Current Weather
The Spy FM

Ode To The Dead: In Remembrance Of Characters Past

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 12, 2011

Stewart O’Nan is the author of, Emily, Alone, due out in paperback at the end of December, and the forthcoming novel, The Odds.

I first heard of Christie Hodgen way back in 2001, when I was a judge for the National Endowment for the Arts. Her story of a younger sister dealing with a troubled, possibly mentally ill brother flat knocked me out. The other judges on the panel agreed — here was a powerhouse writer. I felt privileged to read her work before the rest of the world, so why did it take me so long to discover her second novel, Elegies for the Brokenhearted, which came out last summer?

I’m not sure how I found the book — maybe I saw it in a bookstore while I was out on tour. I know it wasn’t from word of mouth, and definitely not advertising. I hadn’t read a review of it either, so it must have been dumb luck, running into it somewhere. I remember I didn’t like the cover — it was a blah photo of two girls sitting under a cherry tree. And Elegies for the Brokenhearted? Wow, I thought, what a terrible title! My initial reaction, from painful and repeated experience, was sympathy for a fellow author.

But wait. Open the book. Here’s the epigraph that welcomes you. It’s from Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts: “The letters were no longer funny. He could not go on finding the same joke funny thirty times a day for months on end. And on most days he received more than thirty letters, all of them alike, stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife.” It’s a warning from the author that we’re in for some mordant, bitter stuff — and we are.

The elegies of the title are laments — songs of mourning addressed directly to five people, now dead, who changed the life of our narrator. Mary Murphy is a girl from a broken, messy home. Her older sister Malinda is an addict who disappears for years, leaving Mary behind with their equally unstable mother. While focusing on the troubles of a drunk uncle, a high school laughingstock, an angry college roommate, a tortured composer, and her own piece-of-work mother, Mary shows us her painful, halting coming of age, transforming from the quiet kid sister to a wise and reconciled young woman.

Naturally, a book of elegies is going to be sad. But within each separate remembrance, Hodgen is also brutally funny, letting her company of outcasts fight back against a world that spurns them. Her characters aren’t grotesques so much as people on the edges. Hodgen’s narrator isn’t cuddly either. Mary’s just as puzzled and angry as her subjects, holding off anyone who comes too close. Add to that the formal challenge of writing in the second person and the inherent structural problems of addressing each of the deceased separately, and there’s a degree of difficulty to Elegies that might seem insurmountable. Yet for all its depth and complexity, it’s an easy, captivating read that any casual reader can appreciate. With each successive character, we care that much more for Mary, and for them.

Elegies for the Brokenhearted. By Christie Hodgen. Forget the bad jacket and crummy title, this is a great book.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

12PM to 1PM The Moth Radio Hour

The Moth Radio Hour

The Moth Radio Hour features true stories told live on stage without scripts, notes, props, or accompaniment.

Listen Live Now!

1PM to 2PM Seasonal Shows

Seasonal Shows

View the program guide!

2PM to 3PM The Dinner Party

The Dinner Party

Think NPR meets Vanity Fair. In each episode, hosts Rico Gagliano & Brendan Francis Newnam talk with some of the world's most interesting celebrities, and along the way equip you with bad jokes, fresh drink recipes, hot food finds, odd news stories... and etiquette tips from the likes of Henry Rollins and Dick Cavett. It's all you need to get an edge in your weekend conversations. Past guests include Michelle Williams, Judd Apatow, Kid Cudi and Sir Richard Branson. Wallpaper magazine calls The Dinner Party one of the Top 40 Reasons To Live In The USA.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center