by Pat Holt
Saturday, March 22, 2003
BREAKING THE RULES WITH 'A MOUTHFUL OF AIR BY AMY KOPPELMAN
The rule used to be that book critics should never review books they've edited as manuscript consultants. Obviously when you've helped the author write a book, you can hardly be objective.
But all bets are off, I believe, when it comes to Amy Koppelman's first novel, "A Mouthful of Air," soon to be released from MacAdam/Cage.
Koppelman's manuscript was one of the earliest I received in my new Manuscript Express program, sent to me on recommendation by literary agent Amy Rennert. I was hired by Koppelman to see if the manuscript might be improved before it went into editing at MacAdam/Cage.
Despite my intention to write a brief report, I ended up sending Koppelman 13 single-spaced pages in which, okay, I got a bit carried away. The report did offer pithy suggestions about strengthening the voice of Julie Davis, the protagonist, but it was also filled with passionate commentary about how important I thought the book could be, how it had changed my life already, how it could (should!) transform society.
MacAdam/Cage wanted to unveil the novel early on for key readers such as bookstore buyers, so that instead of seeing the book as another very good story about a young mother recovering from post-partum depression (in this case an attempted suicide), or another very good story about a mother surviving early childhood sexual abuse, they, the bookstore buyers, would know that something unique and original was at the core of "A Mouthful of Air."
So then the second rule was broken: The publisher and the agent asked me to review it as a critic, and, deciding to put all my biases up front, I enthusiastically agreed. If the basic job of all of us in publishing is to spread the news about good books, here, for this unknown book by an unknown writer, was a rare chance.
To begin with, Koppelman's book couldn't be more timely. It picks up where Michael Cunningham's novel, "The Hours," leaves off. It makes "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold look like a candy-gram.
I have to admit it's also a novel I started to fight as soon as I realized what was coming. It made me so furious at first that I wanted to blame the author for the protagonist's condition. Here I was *working for* the author yet railing at the very success at which she was getting her message across, and, in the end, admiring her for it.
The story begins as Julie Davis, a "tallishly attractive" young mother, adjusts to early motherhood in a fashionable co-op on the upper West Side of New York, where she lives with her handsome and sensitive young husband, a successful lawyer named Ethan.
But everyone is watching Julie. Shortly after her son Teddy's birth, she waved goodbye to Ethan as he left to work one morning, then inexplicably slit her wrists in the bathtub and nearly bled to death. The scars have almost healed since she got home from the hospital, but Julie knows that she is only playing at the role of Recovering Mom Who Made a Mistake.
She does this by always taking inventory, always watching herself from afar - feeding the baby, pushing the stroller, buying the groceries, having sex with Ethan and reacting to the raised eyebrows of the live-in "nanny," whose real job (nobody says this out loud, of course), is to make sure Julie doesn't try to off herself again.
Things might work out - she sees a psychiatrist regularly, and her new antidepressants seem to be working. But Julie is alarmed by her own behavior toward the baby - she finds herself kissing his tiny lips in the "wrong" way - and is shocked to learn that she's once again pregnant.
Now everyone turns to her with accusation in their eyes: If postpartum depression led to an attempt at suicide (always called "the accident") the last time, what will happen with baby #2, especially now that the psychiatrist says antidepressants are dangerous during pregnancy and wants Julie to stop taking them, which she does.
What keeps surfacing in all this is a feeling that her ordeal is not foreign to us. Like many girls she knows, Julie grew up making certain her outward appearance fit the expectations of her observers. Ethan liked her good looks; her apparent enjoyment of sports, and used to love taking Julie to Knicks games. She was always so knowledgeable about the players and attentive to him as they sat in the stands.
Now he thinks that if he can just get her back on track, the Knicks game they do attend (to which she drags herself and hates every minute) will help her recover.
But recover for what? "This," Ethan once assured her about their marriage, "is the happily ever after part of your life." Such boyish enthusiasm, such cocksure pronouncements, might earn an affectionate smile or tease from a wife who's sure of herself, but Julie has no sense of an inner core. At one point she glances at her perfect husband smiling easily at her. "His two front teeth are white, but they're capped. Sometimes for no reason at all she hates him."
Her mother has always told her, "If you look happy and pretty, then you are happy and pretty." Other women might laugh off this kind of silly Mom homily, but not Julie.
