Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
The Year Mrs. Cooper Got Out More: A Great Wharf Novel
By Meredith Marple
Cinder Path Press, 2015, 467 pages
By Gore Vidal
EP Dutton, 1946, 222 pages
“The Year Mrs. Cooper Got Out More” is the debut novel from Meredith Marple. In many ways it typifies the dreams of a lot of Americans: Write a book later in life, once the kids are on their own and responsibilities are done. “The Year Mrs. Cooper Got Out More” follows the trials and tribulations of Mrs. Cooper, a recent empty nester and agoraphobic who is trying to hold together both herself and her marriage. Parts of it ring incredibly true: the confusion and loss of purpose that comes with being unemployed and no longer necessary to your children. But the book surprises, too, in how it unintentionally turns out to be a murder mystery. I say “unintentionally” because, really, the book is about Mrs. Cooper’s personal journey. Along the way she has to learn some tough lessons and one of them results in murder.
If there is one thing Marple does exceptionally well, it is show that evil does not wear a flashing sign. Angie Weller seems nice, approachable and reasonable in the brief interactions people have with her at her gift shop. Yet, what lurks beneath the surface is far more sinister than most people guess. Isn’t that what the real world is like: “She seemed so nice!” Yes, people must be pleasing in order to insinuate into others’ lives and take advantage of them. If evil wore a warning sign, we all would steer clear.
Marple steals a play from her Maine neighbor Stephen King’s playbook, in using the mistreatment of a pet as a flaw to disclose the nature of the character. The pet in question, Celestine, does however get the last laugh in the most improbable way. She is a very well drawn and thoughtful character who inspires great empathy in the reader.
The other piece Marple nails with Mrs. Cooper is the side plot told through letters from grandparents. I was hooked—I actually flipped through and read all of those first before finishing the main story line. Marple manages to write a book about late-life rediscovery that happens to include a murder as a parallel for the personal mystery that her protagonist is trying unravel within her own head. The psychological journey is clearly what interests Marple more than solving the murder (hence Mrs. Cooper is not really a sleuth in the typical way).
On the note of unintentional mysteries, Maple’s book reminded of another debut novel dealing with people and circumstances that are not what they seem: “Williwaw” by Gore Vidal. Published in 1946, it was Vidal’s first book and one of his more clearly autobiographical. The narrative traces events on a ship in the Aleutian Islands during WWII and a death that might or might not be accidental. He wrote it in his log book while he was on night watches. The setting is on and around the very ship on which he served.
I adore Vidal’s body of work. I sought out “Williwaw” after years of reading his other books—and, frankly, it surprised me. Compared to everything else, it was terrible. That is because I first encountered him as an experienced craftsman who refined his style and became confident with his tools. But “Williwaw” is him at the very beginning—trying to see if this will work. Will things come together? How obvious is too obvious? How much to telegraph to the audience? It is slow-moving (he has yet to learn the pacing that would make creation at almost twice the length fly by)—and unwieldly. I remember being shocked this was the same author who had “Lincoln.”
At the same time, it was incredibly reassuring: If he could start here, with such an unimpressive book, and go on to produce the remarkable work that came later, there was hope for me and other aspiring novelists. It is reassuring to know we all have to start somewhere. In Vidal’s case that somewhere went considerably farther than most people can imagine, and he produced work in multiple genres: trashy romance novels, classic mystery novels, and even science fiction, in addition to essays, memoirs, play scripts and film.
If anything both of these books serve to remind us it is that success in life requires showing up. From the startling mediocre beginnings of “Williwaw,” Gore Vidal carved out one of the more distinguished careers in 20th century American literature. Marple, now at her own beginning, does the same with a long and distinguished line of books that only get better with each volume.