Sunday, February 12, 2012

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
By Elizabeth Smart

I thought I was the local Canadian Literature know-it-all. Turns out, someone has been holding out on me. I visited a South African friend a few weeks back to deliver a couple of books from our growing library in town. I had put the books aside because I knew he would enjoy them and later decided to pay a personal visit one afternoon when I had a little extra time. I always like hanging out talking books with him, so it seemed like a nice afternoon distraction for me.

As we were sitting around, enjoying a beer on a rare sunny day in winter he suddenly gets up, runs over to his bookshelf and pulls down a copy of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

"Have you read this?"

"I've never even heard of it."

"It's by a woman from Canada."

"The hell you say." I snatch the book from his hands.

I'm incredulous. My friend's notion of Canadian literature was Margaret Atwood (to be fair, before I met him, my notion of South African literature was nil). He's notsupposed to have some sort of inside scoop to all things maple! How did this come to pass? No explanation is forthcoming, but I am informed that By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a classic in the genre of poetic prose. And there it is in black and white on the inside cover of the book. Elizabeth Smart: born in Ottawa, Ontario. I'm nonplussed.

"I'll take it! Any good?"

"It's poetic prose."

Oh boy. I can't say no now because he's offering a book (a precious commodity in small town Asia) but more importantly he's offering me a Canadian book and I do love me some obscurity. But poetic prose? I've had some bad luck (read: trouble understanding) with highly metaphorical novels in the past. Dare I go all in and read actual poetic prose?

Ah hell, why not.

Turns out it's not so bad. Sure there were points in the novel where I had to remind myself that I was reading serious literature and should really concentrate and take it seriously. Often I would lapse and read the work in the voice of Jim Morrison. It did sound similar in many places. Lts of Apollonian imagery and there were deserts and snakes and such. Very American Prayer. I'm not going to pretend I'm an expert on poetic prose, poetry or anything like that. I'm not. But I know what I like and I think I liked this. Here's what I gathered after a first reading...

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a short work, clocking in at just over 100 pages and divided into 10 parts.  As far as I could tell the novel focuses itself on the often dark and destructive thoughts of a woman in love with a married (and possibly homosexual) man. An affair takes place and, after much heartache, the man returns to his wife leaving our protagonist alone to pick up the pieces. The entirety reads like a febrile dream, a protagonist simultaneously in the throes of extacy and agony for her lover. She is indecisive as you what to do, where to go as she deals with the complex emotions of love, hate and loss. Over the course of the novel no less than three lives seem to be ruined by the consequences of their actions (though one more than the others). One gets the impression that the unnamed female protagonist writes these ten histrionic rants as an act of phyrric revenge.

The voice is urgent and desperate in points and Smart plays with the language like a deft craftsman plying her trade. She is about to conjur the rawest of raw emotions and set them to paper with an intensity that burns deep into the human psyche. Only poets have that ability. Novelists tend to get lost in the pretensions of story, plot, theme and character to really slice for the emotional jugular. Poets, set free from such shackles, take us into places we are often too afraid to go. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is that sort of work.

My favorite episode of the novel is an interrogation between the protagonist and the Arizona border police where she bears her soul to the authorities. At first the police seem to be eager to interrogate her about her illicit fornication but her passion and zeal are so bright tht even the authorities shrink from them. Eventually the policeman admits: "I have no authority."


Anyway, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept defies any sort of real review. And if it is possible, I'm not equipped to do so. So let me say this: It's short. Short enough for an attempt. You are going to love it, hate it or furrow your brow trying to decide. Regardless, you will be forced to come face to face with pure human emotional extract and that's a rarity in literature.


Rebecca said...

Can't wait to furrow my brow. Hope I can find a copy!

Ryan said...

Yeah. From what I gather it's not an asy book to find. Good luck with the search, I'll keep a lookout for a review.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

Awesome review Ryan! I love the cover to this book! I left a challenge for you on the comment you left me this morning ;)

Buried In Print said...

I re-read this in a February a couple of years ago and found it just as puzzling and beautiful as I did the first time (I only remember the month because I read it as part of a banned books event, as it was banned in Canada for a time). Her journals and autobiography are pretty interesting, too, although perhaps not to every reader's taste...

Ryan said...

Interesting. I was totally unaware that this book had been banned.

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