Friday, December 16, 2005

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala

A short novel (publishers seem to have abolished the novella) told in the voice of an African child soldier that is amazing in its ability to stay in voice. I like the novel, it's unique, it's a compelling subject, it's very skillfully written, but I kept wondering why the kid is talking in this voice. It's the voice of immigrant English. But why would this kid be telling his story in English? It suggests that the audience for the novel is American (or at least English speaking) and the voice is the one that average Americans expect Africans to speak in. I suppose in lit crit thought there's a lot that could be made of this--the child telling his story to the audience that has so far been ignoring it, not to his own people who are well aware of it--but I'm mostly interested in it as a writing decision. The novel was written in English, by a writer fully capable of smooth, literary English, but if the voice of the narrator was not this chopped up lyrical pidgeon English, there would be no book. This is very much a voice-driven story; the voice creates the sense of chaos and strangeness of the world of war, and especially the confusion of being a child at war. There is almost no character development, and really very little plot (while there are many kidnappings, killings, and rapes, it's a strangely plotless book). It is the voice that holds the reader to the page--which suggests to me that this could have been a really phenomenal short story, and perhaps should have been, though I admit I cruised through the whole novel, and enjoyed it most of the time.

Home Land by Sam Lipsyte

As opposed to exuberant writing (see Adam Johnson's Parasites Like Us), the novel Home Land is manic writing. At first, the voice (and the author) seemed totally out of control--too anything goes--but then about ten or so pages in, I simply accepted it. This was a rant--a barely in control rant that belonged to a barely in control character--and I was going to go along simply to see would happen next. And then the book got really really funny. It was probably funny from the start, but I had to let my defenses down and accept that this wasn't realism so I shouldn't be expecting realistic behavior.

The narrator is a middle-aged, unsuccessful, seemingly not very intelligent, middle-class guy who keeps sending totally insane updates to his high school newsletter. At first, I was very suspicious of this conceit--I didn't want to read a whole novel of newsletter updates--but ultimately if Lipsyte hadn't stuck to it, the novel probably would have been much less successful. And this device is precisely the kind of thing that often gets struck down in workshop, where students have a tendency, if un-attended, to not let writing get too strange. I could see myself even suggesting that the author use the device as a start to the novel, but to let it drop quickly. And to some degree Lipsyte does--he uses scene, he uses far fewer "dear reader" moments in which he directly addresses his fellow alumni (the Catamounts) as the novel goes on, and he culminates in a high school reunion that involves many of the alumni that previously were seen in the updates. But he never lets go of the idea completely and it pays off in the end. So this is just a shout out to those who take risks in workshop and don't let the rest of us dissuade you from them.

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian and The Golden Compas by Philip Pullman

Students often like to make the case, especially if they don't like their grades, that what one likes in writing is subjective (and therefore can't be graded). I like to make the case, especially with students, that really great books aren't subjective. That quality writing goes beyond taste to be impressive no matter what the preferences are of the reader. And I believe this, but perhaps only with a fairly sophisticated, widely-read reader, who can recognize when a book is achieving its own goals. And Master and Commander, a book I read because of some quality recommendations from trusted friends and the force of millions (hundreds of thousands? I guess we're not talking television here) of fans, is a case of a book I could appreciate but not love. The Golden Compass, which I read for precisely the same reasons, is another. And the thing holding me back from love, I suspect, was character. Master and Commander is great at conveying a world (for those who don't know, the novel is the first in a long series which traces the friendship of a Captain and a doctor, as well as a lot of battles at sea, during the Napoleonic Wars), and it has what I guess is an exciting plot, but I never felt close to the people involved. My favorite moments were the character moments, but the book was mostly battles. So it was liked but not loved.

The Golden Compass also felt more plot-driven then character-driven. This I suspect is the difference between those who favor Rowling over Pullman--character over plot or character over ideas. Pullman's novel (the first in a trilogy) is undoubtedly more original than Rowling's Harry Potter series, and its ideas are definitely more complex and sophisticated, but I just don't know his protagonist (I've already forgotten her name--see!) as well as a I know Harry, and so I worry about her less, and therefore feel less as I read.

And I suppose this idea--that I rank a novel that makes me feel over a novel that makes me think (for the record, I prefer novels that do both)--does support the fact that there is a level of subjectivity to responding to writing. Though grading fairly still isn't nearly as difficult as students think it is.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg

I tend to enjoy the history of publishing, and so found this bio of superstar Scribner's editor, Maxwell Perkins, quite interesting. Perkins is most famous for making famous F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. He's also responsible for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and a lot of other authors who were apparently mega-sellers in their day but are no longer known. I've known the facts about Perkins for quite sometime (he's famous in my family for being married to my grandfather's cousin--how's that for useless name-dropping?), but I had never before realized that he favored a certain kind of writing and a certain kind of writer. Apparently he liked larger-than-life people who wrote about their large lives. So while he had a keen eye for finding good stylists, what he was really looking for were writers with built in stories to tell. It was Perkins who pressed Rawlings to write a book about her childhood in the Everglades, a book that became The Yearling.

I myself have never been one for writing overtly autobiographical fiction (probably because I like a life that's smaller than life), and as I read this bio I started to wonder if I discourage (or discourage by omission) autobiographical fiction from my students. One of the factors of creative writing classes is the student-writers are often quite young. And so to suggest they should write autobiographical fiction seems sort of absurd. Yet I've found that the undergraduate workshops I've taught in creative nonfiction have generated some really good material. And the non-autobiographical fiction generated in workshop is often out of this world (I mean literally, not as a description of its qualities). Not that science fiction/fantasy writing is anything to be ashamed of, but it's not typically what I'm trying to teach. So maybe the key is to help students identify what of their autobiography actually makes for good writing. It's often the stuff you wouldn't want to admit to in a room full of near-strangers, so we wouldn't have to get into the details; yet I think it's worth at least talking more openly about using autobiography as source material, and talking too about how to transition it into fiction.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Parasites Like Us by Adam Johnson

This first novel is crazy in all the best ways. It's a perfect example of what I call exuberant writing: writing that is so wildly imagined, so much the creation of its author, that it seems as if it must have been written in a manic fit of inspiration. Now the reality, I suspect, is it was written in daily toil as most novels are--but like some books I mentioned previously--Eyre Affair, Lives of the Monster Dogs, Harry Potter--it is so imaginative that it seems like it must have been fun to write. What I'm really saying is it's fun to read. It's not a tour-de-force of character development or even plot, but every page is rich with observation and an incredible attention to detail. The premise is North American humans have largely gone extinct and one of the remaining survivors is going to tell us why. But instead of the tone being apocalyptic (as in Atwood's Oryx and Crake), it's satiric. Johnson was a student of Ron Carlson's (the beloved) as an undergraduate and the novel reads to me as if one of Carlson's narrators bred with the narrator of Don DeLillo's White Noise and they entered a setting by Vonnegut. But the novel is a good example of influence rather than imitation. These other authors show through, but the book feels entirely Johnson's own. Perhaps the key to this is the blending of several influences rather than following only one.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Paradise by Toni Morrison

