I was in the gym last week riding a stationary bicycle called an Expresso, which has a video screen and movable handlebars. It allows you to pick a scenic ride and steer around curves, change gears, etc. It’s something to distract you from the boring activity you’re engaged in. A way to trick the mind and body.
Last week I was also reading William Maxwell’s novel, first published in 1980, So Long, See You Tomorrow. Maxwell was the fiction editor at the New Yorker for many years and he’s a writer’s writer, a peerless prose stylist, whose writing is clarity itself and seems to have sprung forth effortlessly from a swiftly moving pen. You think about how easy he makes it look, how you could do that too! Well, probably not. But it did make me think about how the good writer is always right there with us when we read.
So let’s say that when you read a novel, you’re getting on the bicycle that the writer has constructed. You think you’re in control: you set the speed you’ll read at, turn the pages, stay on course, and you expect that when you’re done you’ve done something good for your brain. Then you realize that the author has climbed up right behind you.
In So Long, See You Tomorrow, Maxwell sets out to tell a story that has a simple plot. A teenage boy recounts how the father of a friend murdered his next door neighbor. The setting is a small town in Illinois. (I’m not giving anything away; this is how the book begins.) Maxwell goes back and forth in time so we see cause and effect. A pretty straightforward ride, yes? The first jolt is when we hear the name of the son of the murderer: Cletus Smith. Maxwell writes that it’s not his real name. Wham, he’s shaking the bicycle seat. Why, in a novel, is he telling us this? Are we riding through memoir territory? What other surprises are on the road ahead?
From that point on, Maxwell is looking over our shoulder, nudging us to turn left here, right there, varying the pacing. Like changes in the landscape, there are changes in point of view. Even the family dog weighs in. It all serves to deepen our engagement with the characters and the plot. We find ourselves thinking about issues of memory, friendship, and the human condition. We’re in his hands, getting a good workout.