exercises in compound storytelling

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Christine Wicker: Not In Kansas Anymore

Cover of Cover of Not in Kansas AnymoreIt's the end of the year, and I'm somewhat inspired to follow the outgoing President's example and make next year a big list of books read, etc. But first:

I picked up Christine Wicker's Not In Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic Is Transforming America because it was the only book by Wicker I could find apart from her The Fall of the Evangelical Nation. I was puzzled by her approach in that book (a little hard analysis, a little fudging, then a road trip) and I wanted to see if that's just her style, or if perhaps I was reading her incorrectly.

I think it's her style: Not In Kansas Anymore suffers from the same problem.

I think there's a formula these sort of long-form small stories are supposed to follow: they're part first-person narrative, part received wisdom (historical narrative, expert opinion, what have you), but the two are supposed to be separate: a chapter of first-person narrative, a chapter of perspective, repeat. See for example Bill Bryson's book about the Appalachian Trail, A Walk In the Woods, or Tony Horwitz's Civil War book Confederates In The Attic: Bryson sticks more or less to the chapter-at-a-time formula; Horwitz picks topics per chapter and then breaks up the chapter to add expert opinion.

Wicker doesn't do this, and as a result what could be a fairly interesting story about hoodoo and magical culture in America (for lack of a better term) is a mess: the chapters have cutsie titles that only make sense once the chapter's been read. The story doesn't have an arc, per se. And after a while the vampires mix in with the witches and the hoodoo practitioners and the Otherkind. It's hard to tell who's going through a phase and who's a lifer, who's getting results and who's playing dress-up.

I wish Wicker well with her next book, and I'm grateful for Fall of the Evangelical Nation, which I will eventually write up here. But I have to humbly suggest that Wicker hadn't yet mastered her craft when she wrote this one.

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