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?