MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: WOMAN WITH A BLUE PENCIL by Gordon McAlpine

  • Post by Molly

woman with a blue pencil

In college, I developed an obsession with the film El Otro Francisco, a multi-layered Marxist retelling of a romantic abolitionist novel, and have looked for years for something as satisfying in its combination of story and critique. I’ve finally found that in our November Pick of the Month – Gordon McAlpine’s latest novel, Woman with a Blue Pencil, out from Seventh Street Books on November 10.  

In the film El Otro Francisco, more easily found in academic articles than on a dvd, three narratives are presented. The first, based on the abolitionist novel Francisco (Cuba’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin), tells the story of two slaves, Francisco and his lady love, both in relatively privileged roles on their plantation. The plantation owner’s son falls in love with Francisco’s lover, leading to tragedy for all. The second narrative reinterprets the first with a Marxist lens – enslaved characters pursue freedom, not romance, and the plantation owner’s son is not motivated by lust, but by greed. A third narrative depicts Francisco‘s author, Anselmo Suárez y Romero, distorting the reality of slavery in order to gain a sympathetic elite audience.

The film uses dialectical materialism – the thesis of the first narrative, the antithesis of the second, and the synthesis of the the third – to retell the novel’s story for a modern audience. Read more about this filmLike El Otro Francisco, the novel is divided into three interwoven parts: a series of letters from an editor in New York to a young Japanese author, interned during WWII; a jingoistic spy novel that follows a Korean detective on the search for Japanese fifth columnists; and a second, sub-novel, following two characters cut out of the interned author’s initial draft, trying to figure out why they no longer exist.

“McAlpine relates the timeless tension, in creative industries, between telling authentic and challenging stories and giving the people what they want.”

Woman with a Blue Pencil begins with a draft of a mystery novel, written by a young Japanese-American author, just before Pearl Harbor. In his draft, a Japanese academic, Sam Sumida, searches for the man who killed his wife on the mean streets of Los Angeles. McAlpine then introduces the title’s “woman with a blue pencil,” an editor interested in a mystery novel with an Asian protagonist, but only with a great deal of changes to reflect post-Pearl Harbor anti-Japanese sentiment. She convinces the Japanese author to change his Japanese protagonist into a Korean super-spy, on the hunt for Japanese fifth columnists.

The author complies with her changes, even after he and his family are “relocated” to an internment camp. To reflect his increasing marginalization, he takes the characters cut out from his first draft and weaves them into his spy novel, where they are stripped of their identity and subjected to bewildering levels of anti-Japanese sentiment. They go on the hunt for existence and recognition, while continuing to pursue their original character agendas.

Their search functions on multiple levels. It is at first a response to the age-old question of what happens to characters cast aside before their storylines are resolved. As the story progresses, their search for an identity becomes an evocative and symbolic approach to the experience of Japanese-Americans interned during WWII – at one moment, vital characters in the narrative of the nation; in the next, hated figures, cast aside and robbed of any context. Moments stricken from the jingoistic spy novel by the editor’s blue pencil reappear in the sub-novel, heightening the contrast between the “publishable” anti-Japanese spy novel and the not-intended-for-publication, yet far less offensive, revisions.

 As the story progresses, their search for an identity becomes an evocative and symbolic approach to the experience of Japanese-Americans interned during WWII – at one moment, vital characters in the narrative of the nation; in the next, hated figures, cast aside and robbed of any context.

In the world today, we’re surrounded by period pieces that do great work in drawing attention to the underlying assumptions of the time period that encouraged bigotry and oppression. Mad Men, with it’s self-conscious depictions of workplace harrassment and rampant sexism, and The Knick, with its complex and subtle portrayal of the limits of turn-of-the-century tolerance, are both great examples of this phenomena, and I’m sure readers of this review will think of many more.

Woman with a Blue Pencil, however, goes a step further. McAlpine juxtaposes the story a Japanese-American author might have wanted to write during WWII with the story that author might have gotten published. Like Mad Men and The Knick, McAlpine draws attention to the glaring inconsistencies in representation between 1940s America and today. Unlike these shows, McAlpine also relates the timeless tension, in creative industries, between telling authentic and challenging stories and giving the people what they want. McAlpine highlights how cultural figures who should know better are goaded into confirming, rather than challenging, stereotypes and caricatures.

Gordan MacAlpine’s new novel, The Woman With a Blue Pencil, is a masterpiece of meta-fiction. McAlpine has created a playful, yet responsible, work.The Woman with a Blue Pencil functions equally as critique and as driving detective novel. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened in each storyline. I found myself continuously stunned by McAlpine’s ability to fully integrate the narratives together, yet design each narrative flow independently. I don’t know the last time I read a book that made me think that much AND had that good of an ending.

Copies of Woman with a Blue Pencil hit the shelves November 10. Pre-order now!

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