This is a hard one. It’s not a hard book to read; that’s not what I mean. It’s a hard book to write about. As I explained last week, this is a book about whales—but it’s not really about whales. It’s called Creatures, and it’s about creatures that live in the sea—but it’s not really about that, either.
It’s about parents and children and singlehood and marriage and friendship and love and pain and all the creatures that live in the sea. But that sounds slightly silly. And this book is anything but silly.
It’s a serious novel that feels as real as real life. And it’s totally unique in so many ways, beginning with the table of contents. It’s quite an unusual selection of contents; and it’s not so much a table as an infographic, one that makes no sense until you read the book. Yes, it’s an infographic that charts the unusual shape of the novel. The telling of the story does not progress chronologically. There are multiple beginnings, several interludes, and not one but two true endings.
Despite this creative structure, the novel isn’t confusing or boring or weird. It’s fascinating and beautiful and perfectly formed.
Equally wonderful and unique is this—I’m having trouble finding passages to isolate and quote for you. This is a novel where every passage is a referent to every other passage. Therefore, to quote any passage is to lose most of its meaning, because its meaning is wrapped up in all the other passages. This book is nothing short of brilliant.
Here, for example, is a passage in which the protagonist yearns to communicate with her significant other, Liam. To explain this passage would be to explain everything in the novel, plus everything in life. It’s virtually unexplainable—and yet it makes perfect sense (at least in context):
“The whales were scarce, and I want to tell Liam what waiting feels like. What staring at a straight line looks like. That I was nothing without him, but the unbearable pain of waiting, of wanting, of not being able to ever tell him anything, was making me feel tired. That by another return, I’d be a shriveled sea witch. I want to tell him that I have to push him away. First. To prevent the kind of damage that breaks windows and tears apart homes. But the days pass, there are more hours, and the right things to say flee. Then it feels like just me again.”
This passage refers obliquely to the protagonist’s job, her relationship with her parents, her past, and her personality and sensibilities. It’s not just about Liam, but it’s also fully about Liam. Read the book and you will see what I mean. Here’s another reader’s view of the novel, which encapsulates it perfectly (this is from an NPR review):
“Van Meter is a wonderful writer, and her novel is so beautifully written, it’s somewhat surprising that it’s a debut. Creatures is a gift of a book, an intelligent and empathetic look at how it feels to love and to suffer . . .”
Yes, this is a debut novel! Hats off to Crissy Van Meter. Because in real life, of course, everything refers to everything else. Nothing is in a vacuum. Your job and relationship with your parents and past and personality and sensibilities and love life are of course all intertwined. That’s why—incidentally—psychotherapy is such a long and complicated process.
Anyway, I’m off to my own psychotherapy appointment: off to make yet another attempt to tease apart the strands of my own life and make sense of their structure.
How is what you’re doing today related to everything else in your past, present, and future? How is it related even to whales and creatures of the sea?