Thursday, April 02, 2009

Review: Drawers & Booths

Title: Drawers and Booths
Author: Ara 13
Genre: Meta-Fiction
Published: 2007
Pages: 215
Rating: 8 / 10
Challenges: Dewey's Books Mini-Challenge, My Year of Reading Dangerously, A to Z Reading Challenge

Synopsis: (from the back cover)
Beginning as a modern military civil affairs action, Drawers & Booths spirals into a metafictional journey, testing the boundaries of reader and author, narrative voice, and characterization - the wrapping for Ara 13's satirical analysis of morality in light of evolutionary psychology.
My review: Hoo, boy. This book was something else. I read it as part of Nymeth's "Try Something New" mini-challenge for the Dewey's Books Reading Challenge. Dawn at She is Too Fond of Books, my partner, suggested it. I've read some meta-fiction thanks to a graduate course on Modernism (and it's delightful younger sibling, Post-Modernism), but this was my first time reading a meta-fiction novel (which is way I'm also counting it for the My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge, too). It was interesting, to say the least. Dawn and I decided to read the book, write separate reviews, and then switch and add our own comments to the other's review. My original review is in black; Dawn's comments are in red.

Drawers & Booths opens on a military base in an unnamed country. To be honest, I found this part pretty boring and can't really remember much about it.

I was frustrated with the outer layer of the story – characters without names, acronyms and abbreviations that looked like alphabet soup to me! I probably would've gotten more out of it if I had more knowledge of the military...oh, well. I don't think it detracted too much from the story - it just made me read through the boring stuff to get to the meat of the novel!

I think there was some sort of problem with the locals, and the narrator (third-person, at this point in the novel) gets a bike from someone. It was all pretty boring...until:
Kick approached the church and stepped over the entryway. It was dark to his immediate sides, and the sunlit sanctuary made it harder for Kick's eyes to adjust to the shadows in his periphery.
'Father Atkinson?' he called.
'No,' I reply, emerging from the dark.
BAM! Instant change. My eyes had been skimming somewhat, but at that point I felt a mental jolt and began paying attention.

Yep, me too! Did you pick up on the switch to present tense before the characters did? It jumped right out at me and I re-read the passage. Same here - I hadn't really been following that closely, so I had to read it a couple of times before I caught on.

And thus we are introduced to Hattie Shore, first-person, present-tense narrator. Hattie screws up the narrative a bit, changing the p.o.v. and confusing poor Kick, but never really revealing his intentions. He also doesn't stick around for too long this first time, but it was enough to keep me interested through the boring military stuff. When he does come back, though, he takes over the novel and completely changes it up.

Hattie definitely handles the reins … or does the author? I kept switching bets as the novel progressed. thought is, does Hattie realize he's a character and (in a way) a part of Ara? I really liked Hattie and wish he had stuck around more.

We go from jungle conflict to chasing a criminal mastermind through history. I'm reluctant to name this particular adversary, because I'd hate to spoil the surprise for anyone else who might want to read it, but it's definitely not someone I had expected. Unfortunately, Hattie disappears from the story after catching his man and helping to bring him to justice; fortunately, the novel itself becomes less a fictionalized account of Ara's own Marine Corps experience and more a meditation on writing, social responsibility, and what it means to be human. One of my favorite passages came towards the end, when Ara becomes a character in the book and gives some insight into his writing process:
'But let's not lose sight of this book's purpose - to entertain. After all, it is fiction. Yes, there can be a moral, but I really don't want this story to be mired down in theology. I am more concerned with character dynamics and the writing process. I enjoy having characters like the Corporal behave one way in the story and another when it is interrupted, as if he were an actor whose body of work we like but personal conduct we deplore. I enjoy having minor characters abruptly demand attention. I like having you all talk with the author and behave as haphazard devil's advocates, challenging my own personal belief system - an exercise everyone should undertake, at least in spirit. I hope to create an enjoyable read that encourages others to think outside the box, shake some trees - not merely for dissident value, but with the mind of a skeptic, ready to embrace the accepted belief system, but only after holding it up to the light at all different angles. I want to evoke thinking for the fun of it.'
This is a great quote! There were several I had marked; my slips of paper danced to the ground like confetti when I shook them out of the book after writing my review. I still have little slips of paper tucked in there; I enjoyed all the quotes about writing that you mentioned, as well.

I love the idea of characters having a personal life (an idea also mentioned in The Jane Austen Book Club) and of creating characters simply to have them disagree with you. It's ambitious and ingenious, and Ara pulls it off.

I have never read anything remotely like this. You’ve got me curious with your reference to Modernism and Post-Modernism; I’ll have to seek out other titles in those broad genres to really understand where this fits in. I'm thinking Drawers & Booths is Post-Modernism. You should check out The Crying of Lot 49. It's not Meta-Fiction, but it's definitely Post-Modern. It's also not for everyone; my friend Ashley threw it across the room after she finished it.

This review probably makes no sense, but for what it's worth, I really enjoyed this book. It's a mind-bender of a read, but it brought up some interesting ideas. I had to plod through the military jargon of the frame narrative, but I'm glad I did because the surrealism of the rest of the book was completely worth it.

Surreal is an apt description!

I'd like to thank Nymeth for hosting this mini-challenge (and for giving us an extra week to get it together!) and Dawn for being such a great partner. When we switched reviews, she observed that this sort of meta-reviewing was a really apt way to discuss this particular book, and she's right! Ara's next book, Fiction, will be released soon. I have to admit, I'm curious and will probably pick up a copy.

Other Reviews:
Dawn at She is Too Fond of Books


Nymeth said...

Oh wow, this sounds absolutely unique! I don't think I've read any meta-fiction, unless If on a Winter's Night a Traveller counts. I love how you and Dawn did the review. Definitely very apt!

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said...

This was so much fun to review together, Jessi!

I think you had a better understanding of the genre than I did, but I muddled through and enjoyed Ara's writing, the spirit of debate in the message, and our co-reviewing!