Thoughts on Silver Linings Playbook


I mentioned previously that I’ve joined a few book groups to intentionally push my reading into the late 20th and early 21st centuries, because, if left to my own devices, I’d spend most of my leisure time in the 19th century and the Renaissance.  When I have ventured into the new world of literature, it’s been for other worlds: as soon as George R. R. Martin‘s next Song of Ice and Fire comes out, you can bet your Lannister ass that I’ll be dropping everything to go and serve my khaleesi.  I also read a lot of current non-fiction, and once a summer I’ll tear through a James Patterson potboiler, but on the whole I avoid contemporary fiction.

Part of this has to do with the sheer fact that by reading older works I gain a deeper appreciation of history.  It’s one thing to read a historical text about Victorian England, for example, but it takes a novel to bring it back to life.  By virtue of the fact that I’m alive at this moment, I don’t need anyone to tell me what it’s like to be alive now.  Of course, gaining a sense of time isn’t the only reason a person reads fiction — the greatest works transcend time and place, anyway.

The bigger issue for me is that when I have tried to read contemporary novelists, I’m often turned off by their narrative voices.  I can’t even pinpoint exactly why that is, except to say that too often it seems like authors go far out of their way to be outré, and I find that to be off-putting.  That, and so much of our contemporary moment is about the individual and coming to terms with one’s shortcomings and making peace with society, et cetera, which gives authors a tendency towards first person narration, which in turn creates a tendency towards whiny narrators.  A whiny character can be humorous, but only when kept in line by a 3rd person omniscient.

Well, rereading what I’ve just written only confirms my reasons for exposing myself to more contemporary fiction: I can obviously be a curmudgeonly fussbucket, and I don’t want to be.  So I joined some book groups and tomorrow I’ll be attending a discussion of Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick.  Tonight I’d like to gather my thoughts about it so that I’ll have some things to share tomorrow.  

My copy of SLP that accompanied me on a 17 hour long Greyhound trip.

My copy of SLP that accompanied me on a 17 hour Greyhound trip.

First let me say that I enjoyed the book.  I read it cover to cover in one sitting on my bus ride from Cincinnati (where I was visiting family for the holidays) to New York City (where I currently live), and it was a perfect read for the bus: just the right length, just the right depth, easy to put down for 20 minutes while I stared out the window at the Pennsylvania farmland and then pick right back up where I left off.

I liked the character of Pat and found myself rooting for him.  I’m not a sports guy, but the scenes that involved him watching football with his father and brother were particularly poignant.  The references to all the novels that Nikki made her students read were amusing, especially since I’ve had similar thoughts as Pat: Why is everything you read in English class so depressing? — and I’m an English teacher.  As a matter of fact, two years ago I taught Pride & Prejudice and a student said to me, “I don’t understand why we’re reading this — there’s no incest and nothing awful happens.”  The fact that she thought a novel worth reading ought to have incest in it basically proves Pat’s point.  Truth be told, this book’s happy ending was a refreshing change from a lot of the stuff I read; I suppose I’m a bit like Nikki and prefer tragedy’s ability to illuminate human nature, but reading a comedy like this one was fun.  I liked Nikki’s insistence that he practice being kind rather than being right — I’ll definitely be using that line.

Having said that…

My issues with the 1st person narration were not assuaged.  I found myself liking Pat, but wanting to take a break and get out of his head for awhile.  I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m wondering if the forced 3rd person view imposed by the camera might alleviate some of the frustration I began to feel seeing through his eyes.

A number of things bothered me because they just didn’t feel realistic.  I have no problem suspending disbelief to a certain point, but this wasn’t Game of Thrones that demands that you accept some pretty impossible things.  This book is set in the here and now, so here’s what I just couldn’t buy:

  1. Pat’s father’s emotional instability.  Does a human being really allow a sport to control the amount of joy they’re willing to experience?  Like I say, I’m not a sports guy, but I just found his father’s mood swings to be hard to believe.  I know there are all sorts of men out there who aren’t very expressive or good with their emotions, but most are pretty consistent in that regard — they don’t flit around like giddy teenagers just because their team won, or treat everyone they know worse for a whole week until the next game just because they lost.  Do they? 
  2. Pat’s mental instability.  At the beginning I thought he was schizophrenic, but as the story went on he didn’t seem to have too many problems aside from loathing Kenny G and not accepting that his estranged wife wouldn’t want to see him.  He spoke like an adult most of the time, except to refer to “apart time” in a very child-like manner.  He was obviously institutionalized for a reason, and he clearly lost track of a lot of years while he was there, but he seems mostly fine throughout the present moment of the story.  So, when I finally found out that his brain trauma was caused by Nikki hitting him on the head to keep him from killing her lover in a fit of jealous rage, it just made me wonder.  Can head trauma make you: A) lose that many years; B) tap into superhuman strength that would allow you workout for 10 hours and run 10 miles daily and then C) stay up all night without sleep to read Huckleberry Finn but D) still say things like “apart time” that make you sound like a 5 year old despite your other highly developed super-abilities; E) internalize Kenny G as kryptonite just because his music played at your wedding?  Is any of this actually possible?
  3. Why go through Tiffany’s elaborate Cyrano act of passing letters when in the end Nikki is still living in the same house and working at the same school, and you could have just gone there the whole time.  I thought her whereabouts were completely unknown, but he had no trouble finding her there at the end.
  4. Tiffany’s sex addiction.  Remember what I wrote above about contemporary authors being outré?  This bit of character history was one of those moments.  My husband was a sex addict, but he died the day I cut him off, so I became a sex addict too.  Seriously?

