Friday, August 1, 2014

Why Aren't There More Reverse Chronology Novels? A Celebration of Rebecca Makkai's "The Hundred-Year House" (Event is August 6, With Cristina Henriquez)

The first time I read a backwards novel, as I called them, I was almost taken aback. I wasn't even aware you can do this. The book was First Light, by Charles Baxter, and it was the first of many books I would read by that wonderful author. It was about Dorsey and Hugh Welch, a brother and sister with a complicated relationship. It was almost as much a revelation as the first time a read a novel with shifting perspectives. That turned out to be The Well Wishers, by Edward Eager. Hey, I made that revelation when I was ten. Life-long learning and all that.

So you'd think that with such a unique premise, we'd see reverse chronology novels all over the place, but I would say they are relatively rare. A visit to the Wikipedia site listed a few, most notably Martin Amis's Time's Arrow.  I thought I'd be able to think of more, but the only book that came to mind was Anita Shreve's The Last Time They Met. This has turned out to be one of my favorite Anita Shreve novels (and I've read many),  though I remember one of my friends telling me she threw it against a well. That's not so much because of the reverse chronology, but its Atonement style twist. I'd do a post on those types of novels, but everyone would be pissed at me for giving away a whole bunch of endings. So it ain't happening.

This almost degenerated into a blog post about possible post topics, which made my brain explode. One that I had always wanted to do was a list of books with multiple protagonists where they live on the same street (like Capital, by John Lanchester) or even in the same building (like The Death of Vishnu, by Manil Suri), but the structure of these novels is a little more specific than a simple multi-character perspective because the characters together become a discussion about a particular issue. Lo and behold, we have an author's novel being featured that does that very thing and it turns out to be Cristina Henriquez's The Book of Unknown Americans, and she's appearing with Rebecca Makkai on Wednesday August 6. And we've got great reads on that too, from Sharon Nagel and Jen Steele.

But today we're talking about backwards, and one novel that does this particularly well is The Hundred-Year House, by Rebecca Makkai. For this to work, you've got to have a few secrets up your sleeve. We know where everybody is, but why are they like that, and what exactly happened to get them from A to B. You've also got to have a few interesting characters in the backstory, and it doesn't hurt to have a few red herrings.

Here's my take on Rebecca Makkai's The Hundred-Year House: "Zilla (Zee) and Doug move into her mom’s carriage house while Zee works at the nearby college and Doug finishes up his biography of poet Edwin Parfitt. The only problem is that Doug’s secretly working on a completely different project, Zee is sabotaging a department colleague, and new in-laws have been invited to share their living quarters. Alright, maybe there’s more than one problem. The home was once an artists’ retreat that numbered among its guests the very Edwin Parfitt, but the family made the house private again to give to Zilla’s ne’er-do-well father. There also seems to be a ghost making trouble. While the odds are on Violet, the family matriarch, to be the culprit, there are several other former residents that could be in the running. What starts as a combination academic-drawing room comedy heads into reverse to reveal the secrets of both the home and the family and become a moving meditation on family, money, art, and reinvention." --Daniel Goldin

My friend Arsen Kashkashian of Boulder Book Shop is also a big fan of The Hundred Year House. Here's what he wrote: "The Hundred-Year House is a fascinating and entertaining read from the end to the beginning. Makkai, in a brilliant narrative gamble, tells the history of an Illinois' estate from the near present back to its founding in 1900. The curiosities of the opening chapter become clearer as we go back in time. Along the way we get a host of characters, including the eccentric family that built the house and the numerous artists who inhabited when it was an artists colony. Makkai's structure results in numerous moments of discovery for the reader. Her writing is crisp, clear and witty. It's a deeply satisfying novel."

And finally, my friend Ann Wolters, who was of late at Lake Forest Book Shop, which of course is where the novel is set (the writer's colony is Ragdale, of course) also wrote to tell me how much she liked Makkai's novel. She wrote: "Once an artists' colony, now a luxurious private home, the "hundred-year house" has a profound effect on its residents and visitors. Using an innovative narrative structure -- the book begins at the dawn of the 21st century and travels back in time to 1900 -- Rebecca Makkai draws us in to a world filled with artists, poets, academics, heirs and heiresses . . . and perhaps a ghost. Rebecca's gorgeous writing enthralled me from the first page. She lives and works in the Chicago suburb where our store is located and where the story takes place, but I would have been just as mesmerized even if I hadn't been curious about her portrayal of our town."

So then after I told the publisher how much I liked the book, the quote made its way to her agent, and of course I should have known it was the wonderful Nicole Aragi. We started corresponding about my love of reverse chronology novels and I asked her what inspired her to try her hand at it? And guess what, it wasn't a novel at all, but the Seinfeld episode, "The Betrayal," which in itself was inspired by another seminal backwards play (and book), Harold Pinter's Betrayal.

Read more about The Hundred Year House in S. Kirk Walsh's review in The Boston Globe. And here's Ana Castillo's review of The Book of Unknown Americans in The New York Times Book Review.

And yes, we have a staff rec on Christina Henriquez's novel as well. Here is Sharon K. Nagel's recommendation of The Book of Unknown Americans: "Everyone who comes to America from another country has a dream of how they want their lives to be. For Arturo and Alma Rivera, it is that their fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, will get better and once again be the person that they remember. She sustained a brain injury while on her father’s construction site. The family left Mexico in order to find a good school for Maribel to get the help she needs. They settle in Delaware where Arturo has a job, and make friends within their community. There are no minor characters in this novel. Everyone has a story to tell of where they came from and why. The author has done a phenomenal job of defining home and country, and the many different ways that it can be interpreted. Sharon K. Nagel, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin"

So there you have it. Do you have your own favorite reverse chronology novel? Feel free to share them here. And please join us on Wednesday, August 6, 7 pm, at Boswell, for a great evening with Rebecca Makkai (photo credit Philippe Matsas) and Cristina Henriquez (photo credit Michael Lionstar).

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