily in the places you expect," well, that's what happens when you set out with oddballs. The book starts off funny, and, while never losing its charm, winds up being moving, earning its place as "one of the great novels of middle age," as Ed puts it:
It's a book that can help you, even if you don't think you need help. (If you've read this far, you do.) It offers solace to anyone who has ever looked at her situation in life and wondered, as one of Hoban's characters does, "Am I doomed?" (Answer: No.)Now that I've filled your mind with turtle thoughts ("Funny, two minds full of turtle thoughts"; "Now here we are, both of us alone and thinking turtle thoughts."), let's put them to good use! I've ended up with an extra copy of Turtle Diary, and rather than let it moulder on my shelf, I thought I'd give it to someone: I'll send the book to the person who leaves the best turtle story in the comments by June 20.
I'll start. A few years back, I was walking out of Central Park up the 77th Street ramp, when a young man on a bicycle came barreling down the ramp, swept around the curve, and headed north, towards Belvedere Castle and Turtle Pond. How did I know that's where he was headed? In his right hand, held out away from his body, was a turtle, legs swimming in air. As he flew past, the man was saying to the turtle, "Don't fret! Don't fret!"
And your turtle story?