Book Review: How To Hold A Woman
How to Hold a Woman, written by Billy Lombardo and published by Other Voices Books, is a novel-in-short-stories told from the points-of-view of the Taylor family. After one horrible, life-defining tragedy, Alan and Audrey Taylor find themselves drifting from each other, all while their children grow to accept the dysfunction of their lives, remembering only faint glimmers of the pain that made them, as the family musters all its strength in order to keep whole.
Who doesn’t love a novel-in-short-stories? I think it’s the quintessential symbol of literary fiction in modern publishing. A novel or a collection of short stories in/and/of themselves have been commandeered by genre and literary fiction alike, so for someone trying to introduce themselves into the literary fold without immediately attaching themselves to the classics, it can be hard to parse the quote-unquote literature from everything else. First and foremost, while I identify myself as a person who writes literature, I think the distinction between the two is a matter of elitism. Why can’t sci-fi be literary? Or horror? Or detective stories? Defining literary fiction can be difficult, but it basically boils down to the idea of character over plot. In literary fiction, plot can be sparse, so long as each piece is a deep analysis of character and how those characters behave in their imposed circumstances. That’s why novel-in-short-stories is almost exclusively pinned to literary fiction—because of its extreme disconnect with an overall plot, while still maintaining publishable quality. So why can’t genre fiction have that same qualities? It can—it just usually doesn’t, and thus the elitism is born. In truth, I think all fiction and nonfiction ought to be literary—I think the distinction should fade, because at the end of the day, while using the term literary may make the author or its publisher sound pretentious, it does identify a quality of work that hovers above the sub-standard, plot-oriented narratives of genre that tend to ignore character—the James Patterson's of the world who want to, “put the reader in the character's shoes,” so to speak. Of course, the only way that literature, as it's called, can be more pretentious is by continuing to make the distinction between the two even when one book or story maintains a quality of strong character and plot within confines of the genre—that's what writers have universally termed as cross-genre, which in my opinion automatically becomes more elite than the word literary itself because it inherently states that genre, as is, can't maintain the “literary” quality. I blame academia for this, though more and more, graduate programs are advertising teachings in writing “popular” fiction, so who really knows what tomorrow's literary will be? Unpopular opinion time: Who cares? When a story is good, a story is good, period.
Thus, we arrive at Billy Lombardo’s first book and the how the question of literary comes into context. I say that, because this book has pretty weak characters. Its central protagonists, Audrey and Alan, are the kind of characters that are easy to hate, but not the kind of characters that you like to hate. It almost reads as if Lombardo wants you to like these two characters, but you simply don’t—they’re wealthy enough to live in one of Chicago’s most expensive neighborhoods, they don’t really worry about money or struggle, they just dote over each other constantly despite their growing discontent for each other. At any given moment, they’ll switch careers on a whim and you have to wonder what kind of money they fell into or how they found it, though there’s no explanation. They simply have the cash to fuck around needlessly, though they spend their time lamenting the loss of each other and their unwillingness to get back together. It’s tiring, really. In fact, following their crappy relationship is damn near exhausting due to the measure of their ineptitude. But they’re not the kind of characters that you like to hate—Lombardo goes through great lengths in attempt to make the characters easy to relate to, expending page count in slipping into their pasts and moments of first-world-rebellion so much that I almost mistook it for a satire before realizing how serious he meant for them to seem, forcing us to relive the tragedy of their loss over-and-over amid their endless entitlement. They are characters that you don’t want to hate—you just simply do.
In addition to being well-developed assholes, Audrey and Alan are a pair of sparse described people. I get a sense for what their fashion taste is (horrible), but I have no idea what either character looks like. He describes them in minimal, poetic segments in reference to their own ego. We don’t really get a strong physical description of either them or their children though—in fact, the most described character in the whole book is some half-retarded brute that Audrey shares a bus ride with once. His descriptions are so infinitesimal that apartments, homes, etc. in their obscurity only serve to hide how douchey the Taylor family actually is. It’s like he’s putting a blanket over the furnishings so we can’t see that they’re even worse people than we already think they are. I found it best to imagine ipod docks and flat screen TVs, even though this novel is told primarily just after the turn of the century. They just seem like the kind of people that have a lot of shit like that because. If, for any reason, we’re poised on the precipice of an actual realization of how shitty this couple is, Lombardo falls back into a flashback crisis-tragedy again anyway, so it doesn’t even matter if they sleep on beds stuffed with hundred dollar bills. Apparently, all he wants to actually show is their excuses for being unhappy.
