Sometimes it’s fun to walk the aisles of the public library (or bookstore) without a specific title in mind. One can tell by their shapes, colors, sizes and layout which books please a particular fancy. And—the key word being and—this is how I came across a small book displayed face forward on a shelf, an advertisement in the library that seemed to say, Hey, check this out!, and in that way I picked A Small Hotel among thousands of books on an aimless, early November day. I was certain the author’s name, Robert Olen Butler, rang familiar. And, and besides…he’s the winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a professor of creative writing and he writes short stories and novels and also a book about the creative process and the book, according to the Booklist blurb on the back cover, A Small Hotel is a “suspenseful drama about men who cannot say the word love and the women they harm…” with a “plot twist of profound proportions”.
While I read a variety of novels, and tend to shy away from romance, sci-fi, and a great deal of genre fiction, I was a bit skeptical as to whether A Small Hotel would satisfy me—would it be too romantic for my taste? I’m glad I chose to quiet the tendency to judge the quality of accidental findings. I couldn’t put the book down. And it broke some rules and got away with breaking those rules.
I remember at university professors would often say, “Never do_____” and what they really meant was “Break rules and make it work.” More power to those writers who break rules successfully. Literary fiction allows writers to break rules in part because readers of literary fiction search for meaning. The words on a page resonate deep down. The thrill in literature lies in recognition of technique and timbre. Once this takes hold, a reader lets go—there are no questions about what the writer is doing—for the story becomes a smooth glide toward a satisfying ending. Consider this passage from The Style and Timbre of English Speech and Literature by Marklen E. Konurbaev:
“The experience of ‘hearing’ [the] theatrical timbre in the reader’s mind and perceiving the interplay of timbres related to scene-making discloses a new plane of cognition that is over and above a plain chain of events. Thus, the mental hearing of the text by the reader appears to be a totally new attraction for the reader with a mental hold that makes a piece of writing totally unforgettable.”
So it goes with Butler’s A Small Hotel. Butler’s sentences instill meaning with quiet rhythms, like waves of heart beats in the still air that resonate between his characters, a married couple on the day their divorce is due to be finalized, despite the physical distance between them. And then there’s Butlers persistent use of the conjunction “and”, which may be one of those rules professors tell us not to break when they really mean do break the rules and break them good.
Let’s take a look at page 118. The wife, Kelly, stays alone at a hotel where she and her soon-to-be-ex, Michael, had fallen in love over twenty years prior. Kelly, out walking at night, encounters a fortune teller on the streets of New Orleans who says, “I will read your future.” And Kelly says, “You’ll get it wrong.”
“…and she moves as fast as her Louboutin platform pumps will allow her to go, which isn’t very fast, and when she is far enough away from the tarot reader so there can be no more discussion of her future, Kelly stops and takes off one shoe and then the other and hooks her fingers in them to carry them. And she feels the cool press of stone on her bare feet, feels it for a long moment, a good thing. Then she moves along the galleried Pontalba and abruptly she is before another place where she did not intend to go: the pavilion of the Café du Monde, lit bright in the dark, and a young man and a young woman are before her, not someone from the past but uncomfortably here before her right now and they are sitting near the street and they have pushed their chairs side by side at the tiny bistro table and he sips his coffee and she takes a bite of a beignet and she struggles to manage the powdered sugar and he watches her do this and she catches him watching and they laugh and he leans to her and puts his lips near her ear and he whispers something, her face softening as he does, and she smiles, and Kelly knows exactly what he has said, she knows exactly what he has said that pleases her, and Kelly abruptly turns away and she moves quickly along the river-edge of Jackson Square where the carriage horses are stinking and nickering all along the curb and she cuts in front of one and crosses Decatur Street and now she is in a neutral place, a place with nothing of her and Michael: she crosses the street-performance space before the wide, low, concrete façade of Washington Artillery Park.”
What an experience, yes? Kelly is confronted by a tarot reader about her future and from here she physically bolts, though her shoes slow her down, so she removes them, seeks comfort in the cold stones beneath her feet, but upon moving on she finds herself faced with a scene nostalgic of her past in which Butler deftly makes “and” after “and” connections. In this way, as a reader, I feel Kelly’s panic, the pace of the scene with its frightening pulse of anxiety beneath the surface. And when Kelly moves quickly away, to a neutral place, she is stopped by a low wall with stairs she must climb. The paragraph glides through the reader’s mind and, in effect, the reader is pulled into the panic Kelly feels as she cannot get away from her memories and the reality of what has happened to her marriage.
Then again, a scene on page 124 in which Kelly remembers as a child seeking the words “I love you” from her father, Butler creates a sense of longing:
“She falls forward onto him, her arms going around his neck and her head pressing against his, and she says, “I love you, Daddy,” and she wants him to speak, to tell her this thing that she has told him. But instead she feels her wrists clasped tight, feels herself being peeled away, and her father’s hands grasp her under the arms and her body moves backward and upward and her father is standing up now and she floats before him, his arms extended, holding her away from him.”
How has Butler created the feeling of powerlessness Kelly felt as a little girl? In this one section of one paragraph, Kelly falls onto him, arms around his neck, pressing, wants, feels, clasped, feels, peeled, hands grasp, moves, standing, floats, holding her away from him. And the reader feels Kelly peeled away from her father’s love. Her father has the love Kelly wants, but he will not speak those words she longs to hear.
Butler’s omniscient narrator, ex. pg. 208, weaves viewpoints in and out of Michael and Kelly’s minds, transitioning into the past and back to the present in a masterful way I trust as a reader:
“His mother moving silently in the dark next to him, just that, along a street thick with the early heat of a Florida spring night and the smell of Confederate jasmine, porch lights lit, passing distantly, and his mother at his side keeping still, and he wakes and leaps from bed as blood flows from the ceiling, a moment ago from a deer hung for dressing but from the ceiling now, from the light fixture and into his bed and she takes him in her arms and his father’s silhouette fills the doorway and Michael does not know that the man has moments ago put his hand roughly on her arm to prevent her going in to a boy who needs to be a man and she defied her husband this time, for once, and he warned her at least not to say anything, not to prattle on like usual, and she agreed to that so he would let go of her arm—“
A Small Hotel is not only a novel about men who cannot say the words I love you, but a story about the human need for love and the ways we withhold love from each other: parents withhold from children and children grow up to withhold love from partners—the same love they were denied as children—the love they need in order to heal from a lack of love. And in this way we tell ourselves we have done enough to show our love, so why must we say the words I love you? They are only words.
In literature we are told: show, don’t tell. But in life—and sometimes in stories as well—we need both.