The Tiger’s Wife: What I wanted and what I got

Note: Innogen and the Hungry Half is still on hiatus, but should resume normal posting next week. Until then, a throwback to the original purpose of Magpie & Whale: the personal essay!

As I was reading The Tiger’s Wife this month, I spent a lot of time being angry at Téa Obreht for being a year younger than me. Her author portrait glows. She’s poised, talented, wise, articulate—and an angelic blonde with wide, liquid eyes. Born in 1985! What right does she have to be so accomplished, before me?

I recognize this jealousy. I felt it every time I was confronted with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, which I refused to read for years, the principle being that wunderkinder are a pain in the ass. Of course, once I did read it, I was staggered by how good it was, and determined to push myself more, to experiment with form and style and structure, to break out of linear storytelling, to embrace the messiness of human emotions more fully. The Tiger’s Wife has the luck to come after my encounter with Everything Is Illuminated, so my resolve is not quite so fiery, but it’s absolutely a magnificent book that makes me want to try harder, farther and wider.

This isn’t going to be a book review so much as a book reaction. I will say that The Tiger’s Wife is intricate, interconnected, restrained, vivid, fully felt and richly realized, and that it’s well worth your time. (Also: that certain repetitions began to bore me after a point; certain choices felt unnecessary and dulled the consequences that resulted; the end, to me, did not match the rest of the story in scope or depth or power, but your mileage may vary.) I am very much excited to see Téa Obreht continue to write: she should have a long, fruitful and amazing career, and despite her age (fie!), I wish her very, very well.

Tangled up with this fixation on Obreht’s age is a question I keep asking myself: What could I write, if I was to try something like this? Because The Tiger’s Wife is very much the product of growing up in and with the Balkans. It deals with wars, survivors, myths, superstitions, borders, local lore, traditions, families, religion and death, all in a context that I simply haven’t experienced. I grew up a faculty brat in a university town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I had no relatives in the area—our family is quite far-flung, though I grew up constantly surrounded by stories. Still, the things that give my life texture are different than Obreht’s, and it’s easy to feel somewhat shy about them, when, in comparison, they seem so American, and of a certain strain that’s not short of representation.

Of course, there’s nothing to be done about where we both were born and have lived our lives. And The Tiger’s Wife isn’t a book I would have written for reasons other than biographical ones. Though it contains a strain of magical realism, I found myself frustrated by how limited that aspect of the story was. It flirts with the fantastic, but at moments, I wished—much as she often frustrates me—for Cat Valente to take over the story. In her hands, the stories and the act of telling the stories would have taken on a life and hue of their own, living and breathing as more than cultural illustrations, things people do. As they emerged, the stories would have warped the story itself. That wasn’t their purpose with The Tiger’s Wife; in ways, it was explicitly the opposite.

Which led me to another question: What moves people to write literary fiction? This isn’t entirely facetious, and it’s not just because I have no use for Jonathan Franzen. I don’t understand the appeal of a lot of contemporary literary fiction. Historical fiction, Great Books/“classics,” genre fiction (even of the non-magical variety, like mysteries or satire)—I love it! But straight treatments of human topics somehow don’t get me where I live like the stranger takes do, and I’m not sold on the idea that the plot of a “literary” novel inherently lives beneath the surface, requiring more work from the reader. Still, the point remains that given the choice, I would probably steer away from creating a book that’s so devoted to realism. The times I’ve tried to root my fiction in a non-magical universe, I’ve at least had a world from the past to fill in for other kinds of strangeness.

With Obreht’s novel, I craved a stranger story than the one I got. All my favorite stories have some unnatural or supernatural element to them. Someone recently asked me my opinion on Shakespeare’s history plays; I don’t particularly have an opinion on them, though give me Macbeth or The Tempest or King Lear and I am off to the races. There is something about the literalizing of the imagination that engages me without qualifications (see Esther by genre for more on that). This isn’t to say there’s nothing worthy in a “literary” work; I’ve just realized more and more that other things speak more closely to my heart.

In the end, all that matters about the year Téa Obreht was born is that’s where her arc as someone who shares words—her words, her particular take on the world—begins. This book spoke to me, and I’m glad I found it. Storytelling is a gift economy at heart. I’ve learned a lot from reading The Tiger’s Wife, and I hope that will work its way into Innogen and the Hungry Half sooner rather than later.

And if I write that deeply rooted story about where I come from, somewhere down the line, it will be stronger for hearing other voices. It will be mine. And it will have unreal things in it.

7 thoughts on “The Tiger’s Wife: What I wanted and what I got”

  1. I tried to write a reply to your post and instead I wrote some kind of mini-essay, after lurking on your blog for some time and not commenting at all. I feel like I’m being rude but I, uh, have a lot to say about these subjects. (I have been reading and enjoying Innogen, even though I can never think of anything to put in a comment about it–commenting on fiction while it’s ongoing feels to me a little like talking in a movie theater.)

