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.