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?