What I’m Reading 2.12.16

A writer reads in order to learn. The novelist reads novels to see what’s working and what isn’t, to learn his or her own likes and dislikes. One eye is on the story and one eye is on the craft: pulling apart the story to see how it works, like a mechanic would with an engine.

The fuel of Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is the backdrop: seven people who are in Seattle during the World Trade Organization riots in 1999. We see how their lives intersect, and Sunil Yapa gives their backstories—how Victor, a nineteen-year-old, thinks about his travels throughout Latin America and around the world while tear gas descends. The prose is vigorous. It reminded me, a bit, of Junot Diaz: conversational and robust.

The prose is both a strength and a weakness. From the first pages, there is an energy to it:

“Victor—curled into himself like a question mark, a joint hanging from his mouth; Victor, with his hair natural in two thick braids, a red bandanna folded and knotted to hold them back; Victor—with his dark eyes and this thin shoulders and his cafecito con leche skin, wearing a pair of classic Air Jordans, the leather so white it glowed—imagine him how you will because he hardly knew how to see himself.”

The energy sparkles when it’s in the action, in the present. It pulls you in as Yapa details the atrocities of the five-day riots:

“Victor’s eyes exploded. His whole face attacked by a wall of head. He was on his hands and knees, blinded, hands reaching out for something, anything, and there seemed to be a pile of bodies. Everything was arms and clothes and legs. He eyes like hot coals in the cave of his sockets. He wanted to tear them out.”

But, in telling the backstory, too often the author falls into purple prose—overwriting the scene. This comes in tandem with a tendency to advance the story only at the end of each chapter. As we move, chapter by chapter, into different character’s points of view, we are removed from the present action. As Victor thinks about joining the protest, he goes back in a reverie to his deceased mother, and the books she let him read. At the very end of the chapter, he decides to join, despite coming to the protests simply to sell his weed.

The problem this reader feels with relying on so much backstory is that it seems an artifice. For one, during moments of great emotion—tear gas falling at you, for example—you’re not taken away to what you were doing three years ago and ruminating on how all the intervening time has led you to this point. You’re focused on the gas, man. Second, a character’s past is always known to her or him. There’s nothing ostensible that triggers Victor’s memory of his mother and his subsequent change. Memories must be triggered by something if they are to produce change. But even better than memory is something someone says—a challenge for the character we’ve come to know that stretches him.

And that ties to my third point: tell the story. The backstory is relevant—we see how characters are acting out of their fear and pain—but it can be hinted at, or told to raise the stakes in breaks in the action. But it distracts from the action, pulling me into backstory when riots are happening all around. Tell me the story.

Then, once the story is told, the energetic prose doesn’t distract from the story—it adds to it. I found a scene toward the end of the book, when violence explodes, to lose its significance because the prose wasn’t able to take a step up, encompass more energy: it was at a fever pitch throughout.

In the end, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist tells about a forgotten event in America’s recent history. It’s ambitious. It’s interesting. The prose and the vision of redemptive suffering, of offering sympathy to almost every character, is enough to keep me reading the author (this is his debut novel). But, I hope he focuses more on telling the story itself, not the myriad backstories that lead to the story. Fiction writers are constantly told to be careful of backstory, because it doesn’t advance anything. This was my main frustration in Yapa’s writing (and, often, my feeling when rereading my own writing), and a good reminder: tell the story, tell the story, tell the story.

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