I read Tad Friend’s, “Contract City,” a piece about Costa Mesa published in the Sept. 5, 2011 magazine, not because I necessarily cared about the topic or expected a plot, but because the writing voice caught me. As an aspiring writer, I asked myself what is Friend doing so well that I am hanging in for all seven pages of tiny type to read about the political hassles of an Orange County suburb I never cared about even when I lived in Southern California?
I stayed around to meet the city councilmen, to tour the look-alike beige buildings and to consider the death of a young Vietnamese employee who may have fallen off the roof of city hall or have committed suicide even before reading his lay-off notice. For me, Friend’s tale of union busting and reckless Republican decision-making made good reading because it was full of specifics, for one thing, and because it followed the advice given by the late Elmore Leonard who said about his writing, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Friend’s writing is just the right mix of show and tell. I learned about “The Lakewood Plan,” a model for outsourcing the running of a city, and I saw that when Huy Pham, the Vietnamese worker landed on the ground from the roof of city hall, “his crumpled body was face down on the sidewalk.” Friend writes, “…he landed so hard that his sandals had flown into a nearby bush. He had five dollars in his pocket, and five credit cards.”
Recently, I read Adam Johnson’s brilliantly dystopian 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, set in North Korea and I was caught up in the tale of a North Korean everyman through whose story and nonstory, I came to know something about North Korea and to care about the protagonist, Pak Jun Do. I was intrigued by the multiple narrators who tell the story. I recommend a review of this book written by a reader named Mike at Goodreads.
The book illustrates that “humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat,” as Ralph Ellison says in Invisible Man. I guess I want this experience of humanity more than I want anything else in my literary choices. When my heart is spoken to I say a work of fiction or nonfiction qualifies as well written.
With this in mind, since reading Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge I have been feeling that this book is the sine qua non of skillful, heartfelt prose. This may be so despite or because the main character, Olive, can be seen in all her complexity without overlooking ways in which she is not admirable. As I read the book, I put aside judgment and came to experience Olive’s empathy while not overlooking her weakness, cruelties and pettiness. I always wanted the best for her. Strout’s compassion for this character reminded me that one can know what’s lacking in others and care for them nonetheless. This acceptance of others must include noting one’s own imperfections and still caring for the imperfect self. A really powerful lesson I am still learning.
By picking through Kate’s old The New Yorker magazines, I went to Costa Mesa, there being told the facts of that town’s governance and decision-making, which may or may not have lead to the death of Huy Pham. I visited Pyongyang, North Korea in The Orphan Master’s Son to experience truthful fiction about the tragedy of common life in North Korea. And I revisited Olive Kitteridge closer to home in a community on the coast of Maine for further evidence that being human is complicated and empathy always called for. For me, good writing, fiction or nonfiction, has this power to awaken compassion for humanity regardless of why I call the writing “good”.
How is it for you?