When we pick up any literary novel we must commit to being an active reader. We can be entertained by the surface plot and the triangulation between characters, certainly. But the purpose of literary fiction is to dive deeper into the text and search for symbols. Not only the symbols that comprise a larger thematic in a storyline, but, more importantly, the symbols that shape the really real world we walk through every day.
We can all make a case for engaging in a storyline passively. Sometimes we need to veg out on our favorite television show after a long day of hard work. Or we can reread one of our favorite books from one of our favorite authors. We know what’s coming. It’s not going to surprise us, and in fact we’re looking for those predictable forms of entertainment as a way to escape our every day grind.
Then there comes those who are students of the game. Sometimes life gets a little too predictable and we need nourishment and intellectual stimulation. This is where literary fiction shines. Writers like Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, and the like can entice us with intriguing worlds through beautiful sentences. And the deeper we look at their work, searching for the images and characters that represent something greater, we can discover insights into the human condition that make us into better people. Our empathy skills increase and we can better navigate social situations, with the hopes of creating a more just world.
When I think back on some of my favorite literary novels, I’m always remembering characters weighed against other characters, like in Louise Erdrich’s novel The Roundhouse, where the treatment of Geraldine Coutts becomes even more profound as we learn more about Sonja. Equally, how Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude exposes a new layer to humanity with each generation of the Buendia family. So when we exercise the power of juxtaposition, the multiple layers expose a greater truth. And often this truth gives us a hard look in the mirror, forcing us to self examine our own contributions to societal ills.
Ultimately, the reason I’m discussing juxtaposition today has to do with dynamics in my own writing. I’m brainstorming book 5 right now and searching for more details as the story concept floats around in the back of my mind. Also, much of my fiction, which is literary fiction, is developed through a variety of devices–one being juxtaposition–and I can’t help but think of how each character weighs against the others.
This dynamic plays out with much intentionality in my debut novel, Calling for a Blanket Dance. The novel is told by 12 different narrators with the purpose of juxtaposing each. Moreover, how each narrator compares and contrasts to the main character, Ever Geimausaddle. In fact, the thematics of the novel can only be discovered by juxtaposition. So much so, in the final critical moment of the novel, the reader must ask themselves: how would each of the previous 11 narrators act in this moment? Would they have done what Ever did in the final scene? I’m keeping these questions ambiguous right now because the novel doesn’t release until July 26, 2022. I’ll do my best here to not give away any spoilers. But it’s the power of juxtaposition that offers the novel its greatest impact.
A longtime effort of mine, which is also showcased in the debut, is to disrupt the perception of Native Americans being a single homogenous group. Each tribe has beautiful differences, and we are drawn together under a shared colonial history. It’s the power of juxtaposition that gives me the ability to show this tribal diversity on the page. The main character, like myself, belongs to two different tribes: Kiowa and Cherokee. I’m able to compare and contrast Cherokee communities with Kiowa communities. The first chapter is narrated by Lena Stopp, who is Cherokee, and then the second chapter is narrated by Vincent Geimausaddle, who is Kiowa. Each chapter moves back and forth between Kiowa and Cherokee community members so the reader can see those beautiful differences. Oklahoma has 39 different tribes and those of us who grew up here know these differences well, but if you’re not consistently in our circles it can be difficult to distinguish. Juxtaposition gives me the opportunity to show readers a side of the Native American world they may have not yet considered.
“Creativity is that marvelous capacity to grasp mutually distinct realities and draw a spark from their juxtaposition.” ― Max Ernst
I only have time here to touch the surface of how juxtaposition plays out in my debut. As you come to know the characters, you’ll see why Sissy narrates Lonnie’s story and then how Lonnie and Leander compare and contrast. Moreover, how Ever Geimausaddle compares to his grandfather, Vincent. Does Ever pick up where Vincent left off? What does Ever do differently? How does this choice alter Ever’s life? I could go on and on. The debut is so rich with juxtaposition, like Opbee and Lena, Turtle and Lila, Quinton and Ever (Sun Boy Split in Half). And it’s only enhanced by the cultural elements throughout the novel. There is so much to discuss that I could go on and on for hours if not pages, and I hope you pick up a copy of Calling for a Blanket Dance so we can talk about these amazing details. I’m looking forward to the rich discussions this novel will generate.
Lately, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the power of juxtaposition and how much we need to exercise this muscle as readers. It gives us the opportunity to view another person’s hardships with empathy, but it also creates a much richer existence, where our quality of life is enhanced by a simple task: compare and contrast. And when we do so with purpose and intent, we can better see the world through someone else’s eyes.
(Images were borrowed from Flickr)