This is a first–upon finishing Bright Before Us, still shivering from that perfect head and stomach turning feeling a great book’s last sentence can give you, I turned to the acknowledgments page and found myself thanked. In one way, this isn’t totally surprising–although Katie and I are more like pen pals these days, she’s a friend and we were MFA classmates in Mary LaChapelle’s, Amy Hempel’s and Victoria Redel’s wonderful classes. In another way, this is totally surprising because I can’t imagine I provided any sort of help in this book’s journey to being. I was essentially incapable of providing constructive criticism when it came to Katie’s submissions in workshop. I would read her draft and think, “Well, that’s perfect. Publish it!”
And, more or less, that’s what she’s done. This book is little changed since I first read it in draft form. The ending is different and tweaks have been made here and there, but I wasn’t being too generous in class–it really was already that good.
The writing in Bright Before Us is quiet and contemplative, subtle even. Katie never overstates, makes a fuss or gets dramatic. Because of that, she is able to get away with quite a few extreme circumstances (I’m not giving away anything that a million reviews haven’t already given away when I say that the book kicks off with our protagonist, Francis’s, second graders finding a decomposing body) and wildly inappropriate actions. For example–everything Francis does. It is quite a bold move on Katie’s part to allow her narrator the freedom to make the worst possible decisions at every turn. I have a tendency to protect my characters and hence am constantly getting the critique “Let them fight! Let things get messy!” Katie doesn’t need this critique. She gives us enough insight into Francis’s character–placing us right there with him in his head–that we go with him wherever he goes, no matter how disastrous. We’re in it with him. Amy Hempel–a mentor to Katie–told us in our workshop once that things get interesting when both people in a situation are equally wrong (or right). In Bright Before Us, often both people are NOT wrong. But we’re on the side of the one who is. The book is so powerful, I think, because Francis chooses wrong every time and the reader gets to choose wrong with him. It’s exhilarating.
The last time I read a draft of this book was in 2008–several scenes stayed with me with such an immediacy it’s hard to believe it’s been that long since I’d actually encountered them on the page. The two paragraphs that are most powerfully alive for me are too hard-earned to reprint here out of context. One is in a chapter that Francis is addressing to his lost love, Nora, in the second person. You know, my faithful blog readers, that I have a real problem with the gratuitous use of the second person. Needless to say, this p.o.v. choice is smart, important and necessary. This particular section revolves around revisiting a place that the characters had been years before–they try to reproduce that experience and when they can’t, begin to question themselves. Many writers would stop there, but Katie takes it a step further, deeper, more poignant and beautiful. Rather than end the section on a note of uncertainty, she veers in the other direction, which is surprisingly more unsettling. The second paragraph I was looking out for on this read has to do with an observation Francis makes about his second-graders. Now, for the most part, I spend my days looking into the little faces of NYC schoolchildren and basically seeing sunshine and rainbows and promise and hope. But, occasionally, I come across a kid, or group of kids, that make me recall the paragraph in question. Francis, poor Francis, sees futility and expresses it in a way that, more than anything else in this book, I think, explains why he does what he does. If I always saw what he saw, I may take off cross-country in my sad, busted-up car, too.
I realize I haven’t made Bright Before Us sound like the happiest of beach reads, but I’m telling you that you will be transfixed by the writing. You may even have to sign yourself up for a subscription to O Magazine, where Katie is an editor, to get your monthly fix until her next book comes out. Plus, the book is published by Tin House–arbiters of literary excellence. If a book is endorsed by Oprah, Tin House AND me you know it’s worth your while!