I suppose we are all familiar with the law of Chekhov’s gun, right? That is the fiction equivalent of the law of gravity or the first law thermodynamics – it is the storytelling law first formulated by the Russian writer Anton Chekov that states that if a gun is introduced in the first act, it shall surely be fired in the third.
Now what if a story not only has a gun in its first few chapters, but is actually called Gun Love? What kind of mechanics does that put in motion? What kind of narrative law does that foreshadow?
Well, in the first place, you expect some kind of horrible massacre. You expect the O.K. Corral, or the Alamo. Or, less heroically, you expect Columbine or Parkland. You’ll get neither of those with Gun Love, but don’t get me going. This book will break your heart in more ways than one.
Secondly, you would aspect a book called Gun Love will have something to say about the current state of the US. Because, as we all know, the presence of guns is one of those almost weirdly unique facts of every day American life.
We here in Europe read American novels, watch American tv-shows, go to see American movies in our theatre. Many of us will watch American late night shows. We can all name one perhaps two American judges on the Surpeme court but probably can’t name a single judge on our own Hogeraad. We read American newspapers and magazines and feel so connected to American culture that quite often we don’t realise how different that country is.
But the best way to mark the difference is to mention guns. Just mention the 2nd amendment, the right to bear arms. It is the one thing no one in The Netherlands can relate to.
Few guns in Dutch life
I was thinking about guns in Dutch literature and I could think only of a couple. There are very few guns in Dutch books, as there are very few guns in Dutch life. In Doeschka Meijsings ‘On Love’ or ‘Over de liefde’, the narrator gets a gun and can’t stop obsessing about it – not so much that now all of a sudden there is a gun in her life, but because she has gotten a gun, she created the opportunity of a gun going off in her life. The gun, if anything, is kind of life sentence. She feels her fate is sealed.
And the prominent Dutch essayist Henk Hofland once wrote his ‘Shooting memoires’. To be a true god, a god should have a remote control, Hofland wrote. To be a proper god, one needs to be able to make things happen at a distance. Thor from the Viking myths had his lightning rods; now modern man has a gun, a remote controlling life and death. But mankind isn’t godly, so for Hofland, every gun had an element of hubris.
Hubris and fate – those are themes that run through gun love as well.
Actually, to come back to Chekhov – Chekhov’s law about the gun is a bit more difficult than just that. He wasn’t speaking about guns in the specific. What he was talking about, was that if there is a rifle on the wall in the first act – it has to be fired sometime in the play. If it is not fired or used in any way, it should not be on the wall at all.
To a certain extent, Chekhov was arguing that prose should have a little austerity in details. Only the strictly necessary should be allowed on page.
Gun Love was published in the US last year, and the Dutch translation – Wapenliefde – shortly before Christmas. It is not as austere as Chekhov was talking about, but it is a book that runs smoothly; it knows what story it wants to tell and it does not get distracted.
About Gun Love
Gun Love – wapenliefde – runs at about 250 pages.
For me this is a first. Over the past couple years the John Adams Institute has asked me to do a couple of these events and all were on books that easily ran five to six hunderd pages. I’m a little afraid that Tracy and Maarten assume I have no social life whatsoever, and can pretty much phone me at any giving time, bike past my house, throw a book the size of a brick through my window and yell ‘Read this!’
So 250 pages seems like a very moderate size book. For once.
But here is the catch. How should I put it? Gun Love doesn’t feel anything like feel like 250 pages.
It feels like less: because the prose is fluid, runs gracefully, it filled with lively dialogue and pretty much every pages contains wonderfully poetic metaphors. It’s elegant and stylish all the way through, no matter how sad the story gets. You’ll finish the book in two evenings.
The world Jennifer Clement puts on paper is completely realistic, believable and even relatable, and yet at the same time it doesn’t read like realism at all. She created her own world, poetic and vivid and filled with extraordinary images.
And yet, at the same time, Gun Love feels so much larger that those 250 pages. It starts out tiny, with two women living in a car, a Mercury Topaz from 1994, but by the end of the novel you feel you’ve finished that is about so much more than that. The canvas of Gun Love gets larger and larger with every chapter.
The girl’s name is Pearl, she’s fourteen years old. She the narrator. Her mom is Margot. First line of the book: ‘My mom was like a cup of sugar. You could always borrow her.’
The problem of course with cups of sugar is that they are borrowed, but never returned. Margot grew up in an affluent family, got pregnant, ran away, had a baby, parked her car on the edge of a trailer park, promised to get her life in order but fourteen years later still finds herself living in that car, on the edge of that trailer park in Florida.
‘Families are always rising and falling in America’, Nathaniel Hawthorne once famously said. has said. Well, Jennifer Clement has found new ways to show how far one can fall.
First the trailer park Pearl lives in is filled with religion – eventually, there will be more churches than schools in America, Pearl thinks. Then the guns start appearing. First a few, than many, whole trailers get filled with guns, people show up buying them. Pearl’s mom starts dating a man Eli, who gives her a gun. Not a ring, but a gun. Now I was brought up with Beyonce’s If you like it than you should have put a gun on it. But in Jennifer Clements world, you don’t put a ring on it, but a gun. Because, as one character says, if a man gives you a gun, that means he trusts you 100 per cent. Wow. Margot gets her gun and I suppose this is the part where we can’t deny Chekhov’s law any longer.
I’m not going to be spoiling anything.
The book expands, leaves the trailer park in Florida, travels throughout the states, and shows how difficult it is to get away from weapons.
Gun Love is a formidable book, from a formidable writer. I should point out it is by no means her first book. She published four books of poetry, wrote the novels A True Story based On Lies, The Poison That Fascinates and Prayers For the Stolen – that last one received quite handful of awards and was translated into many languages, also in Dutch, also published by De Bezige Bij. She has published a very vivid and fascinating memoir called Widow Basquiat, about the muse of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the art world of New York in the early 1980’s.
Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to Jennifer Clement.