My Women in Literature class has been reading Toni Morrison's novel Paradise, and my graduate workshop is reading Song of Solomon (well, we were until Hurricane Wilma cancelled class) so I've been thinking a lot about Morrison lately. She has one of my favorite quotes on writing "I wanted it to be narrow and deep" which she said about writing her novel Beloved. I tend to use the quote in reference to short stories because they truly need to be narrow and deep. Morrison's novels--even the shortest The Bluest Eye--do not seem narrow to me (though I guess some do to her). And as I reread Paradise, that was one of the things that struck me: as much as I admire the novel (and Morrison is probably my favorite living writer), I could never write as she does. My brain simply doesn't work in that many layers. It feels as if Morrison, in order to achieve her constant shifting between characters, times and ideas, must hold the entire world of her novel--all of her characters, their past, present and futures--in her mind at once. My mind is far too straightforward to do that (another word for that might be simple). And my mind seems to be reflected in my fiction (which stylistically is simple). Perhaps Morrison's style is a product of huge amounts of revision, but it still feels like it must be something organic to the way she thinks.

Another thought: how does a writer achieve "deep." There are surely many different answers to this, but it seems as if taking on a historical subject often leads writers to a larger scope than contemporary subjects do. Also adding spirituality as one of the characters' concerns seems to increase scope. I'm not suggesting we all take on religion, but that by giving our characters concerns that are larger than daily living, we raise questions that will never be answered and will never go out of style--again potentially giving weight to the work. The recent death of August Wilson, who wrote ten plays, each one set in and depicting a different decade of Twentieth Century African American life, made me think again about the idea of artists taking on a subject in multiple works. This grouping of his plays gives a depth to Wilson's work that might not have been as strong if the plays didn't work in combination. It's worth giving some thought to what you want to do as a writer, not just in a single work, but overall.

Fairly irrevelant writer encounter anecdote with a moralistic ending: When I was a kid (pre-memory) my mother used to take my brother and I to a bakery in Istanbul where she would sometimes encounter James Baldwin. When my parents came to visit me as an undergraduate, I took them to the local ice cream shop, where my mother literally bumped elbows with Toni Morrison. While I like the very thought of rubbing (or bumping) elbows with genius, especially literary genius, I think what's most important about these encounters is that I have a mother who recognizes James Baldwin and Toni Morrison when she seems them--and who gets excited about it. Over the past year my five-year-old nephew Devin and my dad have been telling each other a narrative about Devin and Vinden (my dad tells the story, my nephew sings the musical numbers), and lately they've been adapting it into a movie. Yesterday they story-boarded it and my nephew asked that it be bound (read: stapled) and then he ran around shouting, "My book, my book!" (note: this is what I plan to do once I finish my novel draft). My point here is I see where I came from. My parents deserve the credit.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Ssh, Reading in Progress

After the great Zadie Smith disappointment I have moved on to The March by E.L. Doctorow, which received so many great reviews that I went ahead and bought it without even browsing. And so far: beautiful beautiful.

I'm also dipping periodically in and out of The Best American Essays 2005 (I'm very much looking forward to reading the infamous David Foster Wallace pro-lobster essay from Gourmet as soon as I log off) and am expecting an Amazon delivery shortly of The Best American Short Stories 2005 and Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Oh, I wanted. I wanted so much. I wanted too much. My hopes seemed fail-safe: I'm a fan of Smith's first novel White Teeth; a fan of E.M. Forster's Howard's End, which provided a structural model; I'm generally all for appropriating classics and making them new; and I'm often in tune with the hyper-critical critic Michiko Kakutani who gave On Beauty a big hug and a kiss in the New York Times. But in the end, while easily digested, On Beauty just wasn't special.

However, Smith does something really interesting in titling (title-ing?) the book as she does--with an allusion to an Elaine Scarry essay that points the reader toward finding meaning in the narrative. Art is a plot point in the novel and I'm intrigued by Smith's desire to write a novel that is driven both by character and by ideas, but ultimately, in trying to do this all in scene, rather than making use of that very convenient device--the narrator--she may have limited herself too much. One of the great pleasure's for me of Howard's End, and of White Teeth, too, now that I think about it, is the commentary, often sarcastic, from the narrator (a sort of third-persony, first person storyteller who is not of the story). Occasionally this narrator surfaces in On Beauty but Smith might have done well to let him/her run solidly through the novel.

Perhaps part of my trouble was I just taught Howard's End last month, so it was ridiculously fresh in my mind and I was easily distracted by the Catch the Allusion game (Oh, the Wilcox's are the Kipps's! Oh, the umbrella is a Discman! Oh, Leonard Bast is Black!). But the parallels to Forster never added up to much beyond a game. Smith despite her modernizing to a high-tech, multi-culti world couldn't modernize the storyline enough to move beyond fairly stereo-typical characters behaving in fairly stereo-typical ways (if I read another novel about a middle-aged man sleeping with his students I'm going to light the book on fire) (though Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee did prove that storyline could be an interesting launching point for a novel, it's unlikely to work as a climactic event).

Maybe I'll just set my hopes on the next Smith novel...

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I have what can only be described as an expanding love in my heart for this novel. I really liked it the first time I read it, then I read it again last summer to use in a graduate workshop last fall, then I read it again this summer to use in my undergrad women in literature course, and it is so rich with imagery and language (not to mention a decent plot and really likeable--no, loveable-- characters) that I feel like I could read it every six months and love it even more each time for a different reason. I used to think the opening was slow but now I relish the measured pace, the dark imagery, and the insane quantity of information that Ruth, the first person narrator could never know. It used to drive my mother crazy that I would reread certain books over and over, (I knew they would be good, which you can't know about something you haven't read!) but in retrospect that practice may have been good training for me as a reader. I learned to pick up on small details in second (third, tenth, whatever) readings, and that way learned how those small details can be key to understanding subtext and tone. Not that Harriet the Spy had an enormous amount of subtext, but certainly annual summer readings of Lord of the Rings showed me something new each time.

My point is that when reading as a writer, rereading can be especially useful because only when you know the end can you see all the work the writer was laying down to get you to that end. Being an obsessive reader of certain authors may not be such a bad idea either.

I will add though that reading Housekeeping briefly paralyzed my writing because it seems unapproachably good and if the world has Marilynne Robinson writing novels (albeit only one every ten years) maybe it doesn't need me writing novels, but after awhile I got over that. Besides I like having something to shoot for--a reason to keep practicing in the hope of writing a book that good. But then I also recommend having a not-so-great novel around too so that you can say, at least I can do better than that. (it probably says something sad about me that I'm not kidding).

