Sunday, July 31, 2011






This is the second of Sandra Ruttan’s novels I’ve read—the first being Lullaby for the Nameless--and I’m firmly hooked. It took two novels to determine the effect of Ruttan’s work on me—I’d compare the process to first discovering jazz and through both a gradual immersion in the music itself and learning how and why the emotion is influenced by the technical elements, Miles Davis becomes an artist in the listener’s mind. The same thing happened here. I wasn’t born appreciating Miles Davis, but in time I became one of his biggest fans. The same thing is happening here with me and Ruttan.

After reading Lullaby for the Nameless, I wanted to write a review, but I wasn’t ready. Her work—at least for me—can’t be approached and dissected like most novels—there’s a complexity in her work that takes time to understand (at least for me). When I tried to marshal my thought processes to pen an opinion, I kept coming up with the same, vaguely incoherent impressions. I felt like I was channeling my inner Harold Bloom. The overall impression when I finished Lullaby was that this was a work that had the feel of the Impressionists—you know, daubs of paint that once applied, the artist never touched it again or blended it. Little islands of words that somehow made a picture. The other overriding impression was that her writing was Jungian in conception—Jung’s “nightdreams” (not nightmares, although they could be) as opposed to the daydream of most novels. The Jungian approach to writing is of a higher order than the more language-based approach of the day dream.

Carl Jung believed that language imposed a barrier to the true understanding of the individual, because language consists of symbols and those symbols are a layer between the person and anyone trying to communicate with that person. The intellectuals and psychologists will probably shudder at my feeble layman’s understanding of his theories, but they’re all I have to operate with so I hope I’ll be forgiven for any liberties with his teachings here.

My understanding is that Jung felt that because of the artificial nature of words and language as symbols, that a truer understanding of a person’s psyche lay in coming to an understanding of that person’s dreams at night where those symbols aren’t present. For dreams are the manifestation of the true mind of the person without the barrier language poses. Examples in literature are novels such as John Hawkes’ The Lime Twig, which literary types are perhaps loathe to term a crime novel, but indeed, it is.

The daydream, is the more usual of novel constructions. The protagonist’s motives and goals are usually based on a simple emotion, most commonly revenge for something that happened in the past. A common example is the plot where the skinny kid goes to the beach to see a girl he’s hot for, bullies see him and depant him or otherwise humiliate him; he goes home and purchases a Charles Atlas course or learns kung fu, goes back and kicks the bully’s asses, wins the babe. Perfect for Hollywood. Perfect for a light summer read at the beach.

I realize I’m attributing things to Ruttan’s novel that may be overboard, but I’m just trying to describe my impressions as best I can. I think the reasons I felt this way were twofold. One, while her character’s dialog was pitch-perfect, the lack of tags many times confused me as to who was saying what until I backtracked. Second, many of the space breaks were “lost” when the text moved to the top or the bottom of the page, and I’d turn the page and was suddenly cast into a different pov or time period without the benefit of a signal to inform me that was what had happened. A number of these incidents led to an overall sense of being a step behind the plot much of the time. Finally, I decided to just read on and not worry about who said what or where we were in the chronology. And, I’m glad I did. Like the Jungian shrink listening to the patient on his couch, the more I read, the clearer it became. It also became clear that this was a writer writing intelligently; for intelligent readers. A writer with more of a European writer’s and reader’s sensibility, where the reader’s ability to “get it” is perhaps more of a given than for American writers. A writer who out-minimalizes Ray Carver.

I began to come to that awareness of Ruttan’s work with Lullaby; it was fully realized with Suspicious Circumstances. I just had to learn how to read her. Just the same as I had to learn to appreciate jazz.

I won’t give you the plot points and all that of either novel. Others have done a better job at providing that information in their reviews. What I offer for your consideration is my opinion that any reader who enjoys encountering an intelligent author between the pages will appreciate Sandra Ruttan. She’s the sort of writer that one wishes one could spend a lazy afternoon in a bar talking with. It will be an interesting and educational experience.

