Amy Krouse Rosenthal,
Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal
(Dutton, 2015)

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal is subtitled not exactly a memoir, and that tagline is absolutely accurate. This book is not a memoir, nor in any way a linear telling of a meaningful story. Organized into chapters with such titles as Social Studies, Music, Language Arts and so on, it is a series of riffs, written in very different styles and patterns from each other. It is designed to either shed a new and different light or to show exactly how clever the author is. The music chapter, for example, is a single sentence -- "The music is not in the notes" -- followed by eight blank pages.

The book is promoted as something brand new, and I suppose to many readers it will be, but if you have done any kind of study of British and American literature, you'll know this avant-gardist approach goes at least back to Tristram Shandy, Lawrence Sterne's 18th-century British novel. The idea of the author speaking directly to his audience, commenting on and clarifying his narrative, can be found in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones.

We don't have to go that far back, however. In the 1970s, American writers such as Ron Sukenick, Steve Katz, Raymond Federman, Jonathan Baumbach, Jerome Klinkowitz and Susan Rubin Suleiman pioneered a new genre they called surfiction.

Surfiction assumed that readers had gotten too sophisticated to fully buy into realistic fiction anymore. We were all aware that an author was making it up and trying to hide himself, the movement suggested, so it would be freeing for both the artist and the audience if we dropped the pretense. As the author became a part of the story, techniques and approaches to the novelist's materials changed.

Surfiction had its day and retreated. It looks like Amy Krouse Rosenthal is out to bring it back.

There's a great deal of white space in her book. In many chapters, we find print on the right hand pages only, while others have single-sentence pages. There are chapters made up of poems and others that contain flash fiction. Turn the page and you don't know what you're going to get.

If you like experimental and go for heavy amounts of invention, this is your book. If you're into the more conventional approaches, though, you're going to be confused.

Oh, and my experience was that the texting function the author worked into the book doesn't work right.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

1 October 2016

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