If you think that the fact that I’m writing about another book here means that I’ve finished Ulysses, you have more faith in me than you should. I am stalled somewhere near the midpoint. I needed a break and a welcome one came in the form of Lauren Grodstein’s An Explanation for Everything.
In previous posts I’ve mentioned that Lauren was my writing teacher in my first few post-college workshops. If you ever get the chance to take a workshop with her, I highly recommend it. Luckily, you don’t have to be enrolled in the MFA program at Rutgers-Camden (the program she helps run) in order to learn from her, though–you can read her books. Of course, it requires some meta-reading to learn about writing from a novel like The Explanation for Everything, because it is so absorbing that its bones aren’t the least bit exposed unless you’re looking for them.
For the third time out of three novels, Lauren writes this one from the p.o.v. of a man–Andy Waite, a biology professor at a small New Jersey college. He’s a staunch, evolution-driven atheist who finds himself challenged, on multiple levels, by a student named Melissa who asks to do an independent study with him on intelligent design. I don’t want to say too much more about the premise of the book so that I don’t hinder your opportunity to make discoveries as you read. I will say, though, that the narrative is both straightforward and unexpected. Lauren doesn’t employ any tricks or pull any manipulative moves; she tells an honest story and the reader–at least this one–is right there with her the whole time.
One of the meta-level lessons I learned from this novel was about keeping the protagonist at the center of the book while creating a whole world around him. There are quite a few orbital characters in this book, each well-drawn and unique, yet also important only in their relationship to Andy. It isn’t that there is only one aspect to the plot, but there is only one main character, so every plot serves his arc. This reads like it was easy to do–the whole novel does, actually–but I have it on good authority that it was not.
The other lesson was about time. Lauren starts her first chapter in one place and time and then the second chapter begins twelve years later. By structuring the book this way, the need for explanation, exposition and flash-back is avoided–always a good thing! I would never think to do it, but for me, it really worked. When I saw Lauren read that first chapter, I got teary just because I already had read far enough into the novel to understand all the clues she’d put into those first few pages about what would happen next to the characters.
So here’s my advice–read this book, then go back and read the first chapter one more time a little while later. And then, go download the Other People podcast and listen to Lauren’s interview. It was super exciting for me to get to spend a commute or two listening to Lauren and Brad Listi chat!