Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Whistful Wordplay Categorizes Local Literarian Lauren Fox--Whereas I Am Only Good with Alliteration. Friends Like Us out 2/14, Our Event is 2/16, 7 pm.

I wish someone would say to me, “Let’s eat vegetarian” and I would offer suggestions like “The Lentil-men’s Club.” That’s not the way my brain works, but that’s the way the synapses fire for Milwaukee-area novelist Lauren Fox, whose second novel, Friends Like Us, is being published by Knopf on February 14.

I read Fox’s first novel, Still Life with Husband, when it first came out, but I wasn’t really involved with her event, and if we met, it was briefly. But for Friends Like Us, it’s been a different story. Jason and I saw Fox at the Great Lakes Booksellers conference, where she was part of the reading room series. Then she was at the store for another authors’ launch event. And then we got to chat again at the holidays. And there I found out that her childhood babysitter was our good friend Rose Anne. And there are probably 700 other connections. So it goes when you work on the floor of a bookstore, but even more so when you own it, I suppose.

The new novel is about a young woman sort of stuck in the maturity process. I kind of call this genre slacker novels, only I wonder whether this denigrates them. That’s not the case—I read plenty of them. In fact, we just hosted novelist and poet Leigh Stein, whose novel The Fallback Plan certainly fits the bill.

The other thing to note is that they are often as different from each other as noir mysteries are from cozies. Categorizing can do more harm than good. But I suppose I am drawn to these types of stories. You can only imagine that while there are a good number of “lifer” booksellers, there are just as many who are between gigs. You’d be surprised at how many resume cover letters imply if not state, “I don’t know what I want to do so I’m thinking bookselling because I like to read.” And just about all of us start out that way--you turn around and realize you've been bookselling for a quarter century.

Willa, however, writes freelance copy for an ad agency, and also works in a flower shop. I wouldn’t exactly call her a flower arranger as that implies a skill that she doesn’t exactly have. Her friend Jane clean houses, babysits, and writes poetry, Her once-gawky high school friend, now filled out? He’s a part-time librarian sans MLS, which is pretty much bookseller equivalence.

So Ben’s back and though he’s got his eye on Willa, she can’t get past the high-school friendship and so he winds up dating her best friend Jane. Willa’s got, well, issues. Her parents had a messy divorce. Her brother has a series of messed-up relationships and has recently been kicked out of his apartment for yet another. She’s had a short-lived affair with her boss, only he pushed her aside for someone else.

Issues indeed. Willa’s got a lot of work to do to recover from the sins of her parents. It’s not just a question of forgiveness, but just even an acknowledgement that we, as humans, are prone to mistakes, and we have to work through them. Friends and family let us down, and it’s what we do with that knowledge that we become adults. Fox may see the world through a bit of a fractured lens, but there’s a sense of humanity about this separates it from some slacker novels that fall into satire and meanness.

But really, whether Fox wrote a coming-of-age novel or a murder mystery, her sense of wordplay is what separates Friends Like Us from the pack. Fox is the master of clever bon mot, and by keeping most of the voice as Willa’s, she’s able to create a hard and soft woman both, cracking wise through her disappointments. And this is a sad story. Couples break up or come to relationship détente. Friends separate. Career paths, when you finally map them, turn out to be disappointing. But how can you be sad for long when the path is filled with such silliness, such as orderly Jane’s poem, The Universe is a Vacuum Cleaner, in which she rhymes “clog of hair” with “fog of despair”?

Another piece of fun Fox has is with her setting. It’s Milwaukee to be sure (though not necessarily the building below right), but as she did with Still Life with Husband, she chooses to neither to make up an imaginary city nor use actual landmarks with their names intact, although there is an expedition to the Domes. I don’t know if folks know that several of her first novel’s scenes were set at White’s Bookshop and that Schwartz (as in Harry W.) is “black” in German. In the new novel, among other places, several characters head to the River Rock coffee shop. And a wedding is planned at Alewife Park. Can I just assume that is a smelly take on “Atwater?”

The only problem that ever happens (and this is not easy; happens with the best of writers) is that it’s probably enough that the protagonist and the higher power who created this world are wordsmiths of the first order. It’s tempting to give every other character these mad language skills. I think that’s why a lot of my favorite humorists stumble when they write novels. It’s hard and sometimes boring to write the straight men (and women). Fox for the most part avoids this trap, but like a rough on a golf course, she sometimes hits into it.

That sort of aside makes me wonder what it would be like to have Fox write a collection of humorous essays. And then I start thinking of how much fun everyone will have at Fox’s event at Boswell. She’s speaking/reading on Thursday, February 16, at 7 pm. Hope you’ll join the celebration, and you’ll be forgiven and even welcomed if you make a few jokes along the way.

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