We are pleased to present the results of our first Safety Book survey. Madeline McDonnell–whose small collection of fiction will be published by Rescue Press this fall–discusses style, Styron, and sky writing.
1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why?
I love Sophie’s Choice by William Styron for its largeness.
I love the book’s weight in my hand, the fact that I can throw it at the loved one who first urged it on me and demonstrate Styron’s recurrent theme: “the catastrophic propensity on the part of human beings to attempt to dominate one another.”* Speaking of themes, I love this novel’s thematic ambition (John Gardner, an early reviewer, described the book’s central subject as nothing less than “the nature of evil in the individual and in all of humanity”), just as I love its complex, digressive form (the narration moves boldly back and forth through time and space), its rangy plot (one character’s experiences at Auschwitz are juxtaposed with another’s comic quest to lose his virginity), its expansive point-of-view (the first-person narrator spends hundreds of pages relaying another character’s memories in a unique quasi-third-person perspective), and its emotional scope (the novel is hilarious just as often as it is harrowing—I swear!). And I love its winding, windy sentences, the way its rhythms infect the rhythms of my thoughts, the way its discordant, ornate imagery alters my own vision.
But, more than all of this, maybe, I love the novel’s large-heartedness, its generosity not just to its characters but to its reader. Of course I read in part to trick my(dumb)self into forgetting my(ugh!)self—into feeling that I am outside my own mind and inside another’s. By plainly asking the reader to identify the narrator, Stingo, with Styron (Stingo becomes a writer whose books exactly resemble Styron’s), Sophie’s Choice enhances that feeling, tricking me into thinking that I know Styron himself as well as I know his characters, tricking me almost into thinking that I am Styron, and that I’m not actually so trapped and pathetic after all. (Thanks, Bill! Tuum opus est magnum!)
2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
I remember my mother explaining the “choice” of the novel’s title to me long, long ago. “Sophie had two children,” my mother said, “a girl about your age, and a boy about your brother’s…” She laughed darkly. “Guess which one she chose?”
I vowed never to read the book.
But then I grew up and fell in love, and the object of my love gave me Sophie’s Choice for my birthday. If said loved one gave me such a gift now, I would say, “A @%#% book? Where is the ticket to Fiji, the 1988 Bollinger R.D., the cloudy heart drawn by a small airplane into the blank sky above!?!?” But, at the time, I had just fallen in love with the object, and so I said, “It’s one of your favorites!?!?? Thank you so much! I’ll read it right away!” I had no desire then to throw the book at him and thereby demonstrate my dominance; I wanted immediately to open it, to look inside it for my loved one’s secret heart. And I was enthralled by what I found. What scale! Perhaps my L.O. was not the cold withholder he seemed; perhaps I might open him up, too, and find something as expansive and wild and courageous and hilarious and sad as what I’d found inside Styron’s book. (And I did!)
I read Sophie’s Choice again last year. Time had broken love’s initial spell, but I found myself just as enthralled by the book as I’d been the first time. Is it weird that I shut myself up in a tiny room and read all 562 pages aloud, the better to hear Styron’s music? That I perfected a Polish accent during my performance of the pages that tell Sophie’s story? I suspected it might be, so I told L.O. I’d been talking on the phone. He was kind enough not to ask about the accent.
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
Re: my own writing:
When I am writing fiction, I pay so much attention to the sound of what understandably plot-hungry readers might consider inessential sentences that, when the time comes to advance a story’s action, I am sometimes exhausted and uninterested and so dash out a few quick sentences that keep the machine of the plot operational, trusting the urgency of the content to keep my readers interested. I notice a reassuringly similar tendency to attend less to style when relaying machinations of plot in some of my favorite writers, but not in the Styron of Sophie’s Choice. His reluctance to rely only on the visceral attraction of his plotting, his ability to engage me sonically throughout the entire novel, makes me want to try harder in my own work.
