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We all have comfort reads, or at least seek out certain types of books, especially to fit certain moods. But some of my most rewarding reading experiences have come from allowing a willingness to see what happens, then realizing that I've imprinted connections onto what I thought was a blank slate.

That's what happened reading Paul Theroux's story "Action" in the Aug. 4 issue of The New Yorker (available here online). First, I had to set aside reservations about the author. And I'll get into that later. But first, the story.

The protagonist, teenage Albert, is a blank slate. His widower father is raising him and keeps him close by. Albert hasn't experienced much. He spends long, dreary afternoons and weekends at his father's shoe shop, counting inventory while the old man naps. Albert's father, he reports, is "a suspicious man" who even sniffs Albert's head like a melon in case anything like cigarette smoke or a girl's perfume has clung to that innocent boy.

About the only times Albert gets out are school and doing the occasional errand for his father. He's often sent to go through Boston to a warehouse to pick up a single pair of shoes. One day, he ran into a neighborhood friend out and about, a slightly older, slightly bad boy with an even older girlfriend. Albert remembers where that young woman lived and finds her at home, ironing in her one-room apartment.

Albert is explicit about what a blank slate he is -- he has no experience, he is waiting for his life to begin. The woman, Paige, helps him turn a page in that he realizes what he thought about her doesn't match what he sees in her house. His friend bragged about how fast she was, but the bed in her neat one-room apartment has a stuffed animal on it and there is a Bible next to her bed. But then she gets a male visitor who isn't happy to see him. So again, Albert doesn't know how to imprint the slate that is his idea of Paige.

He arrives back home without the shoes his father sent him to fetch, changed internally but not as much externally as he thought he might be. When his father sniffs his head, Albert knows his father knows.

And that's the end. We're not told what his father does next. But I have decided his father is saddened and resigned. The gesture feels more like a benediction than a condemnation of his son.

I realized my interpretation of the ending has as much to do with what I brought to the story as with what the story tells me. The story tells me explicitly that Albert's father has been over-protective of him since Mom died when Albert was 10. The story also tells me right out that Albert learned something about his father on this errand and learns there may be more to the blank, dull slate he thought was his father. A woman at the shoe place says to tell his father hi from her. How do they know each other?

What I see is that Albert's father may have wanted to save Albert from making a mistake he may have made. Or may have wanted to keep his son innocent for as long as possible and realizes in that final gesture of the story that the time he could control that has passed.

And this relates directly to the connections I made as a reader to my own life. I'm one of the fortunate people in this world in that it doesn't matter what stupid thing I do; my family loves me. If we have to work together to make it right, we will, even if we don't like to hash it out in long conversations that poke and prod in all the corners.

I know not all families are like this and I know not all characters in stories behave this way. But this time, those things clicked together.

In an interesting wrinkle, I did not expect something like that to happen in a Paul Theroux story. He's not a writer I've warmed to over the years. This is the first I've read of his work since realizing he went after his ex-wife and his mentor V.S. Naipaul in print decades ago. Theroux went right to the top of the list of authors whose personal and published lives overcame my ability to read his work as a blank slate.

This goes to the endless debate about author's personal life mattering. Hemingway is one classic example (although, really, wasn't he as conflicted about himself as anyone else was about him?). A more recent example is even more drastic. Apparently Marion Zimmer Bradley abused her child and assisted her husband in abusing that child. Can The Mists of Avalon or Darkover ever be the same again? Should they be?

What one infers in a story or imprints on its blank slate depends on how one approaches it. Is this a writer you admire? How much? Enough to defend him regardless of what he may have done? How readily do you even believe the bad thing about that writer, regardless of the level of proof?

We cannot escape who we are when we read. We put ourselves, our experiences and our feelings into a story when we are open as readers. This means there may easily be more than one interpretation of what happens in a story and what its aftermath will be. However, this does not mean there is the false equivalency of every interpretation being equally as valid. The interpretation must be backed up by the reader with what is found in the text. We are entitled to our conclusions but our inferences must be grounded in what is actually there.

The same can be said for what we feel about an author before being willing to approach his work and imprint ourselves on that work to see how we respond to it. Sometimes, the slate isn't blank, which can make our response less clear. So when a distinct response shows up on a slate that wasn't blank, it's a reminder to me as a reader that only seeking out comfort reads means the chance of missing out on rewarding reads.

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DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
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TUE - alternate weeks 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
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Tue 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left Kit RMP, bigjacbigjacbigjac
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
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THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
alternate Fridays 8:00 PM Books Go Boom! Brecht
SAT 12:00 PM You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews pwoodford
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Aug 26, 2014 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


Should what you know about a writer ever affect reading her work?

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