In the past few weeks, I've read Swamplandia!, The Illumination, and a new Joyce Carol Oates short story collection whose name I've forgotten and I've already returned it to the library so I can't check. Currently I'm halfway through Freedom, which I won't even link to.
I've enjoyed all of them, but the one that has been freeing (ha! no pun intended) to me, as a writer, is Freedom.
The book has a refreshing lack of similes and metaphors, an obsessive attention to characters' interior lives, and it occasionally tells not shows. What? Tells not shows? Yes, yes indeed. And it works, too.
Both Swamplandia! and The Illumination are beautiful books with careful writing. Subject-wise, they're closer to what I typically read and what I aspire to write--stories that are magical, lyrical, and not rooted in psychological realism. In The Illumination, pain becomes manifest as an ethereal white light; Swamplandia! follows a family of alligator wrestlers who are too eccentric to be real, plus there are ghosts (who turn out to not be real, I think).
Freedom is none of these things. It is old school Russian-style soap opera. And I love it.
While Swamplandia! was a wonderfully imagined tale, at times the story was weighted down with its metaphorical language. I was too often aware that I was reading something that the author labored over. Karen Russell sure spent a lot of time thinking about words.
And here's a confession: sometimes as I write, I am guilty of the same thing, spending way too much time thinking of the apt, poetic simile and not chugging forward with the story. And the story is king.
But with Freedom, the writing style disappears, as if the novel just sprung forth (like in the beginning was the word and the word was...Franzen?), so that what the reader focuses on is the action (which is sometimes inaction). We become invested in the jealousy and struggles and desires of the extremely human characters.
Now, I like words. Love them. I read my share of poetry. Heck, I even read and teach L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. I understand and support the idea of playing with and manipulating language.
Freedom is teaching me that sometimes language gets in the way. Sometimes a word is just a word, and a character can just cry, not cry tears that sparkle like sweaty diamonds left strewn across a table which is draped in a black tablecloth like a shroud thrown over the casket of someone you once loved.
What's important is that the character cried, darn it. (Jesus wept.)