Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife

I’ve read a fair amount of tricksy postmodern fiction, and as a grad student I liked quite a lot of it. I loved thinking about the evolution of the form of the novel, metaliterary reflections on the readerly and writerly processes, and how far narrative could bend before it snapped. I know this kind of experimentation isn’t a recent phenomenon (Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published between 1759 and 1767, may be the quintessential postmodern novel), but there’s an abundance of it today, as not only the content but also the physical form of the book is called into question. (As an aside, these Book Autopsies by Brian Dettmer are perhaps the most astonishing and beautiful thing I’ve seen done to the book as an object. They make me feel that if I had to read everything on a digital device just so he could create more of these works, it just might be worth it.)

While I still get most excited by literature that does something new and different with its form, now that I read primarily for fun I find myself demanding more cohesive narrative structure. I still love playfulness and experimentation, but I don’t love it quite as much for its own sake. Looking back again to Stern for a moment, it’s clear that his playfulness wasn’t self-indulgent; rather, he wrote with the reader’s pleasure in mind, and he conveys a certain awareness of and complicity with his reader.  (e.g., “I know there are readers in the world, as well as many other good people in it, who are no readers at all,–who find themselves ill at ease, unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last, of everything which concerns you. It is in pure compliance with this humour of theirs, and from a backwardness in my nature to disappoint any one soul living, that I have been so very particular already” [book 1, ch. 4]). Sterne’s playfulness is delightful; the same is true of the best contemporary and recent writers.

When done poorly, though, the self-reflection and nonlinearity of experimental fiction becomes a drudge. I have to confess that as much as I loved the way that Danielewski’s House of Leaves made me think, I don’t think that I’d enjoy it nearly as much if I picked it up today. The form, the ideas, and the execution of both are fascinating, but the fundamental storytelling doesn’t hold up as well. (Granted, it may also just be a question of attention span…)

All of this is a long introduction to the fact that I recently called up a good friend and complained that I hadn’t read much in the way of really beautiful prose lately. I felt that I had gotten a little bit lost in stories that were on the dry and snarky side, or on the dry and technical side, and I missed lush prose and engaging characters. I asked for suggestions, and EF pointed me to Téa Obreht.

While Obreht’s writing didn’t cause me to catch my breath in the way I was hoping for, I found her to be an excellent storyteller. One character after another in The Tiger’s Wife unfolded and drew me in. For me, the characters were the book’s strongest feature; it is the characters’ humanity, no matter how strange they (or their circumstances) first appear, that made it impossible for me to break my gaze. The determined science teacher whose incredible wartime achievement was to steal lungs for her students to dissect; the deathless man who reads the deaths of others in their coffee grounds; and of course, the tiger’s wife, whose story I won’t tell. I’ve read reviews suggesting that the characters are flat, but I think that their larger-than-life attributes lend the book its sense of folk tradition and oral storytelling. Rather, I think the plot would fall flat without the characters.

I’m not sure the book would stand up to rigorous analysis, and there were moments where the writing felt either overly simplistic or a little bit stilted; but then, this is Obreht’s first novel. I look forward to continuing to read her writing over time, and will look forward to her books when I want to be engrossed in a story for the pure pleasure of it.