Steven Gillis’ Temporary People
My apologies to Steven Gillis and Dzanc Books, which he cofounded.
I’m not a fan of Temporary People.
My first bone to pick is the subtitle: a fable. Temporary People is not a fable. I suppose you could call it a satire or an allegory — and I’ll admit the line between fable and allegory is thin, but there are differences. A fable is folk literature, “a succinct story that features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized, and that illustrates a moral lesson, which may at the end be expressed explicitly in a pithy maxim.” There are no talking foxes or crows, no falling skies, no pigs taking over farms. It’s also not terribly succinct line by line; that is to say, it’s only 201 pages, but the writing is thick and not fluid the way I think a fable should be.
Aesop wrote fables. Dr. Seuss wrote fables. Jose Saramago writes fables.
Gillis says in a Hobart interview with Anna Clark, “To me, TP is a fable in the sense that it takes these very vivid and real ideas and exaggerates them in order to make an even stronger point about the real world. It is a novel, without question. My idea in labeling TP a fable was to give the sense that the reader would be entering a story where there are moral themes and questions to consider, a romantic –- though in no way romanticized –- sensibility where there is a beginning, middle and end as in a fable, and in the end the reader is left to assess the consequence of the hero. This, to me, is what a fable does; it takes the reader on a very specific journey.”
I would argue that every story takes the reader on a specific journey, and I don’t think that’s a solid enough reason to appropriate the use of fable. It’s also an important distinction that Gillis presents moral questions, but he is not aiming at any particular moral lesson, i.e. no pithy maxim.
My second, and much more egregious, bone is the writing itself. I’m willing to forgive the missing commas and random typographical errors because I know Dzanc is a small press, and it’s hard to catch everything. But I’m not willing to forgive sloppy writing.
Here’s an excerpt from chapter 2. To set the scene, Teddy is the despot of a fictional country called Bamerita. He’s making a film of Bameritans’ daily life, and every citizen is forced to be in the film in ridiculous costumes. Here, he’s having dinner with some sycophants.
Everett Doyle wore a seal skin jacket, suggested “For safe measure more guards should be assigned to the daily shoots while Covings is here.”
“A good idea. We don’t want anything unseemly caught on film.”
“Of course not.”
We wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression.”
“Film provides more than impression,” Teddy corrected. “It creates reality.”
“Which is exactly what we’re doing.”
“What we’re doing, yes.”
“Only a government that is truly progressive would even consider what we’ve done,” Teddy sopped up the grease on his plate with a piece of bread. “Why is it so hard for them to understand?”
“Putting each Bameritan on film shows how broad-minded we are.”
“Ha! Yes. Everyone has their chance to be a star.”
“Why do they fight it so?”
“Change is most vigorously resisted among the less enlightened,” the good Father touched the cross on his papal chain.
I’m going to go ahead and ignore the clunky lines like “Why do they fight it so?” because where does one even begin? One of my biggest pet peeves is tagging dialogue with action unrelated to speaking. Father Piote doesn’t speak by touching his cross; he speaks by speaking. That should be two sentences, like so:
“Change is most vigorously resisted among the less enlightened,” said Father Piote. He touched the cross on his papal chain.
It’s even better this way:
“Change is most vigorously resisted among the less enlightened.” Father Piote touched the cross on his papal chain.
The “said” is now implied, and the action identifies Father Piote as the speaker. The same goes for the sentence above where Teddy sopped up the grease on his plate. It’s a comma splice that shouldn’t be there, and it makes the whole thing look sloppy.
But that’s not all the dialogue tags get wrong. Consider:
“Film provides more than impression,” Teddy corrected.
Teddy corrected? Really? Do we need it spelled out that Teddy was correcting someone? The dialog itself should make that clear, and the verb becomes redundant. The same applies to any number of words like chided, questioned, repeated, bantered, replied, inquired, pointed out, etcetera, etcetera. You’re either not paying attention to your writing, which is bad, or you think your readers are stupid, which is worse.
Sometimes dialogue should be written out, and sometimes dialogue should be summarized; the appropriateness of each choice is dictated by the needs of the scene, the pacing of the story, and so on. I’ve never yet seen an instance where dialogue should be both written out and summarized in the same sentence.
Until now, that is. Observe:
“About your tower,” she asked me then, “Is it true?” and wanted to know about Tamina.
Um. What? And then a couple of pages later:
It was true, I knew, and this I told her. “About Tamina,” I began, but she stopped me by putting the wheel of her bike against my right leg, and changing the subject, asked “Do you ride?”
“I haven’t in years.”
“But you can?” she patted the seat, reached for my briefcase. “It’s better than walking for your leg.”
“I don’t think,” I stepped away, only Katima insisted, “It will all come back to you. It’s like riding a bike,” she laughed and leaned the handlebars into my hip.
It was true, I knew? This I told her? Is this some kind of joke?
It’s a bummer because Temporary People begins with so much potential. I love the idea of people walking around dressed as pirates and peasants and gangsters, with their every move projected on an enormous movie screen erected in the plaza. It’s very George Saunders.
One of the central moral questions is revolution vs. nonviolent resistance in the face of an oppressive government. As Gillis notes in the Hobart interview, he was “motivated in part to write TP because America has been taken over by a despot named George W. Bush, and what good does logic and good intentions do in trying to assert our will against a man who is brain dead and basically evil?”
Now, I was not a supporter of Dubya. In fact, when I was in college, I was picketing on street corners protesting his unilateral invasion of Iraq. I ridiculed with great delight his continual idiotic misstatements (“People say, well, do you ever hear any other voices other than, like, a few people? Of course I do.”).
But brain dead? Evil? Despot, for crying out loud? I don’t think he’s all that brainy, for sure, but I have to believe he loves his country and was just shooting from the hip, as they say in Crawford, which probably works real well picking off groundhogs in Texas, but not as well when, say, creating foreign policy. I can’t help but think that perhaps the book suffers for lack of a solid foundation.
Anyway, this has gone on far too long. Is anyone interested in a mint condition copy of Temporary People? I’m not going to be needing mine.
Steven Gillis read my comments (gulp) and had to clarify a couple of points, for which I owe him an apology. He says:
One point I do want to make very very clear – Temporary People was not published by Dzanc Books. It was published by Black Lawrence Press. And it was only well after the editors at BLP chose to publish TP that Dzanc became in any way associated with BLP. I am sure there are errors in the book. Small press or not, this is no excuse. But your pointing to comas and use of “said” or exclusion of was a stylistic and conscious choice. That you didn’t like, I accept. Truly. But they aren’t mistakes. They are choices made.
Comments officially retracted. Sorry, Steve!