Thursday, June 11, 2009

Follow Me (A Review)

My grandmother must have loved the way the dizziness washed thoughts and memories into a blur. As a young woman she spun through her life the way she spun around in the teacup on the Bonville carousel. At pivotal moments she tended to act rashly, abandoning her plans without bothering to consider alternatives, moving so quickly from the location of trouble that she would lose track of how one thing was connected to another. Absorbed in the effort of escape, she'd forget that the same problems she'd left behind had a tendency to reappear when she came to a stop.

I had Joanna Scott as a professor my junior year of college when I took International Fiction. I received an A- as my final grade and she liked my writing, particularly the Woolf reaction paper (reading it now, I don't know - it seems very "pretentious student style"), although she also said I needed to be more "open to different styles of literature" (this was in response to me complaining about Beckett and his inane ramblings). Now that being said, her most recent novel Follow Me is a little different from what I usually read. But if a writer can succeed in converting a skeptical reader, I think that speaks highly of their talent. Follow Me certainly had its rough patches, but I did like it and especially enjoyed Scott's luminous prose and gift for storytelling.

Another sure sign of mad literary skillz is the ability to gain the reader's sympathy for a potentially irritating protagonist. (My mother actually abandoned this book around page 100.) Sally Werner/Angel/Mole/Bliss, as her litany of names implies, is an homage to America's celebration of continuous renewal and grand tradition of reinvention. (Salman Rushdie, however, in his novel Fury, asserts that this is actually a more general "human capacity for automorphosis, the transformation of the self," but we Americans like to claim as our own because we are "always labeling things with the American logo: American dream, American Buffalo, American Graffiti, American Psycho, American Tune.") Yet what this also comes down to is that Sally is forever running and hiding. In other words, taking the easy way out only to find herself in even more trouble because she simply never dealt with whatever she fled from in the first place. Sally is highly self-reliant (another prized American virtue), sure, but there are times the reader just wants her to grow up and start taking some responsibility. (Follow Me rather reminded me of Wuthering Heights, in which rash and poorly thought-out actions wreak havoc for generations.) The whole cycle, after all - develop a problem, run away from said problem, said problem follows, another problem arises, run from that, while somewhere a snowball is charging down a hill - begins when Sally Werner, age sixteen and hailing from a deeply religious family, leaves her newborn baby on the kitchen table and abruptly takes off.

Scott's beautiful writing and ability to evoke time and place nevertheless transform the tale of a woman who constantly messes up into a vivid portrait of mid-century small-town Pennsylvania. Scott takes a neutral stance towards Sally and never tries to defend her actions or depict her as particularly admirable. Follow Me is basically a character study and portrait of a time and place. One's behavior is always influenced by one's surroundings, and it is this interconnectedness of things that informs the novel's plotline. As Americans, we treasure individualism, and yet no one person exists in a vacuum. At the core of Follow Me, in all its Americanness, is this contradiction between self and other. True, we applaud personal independence but in reality, we live in an external matrix of people, ideas, customs, and events that both influence what we do and are profoundly affected by it. The full force of Sally's tumultuous past is not felt until near the end, when a daughter sits listening to tapes made by a father she's never met. He is a kindhearted man, a teacher, who poignantly digresses into science trivia. The chapter is a true emotional tour-de-force. You want to live life only for yourself and bolt every time other people get in your way? Well, you can't.

Although it does drag in places and the ending felt drawn-out (probably because I was too infuriated with Sally's #1 screw-up to have any more patience for her), I enjoyed reading Follow Me and feel privileged to have had Joanna Scott as a professor. Her characters are well drawn and the suspense is positively nail-biting at times. I wish my mother would pick it up again and try seeing the story for the art rather than the annoying protagonist, but alas. Of course, some may also find they can't stand Sally, but I would encourage my fellow readers to look at the bigger picture and see a time as it was and humans as they are.

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

(Don't quite no why I included that Eliot - just kinda felt like it; for some reason I just thought of that passage from "Ash Wednesday," which really has nothing to do with Follow Me.)


Related Posts with Thumbnails