Real Life

Vendela Vida‘s second novel, The Lovers, is coming out in the UK (it was published here in the United States last year), prompting a lengthy profile of her in the Guardian. Much of the piece focuses on the work she does with her husband, Dave Eggers, at the Believer, 826 Valencia, and cowriting the screenplay for the 2009 film Away We Go. But the piece squeezes in some discussion of her novels, which the reporter oddly describes as “works of realism.”

I haven’t read Vida’s debut novel, And Now You Can Go, but I’m an admirer of her two follow-ups, The Lovers and Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, both of which display a spiky, spare prose style that highlights the inner turmoil of their female protagonists instead of cloaking it. What they aren’t are works of realism. In both books (and the debut, I gather), the leads make snap decisions to disappear for a while in a new, unfamiliar locale—Lapland in Northern Lights, Turkey in The Lovers—and Vida dwells little on the sightseeing aspects of those places. For her, the exotic settings are ways to erase familiar comforting routines, forcing emotions up to the surface—nobody’s doing a whole lot in these novels, exactly, but they’re expending a great deal of energy.

Vida discusses her internship at the Paris Review, where she began thinking about how she’d approach her fiction: “I’d borrow a back issue every night, read it on the bus home, and pick up another the next morning. I didn’t have any friends in New York; I sat inside and read my Paris Reviews. I was particularly interested in female writers, because I was trying to figure out how to be one.” That in turn influenced the heroine of Northern Lights—though Vida’s statement could apply to the heroine of The Lovers too:

“I wanted to make her real,” Vida says. “At the time, I was tired of reading novels by women in which the men could act as badly as they wanted, while the female characters had to please and enchant. I wanted to try something different. A lot of the responses I got were negative: ‘unlikable’ was the word I heard over and over, which drove me crazy—why do you have to like a character? But it was a conscious thing: I set out to make sure she wasn’t trying to flirt with the reader.”

(A little more on Vida and her style from last year.)

3 responses to “Real Life

  1. “I didn’t have any friends in New York; I sat inside and read my Paris Reviews.” I can think of few fates worse than such a “formative” life. If you want to know people, shouldn’t you go out and talk with them?

    I’ve found over the years that leaving the house and having friends are pretty good ideas — that, and having lots of hot sex. Unfortunately, these are vital elements that escape the talents and capabilities of most literary critics, both practicing and aspiring. They are too busy remaining sour about literature, spewing their frothy milk through the slapdash maintenance of a blog or an outlet that only five people read. Amidst such an environment, why would it be so odd to describe a Vida novel as a work of realism? When you have nothing real to cleave to, there’s no greater guarantee than the sound of your own cackling and humorless voice. Mark, what do you consider a good work of realism? Personally, I think we should do away with Richard Yates and all the dirty realists and examine the truth within MY IMMORTAL:

    http://forum.fanfiction.net/topic/51917/10404916/1/

  2. Maybe the Guardian piece mistakes “feels almost real” with realism? There are many books that can seem truly real simply because of good writing. Though the story itself may be somewhat fantastic (from fantasy), it doesn’t feel that way…

    • Mark Athitakis

      In the case of “Northern Lights,” a lot of what we’d call “realistic” behavior (literary or otherwise) is off the table—the lead makes a rash decision to abandon her home to head to Lapland, and Vida doesn’t spend a lot of time penetrating the psychological rationale for that decision; it’s just something she does. Now, there is a reason for that trip—she’s looking for her mother—but there isn’t a lot of what you might call typical gestures about missing mom, needing home, etc; what comes through in the spareness of the language and the withholding of familar feelings is a sense of mild panic and isolation. Vida is getting at genuine emotions, but she’s not employing familiar/comforting/”realistic” descriptions to pull it off.

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