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Dog of the Marriage by Amy Hempel

When I was a freshmen in my second workshop ever and was feeling horribly intimidated by the professor (Joyce Carol Oates, who to this day terrifies me) as well as feeling completely inadequate compared to my classmates, I read the short story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel. And suddenly I felt like maybe, just maybe, I could do that. The story’s voice made me ache and the precision of each sentence made me horribly jealous, but the structure—snapshots, short sentences, short short story—seemed accessible, doable. And so I did it. I wrote an absolute imitation, which became to my joy and my horror (it’s sooo derivative) the first story I ever published. I’ve never since modeled my writing so closely on that of another writer, but it was a breakthrough moment for me, like the day when I suddenly had control on a tennis court. Ever since I have had an off-and-on affair with Amy Hempel’s writing.

At Bread Loaf I heard her read from her newest collection The Dog in the Marriage and I was in love all over again. Her precision is unbeatable. Her use of anecdotes and metaphors to illustrate her understated plots is totally her own (except when I steal it, of course). And yet my response to most of the stories in this collection—the title story, the one I heard her read from is the exception—was that they are too short. I like poetry, I like short-short fiction (sudden fiction, micro fiction, whatever you want to call it), I’m not inherently opposed to shortness—but it seems that the moment of cut-off, the moment I am ejected from the story has to be so perfectly right in a short-short that it becomes very hard to pull off. In each case, I was happy with the story until it was done, when I thought, but we haven’t gotten there yet. So the question is: where is there? What is the perfect end—I think for me it’s when the story has gone one step—emotionally or intellectually—deeper then I thought it could. If Hempel could end each story in a moment when the story has turned—as opposed to at a moment that feels consistent with the rest of the story—maybe that would work more powerfully. But then maybe the answer is more mysterious and less formulaic then that – hard to say, of course. In the end, this is a decent example, sometimes a great example, of how the shortest of stories can get you to feel as much as the longest of stories. For me, the most powerful of Hempel’s collections remains the one I read first (and surely that has something to do with my response): Reasons to Live, which contains one of my favorite epigraphs in all of literature: “Because grief unites us,/like the locked antlers of moose/who die on their knees in pairs.” (William Matthews)

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Erasure by Percival Everett

I'm going to be studying with Everett for a few days at Bread Loaf this summer, so I picked up his novel Erasure, which I found fairly stylistically innovative and in parts, very very funny. The protagonist is a writer/professor who has been criticized for not being "black enough" in his work and so under a pseudonym he writes a parody of ghetto life (mostly a mocking of Native Son) and inevitably the book is a huge success. Everett also includes a multitude of subplots, but what I found most striking about the novel is that there is a novel inside of it. Yes, he actually gives the reader the parody. And it is hilarious. And yet you can see, too, how it would sell in the current publishing climate (well, hopefully not quite this exaggerated a version). Everett has such control of his language that he can give us two completely opposite voices and make both work to his own effect.

Mostly I just want to point out that writing is whatever you can get away with. And if you want to write a novel inside your novel you can. And if you want to sprinkle in dialogues between modernist painters (yes, he does) and bits in Latin (oh, yes) and a weird satire in which Jeopardy seems to meet the Battle Royal scene from Invisible Man than you can do that too.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Certain novels make me envy the fun the writer must have had in inventing the details. Sure all fiction is inventing, but some books --Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis, Jasper Fforde's novels--seem deliriously imaginative. Oryx and Crake is similarly inventive and clever, but it can't have been much fun to imagine--the world's fate here is hideous and unfortunately for those of us on Planet Earth, not so unimaginable. But Atwood gets major kudos for her creativity.

In the end, though, I just never got deeply involved in this novel. Possibly because I read the first half, read about ten other books, and then read the second half--but I think that was effect rather than cause. Atwood alternates the current/through story (post-apocalyptic United States) with back story that gradually leads the reader to how the current state of affairs was reached. But Snowman, the protagonist, is alone in all of the through story, and largely as a result I was much more interested in the back story, which is fully populated. That would be fine except for the book is half through story, half back story. So I was impatient and kinda bored for half of the book. Yet in contrast, I loved Life of Pi, in which the protagonist is also alone for at least half of the book (tiger aside). I think the difference is that in Life of Pi the back story comes first--you don't flip back and forth, so I wasn't wishing for the switches (I knew there wouldn't be any switches) and I had a deep interest in Pi before I was left alone with him.

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk

Turkish novelist Pamuk, who is a pretty solid candidate for a future Nobel Prize, subtitles this nonfiction book "Memories and the City," and indeed it is a biography of Istanbul, one of the greatest cities in the world, much more than it is a biography of Pamuk. I had a lot of personal connections to the book's content, which circles around the idea that as the center of a lost empire, Istanbul and its citizens are in a permanent state of nostalgic melancholy, but I also found the book an interesting companion piece to Pamuk's fiction. Writers might find it interesting to read the novels Black Book and My Name is Red and then read this book in order to see how Pamuk has used his observations about place (in particular the emotions connected to place) in his fiction. I'm a sucker for writers' autobiographies, but I am glad this wasn't a book about writing (not until the last lines does he even acknowledge that he is a writer). Rather than hearing more on technique (of which I've heard and said quite a bit), I found it inspiring/enlightening to hear fresh ideas on place--to think about how a city can have a personality--and then to make my own judgements about how to apply that to fiction.

Atlantic Monthly Fiction Issue

The Atlantic Monthly has put out its inaugural Fiction Issue (available on newstands, and for subscribers, online), a product of having axed all short stories from its regular issues. If you want the fiction issue to last I recommend sending the publishers a message via your own $4.95. Personally I wish the fiction issue would come out every month and the regular magazine only once a year.

