Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Rashomon Effect

ISBN-10: 0316205850 ISBN-13: 9780316205856 Published: Little, Brown and Company, 09/03/2013 Pages: 176 Language: English
Daniel Woodrell is probably best known for his last novel, Winter's Bone, published in 2006 and adapted into an excellent movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. That novel earned him a  richly deserved reputation as a master of Appalachian-noir and Faulknerian prose, an odd but highly effective mix of genre trappings and lit-fic miserablism. His newest book, The Maid's Version, is no more cheery, but no less beautiful than his previous work. Besides the flecks of bone-dry wit and black humor sprinkled throughout, The Maid's Version is a spare, brutal book-- in other words, right up my alley. 

The Rashomon comparison hinted at in the title is a useful way to consider Woodrell's novel. Like Akira Kurosawa's landmark film, The Maid's Version concerns a central tragedy-- in this case, a dance hall fire-- and how it was perceived by a number of different witnesses. Naturally, each witnesses' point of view is skewed by the complicated web of prejudices and associations that spreads naturally in any small town. The rumor and gossip mills work overtime to produce contradicting theories about the perpetrators, sparking a great deal of collateral damage and undeserved witch hunts. However, unlike in Rashomon, there does seem to be a "true" version of the events, which we gradually close in on as the novel progresses.

The Maid's Version is vastly ambitious in its complicated, inter-generational structure and thematically-laden, gorgeous prose. It's to Woodrell's great credit that he pulls it all off without wasting a single sentence-- The Maid's Version is barely longer than a novella. Really, you can't give enough credit to his writing. For example, Woodrell is able to slip in and out of various voices without disrupting the flow of the story. I was frequently reminded of Faulkner's famous short story "A Rose for Emily," in which he is able to illuminate the individual gossiping people of his made-up small town as well as the group-think, the collective "we" and "they" that result from such a claustrophobic society. Take this passage from Faulkner's story:

"So the next day we all said, 'She will kill herself'; and we said it would be the best thing. When she had first begun to be seen with Homer Barron, we had said, 'She will marry him.' Then we said, 'She will persuade him yet,' because Homer himself had remarked--he liked men, and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks' Club--that he was not a marrying man. Later we said, 'Poor Emily' behind the jalousies as they passed on Sunday afternoon in the glittering buggy, Miss Emily with her head high and Homer Barron with his hat cocked and a cigar in his teeth, reins and whip in a yellow glove."

Compare it to this passage from The Maid's Version:

"And there were the accusations and denunciations also delivered in clusters surrounding the anniversary date: Chuck always has liked fire too much to be left alone anyplace with matches but might have been on that day,-- I don't got any way to know for a fact, I was at Jam Up Cave, myself, that night, but his eyes sure get wide seeing flames. Or: She and him had been stealing from the factory payroll, I'm pretty sure of that, since they had patent-leather shoes a little too rich and shiny for East Side, don't you know, and ate hunks of beef meat when we had greens and fatback, so they likely did the bombing to throw attention away from their own wrongs until they could leave for California with the loot, which they did within a week or so. Or: My husband has been odd since maybe a week before then..."

And so on.  Woodrell's style is more fluid, almost experimental or stream-of-consciousness in a way that recalls As I Lay Dying or even Mrs. Dalloway. Trying to identify all of Woodrell's potential influences is cat-nip for an English major like me, but for anyone simply looking for a great book, I couldn't recommend The Maid's Version more highly. The Maid's Version is simultaneously steeped in the past and engagingly post-modern (just like Rashomon!) without burying emotional depth beneath its technical sophistication. And, unlike me, apparently, Woodrell is committed to the ideal held in highest esteem by busy readers with an enormous stack of books threatening to crush their bedside table-- brevity.

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