I just finished Jennifer Egan's MANHATTAN BEACH, which I whole-heartedly recommend. I've heard several complaints about the book being over-researched, and I agree that it sometimes wears its research heavily, but it didn't diminish my enjoyment of the book. It's true that my academic research includes the 1940s, which is when the book is set, so I'm predisposed to like fictional imaginations of the time period -- and I gobbled up the factoids Egan offered like they were day-old candy corn. But I also felt that the research lent itself to this feeling of whole absorption in the world that Egan had created. The abundance of detail simultaneously makes that world feel more real and historically accurate, and reminds us of the presence of the author and her role in building that world.
There's so much emotional intensity in the book, but aside from some special moments when that intensity slips into the relationships between characters (Anna and Dexter, Eddie and Lydia), most of that intensity is inwardly directed.... People figuring out what they want and setting themselves to achieving it. That combination of determination and introspection made every character very dear and relatable to me, even when they did terrible things.
The mood of the book is so strange and interesting. It really does feel like you are underwater with Anna, sliding slowly through the characters' lives, burdened by their troubles and the weight of that godawful diving suit. I think this is the hardest thing to achieve in any book, a certain mood that is so evocative and clear and unique. When I think about it, I want to distill the book down to colors: dark turquoise, forest green, shards of mud and paler blue... (This is also where I think the cover design on this book is PERFECT, melancholy but with a spit of light, like a clouded-over diving visor -- too perfect.) (Writing this made me feel like my synesthesia is stronger than I thought.)
How do you do this, as a writer? Create a mood with words? But genuinely, how, on the level of craft? This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, because in academia we don't have a good theoretical way for talking about it (tone is notoriously the least theorized element of writing*), and as a writer I feel like it happens mostly on some subconscious level. You have the desire to achieve an effect, and then somehow you come up with words that you think communicate that effect. But how? Which words? What is actually responsible for mood or tone in writing?
These aren't rhetorical questions -- I want to know your answers! I mean I know I have like 8 readers so I don’t actually expect anyone to comment. Nor do I think there ARE answers. I kind of feel like it's a central Mystery of Life, actually. Impossible to solve perfectly, but fun to try to figure it out. So let’s discuss it next time we see each other.
* I don't think mood and tone are synonymous but I think the difficulties in describing them come from the same place.