While on a pleasure trip to New York City this past March, I stopped by the New York Public Library (a requisite part of any reader’s sightseeing in the Big Apple) and was excited to learn about their “Books at Noon” series, hosting contemporary authors each week to talk about their latest works. I was even more thrilled to learn that Michael Cunningham (whom you might know as Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hours) would be the featured author on the Wednesday I was in town. I immediately rearranged all my plans (not to mention the plans of my whole family) in order to be there. Among the first audience members to arrive, I claimed my spot at the front of the makeshift stage like a true fangirl. And as he spoke, I did the whole groupie act, snapping pictures (covertly, of course), shooting video (even more covertly), and hanging on his every word (not at all covertly).
Cunningham was there to talk about his latest novel, The Snow Queen, a title derived from Hans Christian Andersen’s tale (do you think the Disney Frozen phenomenon—also based on the Andersen tale—bothers an author like Cunningham, or is he comfortable enough in his own literary stature to not even think about it?). Since the novel’s release was set for May, none of us audience members had read it yet. This talk was meant to tantalize our readerly tastebuds (I’m hoping that metaphor works, especially since I’m pretty sure I’ve used it before).
When The Snow Queen came out (just a few weeks later) I bought it as a first edition to add to my shelf of collectibles. As I picked it up to read (the same day, if memory is to be trusted), I ran my fingers over the snowy cover, skimmed the summary on the dust jacket, and opened it a little breathlessly, ready to be hooked on the first paragraph. I wanted to love it.
But then I came upon the parentheses (and more parentheses, and more parentheses). It took me a while to notice them (become annoyed by them), but once I did, it was all over. (If you’ve wondered about the parenthetical predilection of this post, is it starting to make sense?) The parentheses become a symptom of a larger problem in this novel—a novel that seems as if it’s trying too hard, as if its author and characters are overthinking just about everything.
There’s much to like in this novel. It’s got some beautifully crafted prose (though I feel inclined to emphasize the adjective “some”). It’s a (mildly interesting) story of two brothers and the gradual breakup of their codependency. And it’s a post-millenial exploration of the timeless human struggle for greatness. At its heart, The Snow Queen is a celebration of mediocrity (a stance you can view as reassuring or, on the flip side, depressing). Through the story of brothers Barrett and Tyler and the people they keep company with, the novel tells us that regular people, ordinary love, middle-class careers, and typical relationships are (or should be) enough. As humans, we can’t help but use larger-than-life stories (not just fairy tales like “The Snow Queen” but also pretty much any myth that tells about a quest, a battle, and the ongoing struggle between right and wrong) as meaningful constructs for our lives. But, despite our propensity for these tales, most of the time our experience turns out to be pretty mundane (and, I should add, it all ends in death). We’re not heroes or royal figures, and the forces we’re fighting aren’t dragons or evil sorcerers. (So often, the demons are inside us—the fear of loving, living, dying, surviving.)
I’m not going to say (though I insinuate) that you shouldn’t give The Snow Queen a try. Perhaps the parentheses won’t bother you (even though this post has made it impossible for you to overlook them). By way of example, here’s a handful of parenthesis-heavy excerpts from the novel:
It seems possible that all the surprises (he didn’t exactly plan on being an unknown musician at forty-three, living in eroticized chastity with his dying girlfriend and his younger brother, who has turned, by slow degrees, from a young wizard into a tired middle-aged magician, summoning doves out of a hat for the ten thousandth time) have been part of an inscrutable effort, too immense to see . . . Barrett made dinner (Tyler can’t be counted on these days to remember that people need to eat periodically, and Beth is too ill). Why would a woman who’d been stern and intelligent; who’d been unpredictably generous or remote, depending on the hour (it’s still hard to imagine anyone else as able to make so much sense to herself, and so little to others); who’d believed in good tailoring, worn coral lipstick, flirted imperiously with delivery boys, and been forthcoming (a little more so than Barrett might have liked) about her regrets (the house too far from town, the strand of inherited pearls stolen by a hotel maid—who else could it have been), the decision to drop out of Bryn Mawr to marry their father (how could she have known, at the time, that New York would lead to Philadelphia and Philadelphia to Harrisburg?); who’d been prone to get so absorbed in a book that she forgot to start dinner . . . Why that particular end, for her? He watched his shadow glide over a pinecone, a vaguely runic scattering of pine needles, and the wrapper of an Oh Henry! bar (they still made Oh Henry! bars?) that rattled by, raggedly silver, windblown. Barrett speaks into (onto?) her voice mail.
Despite being not so fond of The Snow Queen, I’ll still love Michael Cunningham for The Hours. (Okay, it’s true; I’m probably predisposed to love just about any novel about Virginia Woolf.) In The Hours, Cunningham’s juxtaposition of three women’s lives from three different decades of the 20th century is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. If you haven’t yet read it, (put down The Snow Queen and) pick it up.
[This post is, in part, a response to the Armchair BEA Conference’s topic for today, “Author Interaction.” I look forward to reading about other book bloggers’ real-life author experiences across the Internet.]