Contemporary U.S. Literature

The Whole Town’s Talking

August 23, 2017

This has to be the whitest book I’ve ever read. Flagg’s newest (?) novel chronicles the evolution of Elmwood Springs, MO, from it’s origins as a Swedish immigrant farming settlement to sometime in the future (did it end in 2020?) as a typical small U.S. city with a Walmart that causes all the old-timey downtown shops to close. It’s written as a series of short vignettes, making it very swift to read, and thus perfect for a neighborhood book club pick, which it was, thanks to one of my sweet neighbor-ladies. Some of the vignettes are amusing, some are poignant, some are pointless. I liked the part early on about the “mail-order bride”: Lordor Nordstrom (main character, farmer, started the town) advertises in a newspaper, and another Swedish immigrant, a woman working a dead-end job in Chicago, bravely responds and then moves to Missouri to marry. This was a pretty common occurrence, especially in the less-settled states in the American west.

So the book was overly long and cloyingly sweet in a way that a reader might find harmless… until you realize that there are only white people and white historical events mentioned in the whole 450-page story. The essentially plotless novel intentionally takes the reader through Every. Single. Decade. of the 20th century, hitting on major historical happenings like women’s suffrage, World War II, and disco. But it’s significantly silent on things like Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era. I’m not even sure what to say about this type of silence, this absence, other than that it’s racist in a passive, blatant way, and I’m deeply bothered by it.

Now add to that essential problem of the novel the cute little reason for the title, the gimmick of the damn book: everyone who dies ends up in the same cemetery up the hill, and they can all somehow talk to each other and see things (but they can’t move or haunt or do anything really interesting that ghosts are supposed to be able to do). So they all spend their eternity (or not) gossiping about what’s going on in the town down the hill. But once in a while, one of the dead people in the cemetery, one of the voices, disappears. Don’t waste too much time wondering where they go though. At the very end, the whole punchline of the book seems to be that the dead folks come back to life as bits of nature: a crow or a blade of grass. It’s reincarnation light–no real nod to any of the world’s religious traditions that involve reincarnation. WTF? (granted, there’s no mindless appropriation of the concept of karma, but the punchline is still so stupid and inconsistent with the rest of the story, like the author ended her experience writing the novel by playing a bad joke on us, like she got bored with the project finally and had to wrap up fast to meet her deadline.)

So, anyway, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone, and I regret that I spent a few hours reading the whole damn thing. (I kept reading only because I so rarely finish books for this particular book club, and also I needed to find out what happens to Hannah Marie, and it was disappointing, in the end.)

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