Re: my sense of the world:
I appreciate the way this novel admits not just the central role Sophie’s physical beauty plays in determining her fate, but also the tragedy of that centrality. And yet, even as this tragedy is laid bare by the events of the novel, the narrator participates in the problem, listening to Sophie’s story in large part because he desires her. The novel is therefore critical of and complicit in Sophie’s objectification in a way that strikes me as unusually honest.
I also like that a complete understanding of Sophie seems to elude the narrator; her contradictions suggest her inscrutability, and Stingo’s extravagant characterization of her implicitly affirms that Sophie-on-the-page is necessarily his invention. He thus writes—empathically, convincingly—about her without pretending to know what it is like to be her, to be any woman, really. Which brings me to the sad truth: some of us feel trapped by gender, trapped on some personal Mars or Venus, fated always to view the opposite sex as obscure and other, and I appreciate that Styron—like John Gray, PhD—acknowledges this. Likewise, by allying himself so closely with his narrator, Styron claims Stingo’s limitation as his own, and makes me feel better about my own confinement.
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
The following passage begins on p. 321 of my edition:
“It was on a sofa in front of this fireplace that my mother lay reading on winter afternoons. As an only child, I was classically though not immoderately spoiled; one of the few chores demanded of me, on afternoons after school during the winter months, was that I hurry home and see to it that the fireplace was well fueled, since although my mother was not yet totally incapacitated, it was far beyond her strength to throw wood on a fire. There was a telephone, but in an adjoining room, down steps she could not negotiate. Already it must be easy to guess the nature of the outrage I committed: one afternoon I abandoned her. I was lured away by the promise of a ride with a schoolmate and his grown-up brother in a new Packard Clipper, one of the swank cars of the day. I was mad for that car. I was drunk with its vulgar elegance. We streaked with idiot vainglory through the frosty countryside, and as the afternoon faded and evening fell, so did the mercury; at about five o’clock the Clipper halted somewhere far from home out in the pinewoods and I became aware of the sudden descent of windy, vicious cold. And for the first time I thought of the hearth, and my deserted mother, and became sick with alarm. Jesus Christ, guilt…”
…Stingo goes on to describe the sight that awaited him when he returned home, his mother’s “hazel bespectacled eyes and the way that her ravaged, still terrified gaze caught [his], then darted swiftly away,” the way “the swiftness of that turning…thereafter define[d] [his] guilt.” He then describes the hours he spent freezing in a backyard woodshed as punishment for his transgression, as well as his mother’s “disgusting death” and his persistent fear that he had “somehow hastened her dying.” Stingo/Styron closes the passage as follows: “Fuck it, I thought. Prompted by a commotion next door, I began to think of sex.”
This passage inspires me because I am interested in writing about remorse, but find it difficult to render persuasively. Regret is a sort of anti-desire, a longing for annihilation or absence rather than for the thing itself; it is an emotion more likely to produce inaction than action, and so it is hard, at least for me, to dramatize it dynamically, and even sometimes to feel it urgently. Every time I read this passage, however, Styron convinces me of Stingo’s guilt. “Guilt,” he writes, “hateful guilt. Guilt, corrosive as brine. Like typhoid, one can harbor for a lifetime the toxin of guilt,” and I accept the extravagance of his phrasing.
I also love the passage’s final line (“Fuck it…”), its suggestion that fully confronting guilt is, if not impossible, not necessarily productive or desirable. And, of course, I am engaged and inspired by that final line’s boldness, by the unexpected, swift shift of register, from tragedy to comedy.
5. Who did you send this book to, why?
I told my father I sent him this book because of his interest in WWII history. Really, reading and rereading the novel had half-convinced me that I was Styron (see answer #1), and so I sent it hoping my father would read Styron’s dedication to his own father as a message from me, that he would encounter Stingo’s lovely, loving father on the page and recognize himself.
(I feel bad that I’m saying nice stuff about my dad and only telling jokey, mean stories about my mom (see answer #2); so let it be said: my mom is the best!)
Bio: Madeline McDonnell is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a former lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. She lives in Seattle, where she is at work on a novel and a collection of short stories. A small collection of her fiction will be published by Rescue Press this fall.