March 29, 2012


In the investment world, corporations are described as vertical or horizontal entities. A vertical business is one that deals with a narrow range of products, like a tire company or cheese factory. A horizontal business is one that engages in numerous ventures. General Electric is a typical example of a horizontal enterprise, selling anything from power, to computation services to appliances. I thought about these ways of distinguishing types of companies the other day as I was finishing Anne Michaels’ novel, “The Winter Vault.”

I can’t remember how many times I decided to quit the book while reading it, but they were many. Still, I kept returning to the story, dragging myself through a chapter or two before setting the volume down again. By the last third, the fog of my love-hate relationship began to clear. The language was beautiful but that isn’t why I kept turning the pages, almost against my will. What my unconscious had grasped  before I did was that Michaels was exploring a new format, not as dramatic as Proust or James Joyce, but a new format nonetheless.


She was giving her reader a  vertical novel as opposed to a horizontal one which had a beginning, middle and end. I was plunged deep into the psyches of her characters without regard to time. I might be immersed in the distant past at one moment and then be thrown into the present in another. What mattered was not sequence but similarities between events.  

As I became aware of this device, I began to understand how it could be effective. Time, after all, is a construct like any other. Events in the mind are always in our present though they may be memories. Once I understood this device, I realized my mistake was in forcing my presumptions upon Michaels’ book. I needed to read vertically, so to speak… almost as if I were Chinese.

I am firm in my opinion that the sender of a message is responsible for the clarity of its content, but the audience has an obligation too. We must be free from expectations if we wish to understand. With Michaels book, I was not free. Still the grandeur of her language beguiled me and so, I was able, finally, to enter her world instead of imposing my own.

There is so much variety in life. Why should it surprise me that there are many ways to  tell a story, too?