Commercial Meets Literary Fiction in Austin-Based Novel

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Amanda Eyre Ward is a workhorse of a writer, consistently turning out intelligent, well-written books. Close Your Eyes is her fifth, and at only 39 years old, her upward trajectory is undeniable.

The plot of her latest effort centers on two adult siblings, one a realtor, the other a doctor, still coping with the murder of their mother and the incarceration of their father, who was convicted of the crime when the main character was 8 years old and her brother was 10. For Lauren, the tragedy of her childhood has resulted in a lifetime of commitment problems, occasional panic attacks and the more constant, gnawing issue of insomnia, all of which are brought to a fever pitch when her brother, Alex, joins Doctors Without Borders in an Afghan war zone.

“There is a deep blue place between wakefulness and sleep,” an early chapter begins. “I have always been afraid of that place—it’s where bad memories reside, I believe, or thoughts that have no purpose […] What I love about sleeping pills is that they let you avoid that place. You go from wide awake to zonked in one fell swoop.”

Close Your Eyes is a near perfect study in how a novel can simultaneously be plot-driven and character-driven. Though at a certain point the book begins to resemble a mystery—the question of whether or not Lauren’s father was falsely accused hangs over much of the book—it is propelled to a tremendous extent by the inner workings of the characters. In fact, though some chapters seem not to advance the plot at all, those sections never bog down the story. Ward’s power is in making good reading of her characters’ lives, even when the stakes are unclear.

Last year’s smash novel Room by Emma Donoghue reminded me of just how much a novel could make my heart race, how I could want in equal measures to read and not to read the next chapter. Close Your Eyes buzzes with the same excitement without leaning on quite the same measure of drama. Where Room often feels like a well-executed stunt, Close Your Eyes lands with an impression of deeper authenticity.

Some of the air of reality Ward conjures is due to the way she writes about Austin, where much of the action unfolds. For Texans, it will likely be one jolt of recognition after another. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the capital city will recognize the flying of the bats from beneath the Congress Avenue bridge, a night of jazz at the Elephant Room, meals at Hyde Park Café and details about the French Place neighborhood where the protagonist lives.

Novels like Close Your Eyes and the aforementioned Room are always a little confounding. Clearly literary in the skill and power of their writing, they both left me searching between the lines for a deeper meaning, a grander subtext. And though Ward explores large themes—poverty, wealth, our sticky ties to family and to the past—the whole story is squarely on the surface, right up front, clear as day. The writing is excellent, the story intelligent and engrossing, but I don’t think these novels—hybrids, perhaps, between commercial and literary fiction—could be called layered, or “ambitious,” to use a word from bookish circles. They don’t seem to aspire to a deeper meaning or make demands on their readers. And maybe that’s the intention.

But one does wonder, in part because of the way Ward wears her literary leanings on her sleeve. Proust, Plath, Lewis Carroll, Hemingway and several other authors are name-dropped over the course of her novel—big, ambitious names, some of whom are nearly as tough to read as to live up to. When an author so loves literature that she can’t help referencing great books in her own, whether intended or not, a link is formed, as is an expectation. In one particularly fun chapter, Ward  gives a long and deliberate nod to Nancy Drew books, which, in terms of the plot, makes for a somewhat more appropriate frame of reference than those other giants.

Ward is a genuine talent, and I look forward to seeing what she does next. Whether it’s commercial or literary or this hybrid style with which she’s done so well, I know it will be interesting. But I would so love to see her push harder and higher. More Proust, less Nancy Drew. She’s clearly got the chops for it, and she’s more than halfway there.

 

Drew Smith lives in Austin.