For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week, Francine Prose, whose “Tribute to Wyatt Prunty” appears in our Fall 2019 issue, examines a passage from A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer.
Full disclosure: Scott Spencer is a friend. He’s also a writer I read for inspiration when I fear that my own work is getting lazy or shallow. In elegant sentences, his complex characters are tossed around by social class, friendship, political loyalties, and the uneasy relationship between instinct and conscience. Meanwhile his engrossing novels keep returning to the eternal but unstylish subject of life-ruining romantic obsession. These men and women are victims, all right, but they’re not victims of each other. They’re not combatants but prisoners of love, to quote the title of the Jean Genet memoir and the James Brown song. The victim’s more often a bystander who gets caught in the crossfire:
He drives behind her, not wanting to risk letting her out of his sight, and feeling the juvenile, slightly demented thrill of looking at the back of her head, her hands on the steering wheel. A Marlowe College sticker is on her rear window. The sight of it ignites a little fizz of pity and tenderness in him—at thirty-three, she’s new to Marlowe’s graduate program, and her fixing that sticker to her car connotes some desire for definition, a will to belong, or so it seems to him.
In the passage above, from A Ship Made of Paper, a man finds himself accidentally or not so accidentally following, in his car, a woman to whom he’s been attracted and whom he has just seen when both were dropping off kids at day care. Her son, his girlfriend’s daughter.
Just a few pages into the novel, the reader thinks, Uh oh. Here we go. Something’s about to begin. Our protagonist knows this and doesn’t. It’s not only psychologically astute, but technically accomplished: Only certain gifted writers can get the superego and the id onto the page, at once. It’s not easy. Try it.