Monday, June 16, 2008

David Guterson and the Other

Last week I introduced David Guterson at a booksigning at the store. It was a strange experience, in part because of the reactions of some of my coworkers and industry professionals. One coworker said she’d met him several times when she worked in a Seattle bookstore, and she didn’t like him at all. A media escort (hired to pick up authors from airports, drive them to signings, assist booksellers with signings, and so on) for another visiting author said she now refuses to work with him. And many coworkers, informed of his reputation, asked how the signing went.

Well, I replied. It went well.

I should admit that I’ve greatly enjoyed Guterson’s three previous novels. I wasn’t aware of Mr. Guterson’s reputation, and he struck me as the kind of author who shies away from publicity unless it’s necessary – such as a book tour. He’s a solid public speaker, which probably comes from his early career as a high school teacher. But in person, he’s quiet and not very talkative, even with readers in the signing line. There’s always a risk that authors and booksellers won’t have anything to talk about past basic questions and answers: how is the tour going, etc. But Guterson was even more reticent than usual – if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say he believes in the role of the author to write, the reader to read, and that those roles aren’t supposed to cross much.

But it’s more than that, I think. Guterson’s latest novel, “The Other,” explores the reactions of two characters to the fact that our society of material excess is built on the exploitation and suffering of others. One character, John William, decides to lead a hermetic life isolated from society, while his childhood friend pursues a more conventional career and marriage. The novel hinges on the intersection and conflicts raised by these two lives.

Guterson admits that “The Other” is his most autobiographical novel, and what he calls the “other” is our internal conflict caused by having to participate in a society that is predicated on absurdities. Our awareness raises feelings of guilt and a desire to help bring about change. But Guterson believes there is no inherent resolution to this conflict, and he calls hermeticism, with its denial of social contact and subsequent loss of social desire, just as absurd as the metaphysical questions that drove John William to choose such a path.

A reader asked if Guterson felt John William was a sympathetic character. He replied that reviewer’s opinions were mixed: some asked why they should care, and some said John William was heartbreaking. His goal as a writer, however, was to draw a portrait that more closely resembled Thoreau or Chris McCandless in Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” a character whose romanticism and belief begs a question only the reader can answer: do you personally find him sympathetic?

This theme has grown stronger throughout Guterson’s work, from Kabuo’s cultural reserve in “Snow Falling on Cedars” to Ben’s final solitary journey in “East of the Mountains,” and it grows even stronger in the characters that populate “Our Lady of the Forest.” These works strike me as an attempt by Guterson to strike closer to the “other” within himself, to understand the dichotomies and questions and contradiction within his own life by exploring how those conflicts play out in meaning in fictional lives.

Does Guterson deserve the personal reputation he’s garnered among booksellers in the Northwest? I say no, and even if some people think so, it hardly matters. He’s an artist asking hard questions of himself and his readers, and his work stands under its own weight. Guterson said he believes the metaphysical conundrum underlying our society can’t be fixed, that it’s irredeemable – but his novels show that it’s still worth trying.

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