I’ve been struggling to write my follow-up to The Magicians, and I’ve finally figured out why: the whole time, I was trying to articulate my feelings in terms of Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere. I loved this book—it was actually the one that solidified my interest in book blogging. I had so much I wanted to say, and it didn’t seem like anyone else had picked up on quite the same things. Since I appear not to be over the feeling, and can’t seem to articulate my ideas without referring back to it, I’m actually going to flesh out the notes I’d jotted down and tucked inside the cover.
The Sky is Everywhere has a stunning number of fantastic blurbs and made it onto all the best Notable Books of 2010 lists. They call it heartbreaking (in the sense of both grief and romance), yet ultimately a celebration; perfectly on target in tone and voice; and beautifully, breathtakingly written. And I couldn’t agree more.
But this book has lingered—past even all the glowing reviews and powerful story can account for.
And this is going to sound so dorky, and so so English majory, but this book has stuck with me because it’s so narratively aware. I’ve read plenty of books that account for their own writing, or reflect momentarily on perspective, narration, and so on. But Nelson pursues it diligently and subtly, and although she doesn’t seem to come to any groundbreaking conclusion, I don’t really think she needs to.
Narrative awareness (and I wish I could think of a better term!) is so prevalent, and I think it directly contradicts some of the (few) critiques I’ve seen leveled at the book. There are several background storylines than don’t have any major conclusion; Lennie’s clarinet playing, her rivalry for first chair, her mother’s absence, and Joe’s parents are just a few of the plotlines that don’t quite end anywhere in particular. And they don’t need to. The act of storytelling is an act of selection, and by choosing to focus on other threads, I think Nelson subtlety reinforces her structural argument. Focusing on those narratives would have made a different story. Far from careless, she instead demonstrates (in both the foreground and background of her story) that narrative is interpretation.
“This is our story to tell,” Big tells Lennie, and, 185 pages in, she has her breakthrough. “You’d think with all the reading I do, I would have thought about this before, but I haven’t. I’ve never once thought about the interpretive…I’ve always felt like I was in a story, yes, but not like I was the author of it,” she says. “You can tell your story any way you damn well please.”
But that’s not quite the end of it. Later, she’s confronted with the opposite side: “It’s just dawned on me that I might be the author of my own story, but so is everyone else the author of their own stories, and sometimes, like now, there’s no overlap.”
And yet Nelson goes even further, toying with the conventions of 1st person perspective to great effect. Lennie’s argument with Gram right at the end of the book brought this into sharp perspective for me. “Have I really become selfish and self-absorbed?” Lennie wonders, and suddenly she’s right. All the conversations she avoided, all the times we followed her out of the room and into herself, we were complicit in her self-absorption. It’s the nature of first person narrative. But rarely do we have a character like Gram to call us out. “You act like you’re the only person in this house who has lost somebody…Do you know what that’s like? Do you? No, you don’t because you haven’t once asked…Did it ever occur to you that I might need to talk?”
We are so used to sharing the perspective of a first person narrator (see how this applies to life AND the novel?!) that we rarely take the time to consider other characters as anything but secondary. And as Lennie’s Racehorse/Companion Pony analogy makes clear, this kind of thinking is dangerously incomplete.
Brilliant and beautiful.
Just like my blogging partner 😉