For readers who think about books as a straight line, Juneau novelist Stuart Archer Cohen’s latest work throws some interesting curves. The story is about the intersections of people’s lives, and the realities we create — or at least contemplate — for ourselves. And yes, that is a spoiler — otherwise the novel “This is How it Really Sounds” might be just another action-packed, jet-setting thriller that takes off and lands in Alaska.
Stuart Archer Cohen will read from his novel, “This is How it Really Sounds,” this evening (Thu May 15) at 6 PM at Old Harbor Books.
This is Stuart Archer Cohen’s third novel to reach print. He admits the last two were a little heavy: South American political intrigue complete with death squads and all the trimmings.
This is How it Really Sounds is threaded around an epic and — his word — “ridiculous” vendetta. The three main characters all share the same name, and most readers will readily anticipate a storyline that gradually pulls tighter and tighter around the trio.
But it doesn’t unfold that way at all.
“In this book I purposefully did not make those plot choices that connect character A to character B and character C, that sort of thing. Instead I did it intuitively.”
But while Cohen is willing to challenge readers, he’s not going to sacrifice interest for intellect. This is How it Really Sounds is propelled by a pop-fiction vibe and exotic settings around the world. And for Alaskans, anyway, some of it will be eerily familiar. The novel concludes with a heart-stopping back-country skiing scene in the mountains above Juneau.
“That was actually the first part of the book that was written — as a short story. But that’s really what the entire book is about. And if you start looking more carefully, the rest of the book is filled with mountains. The rest of the book is a reflection of that last section.”
And just as the mountains are reflected throughout the story, so are the character’s lives. This is where Cohen’s novel bends the rules of the adventure-thriller genre. Sometimes you’re reading about one of the three characters, but sometimes you’re hearing only an echo.
“I think everyone’s had that experience where you go up to a house — maybe you’re looking for directions — and you find yourself looking in the window of some stranger’s house. Nobody’s home, and you see all their possessions — coats, books, furniture — and you think about their life. For me that was one of the things that was kind of in the background of this book — the way that everybody else’s life is a mystery.”
Cohen has lived for thirty years in Southeast Alaska. He’s an importer of alpaca wool and Asian silks, so he’s familiar with the terrain of his novels. He’s also a splitboard rider — though he’s in withdrawal from the lack of snow in Juneau this year. A splitboard is a snowboard that comes apart down the middle and becomes more or less like a pair of skis.
And that’s not a bad metaphor for his newest book.
“I like books that progress and change. I don’t like, Here’s the picture frame, and we’re going to stay within that frame. My idea is that maybe the reader thinks it’s one thing when he first starts reading, then it changes into a totally different thing. Again, as long as you’re telling a good story, the reader’s willing to go along with you.”
This is How it Really Sounds is published by St. Martin’s Press.