The Year of the Gadfly

A few months ago, I agreed to participate in Jennifer Miller’s attempt to visit 100 Skype book clubs in July promotion. Billed as a thrilling account of prep school mystery, The Year of the Gadfly was postured to be fun, entertaining. The week prior to the event, I collected props inspired by this novel to include: my dragonfly necklace, a multi-media Christmas tree one son made in first grade, my mother in law’s “Happy Hanukkah” banner. My fellow bibliophiles gathered to eat pepperoni pizza on paper plates with kosher Oreo substitute cookies as dessert, we met with Miller, we had a delightful time. The only problem is: I didn’t want to do it.

As I approached the day of the book club, I feel progressively more uncomfortable with the notion of a festive (kick off) of this novel. The bullying, the anti-Semitism, the one, no, two deaths made me want to jump up and down on my party hat. And the terms suicide and festive should never, ever be in the same sentence. I was ready to cancel, but couldn’t. I said I would host, so I hosted. Herein lies Miller’s hook that she embeds in every page of The Year of the Gadfly: a person’s need to belong, to please, to participate in a group will supersede an individual’s moral construct. By allowing my sense of obligation to outrank my inner hesitation, I have proven the author’s point.

By the time the Skype session started, I was bursting. I opened the Q&A session with my demanding question: how do you reconcile the festive nature of this promotion with the darkness of one, maybe two suicides in your novel? Miller’s response, full of clarity and wisdom, was essentially this: people who experience death develop a sense of humor about death. The clanging of glasses and munching on Doritos, was, in her mind, very fitting. How else do you cope?

The Year of the Gadfly fits no one category. Part comedy, part philosophy, filled with teenage discussion points and adult reflective moments, this novel offers breadth and width of material. I am passing it on to my teenage son with a good bit of anticipation. What will he see in Gadfly, and will I have seen it, too?

The Year of the Gadfly

Jennifer Miller

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Paperback:  May 2013

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Sea of Trees

Sea of Trees takes the reader on an emotional hike through Aokigahara, a renowned forest sanctuary where some Japanese retreat to take their lives.  The main journey of this novella involves a Japanese woman, Junko, searching through these woods for remnants of her sister’s final hours.  Author Robert James Russell alternates the streaming point of view of her boyfriend, Bill, with anecdotes of others who have ultimately taken their own lives.

The temptation to read this novella as a commentary on suicide patterns in Japan is very high.  The topic of suicide is almost too potent to set aside, yet there are layers beneath this very grim subject.  Russell explores the disconnect between an observer, a person who lacks emotional or experiential context, and the participant, the person with a direct emotional connection to a particular experience.

This story, strangely enough, reminded me of a lecture I attended given by a Lost Boy of the Sudan.  When asked how he coped psychologically with running from one refugee camp to another while dodging the constant hail of bullets, he gave a response that opposed any perceived rational response from his American audience.  He said, “I didn’t think about it.  The gunfire was always there.  It was normal.”  While I was pondering the long term emotional scars he must bear, this young Sudanese man hadn’t given the experience a second though.  I am like Bill who can never be Japanese or ever feel the searing pain of loss to suicide.  I can research and report what I see, but I cannot connect to the sensations, the pain, the emotion, or the lack thereof.  I am an outsider.  I will never connect to these experiences in the same way that someone who is there, is in that culture, will.

Never have I read a work so balanced, so pleasing, and yet so strange, in its very structure.  At first my inclination was to cite precision editing to this near-perfect alternation of the main story line and the other stories of suicide.  The lush setting of the forest complemented the story line…a little too well.  Then I understood – what I perceived as artificial was the very essence of Japanese culture. My American reverence of individuality, of imbalance made Russell’s exquisite detail of balance in Asian cultures difficult to see.  If for no other purpose, this distilling of Japanese culture and setting is not to be overlooked.

Sea of Trees

Winter Goose Publishing

To be released:  May 21, 2012

Robert James Russell is a founder and fiction editor of Midwestern Gothic, a literary journal “dedicated to featuring work about or inspired by the Midwest, by writers who live or have lived here.”  The very Asian character of Sea of Trees begged the question:  why not Midwestern Gothic?  Russell’s very thoughtful response was this, “ You can either write a story explicitly set in the region of your choosing, or you can take the deeper, more engrained parts of that place, the things that make up the uniqueness of each region and the people in it, and apply it to a story. For Sea of Trees—and, in fact, for a lot of my writing—this is the approach I take. I use all the elements of growing up in Michigan, all the Midwestern values and strengths and weaknesses I have, and apply them to people/settings that may not have specific Midwest connections.”