Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Book Review: Ray In Reverse by Daniel Wallace

Most of you probably remember Daniel Wallace as the author of Big Fish, which was eventually turned into a fantastic movie staring Ewan McGregor. Fans of Big Fish will likely get the same sense of enjoyment from Ray in Reverse. I found this book on a bargain shelf at Books-a-Million and decided to read it. You'll see why I'm glad I did. Ray in Reverse is a downright strange narrative with a unique and stunning conclusion. Ray Williams is dead and in heaven, where support groups collect people together to discuss various aspects of their lives. But Ray is in the Last Words group, where everyone is discussing the last things they said before death, and embarrassment is setting in: Ray's last words weren't all that interesting, let alone complete. What follows is a chronologically reversed narrative about Ray's life, starting from old age and taking leaps further and further back in time to his childhood, before finally returning back to Heaven. We learn about his triumphs and failures, his wants and desires, and, most of all, the kind of man he came to be through all the trials and tribulations of life. Daniel Wallace has a pension for telling strange and engaging stories. I only saw the movie for Big Fish, but much of the magic and wonder that made that movie shine is also at work in Ray in Reverse. While the narrative does leave many questions open to speculation, the way Wallace has tried to capture the essence of a man, rather than the brilliance of a plot, is something worth noting. The narrative cannot possibly capture every moment in Ray's life to put together some sort of cohesive plot, but it can look into what makes Ray tick, and does so to great effect. We see Ray's life in glimpses in much the same way that we remember the most vivid moments of our pasts in glimpses. Certain memories stick out for us--just as they do for Ray--and when you put them all together they paint a unique picture of you. Ray's backwards motion glimpses do just that, and, by the end, we start to understand who he is, especially in terms of his faults. We also come to understand why the beginning of the novel is so prescient: Ray is the everyman looking back upon himself and wondering, "Who am I?" Ray as everyman is a key thing to note about the novel. He's not perfect--not by a long shot. Ray cheats, thinks ill of other people, and succeeds and fails in much the same way that all of us do. Wallace doesn't pull punches for Ray, because to do so would take away from Ray's tragic, yet painfully average life. Flawed characters are strong characters. I think this is part of what makes the novel so enjoyable to read, because it takes what is so normal and everyday and makes it glamorous in its normality and flaws, for good or for bad. Wallace has a knack for doing just that, because even Big Fish has that kind of normality-turned-to-glamorous feel. Wallace's adept storytelling, however, makes difficult for me to find fault with this novel. On the one hand, I loved the way the narrative was pieced together with glimpses; on the other hand, the glimpses also left a few too many holes for my liking, leaving me with a lot of questions at the end. But, at the same time, those questions are part of how the ending comes together, because even Ray is questioning his life. It's a Catch 22 for a reader, I suppose. Regardless, perhaps a few more glimpses could have made for a more rounded picture, but only if doing so wouldn't detract from the ending. Needless to say, I loved Ray in Reverse. Ray is memorable, the structure of the narrative and the two Heaven scenes framing it make for a fascinating and engaging read, and the everyman has, finally, a little magic attached to the title. Hopefully we'll see more of Wallace in the future. For now, we have Big Fish and Ray in Reverse (and, apparently, a couple other novels I've never heard of before). Ray in Reverse can be found on Amazon or your local bookseller. If you'd like to learn more about Daniel Wallace, visit his website.

6 comments:

Sullivan McPig said...

sounds interesting.

SQT said...

What an intriguing idea. I've received a lot of books lately that hover on the fringes of dealing with the afterlife--mostly by focusing on angels as a focal point-- but nothing as interesting as this.

Simcha said...

This sounds like a really interesting book, though I often get frustrated with such non-linear narratives.

Nick @ Lions and Men said...

This sounds like a great read. I loved Big Fish as well!

S.M.D. said...

SQT: I actually bought this one. I don't think Daniel Wallace's books will be funneled down to our level. No offense, but his work probably gets play in the big book folks as far as review copies is concerned.

But, nothing wrong with shoving something you bought into the mix. I found it helps make the process less scary. Got three more to finish reviewing now, including a fantastic one about the end of the world!

SQT said...

Shaun-- I post reviews of purchases all the time. I'm very lucky to get any ARCs-- but I also like to support the authors by purchasing when I can.