Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

The latest novel by Powers has its highs and lows, but what interested me most was the way Powers always gives his novels a broader, bigger scope (an explicit nod toward attempted meaning) than just telling a good story. And one of the ways he does this is by adding science and nature to the narrative. The novel opens with the migration of thousands of sandhill cranes and instantly the reader knows this isn't just a matter of setting--the cranes have emotional and intellectual resonance that echoes throughout the whole novel. They probably would even if they didn't come first in the book but it was absolutely right for them to come first.

Branwell by Douglas Martin

A fictionalized account of the Bronte brother that plays a clever twist on the more typical story of the underestimated female member of the family.

One of my MFA professors was the very talented Mark Richard, who had studied once upon a time under Gordon Lish. Apparently one of his favored editorial methods, adopted by Richard, was to cut out all the weaker lines leaving only the most language-oriented, punch-heavy sentences and creating a tight minimalist story with compelling lines. And the essence of the characters and plots was always still there. But the voice of each story, no matter who wrote it, often ended up sounding quite similar. And that voice is the voice of this novel. Very little introspection on the part of the individual characters, very little explanation on the point of the narrator, but very emotionally weighted lines. And if I hadn't seen the voice so often before I probably would have been more romanced by it. I appreciated the novel but kept thinking it all felt a little too familiar. Which led me to think about how definitions of genius (and even a FAU fellowship I recently applied for) always reference originality as a necessary criteria for quality. And I'm not totally convinced this is true. Originality alone definitely doesn't suggest quality, and plenty of writing that is traditional in style is tremendously moving. So why did it bug me that this voice didn't feel original? Perhaps because the novel (which I swear I enjoyed) seemed to be depending on voice more than it depended on character or plot of any other criteria, and the voice wasn't quite enough to carry it.

Monday, October 23, 2006

American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman

The first line of direct dialogue in this novel comes on page 204. An interesting lesson to my students who belive a novel should resemble a movie script. The first 203 pages are all monologue, a steady flow of long sentences that move from one thought to the next, between anecdote and fact and description of the moment and then back again, returning from time to time to some key motifs (skin, Zulu phrases, a murdered cat, breakfast, lunch and dinner) in a rhythm that feels surprisingly natural. And this is what I loved most about the novel. The first 203 pages are like moving into someone else's brain. It's not a conventional structure in the this happens and then that happens sense (though there is some of that), and yet the novel does not feel abstract and detached or even difficult to follow. Because Tillman, though she stays in the brain's eye view of the narrator, never forgets that the narrator has a body. So the physical world is not absent, it's just witnessed through this voice that never breaks out of its own head ... until p. 204. And I suppose that break may have been necessary in order for the novel to reach an end... the circular nature of the monologue might never have permitted a sense of conclusion otherwise. Overall, it's a truly original piece of writing.

The thing most reviewers note about the novel is you are never sure where it's set--the two common guesses being an artist's colony or a mental institution (insert obvious joke here). And I admit I read it as an artist's colony, probably because in that way I could match it to my own experience. But I tried to force myself to read it as both--or even other--possibilities since Tillman clearly chose not to be clear. I often talk to students about the difference between ambiguous writing and confusing writing--ambiguous having multiple possible correct readings and confusing having one correct reading that the reader can't figure out. And yet even in ambiguous reading I have a tendency to believe there is one correct answer. So I found I couldn't simultaneously read this as a novel of a mental institution AND a novel of an artist's colony. Just as I can't simultaneously read Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body as narrated by a man and by a woman--my brain insists on reading her as a woman. But it would be interesting if I could--will have to work on this.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

I've started the so-far very smart novel American Genius after reading an intriguing interview with the author, Lynne Tillman in Bomb magazine. I'm identifying with the narrator, who may well be unstable, to an unnerving degree:

"At breakfast, I noticed the expressions on two women's faces, women in their late-twenties who looked unhappy, something had not gone well for them, was not going well for them in that moment or in their dreams or in last night's telephone call, but I didn't say anything to them, though I showed concern."

"Everything is a problem in some way, I can't think of anything that's not a problem from the past for the future, and I often worry, frowning to myself, unaware that I'm frowning, my lips turning down involuntarily, which I've been told to stop doing since I was a child, because it creates the impression that I'm sullen and also etches fine lines around my mouth, but I can't."