The Fiction Issue contains 8 short stories (so yes, the Atlantic is publishing fewer short stories in a year then it used to), a handful of fiction-related essays, a handful of poems, and snippets from the archives, which largely remind readers of how much more literary the magazine used to be. The first piece is an anti-workshop essay by Rick Moody which got to me only minimally as I spent all of my month's allotment of anger on Lynn Freed's hateful, anti-workshop essay published in this month's Harper's. Interestingly enough Moody has some useful thoughts on improving workshops yet does not teach, while Freed, who seems to have no positive thoughts about teaching whatsoever, does. The naive element of the Moody essay, though, is that he implies all workshops are the same. He describes some pretty good experiences as a student at Brown and some pretty terrible experiences while a student at Columbia, yet he seems to assume that all workshops now fit under the Columbia model (of his era) in which professors appear to have been both cruel and indifferent and students competitive and combative. His main point--that workshops generally praise conventional stories more than unconventional ones--is, however, quite valid. I think though that good workshop leaders recognive how a draft of a conventional story will often look prettier than a draft of an unconventional story (in which it's often hard to imagine how this wacky idea will ever work) and take more control of the class conversation, perhaps allowing the writer to explain her/his intentions more. Certainly here at FAU we teach plenty of published work that is experimental and so our students, I hope, feel encouraged to break boundaries just as quickly as they learn what those boundaries are.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

I interrupted my reading of current bestseller The Historian to spend twenty-four hours with the new Harry Potter, and the difference between the two was immediately striking. Both fit under the category of popular, but my level of fun and investment in The Historian is almost none, it is merely a suspenseful plot in legible sentences, while I ended Half-Blood Prince with a desperate desire for the next book so that I could spend more time with the characters. (my mother called me periodically during this 24 hour period to say "You're not still reading, are you?" She once watched a tv movie about a kid who got so obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons that he started living in the sewers and killing people, so, you know, she worries.)

One of the things I find interesting about the Potter books is Rowling claims to have plotted them--all seven of them--before writing any of them. A lot of writers are wary of over-planning their novels; they have a legitimate concern that if they know where the book is headed readers will too and also that they will get bored with a writing a book they've already thought out. But the Potter books are incredibly clever in the way they make use of what has come before--seeds planted in earlier books are just now bearing fruit--and either Rowling is very very good at figuring out how to use these seeds as she goes or she really did do a tremendous amount of planning before writing. John Irving is another author who claims to plan everything before he drafts--and in a novel like A Prayer for Owen Meany (which is on my fiction all-time top ten list) a reader can see how that was necessary. I suspect the end of Catch 22 also had to be plotted near to the start of the writing (though I don't know what Heller has said about it). Certain kinds of novels---where complex pieces need to fit together in the end--really do bear plotting out in advance. But what's interesting is that in the abstract such novels--which on first reading depend on surprising the reader with how the pieces come together--seem like they wouldn't stand up to rereading. Once the reader knows the surprise, then why read the books again? But because Rowling, Irving, and Heller, are also so good with character, these are books that I have reread not just once, but regularly. So character-driven does not preclude plot-driven and vice versa. And planning isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

This novel is ingenious. After complaining about a couple of novels that alternate storylines, I enjoyed reading one that pulled it off really well. I think part of what I liked was the sections were not alternating first person, and they were incredibly distinct from each other, yet linked in clever ways. The structure is modeled on those Russian nesting dolls (I’m always telling students they can’t use that image in stories anymore because it’s been overdone, but here because he uses the structure and not the image, it feels very fresh) and so you don’t bounce back and forth between storylines. You see the first half of each storyline (ABCD) and then with the exception of the middle section which you see in total (E--my least favorite) you see the conclusion to each storyline (DCBA). Most amazingly each section is in a different style of writing—journal, epistolary, mystery, sci-fi… and yet each voice is equally convincing and intriguing (okay, except for the sci-fi middle, but I suspect that was mainly personal preference). The structure, of course, isn’t enough to make the novel work. The structure makes it fresh and adds a layer of meaning, but it’s the rest of the writing—character, plot, suspense, language—that makes it really work. For sure I will teach this book in the future.

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

I read this for a book club then the meeting was cancelled, and I’m left with nobody to discuss it with (I always did do my homework too early)… The only other Bellow I’ve read is Herzog which is a much bigger book in literal and figurative ways. But Seize the Day—which takes place all in one day—is another good example of a short novel (see The Bay of Noon). While it has an omniscient narrator, the book most closely follows one character, Wilhelm, and the day is his worst. Like a short story the novel starts very close to the moment of disastrous climax, but the novel goes deeply into character. Not a lot of plot, but there is a lot of reflection on people, particularly Wilhelm, and their many aspects. As is often the case, a lot of the revelation about the character comes from the relationships he has with other people (this is a good father-son novel—well, at least in terms of revealing the ways such a relationship can go wrong) as opposed to who he is in the abstract. Too often character development is done through facts about the person, rather than insight into how s/he behaves with others. This provides a nice example of how character development can in many ways carry a story.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard

In a case of reading the right book at the right time, I was fairly moved by this quiet, short novel. Hazzard's more recent novel The Great Fire got a lot of good press and I dutifully read it and was unmoved--The Bay of Noon makes me think I should take a second look. The writing is so subtle that a reader in the wrong frame of mind (e.g. mid-semester busy) might miss its skill all together.

I've been thinking lately about short novels (I'm teaching a novel workshop in the fall) and how they work, and this is a good case study. Hazzard focuses the novel on a brief time period during which the protagonist is working in Naples and falls in with an Italian couple. The novel shows perfectly what it is like to meet someone you immediately find interesting--someone who sparks thought and feeling in you each time you see them--and how that friendship can then progress very quickly. The dialogue is wonderful, working particularly well to show the appeal of the couple, Gioconda and Gianni; it offers evidence as to why the narrator would be drawn to them. Since Hazzard has created literate, intelligent, articulate characters they can say literate, intelligent, articulate things ("'What I like about the landscape of Italy'," Gianni informed me, 'is that there's none of this nonsense about the great outdoors. That sort of thing's all right elsewhere. Here you could practically say it's an indoor landscape. It's Nature with beautiful manners--no, that's too tame. Rather it's as if Nature were capable of thought, of joy.'"). Equally importantly Hazzard has created a narrator who is drawn to that sort of person. In other words, putting an articulate character into your novel is not automatically a good thing.

But back to the size of the novel: it runs "narrow and deep," which my students will recognize as a quote from Toni Morrison. This is the key to the short novel. It alludes enough to the past and the future, and a larger world, to give the novel a sense of realism, but maintains a focus either through a limited time span or a limited number of characters, or in this case both. Yet it never skimps on scene and never rushes through moments that should be lingered in. Short does not necessarily equal fast. Hazzard does a fair amount of telling (summarizing) of the past and of certain moments, but when she is in scene, she lazes there, letting the narrator comment and reflect as she depicts the actions and conversations. It runs deep, and that's what allowed me to be moved.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Deliver Me From Nowhere by Tennessee Jones

The concept of this collection, which was recommended to me by a former undergrad, is that it is modeled on Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. I'm not enough of a Springsteen fan to have that inform my reading too much, but the idea of thinking of a story collection in the way of a concept album is an interesting one. I've been talking with my grad workshop about whether or not writers should have a recognizable sound or look, the way many musicians and visual artists do. Or if we should move through distinct periods the way Picasso and other artists have. A number of writers clearly do have styles or subjects that they hold to for much of their work --Faulkner, Hemingway, Morrison, DeLillo. Is that something writers should be conscious of or just allow to happen? When I was an undergrad I studied with Russell Banks, and I remember him once staying you should experiment a lot when you're young because once you're established you are forced to stick to what readers have come to expect from you. At the time he was writing Rule of the Bone and researching Cloudsplitter, which is probably my favorite of his novels, and I like thinking about how Cloudsplitter was his rebellion against the kind of book people expected him to write (typically about contemporary, working class, alcoholic, New Englander men). Yet it has a lot of the themes--father/son issues, race, class--of his other work. So while stylistically it's quite different, it still fits his ouevre. And I like the thought of going deeply into certain subjects or places over a period of books. But I also like the thought of writers being able to try out all different styles and even genres --like Jane Smiley does. But back to Jones, whose writing in this book I really admired. The stories feel a part of a whole--they do gain a deeper level of emotion by being read together--and do have a single sound. Although they use different narrators the voice of each story is pretty much the same and so becomes the voice of the book. I like that for this book, but I don't want all story collections to fit that mold--which it feels like publishers and their fancy for connected stories--are trying to make happen.

