First published on The Huffington Post (24th January 2012) //
You might remember those books – they probably still make them (I just checked, they do) – called Choose Your Own Adventure where you read a bit, then there’s a little action, then you make the hero’s choice at some bifurcation of the story. I’m opening the first pages of Mel Bosworth‘s debut novel, Freight, and I see it is a little like that, but after my first diversion it seems it isn’t so much the story’s action you’re diverting, but your own mood and feeling. Is that possible?
The route I just took lead to the final pages of the book. It felt like cheating. Now I know there’s a character called Tony. Who is Tony? Now I’m back. Odd. And yet somehow this switching doesn’t feel like a gimmick. Freight feels open, not closed.
There is also enough ‘writing’ here to sustain the concept, even though the page-jumping feature seems supplemental rather than central to the novel’s purpose. Bosworth has a kind of silent, delicate selection in his peripatetic prose, an under-stated supplication to the innate power of words. And its this familiar staccato rhythm of repetition and yearning, delivered casually, that makes this technique of skipping back and forth feasible, and very readable.
His style brings honesty to a work that, aptly, is focussed on dealing with an accumulation of troubling memories, and reassembling shards of broken self; the varied functions of memory that could perhaps, in a less skilful writer, become trite, even twee.
Genuine emotion, the relation of feeling, the recognition of shared experience, is really not an easy thing to achieve in writing, a more difficult thing to stir that visceral reaction in a reader. But Bosworth manages numerous of these heavy gut punches, pared down writing that slips through and then slams home. In the section ‘I Destroyed,’ for example, which details the mercy killing of two baby birds with a BB gun, your defences will be useless. Even a simple pair of words like “fruit cup”, coupled with the image of it eaten by a quiet, broken old man, catches my heart in its hands (or perhaps it is that I can be somewhat of a grimly lachrymose reader).
For now, I’m going to ignore the page jumps as the section, ‘I Ate,’ is recounting the protagonist’s experience working in a rest home assisting the elderly. There is some considerable agony, and joy, in this chapter, a notion of the eternal return in its hinting for you to jump to a latter part of the book. Maybe this is what the internally cyclical nature of the book is saying? The inevitability of suffering, the breaking, that comes before the affirmation of life, the fixing.
Hold on. Bosworth was just punched in the face by an elderly gentleman. But he’ll be alright.
I’m not sure how, but it seems as if I have shared experiences with Bosworth. I have never met him (nor have I killed any birds, or been punched in the face by old men). Yet his descriptions of working in a nursing home, working in a school, the childhood happenings, the relationships, all bring back my own memories.
Freight reads like vivid snapshots of feeling, sometimes snapshots of yourself. Some of them produce a strong reaction, others are like looking at photos of people you don’t know. But often, in Bosworth’s photo album, you recognise something in them at least, maybe humanity, and are intrigued. (Anyway, is it necessary to empathise with characters to read interestedly about them?)
Bosworth’s novel is not always easy going, and not solely for its subject matter. For me, there have been a few sequences where the repetition has gotten too much, the words taking on a colourless pallor. Though thinking on it, perhaps this rhythm is what sets you up for the grace of what follows, the momentum of which builds convincingly, unstoppably, in the second half. An example, a passage I’ve now read several times over:
“Then something distracted me, maybe the fact that I was close to sunstroke, or maybe the little tornado twisting around the pile of ¾” stone, and the socket slipped off the nut. The end of the wrench cracked me on the collarbone and I immediately felt like I wanted to die. The pain was sickening. It wanted me to sleep, to let go, to drop. But I didn’t. I tucked my chin to my chest and I waited it out, listening to my heartbeat bubble in my ears, watching, through the sweaty haze, the little tornado dance around the stone piles like a little kid. And once the wave of pain and nausea receded, I finished what I was doing, slowly. I thought it was important that I finish.”
Now, I’m finished. But before I close it, there’s one last link back, from the final page to an early one.
Maybe I’ll just start again here, see where it takes me.