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Orhan Pamuk: Nobel Laureate

I had a nap post four-am-National-Book-Award-finalist discovery and then logged on to find Orhan Pamuk had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I had a surprisingly, to me at least, nationalistic reaction to this. I spend a lot of time explaining how not Turkish I am, and yet I felt really really proud to have Pamuk win. My parents are in Turkey right now and I look forward to hearing first hand about the country's reaction (Pamuk is hugely popular in Turkey but also controversial for his politics, and lately his international popularity has ironically caused a bit of a backlash at home). I think part of my pleasure in this win comes from the fact that I access Turkey largely through literature by Turks (translated into English, naturally). Most of my knowledge of being a Turk comes through the singular portal of my father, which can't be a very comprehensive view, and Pamuk, who is only a little younger than my father and who went to the same prep school, oddly enough has been particularly informative. His memoir Istanbul, which I've posted on previously, placed my father for me into a generation and a class and a culture that helped me see a lot of cause and effect when it comes to who my father is. It was for me a really personal and important read. But Pamuk's novels are quite different--more experimental, increasingly political, and not easy reads. So what they do for me as a writer is make me think about style and content and how attention to both of those leads to bigger and more important books. A simplistic remark yet true all the same.

I think sometimes about how my parents could easily have made the choice to stay in Turkey and I would be a Turk with an American mother, instead of the American with a Turkish father that I am. And I wonder if I was the Turk with the American mother if I would have become a writer. Turkey is hard on writers, watching them carefully and charging them with crimes when they are insufficiently patriotic. And I don't know whether this fact would have caused me to be a writer but more political or stopped me from being a writer altogether. Recently the writer Matthew Stadler came to read at FAU and he mentioned something along the lines of how the American government pays such little attention to fiction writers that we should feel very free to write what we want, to be bold, to write on the important issues of the day. Now I agree with this, but I also wonder if it's our freedom that causes our complacency. It's possible that if our freedoms were more threatened (of course we may be headed that way) our fiction writers (myself included) would grow more revolutionary. Though I certainly hope that's not what it takes.

Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

So I was unhappily awake at four o'clock this morning when I happily discovered that my friend, and former classmate in undergraduate workshops, Peter Hessler had been named a finalist in nonfiction for the National Book Award. I intended to post on Oracle Bones back when I first read it, but somehow that never happened. What I particularly admired about the book is how it blends memoir (Pete's life as a freelance journalist and clipper for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing), history, current affairs (it covers the time when the US fire bombed a Chinese embassy), and profiles of a diverse group of Chinese men and women. As a close reader of Pete's career, I know that the book is assembled largely out of profiles he wrote for The New Yorker, but the manner in which they are layered together makes a wonderful patchwork that tells a much bigger story of US and Chinese relations. It's a great example of how you can make your living as a journalist (writing articles) yet still build a book. Pete was a nonfiction student of John McPhee, who apparently always made the point: journalists should write books.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno

I often have conversations with students about three things: how do you write about romance in a fresh way, how do you write about violence in a fresh way, and how do you write about coming of age in a fresh way. This novel conveniently answers all three. You put them into a new context, such as what happens when a boy detective grows up.

I was completely charmed. By this:

"Above the dirt of an unmarked grave and beneath the shadow of the abandoned refinery, the children would play their own made-up games: Wild West Accountants! in which they would calculate the loss of a shipment of gold stolen from an imaginary stage coach, or Recently Divorced Scientists! in which they would build a super-collider out of garbage to try and win back their recently lost loves."

and this:

"What happened then was this: The lost part--the silver, misplaced key to his heart, the part of him that seemed to be missing--had been suddenly found. Words were not necessary. The room was still as the boy detective took the magnifying glass in his hand and began to do what he had always been meant to."

and this:

"We would really like to think that you were holding hands with somebody while you read that last part. If not, you might read it again and ask someone to hold your hand right now. You might then write that person's name somewhere here on this page with a heart glowing around it. Why not? It might be fun."

Anything goes, people. Anything goes.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

A lot of how-to's seem to blend together or offer variations on the same advice, but the thing Prose does very well here, that few others do, is focus on language and how word choice, sentence structure, and paragraph breaks shape every aspect of the fiction. If you can apply these lessons to story content with depth and weight, well then you'll be in good shape as a writer. Plus it's fun to look at her choices of texts to quote and recognize your old favorites and discover new possibilities.