I’ve been a fan of Alix Ohlin’s work since 2009, when I read a story she’d written called “Only Child” that appeared in Ploughshares. I’ve since read a good deal of what she’s published, including her first short story collection, Babylon and Other Stories; her first novel, The Missing Person; and I’ve now read her latest novel, Inside. She also has a new short story collection called, Signs and Wonders. I’ve read a few stories in the new collection, but have yet to buy it. I’ve enjoyed all her work, and I think she has a particular talent for writing short stories. What I like about her writing is the prose – it’s both lucid and florid – and her plot structures. She tends to use fairly traditional plots (not a lot of experimental writing) but she does like to jump around in time, often abruptly. I dig it.
I just finished her new novel, Inside, and it is very good. The story is centered on four characters: Grace, Anne (aka Annie), Mitch, and Tug. It follows them over a 12-year period, from 1994 – 2006. A theme that runs throughout a lot of Ohlin’s story telling is people trying to connect, often romantically, but not always. Of course, since Ohlin writes literary fiction her characters don’t typically achieve the connection they want. (I can hear my mother – “Why are all the stories you read so sad? What’s wrong with happy endings?”). Inside definitely covers that “connection” territory, but it is primarily focused on what Ohlin says is, “What it means to be a good Samaritan. What drives us to try and help another person. And what the emotional complications of that are.” Each of the four characters try to help someone (or more than one person), and in each case the helper is hurt by the effort. Again, my mother: “Why so sad?”
One of my favorite chapters is focused on Anne, a sexy actress, who moves from Manhattan to Hollywood to join the cast of a TV sitcom. It’s a riot! I had a feeling that Ohlin really enjoyed writing it, and I suspect that was her easiest chapter to crank out. But that’s just a guess.
In another chapter, Tug recounts his efforts as a relief worker in Rwanda. Before reading Inside I had just finished Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, and the Tug/Rwanda chapter reminded me of the scene in “Wind-Up” where an older man recounts his role in WWII and tells a story about a man being skinned alive. But I suspect I’m the only person in the world who would make that connection!
So, I was planning to write my blog entry on Inside last week. I did a Google news search of “Alix Ohlin” and discovered an extremely negative review of the book that ran in The New York Times. There was another article in The Wall Street Journal that said that review had fomented something of a firestorm on Twitter. Despite the fact that I work in Silicon Valley and I’ve written more than a few speeches for tech execs on the wonders of social media, I had never used Twitter before (don’t tell anyone). So, I got an account, read a few tweets and links to blogs/articles that all discussed whether the tone of the review was appropriate or not. Interesting stuff. I’ll leave it to others to come to their own conclusions on the review’s tone and approach. But, most of those articles and blogs that expressed offense to the review would include a line or two that went something like this: “I haven’t read Inside, and I’m not familiar with Ohlin’s work, so I can’t really comment on whether it was accurate or not…” Well, to me that was the problem with the review: its conclusion was wrong. Inside is a good book. Alix Ohlin is a very good writer. She clearly gives a lot of thought to the prose she uses, and carefully thinks out her plots. We’re all welcome to our opinions, and that’s mine.