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Character, Whimsy, and Wonder

Justin Kramon ’02, Finny, Random House, 2010

book_kramon_justin.jpgJustin Kramon ’02 was already an established fiction writer, with stories published in journals such as Glimmer Train and Story Quarterly, well before he began working on the novel Finny. Kramon attributes his early work on the novel to conversations with agents who urged him toward the longer form: “You talk to agents, and you’re saying, ‘Story, story, story,’ and they’re saying ‘Novel, novel, novel.’ But then, of course, I really fell in love with the project.”

Fresh from a reading of David Copperfield, Kramon wondered what it would be like to write a modern bildungsroman, one that featured not a boy’s voyage into manhood, but rather a girl’s journey to self-awareness. Finny is the charming, engaging result—a novel that also poses interesting questions about the inevitable differences between the age of Dickens and our own.

Like Dickens, Kramon sketches a range of eccentric yet appealing minor characters—a narcoleptic pianist, a boarding-school house matron with a passion for Asian foods and culture, a depressed stripper turned hairdresser—and uses them to highlight his main character’s gradual development. More broadly, Kramon draws on 19th-century narrative patterns and assumptions: Like a Brontë or a Thomas Hardy heroine, Finny Short finds herself at odds with a culture to which she doesn’t quite belong—and Finny’s responses to people like her father and her headmistress help us see how very odd this world of ours is.

Finny “was a tough, rascally kid, with a plucky assurance, hair as red as a ripe tomato, a spray of freckles across her nose, and cheeks like she’d been splashed with mud.” In her staid and proper family, she’s a maverick, ever itching for a fight. Think of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, still in the wrong family, now 14 years old. Unlike Matilda’s father, Finny’s dad isn’t a crook, just a pompous ass, but in fact no one in her family is up to Finny’s verbal dexterity or her delight in the absurd. When her father proclaims at the dinner table that Rousseau, Jefferson, and Spinoza “all believed in the rational self-sufficiency of man,” her older brother asks in some confusion, “What’s a ‘rash on all selfs’?” and Finny laughs: “It’s what you have.” In Finny’s world, rationality can seem little more than an allergic response to family dynamics. No wonder her brother is interested in psychology.

As the novel goes on, Finny becomes less the quick-witted critic of her father’s hypocritical liberal quotations and more a character in search of her own identity. Yet despite Finny’s travels, her deep loyalties keep her emotionally close to home. Her first boyfriend (Earl) and her first female friend (Judith) both remain central to Finny’s story well into adulthood, perhaps because with these friends come other stories, other generic strands within the novel. Thus the bildungsroman of Finny’s life is eventually channeled between a satiric exploration of Judith’s wealthy, status-driven world, and a portrait of the artist as a young Earl.

Finny’s friendship with Judith exposes her to young people with enough wealth to grant them assurance, superficiality, and the power to harm. Judith’s world is obviously shaped by its wealth, but it seems to operate most explicitly through sexual excesses and cruelties. Given Finny’s character, the result is a little like Jude the Obscure meets Gossip Girl. Finny plays with exaggeration in many ways, but it’s telling that the sexual damage charted by the novel comes not from surreal, comic portrayal of extremes like bestiality and sado-masochism but from much smaller, more familiar domestic abuses and betrayals. Kramon recounts a woman’s experience of intercourse with uncanny precision and detail—the sex scenes range from the quaintly intimate to the deeply disturbing, but almost all compel belief.

Earl—driven by his own quests—first to reconstruct his family and then to become a writer, moves away from Finny and then returns, and the oscillations of their relationship force Finny to shape her own life within the void he leaves. Veering away from the New York strand of social satire, Kramon resists the obvious move of making Finny matter by virtue of a high-status career, yet at times I wish her narrative strand had more teleological drive to balance Kramon’s clear investment in the figure of the young writer. Finny is the heart of the novel, but as she grows at once more self-assured and more isolated, Kramon risks losing her significance in Earl’s more clear-cut trajectory.

Obviously a young writer himself, Kramon has had a degree of success Earl might well envy. He’s been recognized by the Michener-Copernicus Society of America, the Hawthornden International Writers’ Fellowship, and the Bogliasco Foundation. In an author interview on YouTube, Kramon remarks, “I always want my fiction to be more sympathetic, more open, more honest, and more loyal than I could be in my own life.” It’s no accident that these are precisely the adjectives—sympathetic, open, honest, loyal—that readers have used to describe Finny. For Kramon, “Books are maybe one of the closest things that adults have to the feelings that children have about things like snowstorms or maybe Christmas. […] Books and the ability to lose yourself in them bring [that sense of wonder] back a little bit.”

Justin Kramon’s debut novel is quite the achievement: a world populated by Dickensian caricatures while still grounded in its broader commitments to character, whimsy, and wonder.

—Elizabeth Bolton
Professor of English Literature


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