28 December 2012

Books: Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski (2007)

I knew about Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork when it was released back in 2007. But like a lot of fiction that passed through my hands when sorting through the hundreds of boxes while working for Borders, it did not strike then as something I might read. And sadly, like hundreds of other books that get released and ignored by 99.9% of the population, it may have never sold more than a handful  of copies –well, beyond students of anthropology anyways.

But fate would intervene in Fieldwork's life of going from hardcover (probably never to see the light in paperback) to the remainder bin. In the April 15th 2007 issue of Entertainment Weekly, author Stephen King praised the book and criticized the author’s publishers -Farrar, Straus & Giroux- for their handling of the release: “Why, why, why would a company publish a book this good and then practically demand that people not read it? Why should this book go to waste? Is it because there are people in publishing who believe that readers who liked The Memory Keeper's Daughter are too dumb to enjoy a killer novel like Fieldwork? If so, shame on them for their elitism.” He went on to write about the novel's complexity, its "narrative voice full of humor and sadness," and suspense. It was, in some mind, a scathing attack on its publisher for its poor marketing choices (mainly the look of the hardcover version, which King claimed was dull. When Berlinski won the Whiting Award, he had great "luck" because "the most famous writer in the world, picked up my book because he didn't like the cover"). King went on to lament "As of March 26 (2007), Fieldwork was No. 24,571 on the Amazon best-seller list, and not apt to go much higher. The reason why is illustrative of how the book biz became the invalid of the entertainment industry, and why fiction sales are down across the board (with the possible exception of chick lit). Critics, with their stubborn insistence that there's a difference between ''literature'' and ''popular fiction,'' are part of the problem, but the publishers themselves, who have bought into this elitist twaddle, are also to blame."

Fast forward to 2012 and I’m strolling through Iliad’s Used Bookstore in North Hollywood a month or so ago and saw Fieldwork on the $2 shelf. I grabbed it quickly, remembering that old King article back then. Now finished with it, I can say I’m glad I read it, but I can also say that I understand how the publishers might have felt back 2006 when they bought the manuscript, as its more than the sum of its parts.

The novel is set in Thailand, and is told from the point of view of a fictional narrator named Mischa Berlinski. It tells the story of a tribe called the Dyalo, a family of Protestant missionaries attempting to convert them to Christianity, and Martiya, an anthropologist who is studying the tribe and who murders one of the missionaries and then commits suicide in prison. Unable to get Martiya's story out of his head, Mischa digs up some of her work, which is brilliant, and becomes obsessed with telling her story. As a field worker with the remote Dyalo tribe, Martiya lived among her subjects, adopting their ways and falling deeply in love with a Dyalo man. As it turns out, the murder victim was also a Dyalo expert, albeit with a very different mission.

The author notes in the Afterword that his original intention was to write a nonfiction book on the history of the conversion of the Lisu people of Northern Thailand to Christianity. But it seems the author was stumped on how to proceed, so like a bunch of books released in the last decade or so (probably starting with John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but you can also include the novel by Thomas Keneally that became Schindler's List. Keneally always said he was a novelist, and not a historian, so that's why he chose to write that way) he decided to wrap a fictional story around real historical happenings. Thus the Lisu become the fictional Dyalo, though my speculation is most of the anthropological observations are combinations of many other real tribes that existed in Thialand through the centuries. 

The novel sparkles with original, eyewitness observations of remote tribes and western missionaries alike, yet there are bumps along the road, as the author struggles with all writers’ impulse to tell you everything they know. It is funny at times and page-turning as well, and I highly recommend the book, but there were times I did feel –especially in the middle section- were I was reading more of an anthropology dissertation than a novel. 

I suppose had not Stephen King reviewed the book, Berlinski’s tome may have vanished in the mists of Fiction Hell. Most well-known authors receive countless Advanced Readers Copies of books a week –sci-fi author John Scalzi said on his Whatever blog he gets up to fifty a week- and many are passed over. But it shows you as well that sometimes –like a bland cover- an author like King saw beyond a publishers misstep in marketing and gave the author a chance to play with the Big Kids.

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