Tuesday, January 3, 2012

How to Be an American Housewife

After reading "How to be an American Housewife," the debut novel by Margaret Dilloway, I googled the title. I'm astonished that there is no movie in production right now. I predict, though, that you can look for it soon.

This book has everything Hollywood loves, and I don't mean that in a negative way at all. Just that it's the type of book that would translate to film well, and be loved by audiences. I could see mothers taking their teen daughters to it, or making it a tri-generational outing. It's an enjoyable read, too, but isn't so light that it floats away.

The story is told by two women. Shoko was born in Japan and came to American just after World War II. Her family realized that things were changing, that they needed to change with them, and that Shoko's best hope for success was to get a job where she could meet lots of nice American men, and marry one of them. She does just that, working in a hotel gift shot and going on dates at night. She obtains photos of the most promising men she meets, and her father chooses one of them for her.

Charlie turns out to be nice, and amenable to marriage, and they raise a family and have a relatively happy life together. But it hasn't come without costs to Shoko, and chief among those is her relationship with her younger brother, who hasn't spoken to her since the day she brought Charlie home. Now an old woman, Shoko wants nothing more than to return to Japan, for the first time since she left it, and make amends with her brother.

But she's too sick. Shoko lived 50 miles away from Nagasaki, and her heart was damaged by the radiation. So, she sends her daughter, Sue. Her granddaughter Helena accompanies Sue to meet the family they've only heard about, scarcely even seen in photographs, and to try to make amends on Shoko's behalf.

The story is structured by a neat narrative device: each chapter is framed by a quote from a book titled "How to be an American Housewife" that is written for women like Shoko. There are chapters with titles like "Becoming American" and "A Map to Husbands." I was crushed to learn that Dilloway wasn't quoting from a real book. In an afterword, she said she was inspired by a book her own Japanese mother had, titled "The American Way of Housekeeping." But it was written for maids working for Americans, and her mother didn't use it much, although she says that an internet search revealed some instances of other Japanese war brides using it to help them assimilate.

What I liked about it was the Japanese perspective on what it was like to be defeated, and live in Japan after the old order has broken apart. It's often said that history is written by the victor. It's easy to forget the other perspective. It's also hard to imagine what it must be like to leave behind everything that's familiar and try to become part of another culture forever. This book brings it to life. It's definitely worth a read!

Maxwell Perkins and his "test"

I realized in looking over some old posts that I've frequently referred to "the Maxwell Perkins test" on here, without fully explaining what I mean, or where the phrase came from.

When I was about 16, the cover of "The Great Gatsby" jumped out at me at Barnes and Noble. This version had the original, iconic cover, with the impressionistic carnival lights and the woman's face superimposed in the sky. It captured my imagination immediately. I simply had to read this book that had the cover with its mixed images of longing and celebration.

The version I got was a Scribner classic that drew on the original manuscript and the surviving proofs, and claims to restore a number of errors that arose from a rushed printing schedule of the first editions, and multiplied over the years through careless reprintings. My version came out in 1991 and has a foreword and a note on the text by Matthew Bruccoli of the University of South Carolina, an afterword by the publisher, Charles Scribner III, a map, several pages of explanatory notes, suggestions for further reading, and a biographical note on F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The publisher's afterword was what stuck with me the most, for it concerned the process of writing and editing the book. It was a revelation to me to learn that one of the great luminaries of American literature went through the same process of rewrites and criticism that my own short stories as a high school student were subject to. Charles Scribner quoted at length from a letter that Maxwell Perkins sent to F. Scott Fitzgerald on the book. It's fascinating to see his criticisms now that the book is a bona fide classic. The original letter took up three pages in the book, but I'll quote the part from which my "Maxwell Perkins test", my gold standard for character development, derives:

I could go on praising the book and speculating on its various elements, and meanings, but points of criticism are more important now...I have only two actual criticisms:
One is that among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital -- I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him -- Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader's eyes can never quite focus on him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery...and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken.

So simple, yet there's the heart of good character development, to me: would you know the character if you met him or her on the street, and would you have a clear sense of how to react to him or her? Would you hesitate to greet Walter Freeman while you weigh how interesting your talk with im would be, against how much energy you have for it today? Would you grit your teeth as Leah from the Poisonwood Bible approached, ready to hear all her opinions on politics and world economics? Would you give Adah a warm hello, knowing she probably won't answer you back, or would you steel yourself as Rachel descends on you like a hurricane, full of energy, drama and complaints, and smelling of hairspray and expensive perfume?

Of course, not every character needs that type of dimension. But I maintain it's a good thing if your leads have them. I don't know how much Fitzgerald took that particular criticism to heart. I'm inclined to think, much less than I did, for my impression of Gatsby was similar to Perkins'. The letter also goes to show that just because someone says they dislike something about your writing doesn't mean they dislike it as a whole. Perkins also went on to say:

The general brilliant quality of the book makes me ashamed to make even these criticisms. The amount of meaning you get into a sentence, the dimensions and intensity of the impression you make a paragraph carry, are most extraordinary. The manuscript is full of phrases which make a scene blaze with life. If one enjoyed a rapid railroad journey I would compare the number and vividness your living words suggest, to the living scenes disclosed in that way. It seems in reading a much shorter book than it is, but it carries the mind through a series of experiences that one would think would require a book of three times its length.