Last night I finished a book that I am compelled to call a modern masterpiece. It’s called The People’s Act of Love by James Meek. It might best be described in the format of the Hollywood pitch — in this case something like “Cormac Mccarthy meets Leo Tolstoy on the Comedy Channel” …
The book focuses on a tiny part of a huge historical event — the Russian Revolution — and is set in a tiny, remote village in Siberia. You might wonder how this setting could possbily contain enough varied characters to support a richly drawn story, but it most certainly does, mainly because, in case you didn’t know, there were some 67.000+ Czech soldiers deployed through this period, scattered across the vast expanse of Russia like so many toy soldiers, thrown hither and fro between a half-dozen powers. There were also apparently some pretty bizarre cults operating around the taiga at the time, plus the native Siberian population wandering around the frozen forests. Not to mention the White Russians scattered around Siberia in the same way that Eastern Businessmen drove West in the 19th century to seek their fortune and, of course, exploit the land and people they could find along the way. The principal difference, of course, is that a social movement occurred there that did not occur here, where many of those businessmen were strung up like so many light bulbs on a Christmas morning, or marched out into the forest and summarily shot. This, however, is not the main focus of the book — it’s actually written more as a mystery, and is gripping as well as fascinating to read.
There are certainly parallels to be drawn to our tumultous history of our own West, which in part reminds me of Mccarthy, but also because Meek tends to push Big Ideas through the characters he creates in a similar manner to Mccarthy — and yet Meek somehow manages a hilarious wit throughout. There is, for instance, a Czech engineer/soldier who spends most of his time attempting to discover and document, in engineering terms, the precise mechanism of female erotic arousal, except that he has almost no occasion to ever touch a woman, and so must grill his more successful compatriots for the information he so desperately seeks.
It turns out that the author himself is an award-winning journalist, and in the acknowledgments he thanks people from a string of tiny Siberian towns, and so you know he traveled through the region in his research. What a life, eh? Here is what he has to say about the difference in writing fiction and journalism:
“One of the main constraints on the reporter, as opposed to the novelist, is space. The reporter is required to be economical with words, sometimes extremely so. The 150-word news story leaves little room for considerations of rhythm or poetry, and the 1,500-word news story not much more. As a rule, there is a close deadline involved, too. It might be thought that this training in economy would benefit a fiction writer. I’m not sure. To be comfortable as a novelist or even a short story writer, you don’t want to feel uncomfortable with setting your own limit, or no limit, to length.” (Three Monkeys)
My father was one of those that believed that journalism was great training in learning economy and was mainly a benefit to the fiction writer, and it’s interesting that Mr. Meek is not so sure of that. But one of the great pleasures of the book is that he takes his time to tell his story, and does so from four main points of view — a Czech officer, a cultist, a mysterious student/convict/revolutionary, and a woman who has traveled from the “civilized” part of the country to remote Siberia for reasons that are not entirely clear at first.
I like to read interviews with writers because sometimes they let slip clever techniques that help them put together something of the scope of People Act of Love. I imagined Meek standing in front of a large table with dozens of index cards, like I heard somewhere that Nabokov did, but what he actually did was even more interesting — “At one point, when I had about a dozen characters all interacting in a single chapter, I wrote all their names on little pieces of paper, folded the pieces so that they sat upright, and arranged them in front of me, like an audience, to make sure I didn’t forget that any of them were there. I had them there for weeks.” (Three Monkeys)
I imagine these days there are all kinds of software to help with this kind of process. Like Meek says in the interview, though, writing is never, ever easy, and I’m sure it cannot be made so with the use of software and other tools. Reading Meek’s book is not the easiest endeavor, either, and I almost want to read it again because there are clues and various subtleties that I’m sure I missed. I book that rich probably needs to be read twice — to write something of that depth and have it appear on the NYT best seller list is indeed an accomplishment in 2007.
I first heard of the book with a full-page ad in the NYR of Books, which was so compelling that I dutifully ripped out the ad, and then lost it a week later, I’m sure. But I didn’t forget about the book, although I unfortunately forgot the title and the author’s name … and half-heartedly searched for it as “the book” that would get me reading again. From 2007 to 2009 whenever I would go into a bookstore, which is at least a monthly occurrence, I would drift from the Computer Books section over to fiction and peruse the shelves, looking for the cover, which is all I remembered — a lone figure walking away from the viewer through a narrow road in a snowy northern forest. At one point I actually tried to ask for help from a Barnes and Noble staffer by describing the cover of the book, and received the appropriate look (“what, you are kidding me?”) and then on my last day in Boulder a couple of weeks ago, THERE IT WAS, staring at me in the used section. For the next week I barely put it down, spending more time reading in the last week than I have in the preceding eight years.
What a pleasure.
Now I see that there is a movie in production of this book, or should I say “Development”. I thought a little about how it might be to make the book into a movie as I was reading it. It will be a great surprise to me if Hollywood manages to create this movie without completely blowing it. I suppose we will see …