One thing more. I coach a few writers on their novels, and one of my clients is a terrific writer named Maegan Beaumont. Last week, Meagan emailed me about a concern she had with the novel she’s currently writing. Here’s what she asked:

Hi Les,
I have a question, hopefully you can help me out...

In my romance development between Sabrina and Michael I'm caught in the age-old dilemma... sex scene or no sex scene. I kinda feel like it's like the torcher scene between the killer and Lucy. I went half-way and it was okay but when I finally "went there" it really challenged me as a writer and really set the tone for the whole book. I have a feeling that this is same thing. I'm not squeamish about writing that sort of stuff but I really want to stay away from that "heaving bosom" and "throbbing member" crap... really not my thing. So a few suggestions... your humble opinion... a stern directive would be greatly appreciated :)

Also... I had always planned a romance between S&M (so glad you agree!) but I tried the sappy sweet "happily ever after" and it just didn't work for me. What I'm thinking is that they fall in love but can't be together because of the device in his back and he's forced back into service for FSS. It really plays with the second novel I'm planning and maybe by that time I can work through my happy-ending phobia. Let me know what you think... and thanks :)


To which I answered:

Hi Maegan,

Short answer is you don't have to have one of those sweaty sex scenes at all. You don't even have to have a sex scene at all. If you want one, fine, if you don't, that's fine also. And, if you do, you can create it any way you feel comfortable with and in the best way you feel it serves the story. Myself (and I'm like lots of readers, I think), whenever I encounter them, usually I just skip over 'em. Most are boring. It's virtually impossible to write a truly original or creative one any longer. Just don't feel you have to have one to "sell" your book. Not true at all. They're not obligatory in the least.

Hope that helps!

I followed that email up with this one:

Hi Maegan,

Here's something you might want to look at to see how a successful author writes a terrific novel where all through it there are obvious fireworks between two characters and never once do they do the nasty and yet it works as a powerful romance without them sweating and moaning in some Lady Chatterly sex scene. Check out Sandra Ruttan's Suspicious Circumstances. Seeing how this wonderful writer opted to answer for herself your very question and not include what some feel to be that obligatory sex scene will be illuminating, I think.

Blue skies,

One of my litmus tests as to whether I feel a book is original and represents excellent writing is if I can use it in informing my writing students and clients. Only the best books reach that threshold. Ruttan’s does just that.

Hope this helps and hope you’ll check out Sandra Ruttan. She’s the real deal.

Blue skies,

Suspicious Circumstances 


Maegan Beaumont said...

Hi Les,

I've downloaded Sandra Ruttan's "Suspicious Circumstances" and have moved it to the front of my cue (I have a long list of books, waiting to be read). My first instinct was to leave my characters feelings for each other undeveloped but I (like most first-time writers, I'm sure) felt that I had to "go there" with all that romance stuff. I have to tell you, after reading your review Of Ruttan’s work, I'm almost relieved that I don't have to, that I can write a romance without writing a… well, romance. Thanks as always for the great advice. If publication is in my future, I'll know who to thank (You!)


Les Edgerton said...

You'll love her novel, Maegan. It's also instructive to see how she weaves the various povs.

And... IF publication is in your future? There's no doubt in my mind on that score...

Sarah Faurote said...

Wow - this was a "meaty" blog. I love any blog that brings up Harold Bloom. I have to check out this Sandra Ruttan. You've mentioned her before, but never with such fervor or articulation. Wonderful. As always, when I need to feel words and thoughts, I turn to your blog. Peace brother-

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Sarah. I'm a huge fan of Bloom's work. Him and Marshall McLuhan are names that if they pop up, I'm always going to read the article.

Get Ruttan's novels. They're terrific.

D.C.Gallin said...

@ Magan There are sex scenes with lots of graphic detail (yawn) and erotic scenes that can be evocative and as convincing as the rest of the narrative. The problem is that most sexual words or descriptions double as swear words in English so it easily sounds coarse and vulgar. Ultimately I think we need to treat sex scenes like all other scenes in a novel: is it crucial to the story line?
If it is have fun! Just like in real life...