Friday, December 31, 2004

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I always give fiction published by MacAdam-Cage a chance, and this is a clever book. It made for an excellent airplane read (am I the only person who worries about choosing books to read on airplanes that don't make me look common --c'mon you know what I mean-- but also don't make me look pompous?). The hook--husband can't help but time travel--naked--at unexpected moments--puts tension into every scene. You never know when he's going to disappear or show up and how he's going to cope with not having any clothes, so there is a physical threat at even the most ordinary moments. I flew through this book wondering what would happen, and yet it's in many ways a conventional romance. The events are basically dates, wedding, difficulty getting pregnant--the author has just found a way to make them fresh. The thing is I read this book only a week ago and I remember almost nothing from it. Essentially it's an engagingly-written, plot-driven read. If Niffenegger had paid a little more attention to character-development, I think it would have been the kind of book I want to reread every few years; as it is, I probably won't keep my copy for long. Good book to learn about tension from, though.

Madeleine is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

I like the description of this novel more than the novel itself, but it's a worthy experiment. It's structured almost like a book of prose poems, very short, titled sections, clearly meant to be lyric. I like the idea of the mini chapters adding up to a novel, but the language never felt quite good enough to compensate for the lack of character development (these are Capital C Characters, not people). One of my students has been asking about how fiction can work if it's not character-driven, and my belief, at least, is that it then has to operate much more like a poem -- either language-driven or idea-driven, preferably some of both.

Much of the novel is set in dreams, and the big problem there is that dreams are allowed to be random and loaded with meaning, which to a writer is way too convenient. It lets you load up the symbols and strangeness without really earning them. The choice to use present tense also overdid the sense of forced lyricism--as did a number of the one line paragraphs (a tool I like, but only when it's a really worthy line). Actually this felt like a whole book of one line paragraphs.

There were moments I really liked in this book, and I applaud the ambition. The best image is the predominant one--Madeleine, in her bed, sleeping, as all kinds of odd business goes on around her. I also love the cover, but you know what they say about that...

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

This novel isn't at all what I thought it would be. I knew it was about a professor accused of sexual harrassment, a topic that's looking fairly tired, but Coetzee merely uses that as his initial premise -- the incident that leads to the incident that leads to the incident which is the novel's center. What interested me is how Coetzee gets away with, and indeed succeeds at, some things I know I would warn against in a workshop. To start off, I'm quite sure if I saw the title Disgrace at the top of a story or novel draft, I'd cross it out and write "too obvious" next to it. And yet ... and yet... attached to this novel, the word has a lyric, mournful sound that makes it an appropriate center for the work. Disgrace is, quite hit over the head with a hammer, what the novel is about, yet because Coetzee actually has interesting things to say about the state of "disgrace" it definitely works.

The events of the novel are very large, very violent, very dramatic. And again Coetzee gets away with what I might caution against in workshop in part because of the larger scope of the novel (South African politics, which are not subtle) and in part because the language is so understated and removed. There is a large psychic distance at work, and that actually suits the sense of a character in shock at what violence has so suddenly entered his life. Increasingly I'm realizing that huge events can work extremely well in novels (perhaps less so in short stories, or perhaps I'm just not convinced yet), but they need room to be explored. The repercussions need to play out fully -- something that isn't going to happen in a twenty-page workshop installment. Which reminds me why it's so important for student writers, in particular, to be reading a lot and discovering for themselves what works in finished books. Interestingly, some of the more "workshoppy" elements of the novel -- especially the return to each element of the beginning of the novel (the harrassment, the dog shelter, the farm) in the novel's end didn't work as well for me. Only then did the fact that the Professor was (symbolically) punished for raping one man's daughter by having his own daughter raped feel forced into the novel rather than of it. Still, in the end, the plot feels real because of the real consequences the characters suffer.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Edinburgh by Alexander Chee

A grad student recommended this first novel to me. The writing is immediately striking -- as I read the first pages I thought, well, of course, this got published. The sentences are incredibly tight and loaded with imagery and precise word choices. The initial subject matter -- twelve choir boys are molested by their choir master -- is dark, but the first person voice of one of the boys --Fee-- makes it dark and beautiful rather than simply crushing. More than halfway through the novel switches to another first person (Fee has grown up and one of his students takes up the narration) which while decently written didn't hold me the way the first half did. When we switch back to Fee's voice it becomes clear that the novel really does belong to him, and the writer basically needed to use the middle section to convey information Fee couldn't give us. It's a trick probably only other writers will be bothered by, but I was bothered by it. It's perhaps a pet peeve since so many student novelists move between first person voices simply as a means to not be overwhelmed by telling a big, extended story. Or maybe it's just a personal objection. It almost always feels like cheating to me when a book switches voices. Though there are exceptions -- Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, for one. Still, this was a good book.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

I read this because my brother (a big sci-fi reader) sent me the novel To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis for my birthday last summer. The Willis novel was charming and a good reminder that my students should not be misjudged for enjoying science fiction and fantasy, and was chock-full of intertextuality (imagine...sci-fi writers read too). The title comes from the late nineteenth century Jerome work, in which three men and a dog (Montmorency!) take a hapless, boating trip on the Thames. Not a book I'd use in class probably, simply because its lack of narrative cohesiveness is hard for beginners to get away with, but very funny. A sort of Basil Fawlty in a boat.

Passage by Andy Goldsworthy

Okay, this is an art book not a work of fiction, but I'm a little in love with Andy Goldsworthy who makes art in (and out of) nature and then photographs it. When I was living in NYC years ago, a friend of mine took me to a lecture he gave and I have always rememembered it as one of my favorite New York moments. Then recently I watched the documentary "Rivers and Tides" and had an honest-to-goodness epiphanic moment when Goldsworthy was building a stone wall snaking in and out of a line of trees. He was talking about how the "art" would change over time as the trees continued to grow and took over the wall. The trees would outlast the wall, he said. Now my novel-in-progress has the in-progess title "Wood for Stone" which comes from the idea of land being cleared and walls being put up around it -- memorializing stone walls replacing living wood. The whole mood of my novel (in my mind) was coming from this image of dead stone outlasting live wood. But the second I realized the wood would always win--that stone walls do crumble--it shifted the feeling I had for the book and made it much more of a book that I wanted to write. Life wins. Yea! So I can't promise that Passage, which is a beautiful book of photographs and excerpts from Goldsworthy's diaries, will matter to any other fiction writer--but it--and the documentary--did to me.

The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken

This is a recent favorite of mine. A good example of how voice can create character. The exposition on the narrator is minimal -- but McCracken uses her sarcasm blended with moments of great vulnerability as well as her work identity--librarian--and all that we associate with that--to create a very funny, very sad narrator.

Structurally it's a wonderful model for beginning novelists. Narrator has a project --take care of giant boy -- and McCracken takes a chronological approach, but instead of using events as her main plot points, she brings in (and then takes out) new characters. Each new character acts upon the main protagonists (librarian and giant) and then exits for the rest of the novel (though not to be entirely forgotten). It's a useful technique for dealing with a large cast of secondary characters.