We learn just enough about her childhood to picture Julie as a girl who was constantly threatened by her father's sexual overtures until apparently she made certain adjustments for him. He had his violent episodes, however, and eventually deserted the family.
We see how Julie missed her father - still does - as though she were an abandoned lover, much as her mother misses him. But then, her mother has turned to private detectives and plastic surgery in the futile hope of getting him back. Julie has gone on to become "another man's possession."
So the Julie we meet when she gets back from the hospital, while struggling to find her place in life, is getting clobbered from every direction. It isn't just the demons from childhood that keep her unhinged but the everyday signals of "normal" American life that are driving her crazy.
When she looks at the starving young models in magazines, all Julie sees is how old and replaceable she's become. She knows that magazines are supposed to make readers feel old and fat so they'll buy more things.
But so much is empty inside that Julie takes all her cues, all her values, from the outside. She looks at an advertisement showing happy children eating pancakes as though it were a list of requirements about how to live: Buy the stove, make the pancakes, have the kids, smile at the husband and it's done.
Halfway through "A Mouthful of Air," I began to think of Alice Sebold's other book, the nonfiction "Lucky," in which Sebold describes the time she was raped. Every moment during the assault, the rapist robbed Sebold of her will. When she screamed, he nearly strangled her. When she fought, he beat her nearly to death. Soon she learned that to survive the attack, she had to give the rapist exactly what he wanted - she even had to help him accomplish the deed. This loss of will was so profound that Sebold wandered around in a state of paralysis and self-destructive behavior for the next 10 years.
One realizes in "A Mouthful of Air" that if loss of will happens to a grown woman who is raped, something far more profound, like loss of one's entire identity, must happen to a child when she is repeatedly, often violently, abused sexually, especially by her father. We get only a few glimpses of the manner in which Julie's father became both a romantic and brutal sexual figure in her young life, but it is enough to understand why she feels now that her insides are "decayed" and "rotting."
This loss of self is represented most compellingly by a writing style that I found myself hating yet admiring enormously. It's a childish style, often sing-songy, like a Dick-and-Jane narrative that can just drive a person bats, as we try to take the protagonist seriously.
Various paragraphs begin: "Julie travels downtown," "Julie stands straighter," "Julie tries to appreciate," "Julie hurries up the hill," "Julie is not sure," "Julie looks around," "Julie is aging," and so forth. It's as though Julie has been stripped so cleanly of any sure knowledge about herself that all the author can do is to start her out fresh with every new event, thereby infantilizing her, just like everybody else does.
And yet slivers are offered every now and again of a real person inside that shell - a very brave and intelligent woman who may still discover that she is capable of genuine emotion, of spontaneity, of interests outside herself. Here Koppelman creates several excruciatingly hopeful scenes, one especially memorable in which Ethan reads a passage from Julie's childhood book, "The Velveteen Rabbit."
What does it mean to be "real?" asks the Velveteen Rabbit. "Real isn't how you are made," says another toy, the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time . . . That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
"Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are real you can't be ugly, except to the people who don't understand."
If there is a chance for Julie to find the real person inside, she has to fight back against the fear that keeps overwhelming her. We see her taking the first step that was taught in the hospital - breathing in a deep mouthful of air and saying to herself, "I can do this," meaning, I can live a normal life.
But the question Koppelman poses is whether a normal life today is real or a matter of one artifice after another. In the suburbs, Julie sees many women like her, all masters at taking on the same disguise. Looking around a friend's living room, all Julie can see is "a Prada bag, Gucci loafers, a Rolex watch . . . " We don't know if human beings have ceased to exist in this environment or if Julie has trained herself only to see the mechanisms, the robotics that reflect her own life.
"[If] you want to be a better mother," a woman named Diana explains, "you puree your kids' food and store it in Tupperware, not Reynolds, not ClickClack, but the real thing." When Tupperware becomes "the real thing," you know the Velveteen Rabbit will be running for cover.
Naturally, Diana turns out to be a "Tupperware Consultant," and the women attending the Tupperware party love the stuff. The things we are promised - a perfect home, perfect husband, perfect baby - offer real happiness, they all believe; Julie is sure of that. Her only question is how to "fit in."