There is a fair amount of violence in these stories and Jones does a nice job of keeping the stories so quiet that the violence never feels melodramatic. He does in a number of stories fall into a pattern of plot that goes something like tip-toe, tip-toe, tip-toe, Shout! --in which the stories focus on mundane, unthreatening behavior and end in death or beatings or murder. But the consistency with which he does that from story to story actually makes for a more interesting statement--here's how ordinary people end up doing extraordinary (often extraordinarily bad) things and so the stories again mean more because they are together. I suspect had I read certain of these stories individually without the rest, I wouldn't have liked them as much.

But what I think Jones does best is use summary or lines of narration to deepen a moment. Sometimes they are funny but weighted lines like: "While we were driving, I started to feel something like I imagined religion was supposed to feel like. I almost wanted to clap my hand on his knee and yell, 'Hey, George, I think I got religion!" What I like about that quote is the way it makes use of the imagined moment. It's a combo of showing and telling--the scene didn't actually happen, but the narrator creates it ("clap my hand on his knee") so specifically that the reader is inside the narrator's head imagining what the narrator is imagining which is even more intimate than seeing/hearing what the narrator is seeing/hearing. Even stronger are lines where Jones uses telling in combination with showing like: "They all got shitfaced that night and it was like a pure, falling joy." Out of context maybe that's not the most convincing line, but in the story it really worked to show the relief certain characters felt in giving up. So I'd read Jones mostly for the quality of the writing, and at the risk of sounding like a publisher, I'm curious to see what he would do with a novel. My one dissatisfaction with these stories was they felt a little too slice of life, often ending with a drastic action leaving a reader wondering about the effect of that action. A novel would give Jones room to look at cause and effect.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Crash: a reading of a movie

I hated this movie. And here’s why:
--lining up coincidences does not create an interesting plot. If you are going to have ten coincidences in a movie, you ought to be more meta- about it, don’t present it as realism. I gave Haggis the benefit of the doubt and thought, okay, he knows the viewer recognizes the structure as unrealistic, so …. What? What then is his point? It doesn’t matter that the guy who fixes Sandra Bullock’s lock is the same guy who fixes the Iranian guy’s lock. It’s a gimmick without relevance.
--having characters behave first at one polar extreme then the other on the hero-to-villain scale is not the same as creating complex characters. Complex characters are people who are conflicted, or who have emotions and thoughts--embodied in their actions--that are sometimes contradictory but are interesting. I accept that people can be heroic in one situation and villainous in another. That might be a revelation to an 11 year old; it shouldn’t be to most adults. The trick is to get me to empathize in both situations, and I didn't.
--surprising the viewer is not the same as making her care. The audience I saw Crash with gasped a lot. One of my companions suggested that’s a positive achievement for a film. I think most writers recognize though that it’s easy to shock people. It’s easy to go with extreme violence or heavy-handed irony and manipulate people into feeling excited/sad/surprised for a moment. It’s easy to increase their heart rate or anxiety level for a moment. It takes a much subtler manipulation to get a viewer/reader invested in the life of the character.
--a movie of ideas cannot be reductive in its treatment of those ideas. I don’t believe all narratives have to follow a conventional structure, and not all have to be character-driven. But a movie that depicts racist behavior is not the same as a movie that has something fresh to say about racist behavior.

I wanted to like this movie though. I liked its ambition; I liked that it had social commentary as a goal. The people I saw it with—discerning viewers whose taste I often agree with—liked it. A.O. Scott didn’t like it in the NYTimes, but the forty viewers who responded to his review seemed to love it. What, you ask, does this have to do with writing fiction? Well, a lot. Because when I teach a fiction workshop—particularly a beginning one—half the battle is convincing the class of what is good fiction. (for the record, I consider a wide range of works in a wide range of genres to be good fiction) And maybe this is more subjective then I choose to believe. One of my thoughts about Crash was anyone could have written/directed this movie. There is no vision here. Every thought about race is a thought that’s already been had—if you were given only ten minutes to write about race the ideas in this movie are the ones you would come up with. If a hundred people were given two weeks to write a movie about race these are the scenes ninety-nine people would have come up with (though probably not in this structure, I admit). So should writing be like the Family Feud—trying to figure out the top ten answers on the board—in other words determining what people already think and feeding it back to them—or should it be about an author’s worldview, one that is crafted and shaped by deep thinking, thinking the audience would not have done if they hadn’t read/seen this story? Quite a number of reader-writers are in favor of the Family Feud style. That, they say, is entertainment. I, pretty clearly, think the opposite. Because I’m not teaching writers to be popular (nobody can guess what’s going to be popular anyway), I’m trying to teach writing that has some chance of lasting.

The guys I saw Crash with seemed to enjoy it in a zen-like way. In each individual moment they appreciated the emotion and the drama. They didn’t mind the coincidences—they pretty much ignored them—and they didn’t mind the lack of character development. But in all the discussion we had of the movie afterward, none of it was about the supposed ideas of the movie. And I think if you enjoy a movie only in the moment—and the same with a book—there’s little chance of you returning to it, either to think about it or reread it. And my goal is to teach people to write narratives that linger—but I’m left with the question why do so many people seem to want so much less?

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

This novel has been on my to-read list for years, but now that a movie version is on the way (directed by one of my favorite actors, Liev Schreiber), I thought I better get to it. Plus I was encouraged by how much I liked Foer's second novel. One of the reasons I had hesitated was the one thing I knew about the novel was it was narrated by a foreigner who spoke funny English--and that seemed to me a lame joke. After all I can't even be funnily malapropistic in another language. But actually Foer makes Alex, who is the narrator for half of the book, fairly well-rounded and while he is overly-handy with a thesaurus, much of the humor comes from the exchanges of dialogue between Alex and the fictional-Foer character. Some of the scenes are the funniest I've read since Owen Meany played the baby Jesus. While it is hard to resist laughing at Alex (which I felt really guilty about), most of the time I was touched by him as well.