They’re not the only two lousy characters in the book—early on, one of their children dies. It isn’t clear exactly what happened to her until the end of the book—we only know that one minute, the kid is there and everyone is so happy they’re crying and then, in the next minute, everyone is so sad they’re crying. However, the loss of that child felt weak. Though this tragedy continues to affect these two assholes for the rest of the book, the child itself is only a caricature of a child, trying their best to reach out to their emotionally distant father (he takes trips to study wildlife, gee whiz) by miming his interests back to him. That child’s death, even after the recitation of literature that I actually liked, struck me as being another excuse for these melodramatic people to be more melodramatic. I wish, for just a second, that I could have liked the kid, that I could have felt pain for its loss, but in truth, I only felt like Lombardo contrived their intangible, sentimental bond as some flimsy plot device to begin the miserable futures of these miserable characters.
However, despite all of this, there is some good qualities to this narrative. Lombardo is a poetic writer indeed, each sentence moving with beautiful prose that soaks you to the bone. However, it doesn’t read stiffly, and when he shifts to first-person point-of-view, the voice changes with the shift fluidly and reads as the character would write it. The combination of the beautiful writing and the controlled shifts makes this a fun read, just to follow his similes, metaphors, and careful craft in wording. You can hate the characters as much as you want, but you can’t hate the prose—it reads like a poet wrote it, so it’s no surprise that Lombardo earned his chops in poetry slams at the Green Mill.
Speaking of the Green Mill, I am wont to call this a Chicago book, only because of the sparse description. While he doesn’t describe the people or the homes these characters live in, he does give you accurate street names and locations. To that extent, as a denizen of those streets myself, I could conjure the sights and smells myself in order to evoke a sense of place that’s been excluded from this story, though for anyone not living in Chicago, they may just easily imagine a suburb or even a rural town instead of the high-rising sprawl that is Chicago. By denoting actual places, a Chicago reader could easily fill in the blanks that Lombardo leaves, though that benefit is for Chicagoans alone. Of course, plenty of great novels are Chicago novels, and hey—who doesn’t want to be associated with the greatest city in the world? Of course, that might just be my bias.
While Lombardo’s poetic prose is very tantalizing, he truly hits his stride when he steps out of it, into the point-of-view of Alan and Audrey’s children. You know Alan and Audrey are assholes and that’s fine, but their children are only just children of assholes. To that extent, they’re actually engaging as they watch the dissemination of their family at their parents hands. The only time I felt anything throughout my reading of this was near the end, when their son recalls how the tragedy affected him and summarizes how it ended their family—I nearly cried at that moment because of his point-of-view alone, after having spent the rest of the novel feeling nothing but disgust for everyone else. His use of metaphor from a child’s perspective, denoting things that child innocently doesn’t even know are metaphor, is so finely crafted that you can’t help but fall in love with the naivete of these sheltered kids as they come to terms with their own suffering. He does so without misleading the audience by going into that inept, child-talk voice that so many other writers succumb to—the child is coherent and intelligent enough to express himself,speaking clearly and resolutely without falling back on the dialect of some cliched farce.
So here’s the skinny—this book is as good as it is bad. Because of its layout and characters and despite its flaws, I’d still call it literature. After all, literature may be a mark of quality to some readers, but because of our definitions for literature, it has become a genre. And just like with any genre, there’s some good and some bad and you just have to live with it. Abolish cross-genre and just write whatever the fuck you want to. Back to Lombardo, I have no .5 star on this blog, so I’ll be honest with you: I’m giving an extra .5 of a star because Lombardo acknowledges so many writers that I actually admire at the end of the book. I wouldn’t recommend it though.
The Riahi Rating:
About the publisher:
Other Voices Books, or OV books, is a local Chicago publisher. They’re headed off by Gina Frangello, author of Slut Lullabies, and they’ve got a staff that I can’t help but respect. I’m talkin’ to you, Leah Tallon. Right now, they’re not currently accepting submissions, but when they do, I suggest you get in on it. How to Hold a Woman is one good looking book, with strong use of chapter headers and a lovely, matte cover that’s both comfortable on the fingers and pretty to look at. Do give them your due consideration.