My second delivery from Powell’s Books Indiespensible book club arrived in May. Unlike The Book of Jonas, this was a book I would have picked for myself based on the blurb on the back, but maybe not one I would have read right away if it hadn’t been shipped to me the way it was. My comment after having read two Indiespensible books: they pick unique novels that are definitely outside my comfort zone, though not in a bad way.
When I started this book, my initial instinct was to get through it fast. It was stream of consciousness and it had short chapters, two characteristics that generally make me progress at a rapid clip. But for reasons out of my control (mainly a week in San Diego for a conference during which time I was supposed to be out socializing if I was not in classes) it took significantly longer than I intended. Looking back I am glad I was forced to read more slowly. Had I sped through it, I would have missed how beautifully written it was, how much pain was hidden in those short chapters. Quinn is a tragic heroine, imperfect and struggling in so many ways; at the end of the book there’s a glimmer that things are going to turn around for her. I desperately want her to sort out her life. It’s unfortunate that I’ll never know for sure that she’s okay because this isn’t the sort of book that provides a tidy, happy ending. But I hope. I’m still hoping, and I’ve been done with this book for almost a week.
I’m fairly certain that there are many woman-book qualities in The Listeners that would annoy my co-blogger: short chapters, stream of consciousness, non-linear story line, a very non-Dickensian cast of characters. In all honesty, I am not necessarily a fan of stream of consciousness narration either, but as I progressed through The Listeners I saw that it has its place. And when it’s done well, it can be a very powerful narrative technique.
Here’s the basics of The Listeners: it is 2004 (as best as I can figure based on the “clues” provided throughout the text), and Quinn is thirty-five. She was a semi-famous punk-rocker until about ten years ago, and is still close with two of her former band-mates. The fourth, Cam, has disappeared from their lives. She still lives in her hometown, a “middle-income suburb of a medium East Coast city (p. 14),” and has dinner with her younger brother and parents about once a week. She works in a used bookstore, though she has not gotten paid for at least a few weeks (needless to say, the bookstore isn’t doing very well). Her younger sister (primarily referred to as “the middle”) was killed when Quinn was fifteen. I said in the prior paragraph that the story is told in a non-linear manner. That’s not entirely true, though it takes some time to figure out how the novel is organized. There are two fairly linear time lines: the “present” day and the past, which begins shortly before Quinn’s sister dies and ends with the demise of the band. There’s also a third, fairly non-linear series of memories of Quinn, her sister, and her brother. Their parents are mentioned, but to my memory they do not appear in these vignettes. These are memories of the kids playing different sorts of games, word games, pretend games, “what if” games. It becomes apparent that “the middle” is the brains of the outfit, even though she is not the oldest. It becomes obvious as more of these memories are revealed how important the middle sister was to the whole family: she kept them together, a cohesive unit. And when she is gone, everything else falls apart.
An aspect of The Listeners that I loved, but didn’t realize it until right now was the gradual exposition. It always kind of bugs me when exposition is obvious, like, “Oh look! I just met this person and have to tell them my entire life story right now, on screen.” That’s truer of movies, I suppose, but books sometimes do the same thing. I can’t think of an example right know, but I know it’s true. In this book, the backstory revealed itself naturally as the novel progressed. This can be annoying, of course, because for the first seventy-five pages or so I was confused about what was going on and that always makes me mad. But it makes for more powerful and realistic storytelling if the reader has to figure things out as she goes. Because once you figure it out, a light bulb goes off, and then the book’s got you, and doesn’t let go until the end.
One thing I did not come to understand or appreciate was the octopus imagery. Quinn has a stuffed octopus she calls “Octy.” There’s an octopus on the cover of the book as well. Perhaps the stuffed animal is just a connection to her sister because she once cut off one of his tentacles. I don’t know if there’s a deeper meaning than that. I’m sure there is, and I just don’t know it. I’ll keep thinking about it and update if I come up with anything.
The most beautiful part of the book is the ending. Quinn had mentioned earlier on that no one in her family ever mentioned her sister’s name. In the family’s last documented dinner gathering, Quinn says that she misses her sister and calls her by name. It’s so powerful. Both of her parents and her brother agree, and her mom says that she misses her every day. It is a healing moment for the family; I couldn’t help but feel like things are going to start looking up for Quinn, Riley, and their parents, even though there’s nothing to suggest that; I just hope that maybe they will realize how much they have each suffered and mourned separately, and that maybe by finally acknowledging it together they will begin to heal.