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Monday, March 2, 2015

The Extraordinary Worlds of Alice Hoffman and Nick Arvin


A few days ago, as I was turning the final page on Alice Hoffman’s novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Nick Arvin posted (rather humbly) to his Facebook page that his short story “The Crying Man” had just been awarded this year's Alice Hoffman Prize by Ploughshares.

Alice Hoffman, as final judge for the Ploughshares award, was obviously impressed with Arvin's writing.  She singled his story out from an elite field, as did the final judges (myself, and two others) who selected his novel Articles of War to receive the Colorado Book Award for Best Novel in 2007.
 
How interesting if we could somehow weave a web made of all the synchronistic strands that link judges to winners.  More than luck connects us - some mysterious "call and response" seems to be at work, an invisible silky strand linking this particular story to that particular heart and mind.

Arvin’s work first impressed me when I read Articles of War, his spare and powerfully moving novel about an eighteen-year-old farm boy from Iowa who enlists in the Army during World War II, arriving in Normandy just after D-day. 

Unlike the steel-nerved, real life character in the recent movie blockbuster The American Sniper, Arvin’s young soldier is consumed by fear and ultimately must face what for a soldier with a deep sense of cowardice is a horrifying job—to be a member of the firing squad assigned to kill a fellow soldier committed of treason.

In the novel Articles of War, Arvin takes us back to America of the mid-1940s.  In The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman takes us back more than a century, to New York City’s Coney Island in 1911, and to a young woman raised by the sinister impresario of a museum filled with grotesque and extraordinary things. 
 
Born with webbed fingers, trained to breathe underwater, Coralie lives among these unnatural creatures (and for whom the public pays good money to gawk)—the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, a two-headed fetus—hundreds of exhibits all either natural oddities, or gruesomely manipulated to appear so by the man who raised Coralie.
 
Eventually, Coralie finds herself in a glass fish tank, exhibited to drunken men only an arm’s length away, her father’s patrons leering at her night after night—this pale and sensual creature, falsely portrayed as half mermaid, half girl, floating in illuminated water.  Unlike Arvin’s crying man, her sorrowful tears fall unnoticed.
 
In an interview with Nick Arvin for the blog Eudaemonia after Articles of War was named a book of the year by Esquire magazine, and received several other prestigious awards, Arvin was asked if the book had been optioned for film. 

“It's become almost commonplace to say that recent fiction has been heavily influenced by cinematic techniques,” said Arvin, “and generally cross-pollination between the arts is a good thing, but is there a danger that readers might begin to see a novel, any novel, as merely a kind of half-assed movie? (I think there actually is a danger of this, based on how quick people are to ask me whether my novel will be a movie, and ask this in a way that seems to imply its potential will only be fully realized if it does become a movie.)”

More than once, when reading The Museum of Extraordinary Things, I closed my eyes and imagined the scenes Hoffman was describing - the Wolfman, covered in hair, kissing the beautiful woman whose face had been scarred with acid.  Or young Coralie confiding in a 100-year-old turtle held captive for nearly a century.  I imagined Coralie swimming alone through the cold, dark waters of the Hudson River—a lonely young woman more at home with fish than with humans.  I imagined the young Russian man who visited her in her dreams, his immigrant heart steeled against his own father until he met Coralie.   

All of Alice Hoffman’s books have been optioned for films and  she has written several of the screenplays herself.  Yet I doubt if any serious fan of Alice Hoffman novels wishes the movie "had come out first."

According to Shortlist.com, The American Sniper is the first of eight books to read before they become movies in 2015.  Too late for those of us who have already seen the movie but haven't yet read the book.  I saw The American Sniper  the same week I was reading The Museum of Extraordinary Things. 

Yet it is the world of creatures, both natural and unnatural, rendered vividly by Hoffman, that stays with me in my waking dreams.
Yesterday, swimming in the Pacific Ocean, I felt my body swayed by the current, like the sea turtles riding the waves, imagined the lives of the whales in the waters beyond the reef, and I thought of Coralie.  I felt grateful that the boundaries of my imagination seemed wider than the waters of the Pacific, unbounded by the square-cornered walls and flat screens of even the most luxurious movie theaters. 

Also noteworthy:

WATCH Alice Hoffman talk about the transforming power of the imagination.

Nick Arvin's story "The Crying Man" was recently featured in a dramatic reading by actor Michael McNeill during the Stories on Stage event, Another Fine Mess.) 
ATTEND the upcoming Stories on Stage production, “Son of Very Short Stories,” featuring wildly eclectic flash fiction performed by the Buntport Theater Company Saturday, March l7, Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Denver, and Friday, March 13, at the Chautauqua Community House, Boulder.












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