Monday, December 30, 2013

American Decameron

American Decameron, Mark Dunn
Read: 4 October to 12 November 2012
4 / 5 stars    

Creatively constipated in New Jersey

Maddie stares at her work monitor--the third machine on which she's attempted to write her American Decameron review, a review that has hit more brick walls than a driving-school vehicle--with her fingers poised over the keyboard and ready for speedy transcription of all the ways she wants to gush about Mark Dunn's newest gift to the world, a gesture as fruitless as her fervent hopes that staring at a computer screen long enough will magically produce words.

"Fitting," she grumbles to herself, only half caring that her officemate (who's well-versed in her special breed of crazy) might overhear, "that a book comprising 100 stories would take 100 attempts to write about."

The joy of finally finishing a book in the face of natural disasters, a thankless job's busy season and other, more pleasant assorted things that prevent her from falling into what would be her ideal natural state of existence (i.e.: bookworm hermitage) waned considerably as the frustration of reviewing being a use-it-or-lose-it skill grew like... like.... like what, Maddie?

"Fucking similes," she mutters with an inappropriate degree of hatred, for Maddie is nothing if not a classy lady as her fondness for expletives shows. "Fucking stupid review. Why can't you just write yourself?"

She sighs as if the world were ending, then rereads the paltry dross she's managed thus far:

Mixed emotions always accompany the news that Mark Dunn is publishing a new book. On one hand, it's always a cause for celebration when one of my favorite living writers blesses the literary world with a new work; on the other, it's impossible to predict how much of an optimistic cock tease the initial expected publication date is versus the harsh reality of the much more distant one. Fortunately, this is one of those times I was rewarded for not being a technological curmudgeon: While the hardcover's expected publication date has jumped around the 2012 calendar like an overzealous child playing hopscotch, the Kindle edition was there to ease the terminally delayed gratification that's so inherently intertwined with the advent of a new Dunn offering.

"Too boring," Maddie says to herself while shaking her head in self-disgust and not caring that she probably looks like Tippi Hedren to anyone neither inside her head nor in front of her computer screen.

Still, experience has taught her that nothing plows through writer's block quite like hammering out whatever comes to mind so she continues with the unsatisfying direction her review has taken:

I'm never really sure what to expect from Dunn as a writer so I suppose the surprise release dates are rather fitting for a scribe whose playwright and novelist hats both suit him to equal success. As far as Dunn goes, this ambitious book is markedly lacking a kooky hook: It's not an epistolary novel that takes increasing liberties with spelling as the available alphabet diminishes, it's not a biography rendered entirely in footnotes, it's not the tale of a modern-day Dickensian society sequestered in Pennsylvania or extraterrestrial-fearing neighbors sequestered in each other's homes. What it is is 100 individual stories that serve as a better American history lesson than any American history textbook not written by Howard Zinn (though it's definitely more life-affirming than Zinn's fare).

On a totally superficial level, one could erroneously call this a short-story collection but it really isn't (much to the relief of my indomitable but ill-founded bias against short stories). Even if the bookending chapters didn't tie everything together by showing how many of the characters populating Dunn's 100 American tales have crossed paths to (mostly positively) results, the overriding theme of each story being part of something bigger is present without being intrusive. And it's the way that the macro- and microcosms play against each other that highlight my favorite thing about Dunn's writing, which isn't his snazzy word play and his clever presentation--it's the palpable humanity and innate goodness he infuses into the staggering majority of his characters. More on that in a sec because, really, who needs to organize their thoughts?

This is where Maddie lets loose an unladylike but totally characteristic snort over her own blatant cop-out. The thing is, she doesn't want this review to become a gush-fest about how the characters in this book, the forward of which betrays the non-fictitious nature of much of the cast parading through this book's 700-some pages, give her hope for humanity, just as Dunn's books and plays usually do. But Maddie is also deeply cynical about the goodness of people, despite her desperate (and, admittedly, more successful than she had anticipated) efforts to change her own mind. And she doesn't want anyone to know that her soft heart has been bleeding more than usual lately.

Dunn covers a lot of ground, both in terms of time (all of the 20th century, occasionally punctuated by lapses into the past and flash-forwards to the future) and geography (50 states, one district, various airspaces and bodies of water--including at least two oceans--and Botswana). This is a day in the life of an American year as seen by seemingly inconsequential, everyday folks. Some of the personal stories collide with the bigger front-page stories (like journalists investigating the plausibility that the Wright brothers' incredible flying machine is a credible, airborne success), some are outright influenced by them (like Lusitania survivors bonding over an accidental encounter) but most illustrate how history affects people and how people affect history incidentally. Humanity and history are the main characters here, and Dunn breathes life into both intangibles with great deals of sympathetic realism.

"But.... but... there's so much more to it than that!" Maddie almost exclaims, forgetting where she is in the throes of her needlessly intense internal battle. She sighs again, is briefly rocked back to reality as her coworker asks if she's okay, and finally concedes that she can't do in a Goodreads review what Mark Dunn's achieved with his daunting accomplishment of a far-reaching, far-sighted tome.

And she also admits that, like every other book she's read, this one was all about how she related to it, a justification she makes by telling herself that books do not exist in a vacuum and serve to delight, entertain, challenge and otherwise move readers. And what better way than by finding the human connection in a book that is, at its core, all about human connections.

She gets teary-eyed as she grapples with recounting the specific ways that the 1988 installment--"Stouthearted in Florida," in which a teenage girl goes against her mother's wishes to sneak her ailing grandmother's lesbian lover into the hospital--absolutely tore her up inside but abandons the effort, knowing that no one can express the gamut of inherent goodness and love of which people are capable as well as Dunn illustrated with this and all of his other works.

"Fuck this," Maddie proclaims, wiping at her eyes as surreptitiously as possible before emerging from the safe blockade that the monitor allows her. "I'm going to lunch."

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