Friday, March 8, 2013

The Night Bookmobile

The ‘adult’ graphic novels at The Last Word stick out for their neat, hardbound calm among the dizzying jumble of superhero comics, baiting the desultory afternoon browser to pluck one out just for the joy of engaging with a beautiful book. I pick Audrey Niffeneger’sThe Night Bookmobile. A woman in a bright blue dress and crimson nail polish clutches an open book to her heart; eyes squeezed shut, a strained expression on her face most often associated with fervent prayer. Behind her from floor to ceiling stacks of vibrant books fill a room that’s too snazzy to be a library, too sombre for a bookshop. This is a book designed with the express purpose of enticing bibliophiles and the trick is working on me. Between the fishing out of the debit card for a (relatively) cheap book I had picked out earlier and the last wistful glance at the room’s enchanting motley, I lean over and grab this one I cannot afford. I decide it’s worth the purchase for the cover alone.

The lyrical quality of the jacket echoes in the novel’s poetic style which opens with its protagonist wandering the streets of Chicago ‘at that quiet time of morning when the cicadas have given up but the birds haven’t started in yet’. Wandering aimlessly to clear her head after a fight with her long-time boyfriend she chances upon the Chicago Version of the Alif Laila Book Bus blaring ‘I Shot The Sherriff’ from the corner of a street. Against her better judgment she engages in a conversation with the bus driver who invites her in with a card that reads ‘Night Bookmobile—Hours Dawn to Dusk’. The room she slips into is subdued and pleasant, smelling of ‘old, dry paper, with a little whiff of wet dog’; books stretch out endlessly within it. All the ones in the first shelf are children’s books, some have catalogue numbers on their spines, others don’t, and the numbers seem to belong to different systems. She wonders if Mr. Oppenshaw, the bus driver and librarian has been running around stealing books from different libraries. Further exploration of the library leads to the discovery that all the books on its shelves are familiar ‘from Jane Austen to Paul Aster, from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook to college biology textbooks’, even her personal diaries. That’s when Mr. Oppenshaw tells her that the bookmobile is a complete collection of everything she has ever read in her life, a concept as fascinating to the protagonist, Alexandra, as it would doubtless be to anyone who is an avid reader. At dawn the librarian promptly turns her out after which the next appearance the bookmobile makes in Alexandra’s life is nine years later. Thus the stage is set for a rather fascinating tale of magical realism and fantasy.

The urge to own books and the ways in which our reading defines us is at the core of The Night Bookmobile. Imagine being led to a place that contains every single word you have ever read including cereal boxes, periodicals and newspapers, even your own diaries. Imagine a librarian whose sole job it is to keep track of all that you read and keep updating your personal collection of books accordingly. How would that change your reading choices? What kind of connection would you feel for a person accessing all your thoughts in the form of all you choose to read and write, however discretely? For those captivated by alternate worlds where does fantasy end and reality begin? Do books bring us greater clarity or further confusion? What we read, what we highlight and what we leave unread can be as intimate as our dearest thoughts and it is a fascination with all these ideas thatThe Night Bookmobile successfully manages to capture in its first half. All the more disappointing when such an intriguing concept is left criminally underdeveloped and the book fails to explore any of the questions it raises in any depth.  Hardly has the book begun when it ends, the text not even as long as most short stories, leaving its overarching metaphor dangling and incomplete, but despite that the nocturnal ambience of a big city that it evokes so movingly, the life of a lonely woman increasingly consumed by the books she reads, a dreamlike Chicago of late rainy nights, music concerts, baseball games and a fantastical night bookmobile that comes and goes of its own whim; the narrator's almost imperceptible sexual tension with the balding, asexual-looking eternal librarian- a distant, ethereal man who knows her more intimately than anyone else, and the idea of a place filled with all the books you have ever read and thus been shaped by, is enough to call this a good purchase. 

The Night Bookmobile is like walking through someone's dream, with all the escapist thrill and incompleteness of one. A dream you don't want to let go of as you lie there in the early morning twilight zone between sleeping and waking, vainly fighting against the demands of the real world pressing down upon you.


First published in The News on Sunday here

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