Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

So a lot was made about literary novelist Colson Whitehead crossing over to genre writing with this zombie novel, and as a result, I had in mind that he'd crossed over to commercial fiction (plot driven, less attention to language, super easy page turner), but it turns out genre and commercial are not equivalent (which is not to say this novel hasn't sold well, it has). In this case, what people really meant by genre, I guess, was it has zombies in it, which it does. But this is far more like zombie realism (Let's just make a note of that term I've invented; I'll say it again: zombie realism) than it is like a science fiction novel. But there again, I guess I'm equating genre writing with commercial writing rather than acknowledging what genre writing really is... a matter of content, not of style. So by content, yes, this is a futuristic, post-apocalyptic, zombie-shooting science fiction novel. But by style, it's very much a Colson Whitehead novel (bit satiric, very finely detailed, absolutely believable). All of which is to say I liked this novel way more than I thought I would; I really really liked it. Also, from here on out, I'm going to try say commercial fiction when I mean commercial fiction (fiction deliberately made accessible in order to reach more readers) and genre fiction when I mean genre fiction (fiction that takes as its subject certain things--a mystery, another planet, etc).

What I really really liked about this novel was all the ways it was different from McCarthy's The Road, which I liked okay but not with the ecstasy that every other reader seemed to feel. Because what I kept thinking when I read The Road was McCarthy did the easy part--make me sad by putting a child in danger--and not the hard part--fill in all the details. Now I get that this was a deliberate choice and McCarthy is very capable of filling in all the details, but it bugged me that the novel was all dialogue and action and almost no reflection and exposition (again I get it, I just didn't love it). But Zone One is pretty much the inverse of The Road, nearly all details, everything filled in. It is the kind of novel in which you recognize yourself (ah, that is how I would act, think, feel) rather than a novel in which you interject yourself (ah, this situation is terrifying, what would I do in this situation). And the first is my preferred kind. Actually The New Yorker has a great article on this subject this week, on how for certain types of readers, the concept is all they need--they need Middle Earth to exist more than they need Frodo to exist--because they want to write themselves into the story. Anyway, in this zombie novel, the zombies are mostly off-stage and the main character's reflections and memories are centered in the midst of a finely detailed new world. And the new world and the zombies themselves clearly become a commentary on our world and us... like this:

"In the time before the flood, Mark Spitz had a habit of making his girlfriends into things that were less than human. There was always a point, sooner or later, when they crossed a line and became creatures: following a lachrymose display while waiting in line for admission to the avant-garde performance; halfway into a silent rebuke when he underplayed his enthusiasm about attending her friend's wedding. Once it was only a look, a transit of anxiety across her eyes in which he glimpsed some irremediable flaw or future betrayal. And like that, the person he had fallen in love with was gone. They had been replaced by this familiar abomination, this thing that shared the same face, same voice, same familiar mannerisms that had once comforted him. To anyone else, the simulation was perfect."

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

There are few novels I like as much as I like Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, and so it seems unfair to hold other novels to its standard, even when those novels are written by Ondaatje himself. But I feel an obligation to acknowledge that while I liked this novel, I didn't love it the way I love The English Patient. Still any Ondaatje novel, and this is no exception, is like a nice warm bath in a clean hotel room in a foreign locale.

I read something recently about ornament in art--the decorative embellishments that appear on buildings or serve as repeating patterns in some art forms (like an Islamic arabesque) and I've been thinking about what might be ornament in writing. I'm also a little obsessed with this "growth chart" I once read, about the stages of reading we go through--starting with identifying with characters, moving on to seeking stories outside ourselves and ending up at "aesthetics." In my opinion most readers don't reach the aesthetics stage... but me, I'm buried in it up to my neck. Nowadays my favorite parts of novels are aesthetic--what others might call mere ornament. So The Cat's Table, a lush episodic recreation of a sea voyage taken from Sri Lanka to England by a young boy (named Michael), has at its core two plot lines, one about three boys who become friends, and one about a prisoner on board the ship. But those plot lines are slight, and not meant so much to anchor the novel as provide a rope line that you can cling to as you walk across the decks (see what I'm doing there?)... This isn't a novel centered on plot, and it's not really a novel centered on character, I'd say it's a novel centered on ornament. The snippets of dialogue overheard by the narrator and recorded ("This man said he could cross a desert eating just a date and one onion a day" and "I have a specific dislike, I am sorry to say, of the Sealyham terrier"), the image of an Olympic swimmer furiously rushing through her laps, the sound of men playing bridge late at night as the narrator lies in his bunk... the whole world of this novel is established by ornament...let us not underestimate its value...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia

I decided to reread this novel in anticipation of Cristina Garcia's reading at FAU (Oct 20, 5 pm, at University Center for Excellence in Writing) and was delighted by it all over again (I confess I had a certain bitterness connected to it in my memory based merely on the fact that I loaned my original copy to my then boss in 1995 and never got it back; that bitterness has happily been erased) (though I'm still annoyed that I loaned my copy of Gish Jen's Mona in the Promised Land to someone in 1998 and never got it back). Anyway... what I want to talk about is an idea related to that of "significant detail"...

Most undergrad workshops will at some point talk about significant detail--it's the idea that an author doesn't choose what to describe at random. We don't try to give a complete sensory portrait of a scene, nor do we point and click our cameras indiscriminately. We choose key images because of their connotations--emotional and intellectual. But my point is we don't just do that with sensory images--the things that physically exist in the imagined world of the story (or poem or essay) but also with figurative language, and with exposition, and with dreams... things that are planted into the story even more than those significant (and sensory) details are. So when someone chooses a metaphor as a means of description they are not actually trying to provide a more apt description of the image (the orange does not seem more orange-like because it has been compared to the sun), they are trying to point the reader to an emotional reading of the image (the orange seems more intense, more dangerous, more fiery because it has been compared to the sun). A better example: in Garcia's novel "Celia fingers the sheet of onion parchment in her pocket, reads the words again, one by one, like a blind woman." Through the use of the simile, we are meant to understand that Celia is literally running her fingers over the letter but also we are supposed to take on the layered meaning of blindness--someone who literally can't see, but also someone who can't understand... the moment provides the reader with a clear picture of what is happening, but also with a subtext, an implied understanding of the character...

Likewise, when author's insert dreams into their narratives this kind of subtext or connotation is often their intended effect: to add an emotional and intellectual subtext to what is "real." And that can be a huge mistake. Because readers are so trained to see dreams as symbolic that we can be highly suspicious of them; it feels like the author is taking a shortcut to meaning simply by inventing a dream that the character had. Now, of course, a novel titled "Dreaming in Cuban" is likely to be loaded up with dreams, so I thought it interesting to consider how Garcia gets away with such a potentially manipulative plot device... and I've decided she does because the "vivid and continuous dream" (see John Gardner, Art of Fiction) of this novel is not interrupted by the literal dreams. The trouble with writing dreams usually occurs because of the way they stand out from the rest of a narrative and how they take an otherwise realist experience and insert the surreal into it (yeah, this is how dreams operate in life, but fiction is not a direct representation of life, now is it?). So dreams work in this novel to add symbolism and meaning to the story, but they don't interrupt the story... just as your figurative language and your flashbacks/exposition also don't interrupt the story but rather feel of a piece with it. So my suggestions is if you want to use dreams in your writing, don't suddenly switch tones and styles and go into dream language but rather relay the dream (which can still be surreal and strange) in the voice of the rest of the story... maintaining the "vivid and continuous dream" that you have put your readers under.

Likewise, if you send your characters off into waking dreams (aka their imagination--also a useful way to add emotional and intellectual connotations), you need to maintain the tone of the rest of the work. Another example from Garcia: "Ivanito imagines the vines and tendrils, taut and violent as a killing rope, snaking along the floor to his bed, wrapping him in place, tighter and tighter, choking off his breath while his sisters sleep."

Don't you want to read this book now? You should.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

You Are Free by Danzy Senna

The first story of this collection was my favorite and the one I want to talk about. "Admission" is about a mixed race couple who are deciding whether to enter their child in private school or public school, and who receive a highly coveted admission spot in a very upscale pre-school (I had to return the book to the library, so I'm working from memory, I'm pretty sure it was pre-school). The husband wants to say no, the wife considers saying yes. But (spoiler alert!) in the end they say no. At which point this realist, quiet, but good story goes a little bananas. The admissions officer starts calling their home, visiting, essentially stalking them trying to figure out why they won't say yes... It is so weird and unexpected that it really makes the story. And because the admissions officer is a minor character whose thoughts the narrator does not have access to, we never know why she's doing what she's doing. Sort of like how we never learn why Bartleby "prefers not to" in one of my all-time favorites, Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener". And it had me thinking--you can Bartleby pretty much any story, even the most realist and quiet. People are often inexplicable and unexplicated. Not everything in your story has to be explained. Of course, you can't Bartleby all your stories. That would be silly. But maybe if you're stuck on one, can't get it going...Bartleby it. (can you see how I'm trying to make that a catch phrase? is it working?)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

