Sunday, December 31, 2006

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

As a kid I went through a period of reading plays which seemed to serve as a good transition from reading kid novels to adult novels--the plays had grown-up content but an easy-to-follow, quick-to-read structure. And I suspect that my play reading helped me with dialogue as a fiction writer--though dialogue in fiction is typically less stagy than in drama, it also isn't as natural as some would have you believe. Anyway, Tom Stoppard's plays are now available in these fat collected volumes that I'm gradually obtaining via my Amazon wish list. And so my first Xmas-present-read this year was Arcadia, the one Stoppard play I've seen (though I think a trip to NYC to see the new trilogy would be a nice self-congratulatory gift if I happen to do anything worthy of self-congratulation in the near future). And it's just a fantastic piece of writing--even if you never get to see it performed, it's well worth reading.

What interested me most was the way Stoppard moves between the scenes in the past and those in the present. Half the story takes place in a big house in 1809 and the other half in the same house in the late twentieth century. The characters in the twentieth century (literary scholars mostly) are trying to figure out what happened in the nineteenth. But instead of just flopping between the two in an ABAB structure, things are more fluid. It is ultimately an ABAB structure, but sometimes A and B are taking place near simultaneously with all the characters on stage at the same moment. And the props from one time period (including a tortoise) remain in the later time period. Now Stoppard can get away with this because the setting is the same in both times, but it made me think about the way as a fiction writer I use flashback and exposition. Readers are quite accepting of shifts backwards in time, especially if they are cued by a space break or a chapter break, but it's an interesting thought to allow the two time periods to blend more. To use setting/detail/props and structure to allow the time periods to both feel present at the same narrative moment--and yet not to have readers confused between the two. I suppose Woolf and Joyce (and others I'm sure) have done this in ways, using manners not so different from Stoppard, but I haven't read anybody lately who's playing in this way.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ssh, reading in progress

I'm halfway through the novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Not sure I'll have much to say about it other than it appears to be a Dave Eggers-ized (I like) version of The Secret History (I don't).

Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes

For a long time all I knew of this novel was the title and that it was post-modern and meta-fictional, so for some reason that led me to believe it was narrated by a parrot. And that led me to not read it for quite awhile (not that there's anything inherently wrong with a novel narrated by a parrot.) I really can't imagine why I leapt to that conclusion, but this is in no way a book about or by a parrot. It's a clever Kundera-ish expansion of what a novel can do. Some critics call it a satire of literary criticism, but if that was all it was it wouldn't be of much interest--what an easy target, after all. Instead it combines the first person woes of an academic while throwing in literary criticism, literary biography, and yes, satire. But it's simultaneously satire of lit crit (the grand puzzle that frames the novel is which of two stuffed parrots was Flaubert's inspiration) while working as a piece of lit crit (My favorite bit is the list of all the things the narrator would ban from literature) and as what seems to be a pretty sincere bit of author-love for Flaubert. Since it's told in first person it actually struck me as largely realist in that this guy would obsess about these things. This is the way he'd tell his life story because his life is so wrapped in Flaubert's. In other words, it would be less realist if bits of Flaubert bio were thrown into a third person narrative or a first person narrative of a non-Flaubert-related character. So the novel is post-modern metafiction but not randomly so.

Monday, December 11, 2006

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

I've read this charming novel before and seen the charming movie, but lately I've realized that it's become a cultural touchstone for many boys of my generation and I felt a sudden need to understand them and so I read it again. And I've decided it's Bridget Jones for boys. And let's be clear, I'm a Bridget Jones fan (the first book only) because she's really really funny. And so is Hornby. But anyway I was thinking of teaching the novel because of its strange structure--the lists--but as I reread, I realized it's a completely conventional structure with the lists on top as a disguise to make it seem strange (all the more reason to teach it--the ordinary made new). It starts with an inciting incident (girlfriend leaves), goes into exposition ("top five most memorable split-ups"), develops some subplots (record shop, etc), brings the past into the present (visiting the top five split-ups in their current lives), and includes a second incident (ex's dad dies) that brings things to a climax and off we go...

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

This novel is wonderfully strange. I've decided that one of my favorite sub-genres is writing about strange women. Or women behaving strangely. What's interesting about the novel is that Bowles creates the sense of strangness by yes, creating characters who are atypical and act against cultural norms, but more importantly by leaving out the reactions of other people or of a narrator or of anyone who might say, boy that's weird. So you get the women behaving strangely but very rarely do you get any commentary on what they're doing. So you as the reader watch their acts, eavesdrop on their conversations, and are left to interpret completely on your own. It's like Hemingway for girls.

The Haunted Hillbilly by Derek McCormack

This is the kind of novel that only a small press is likely to publish--strange and risk-taking and hard to define and with a limited audience--and that's one of the reasons small presses need to exist. The novel is about a country western singer who is made and destroyed by a vampiric (literally) manager and is told in a spare voice that leaves a lot to the imagination. It's an interesting book. But I admit I kept wondering why the publisher insisted on publishing it as a novel. There is so much white space on each page (and the trim size is small to start) that it reminded me of the shenagins students pull when they meet a page requirement via giant fonts, triple spacing and two inch margins. It's really a long short story, maybe a novella, and one that might have been served well by being packaged with some other pieces of writing by the same author. But then it got me thinking about the idea of a book. My poet friends are always thinking about what constitutes a book--what poems to leave out, how many poems they need to have in--but as a novelist, you write your story, you print it out, there's your book. So why can't something that's rather short compared to even a short novel, be called a novel and be done with it. I suspect, rather embarrassingly, it has something to do with wanting to feel I got my money's worth.

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

I first came across this novel in its Modern Library edition on my great-aunt's bookshelf when my family was cleaning out her house. When I asked my mom about it, she said, oh yes, that's a good one (she later admitted she was thinking of Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier) so I took it home and voila, four years later, I read it. It's rare that I get to read a novel without knowing anything about it in advance so I was surprised to realize this book is about kids, and at first, I thought maybe it was written for kids (the preface jokingly refers to it as a novel about "a crew of well-meaning pirates who fall into the clutches of half a dozen children"), but actually it's that rare novel that writes about children in a way that is really interesting to adults. Not necessarily realistically-not all children are this callous and this dreamy--but interestingly. In particular the character of Emily appears on the outside to be rather ordinary and dull, but her inner life (created I'll point out by a male author) is really wonderfully strange and intense. I think this is maybe where some writers creating child characters in adult fiction go wrong--they let the kids do interesting things but they don't let them think interesting things. If you're going to create kids, don't underestimate their own internal voices, their point of view. Don't make them little grown-ups, but don't make them blank slates either. Emily actually reminded me some of Briony in part one of Ian McEwan's Atonement--a child character who I loved to hate.