Monday, January 29, 2007

What is the What by Dave Eggers

I like how Dave Eggers works at making writing a force for good and at making it hip for young and old, and I even like the intentions of this novel--to tell the story of someone who wouldn't write it on his own. But I was continually jarred by the idea intrinsic in the subtitle: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. At first, I actually thought it was one of those novels where the writer fictionalizes a writer and a publishing scenario etc (Lolita, Edwin Mullhouse, many others...). But by all appearances, it's not. Dave Eggers actually did lengthy interviews with Valentino Achack Deng, a real "Lost Boy of Sudan," and then wrote down his story, novelizing where he felt it needed novelizing, but claiming to stay pretty close to the story. And there isn't anything inherently wrong with that. But it was an odd sensation to have the Eggers' voice, which is distinct and apparently something he can't or won't go without, in the mouth of someone else. I never quite got over it. Perhaps what I was looking for was more novelizing. The narration goes between the troubles Deng has now that he's been settled in the US and the troubles he had in the Sudan--and there's no denying the guy has had a lot of very serious troubles. But the events that engaged me the most were actually the ones in the US, since those involved the most developed characters (a lot of other people come and go very quickly), yet those seemed to serve mainly as a frame for the time in the Sudan. I think one problem was the characterization of Deng is pretty limited, you get the facts, and some of his emotions, but Eggers seems reluctant to give him more of a point of view in most situations. Perhaps because the events are so dramatic that point of view seemed unnecessary (not true!) or perhaps because he was reluctant to invent the inside of Deng's head. It's the trouble with trying to serve nonfiction and fiction simultaneously. If Eggers had written his own first person nonfiction account of obtaining Deng's story (like Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down) perhaps it would have held my attention more.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Ssh, Reading in Progress

from The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud:

"Thus purified, bland as a lamb, Danielle lay naked between her fine sheets, bodily weighted, and, she hoped, cleared in spirit; and still, for a good hour, in the semi-darkness, she thought she could detect her worries darting like wisps in the corners of her blameless room."

Monday, January 15, 2007

2 Girls by Perihan Magden (translated by Brendan Freely)

This is the second novel I've read by Turkish writer Perihan Magden and I'm glad to have discovered her, and hope her work continues to be translated. This novel was apparently a big seller in Turkey and has been made into a movie (not as far as I know, available in the US). It's difficult to imagine this becoming a bestseller in the US because it's heavy on voice and is a fairly dark look at life as a young woman. The plot centers on a two week intense friendship between the two girls of the title, but its emotional core is one girl, Behiye, who starts the novel with "The Feeling You'll be Rescued." This is the name she gives her emotional state--and it's a great way to start a character-driven novel. Magden establishes the emotional vulnerability of her character right off the bat and makes clear what she wants--to be rescued--which immediately creates a sense of conflict, because any good reader (and Oprah devotee) knows there are no rescuers other than yourself. Soon after The Feeling, Behiye meets Handan, who she labels her hoped-for rescuer, and of course, trouble ensues. One interesting structural element is that Magden threads the discovery of a series of murdered males throughout, via police reports and such, but never directly links our two girls to the dead boys (and in fact, I'm not sure there is a direct link, though it's made clear that there might be). I was happy these weren't dead girls for once, and Magden uses this device to create an incredibly powerful final page that in its cold clinicalness (it's a medical report for analyzing wounds) becomes a devastating metaphor for Behiye's new emtional state.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers (ed. Vendela Vida)

The title of this collection of interviews from Believer magazine made me think it would be writers in conversation, each talking about their own work, but for the most part it's conventional-though interesting--interviews, where one writer is interviewer and the other is interviewee. The one that comes closest to a conversation is the Zadie Smith interview of Ian McEwan, which not coincidentally was also the one of greatest technical interest. But overall I enjoyed this book--it made me want to read some writers I haven't, to reread some writers I have, and gave me a few fresh ideas about process and technique.

I like to read interviews of writers for two reasons--one, because they sometimes make me think about my own writing in a different way and two, because in becoming more human, writers make writing seem more do-able. It matters to me what their lives are and how they conduct them because they are already up the ladder I want to climb. But I've never been too sure why non-writers find interviews with writers interesting. The one thing they almost never seem to do is offer a new understanding of the texts of the interviewee. Those, for me, almost always stand apart from the person who wrote them.