Monday, January 23, 2012

Painting by letters, or writing through an artist's lens

One of my current projects is to find an agent to represent The Bear Wife, and to represent me as a writer.  Out of the seemingly kajillions of literary agents out there I must find someone who represents books that are in some way similar to mine, and who, therefore, might know where to go to sell it.

To this end I've been spending hours on agents', authors' and book-selling websites reading about novels. The upside of this is that I've discovered some books that I otherwise wouldn't have (given that my recent reading has revolved around hockey and western Canadian native history).

Two of these books, The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight by Gina Ochsner and The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni, have become special favorites of mine. As it turns out they are represented by the same agent. So she must really like them both, too. The interesting thing is how very different they are from each other.

I was wondering to myself, how can I describe how they differ? It's true that their settings and characters have nothing in common, but that doesn't really explain it. Ochsner and Bognanni could quite possibly swap out setting and character, so that each writes a story using the other's characters and setting, and still come up with completely different results. As if you asked Rembrandt and Kandinsky to draw pictures of the same horse.

If I wanted to liken their styles to visual artists, it's an easy call for Ochsner: Chagall, no doubt. The title Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight doesn't lie, folks. It is Chagall, through and through. Brilliant color. Floating clouds, bottles of liquor, worn-in work-boots and souls. Dreams and passions and all the music of life are unmoored from the bleak, painful realities of post-Soviet Russia which, quite literally, sink away. Ochsner's lens is perfect because it adds another layer of authenticity to her story.

The House of Tomorrow is more difficult to pin down. It is not particularly "painterly"; the "brushstrokes" are invisible compared to Ochsner's in the Russian Dreambook. Bognanni's characters, filtered through the consciousness of his protagonist, Sebastian, are necessarily drawn with some distortion, but subtly so,lovingly, and with great respect, even as they are dishing out lines like, "you sound like a big limp wang every time you open your mouth." Lines that (from my perspective as a nowadays mother-of-two who once did her time with a high-school rock band) sound simultaneously hilarious,obnoxious and poignant. Lines that function as comic relief even as they sing with meaning. Lines that, rather than a painting, evoke a graphic novel, where utterances vibrate into images, the expressionist hatches from the shell of adolescent cool.

I'm thrilled by how differently these two authors perceive the realities of their fictional landscapes and people-scapes, what they choose to emphasize or exaggerate or ignore, each within an aesthetic of operatic intensity. And as I think about it now, I wonder if each author's choice of lens wasn't inevitable, given the story they were trying to tell.