Friday, January 7, 2011

Saturday's Best Book Diary: Susan Froderberg's OLD BORDER ROAD

Susan Froderberg's Old Border Road: A Novel turned out to be a gorgeous, multi-layered novel. Whiffs of Cormac McCarthy's trilogy style abound, but I see far more traces of other authors here, particularly in the style of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping: A Novel.  The title resonates with its timeless Old Testament kicked-out-of-paradise motifs.

Her epigraph is a famous line from Plato:

"What is that which is and has no becoming
And what is that which is becoming and never is?

In this interview at BookPage, she acknowledges her influences:

Are there any particular authors who inspire you or that you feel have had a notable impact on your own writing?

"Certainly Schopenhauer, as I mentioned earlier. And absolutely Emerson. Add to the list Frost and Stevens, Joyce and Beckett, O’Conner and Robinson, among others. To my mind, there is no greater American writer alive than Cormac McCarthy. All of us, as writers—as artists—come out of some Petri dish, and I will admit to coming out of his. There is no such thing as the innocent eye, or the innocent ear, no matter what anybody tells you. On the other hand, we are each of us necessarily what no one else can possibly be."

Do you find your philosophy background has enriched your writing?

"Probably, as the opportunity to study philosophy has enriched my life. But I’m happier being a writer than I would have been if I were doing philosophy work, as writing has set me free in a way that philosophy—specifically, Western philosophy—could not have. For in Western philosophy you must follow formal logic—if A, then not B. In fiction, you may have both A and B, if you so choose. You can be exhausted and you can be exhilarated at the same time: one state need not negate the other. Or you can be derived and you can be unique, without contradiction. This is not to say we can do away with logic: there would be no language without it. But in writing, it’s possible to bend language toward a more Eastern way of thinking."

Plato's thought, that follows from the epigraph of the book, is:: "There are forms that have always existed, forms that are pure and immutable and eternal; they are and they never become. All that follow are composite and ephemeral and mutable; they become but they never are."

When reading Old Border Road: A Novel again today with my critical "I," I can't help but keep that in mind. This novel strikes me as the real thing; it did so the first time through, and more so now. I'm a bit intoxicated with it; trying to read it again slowly without gushing too much about it, wanting to give it distance and perspective.

Old Border Road: A Novel has sections of McCarthy-like cadence but it is at the same time very unMcCarthy-like, for it is told in the subjective first-person feminine. That feminine voice is like the feminine voice of the protagonist in True Grit: A Novel by Charles Portis in that the teller puts her own rhetorical style into the words of the other characters in her narrative. This may be off-putting to some readers, but I looked forward to it, especially since the rhetorical style here is sometimes a deep-dish Old Testament Cormac McCarthy. Sometimes the voice rises up to the Eternal Feminine, seeing form above the composite and ephemeral and mutable:

"We step outside the rented tent into the greater tent of a tinseled, starlit night. Above our heads is a spread of lost heroes and creatures of make-believe, a spiral of spiraling galaxies, a curtaining glow of aurora, a soffit of planets and stars. In skies to come, there will be more and different views and still but a speck of all there is, wombed inside this universe as we are, with our vision so hindered."

On another night, about form, she says:

"The night is filled brimful as a night sky can be, lit brightly as it is with clusters of planets and pulsating stars and marriages of galaxies, all of it within a wobble of dust and gas and debris unseen. There are the Dippers Little and Big tonight, a lovely Pleiades, and a throbbing red star out like a tiny heart. This is the stuff of which we are made, I say to Son, all that is of us is above us. We stand together looking upward, our mouths hung open as if to swallow what's above down and into us. Looking out at the past in its far distance, where from there, here we are not."

The protagonist tells us that her favorite subject in school was astronomy, and throughout the novel the heavenly movement and its cosmic significance reminds us of Cormac McCarthy's sky in Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West.

Susan Froderberg is no kid; she is very well read, has a doctorate and enough life experience to go on; and this novel is an assured piece of work. To put it in better perspective, I read again, not McCarthy, but Pam Houston's Cowboys Are My Weakness: Stories,  another underestimated gem which is also a parable of archetypes and male/female relationships.

Susan Froderberg's protagonist listens to the radio: "We sing along to what songs have always been about--beginning, going on, breaking up, forgiving."

Pam Houston's protagonist says: "I listened to country music all the way to Cody, Wyoming. The men in the songs were all either brutal or inexpressive and always sorry later. The women were victims, every one." She then determines to step out of the pattern through an act of free will (some might call it self-realization), something that resonates with the end of Froderberg's novel.

Everything cycles, turn, turn, turn. Birth, growth, death, and rebirth. Froderberg's protagonist, Katherine, wants to hold on to things, but her world is not made that way. She says: "We keep on going on, believing, I suppose, only in the going-on in us."

There is much more to be found in here.  A synopsis of the novel makes it seem far too simple and, as I say, I think that the reviews underestimate its considerable depth, which I've just begun to fathom.  I'll want to reread this one and spend a lot of time mulling it over in the time before Susan Froderberg's next book comes out.  Hopefully that won't be long.


  1. This blog is developing quite nicely Richard. It is essentially a service, well done, and I thank you. I attempted to start one up when I was laid up with a bad leg and it languishes somewhere like a weed encrusted leaning over tombstone, as I hobbled by necessity back to my day job. I can see that a clear idea of where I was headed would have been a good thing. And of course, the discipline. But you are inspiring me to go pump some life back into it.

  2. Well then try this:

  3. Thanks, Lee. I'll be looking for your posts there going forward.