book rec klaxon!

It’s dreamy, it’s gorgeous, and it’s precisely what you need if you’re feeling like slowing down and taking it all in quietly. What “it” is? I have no idea, but it’s there anyway. It’s Plainsong by Kent Haruf.

A dear friend came to visit me last month (looking at you, stranger!), and she gifted me Plainsong by Kent Haruf, saying it was one of her favourite books. I was excited, having been suffering from severe reading anaemia (if that’s the right way to put it) for years now. It’s strange (and slightly unnerving) that the more I myself write, the less I read. When I was a student and a researcher, reading was my job, so that’s what I did. Now my job is to produce stuff for reading, so…that’s what I do.

I started Plainsong straightaway, and boy is it beautiful. My friend and I have our own little literature book club, reading Literature with a capital L and also literature that has – well, cultural value more than literary, let’s say. So, I was relieved to sink into a very slow, very deliberate story, and a very very stylish style.

There are five groups of people or individuals we follow, a pregnant teenager, two sets of brothers one old, one young, the young boys’ mom, and the young boys’ dad. The book weaves short chapters together into a sequence of…not exactly snapshots (that sounds far too snappy for a quiet book as this) but maybe… presences? Dwelling points? Occurrences?

A 13th century gradual from the Abbey of San Stephano at Corno, Italy.

Plainsong is a set of melodies from the early Middle Ages to which scriptural words could be sung during the liturgy or musical church service. There were no bars like today, the voice progressed freely according to speech rhythms rather than a set musical unit. Plainsong melodies moved as one voice, they were monophonic, that is there is no harmony, no fanning out into several communicating strands which move in tandem or opposition. That’s the business of polyphony and counterpoint and would conquer the world of music much much later, towards the end of the Middle Ages, and then very much during the Renaissance that loved anything layered and dense and playful.

No, plainsong is not cheeky or bouncy or oh-so-clever. Plainsong is serious, like a big old river, the Rhine or so. And so unfolds the book, I think, although I’m only two-thirds through.

I like it, because it slows me right down. I think it’s sad, but not in a depressing way. There’s plenty of human significance in the no-fuss relationships of people. It’s a world without the chatter of social media, and I like that. In a way, the book is plain, because the stuff that happens is big but not big. It’s big for the people, but not in the grand scheme of things. The book is plain, but it’s a song anyway.

Haruf’s Plainsong doesn’t have the time of day for dramatic declarations either. It moves on, inexorably, perhaps, towards inevitable conclusions. That baby will be born at some point. No stopping the river.

It’s actually not true what I’m saying. There is layering in the book, and part of that layering is located in the punctuation. Or lack thereof. Consider this.

Who speaks here? Brother one or brother two? There are no quotation marks to tell us whose turn it is. The brothers morph into one another as the edges of their speech dissolve. This kind of twisting together of speech happens again and again in the book; lives increasingly bleed into each other’s seams; all stories, all words, all thoughts, feelings, wind into one string, one melody. Plainsong.

I suppose, the lack of punctuation (and lack of ! or or anything else more emotion-based and suspense-laden) is similar to Cormack McCarthy’s books. Which I haven’t read, but I know he hates punctuation. I think this lack of emotive or tonal punctuation like the exclamation mark or the points of suspense or a dash or even parentheses that give a bit more texture to a sentence – all those are missing in Plainsong because the book resolutely refuses to “give” emotion. We never ever hear how a character feels. Just actions. Thoughts. Words. And all of them bare, precise, concise. Underneath, so much going on. Very Hemingway.

I haven’t finished Plainsong yet, and I am curious in a worried sort of way what’s going to happen. I don’t think there’ll be a big catastrophe. Or perhaps there will be, but told in a quiet manner, making it all the more heart-breaking. Hemingway is good at that, telling terrible terrible stories in an unimpassioned manner. When you could really really do with an exclamation mark in order to relieve yourself, but he withholds that….

Here’s another take on the title: the book is a complaint in the medieval sense of the word. A sorrowful song. It’s plaintive. It reminds me of the Oscar Wilde story that has a nightingale leaning against the thorn of a white rose all night, singing, and its blood spilling out of its little chest, turning the rose petals red. That story is totally different from Plainsong, but all of the characters have this kind of self-immolating tendency…a flat grey landscape in winter, and we can’t believe it’ll ever be spring again. We’ll just never be happy again, and that’s that. The book’s mood is mournful. A dirge, although it tells of life growing in the young girl’s womb.

None of this is a bad thing. It’s an extremely lyrical book, both in wave-like ebbing and flowing style, as well as in how it tells and what. I recommend it as a deceleration book. I recommend it for an autumn-winter book, when you yourself feel a bit caught in the bleakness of January. I recommend it if you are in the mood to appreciate lyricism hidden in every-day functioning words. No big declarations and no deep explanations. You’ll have to do the feeling work yourself in this book. 

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