The last time I wrote about Amy Bloom, I pointed out that I had the pleasure of participating in a small-group workshop that she led when I was at Ohio State. Ms. Bloom was as fascinating as her work and brought a refreshing point of view to my grad school experience.
But now I am a little upset at her. There I was, all ready to work on the first draft of my next YA novel. My fountain pen (in this case, a Parker 21) was uncapped and ready to go. The journal in which I’ve been pounding out my draft was open to where I had left off the previous day. Then I made the fateful mistake of deciding to read the first few pages of Away, Ms. Bloom’s 2007 novel. As you may have guessed, I didn’t put the book aside after the first few pages. Ms. Bloom stole two and a half hours of writing time from me.
I’ll never get that time back, so the only thing I can do is figure out how Ms. Bloom convinced me to ignore my poor protagonist as he begged me to continue his tale.
Away is a sad and beautiful story about Lillian Leyb, a young woman who has escaped a Russian pogrom. Her family was not as lucky. She soon set sail for New York City, where she becomes the thin-pointed corner in an acute love triangle with an impresario in the Yiddish theater and his actor son. Upon hearing that her daughter Sophie may not be dead after all, Lillian sets off to find the little girl. Instead of taking the expensive trip over the Atlantic, Lillian decides to try to traverse North America to reach Russia via the Bering Strait. I don’t want to ruin any of the plot beyond that point…just read the book. You can buy it at your local indie bookstore or online. Ron Charles of the Washington Post liked the book as much as I did. Louisa Thomas of the New York Times Book Review is also a fan.
One of the facets of Away that I most admired was the way that Ms. Bloom was able to pack a vast journey worthy of Odysseus into only 240 pages. Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo loved to tell massive stories, but had trouble writing books under “brick” length. (I don’t mean to say that long books are a bad thing, of course; such tomes, I’m guessing, are just a harder sell in these times of Twitter.) Ms. Bloom recounts nearly two years of Lillian’s life in detail, but also manages to create compelling supporting characters, including an African-American prostitute, telegraph operators, inmates at a Canadian women’s reformatory and figures in the early twentieth-century Yiddish theater. How did she turn such a difficult trick?
Ms. Bloom catapulted her lonely character through a series of pairs and small groups. In a way, the book is a series of short stories centered upon Lillian’s interactions with an important character or two. For example, we see:
- Lillian and the relatives and friends who give her a home after she arrives in New York.
- Lillian and Reuben and Meyer Burstein, father/son theater team who use her in different ways.
- Lillian and Gumdrop, a prostitute in Seattle.
Ms. Bloom certainly gives Reuben and Meyer and Gumdrop their own moments in the sun and packs in full backstories for the characters, but these passages are brief and detract little focus from Lillian, the star of the novel. Why does this technique work in so splendid a manner? I believe it’s because the protagonist’s series of close relationships drive the plot perhaps more than the actual plot. In the hands of a lesser writer like me, the story would have been more about the things that Lillian did to fulfill her goal and the things that happened to her along the way. That’s okay…but Ms. Bloom’s use of relationship is much more powerful than simple plot points.
Think of it this way. Let’s pretend that Away followed a “plot point” structure in which the events are more important than any of the characters. (You know, like in a Transformers film.)
- Lillian arrives in New York.
- Lillian gets a job in the costuming department of a theater.
- Lillian gets a job as the mistress of an impresario and his son.
- Lillian finds out her daughter is alive.
- Lillian heads cross-country to find her.
Okay…okay…that’s fine, but Ms. Bloom is intelligent and knowing enough to think of the book differently:
- Lillian struggles to establish herself in America and to deal with the loss of her family.
- Lillian struggles through her emotional paralysis in the midst of her involvement in a very strange love triangle.
- Lillian struggles to decide what to do after the revelation that her daughter may be alive, even though the source may be unreliable.
- Lillian struggles with solitude (and sleeping in dark and confined spaces) to get cross-country in her effort to find her daughter.
See how much more powerful the story is when you think of it as a series of struggles the protagonist must overcome? Think about this principle the next time you outline a work.
Now, I do have a little bit of will power. I could have stopped reading and gotten back to writing my YA novel. But then Ms. Bloom just HAD to go and do something else that was really smart and allowed her to tell an epic story in a novel that one can read in a single sitting.
Think back to the Transformers movies. Do you actually care about what happens to any of the characters? Nah. You’re not supposed to care. In a novel like Les Miserables, Victor Hugo manages to make you care very deeply about even the most minor of characters. Every one of them has unique personalities; Hugo develops them such that you can build psychological profiles of just about everyone, including the Friends of the ABC. Shoot, I first read that novel fifteen years ago and I still think about Azelma Thenardier from time to time. (And most people don’t even know who she is because she’s not in the musical.)
Like I said, Hugo had hundreds of pages over which to unspool his narrative. Ms. Bloom chose not to avail herself of that luxury and was therefore charged with finding other ways to increase the potency and epic nature of the work. Instead of describing the fates of each character in traditional narrative, Ms. Bloom weaves a description of what will happen to them (usually) in the last bit of dramatic present in which they participate.
Check out this excerpt from page 72. Reuben, the rich Yiddish theater impresario, has just denied Lillian the (relatively) small bit of money that will get her across the Atlantic and that much closer to Sophia:
Reuben walks carelessly through the Goldfadn costume room when he gets back. He compliments Miss Morris. He picks up a blue button beside Lillian’s sewing machine as if he is tidying up, and he flirts with the plump, pretty girl who always sat behind Lillian. It has not occurred to Lillian or Reuben what her leaving will do to him, that he will lose most of his vision within a year and when he cannot bear to make his way with a cane and a helper, he will retreat to the house in Brooklyn, eat without appetite through the winter, and die in the spring, lying beside Esther [his wife] in their big four-poster bed.
See how gracefully the present and future are interwoven? If only real life were that simple and efficient. This manifestation of extreme narrative control cuts down on the book’s page count, but also keeps the reader and the narrative chugging along, just like the train that brought Lillian from New York to Seattle.
Yes, it will take me that much longer to finish my YA book because I spent time reading instead. So I’m a little cross that Ms. Bloom and Away stole precious writing time from me, but I’ll get over it, as reading the book helped me improve my own writing.