Sunday, September 19, 2010

The uncontestable beauty of life lived outside the bounds (Books - The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken)

I have a thing for writers who understand the experience of those who do not fit life's molds, and who make that less-than-common experience accessible to readers not merely making fashionable funkiness of it, a la the television show Ugly Betty, but rather by revealing the sheer and uncontestable beauty of being a somewhat strange self. Elizabeth McCracken is clearly one of those artists. The Giant's House is an exemplar of a work that celebrates the value and integrity of a life lived outside the bounds that the conformist majority believes they have set for everyone. The story of a small-town librarian, Peggy, and James, the tallest boy in the world, their life's ambitions, and their love for each other is a tender and sympathetic tale. They begin by sharing books, because they may escape the pain of their exile from most of the human race that way. McCracken gets inside the inside narrative, what we actors call the interior monologue, of her characters. That is her first-person, unreliable narrator's voice as Peggy, and she uses that inside knowledge as a story-telling device to draw in the reader.
I may be adding things. It's been years now, and nearly every day I dream up my hours and meetings with James Carlson Sweatt. I am a librarian, and you cannot stop me from annotating, revising, updating. I like to think that - because AI am a librarian - I offer accurate and spurious advice with no judgment, good and bad next to each other on the shelf. But my memories are not books. Blessing if they were. Then maybe someone would borrow one and keep it too long and return it, a little battered, offering money for my forgiveness, each memory new after its long absence.
She does not make humorous hash out of her subjects, but her tone is as wise and wry as its gets.
People thing librarians are unromantic, unimaginative. This is not true. We are people whose dreams run in particular ways. Ask a mountain climber what he feels when he sees a mountain; a lion tamer what goes through his mind when he meets a new lion; a doctor confronted with a beautiful malfunctioning body. the idea of a library full of books, the books full of knowledge, fills me with fear and love and courage and endless wonder. I knew I would be a librarian in college as a student assistant at a reference desk, watching those lovely people at work. "I don't think there's such a book - " a patron would begin, and then the librarian would hand it to them, that very book.
Unromantic? This is a reference librarian's fantasy.

A patron arrives, says, Tell me something. You reach across the desk and pull him toward ou, bear hug him a second and then take him into your lap, stroke his forehead, whisper facts in his ear. The climate of Chad is tropical in the south, desert in the north. Source: 1991 CIA World Factbook. Do you love me? Americans consumer 6.2 gallons of tea per capita in 1989. Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States. Synecdoche is a literary device meaning the part for the whole, as in, the crowned heads of Europe. I love you. I could find you British Parliamentary papers, I could track down a book you only barely remember reading. Do you love me now? We own that book, we subscribe to that journal, Elvis Presley's first movie was called Love Me Tender.

And then you life the patron again, take him over the desk and set him down so gently he doesn't feel it, because there's someone else arriving, and she looks oh, she looks uninformed.
If you have ever loved someone for or wooed someone with intellect, you will really get this love story. This may sound like a cop-out but The Giant's House is better revealed by reading it than by reading about it. Despite the little time I have to read fiction, I read some of it just a little slowly to delay its ending but I couldn't stop myself tearing through most of it. A lovely story.


Criticlasm said...

I read this when if first came out and really enjoyed it. It's funny - I'm picturing a friend's back porch in New Mexico where I must have read it after getting it as a gift. It always struck me that Elizabeth McCracken was a librarian - you can tell from her writing that she has the experience.

And nice words on it.

Ted said...

Hey! I've sent you a couple of thank yous for that Anne Fadiman book you sent me but they keep bouncing back so I hope you're reading this one!! Can't wait to read it.

Criticlasm said...

Did someone else send you "The Spirit Catches You..."? I am reading re-readings, as that's the only one of hers I haven't read. I blogged about it here..

Ted said...

Wait, didn't you send me "The Spirit Catches You?" I'm confused now.

Yvette said...

I read THE GIANT'S HOUSE a couple of years ago and liked it very much. Good review. Love is so mysterious.

Criticlasm said...

lol. I didn't realize that your comment was to me. I'm really swift. :(

Yes, I did send it to you. And email at - that's the easiest.