I took the idea of reading archaeologically to heart and went back to read from Invisible Circus (1994) to A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010). My theory: As you develop your writing, the themes that were once explicit become implicit and all the more powerful. Here are three I found throughout:
One: Somebody Fucked Up
Invisible Circus (1994)
We learn right away that one of two sisters visited Europe and found herself dead after falling or jumping over a cliff in Italy. Opps! Death, suicide, that’s a big blunder. The other sister explores the mistake and makes one of her own.
The Keep (2006)
A man in jail is writing a story for a class on composition. We get to read the story he’s writing, although the main narrator in the story is not him. It’s not until about three about three quarters of the way through the book that we learn who he is and what he’s done.
Good Squad (2010)
Everyone has fucked up! But we hear much less about the actual events of what went wrong and much more about the impact the mistake has had on the individual character. We just know they are deeply flawed and we see them having to grapple with their current lives that are riddled with challenges.
Two: Someone Is Stuck In The Past
Both the sister and the mother have changed almost nothing in their lives in the years since their sister / daughter’s death. Their less sensitive son / brother urges them to just move on already. Instead the main protagonist delves further and further into the past.
Emerald City (Short Stories – 1997)
A stylist and a photography meet on set and have an affair. The stylist wonders to her lover about whether or not they can be sure the moment they are creating with their photos ever really existed. He is completely comfortable with his job whereas she wonders if there’s any harm done in conjuring up people’s unfulfilled desires.
All the characters are connected by the past They aren’t stuck there so much as we’re stuck with them because of their history with each other. Their deep connections were formed a while back and they are forever bonded in time.
THREE: Someone Tells Big Truths About Sex
There are pages and pages here dedicated to the protagonist who gets totally lost in the sea of sex when she falls in love for the first time. She’s turned on all the time and the two can’t make it out of the bedroom enough to eat regularly. The two wonder whether it’s normal but also feel lucky and special because they know that it’s not.
Look At Me (2002)
A mid-thirty year old woman who left her fiancé some years back takes comfort in one night stands with men she doesn’t care much about. Part of the allure is uncovering their specific truths, whether they are married and love their wives or single and will never be attached. For each she decides whether or not they are good people despite their relative wrongs.
A husband hasn’t made love to his wife in many years. In describing his waning desire he uses the image of a folded paper, getting smaller and smaller each time it’s folded in half. Until, after some time, the page is barely there at all.
P.S. I found a hidden gem in Look At Me, when two characters lament the death of the universal perspective in writing. The Age of Innocence, they cry out, The House of Mirth! Silver Lake Library, here I come.