The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud – When Technique Produces Art

Synopsis: Haunted by the vivid horrors of the Vietnam War, exhausted from years spent battling his memories, Napoleon Haskell leaves his North Dakota trailer and moves to Canada.
He retreats to a small Ontario town where Henry, the father of his fallen Vietnam comrade, has a home on the shore of a man-made lake. Under the water is the wreckage of what was once the town — and the home where Henry was raised.
When Napoleon’s daughter arrives, fleeing troubles of her own, she finds her father in the dark twilight of his life, and rapidly slipping into senility. With love and insatiable curiosity, she devotes herself to learning the truth about his life; and through the fog, Napoleon’s past begins to emerge.
For the Writer: The switch to adult literary fiction is an interesting one, particularly in style. The Sentimentalists is psychologically analytical and reflective, which is absent for the most part in middle grade fiction.

The Sentimentalists is structured in three distinct parts: Napoleon’s daughter’s reflections on her father, analytical to the point of indulgence; the daughter’s visit to Napoleon’s home in Ontario, which evolves into a more conversational narration in which the daughter begins to ask her father questions related to his Vietnam war experiences, followed by a court transcript.

The narrative moves from reflective abstract collage to conversation, finishing with a linear and concrete court transcript. This narrative device, which moves from the abstract to the concrete, illustrates well how truth is no more evident in events that would be commonly understood as straight forward, linear and concrete, than it is in abstraction. In fact, abstract impressionism in TS seems to drift in currents closer to the truth.

As the reader becomes more comfortable with straightforward narration and a concrete examination of the subject, he realizes that he may be moving farther away from what he wants to know. This juxtaposition was artfully drawn. The story is built upon an irony; The closer one gets to the tangible and knowable, the further we drift from the nuances of a truer reality.

This was a masterful piece of work. Much like Douglas Coupland, who albeit writes in a different genre, Johanna Skibsrud uses techniques which invite many variations and are excellent prompts for the writer who is considering the structure of his project.
I particularly enjoyed Skibsrud’s poetic image of the town under water as an illustration of the book’s inverse structure of finding reality in reflective analysis and impressions rather than depending on the concrete.

 

JPT

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