By Terry Carroll
Late on a grey Saturday in early November of the second year of COVID, my lovely wife Nancy and I decided on a weekend adventure before we settled in for another streaming movie. Masked, we undertook the five-minute drive to Elgin Centre where we trudged the mall from food court to drugstore and back before entering a social-distancing lineup for Chinese takeout. Why journey up the Yangtze, the Nile or the Amazon into the heart of darkness when you can spend an hour at the local mall?
We lingered longest at two stores. The Facebook page for the first one, 916 Galleria: Elgin Artisans & Crafters, describes it as follows, “At 916 Galleria every item is a unique piece, created and crafted with passion. Every piece reflects a spirit, a state of mind and an individual experience of creation.” That may be a tad exuberant, but is not completely inaccurate.
The second was Coles, where I was drawn to Zadie Smith’s Feel Free, a collection of her essays from 2010 to 2017, on sale for $8. Unlike Smith, I have a poor memory. I don’t remember who or what led me to first encounter her writing, but I recall much of her first essay collection which I loaned from the St. Thomas Public Library: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. Pieces in that book enticed me to read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and to trek through George Eliot’s Middlemarch. In vastly disparate ways, both books serve as archetypes for creating female characters from the inside out and writing what we now read as unconventional sentences.
Someone on staff at St. Thomas Public Library must have been a big Zadie Smith fan. Pre-COVID, the library carried a lot of Smith’s fiction and non-fiction, all good to great except for her sixth novel Swing Time. Nothing is harder on a good writer than success, largely because editors stop telling them what they need to hear. From the opening paragraph to the closing word, it’s obvious that no editor had the grit to tell Smith: “Swing Time is a good idea for a novel, but it needs at least one major rewrite. And neither of your main characters, both female, are believably presented.”
A similar trajectory bedeviled the writing career of Jonathon Franzen. In 1996 in Harper’s magazine, he published what is now called “The Harper Essay” about the sad state of the novel and Franzen’s faith in reading and writing big social novels as antidotes to that trend (as well as activities good in themselves). He astonished the literary world by making good on the essay’s promise when he published The Corrections in 2001, a smart, funny, multi-charactered, intergenerational book, polished until almost every sentence shines, commercially successful. Franzen’s downward slide began immediately with the publication of his next novel, Freedom, and it bottomed out with Purity. While worth checking out, these two later novels flounder on the same reef as Smith’s misstep: poorly rendered or not fully imagined female characters.
On the shelves of Coles in Elgin Centre sat one copy of Franzen’s latest, the 580-page Crossroads. Some critics say this novel puts Franzen back on solid ground. With Smith’s Feel Free already in hand, I convinced Nancy that Crossroads was the perfect gift for my upcoming birthday.
The Chinese food was good, the anticipation of starting Crossroads in early December even better, and the idea of comparing it with other literary successes and failures the best of all. Not bad for a “heart of greyness” day in November at the local mall.