Of all the much hyped books of the past year, this novel was by far my favorite (by the way, the author's first name has an accent over the e that I couldn't figure out how to add). It's set in the Balkans and essentially moves between three storylines (a classic braid structure): the narrator's contemporary life as a doctor in a war-ravaged country, the stories her just-deceased grandfather told her about his life as a doctor in a war-ravaged country (with the added bonus of encounters with a character who is the nephew of Death), and the stories her grandfather told her about his life as a child in a village threatened by a tiger who has taken up residence near-by (and threatened by the woman who becomes the tiger's wife). Now this might sound like magical realism and apparently comparisons to Garcia Marquez have been tossed around, but it reminds me more of Michael Ondaatje. Obreht doesn't use magic so much as she uses legend. I mean there's a big difference between a novel saying Death's nephew is real and a character in a novel (the grandfather) saying Death's nephew is real. And I loved how Obreht used the histories and legends that are attached to her setting--any setting has them! It made the whole novel feel bigger and more believable because everything had a history. Naturally I was particularly interested in the traces left behind by the Ottomans--such as the Jannissary's gun that was passed down generation to generation and so because of its historical significance (and the fact that it was the only gun in the village) was used to hunt the tiger...

The contemporary storyline of the novel is less developed than the other two lines (deliberately so) but what interested me was how Obreht got away with this because the other two storylines filled in the contemporary storyline. The narrator is not fully examined and revealed, but everything we learn about the grandfather casts more light on her because it has been established that the two of them are the proverbial peas in a pod. So developing the grandfather has the secondary effect of revealing the narrator. And similarly the Balkan country is described in a somewhat limited fashion in the contemporary storyline but because we know so much of the place's past through the other two storylines, we end up understanding it quite well.

As I read this novel I actually looked forward to reading it again in the future--that's something I love, when I know I'm not getting everything the first time around and that I'll come back again.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Blog

So, I know, I've been gone awhile. It's not that I haven't been reading. It's just I've had a series of disappointments (Swamplandia! ,Visit From the Goon Squad, some others I won't name). And even when I read a book I really liked, say A Widow's Year by Joyce Carol Oates or Moby Duck by Donovan Hohm, and I made some notes to blog...I just didn't. Sometimes I just don't feel like having people pay so much attention to my thoughts. I've also been researching a lot for the stories I'm working on, and that means I've read a lot of things that are blog-irrelevant. I'm not kidding these were for just one story:

Anderson, Ronald and Anne Koval. James McNeill Whistler: Beyond the Myth.
Babinger, Franz. Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time.
Croutier, Alev Lytle. Harem: The World Behind the Veil.
Faroqhi, Suraiya. Subjects of the Sultan: Culture and Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire.
Freely, John. Istanbul: The Imperial City.
Haskell, Francis. “A Turk and his Pictures in Nineteenth-Century Paris.”
Itzkowitz, Norman. Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition.
Le Men, Segolene. Courbet.
Lewis, Bernard. Istanbul and the Civilization of the Ottoman Empire.
Lewis, Bernard (ed.). A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of Life, Letters and History.
Lewis, Raphaela. Everyday Life in Ottoman Turkey.
Lindsay, Jack. Gustave Courbet: His Life and Art.
Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. The Turkish Embassy Letters.
Nochlin, Linda. “Courbet’s ‘L’origine du monde’: The Origin without an Original.”
Sancar, Asli. Ottoman Women: Myth and Reality.
Tinterow, Gary, ed. Gustave Courbet.

But the semester starts Monday, so we're back on, people. I'm sure I'll have something to say soon.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Things That Fall from the Sky by Kevin Brockmeier

I've been thinking lately about how a short story really doesn't need to be a bullet, traveling a fast and straight line (do bullets travel in straight lines? what do I know? not according to this, at least). A hazard of overly applied rules of writing can be that short story writers fear both digressions and exposition, and especially expositional digressions. But for me those can be some of the most surprising and moving parts of stories. For example, Brockmeier, in the midst of "These Hands" a story about a male nanny who falls in a deep, not exactly disturbing but not exactly comfortable, love, for the baby girl in his charge, interrupts the flow of events to bring us this: "An old story tells of a man who grew so fond of the sky--of the clouds like hills and the shadows of hills, of the birds like notes of music and the stars like distant blessings--that he made of his heart a kite and sailed it into the firmament." It's possibly my favorite sentence in the story. But it's the kind of line that interrupts the story--and so what I'm arguing for is the possibility of interruptions in what can otherwise be too tidy narratives.

The other thing I've been thinking is how some writers who write in multiple forms or genres will claim that they know instantly if an idea is a story idea or a novel idea or a poem idea ... And maybe they do, I can't read their minds. But for me at least, this seems to be a conscious decision--though sometimes my inability to execute my decision leads to a new decision. For example, I worked one collegiate summer at the Philadelphia Marionette Theater, and I thought I would work the experience into fiction, but then I wrote about it in poetry, then I thought nonfiction, before finally the poems got combined back into fiction and became the start of a story that eventually appeared in The Saint Ann's Review (I can't remember the title; that's embarrassing... ah wait, it was "The Theater Itself; or Sam, Sometimes"). Anyway, just yesterday I read an interview with a big name writer in which she said the character and plots in short stories were typically characters and plots that could not be sustained over the length of a novel. I'm not buying it. What made me think about this was this page in Brockmeier's story "Small Degrees":

"'You think that people are nothing but time,' she said. 'You think that I'm nothing but time. But I'm not time,' she said. 'I'm something else.'

"What was he to say about such a thing? If he was this sort of person he had never recognized it. As he tried to puzzle it through, he heard her breathing deepen. A cricket sounded at the window, and the house and all its spaces seemed to spread with an electrostatic silence. 'I don't know,' he said, 'Perhaps you're right.' And when she didn't reply, he closed his eyes and gathered the blankets to his shoulders.

"He was soon asleep.

"The next morning there was an answer waiting for him on his desk, written in his wife's hand: I love you, it read, but the word love had been crossed out and replaced with the word miss, which had been crossed out and replaced with an empty space, as though his wife had given up on the message altogether.

"He looked for her in the kitchen and the pantry and the bedroom, though he'd just come from there. He stood on the front walk and watched his neighbors drifting by like sails: she was not among them He even tapped on the trapdoor of the attic with a broomstick, querying her name with a brief little note of embarrassment in his voice. When it became clear that he was alone in the house--and because the day was supposed to begin this way--he lit the stove and drew the curtains and prepared a breakfast of eggs and toast. ... All day long he listened for the sound of her shoes in the hallway, their change from pad to click at the edge of the carpet and floor. He listened for the snap of wood as she spurred the fire, and the creak of the pantry door on its hinges, and the thousand peripheral noises that told him he was home and she was near.

"It was not until the sun fell that he realized she had left him."

To my mind, that works great as a complete piece of flash fiction. But the whole story--with expanded character development, expanded plot--worked great as a short story. And if Brockmeier so chose, it could work great--with expanded character development, expanded plot--as a novel. Couldn't it? Doesn't it just matter what we want to turn the seed into? What it interests us to do? (and what we're capable of doing) Granted some ideas immediately seem big enough for a novel (or too big for a story), but isn't it all in how we choose to treat those ideas?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilman

Full disclosure: Priscilla's my agent so obviously if I hadn't liked this book I would have pretended--for my whole life--to have not gotten around to reading it. Fortunately I have the good sense to surround myself only with the talented and the wise, so I'm never put in such awkward situations.

This memoir will rightfully be praised as a sensitive portrait of what it's like to parent a child on the autism spectrum, and I'm sure it will be advertised as a great book for parents of autistic children to read, but I found myself admiring it for a number of different reasons. It seems to me too often memoirs are about only one thing--they are very on the nose in terms of focus and subject and meaning. Novels are assumed to need layers and complications and multiple ideas, but some memoirs seem to narrow life down to just one thing (usually something marketable). To some extent this makes sense--focus is where you get a hook--and it allows, just as in fiction, for a book to run "narrow and deep" (copyright Toni Morrison). But there is such a thing as narrow and shallow ... so one of the things I admired most about this memoir is that while it centers on parenting an autistic child, it has a number of other layers, and one in particular that resonated with me. And that's how reading has been co-opted by academia in a way that isn't so good for reading. Students are often encouraged to separate the texts they read from the lives they lead, and as a result, reading feels unimportant; it feels...academic. Now, I'll be honest, I'm the first person to steer students away from talking about their personal lives in the classroom, but that doesn't mean English professors can't find other ways to connect literature to human experience. In the writing classrooms, we talk all the time about creating literature out of human experience, so how come in the literature classrooms it sometimes comes back out so differently? One of my big frustrations is that so many people see reading as a way to escape from life as opposed to a means to understand and confront and live life. And in her memoir, Gilman points out the ways that reading has shaped her--both for the better and the worse. Literature is one of the lenses through which she sees life, and throughout the book she shows how specific poems sometimes gave her unrealistic expectations for the future, but also how the very same poems helped her see her child as the unique being that he is. So, beautifully threaded throughout this parenting memoir is an argument for reading and a critique of academia (Gilman leaves the kind of tenure-track gig that most PhD's (think they) would sacrifice multiple limbs for) that I found just as compelling as the (very moving) kid stuff.

From a craft perspective I also want to point out one thing I noticed about how Gilman does characterization. At the heart of the memoir is Gilman's dilemma between seeing her child, Benj, as a unique, free-thinking individual, but also accepting that there is a diagnosis--hyperlexia--that explains a lot of what he says and does. And one of the keys to the book is that readers must see Benj the person and not just Benj the diagnosis. If readers didn't come to the same understanding that Gilman herself did, the book would, to put it bluntly, fail. And Gilman is very good at showing through example and quoted dialogue and cinematic descriptions how charming and joyous and also emotional and challenging Benj is. This is a good use of traditional technique--show show show. (my favorite example of anecdotal showing is when Benj who has complained vehemently about his mother changing the lyrics of James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" to "Sweet Baby Benj" expresses delight at the lyrics being sung correctly to his new baby brother...James). But Gilman also characterizes Benj through a technique that hadn't really occurred to me before, and which would also work well in fiction. Gilman juxtaposes Benj with other characters, and as a reader, I started to see bits of Benj everywhere. His father, his grandfather, his grandmother, and even his mother all share some of his traits. Especially charming is the relationship between Benj and his grandmother, who is delighted to finally have someone so entirely rational (like her) in what has up until then been a family of wishers and dreamers. So what I'm saying is, instead of seeing Benj as a composite of symptoms (hyper-literal, anxious, obsessed with routine) you see him as a composite of those who surround him--just with their traits taken to the extreme. Most of the time, writers do characterization through dialogue and through point of view (either getting into the character's head or hearing the narrator's thoughts on the character), but this third way seems almost like sleight of hand. You aren't even looking at Benj, you are looking at his joyful but extremely sensitive grandfather, when you think, hey that reminds me of Benj. But because you know the grandfather isn't hyperlexic, you think, well that's just a personality trait not a symptom. And so you re-envision what first seemed like one of Benj's symptoms as one of his personality traits. This is the kind of echoing that is often done with theme (we call those things that get repeated motifs) but I confess I never really thought of echoes or motifs between characters before (I know about foils, but we're not talking opposites here, we're talking variations on a theme). Sometimes it takes nonfiction--which is, of course, reflecting reality, in which people in close proximity often share character traits--to show me what can be done in fiction. This trick of characterization has the added affect of reminding readers that these things really are on a spectrum, and many of us who would be diagnosed "normal" because we find it easy to follow the rules of school aren't so far off from those who sometimes are too conveniently labelled "abnormal." Gilman expresses directly how important it is not to see Benj--or any kid--in terms of normal and abnormal but instead just see them as they are. A useful lesson for life of course, but an equally useful one for writing.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Eight Questions...again

Some very interesting questions raised here. I especially like how one of the labels for the blogpost is lawnmower. By way of one answer, I would probably be a better writer if I were outraged, but no, I'm more along the lines of detached ... the form of the essay came about because when this happens, which is all the time, it feels exactly like I'm inside of a play in which I can't seem to stop myself from saying the prescribed lines. As if I didn't write them. Which, of course, I did.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Eight Questions...

This sure does make me sound a lot smarter than I am. I am seriously appreciative of how thoughtful this reading of my essay is... plus, how did they get the accent on my name right? I don't even know how to do that.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Few Words on First Drafts

I've been moving between two first drafts lately (my least favorite part of writing). And I've realized that a lot of my early drafting is me looking for the rhythm of the story (also the voice, but more specifically the rhythm of the sentences). I can't really go until I have a sentence that's my anchor, that gives me a model to hold onto while I write the rest. Sometimes it's the first sentence, sometimes not. In this case: "The fair was open into the night, but finally there would be a time when the gates had closed, and even the stragglers had been expelled, and the villagers had their village to themselves," it's a few pages in. But it wasn't until I got this sentence (which probably seems quite mundane to you) that I felt confident that the story would actually happen.

Another thing I realized lately is sometimes my draft isn't going well because I simply haven't given myself enough to work with. First I wrote this sentence "They had arrived a month before the fair began, after a steamer trip from Constantinople to New York, and a train trip from New York to Chicago" which was basically a filler expositional sentence but then on a whim, I changed it to this sentence: "They, with one exception, had arrived a month before the fair began, after a steamer trip from Constantinople to New York, and a train trip from New York to Chicago" ... and it felt like I had something to build on. Stories are often built out of difference I think--the one person or event or what-have-you that doesn't fit the mold. Might not keep it, but it's an indicator of where most of my ideas come from. From the sentence. As I write it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

American Idol and the Art of Storytelling

I'm not sure anyone else is still watching American Idol, but I'm quite enjoying the new judges and whatnot. But my mom and I have decided that what's really needed is an overhaul in the editing department--by which we mean the people who craft all the narratives that get created around the idol wannabes. The problem is this: American Idol confuses melodrama and sentimentality with good storytelling (just like many an intro to creative writing student) Melodrama--look at all the terrible things that happen to people!--and sentimentality--cry for me, terrible things have happened to me!--are being employed to try to shortcut viewers into caring about the "characters". It doesn't work. On the other hand, the storyline the other night, in which a baby-faced fifteen year old, Jacee was cut from his group in the middle of the night leaving him stranded actually made for a good story. Why? Because the "villain"--the guy, Junebug who decided to cut Jaycee was 1) a likeable, kind of funny looking, talented singer who 2) did a bad thing for a good reason. Jacee, by all appearances, couldn't project enough. He was going to mess up. The group was probably better without him. So good reason. But Jacee is really young (vulnerability!) and it was really late in the game to cut someone (cruelty!). So bad thing. As a result, I could understand why the group wanted to cut him but I felt really bad for him when they actually did it... and so I became invested in what would happen next. Would Jacee find a new group? Would Junebug be punished for his wrongdoing? ... suspense! tension! a narrative that wasn't backstory (like most of what the show tries to use for characterization) and in which the characters were active agents in the story (as opposed to victims of circumstance). And even better, it turned out there was a group that needed another when they took Jacee in, it was not just because they felt sorry for him, they had needs of their own (characters always have needs of their own). And when Jacee messed up with the new group, he still got voted through to the next round...why? because he had a story! People felt for him! Probably if he hadn't gotten kicked out of his old group, he would have been sent home... Now in all of this, Jacee was a somewhat passive character--he got kicked out of one group and pulled into another as opposed to quitting a group and joining another, but he remained interesting because of his reaction to the events. He was obviously hurt by it, but he was so dignified (which contrasted wonderfully with his babyface) and tried to act unemotional but the tears kept sneaking up on him. He was the exact opposite of the hysterical, incredibly annoying people that American Idol keeps putting on the show for drama. (again confusing drama with melodrama). So, my point is, and American Idol producers should take note (alert the media!)'s very hard to create characters if you don't give them a story to operate in. You want us to care about these wannabes, give them a narrative in which they are active participants who engage in recognizable and understandable human emotions.

Monday, February 07, 2011

House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer's Journey Home by Mark Richard

When I was in the middle of this memoir I thought, I should only read books this good. Wouldn’t my life be better if I only read books this good? But truthfully, not that many books are this good.

Many times over I’ve read (or let’s face it, written) a piece with a strong, compelling voice right at the beginning that then switches over to a weaker, more conventional voice. And the reasoning is either—I, the writer, couldn’t sustain that voice over a long period or the reader wouldn’t want to read a whole book in such a noticeable voice. Well. This is a case for committing, for stick-to-it-iveness, for not underestimating the reader. I know Richard wrote the essay that became the opening to this memoir about fourteen years ago, and given that the memoir is out this month, I have to assume there were quite a few years in between the essay and the developing of the essay into a book. But the voice. It never falters. The moment where the essay leaves off is invisible.

So let’s talk about the voice. It’s second person. An entire memoir written in second person. I think on principle most people hearing of such a thing would just say no. The guy who came up to me when he saw me reading the book at the airport said, “that would never fly in workshop” (he was coming from the same writing conference I was; I don’t think random airport travelers know about workshop). But there are a couple of reasons a book-length second person isn’t a problem, at least in this case. For one, Richard isn’t writing in scene so you don’t get awkward dialogue tags. And for another he almost never writes action. So you don’t get a lot of You do this, You do that. In fact “you” rarely starts a sentence; it is almost always buried inside. Now before you go all “show don’t tell” on me, let me explain that while Richard doesn’t write much dialogue or action (otherwise known as scene), this memoir does nothing but show. It’s just expositional showing. It’s like a memoir of every striking image, Richard has ever seen. And you quite literally see the world through his eyes, and as a result you feel like you know him intimately (probably much more so than if he gave you the usual blend of scene and reflection).

Case in point: “The snake gets in there and unhinges its jaw and starts to try to swallow the baby headfirst when the mother comes in from the neighbor’s laundry and the baby is screaming with a snake on its head like a skullcap with a length of yellow and brown tail.”

Full disclosure: One of my favorite memories of graduate school is Mark Richard reading the "Why I Write" essay that opens this memoir to our class. And he gave me a copy of this book for free, which was really nice. The even nicer thing is reading the book made me think, Good grief, I need to work harder.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Recommended Reading

Sometimes my friends and colleagues exhaust me with their talent, but I celebrate them all the same. Check out the latest translation by Becka Mara McKay (of Alex Epstein's short fiction) in The Kenyon Review. I especially love "On the Power of Russian Literature."

Monday, January 31, 2011

Recommended Reading

Check out this essay, by one of my once-upon-a-time students, Megan Kruse, in Narrative magazine (log in required, but it's free).

Sunday, January 30, 2011

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales edited by Kate Bernheimer

I'm a well known fairy tale fan and so of course I liked this anthology of fairy tales by some of my favorite authors (Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Lydia Millet...)(full disclosure: editor Kate Bernheimer once published a piece of mine in her journal Fairy Tale Review). But probably my favorite of all the tales was "A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin" by Kevin Brockmeier. And it had me thinking about how I read. I sometimes ask students what, if anything they are picturing when they read a story, and some of them will claim that they are seeing it play like a movie in their heads. But I don't really believe them. If they are, they are filling in an extraordinary amount of gaps. I mean even the most scenic of stories doesn't have anywhere near the visuals of a movie. When I read, I am hearing language and usually not seeing anything. Occasionally an image will stand out and I'll see it clearly--sort of like looking at photos while someone narrates their vacation (good grief, is reading fiction like a power point presentation?). I'm bringing this up now because in this story the main character is ... Half of Rumpelstiltskin. I mean he's literally half of a person. And Brockmeier does describe him: "He is like a pentagram folded across its center or a tree split by lightning. He is like the left half of a slumberous mannequin, yawning and shuddering, rising from within the netlike architecture of his dreams. He is like that exactly." But if I spent the story actually visualizing, or if Brockmeier spent the story constantly describing, half of a man...well, it would be a huge and horrible distraction. Instead Brockmeier calls the character Half of Rmpelstiltskin all the time. That's his name. And the repetition gives a lot of strength to the voice while tonally affecting how you think of the character. I can't help but have sympathy for someone cut in half, and of course, it's more important thematically that he's half of himself than it is literally. The story wouldn't work if Brockmeier didn't treat the half body realistically (it hops, its clothes don't fit Gregor Samsa's bug body, it's treated as absolutely real) but because Brockmeier doesn't constantly worry about what you're seeing, you aren't distracted by the body, but are instead engaged by the character. I'm not suggesting we abandon physical description (I like the slide show portion of my reading) but just want to suggest that the sound attached to a character, the tone of how he's described, can do more work than the statistics of height, weight and hair color.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada

I found this book in my parents' basement--as you might have imagined I grew up in a house where there were, and still are, books at every turn, quite a few of which are more than a hundred years old (my reading habits are genetically encoded over many generations). Anyway I decided to give it a go since Fallada has been put back into print recently. The novel was first published in the US in 1933 (it's German) and weirdly this copy has a book plate from the Public Library of Mexico City, Special Tourists Rates, 10 cents a day ... this could be quite a fine if they come after me (2011 - 1933 x 365 x .10 = 2487!). Anyway one thing that struck me about this German novel from the 1930s is how few mentions of the Nazi's are in it ... oh, they're in there, but they are definitely just a bit of colored border surrounding the central plot. Now if a 21st century writer were to write a novel about 1930s Germany, I suspect they might be inclined to talk quite a lot about Nazis and the coming storm. Because it's hard for writers of historical fiction not to forecast the future... after all, they know it already. But it's important not to. One of the keys to historical fiction it seems to me is to hide an awful lot of what you know...rather to imagine what it was like to not know.