So Julie is not as aberrant as her childhood might have dictated. We know that even her self-destructive tendencies are not that unusual. Millions of women grow up with severe child abuse in their background - and, tragically, millions never make it: After reading "A Mouthful of Air," one's eye becomes attuned to the latest statistics, which tell us that in the United States alone, 3 children die every day as a result of child abuse in the home, so consequences are nearly universal.
And the question will occur to many of Amy Koppelman's readers: What are we doing for the millions of Julies, the ones who live on but feel dead inside? By insisting that their attempts to stop living are "accidents" and that they'll somehow "make adjustments" and "get a grip" by themselves, are we helping or abandoning them?
But "A Mouthful of Air" may be a real life-changer by dramatically affecting serve to change the lives of many people like me who once averted their eyes from news stories about mothers who do terrible things to themselves or their children. Even in the midst of Julie's story, many readers may find themselves searching the photograph of such "monster mothers" for the humanity that Amy Koppelman has allowed us to see.
I should say also that my report recommended that MacAdam/Cage be more upfront in its belief in the audience and not shilly-shalley around with the title. At some point, Julie, whose sense of humor can be a delightful surprise, ruminates that medical science approaches suicide so clinically that even her own To Do List ought to be forthright by listing something like "Pick Up Drycleaning, Bake Cookies, Slit Wrists."
That, to me, would have made a better title than the nonsensical "A Mouthful of Air," but then the question came up: If you put "Slit Wrists" in the title, who will buy it? Granted, 10 or 15 years ago, maybe nobody. But today book groups abound whose members are searching for a novel that challenges lifelong assumptions and helps us face the most painful realities of modern life.
Okay, so "Pick Up Drycleaning; Bake Cookies; Slit Wrists" may be a bit *too* challenging, but no matter what it's called, this first novel by Amy Koppelman offers a message of compassion as well as a scathing indictment of modern American life from a fresh, wholly original angle. Believe me, seeing the world through Julie's eyes will change your perspective long after book's end.
A 'SAVAGE' ON TV
I had to laugh when MSNBC described its new TV show, hosted by ultra right-wing radio commentator and bestselling author Michael Savage, as "a legitimate attempt to expand the marketplace of ideas."
Right. Expanding by dollars and cents, you mean. Savage's brutal conservative harangues are so painful to hear on the radio that he's either bound to save the money-losing MSNBC by stirring up the kind of fake controversies Rush Limbaugh enjoys, or maybe he'll sink the cable channel for good.
Either way, we can hope he'll follow the lead of "Dr." Laura Schlesinger, whose excursion into TV made her bitterness so visible that she had to rush right back to radio. How the "marketplace of ideas" misses her today.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thanks for your remembrance of Oliver Gilliland -- you captured his style, his zeal, and his grace perfectly. One of his first calls every season was to A Different Light (San Francisco), where he both let me know what queer secrets were veiled by bland catalogue copy, and let me tell him about author connections he might not have ferreted out from sales conference and his own reading. And beyond Oliver, tyour thumbnail sketches of many of the other reps I regularly saw -- among them Harry Collins, Roger Moss, Beverly Langer, Gigi Reinheimer and Howie Leinhoff (who never brought us champagne but with whom we had fabulous political discussions) -- were a brilliant reminder of where the personal passions that can pass one book on to a thousand readers begin.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
What a wonderful, accurate and loving portrait of Oliver Gilliland. I guess he wasn't a lot different when he visited The Chronicle than he was when he visited The Booksmith. His enthusiasm for certain books was always hard to ignore. Norton books will forever seem a little more special to me because they will always remind me of that very special gentleman who carried them in his bag. Thanks for writing such a fine tribute.
Gary Frank The Booksmith
Dear Holt Uncensored:
What a gorgeous and reverent testament to the unsung heroes of bookselling: the book-loving sales reps. I was especially pleased to read your tribute to Susan Reiheld, who was "my first." When "What It's Like To Live Now" was published by Bantam in 1995, Susan made a point of meeting me, then took me out to dinner with the other Bay area Bantam-Doubleday-Dell reps, then called me breathlessly the day the book arrived in stores to tell me the good news.
"Your book sold five at Stacey's!" she exclaimed.
"Five thousand?" I gasped. (Having worked mostly as a catalog editor, I was used to selling in bulk, and new to the concept of hand-selling books one by painful one.)
"Well...no," Susan said.
"Five hundred?" I asked.
