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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

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Review: Visible Empire

Visible Empire - Hannah Pittard

There are times when I’m reading Hannah Pittard’s work that I am enthralled. I’m pulled into the language, the atmosphere, and the emotion. I’m feeling everything and it’s unrelenting. During these moments, the characters are alive. The story becomes all that matters. There’s no escape. And I’m glad, because regardless of how difficult the subject matter is, the fact is, I’m feeling something strong, and that’s what I want out of a good book: to feel. I want the rage and the sorrow unabated (though it must be genuine and true to the story).

Then there are times when I’m reading Pittard’s work and I feel nothing. The language is stilted. The characters become caricatures of their former selves. And the story drowns in melodrama.

I like to think of any artist as they are at their best. Every artist has made a stinker or two, or ten. No artist is consistently amazing. At her best, Pittard is brilliant, and I continue to sing her praises. Hannah Pittard is a truly fabulous writer. The difference between her and many of the other authors I admire, however, is that Pittard doesn’t have that one stellar work, nor does she have those which are entirely without merit. Each and every one of her books shows both the artist’s greatest skills and her weaknesses. Visible Empire is perhaps the best example of this, as it swings most widely from one extreme to the other.

Visible Empire purports to be a novel about the 1962 Air France flight that crashed during take-off, killing all 122 passengers. At the time, it was the deadliest single-aircraft disaster. Most of the passengers were from Atlanta's upper society and were patrons of the Arts. But the crash is only the catalyst for the rest of the novel. Visible Empire is more about those left behind, a commentary on grief, affluence, and race. Primarily, the narrative focuses on four or five characters, though others are included as needed to fill in the gaps. Some of these stories work together and build upon one another; others don't seem to add much, but do provide a little more variety.

In particular, the first couple hundred pages of Visible Empireare really the strongest. Pittard's description of the crash itself and of the character's in the first stages of grief were phenomenal. But by the end, the story really dips into made-for-tv melodrama. At the conclusion, I didn't feel all the pieces connected in a satisfying manner.

If you can look past these flaws, I think Pittard is a wonderful author who has so much to offer. And maybe I shouldn't think of them as flaws; perhaps this is exactly how Pittard intends to write. The problem with this style is that I think it must be tough to find the right audience: it's too literary for the Hallmark crowd, too sensationalized for the New York Times crowd. Whatever side of the aisle Pittard eventually sits in, I'll keep turning to her work, looking for those moments of brilliance.