Review: PLASTIC by Margaret Gracie
This is Victoria-based writer Margaret Gracie’s first book-length work, and it’s an ambitious piece of writing. The concept was enough to get me to begin reading, and Gracie’s story-writing abilities captured me from the get-go. The characters are almost whimsical in the way that they are like caricatures of real people. Not unrealistic, though. In fact, it seems that the over-emphasized qualities of these characters make them seem more real (and, in turn, made their struggles more believable).
I couldn’t put this book down. The only times I wasn’t reading it was when it was necessary to have both hands and my undivided attention to perform basic tasks required to survive (eating, sleeping, bathing). I described it to a friend as gateway fiction: the kind of book that is literary and yet accessible. It’s got layers, and I love things with layers. (You know, cake, lasagna, fall fashion—that sort of thing). And writing is no different. Consider the way each ingredient in a cake plays off the other. Individually, the ingredients are tasty. But together? They’re dynamite. It’s the same with Gracie’s writing. The concept of the book is a collection of short stories, each from a different character’s point of view. Individually I imagine that they are good, but held up next to one another they’re delicious.
It is difficult for me to consider each of the chapters standing alone as its own short story, not because of the writing’s inability to do so but because the stories meld together beautifully and it seems the whole is in fact greater than each of its parts. Each story topples into one another, gaining momentum as it crests toward the finale. In reading a piece from a secondary character, like the photographer or Debbie’s father, it’s easy to forget that this whole book is about Debbie, the beauty queen, the former Miss America, the star of the whole show. But that’s where the book becomes truly literary—even if the chapters weren’t connected by character, they are definitely connected by theme. Each section looks at the dualities of life (of which there are many). There is our outer layer, the person we present to others, the person who is shaped by the way others perceive us. And then there is our inner thoughts. The way that Gracie plays with point-of-view emphasizes this—we get to see the way these characters see themselves and the way the character is viewed by others, and when we are inside these characters’ heads… it all comes together in a wonderful and realistic mess of being human. We see Debbie’s beauty from the outside but also witness her regrets on the inside. We see how Keegan is surly and unsatisfied, how Greg is optimistic but yet guarded. The way Gracie plays with time in this collection makes it unique. Time is fluid, and characters can remember the past and project the future. It’s realistic. At times, it felt less like I was reading a work of fiction and more like one of the characters had sprung to life and was telling me his or her story.
There is the push-pull of keeping up appearances and as the title of the collection suggests, what’s outside matters. But does it matter more than what’s inside? Gracie ponders through her fictional telling of Debbie Pearce’s life. As the book progresses, Debbie Pearce’s perfect façade becomes not-so-perfect. It’s through Gracie’s carefully crafted prose that Debbie’s carefully crafted persona begins to unravel. We get a firsthand look at the tension between what Debbie’s life is and what she’d like it to be—the fact that she wants anything is what is the true point of it all. What we have and what we want don’t always overlap, but it’s especially interesting to see someone have everything and still want more.
So maybe this book isn’t about Debbie, really. Maybe it’s about all of us and how we curate our personal brand so carefully only to wake up one day to realize that isn’t who we are anymore (and maybe we never were that person in the first place). Terrifying.
Each story immediately situates you and there’s none of that frustrating ambiguity—you know what I mean, the cheap trick of intentionally withholding information in order to get your reader to read on. Gracie doesn’t need any of that because her writing compels you, locking you in for the long haul. The reader always knows where she is and what’s happening. That’s not to say that there is nothing driving the narrative forward--there was plenty. It’s been a long, long time since a work of fiction has given me that mixed feeling—you know the one. The confusing contrast between wanting to finish a book and never wanting it to end.
If you want to pick yourself up a copy, Plastic is available for purchase online (in digital or hardcopy). You may also be able to snag it at a local bookstore (and I’d definitely suggest you try to).