Jim Harrison, and a Few Thoughts on the Novella

During the past few years, March has inevitably been a month of extensive travel. This year is no different. Last week, I was in Hartford, CT, for the NeMLA conference; now, I’m in New Jersey, for a reading I’ll be giving Tuesday in Montclair State’s Live Literature series; and next weekend (April 1st-2nd), I’ll be returning to my alma mater, Susquehanna University.

(I promise: we’ll circle around to Jim Harrison in a moment. But Harrison wouldn’t want us to proceed directly and inattentively to the clearing in the woods, where epiphanies converge. He would demand a lyrical hike to our destination, a slow and meditative trek where the colors of the foliage, the veins of water feeding the land, would become the pigments of our own understanding.)

The consequence of months of travel like this one, when I’m not unlike a bird circling its home nest from the stratosphere, is that my thoughts have occasion to swoop from one area to another. Often this flitting is generative; often it is not; often—now, especially—it’s interrupted by social media or fueled by podcasts. Today’s listening was Words for Dinner, a podcast about the origins and (re)deployments of words; it’s put together by the zany and remarkable Max Gray and Michael Van Calbergh. In their pilot episode, Mike and Max stop to reflect on how we receive our information; this leads to a spirited conversation about the oddities of getting the news from social media.

Social media—Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere, and (most emphatically yes) podcasts—have altered not the landscape of news stories, but merely how we access them. It’s more a highway than a library: instead of a deep search of the stacks, we have hyperlinks that function along the lines of an Interstate-95 exit sign that promises (at this stop only) a Starbucks, a Wawa, a Chili’s, and a McDonald’s.

The question isn’t about whether or not we encounter the information. The question is about whether or not we click, whether or not follow the signs from the main thoroughfare and allow ourselves to encounter already, previously curated knowledge.

Of course, as the Words for Dinner gents point out, there’s a guaranteed chance that most people will get distracted by something along the lines of “Snake Swallows Bobcat Whole!” (And here is where we wind our way back to Jim Harrison.) But sometimes, as they also note, we learn things we would otherwise miss.

If it hadn’t been for Facebook, in other words, I would have missed the news that Jim Harrison, best known for authoring the novella-turned-Brad-Pitt-flick Legends of the Fall, passed away yesterday.

The New York Times obit on Harrison begins by describing him as a novelist driven by a “lust for life” and “sometimes just plain lust.” As far as glib lines go, it’s a fairly apt one, especially in Harrison’s case. I’ll admit that I was not always an enthusiastic reader of Harrison: I don’t care much for the misogyny often latent (and brazen) in his novels.

His descriptions of nature, however, are evocative and painterly. I rediscovered this last year, after finding a hardcover edition of The River Swimmer in the local Barnes & Noble bargain-books section. The title novella didn’t pique my interest, but its partner story, the novella The Land of Unlikeness, was a deft study in the provocative force of the delicate stroke. (Here, I’m writing from memory, without my heaps of books at hand—so I plead your generosity as you read these remarks. Traveling, remember?) The novella is appropriately painterly: its protagonist, Clive, is a now-retired art history professor who, years after surrendering his dream of becoming a painter, turns a bittersweet homecoming into an opportunity to return to the canvas. What is masterful, here, is Harrison’s slow but certain movement through Clive’s uncanny environment: he cannot know that this return to his origins is the necessary and recuperative move that he has required, nor can he know that picking up a brush again, after so many years, can rekindle those fires doused by the cascading of years and circumstances.

It is the kind of meditative and deep look that somehow occurs in the small space of a glance—a curiosity of form essential to the novella. I considered this recently when I read something that rankled me for reasons I couldn’t initially articulate. The offending piece has taken me a few minutes to relocate, even after I found an exact mention of it in a Vox article lumping together the week’s book news. The article in question? James Patterson’s apparent belief that his BookShots series can jettison this introspection which is part and parcel of the novella form (even those novellas whose stock-in-trade is fast and vital action) and use the novella to revitalize the publishing industry. Namely, turn the novella into the new dime novel and loose upon the world things that read (and in all likelihood sound) like narrativized episodes of TV shows.

Without beleaguering matters here, the novella certainly can be fast-paced and plot-driven. But let’s not forget what’s good about a Jim Harrison novella: the subtle brushstroke of the well-placed detail, the negative space where the human mind truly forms its thoughts, and—something I’m feeling far too acutely, at this moment in real life—the long way back home.

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