Marilyn Gear Pilling on Spirit Book Word

January 31/99.

Dear John,

Some thoughts that came to me as I finished Spirtbookword:

In the first place, I love the idea - that every writer has a word.

And then to look at these seven writers from that vantage point, a vantage point from which they've never been looked at before - there is an immediate quickening of interest on my part. Also to see which word you've chosen for each writer.

I think that the "I" of this book is as much a narrative persona as the "I" of fiction, or poetry. There is a relationship between the "I" and JSP, there are some things they have in common, but the "I" does not = JSP.

The "I" is a character in this story. We get to know him. It is his story, as well as the story of his relationship with these seven words and the writers who, as he puts it, bring them to flesh. We have the I and the seven other writers, interacting.

Actually, this book is a kind of novel, that's what it is. It is the I's love affair with words and with each of the seven writers, a love affair that is enacted before our eyes, in all its tortuous turnings. As in any novel, we do not have to know the seven characters before we open the book. The I will tell us everything we need to know about them. "There is a certain response to the ideas or the analysis, but there is a deeper response to the revelation of personality." So says Robert Olen Butler, of fiction, and so say I, of Spiritbookword.

There are relationships among the seven writers, too. The narrator is always weaving, always connecting. And he does not rip out by night what he has woven by day. But the seven are not wholly dependent on the narrator; they "have secret intercourse with each other," and we, the reader, can sense this.

To read this novel, we must understand the complexity of the I. We must not take him at face value. He begins humbly, quietly, inviting intimacy. He presents himself as uncertain - "a little voice, a whisper... a secret I'm not quite sure of myself." He presents himself in this way, but his verbs signal otherwise - "violate," "transgress." And that first sentence - "forgive me." He who is without sin does not need to ask forgiveness.

He fails at obedience, he tells us, right off. Ah, but this is the unreliable narrator of fiction speaking, for again, we will discover that this is not so. He does not fail at obedience. It is just that his masters are not those the world most often bows down to. "I'm not sure which god I serve. Maybe the god of no-name," ventures the narrator near the end. I don't think so! The narrator is obedient to the demands of words, the exigencies of literature, the hard taskmaster of creating top notch prose. You will not find a cliche coming out of this narrator's mouth.

The I displays a mastery of words that is equal to that of his seven characters. His prose has muscle and guts and rhythm. It can thump as well as soar. It can surprise you. There are no tired, worn out phrases. No flab. And the I plays. He plays with words as a cat plays with an elastic. Some of his moves are brilliant, some are infused with a kittenish exuberance. Sometimes the narrator's play ends with an eating-alive. Don't be fooled by that opening persona. This I can be as ruthless in the service of literature as any of his seven.

The narrator tells us he's uncertain about his voice, but his voice is not uncertain about itself. The voice of the I never falters. It is as sure of tongue as a mountain goat is sure of foot (except in "David"). The voice is original, inimitable. It has the authority to lead us anywhere and make us follow. It demonstrates that it knows. "Merton walks alongside you, talking as he walks." So does this "I", in one of his many guises. He charms, he seduces. At other times, he thumps, or surprises, or casts you up on shore barely alive.

"Fiction is the art form of human yearning," says Robert Olen Butler. Despite the narrator's insistence on his blessings, there is such a tone of yearning in Spiritbookword. Yearning for a listener who will hear what is being said, yearning for connection, yearning for a world in which the spirit, the book, the word, is primary. By the end of the book, we wonder if the seven writers are aspects of this complex "I," who yearns even as he breathes, and writes. Aspects that don't always sit cozily together. The I himself suspects this: "Maybe with these seven enfleshed words, I've inadvertently drawn my own face, the geography of my own body and spirit." Each one of those words held an electric charge for the I - small; strange; quick; zero; tremendum; obedience; mercy. That is why he chose to follow them, to enter them deeply?


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