Understanding Bobbie Ann Mason by Joanna Price. University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
ISBN hardback 1570033811, paperback . pp 187.
The best literary criticism makes you want to go back and re-read the author under discussion or, as perhaps might be more likely in the case of Bobbie Ann Mason for English readers, discover a new writer and go out and buy her work. In this compact but extremely thorough book, Understanding Bobbie Ann Mason, Joanna Price does just that.
Mason's prose - several short story collections and three novels: Feather Crowns, Spence and Lila and In Country - describe small town life in contemporary western Kentucky, and the First World consumer culture which has replaced the traditional values of countless previous generations. To summarise her themes I can't do better than quote Price herself - "Mason's fiction is characterized by its distinctly economic but detailed representations of moments in the everyday life of mainly working class characters in Kentucky from the 1970s to the present day. The lives and thoughts of these characters are permeated by the images they encounter on television, in the movies and through popular music. Critics have labelled Mason's fiction 'Dirty Realism', 'Blue-collar Minimalist hyper-realist'. Mason herself describes it as 'Southern Gothic goes to the supermarket'."
Much of Mason's work is permeated by a sense of loss, hardly surprising when she describes how traditional notions of community and culture have been eroded by the loss of collective memories. Her writing shows the effects of too frequent, corrosive or belittling change and the loss of traditional roles and stability. These losses occur primarily because of the insidious rise of vicarious experience via the television set, which all too often takes the place of reality and empirical learning. The emptiness of life 'fulfilled' by a visit to a shopping mall and the consumption of some unnecessary items is made plain.
However Mason's work isn't all about bad news. There is much lyricism, affectionate sympathy and description of the natural cycles of renewal and small epiphanies in the lives of her characters. Pessimism is tempered by a wry humour and the reader doesn't need to share the emptiness of some of the character's lives.
Joanna Price writes closely and sympathetically about Mason with just the right amount of post-modern terminology to stimulate the general reader but not drive them away, and to content the academic. She is very thorough and fair in her inclusion of other writers' responses to Mason and has produced an excellent guide to the work of Bobbie Ann Mason useful to student and non-academic reader alike.
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