Large sections of the novel are the legend-like story of the fictional-Foer's family, from the great-great-great-great's to his grandparents. These offer a relief from the thesaurus-impaired voice of Alex's sections, but like in Foer's second novel, I found I would rather have stayed longer with the characters in the current scene. Actually my favorite sections were the letters Alex writes to the fictional-Foer commenting on the writing the two of them are doing--they contain what could be read as funny commentary on workshopping/editing.

It's clear from both of Foer's novels and the anthology he edited on the artist Joseph Cornell, that he's a fan of collage. I, too, am a fan of the collage structure, but as with alternating first person voices (a form of collage, I suppose), it's important that all the pieces feel equally strong and that they add up to a larger whole. While I'm not sure all the pieces are equally strong, the whole is definitely very large. This book is funny and moving. I worry though that when the movie comes out the elements that move the story beyond being a lame joke about funny accents will prove uncinematic. The dialogue could be translated right to the screen, but the rest seems much more interior and subtle. I look forward to seeing if they can pull it off.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Cruddy by Lynda Barry

A great use of first person in a dark, funny, disturbing, violent, strange novel. Too often first person narrators--especially in short fiction but in novels as well--are the default. They sound rather similar and serve no particular advantage as the narrator of the tale. Cruddy, however, is an example of a true character--someone with a unique experience and a unique voice--telling her story. Somebody somewhere (probably Ron Carlson, my personal god) said a first person narrator should be the person least inclined to tell the story. The one person who should never tell the story. I don't think it's a firm rule, but it's one worth considering when making the decision of point of view. I actually tried very hard to write my novel in third person (largely because I thought first person was too trendy) but in the end I was mostly interested in going deeply into the thinking of my narrator who does not show a lot of herself in actions or in speech, but I really really hope to write my second novel (whoa, let's finish that first one before we go there) in the third person. In the end though the material should dictate the choice.

Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times ed. Kevin Smokley

An occasionally interesting collection of essays by young writers supposedly in response to the NEA report that reading is endangered. Most of the essays seem to have little to do with reading, but some are interesting for writers nonetheless. My favorite was Nell Freudenberger's take on giving readings in China. Robert Lanham is genuinely funny in his roast of McSweeney's and K.M. Soehnlein is genuinely insightful in his take on the current state of gay fiction. A lot of the essays have to do with the Internet --blogging, webzines, etc--and are a good reminder that reading on the computer is still reading. For me a couple of book blogs and free access to the Guardian and New York Times book pages, as well as the Paris Review's DNA of Literature interviews have been great at keeping me thinking about publishing, writing, and reading. Though books I still prefer to read in a big cozy chair.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

LIfe of Pi by Yann Martel

My graduate workshop recently covered this novel, and I (and it appeared they) found it an ingenious novel of ideas. Interestingly, on first reading I really thought of this as an action novel. There are, after all, life or death stakes when you put a tiger and a boy on a lifeboat and set them adrift in the Pacific for 227 days. But on second reading, I realized that while there is an immediate tension to that scenario, it’s really a premise not a story. And for two hundred pages this is a first person novel with only one person (and a few animals) in scene. There is nobody for the narrator to speak with, little for him to react to, and little for him to do. And the reader knows from the start that the narrator survives—this is not one of those stories narrated by the dead—so the life or death stakes really aren’t so tense. As a result, Martel must find atypical ways of creating a sense of plot. One thing he does is use very short chapters, so that the reader feels as if she is moving forward quickly. Another is creating mini goals—fishing for the first time, building a raft, taming a tiger—and fulfilling them one by one. But the most interesting has to do with this being a novel of ideas...

Martel uses the first section of the novel, about a hundred pages, to establish our narrator—a teenager—as a thinker. He gives him expertise in zoology--his family runs a zoo--he makes him an expert swimmer, and he makes him a religious seeker in three religions. Because the first section of the novel is set on land and peopled by many characters, Martel can use conventional means—scene, dialogue, new characters, action and reaction—to hook the reader. So the hook for the novel—which you might think would be the concept (boy and tiger in lifeboat) is actually a conventional hook—a really compelling character who the reader wants to hear about. Then because of who this narrator is (as established in section one), Martel can do a lot of point of view work (our narrator thinking about this and that) in section two and get away with it.

What elevates this from a good novel to a great novel, however, is section three, where back on land our narrator is visited by two fairly comic Japanese insurance men who question his story. There Martel nearly falls into a surprise twist ending but recovers magnificently when he leaves the reader up in the air as to what has really happened, so that the book becomes not just a meditation on faith but one on storytelling.

One of my students, who attended a summer workshop in St. Petersburg, Russia said an editor at Harcourt told their group that the novel was published because one editor really fought for it—literally staking his job on its success. This kind of story makes some people bemoan the state of publishing, but it actually gives me hope. Write a book this good and someone will stake their job on it.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Alligators May Be Present by Andrew Furman

I wasn't going to post on this novel because it is by a friend and colleague, but then I thought: of course, I should post on this novel, it's by a friend and colleague! I'll simply say I found it very funny and a fine example of third person limited, and you should check it out (and by that I mean buy it in hardcover) for yourself.

I believe the ethics of being a writer includes supporting the organizations that support your craft. To me that means buying: literary journals, small and independent press books, the occasional book in hardcover, books of poetry, and any book that I am grateful was published (read: given a chance) whether I end up liking it or not.

When you're a grad student you should feel free to obtain as many free and used books as possible, but keep in mind that writers and publishers receive no royalties on used books. So you should at least try to buy them at an independent bookstore. When I was getting my MFA I frequented a wonderful indie store in Tempe, AZ called Changing Hands. I highly recommend it if you're ever in town. At this point in my life I only buy used books when they are out of print or there is no way I would buy the book at regular price (usually those are big fat art books). Every year I subscribe to a few different journals and buy a few single issues of others. I always buy the O. Henry and Best American short story annuals, as well as the Puschart Prize anthology, because I want those series to continue. And I always always buy books by friends.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Small Island by Andrea Levy

The short version: an enjoyable read but rumor has it Fruit of the Lemon is better.

The longer version: I have what I’m beginning to suspect is a personal prejudice against novels told in alternating first person voices. My mother, for example, has no complaint against the form, yet I almost always, when confronted with a novel such as this one, wish the author had just made up her mind already and committed to one point of view. Part of the difficulty is that if a reader attaches more to one voice than another, it is a disappointment to switch, and in this novel I was most attached to the point of view—Hortense’s—that got the least play. I suspect though my main prejudice is that alternating points of view seems to me easier than maintaining one for an entire novel. There are several flaws to my own thinking—one, creating a series of strong voices is quite difficult (my complaint is that rarely are all of the voices strong) and two, even if it is easier that doesn’t automatically make it bad.

