In my first-ever creative writing workshop about five years ago, one of my friends offered me a piece of criticism that I think about roughly twice a week. My friend Lillian said, “Jenna, on average, your sentences feel longer than the Declaration of Independence.”
Now, my sentences usually don’t go on for the 1,320 words like the declaration she compared my work to. Peter Handke, though, could still use Lili’s advice.
A postmodernist, Handke composed a nearly plotless work filled with meandering sentences, no chapter breaks and unparalleled insight into the protagonist’s consciousness in his latest work, “The Fruit Thief or, One-Way Journey into the Interior.”
Handke, a Nobel laureate from Austria, joins a lineup of writers whose talent is clearly recognizable even if not particularly palatable to all readers. His stream of consciousness style, similar to the form of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, is not my literary favorite, but his latest book is worth a read regardless.
His unconventional writing style makes this book one to add to your to-read stack if only to experience the full spectrum of literary style.
“This story began on one of those midsummer days when you take off your shoes to walk barefoot in the grass and get stung by a bee for the first time in the year,” Handke opens his novel.
This, I thought when I first cracked open the spine of the book, was a promising start. Then about halfway through, I flipped back to the first page and asked myself: “What story?”
Eventually, readers are given the pieces to a tale of the fruit thief, the imagined protagonist of a book the main character, a writer, is working on. This character, sometimes perceived as real, sometimes fictional to the reader, journeys through France.
The character’s character — a classification about as confusing as the entirety of the book — weaves in and out of the story, similar to Tarquin Superbus, in Claire-Louise Bennett’s “Checkout 19.” The fruit thief is little more than a device, even if the title makes readers assume they will be subjected to a whimsical story about someone who steals strawberries.
While many of Handke’s sentences require re-reading and intentional attention, he also tucks in several relatable thoughts.
“Now nothing about my trip or my plans seemed obvious anymore,” Handke writes. “And that was all right! Had things ever seemed obvious to me? Never. Not even once.”
I wholeheartedly concur with Handke here. Have things ever seemed obvious to me, either? Never. Not even once. Not even in this book.
I know Handke is gifted, innovative and ingenious. I know this in part because as the winner of honors like the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Franz Kafka Prize, he must be. His skill seeps through “The Fruit Thief,” too — granted, it is clearer when I have the attention span capacity to follow his words. When sentences run on for three-quarters of a page, though, my brain goes elsewhere.
He doesn’t follow the conventions of typical writing or typical storytelling. Employing a fascinating rhetorical style, he converses in the text with himself:
“Nothing was the same as usual on that summer day?” Handke writes. “Nonsense: it was the same as usual. Everything? Everything. Everything was as usual. Who said that? I did. I decreed that it be so. I settled the question. I was the same as usual. Exclamation point? Period.”
This encapsulates Handke’s style. Readers are perched in the sidecar of the motorcycle that is Handke’s consciousness — bearing witness to every thought that seems to go from his brain to the page all at once.
My formal, analytical opinion is that this work is A Lot. Full of tragically long prose and little action, “The Fruit Thief” might be literature, but it isn’t my personal favorite. It’s worth experiencing, but readers definitely need an attention span longer than mine.