Susan could barely bring herself to deliver the disappointing news that my book had sold merely five copies in its first few hours of shelf life. "But you don't know how great that is," she enthused. And she was right: it was Susan who called me again, a week or so later, to tell me that the book was going to appear on the Chronicle bestseller list.
Kudos to Susan and all the Susans, and kudos to you for heralding their precious work.
Dear Holt Uncensored: CHECKING FOR PERMISSION
Just a note about Oliver Gilliland. I worked with him my first 2 years at William Morrow. His love there was Children's Books, and he taught me all that he knew about them. He was a great inspiration to me. Did you know that in 1980, the New York Times Book Review did a major piece on Oliver's life as the New England sales rep for Morrow? It was an interesting piece about being a rep, and Oliver in particular. I would call it "must reading" for anyone wanting to be a book traveler.
Holt responds: I'm gratefulto Bob Werner for sending me a copy of this NYTBR story, in which a Times reporter follows Oliver, who is "carrying himself erect as a soldier," on his rounds during a short sales trip from Massachusetts to Connecticut. At this pre-superstore time, the reporter notes, "two mighty book chains," B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, have made life tough for independent bookstores, and much of their conversation concerns this problem.
Here are a few nuggets from Oliver:
"Right now, being an independent bookseller is an absolute heartbreak. It's unbelievable work and the return on your work is very small. I sense that many of my accounts are barely getting by, and some are certainly losing money. I think many independents will go under that can't withstand this onslaught of economic trouble and this expansion that the two major chains are doing."
"There are three books on this list that I will not sell to any of my retail accounts. That's because they have no redeeming value. They're not good pieces of literature. I could sell some of them if I wanted to, but they would just come back and it would ruin my credibility. I think that it's psychologically important to have a few skips on a list. It builds trust. It's something you can giggle over with the buyer. 'Hey, look at this dud!' "
"Every book is a bestseller to its editor. So you have to separate the grain from the chaff. Sometimes it's a struggle getting a handle. I had trouble with a book I'm selling now called 'The Landscape in Art.' I was saying to myself, What is this book and why is it being published? I spoke to the sales manager, and I finally came to an understanding that it's not so much a history of landscape art but a history of man's relationship with nature as revealed in landscape art."
[Still, for this and other books, "Mr. Gilliland has scant seconds - at best a minute - to present a work that may have consumed grueling years of an author's life," the reporter notes.]
"Authors seeing this [selling time] would probably go through the wall, they would buy guns .... But it's simply impossible to present the whole list at every account. If I went into some of these stores and tried to prevent everything, I would be told to get out and not ever come back."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
No disrespect intended, but is Mr. Buzbee [whose book was dropped after Random House closed his publishing house, Prima] really being treated unfairly? He's being paid in full for his work, and now he's free to sell the book again to another publisher. And as you know, there are thousands of editors across the country looking for good books. I really do believe that "no good book goes unpublished" and I'd love to know why you dismiss that statement so easily. Perhaps the problem is that no writer is willing to admit that his or her book isn't one of the good ones.
Lew Busbee responds: I never meant to imply that Random House was treating me unfairly, or that my book had any special cause. In fact, my book suddenly being without a publisher isn't about my book at all, and that's the point. Along with the employees of Prima who are now jobless, there are many other writers on the Prima list who suddenly have no publisher. While I also like to believe that every good book finds a home, this adage seems a bit naive, given the wholesale dissolution of yet another list and its books. I'm glad Will Weisser feels so blithe about the chances of Prima's authors finding publication elsewhere.
To respond directly to Mr Weisser, what troubles me most about your letter, though, is the surmise that I'm one of those writers who just won't face up to the fact that my book isn't worthy. I'm not sure how you reached this conclusion; are you saying my book could be so bad it brought down the entire Prima list? That would be like me supposing you to be one of those bitter publishing-types who secretly longs to write something, anything, but just can't do it, and so goes into publishing instead. And of course, I would never say anything like that.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About your description of eBay's security chief opening eBay's records to law enforcement agencies without a subpoena: The only reason eBay is intertwining with the feds so eagerly is due to their legal troubles, which rose from dealing with Sothebys and Taubman over price-fixing.
eBay still hasn't been fined and cleared of further wrongdoing, so why not ASSIST law enforcement to get points before the case finishes with the penalty punch?
Alex van Luik
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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