Borges once called the entire novel genre an “unpardonable excess.” Coming from a titan of the short story, this is perhaps understandable (see some of my comments on all the punch Borges gets into relatively few words at ficciones or el hacedor). For more mortal writers, the novel provides, among other things, an opportunity to develop characters and situations more fully. For me—with a brain that whirls around in circles, ruminating, contemplating, perhaps over-analyzing—more words means more time away from my regular life, simply in sifting and processing; I am enveloped by the words, partially living in that fictive space, at least while reading and often beyond.
Whether you think novels excessive or not, first time novelists are especially vulnerable to this charge. They often seem to feel they have an inexhaustible source of ideas, experiences, and perspectives to share with the world in a never-ending string of original constructions. As many of these ideas as possible must fit in to their book; maybe one of them will be the memorable, important one that launches the author into literary immortality; maybe all of them will be; or—horrors!—maybe none of them will. This train of hope and despair is an indication of the profound arrogance and insecurity of a young writer: that everyone cares about what they have to say and, at the same time, that no on cares.
The challenge is to recognize what you need to say for the good of your novel and no more. In The Necessary Hunger, Nina Revoyr suffers a little from trying to get everything in, but also manages to concentrate enough on what she knows to make it a great first effort. The story is told in first person, from the perspective of Nancy, a star forward on an L.A. high school basketball team. It focuses on Nancy’s relationships with basketball and with her friend, Raina, who also happens to be the object of Nancy’s love and a star shooting guard for a different high school team. Most of the action occurs during their senior years when both girls are highly touted recruits on the national scene. Nancy and Raina have a complicated relationship that is part sister, part would-be lover, part intense rival. The major tensions in the novel revolve around how will their teams do in their final seasons, who they will date, where they will play college ball, and, most importantly, who is the better player. The competition between Nancy and Raina drives them both to higher levels of training and play. Here they are, as team captains, convening before the playoff game between their two teams:
I went to midcourt, where Raina was already waiting. The head ref instructed us to introduce ourselves to each other, but Raina just held out her hand. I stepped forward and took it. And I thought, as we stood there, that I had never really shaken anyone’s hand before. I felt all the contours of her bones and the soft, warm skin and the way her thumb and fingers encircled my hand. We gripped each other firmly, and her handshake said the same thing that her eyes were saying—I respect you, you are my friend, but I will do everything I can to defeat you. The referee gave his normal spiel about playing clean and calling time-outs and keeping the rest of our teammates under control. We never took our eyes off each other. When he was done, Raina nodded to indicate that she’d heard. Then, to me, she said, “Good luck.”
The game that follows has all the intensity and drama that one would expect from this encounter; it is decided in the final moments and the outcome has ramifications beyond the court.
Revoyr writes cinematically. In one long, beautiful scene, Nancy and Raina bounce their basketballs on a tour through the neighborhoods to a local park to play pick up ball. Minor characters, who frequently fill out the landscape around the girls, give the novel a palpably honest, real feeling. At the same time the numerous subplots are a little distracting from the real story. These include: the two girls’ parents getting involved; racial tensions; violence and crime in their neighborhood; Nancy’s father’s ethical dilemma at work; Raina’s mother’s clash with friends over inter-racial dating; and the fate of the less talented, unrecruited-to-college players on their teams—getting stuck in dead end jobs, doing pretty much what their parents did, and never leaving the neighborhood is the most common experience for these young women.
There are many wonderful moments in The Necessary Hunger. It is full of funny, sad, frustrating events and compelling descriptions of the interior life of a teenager that also manage to avoid the insipid, painful quality that much writing about teenagers evokes. Nevertheless, its excesses dilute the potential emotional punch. We’re left with a simply very good novel and, in Revoyr, the promise of much more to come.