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.