Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Consideration of Works Past: Chosen Country

(Picture from here.)

(Review here.)

(Odd little YouTube on this here.)

Chosen Country, by John Dos Passos, is a unique book in my experience. It is a love story where the actual love story events occur in the last sixty pages of the book.

The lovers are Jay Pignatelli and Lulie Harrington. The book follows them through their the various intersections of their lives showing the evolution of their character until, when the love story is actually presented, it is inevitable. It's not that these two are destined to be with one another. It's that their lives have been so shaped by their experience and American society that when they are both ready and come together their love and marriage are an inescapable consequence.

It's a beautifully realized book. The characters are wonderful and the insight into the first part of the American century is stellar.

There are a couple of things that were important to me about the book. The first idea is how Dos Passos tells a story through many points of view and many characters. This is Dos Passos technique. But Chosen Country is a sweet encapsulation of this technique.

There is a deeper component to this technique. Dos Passos is, in my opinion, more aware of how the reader is experiencing the book than most writers. It's practically a necessity based on the technique. The effect of the book on the reader depends on a particular perception of the constellation of characters-- the books effect exists independently from the individual characters, scenes and words. It is the cumulative effect of the book that Dos Passos is driving for.

Of course, all writers strive for the same sort of cumulative effect. But in most works this derives from a single climax set of scenes where the particular plot points are explicitly resolved. Dos Passos, in Chosen Country, demands that the reader carry these plot points along, marked as the reader proceeds, on his own. Then, the reader has them all connected in his mind before the climax occurs. No restatement happens. The plot points or character points are often not even referenced. Such and such a thing happens and the reader, holding the rest of the cards that directly or indirectly reference these points, responds.

Compare, for example, the climax scene in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, when Ma Joad tells her daughter to nurse the dying father in the train, saying, in effect, that this is what they must do to survive. There are all the accoutrements of loss around them: the abandoned train, the lost family, the dying man, backing up what Ma Joad says. It's all right there in front of the reader. Many things resonate in the reader's mind-- Tom Joad running off, the loss of other family members, etc., but they resonate with something that's right there on the stage in front of the reader. We see Ma Joad's conclusion and empathize with her thoughts and emotions.

In Chosen Country, it's very different. Neither Jay nor Lulie have any inkling how their lives have built up to the moment they are in love-- that's something only the reader can know since only the reader has seen all of the events leading up to this moment. They only know what they can see. It is the reader and only the reader who sees everything in the novel. There is no Ma Joad telling the reader what has happened and how to feel. There is only Jay and Lulie who have come together and are part and parcel of the world they have lived in. Therefore, the reader has no example to empathize with but must in fact appreciate and empathize with all that has happened within the novel itself.

Imagine how exciting this was to read for the first time. There are almost no modern examples of this technique-- possibly Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner or Make Room, Make Room, by Harry Harrison. (There may be more I'm missing but they are not common.)

I've tried more than once to do it but it's escaped me.

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