Source of book: surprise gift from my publisher in mid-2013, no strings attached
Text below: second half of my Melbourne Writers Festival ‘Read Any Good Books Lately?’ piece
The most recent novel I’ve read also makes it onto my list of books that have amazed me. It’s ‘The Son’ by Philipp Meyer. My publisher sent it to me. It’s 550 pages long, and the cover features horses. As a reader, I don’t do fat books and I don’t do books about horses. But the note from my publisher said she thought it would be my kind of thing and she knows what that is. I opened it, looked at the first page and knew she was right.
You could all it the saga of a Texan family over 160 years – I don’t do Texas much either, by the way – but calling it that makes it sound as though it might be a sprawling indulgent TV soap with oil wells and big hats and dirty deals. It’s nothing like one. Despite the fact that it does actually have oil wells and big hats and dirty deals.
It’s not awful – in fact it’s the opposite of awful – because it’s in the hands of a remarkably talented writer, who knows how to build characters and how to find and choose and reveal the details that make for great writing. So I’m back to some of the same things that I loved about Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Though this time it’s in a novel that goes back to the birth of Texas and features Comanches and wars with Mexicans and enough ways of brutality that were new to me that I came away feeling that there were probably daises in Texas in 1850 that were tougher than I am.
In the midst of that – the midst of scalpings and shootings and fires – the writing is so good that sometimes it means just as much when someone picks up a hat … and then puts it down. There’s room for the small gestures that tell us big things about characters. The characters aren’t types riding across grassland on horses with at least as much personality as they have.
This book too went through a lot of drafts, and found itself in a lot of different shapes along the way. It started with the focus on six or seven characters, and in draft one it was set in the present day. Somewhere, in one of the suburbs of Redrafting Hell, Philipp Meyer switched and made it chronological, running from 1850 to the present. But that wasn’t quite right either. So he tried again, I don’t know how many times.
He ended up with a novel composed of essentially three interwoven narrative strands – one from the point of view of Eli, begun as a recording about his early life at the age of 100 in 1936, another from the point of view of his son Peter’s diaries during the Bandit Wars of the 19-teens and the third from the point of view of Peter’s granddaughter Jeanne in the near-present, when she’s 86 and running through the events in her life, and she’s the 5th-richest woman in Texas.
The recording tactic for the Eli voice could have failed and looked fake but, even if it did – it didn’t to me – you forget it quickly. The diary-novel concept is close to three hundred years old and Meyer hasn’t found a new way of doing it, but he’s under no obligation to do that and again his characterisation and details mean it doesn’t matter. And maybe some would also query the old-lady-with-head-bump-on-floor-as-narrator tactic for the third strand, but please don’t because again the detail is finely wrought and true and frankly brilliant.
I’d read the blurb, but I think it undersells the book – ‘gets taken by Comanches, family brutally killed, finds love, great granddaughter ends up a multimillionaire, etc.’ That could be an awful book – the kind of book with a lot of ripped bodice, heaving bosom, brooding good looks and bad late 20th-century plastic surgery, plus the obligatory big hats and oil, but The Son makes crystal clear the difference between drama and melodrama. Drama happens when the characters feel real. Drama happens when the details are right and are used cleverly. Drama happens when no one is overtly pointing out to you that something dramatic is going on. It’s just going on. It’s a moment we’re in.
To my great selfish relief as the writer of 18 books that aren’t this one, it wasn’t a straightforward act of unassisted genius from the first word to the last.
To get the detail right, Philipp Meyer read 350 books about, among other things, the history of Texas, how it felt to be a captive and how to track birds. He also moved to Texas, and learned how to tan deer hides, hunt with a bow and use firearms. And he shot a buffalo so that he could drink its blood in a way consistent with Comanche rituals.
Do you need to shoot an animal and drink its blood to write a great novel? I’m going to say no. But he did, and it gives him one clear description of what it tasted like and maybe the 350 books omitted that. It does remind me though of Dustin Hoffmann making the movie Marathon Man early in his career with Laurence Olivier, who was by then a legend. Every day, Hoffmann ran mile after mile, running himself into the ground to live his character’s experience. As the shoot wore on he was worn more and more ragged. One day he asked Olivier what he did to get into character, and Olivier said, ‘Dear boy, I act.’
Sometimes as a novelist it’s okay to act, but you need to do what you need to do to feel that it’s not acting. In my book Welcome to Normal, there’s a story that takes place almost entirely in the head of a character, a member of a US Air Force drone crew, on his drive back from work at a base in the Arizona desert to the small town in which he’s temporarily living. I had some big story stuff to reveal, but I needed to be smart about it. I needed to be him.
But maybe I didn’t need to operate a drone – or drink warm buffalo blood – and maybe I didn’t even need to go to Arizona. But I spent a full two weeks on Google Earth meticulously driving every metre of his route back to town that evening, looking at every billboard and power pole and straggly tree, and researching everything I saw so that I could find exactly the cues I needed to bring my story to the surface.
Eighteen books into this career, my job is still to try to become the best writer I can be, and to try to write great books in the hope of at least ending up with good ones. It’s writers and books like the two I’ve talked about today that help me find the way, while at the same time reminding me of just how great it can be to be a reader.
Tomorrow – Part 4: Abby Geni’s The Last Animal