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Friday, June 15, 2012 at 10:30AM
National Book Foundation

The Feast of Love

By Charles Baxter

Original Publisher: Pantheon Books

Current Publisher: Vintage

Tiphanie Yanique writes: 

“—now the more typical story is likely to be a first-person narration, or monologue: more akin to nonliterary sources like stand-up comedy, performance art, movies and rap music and blogs.” — The New York Times Book Review

That’s Joyce Carol Oates writing a review of Charles Baxter’s Gryphon. She’s juxtaposing the above type of modern novel against what she calls the “well-crafted” (her quotes and mine) novel, which displays what she calls “highly polished language.” Oates lists a number of award-wining writers who craft well (she lists Baxter among these) and a number of award-winning writers who instead rap or blog (here she lists younger and more racially diverse writers). I don’t think Oates means to say that voice is lousy as literature. However, her use of the phrase “well-crafted” (even with her self-conscious quotation marks) can sound as if she’s suggesting that first person narrative might not be well-crafted or might not display “highly polished language.”

I disagree and so does Charles Baxter’s earlier book, The Feast of Love…at least in my reading of it.

For the record, Joyce Carol Oates is among my favorite writers, and Charlie Baxter’s The Feast of Love sits on the shelf of books I reserve for my literary influences. The Feast of Love is written in multiple first person. I think Oates and I would agree that it’s a well-crafted piece of literature.

When each new voice speaks, it’s so much the voice of that character that Baxter doesn’t rely on name headings to signal who is speaking. Each character tells a story of his or her love life. When Chloé speaks about her beloved she says “Words violate him.” She calls them as a couple, “swoon machines.” Chloé speaks in her own consciously made-up slang. She’s just out of high school and her personal jargon demonstrates her need to be particular. She wants her love to be unique. She wants to make a stamp on love. When the eldest character, a professor, speaks, he makes sure to insert distancing language. The professor wants to present his story intellectually, objectively. “Since you asked,” he begins. “In all truth,” he adds. 

As we keep reading we see how each love is unique, even to each participant. Even as one participant has new experiences. We see that it is possible to stand back and observe your love, but this is more richly accomplished with the help of others. We see how each love is impacted by another’s and another’s. And that no love in this town is disconnected—despite the individual stories and the individual voices. It’s a feast of love, after all.

As a reader I do believe that this book will continue to cause me to examine and live in the fun and complexity of human love. As a writer it validated two very important things for me. This book declared love as a subject still worth writing about, despite the seeming rejection of it in our literary literature. And it also validated the first person narrative as a way to reveal some truths not only about an individual but a community.

Tiphanie Yanique is the author of How to Escape from a Leper Colony, published by Graywolf Press. Her writing has won the 2011 BOCAS Prize for Caribbean Fiction, Boston Review Prize in Fiction, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship, and an Academy of American Poet's Prize. She has been listed by the Boston Globe as one of the sixteen cultural figures to watch out for, and by the National Book Foundation as one of the 2010 5 Under 35. Her writing has been published in Best African American Fiction, The Wall Street Journal, American Short Fiction, and other places. Tiphanie is from the Virgin Islands and is a professor in the MFA program at The New School in New York City. (Photo: Moses Djeli)

Fiction Finalists That Year:

Fiction Winner That Year: Susan Sontag for In America

Fiction Judges That Year: Ron Hansen, Breena Clarke, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, David Guterson, A.M. Homes

The Year in Literature: 

More Information:

Article originally appeared on National Book Award Fiction Finalists (http://nbafictionfinalists.squarespace.com/).
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