Robert Boswell's latest novel, Tumbledown, is his first in a decade. In writing it, Boswell says he discovered a new point-of-view in fiction and a way to make the novel form new.
Boswell says Tumbledown, which is about a counselor at a mental health facility, is not strictly autobiographical. However, he says it is very much based on his experiences as a mental health counselor in Southern California during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“I knew I would always write about those years sooner or later, but I waited a long time," Boswell says. "And then once I started, it came together slowly and it changed as I was working on it and I was patient with it.”
One of the critical elements of the novel is Boswell’s employment of a new point-of-view in fiction: the unreliable omniscient narrator, which is a voice that could see everything but does not necessarily tell the reader everything. New to Boswell’s writing, this point-of-view was obvious to him in his surroundings, such as GPS units and other technology, which can be fallible.
“We believe in our phones and our computers and other forms of technology with an almost religious faith, and as we all know they often let us down," Boswell says. "Nonetheless, we go back to them and invest that faith in them again.”
This unreliable, yet all-knowing, narration device had its seeds planted back in Boswell’s mental health counseling days when he assessed the needs of his clients.
“The main character, James Candler, has the same kind of counseling job that I had back then, which is that he’s an evaluator,” Boswell says. “I would see other counselors' clients. They would send them to me for two or three week evaluations and I would give them an enormous battery of tests.”
Boswell often administered IQ tests and, over time, came to realize that test results were not always what they seemed to be. As colleagues adhered more closely to the findings, he became more unreliable in his reporting. Still, he says, his reports were treated with a certain reverence.
“I felt like they became unreliable in two ways,” he adds. “One: in that the test scores would be overvalued, and two: that knowing that I was trying to fix that error by skewing things a little bit in the client’s favor; my reports became a form on unreliable omniscience.”
Since its late summer release, Tumbledown has been well-received by critics, though many reviews mention that Boswell often takes his time in letting some scenes unfold. A few of those critics have seen this as the only real fault of the book. Others have remarked that this patience with the story is one of the elements that makes Tumbledown both of a novel of its time and one that recalls the work of writers such as George Eliot and Edith Wharton.
“Chekhov says that every book has to discover its own form," Boswell says. "And I feel that, in many ways, this book reads like an old fashioned novel. And then, at the same time, the fact that it’s unreliable turns that old-fashioned narrator on its head. So, I’m hopeful that it seems both old-fashioned and brand new at the same time. And really that’s what fiction is always doing. The novelist is always looking at the great novels and put a new twist on them.”
Robert Boswell reads from Tumbledown at 7 p.m., Tuesday, December 17 at Watermark Books.