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Hanging on in Quiet Desperation
on February 7, 2013
Imagine a tray of ice cubes. Inside each ice cube is a liquid center. Floating in each liquid center is a desperate character beating on the wall of ice that surrounds him, crying inarticulately at his isolation, trying but failing to reach the other characters locked or hiding in their own ice cubes. The observer can see the characters struggling, but the ice is thick and translucent at best, so he catches glimpses of parts of a surface, rather than a clear look at the whole. This is the position in which author Sherwood Anderson places the reader of "Winesburg, Ohio," a collection of VERY loosely connected portraits of inhabitants of a small Ohio town around the first decade of the 20th century.
Actually, saying that the book, misleadingly characterized by the Modern Library as a novel, contains portraits of inhabitants of a small Ohio town puts it too generously. Instead, the author picks off his characters' psychic scabs to show us what lies beneath. Rather than whole people, we see only bits of pain, longing, disillusionment, or regret.
To be fair, the meticulously careful writing touches the border of poetry from time to time. The author does manage to create some compassion for his "grotesques," as he calls them. But if you have the audacity to prefer actual novels, with multidimensional characters and at least a thread of plot, if you enjoy books where you wonder what happens next, you probably have better things to do in the time that remains of your reading life than linger in the dreary writing-exercise world of "Winesburg, Ohio."