With the exception of Pat’s father’s emotional oddity, most of these things didn’t come up until the end so they didn’t detract from my reading of the book which, as mentioned, I generally liked.  I’ll be interested to hear what others bring up during tomorrow’s discussion, and I’ll be sure to add an addendum to this post if anyone happens to change my mind or further my thinking.

New year, new reads

My apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert for being cheeky with her book.  It's just that is was sitting there on the chaise longue begging for a little fun.

My apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert for being cheeky with her book. It’s just that it was sitting there on the chaise longue begging for a little fun.  (from a b&b outside of Ithaca, NY, September 2013)

Alright, no more excuses.  I made my apologies for being a lame-o blogger back in September and then fell through yet again, mostly due to demands at school taking up the majority of my time.  What can I say?  I’m a teacher, it’s my job.

It is a bit of a let-down to myself, however — I mean, it’s not like it’s anyone else’s responsibility to follow through on my dreams besides me.  So let’s just get back in the saddle, shall we?


Since this summer I’ve been working on a project that is centered around characters in the historical reenactment community, specifically the world of Napoleon.  It started as a screenplay, but my characters had a bit of a coup, sat me down and told me that they really felt that they always saw themselves in a novel.  They asked if I wouldn’t mind reformatting their existence, but I said no; I’d already invested too much time and money in the adventure.  But do you know what they did?  They staged a walk out!  I was informed by two different Napoleon impersonators (in my head) that they would no longer show up to work if I put them into a movie, at least not before their book was written first and film rights to it were legitimately established.

Lesson: Be careful if your characters are crappy actors who earn their living pretending to be megalomaniac conquerors of all the known world.  They’re bossy.

But — dammit! — they’re right.  I’ve been a reader of novels since I was four years old when, self-proclaimed genius that I was, I believed myself vastly superior to my peers for being able to read books with no pictures in them.  Time has humbled me (believe me!), but the fact remains that I’ve been a novel reader for 32 of my 36 years, and if there is a format that I understand more or less intuitively, that’s it.  I love watching movies too, but I’d never written one prior to this.  In fact, I’d never even dreamed of attempting it.

The reason I did attempt it was due mostly to fear: I have feared writing a novel.  No, that’s not accurate, because it’s not the writing of it that’s scared me.  It’s the sharing of it; the fear of putting it out there to be rejected, of criticism, of not being good enough.  And I don’t mean ‘good enough’ in terms of commercial success; I mean that I won’t be as good as Toni Morrison, or Virginia Woolf, or William Faulkner.  That I won’t plumb the depths of profundity or create a new aesthetic.  (Having a Masters degree in literature has been a bigger stumbling block to becoming a writer than just about anything.)

So my novel’s characters have challenged me to exorcize that demon.  I have spent way too many years reading works that were written before 1945 by writers who aren’t just part of the canon, but part of the pantheon of The Artists of The Ages.  I need to stop aiming for that level, and I need to embrace the fact that achieving less than canonical status is not failure, because if I don’t accept that, then I won’t produce anything.  At least not anything other than my boxes of journals.

Here’s the plan.  I’m going to spend a lot of time this year reading new(er) fiction authors.  I restructured the syllabus of my spring semester class to focus only on writers from the last 40 years.  They’re still mostly pretty canonical (Morrison, Garcia-Marquez, Rushdie), but my students deserve some tough writers to wrestle with.  In any case, their voices are more contemporary and will give me as much to consider as my students.

Furthermore, I’ve joined a book club in my neighborhood — The Hoboken Readers’ Circle — that is centered around a mix of eras and authors.  We’ll be discussing Matthew Quick‘s Silver Linings Playbook next week, and Cormac McCarthy‘s No Country for Old Men next month.  I’ve happily not seen the film version of either book, so they’re completely new to me.  Looking forward to the new neighborhood acquaintances and friends to be made through this group as well.

I’ve also signed up for The Wall Street Journal‘s new book club.  Each month a different author will choose another author’s work that has been an influence or inspiration to him or her.  In February, Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love)  will lead a discussion of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.  Not only had I already had this book recommended to me, but Gilbert writes that Mantel’s historical novel helped her to craft the narrative of her own latest work of historical fiction.  Given that my own novel focuses around present-day people obsessed with the past, her praise of Mantel spoke to me.  The book club discussions will take place online and via Twitter.  I’m sure I have no idea how that works — I have a Twitter account but haven’t yet figured out what makes it so popular — but I’ll bone up on it before the end of February when the discussions begin.  Oh, and I haven’t actually read Gilbert’s writing either, but I don’t feel right engaging with her about Mantel’s work if I haven’t read her own — so I just downloaded Eat, Pray, Love to my kindle and will start reading it tonight before bed.

The ambitious menu of readings that I’ve established for the next few months, although edifying and surely entertaining, won’t help me to craft my own characters if I don’t continue to write.  So I’m going to.  I’ll post my thoughts about and reflections on the books I’m reading here on this blog, giving particular attention to the writerly lessons I take away from each.  I’m going to attend the Jersey City Writer‘s meetings with more regularity and keep sharing my work since that’s the thing that scares me most.

Napoleon wannabes (in my head), I hope you’re happy.  You’ve demanded, I’ve responded…now help me see this thing through until you exist on a printed page.

For those of you reading this who exist in the real world and not in my head: stick with me.  And please feel free to encourage me to stick with myself.