“Lyrical fiction introduces the conventions of poetry (image, metaphor) into genre dependent on causation and time. Characters, scenes, plots are turned into patterns, designs of imagery, Life and manners are sensually apprehended and then turned into design.”

Carole Maso, Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing & Moments of Desire

Reading Carole Maso on My Way to San Diego

I was on a plane when I opened Carole Maso‘s book Break Every Rule. I sat in the aisle seat next to two people–a guy flying to San Diego for civilian work with the Navy and a woman from the mountain town my partner wishes we lived in. The woman chatted a lot, mostly about the mountain town and the weather and a bit about the military and the landscape we were flying over. She had an ebook reader open to a science fiction book. The guy next to me pulled out a thriller once we all settled in for the next hour and half.

I pulled Maso’s book from seat pouch I had stuffed it in before take-off. My partner sat across the aisle. His triumph, getting us each aisle seats across from each other, so we could stretch our legs on the short flight to San Diego to visit our kids.

I’ve carried Maso’s book with me unopened for years. Like most readers and writers, I have stacks of to-be-read books. I’ve glanced at the book here and there and told myself I should read it, but I was always reading something else at the time. I’m not sure I would have run across the book at all if I hadn’t accidentally come across a bibliography of books by Italian American Women, but that’s another story for another time.

A writer friend of mine had brought this book up when we met for lunch a while back. I told her I’d been meaning to read it, that I’d had it sitting in my book closet for a long time. We were discussing narratives that move in patterns rather than plots.

I gravitate to these kinds of stories. I find myself apologizing for it, for not being captivated by plot as much as I am by language, as if that is something to apologize for. I’m a poet first I guess, but Carole Maso’s book spoke to that clearly, that urge to not follow convention, to explore what language can do first.

Kelly Link was my first clear dip in these waters. No, maybe it was Haruki Murakami, writers that describe characters and scenes and moments so beautifully I just want to wrap myself in the stories rather than follow some linear path. That’s what emerges from these lyric moments for me. I’m on a journey but not because the narrative has structured that journey. I’m on a journey like I might be when I am looking at a painting.

Somewhere over Nevada, I think, I dug through my backpack, trying to find one of my drawing pencils in order to underline passages in Maso’s book. There were so many bits I knew I would want to venture back to later when I had solid ground below my feet.

Bits like following: “Lyrical novels imply a formal design–an aesthetic patterning in order to achieve the desired intensity.”

I’ve been thinking in patterns as of late. I’m always thinking in patterns. I’ve been working on a novel for a long time, a novel in patterns, breaking this idea that something linear is happening, breaking that rule, anyway, or not. I don’t know.

It’s just the more I read these kinds of novels or stories, the more I want to know. I found Jane Alison’s book Meander, Spiral, Explode a couple years ago. Although I’ve had Maso’s book longer, I read Alison’s book first, another permission slip, a granting of a wish or a door opening into a realm that excites me as a writer, excites me and frightens me. There are few craft books pointing in this direction.

I think of the conference I was a few years back. I went as a poet. Some days I go as a poet. Somedays I go as a fiction writer. Some days I go as a painter. Some days I go as none of them. The conference was one of those where everyone is talking about paths to publishing, thinking about the bottom line and what will sell. I sat at one once where everyone talked about clear platforms and practiced schticky phrases aimed at getting an agent’s attention. I even tried to do something like that with by novel then. It came off flat. I clearly had no focus or log line, and for a while felt like that meant there might be something wrong with my novel and my writing.

Lots of conferences are like this. There’s no blame or judgement. We all want to do the thing that moves us or eats at us. Even Maso laments her own inability to live solely off the work she’s meant to do, the art she’s meant to create. It is art. Still, I recall one editor’s stern warning that poetry doesn’t sell and that’s why he wouldn’t ever publish a book of poems. It’s a narrative I’ve gotten used to. Oddly enough, when I least expect to sell even one of my tiny books of poems, I do sell one or two, but that’s not the point here.

I don’t know what the point is, and maybe that is the point. I’m meandering. I’m spiraling. I’m thoroughly obsessed with Carole Maso’s work. I want to read more. I just finished reading Ghost Dance, her first novel published originally in 1986, the year I graduated high school. I wouldn’t have pretended to know anything about her or language or poetry back then. Now, though, I trust the journey Maso takes me on in in her work, the explosion of moments, and I know I’m taken to somewhere completely of her own making.

I glimpsed a review of Ghost Dance on Goodreads as I logged my read there. I half-heartedly track my reading, always making attempts at lofty reading goals and failing hard because I’m a slow reader, maybe the kind of reader perfectly suited for Maso’s books, the kind of reader savoring every image. This reviewer said they didn’t know why Maso’s books weren’t more widely read.

To some extent, Maso answers that in Break Every Rule. Her style isn’t what publishers will sell. Her novels aren’t formulas, far from it. They are meandering and exploding and spiraling in sensually lyric ways, at least that’s how I felt as I read Ghost Dance.

Now, I’m back from San Diego and obviously still thinking about Break Every Rule and Ghost Dance. On the first morning of our trip, when I was up early and sitting on the balcony of our tropical-themed hotel looking at the marina with all the sailboats docked, masts glowing in the morning sunlight, I texted my writer friend (probably earlier in the morning than I should have). I had to let her know I couldn’t believe I’d waited so long to read Break Every Rule.

I didn’t see until a few minutes later that autocorrect had changed Maso to Mask, but she knew what I meant.

“It’s so good!!!!” she texted back.

“It’s so good and autocorrect is stupid,” I texted.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: