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Thursday, July 22, 2010

'Like Butter in Cookie Dough'

The idea of how much a writer cannot help but include of herself in her writing is one of the ideas in Carolyn Parkhurst's new novel, The Nobodies Album. (More coming on the entire book later.)

The narrator is Octavia Frost, a moderately successful, middle-aged novelist. She has an arch, wry yet perhaps not completely reliable voice that brings to mind a combination of the protagonist of John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure and Stevens in the masterpiece, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day.

Even while her estranged rock star son is accused of killing his girlfriend, Octavia cannot help but think of herself and her writing.

Is she in her books? The woman whose husband and daughter died years ago, and whose son she thinks she ignored? Are you kidding?


The way Octavia puts it is that any writer's experiences are "like butter in cookie dough: it's a crucial part of flavor and texture ... but if you've done it right, it can't be discerned as a separate element." (p. 155, The Nobodies Album, Carolyn Parkhurst, Doubleday)

That's certainly a wonderful theory, that a discerning reader won't be able to pick out specifics. Parkhurst's own writer, 20 pages later, meets a reader who does just that. And Octavia does it herself to a rival later on, while watching a film version of the rival's book, no less.

One of the great pleasures of reading this book is that Octavia is not insufferable, even when pulling this kind of stuff while her son really needs her, but is instead someone who has been hurt, who has done some hurting, and who wants to make things better. She's a terrific creation.

But let's face it, anyone who writes put something of themselves in the finished product. The key is whether finding those bits and pieces of the writer, picking out the butter in the dough, becomes important to the reader. Or whether it is truly blended in so completely that it is the very essence of what makes the finished cookie great. Then again, if the cookie is that good, no wonder some people want to know if the butter is salted or unsalted, comes from local cows and whether they were grazing freely in a sweet grass pasture.

This is something I love in well-done meta fiction. There's on the other hand, and the other hand, and then again to consider.

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