Empire Falls – Richard Russo

Today I feel i have been struggling against the tide a little at work. I find – and I’m pretty sure this is true of the majority of people – that identifying what tasks are most important and actually getting down to them can be a bit of a challenge. It is easier to procrastinate and do other less-useful things which give you a sense of superficial satisfaction, but don’t actually get you any closer to your goal.

Why do we put things off? Is it because we don’t really think that the end result will be that beneficial to us? Is it that we are afraid of not completing it to our own personal standards? Or, could it be that we don’t truly know what it is that we want to achieve and why? And moreover, why – you may be wondering – am I rambling on about procrastination in a book blog?!

I mentioned a certain lady from Maine in my previous post. The lady I was referring to was a Mrs Whiting from the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. I read Empire Falls in August as part of readers group with friends, and although I enjoyed it once I’d finished it, I found it a little long-winded. Also, while Russo has a brilliant skill for developing his characters, I didn’t empathise with most of them or the setting either. As a Brit, I don’t really identify with the faded nostalgic glory of the small American mill town, that Russo depicted in his novel.

But one of the town’s inhabitants, Mrs Whiting (and her demented cat) really tickled me. She was interesting for being such a strong and formidable character, and I remember thinking at the time of reading that despite the fact that she was a bitch of the first order, I could take something away from her methods!
In the novel, Mrs Whiting controls the little town of Empire Falls, and is a thorn in the side for Miles Roby, the manager of the Empire Grill who is too distracted by his failing family life to notice how suffocating her iron grip really is. Mrs Whiting, despite being an aged single lady with a disabled daughter, she always gets what she wants.

Firstly, she knows her own mind. This is in contrast to Miles who for most of the book seems unable to pursue even his own happiness leading him to putter and sputter along. Though he doesn’t realise it, Mrs Whiting is a deadly succubus in his life and his resigned temperament simply makes easier for her to affect him.

Secondly, Mrs Whiting has a particular method of getting what she wants with a grim determination reminiscent of the kind of zombies from third rate horror movies. You know, those ones that don’t always move very fast but always get their victims in the end. Her philosophy is to break down her goal into smaller tasks that are easier for her to undertake. And if she can’t achieve those? She breaks them down into even smaller, more minute pieces. This makes her unstoppable.
So what did I take from that? Well I’m not saying I want to be a scary, calculating sort of person, but this reinforced something for me. I believe that if you know what you want and can identify the steps to move towards it, your goal becomes manageable, and therefore achievable. A note of caution though. Mrs Whiting’s inflexibility and desire to control everything eventually leads to her undoing. Beware megalomania!
Right, I’m off to write my task list now and conquer the world…

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