Joe Rogers on Dangerous Reading
Reading can be dangerous for any number of reasons. Like let's say you live in some backwards oligarchy where the government can legally obtain records of all the books you buy or check out of a library and then, legally again, search your house when you aren't even around based on the content of those books.
Can you imagine?
A few years ago I discovered a more subtle reason reading can be dangerous. It happened after I read Tom Spanbauer's cult novel The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon. (Nominated, by the way, for the Pulitzer and the National and American Book Awards, and winner of the PNBA Award.) This is a dangerous book, and in so many ways.
It's the story of a fifteen-year-old bisexual Native American kid who works at a pink whorehouse in turn-of-the-century Idaho. It's graphic and it's violent, but it's also a tender and poetic coming-of-age story. It's a story about race and religious persecution. About sexual identity. And sex, gay sex and straight sex, lots and lots of sex. It's the type of book that gets Ashcroft's panties all in a bunch.
But the book is dangerous in a much more important way. It's dangerous because of the way it's written the amazing voice, the language, the music of it all a way of writing that puts you so into the world of the book that it's actually a little scary. The first person narrative is told with such authority that the story just absolutely surrounds you. This is dangerous reading there is no escape. You are willingly forced to dwell with these particular characters in this particular world, and by doing so you're forced to dwell, as well, with yourself. To take a long, hard look at your own hang-ups, your own joys, your own broken heart. It's a place not many are willing to go. It's a dangerous place to be.
But how exactly does Mr. Spanbauer do this to me? Come to find out that this man has developed an entire teaching methodology with just this in mind: holding you right in the story and never letting go until the very end. How he does this is way too lengthy to go into here, but suffice it to say it has a lot to do with choosing image over reported narration and very little to do with plot hooks. And most importantly, it has everything to do with language. The language in The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon is simple and poetic, and delivered with such natural storytelling giddyup that pretty soon you?re not staring at type on a page anymore. Words disappear into image and you?re right there in a shed in Excellent, Idaho, losing your virginity to a cowboy.
It took me a while to even come close to the experience I had with The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, and with Spanbauer?s next book In the City of Shy Hunters. But over time I came to see that no matter what the style or point of view of a piece fiction, the effect of there being absolutely zero distance between story and reader can still be achieved. It?s as much up to us as it is the writer. What reading Spanbauer has taught me is this: if we all let down a few of our defenses and open a book with the intention of allowing ourselves to be completely taken in by the story, allowing the characters to really inhabit our lives, if only for a time, then our experience will be so much richer and more complex, so much more joyous, so much more heartbreaking. So much more dangerous.