Reading Novels Like a Novelist
This week I read Home by Toni Morrison. Home is a compact novel of only one hundred and forty six pages. It has a great opening hook of a man trying to escape from a hospital and letting the reader in on his plans of deception and escape. He doesn’t remember what he did to get arrested or taken to the hospital which starts the story off with a mystery. However, the novel continues to surprise by changing POV characters. The reader, keeps expecting the story to return to the first character Frank, a Korean War veteran with PTSD, but the novel keeps moving from character to character through the women in Frank’s life before coming back to him.
What I Learned
Structure: For a short novel, it has a surprise multi-POV structure with chapters in italics talking to the author, or someone who might tell the MC’s story in the future.
The title does a lot of work for the novel. It presents the theme and dramatic question and argument. What is home? Is it a place, a feeling, a person? Is it true that you can’t ever go home again? Or is home the place you settle, find comfort, or just give up looking for anything better?
Opening hook: The novel starts with one of the italicized sections describing a childhood memory that is a mystery about witnessing a dead body being buried in a field and ends addressing “you” as the person “set on telling my story.”
The first opening scene. The opening sentence is one word: Breathing. The next sentence is, “How to do it so no one would know he was awake.” What an intriguing opening. The character is contemplating using the most basic controllable action necessary for life to create a deceit. Instantly the reader has a ton of questions. Who is he trying to deceive? Why? Whether our MC is a good guy or a bad guy, he is manipulative and deceitful at the most basic level. And yet the reader wants answers to why and thus there’s already an investment in the character at least until they find out why he’s in that situation.
Evoking emotion: The emotion this novel evoked for me was disgust. To do this, Morrison broached taboo topics like Eugenics, forced sterilization, the horrors of war, PTSD, and child prostitution. I talked about writing about taboos in my RNLN post about A Widow For One Year by John Irving. She used many different techniques to finally get the reader feel disgust.
1. An unreliable main character. The main character is a Korean War veteran with Post Traumatic stress. He signed up with two of his childhood best friends and watched them both die horrible deaths. Morrison’s descriptions of how he experiences PTSD make his actions and feelings both real and relatable.
2. Making the main character honorable, or giving him heroic attributes: the only thing he has is the medal he earned for valor, and the reason he escapes and heads to Georgia is to save his sister. Everything he does is because he received a letter that says his sister’s life is in danger.
3. Making the main character vulnerable and giving him faults: The main character keeps getting mugged and losing all his money. He has to rely on the kindness of strangers. He has to trust others when he can’t even trust himself.
4. Betrayal: Though Morrison has set up the MC as a person who can’t be trusted, through making him relatable, honorable, and vulnerable she tricks the reader into believing him, only to be betrayed by the horror of the truth of his actions during the war when he finally faces and shares his truth.
Ending: The ending circles back to the opening scene, finding closure for the children in that opening memory.
Character and Character arc:
By using multiple POVs, Morrison makes it possible to see the MC through the eyes of the women in his life. One of the chapters is through the eyes of the “evil step-grandmother” who his family lived with before he left for the war. From her point of view, she had just gotten what she wanted in life before her new husband’s destitute family showed up and took it all away. They not only took her space, they expected her to be responsible for their children who became the only ones for her to take her frustrations out on.
Near the end, Frank sums up his sister Cee’s character arc for the reader:
“This Cee was not the girl who trembled at the slightest touch of the real and vicious world. Nor was she the not-even-fifteen-year-ole who would run off with the first boy who asked her. And she was not the household help who believed whatever happened to her whole drugged was a good idea, good because a white coat said so. Frank didn’t know what took place during those weeks at Miss Ethel;s house surrounded by those women with seen-it-all eyes. Their low expectation of the world was always on display. Their devotion to Jesus and one another centered them and placed them high above their lot in life. They delivered unto him a Cee who would never again need his hand over her eyes or his arms to stop her murmuring bones. “
I think one of the things I’m learning through reading novels as a novelist is telling the reader what you want them to take away from the novel is something the great novelists do. What makes it different than just exposition or telling is that the statements are interesting and thought provoking. The rule “show don’t tell” appears to be a rule meant to be broken.
Description and time: When the main character, Frank (Smart) Money does finally go home to his parents’ house, “that had been empty since his father died,” he re-rents it for a few months and finds some treasures in a hole next to the stove. “Cee’s two baby teeth were so small next to his winning marbles: a bright blue one, an ebony one, and his favorite, a rainbow mix. The Bulova watch was still there. No stem, no hands—the way time functioned in Lotus, pure and subject to anybody’s interpretation.”
In that short description, she says so much. The most important things to the MCs young self were his sister’s baby teeth, his winning marbles and a broken watch. But she’s also described life in the town he grew up in, and time itself. Time is “pure” when it can’t be tracked or known.
Another way she uses description and time is right after Frank brings his sister Cee to a safe place. Her life is in danger. The reader doesn’t know if she will live and so the reader is hooked. Frank has done what he can do and now his sister’s well-being is out of his hands. So what does Toni Morrison do next? She writes two pages of description about the sun and heat. Current writing instruction would would most likely tell me that readers won’t put up with that much description anymore. They will get bored or scan over it, and yet, in this novel it works. She’s putting the reader in Frank’s shoes. He’s feeling the sun and the heat acutely as he walks to line up for work in the cotton field while no longer having anything he can do to help his sister but wait and stay away.
Thought provoking equivalencies: The thing that really makes this novel stand above to me are the statements about abstractions:
content=hopeless “My family was content or maybe just hopeless living that way. I understand. Having been run out of one town, any other that offered safety and the peace of sleeping through the night and not waking up with a rifle in your face was more than enough. But it was much less than enough for me. “
desire=disgust “Thinking back on it now, I think the guard felt more than disgust. I think he felt tempted and that is what he had to kill.”
violence=good “Once seated, Frank wondered at the excitement, the wild joy the fight had given him. It was unlike the rage that had accompanied killing in Korea. Those sprees were fierce but mindless, anonymous. This violence was personal in its delight. Good, he thought. He might need that thrill to claim his sister.”