Peter Taylor – A Summons to Memphis

A Summons To Memphis_2An interesting thing happened to me as I was reading this book. I am currently a teacher’s aide at the high school I graduated from in my hometown. I live in the ‘big’ town next to the tiny town I grew up in after a time away at college. While I was in the library helping a student with a reading project, I decided to take a turn around my high school’s modest library where I found a first edition of Taylor’s novel. And I felt a great collision with this novel and felt that if there was a time that I was going to finally feel connected to this work it was now. (Taylor’s main character is a rare book collector who is constantly revisiting his childhood home) Taylor’s novel is about a lot of things- one of which is the tension felt for being in between places. All of Taylor’s character seem to be caught between where they are and where they think or thought they should have been. Taylor captures this emotion quite clearly. Also, Taylor captures the idea of how place and things can define us. He does an amazing job, and this may be a strange generalization, but how the mind set of perhaps places such as the South and other regions of America and maybe the world can place a keen identity to their settings. Taylor makes Memphis and Nashville into major characters in his novel, but also particular possessions as well. What is interesting about his novel is that there is almost no dialogue at all. The entire novel is told through recollections by the narrator Phillip Carver and this particular narrator has no connection to conversation whatsoever. All of this is very intentional on Taylor’s part given that the major plot devices he chooses to use are all telephone calls- an interesting choice on his part for two reasons. One being that his choice in not portraying any dialogue at all would make it difficult to disseminate those calls without telling us exactly what was said, but the second interesting choice is that the telephone for Taylor’s writing period is the chief image for two people to be caught in a tension between being present to one another but also disconnected. Another image for him to craft his thesis of isolation. Taylor is a craftsmen in this regard. Another poignant use of the no dialogue is that if regions and cities are to be characters then they obviously won’t be able to have any lines so to speak. So by Taylor cutting out dialogue altogether Memphis and Manhattan get to be as present a character as Phillip, Holly, or any other. For all of these reasons, I admire Taylor’s ambition.

All of that said, I did not connect to Taylor’s award winning novel. Perhaps it was intentional on the author’s part- portraying an emotionally aloof character will hinder the reader’s ability to connect and all of that reinforcing his central premise. I don’t believe that is the case. The last few pages and the swell of ‘action’ betray that sentiment. Taylor rallies the reader into tracking the action of the ending closely only to be a little let down by the anti-climactic ending- which is another arena Taylor masterfully crafts but I think against what I understand as his purpose. Taylor, like many other esteemed writers, is very efficient in his word and image choice using everything that he put into his novel by the end. A thing of beauty that I admire every time I see it used- note here another Pulitzer winner Butler’s ’93 winner- so with that said his ending is exactly the ending he wants and is leading you toward the whole novel. Only for
you to get there and say- now what was that all about?

Anyways, I will read more Taylor and find out if this novel is representative of Taylor’s work or not and if it is then I might better understand what Taylor was trying to do with this ambitious novel. As it stands, I think that novel worked but maybe not as well as I can see right now. It won the Pulitzer, and as with some of the other winners Drew and I have read so far with this one I am sort of puzzled as to exactly why this one won. It was a good book, I don’t know about great necessarily, but good and worth reading.

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