DECEMBER 11, 2013
THERE’S CONTINUOUS pressure on all of us to move quickly through the world. At work, faster is increasingly better; at home, we invest in gadgets and apps that reduce time spent on errands and tasks; socially, the conversation demands that we stay up-to-the-minute on news, films, television series, and YouTube gaffes. Some of us even interact exclusively through text messages and social media, as though the act of logging onto email is too elaborate. When it comes to books, the same sort of instant gratification is required; publishers and readers alike are concerned about taglines, concepts, earning potential — meaning that the strength of individual scenes, let alone individual sentences, may fall by the wayside. If someone, for instance, writes a novel from the point of view of a teacher who molests her student, the concept, with its unspoken parallel to actual events, near-guarantees it attention. If a boy in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, knows how to fly, our interest is captured, and our commitment to reading it is won (maybe). If the book that supports it is gorgeously written (as it is in both of these cases) all the better — but its literary quality won’t necessarily attract casual bookstore customers, or even not-so casual ones.
And yet, recently, our entertainment has been pushing back. Consider the recent films from Quentin Tarantino. The excruciating build to the grisly ending sequence in Django Unchained was picked apart and referred to in review after review. Mad Men is another obvious example, with scenes we discuss as singular entities: the lawnmower scene. The Zou Bisou Bisou scene. The scene of Joan’s humiliation at the hands of her client. This tendency, to create scenes we can hold on to, serves as a reminder that art and literature can hit moments of great and resonating power. When Jonathan Franzen made a suggestion that public obsession with social media was limiting the human ability to feel or experience, implying that his fellow humans (particularly Americans) should slow down and savor life a bit more, he was roundly pilloried — but in reality, he was giving voice to a cultural shift.
The Tilted World, written by wife and husband team Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin, reflects this shift. There’s no telling how conscious the authors are of this change — how conscious are any of us? Their book is an adventure story and a work of historical fiction, through and through — but it carries itself beautifully. The story’s occasion — a torrential flood that took place in the South in 1927 — could only be considered a “hook” if one considers natural disasters to be “hooks.” It constructs itself, very deliberately and skillfully, around moments as rich as paintings, paintings you could stare at, unpeeling layers, for a long time. Not only are Fennelly and Franklin deft set-builders, they work stealthily; when reading, you don’t realize a set is being arranged around you until you discover yourself in the middle of it. A single question then arises: what happens now?
The Tilted World opens in Hobnob, Mississippi, during Prohibition. In the opening scene, Dixie Clay and her husband Jesse, both successful bootleggers, convince a pair of Prohibition agents that their modest cabin in the wilderness is surrounded by gunmen. Gunmen with very itchy trigger fingers. In a display of stealthy teamwork, Jesse shouts confident commands to his gang of unseen marauders, while Dixie crouches in the bushes, her gun carefully aimed. While their efforts are successful, the Clays’ relationship — Dixie ever-supportive and Jesse erstwhile and untrustworthy, a burden for Dixie to support, is a tarpaper shack that could collapse at any time.
The outwitted agents are replaced by the book’s “good guys,” agents Ham and Ingersol. As characters, Ham and Ingersol unfold slowly, revealing an array of conflicting quirks and qualities. On their arrival in Hobnob, the two men come across the bloody aftermath of a Western-style shootout, the only survivor an infant. Ingersoll, melancholy and quiet, himself an orphan, becomes the quasi-parent of the child. Franklin and Fennelly develop the relationship lovingly, with small touches, as when Ingersoll puts the baby to sleep in his hat. Dixie and Ingersoll first meet when she returns home from the hidden still to find him singing the blues on her porch. It’s love — or at least puzzlement, interest, intrigue, and something like attraction — at first sight. Such moments might provoke accusations of sentimentality, but Franklin and Fennelly make their narrative complex enough that occasional excesses of poignancy can be forgiven.
And there are other carefully planned moments to come, such as a drinking session, attended by Ham, Ingersoll, and Jesse: the agents don’t know Jesse is a bootlegger, but he finds out everything about them as the drinks continue to pour. Afterwards, we learn that Jesse’s “liquor” was actually water. But these smaller set pieces, like windows in an advent calendar, opening onto tiny worlds of tension, begin to pale compared to the far larger set piece that dominates the book: that of the flood. This event is coupled with a plot to blow up the dam, which is the only thing coming close to preventing mass destruction.
There’s a reason we name storms. Natural disasters, cornerstones of world literature since the Bible’s great flood, often resemble characters. The flood in The Tilted World is no exception. Its personality is aggressive and raw. What it takes, it takes with great confidence. It surrounds and consumes the characters we have followed, signaling the end of the pain and injustice and loneliness which have been coursing through the book. It’s to Franklin and Fennelly’s credit that the flood only seems like a symbol in hindsight — in real time, it’s too gripping to provoke reflexive analysis, as the microscopic vision of the book’s authors brings us the details of the destruction, and in so doing, shows us its scope.
This sort of depiction, of course, takes planning, and precision, and shrewdness. The authors bring similar smarts to their handling of the genre, the historical novel, in which history dictates and influences the shape of the work: its dialogue, its characters, its atmosphere. Writing about historical novelist Hilary Mantel, Larissa McFarquhar said, “these days the historical novel is not quite respectable. It has difficulty distinguishing itself from its easy sister the historical romance. It is thought to involve irritating ways of talking, or excessive descriptions of clothes.” I admit I, too, expect the actions and reactions of characters in historical novels to seem mawkish and strange; I am prepared to not entirely believe what I’m reading. This is not the case here. Franklin and Fennelly save themselves with transcendent language. Fennelly is a well-published poet, and one can suspect that phrases such as “their bodies fit like a dovetail joint” and “waterproof as a frog’s ass,” ersatz and extraterrestrial as they are, were at least partially her influence. But in reality, the entire book is poetic, and musing on who wrote what, as if that were traceable, won’t necessarily bear fruit. Just as Once Upon a Time in America might call itself a gangster movie to get us to watch an operatic story, or The Searchers might call itself a Western but is in reality a meditation on the relationship between humans and their landscape, the revenge-driven plot of The Tilted World conceals a deeply meditative and increasingly interior center. The gunplay and the clever blocking of the book’s early pages, it turns out, merely entice us to become intimate with the book’s characters. It takes a while for the novel to realize its goal, but once it does, the feeling of the book changes from that of a very capably executed adventure story to a work with the majesty and solidity of a landform.