And I can see why Levy made the choice. A single first person narrator would have narrowed the scope of the novel considerably and eliminated a major coincidence that is revealed to the reader but not to the characters. Actually one of the most interesting elements of the novel is that Levy creates this major coincidence, never reveals it to the characters in the novel, and never comments on it for the reader (she can’t—none of the first person speakers ever know of it). If the novel had been in third person omniscient or limited this coincidence probably could not have gone unaddressed by the narrator—that would have felt contrived. So Levy, to pull this off has to alternate voices.

Levy also chooses to parallel two sets of characters—one Jamaican woman with a white, British woman and one Jamaican man with a white British man. There are very clear links between each—the two women share the major coincidence and the two men both serve in the RAF during World War II. Again the reader is left to make all connections and to interpret the racial, class, and personality differences that create the thematic concerns of the novel. So Levy makes quite a bit of the form—and yet I was still disappointed every time she switched to a character who was less compelling for me.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett

I just want to give a shout-out to paperbacks with flaps. I recently bought this memoir and Small Island by Andrea Levy, also a paperback with flaps, and both in form and function (built-in bookmark!), I love the flaps. I've always preferred the compactness of trade paperbacks over the bulk of hardcovers, and now that paperbacks come with flaps--perfection!

That aside, I read this memoir because in part my novel-in-progress is about female friendship, and this is the story of a good girl-bad girl (yes, Madonna-whore) friendship between two great women writers, Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy. I enjoyed Grealy's memoir Autobiography of a Face, and was disturbed by her death, ruled an accidental overdose, but possibly a suicide, and as I've mentioned before, I loved Patchett's novel Bel Canto. But to my surprise I was more interested in this as a book about writers then as a book about women friends. The good girl-bad girl dichotomy also plays out in writing communities--the hard-working, consistent writer versus the passionate, addicted/addictive artist--and it was interesting to see that despite Grealy's horrible flame-out, Patchett still sees a great romanticism in her friend's life. So while the book certainly works as a touching memorial to a friendship, and as an investigation of contemporary women, writers might like it best for its honest look at the working lives of two very successful, very different artists.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I like the blurring of genres and to have a writer as artistic and literary as Ishiguro write about clones is pretty great. The novel—which is in all other ways a work of realism—grounded in place, point of view, and character, made this future seem more possible than a more conventional sci-fi treatment ever would. Actually this isn’t so much a novel about clones as a novel about growing up. And how do you find a way to make a coming-of-age story fresh? Make the kids clones. The reader isn’t supposed to know this fact for a large part of the novel, but reviewers have made it impossible to go into this book with that secret intact. And I suspect most readers would figure it out pretty early anyway. The novel, in the end, devolves into situation over story, and type over character, but for the first half it was wonderfully fresh and terribly sad.

Saturday by Ian McEwan

I’m a big fan of Mrs. Dalloway, which seems to have been the blueprint for Saturday, and I’m a big fan of Atonement, McEwan’s previous novel, and this dual fandom probably made it difficult for me to fall for this novel. But the book does represent some smart decisions—for example, making your narrator expert in something (in this case, neuroscience) gives him an interesting way of seeing the world, and giving him a poet-daughter who is trying to educate him on literature allows him to talk about art in a way that the stereotypical neurosurgeon would not—but ultimately those smart decisions left me cold when the novel’s climactic event brought the two together in a way that seemed far too convenient for the writer. Much to admire here though.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

I love the strangeness of this novel’s opening. That strangeness is quite believable—the protagonist receives a series of odd phone calls—and it sets the stage for even greater strangeness to come. In other words, Murakami declares his intentions—anything goes—early enough that as a reader I’m willing to accept whatever develops. But the novel lost steam for me about halfway through. At some point, while events kept piling upon our protagonist, and increasingly peculiar characters kept entering his life, the story stopped shifting and growing. Event and character didn’t add up to new developments in the mystery therein (disappeared wife). Too episodic for me ultimately. But I remain a fan of Murakami, particularly his short stories. Particularly the short story that became this novel and the title story of his collection The Elephant Vanishes.

Extremely Loud and Incrediby Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

I object to the reviews which complain that Foer’s use of photographs, playful fonts, unreadable and blank pages in this novel are not experimental. I think it’s valid to complain that not all of these devices work—but not to suggest that they don’t work just because they are no longer new (which I agree, they are not). Plot, character development, and the English language are not new and nobody would suggest that fiction writers shouldn’t use those. The time has come to evaluate once experimental devices on their own terms. Are they serving the story or not? With that said, Foer is sometimes way too cute, and the whole middle of this novel sags, but I was moved to literal tears by the start and the finish.

I am a fan of the two novels—The Tin Drum and A Prayer for Owen Meany—that seem to have birthed Foer’s narrator, and this may have been part of the problem for me. Once again, fandom has its dangers. Oskar Schell just doesn’t have the power of the other Oskar or the great humor or great pathos of Owen. Foer chooses to send his Oskar on a quest, which often makes for a good structure, but its resolution is not satisfying in the manner of Owen Meany’s resolution (a real feat of planning on John Irving’s part) nor is it as emotionally resonant or as life-threatening as that of Grass’s Oskar.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Testing of Luther Albright by MacKenzie Bezos

Full disclosure: I knew MacKenzie (then Tuttle), who was and presumably still is a tremendously kind person, in college, before she married Jeff Bezos and they started So I was predisposed to like this novel, but in the end, it felt technically-perfect but cold. In tone, it reminded me a great deal of one of my favorite novellas, Good Will by Jane Smiley.

As a matter of fact, Luther Albright could well be a brother to Smiley's narrator. Both are exceptionally handy physically, independent, and controlling. They both married women named Liz. They are both emotionally repressed sons of emotionally repressed fathers and emotionally repressed fathers to emotionally repressed sons. Both have relationships to their sons that grow increasingly complicated and tense as the plot progresses. But the big difference is that in Good Will the physical stakes are incredibly high—the son becomes unpredictable in dangerous ways. Bezos’s novel, on the other hand, is more like ordinary life, where the relationship deteriorates for no good reason and to devastating emotional consequences but few that are embodied in the physical. By the end of each tale, the families are substantially changed but in Smiley’s novella the change is to their entire way of life—and some of it is actually positive—while in Bezos’s novel the changes don’t seem to grow out of the events of the novel, but rather through the ordinary progression of time. I marveled at her sentences and her ability to describe technical elements of home and dam construction—but ultimately, I’ll just look forward to her next book, where she might well find a plot that matches her technical skill. I think this happens with a number of writers—Ann Patchett (Bel Canto) and Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) come to mind—where their particular abilities are in place long before they find the plot that best marries those abilities to the right story.

