352 Pages; Print, $26.00
According to Ezra Pound, “[we live] in a country in love with amateurs, in a country where the incompetent have such beautiful manners and personalities so fragile and charming that one cannot bear to injure their feelings by the introduction of competent criticism.” So how, then, do we identify good writing? It is now plain that any debate over who is, or is not, a better writer, or what is, or is not, a more legitimate writing is, for the most part, a surrogate social struggle. The more pertinent questions are what is the community being addressed in the writing, how does the writing participate in the constitution of this audience, and is it effective in doing so?
And Gina Frangello’s new novel, Every Kind of Wanting, poses as exhibit no.1 in this timely and difficult debate. A novel about Chicago suburbanites scheming to have a “Community Baby” offers numerous angles of departure. We encounter a twisted plot that includes crumbling marriages, child abuse, mental illness, infidelity, secrets and more secrets, substance abuse, premature births, multiple family crises, the inevitable paternity revelation, and two deaths. From the very start Frangello foreshadows central events letting the reader know that the novel is pre-plotted, that everything needs to fall into some archetypal frame. And as the plot gets twisted even further with every chapter, the novel and the reader begin to suffocate.
Creativity on the part of the author involves structural innovation, the ability to generate an, in principle, infinite number of different structures. And Frangello succeeds in this endeavor by employing multiple points of view. Perhaps the most interesting examples are the chapters told by Lina who plays in a realm of second- and first-person points of view. On the other hand, the reader’s creativity could be expressed by functional innovation: the ability to imagine what a text could mean. This is where the reader gets robed when reading this novel. One finds numerous instances where the narrative becomes declarative with repetitive and gratuitous explanations.
Like many books today, Every Kind of Wanting lands on the reader’s lap, defanged, tamed by the weight of a macramé-like plot, ready for easy consumption. We shouldn't prefer when the book offers itself to the reader like a shelled pistachio. But when the reader has to do the work of shelling through words, rhythms in prose, and the unconscious in order to savor the book.
Is meaning created through the interaction of man and text? It seems so. In many of his short stories, Borges implies the disturbing supposition that the meaning of literary works is entirely dependent on the varying historical and social contexts in which they are read. In other words, that literary meaning is constructed through mental processes irrevocably tied to location and period. Reading, then, is more central to a text’s intellectual “life” than its writing and, consequently, a reader is more important to a text than its writer. But in Frangello’s novel words get in the way. If we are to have a high esteem for the reader, we have to invite her to the party. Not every sentence needs to be complete, not every plot needs a twist, nor does every flower need a color. Let the reader create alongside the text. Easy prose is akin to baby food. It is time to take the spoon out of the reader’s mouth.
The novel finds its high points in its bold portrayal of our fragmented society. Frangello addresses the conundrums of sexual orientation, immigration, class struggles, marital and extramarital love, and the obscure objects of desire. If literature is to reflect the world in which we live, here we encounter a polished mirror. However, sometimes the image gets distorted and we find ourselves watching a Latin-American soap opera.
In the words of Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas: “Realist literature is, to me, the least realistic, because it eliminates what gives the human his reality, his mystery, his power of...