Sunday, September 27, 2009

Singing a Novel in Blues

I recently read The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. It was, as most books are (at least in part), a story about relationships, the family you're born with, the family you make, friendship and love. This story is set in the bayous of Eastern Texas (I hadn't realized before this that Texas had bayous at all, though after looking at a map, I feel like I should have figured that out long ago.) and the stories of family and friendship are played out through an abused dog, an abandoned cat and her kittens. I truly enjoyed the book and so when I trotted off to find a link to it, I decided to take a look at what other people had to say. Some loved it, others found it mediocre. But what surprised me were the most negative reviews. Those readers complained that the book was insufferably slowed by repetition, annoyingly full of lists and, according to a few readers, "condescending."

I know interpretation is a personal thing and so on, but I think a lot of the people irked by the book are missing something. They're reading the text as words on a page, instead of hearing the story, either in their minds or spoken aloud. See, The Underneath is a pretty good book on paper, but when you read it aloud, it becomes amazing. It's full of myths and folktales (I'm going with 'folkmyths' for the rest of this post, because they both seem to be present) and draws on blues music so heavily that with only minimal work, you could probably turn this novel into a (long) song. These are the things that stayed with me through this novel, so they're the ones I'm going to discuss.

If you read The Underneath aloud, the traditions Appelt draws on show up in full force, both the Blues and folkmyths. The blues in particular are explicitly invoked early on, when Ranger's song draws the calico cat to him:
Oh, I woke up on this bayou,
Got a chain around my heart,
Yes, I'm sitting on this bayou
Got a chain tied round my heart...

This kind of repetition is present throughout the whole novel. The stories in it are told and re-told like the song - each iteration is like the others, but not quite the same. Something is added or altered - little details from before become whole stories in their own right; another character retells an earlier story. Bit by bit, the story grows.

In the reviews I read, Appelt's tendency to list things (particularly trees) draws frequent criticism. I can see where the impatient reader might find these lists tedious, but they add to the melodic tone of the book and again draw on a common feature of folkmyths and fairytales. Medieval tales in particular feature extensive lists1 while Grimm's Fairytales (the unaltered versions) are full of repetition.2 Appelt's listing of trees pulls from this tradition, but diverges from its typical use. Her lists of trees are not so much as list as an invocation: the trees are witnesses to the events of the bayou and Appelt calls on them to help tell the story. As the tale says, "Trees are the keepers of stories." One loblolly pine becomes a character in its own right. The novel tells/sings its entire life story, from a tiny seed to a lightning struck, hollowed out trunk, to its final end when it falls into the bayou, abandoned by its branches and roots.

Appelt even finds a way to turn this invocation and repetition into one of the most familiar elements of any fairytale: "A tree's memory is long, stored in its knots and bark and pulp. Ask the trees and they will take you back a thousand years...." Now perhaps this is just me, but that sounds like a tree's version of "once upon a time."3

The repetition in this novel, with the traditions of blues music and folkmyths behind it, helps pull a sweet story about a makeshift family of animals into the realm of the folkmyths it draws upon. I can see how this reiteration could frustrate those who like faster-paced stories, but it is not condescending. If anything, it is the reverse: the Appelt clearly expects her audience to understand the traditions upon which she is drawing and to see how they add to the story.

And to all those frustrated by the repetition and pace, I really do suggest that you try reading the story aloud. It's an entirely different experience.

1) You haven't read a list until you've read the Mabinogion or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Half a dozen trees have nothing on a list of all the knights with all their abilities, the names of their fathers, horses, swords and dogs. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has a particularly lengthy section on a feast, listing off all the foods eaten, what they were served on (particular mention is made of the eating utensils) and how the feasting hall was decorated while the Mabinogion has a list of knights ("The Catalog of Arthur's Companions") that goes on for several pages including such names as "Sight, son of Seer," "Boar, son of Restless" and "Watch, son of Watch-dog.")

2) "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" is a particularly striking example of this kind of repetition. Nearly everything happens in threes.

3) There is an entire essay - and a lengthy one at that - waiting to be written about the bayou/setting (trees included) as a character in this novel, but I will leave that to someone else.

Links for the interested to the book's page on Goodreads and on Amazon.

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