I recently picked up a recording of Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior, and now I find myself on the horns of a dilemma. I began listening to the recording and didn’t make it past the fourth sentence before I had to backtrack and listen again–the language is that good; something to savor. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here are the first few lines:
A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-colored hair who marched uphill to meet her demise. Innocence was no part of this. She knew her own recklessness and marveled, really, at how one hard little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of a long disgrace.
“One hard little flint of thrill”–you see why I had to go back. Next, I found this:
The shame and loss would infect her children, too, that was the worst of it, in a town where everyone knew them. Even the teenage cashiers at the grocery would take an edge with her after this, clicking painted fingernails on the counter while she wrote her check, eyeing the oatmeal and frozen peas of an unhinged family and exchanging looks with the bag boy: She’s that one. How they admired their own steadfast lives. Right up to the day when hope in all its versions went out of stock, including the crummy discount brands, and the heart had just one instruction left: run.
I am pulled up short, wondering if I ever admire my own steadfast life, and what I might do about that.
You’re beginning to see the first horn of my dilemma–I’m having real trouble listening to this book because the language is so evocative that I have to keep stopping. As the audiobook is on 14 CDs, I may encounter troubles ahead, like potential difficulty following the plot due to my glacial pace. The image that comes to mind is of trying to stay upright on a bicycle whose wheels are barely turning.
One of the primary advantages of an audiobook is that you can listen while you’re doing other things, because often there is just not time to sit and turn pages. Yet if I need to backtrack every third sentence to hear an amazing line again, you can bet that the “other things” I’m trying to work on are getting short shrift.
It’s also true that for most of these phrases, a second hearing isn’t going to be enough; I want more, and I”m not sure how to get it. I want to put them in my mouth, taste them, own them. As this clearly is not something I can do, my usual course is to settle for making a small mark in the margin so it’s easy to return and gaze upon them later. For this, a recording is entirely impractical. I think I’m going to need a book with pages that I can hold.
But now we come to the other horn: however much I’m itching to see this language on a page, the print won’t give me the sound of Barbara Kingsolver reading her work, as the recording does. It’s not a flashy performance, but hearing the cadence of her speech, a small emphasis on a word here, her accent inflecting a word there, makes me think I don’t want to give it up. A sample will let you hear what I’m talking about. (click on the link under the book cover.)
If I listen to the book, I can’t mark amazing passages. If I read the book and mark passages, I miss the author’s actual voice conveying her character’s voice. Though it looks like either alternative leaves me with only half of what I want, in fact what I’ve got here is an embarrassment of riches, as well as a sharp reminder of why I ought to be less willing to read whatever random thing comes to hand, and put in the effort to seek out books whose language is good enough to land me on the horns of such a dilemma as this. This is absolutely the kind of problem I like to have.
Given the way I was snagged by the first page of this novel, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m not very far into it, so I’m not the person to give a well-rounded review of the entire book. I can only say that if it goes on as it has begun, I will just make my excuses now regarding all the things I thought I might be doing in the near future.