Earlier this year, I wrote about my decision to do a deep dive in a handful of specific novels that I thought had relevance to my project, see what made them tick, why they were successful, how the plots fit together, how characters were woven in, basically what lessons I could learn. I also noted in that post that I considered Olive Kitteridge to be the gold standard of novels-in-stories, so I was particularly excited to dig into that one.
I was a little worried that reading some of my favorite novels more critically would ruin them for me. Thankfully, that hasn't happened. I still love Olive Kitteridge. I still love A Visit from the Goon Squad.
But an interesting thing happened when I started outlining The Tsar of Love and Techno. Namely, I began to see all kinds of things in it I hadn't seen before. I mean, I'd seen recurring themes in Kitteridge and Goon Squad, and time shifts, and metaphors, things like that. But in Tsar, I saw something I hadn't seen in the other two: a larger ambition of sorts. And, perhaps, a different level of outcome.
It's hard to explain. Tsar gutted me the first time I'd read it. It gutted me again this time, due in part to the fact that my brain is like a sieve when I read--once I'm done with a book, I can tell you if I like it or not, and why or why not, but the details go whooshing away. So reading it a second time several months after the first read was almost like reading it new. I'd forgotten many characters and plot details. But I was struck with how deeply it was affecting me, more so than Kitteridge or Goon Squad.
So at the end of the reread, I did something new: I turned right back to page one and started over. Now that I had the characters and plotlines fresh in my mind, I wanted to really look hard at how he constructed this book. And the third read left me absolutely gobsmacked.
Again, this is not to say I don't like Kitteridge or Goon Squad, or don't think they're major achievements. But such close readings of Tsar actually left me unable to read for a few days. How do you follow up that kind of reading with something else, at least right away?
It's entirely possible that if I took that back-to-back reading approach to the other books, I might have a similar experience. I may do so this winter. But there's just something so epic about the scale and ambition--and success--of Tsar that it left me reeling and in awe and feeling like this is now my life's goal, to write something even somewhat this amazing.
Not a bad goal.
But clearly, coming off that read, I needed a change of pace, so currently I'm rereading Reservoir 13. Reservoir 13 is not a novel-in-stories, but a multi-year look at life in a small village with a wide cast of characters, so I'm looking for a different education here. It was the right choice. It's so different from Tsar. Bonus: The author has a new book out, a follow-up, and I have it on deck to read as soon as I'm done with this one. You know, while I still remember all the characters.