One of my favorite aspects of being a library staff member and library user is the constant exposure to a nearly endless array of books that I would most likely never otherwise encounter. Among that selection, I might occasionally randomly, or accidentally, as it were, choose a novel just because the title or cover is alluring.
Amy Falls Down was one such discovery for me. I had not previously read anything by Jincy Willett, but I am prepared to read her past or future work. In Amy Gallup she has created a character who is endearing in her eccentricity and rambunctiousness, despite her not being exactly loveable. It is a literary satire (to some degree) about books, writing, and about the business of contemporary publishing, promotion, and social media. I discovered through the New York Times Book Review of this title that Willett has written a previous novel featuring Amy Gallup, The Writing Class.
Amy’s adventures begin, after a long dry spell, both in her writing and socially. She is 62 years old and she lives with her basset hound Alphonse in a nice suburban neighborhood near San Diego, California. Living from the proceeds of her online writing course, Amy has not written or published any new material since her last collections of short stories, which received a certain degree of literary acclaim about thirty years previously. After the death of her best friend and late, gay, platonic husband Max from AIDS, Amy forces herself to web Bob, whom she detests, and the experiment aborts after three years. The writing circle of which she is the group leader disbands before the novel commences after one or possibly two of the members run amok. Blood is shed, lives are lost, and the most promising of the writers, according to Amy, ends up in federal prison serving a life sentence.
The themes of accidents, phobias, inertia, change, and the value of fiction as well as that of relationships (being known by others) run throughout this unusual and absorbing novel. Amy comes to both regret and accept the consequences of her own self-imposed limitations on her life once “the accident” brings her very reluctantly out of her shell and into the limelight of viral videos, BuzzFeed, Epic Fail, Twitter, NPR, C-SPAN, YouTube and a nationwide tour, organized by her more than persistent agent Maxine. Before preparing for an interview with Holly Antoon, a young reporter, Amy, wondering why in the world anyone might be interested in her life or her out-of-print short story collections, goes into her backyard to plant a gift plant, a Norfolk Pine. Overweight and ungainly, she trips, falls and knocks herself out by hitting the back of her head on a birdbath. She manages to drag herself out of the garden, into the house, and out onto the front porch for an interview that she conducts when mostly out of her mind. The hilarious qualities of her mostly incoherent discourse during this interview begin to attract attention, jump-starting anew her moribund writing life and career.
We accompany Amy on her path back to writing and back into the weave of life once again, through her fears of flying to her cross-country tour with Alphonse on Amtrak, which is interrupted by a serious accident with multiple fatalities. Amy begins to show her affection for her fellow humans as well as for herself as she engages, if only briefly, with a few of the wannabe writers at the workshop her former student has set up. A moving moment occurs when Amy unexpectedly accompanies a dying woman, whose arm has been torn off during the train accident, in her final moments. The emotion is tinged with awkwardness, so while Amy feels privileged to share this stranger’s dying words and breath, she mistakes her for another fellow passenger, Thelma. Alphonse, her basset of whom she is enormously fond, is a constant throughout the novel as well…and he is as dryly humorous and engaging a character as is the protagonist Amy.
The title of the novel, Amy Falls Down, is the pivotal moment of the book in which Amy’s life changes. In the book on at least two occasions, Jincy Willett the author, very specifically comments that the necessity and purpose for the writing of fiction is to make narrative sense of the chaos of life and to bring form and meaning to the random chains of events that make up a typical human experience. The jumbledness, zigzags, and accidents of day-to-day life become infused with meaning when seen through the eyes of an author.
In this manner, fiction plays a key role (as do other art forms) in humanizing our survival in an often hostile world. Amy Gallup also expresses an interesting concept with regard to creativity and the unconscious mind. She notes that her dreams are often banal, a land which many visit and deposit common fears and images. However, she is convinced that stories do come from a deeper place over which she has no conscious control. Amy cares absolutely nothing about those who seem fascinated by her, nor does she care about the media itself, which is what makes her so funny and appealing to the creators of memes and the like.
I enjoyed this well-written novel with its interplays of sarcasm and tenderness, philosophical explorations and a humorous depiction of contemporary life. Throughout the book, Amy often deplores an excess and exponentially increasing number of published authors or bloggers creating a superabundance of reading material. It is as if the modern western human has a constant need for self-expression and validation by others, without which we feel we are no longer needed or no longer exist. Amy Gallup, after living for nearly 30 years oblivious to others and only paying marginal attention to popular culture, evolves enough throughout the story so as to feel the need to be known, not so much as an author, but as a human being. And she has the grace to recognize that there are indeed, among her entourage, people who do truly know, respect, and appreciate her.