The novel by the way is really resonant for today's times as it's about a young couple who get themselves deeper and deeper into debt in a one thing leads to another fashion. And while you can see their trouble's coming (why oh why did he buy that dressing table) you feel sorry for them (I know exactly why he brought that dressing table--as a failed last stand against further humiliation) and while you know that things are going to get worse you wonder just how... As I was reading the novel I kept describing it as funny though now that I look back, the dominant tone is unquestionably sad. But there is a comic sensibility to some key scenes and one or two characters, and those are a pretty vital contrast to the depression.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Joe by Larry Brown

Okay, I thought I would blog more given sabbatical...but it turns out, no, I won't. And I waited so long to blog about this novel, which I liked a heck of a lot, that I forgot I had read it until I saw my blog entry draft just now. But according to my notes what I wanted to say was when beginning writers include alcohol and other drugs in their stories they almost always show the character at the height of his/her altered-mind-state. The point of the whole scene becomes to show what it's like to be in that state. But it is in fiction as it is in life, and the drunk person at a party is usually the least interesting one to listen to. So scenes of drunkenness can be a bit dull to read. Now in Brown's novel there are a number of alcoholics. The two primary ones are the most heroic character in the novel and the most villainous one in the novel. The villain, you know right away, is a drunk and a villain. The hero, it takes you some time to realize is also a drunk. Which alters your thinking on the villain a little (not much). But Brown is also savvy about how he uses drinking in the novel. He doesn't stay long in scenes of drunkenness and doesn't go into the minds of characters when they are drunk (their drunken points of view just wouldn't be that interesting), but rather he lingers in the consequences of their disease. And with the hero, when he finally acts out in a state of drunkenness, you realize this is not an escape from who he is and how he acts (the typical drunken teenager trying to be someone else via alchohol), instead you realize that this rage reflects his real despair that he has been fighting so hard to suppress. What Joe does when he's drunk suddenly shows the reader the difference between who Joe wants to be (and fights to be most of the novel) and who he instinctively is. And suddenly you realize that Joe's kind acts throughout have been this heroic fight against his natural inclinations, and so in his downfall, he becomes both more tragic and more heroic. The alcohol instead of being some deus ex machina that gets a character to do something dramatic he would normally otherwise never do becomes a way to reveal the character's deepest despair...when he's sober.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

I've been hearing about this young adult novel for years and meaning to read it for just as long. It's a page turner and well done. And I suspect the things that bugged me about it only bugged me because I'm an adult and not really of the intended demographic. The novel sets up two mysteries at the start--the first, what is going on with this narrator (who is an intense and emotional fellow) and two, who is he writing to (the novel is epistolary and the first letter makes clear he does not really know the person he is sending the letters to). Both questions get answered, but what was interesting to me was that the answers ultimately meant very little to my experience of the novel. The reason that he's a little off is not exactly predictable so much as it is familiar, but without giving it away, I only think it felt familiar because I'm a grown-up and this isn't the first time I've read about that subject. If I were a teen/pre-teen this might well be my first exposure and therefore much more powerful. The recipient of the letters isn't completely explained but is revealed just enough that you don't wonder who s/he is...but I really didn't care at all who s/he was...which raised the question for me: would the novel be better or just as good if it wasn't written in the form of letters? The first person voice is definitely a strength of the book, but first person narratives don't need to be justified... So then is the form of a letter particularly key to the novel...not so much, I mean we get direct dialogue and scenes which make it more like a conventional first person narrative than actual letters. And because the recipient is a stranger--barely more familiar to the narrator than I the reader am--his/her existence doesn't change how the story is told either. The novel could just as easily have been written as a diary (though the narrator makes a point of saying he doesn't want to write a diary because they can be found). Thematically the letters probably matter--they mean the narrator is reaching out to someone, but not to someone who he is close to. But that doesn't really change my reading of the novel or my understanding of the narrator. So is the point of the letters just to set up a mystery for its own sake? I kind of think it is. And in the end, that seemed fairly okay. I zipped through the book not just because it's young adult but because I was very curious about what would happen and what was going on. And I felt satisfied in the end--it's an emotionally effective novel. So did it matter that I was "tricked" into wondering about something that didn't matter that much ultimately... I guess not. Which surprises me. My impulse would be to say, of course that matters, don't do that. But as is so often the case, writers get away with a lot as long as they write a good story.