Today, when I read student work that relies on a clever conceit—such as a piece of fiction that is, ultimately, an elaborate joke; when I read stories that are technically functional but devoid of insights, I cringe. I prefer a piece that is overly sentimental but that is trying to get at something true to the undergraduate’s experience, such as love, longing, heartbreak.
The use of foreign language in this book is worth mentioning—Greenwell includes Bulgarian not just as a cheap device to evoke place (although it does lend the story much realism and authority). The words are deployed with poetic precision: such as in the rhythm of chakai, chakai, chakai (wait, wait, wait); they are used to characterize people, such as Mitko’s love for the word podaruk (gift); and to reflect the narrator’s to make sense of his world (strahoten means awesome, a word “built from a root signifying dread”). Most importantly, it is used to cut deeper into the core of the narrator’s emotional question: priyatel means both friend and lover—which one is he really to Mitko?
Add it to the quirky mysteries of life: along with how one of the most famous creative writing programs happens to be founded here in a city bounded by nothing much but cornfields and rolling hills, that every four years Iowans become the most important citizens in the U.S., the first to choose the next leader of the free world. And then picture me: an Asian-American, whose votes in California used to amount to nothing more than a symbol and a duty, about to caucus for the first time, holding one of the golden tickets as an undecided voter.
Here’s a possibility: as writers, we have more of the one truly non-renewable resource in the world—time. And I’m not just talking about quantitative, chronological time. When we sit down in solitude and think about life, we extend life. When we read about the different permutations in which lives have been led, or when we contemplate life in our own writing—time is stretched, warped, mutated, created anew.
Even our blueprint for a romantic comedy suggests this bias: two unlikely people start out as enemies and end up falling in love. Against all odds, the circumstance proves stronger than the individual will. Which is perhaps the reason why writing about romantic love is so difficult in fiction: we have to first figure out why we fall in love in real life. Is it a choice? An accident? Both? Neither?