Friday, August 12, 2016

We Five

by Mark Dunn
365 pgs

Mark Dunn seems to intentionally try to make writing a book harder for himself than it needs to be. Each time he writes one, he forces himself to not only come up with a new and intriguing story, but also, a way to tell the story in a unique and inventive manner.

In Ella Minnow Pea he progressively eliminated letters from the alphabet he was allowed to use. In Ibid: A Life, he uses footnotes to tell his story, and in American Decameron, he wrote 100 short stories, each written in a different year of the 1900s and taking place in every state in the country, to tell one grand story.

In We Five, Dunn quilts together five different versions of the same story into one continuous tale. He describes in the foreword how this story has been written five different times by five different authors. The first version was written in 1859 and is set in Manchester England, the second: 1906, in San Francisco, the third: 1923, in Sinclair Lewis’ fictional Zenith, Winnemac, fourth: 1940, in London, and last: 1997, in rural Mississippi.

The story is of five sheltered young women. They’ve all been very close friends for years, and all of them are single. Some of them would very much like to get married, the others have no desire to be. And for one of them at least, not to a man. The group catches the attention of five young suitors, who decide to have a contest to see which of them can go the furthest with one of the girls. When the girls eventually become aware of the would-be suitors’ deceptions, the consequences become increasingly more severe.

The structure of Dunn’s story is the book’s strongest attribute. He seamlessly alternates between the five different narratives numerous times throughout the book, and each time, the language changes to fit the period. He uses five distinct voices as he writes, but he keeps the continuity of his themes intact.

Where We Five didn’t work for me was in the story itself. I don’t know if it was because the story was too much like a Jane Austen novel for my taste or what, but it never captivated me. I never got lost in the story, and as it progressed, I became more and more focused on the structure, and less and less focused on the story and the characters in it.


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