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Well [Matthew McIntosh]

December 9th, 2003 · 2 Comments

“…Federal Way, Washington. He could probably get away with anything, it occurred to him. Anything in the world….”

Fiction from Federal Way?! When I saw the Seattle Times review , I couldn’t resist requesting Matthew McIntosh’s first novel from the library. I especially enjoy reading what’s been written from my native Northwest, so despite the piles of books accumulating on my desk and bedroom floor, when Well arrived for me from the library, I read it first, like eating dessert.

Not that I know much about Federal Way; can’t even say I’ve been there often. There are some places in the stories that will seem familiar, such as the airport, 320, the mall, and “Ivan’s” Fish Bar. Some other sights familiar to Seattlelites appear such as Metro buses and mention of the Sonics “Sikma”, and one story crosses the Canadian border. For me it’s always fun to read fiction with a Northwest flavor.

I confess though that the first several pieces didn’t catch me and I nearly gave up on the book, beginning to simply skim pages in case there was anything else that got my eye. It is a novel, although it is written in pieces, with interludes and refrains, more like a piece of music, a symphony with many movements, a bit abrupt and confusing, constant shift of character and narrative, like switching television channels.

Yet as I continued to skim, I got caught up again in the book. Or another way to say it would be that I found a few channels worth watching. For me, reading Well was like searching through a random bag of hand-me-downs from the neighbor next door, and finding a handful of jewels at the bottom. Once I found the treasures, I returned to the earlier pages, looking for more.

Good fiction is like a photograph, capturing the essence of people and place, and also allowing you to recognize a bit of yourself in the picture. Matthew McIntosh took some good shots with his camera, writing characters that shout from their pain, people desperate and down, seeking hope in little ways in little places. It’s a photo album from Federal Way, shot in black, white and lots of grays. And it’s a handful of jewels, ones that you want to turn over again and again in your hands, letting the light hit all the facets, admiring their beauty. Here are a few excerpts from the pieces:

This sentence in the opening piece It’s Taking So Damn Long To Get Here (!) got me hooked….
My husband tells me I have a constant look of near-absolute abandonment on my face. He says I wear that expression all the time.

Excerpts from Ache :
It began when he dove into the shallow end of a pool and hit his head on the bottom….when he came to the surface he felt an ache….
For a week the pain would become increasingly intolerable and then finally, it would show itself in all its glory….
He held his pain and kissed it and stroked it, he told it he loved it more than anything, he loved its vitality, and begged it to leave….

Gunman begins:
The man who boarded the 96 Shoreline-Downtown Express, waited awhile, then shot the driver in the chest, an then himself in the ear, causing the bus to careen over the side of the Aurora Bridge fifty feet straight down, killing one passenger and wounding the thirty-two others on board, wasn’t the same man who swiped the motorcyclist on the interstate, exited his car and jumped through the sound-proofing wall…..

A moment from It’s Taking So Damn Long to Get Here VII :
But what it is – what it really is – and this is the part that gets to me when I start thinking about it – what it really is is this is the exact moment in your life that you’ve forgotten you’re waiting for something.
So then, without even knowing it, this is when you’ve lost your hope.”

My favorite piece, Looking Out for Your Own begins:

Some things, you need to let go. I’ve found this out the past few months. First it was my brother. Then it was Shannon, my girlfriend….

One of the last pieces is The Border :

…there were a lot of things that Robert couldn’t remember, isolated things, pieces of the past of the present that were lost to him. It worried him sometimes, because you didn’t always know just what it was you didn’t remember….

“Well” as a word is invoked up in many ways, from pills labelled “W – E – L” to the picture of an empty well as a pit of despair, to the cliche of “it is well”. Other impressions that came to mind when I put down the book: journalism, imagination, voyeurism, matter-of-fact medical report, sheer horror, emptiness, all kinds of crime, death, despair, drugs, pretty girls and pregnancies, loss, and lots of red and orange skies:
“like you could have painted orange all across, like the orangest color in the world, that’s what the sky looked like” (p 146)

Reading Well, I sensed Matthew McIntosh as a younger Raymond Carver, one of my favorite writers, Northwest or not. His publication in Playboy and Ploughshares, and his attention to everyday people, making the ordinary powerful, speaks of his footsteps following in Carver’s path, yet with a younger Gen Y update. And – when reading reviews afterwards – I discovered that this is what the P-I reviewer discovered also:
In “Well,” McIntosh seems to be channeling the distinctive narrative voices and fictional lives of Raymond Carver, the late short story master from Port Angeles, although this time the focus is not on the dashed hopes and busted dreams of the middle-aged, but rather those of people under 30. It is as if Carver’s characters and milieu have been updated and made younger, Carver reimagined for twentysomethings today.

In an interview with bookmunch McIntosh described his method of writing the novel in fragmented style:

Did you purposely set out to make the reader question the reading process?

MM: Right, because as you mirror life you mirror your times.

….And I think one of the most interesting things about us is in where we seek hope and the relief that comes from it. Maybe our faith is in a heaven to come, a union with God, the arrival of a Saviour, or simply a momentary release of tension, a drug, a high, a manifestation of a compulsive disorder, your local team contending for a championship. There’s always next season, or next year. And people don’t always recognize that in these things, in our obsessions, what we’re really doing is manufacturing hope. Because without it, the world can become so heavy it paralyzes you.

I appreciated reading this interview (linked from the website for Well ) because for me, the novel felt very heavy at times. Matthew McIntosh is a powerful writer with his pictures. I wished though that his characters had had a little more hope, manufactured or not, a little less despair and questioning: I wish he had thrown larger life rafts into their seas of doubt and paralysis. Yet this book depicts truth about the Northwest and the gray state where we find ourselves now as a region, a generation, and as a nation. People take what they can get in these pieces: hope comes in remembering an embrace, tasting a drink or watching fish in a tank. All is not well with these souls from Federal Way. After reading this novel, you will think about the people and their pain, haunted by their hurts, turning them over in your mind, flipping through the photographs McIntosh has made.

***As I was writing up this review, through the past few days, I’ve noticed that the author has had a few appearances in the Seattle area this fall, and I’d be interested to hear from anyone who saw him this past Sunday or any other time.***

Tags: books

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kate // Sep 1, 2004 at 12:10 am

    I found that some parts of ‘Well’ were upsetting. It pulled me in.

  • 2 Layla // Sep 5, 2004 at 5:08 pm

    I have lived in Federal Way since I was seven years old, and when I read Well, I responded more emotionally to it than I’ve responded to any book before. He’s gotten down the desperation and emptiness of the town and what it’s like to live in the what really amounts to a huge retail/fast food mold growth between Seattle and Tacoma. I want to thank McIntosh for writing this book.