The Known World by Edward Jones

I floundered at the start of this novel, but it grew on me –or more like spread within me—to the point where I had a huge admiration for it in the end. Now huge admiration is not love, but it’s still hard to come by. The structure is unlike any I would normally suggest to a writer—it reminds me of those paintings where a gazillion things are happening all over the canvas and Jones walks the reader from one corner of the painting to the next, moving regularly between characters and occasionally backwards and forwards in time. It’s the kind of structure that doesn’t appear to be working until you reach the end and it has worked, creating a depth by its width. Most editors or workshop leaders would probably be discouraging of a partial draft in this style, so perhaps there is something to be said for Jones’ approach, which was to “plan the novel for ten years and write it in four months.”

I went to a panel on workshopping the novel at this year’s AWP conference in Vancouver, and to my dismay many of the panelists simply identified the difficulties of workshopping novels and suggested that it was an unsolveable problem. Certainly most of us accept that it’s best to respond to a whole draft and that no writing should be done by committee, but if, as again most of us accept, writing is a process, aren’t there ways that I, as a workshop leader, can help with the novel process without shoehorning drafts into predetermined structures? Jones does not follow a conventional one-event- leads-to-the-next structure, yet in the end, it is clear that one event has led to the next. That Robbins’s mentorship of Henry Townsend has consequences that splay out to many characters, and most directly to Henry’s ownership of Moses. Henry’s death then leads to the relationship of Moses and Caldonia and ultimately to the lovely, lyric ending focused on the display of Alice’s quilts—which much like those paintings where a gazillion things are happening map the world and people of the Townsend plantation. Jones leaves it to the reader to make the cause-effect links, a strategy that makes the novel seem slow at first, but ultimately is rewarding. So perhaps the answer to workshopping a draft that seems unconventional is to ask the writer to identify their strategy? To acknowledge that when you resist convention you have to find a way to compensate for it and satisfy the reader in some other way?

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Shell Collector: Stories by Anthony Doerr

I've been thinking lately about what makes a story stay with me. I read quite a few stories that I enjoy momentarily, but quickly forget. I don't love every story in Doerr's collection, but a number of them --"The Hunter's Wife," "The Shell Collector" (which is the story that led me to read the rest) and "Mkondo" are lingering stories. While these stories clearly demonstrate something is at stake (that old workshop workhorse) for the main characters, they don't insist on solving or even fully idenitifying the problems at hand. Characters are hurt, upset, sometimes emotionally devastated, but they never articulate their thoughts on those problems to the reader nor do they think through their solutions/options. The narration never goes deeply into their heads, but instead stays close to the action. Instead imagery--particularly nature imagery--is used to represent emotional states--and it is those images, as well as a sense of disquiet--that lingers.

I've been feeling lately like I've been urging my students to over-simplify. Usually this is because they're so so abstract. But in fighting abstraction, perhaps I've gone to far in favor of absolute clarity. Perhaps my emphasis should not be on specifics in point of view (what is everybody thinking), but more in specifics in image (what is everybody sensing).

Sunday, February 06, 2005

2005 Pushcart Prize XXIX ed. Bill Henderson

I end up reading most of the Pushcart Anthology every year but some favorite short fiction this year: "Immortality" by Yiyun Li and "Dog Song" by Ann Pancake. The Li story was simply surprising in its subject matter and in the turns that it takes. It blends an old-fashioned storytelling voice with some very contemporary language, as well as blending history with current affairs. Really interesting. And the Pancake story wowed me with its voice. Plus it's about dogs (kind of). I'm a sucker for dogs. I didn't entirely understand what happened in the end, but the language was so good that I (almost) didn't care that I didn't understand. Both stories felt very removed from the majority of stories I see in workshop, in magazines, in books ... they both felt honest-to-goodness imagined.

The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert

I read this novel when it first came out in 2001 because I liked the short story (which turned out to be the opening section) that was in the Pushcart Anthology. I reread it recently because I wanted to look at how Walbert created the tone, which is mournful and poetic, and which stayed with me for years. The opening section is still my favorite part--the plot itself feels (to me) unsatisfying in the end. But throughout Walbert uses concrete scenes to create a lyric voice. Typically I think of lyricism as coming from more abstract or metaphorical storytelling, but she is able through her sentence structure and her emphasis on certain images--which are literal not metaphoric--to inject lyricism into the characters' interactions. She helps her cause by choosing settings--like a rundown mansion that was a former Underground Railroad stop--that lend themselves to mournful description, but ultimately it's a matter of precise word choice and a very tight voice. The extended metaphor of the book--the heavily symbolic gardens of Kyoto which were saved from Allied bombing during WWII--are also used as concretely as possible--represented through a book The Gardens of Kyoto, that passes amongst several characters, and through the gardens themselves. The extended metaphor is one of the things Walbert did extremely well, allowing her to inject an entire subplot and layer of meaning into her under-plotted, but lovely novel.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Getting Mother's Body by Suzan-Lori Parks

Parks is best known as a playwright, and Getting Mother's Body seems like a logical first novel for a playwright--told in alternating voices in such short sections that they sound like monologues. I'm not a fan of the structure--one beginning novelists seem to love presumably because it makes the whole idea of writing a novel more approachable--because it feels too short-attention-span to me. GMB is about a quest to retrieve some jewels that the primary character, Billy Beede's, mother was supposedly buried with. A number of characters end up going on this trip to "get" the body, each with their own agenda and need to either protect the body or obtain the money for the jewels. This is a great choice by Parks--all the characters feel three-dimensional as a result, however I can't help but feel the novel would have been richer if told from one--or even two or three--narrative voice(s). To me, the voices aren't distinct enough, nor are their points of view so different, for the constant switching to seem necessary. The novel would have to be either alternating first between a few characters or omniscient third because of the secrets that various characters have that the reader is let in on, but either of those would have been preferable to me to the ten or so characters that talk now.

Structurally Parks is smart though, and there is a big pay off scene when everyone has arrived at the burial site (which is in one character's backyard) , and in effect the whole story comes together. (structurally it reminded me of nothing more than the movie It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World, but in tone it is in no way mad-cap). The reader feels satisfied with the journey coming to the physical end that has been anticipated, but without knowing how on earth things will turn out. And Parks takes some truly down-and-out characters and gives them a believable, happy ending, something that is pretty hard to pull off. She manages because her characters while desperate and sometimes cruel or cold in their desperation all have emotional centers that are clear and good. And so when they treat each other well in the end, I buy it, with pleasure.

I'd recommend Parks' play Topdog/Underdog as a stronger model of good writing, however. Her use of sound, with the rhythms of the shell game and the patterns of dialogue within the play can certainly serve as a model for fiction writers.