    I personally draw distinctions between literature (or Literature), literary fiction, and realism. Aptly enough for this space, I think of Literature as sort of a magpie of a genre, in a way that means it isn’t really a proper genre at all. It’s made up of elements taken from everything else, including closely observed realism AND magic, futuristic settings, murders and mysteries about who committed them, fourth-wall breaking, epic adventures around the world…it’s all up for grabs, and sometimes the literary world gets so excited about what’s happening in genre that a book or bunch of books just get inducted wholesale into literature. After all, realist novels were a pop product before they were canonical, back when Real Literature was mostly poetry and drama (and none too realist either, to judge by all the Danes talking to ghosts and killing monsters). When I think of literature, I’m thinking of the books at all levels of realism, whether they’re plot-driven or character-driven or idea-driven, that don’t just follow a set path but participate in the kooky bookish exploratory conversation across the centuries about what writing can do: what about doing it without the letter e? or narrating from inside the womb? or just writing a bunch of insane descriptions of different imaginary cities? or stripping down the language as far as it can go? or being almost unbearably honest?–plus, of course, all the fights about “no you can’t do that,” and “I’m founding a style of writing that’s all about being different from you,” and “we will write terrible reviews of each other’s novels.” Et cetera.

    In modern literary writing, the prevailing fashion is realism (and maybe “interior” plots, if you go with Bransford’s take), but “literary fiction” is just the neighborhood that some writers hang out in to be closer to Literature. It’s a better place to be at this particular time if you want the National Book Award committee to notice you, or if you want to hang out with poets, or if small-press launch parties and nonprofit literary festivals and the people who show up there happen to be your cup of tea. Lots of authors in literary fiction are interested in learning Literature’s tricks and maybe teaching it some new ones, but there are authors in other neighborhoods doing that every day, without question. And even on the literary shelves, there’s plenty of magic or imagination or weirdness (if you haven’t already, try Mark Helprin, or A.S. Byatt’s fairy tales).

    All that said, I do understand the draw of writing realist fiction because I’m a nonfiction writer, and though lots of my formative texts are at least a little magical, what I feel most capable of doing myself is not building magical worlds but tinkering with the stuff the world has in it. I love getting a feeling of the numinous from a good fantasy, and then I want to get so dazzled by the world that the autumn leaves are just as numinous. It’s beautiful to imagine fairies in the bottom of your garden, and what I can do as a writer is to see that, and then ask, what’s special about your garden? What happens in a garden? What experience is the fairy-language communicating, or what lack is it addressing? I don’t mean that realism or nonfiction is all about laying myths on the autopsy table, just that my own modus operandi is to look as closely as possible at what I can see, and create what I hope is a new understanding of it.

    1. Hi! The very last thing you’re being is rude — this whole comment/mini-essay is great, and it’s clarified some things for me very well. Thank you! (Also, I, uh, should probably note that I am always rather hungry for feedback, especially on works in progress, so comments on Innogen are always, always welcome, if you see fit. I see the hit counters, but I really love engaging with people, so. There’s that!)

      As I read this over again, it strikes me that probably what I’m reacting to is more the culture than the work; nobody likes to think of themselves as provincial, but when I look over the books I’ve actually read over the past year, most have been some kind of fantastical, a good number have been nonfiction (mostly history or science-related), and only a handful have been “literary” (The Great Gatsby and Walk Two Moons being the ones I can remember). I think what I’m trying to say is that the conversations I follow, in the blogosphere or on Twitter or in magazines, wherever, are most appealing outside of what I see in contemporary realist fiction, where borrowing/stealing from every available source and tradition is the norm rather than the exception.

      Your last point is interesting to me — without going too much into personal viewpoints in this space, I find that I approach the world that way, and it’s what’s right for me in that context. With fiction, I’m not interested in escapism, per se, but I love seeing what the human imagination can do, so I think I assume that a lot of the topics and emotions and interactions that are treated in fashionable realism can also be treated in an unreal way that I will enjoy more.

      One of my most salient takeaways from college was a core course in which I think I learned the wrong thing from Plato’s Republic. The teacher asked us to summarize the most important points of the book, so I said, very wise and self-assured at 19, “Kings fear philosophers, but philosophers fear art.” I like using art — and this literalized imagination, with fantastical things (like Invisible Cities, like Frankenstein, etc.) — to talk about the world more than I like “philosophy.” I think that’s my unspoken baseline assumption. Which is an entirely different and very, very big essay, much too big for a comment box. (And which now I worry sounds obnoxious! Oh edit function, you’ll undo me yet.)

      1. Nothing you said was obnoxious! I like your term “literalized imagination,” and the idea of using that in lieu of philosophy makes a lot of sense. It’s a personal quirk of mine that if I spend too much time in symbolic/imaginative language, I start to feel unmoored from what the symbols represent and feel like the real world is going to disappear or stop being meaningful and I need to read some nonfiction or, like, take a long walk or something. I utterly endorse everything anybody says about fantasy being valuable, I’m just constituted wrongly to live there full-time.

        I’ll try to be better about commenting–I just tend not to have much to say in the middle of a story, unless it’s one I don’t like and have decided not to finish, which is of course not the case here. You might see me poking my head up periodically with such enlightening comments as “Hm!”

  2. Ooh. Didn’t know she was our age. I, too, hold unnecessary prejudices against authors who have achieved authorhood before me. 😡 It’s not just you, dear. I’m glad to know it’s a good book though, because I, too, wondered about it.

    Also, I wasn’t big on the history plays either… until Julius Caesar. Granted, Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s IMAGINING of how shit went down, but it’s a lush, fascinating play that quickly became one of my favorites. Top three, for sure. Let’s have a big discussion on that sometime, shall we? And from there, I got more into the history plays. As with anything theatrical, if you find the PEOPLE in the story (their needs, their pasts, their desires, their actions) you can find the real joy of it.

    1. I get my life back tomorrow! We should totally have this discussion. And I haven’t read Julius Caesar since… college? What I remember is very muddled. But your point about finding the people is spot on — it was probably the biggest takeaway I got from improv. Basically, I need to revisit some Billy Shakes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s