Monday, February 25, 2008

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

This novel is basically a thriller but Greene's voice is so good, and he does enough with meditations on character (not to mention good and evil) that it gets take seriously enough as literature. I enjoyed a couple of things about the novel--one was Ida, the woman who fairly randomly takes it into her head (and heart) to solve the murder that happens early in the novel. The other was the way in which Greene would describe characters, large and small. Someone has a "clerkly mouth" and Ida gets described like this: "she was like darkness to him, shelter, knowledge, common sense; his heart ached at the sight; but, in his little inky cynical framework of bone, pride bobbed up again, taunting him." Or even a horse gets this: "A mounted policeman came up the road, the lovely cared-for chestnut beast stepping deliberately on the hot macadam, like an expensive toy a millionaire buys for his children; you admired the finish, the leather as deeply glowing as an old mahogany table top, the bright silver badge; it never occurred to you that the toy was for use." I think one of the hazards of the typical writing rush--to meet a workshop deadline or to get published quick quick quick is that fewer writers (especially student writers) stop and describe anything anymore. But it's often, in part at least, those few lines of description, that lingering in the physical and the metaphoric, that elevates all the action to art.

The other thing I thought about with this novel is just how implausible many of the character actions are. That Ida would chase the killer, that Rose would marry him... But Greene writes with such assuredness (such "no-explanations, no-apologies" as James Wood describes Peter Carey's new novel in this week's New Yorker) that you kind of buy it. Or at least you forgive it.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

On Ugliness ed. by Umberto Eco

At first I thought I'd read this book like a collage, just looking at the (not so) pretty pictures, but actually Eco's text was pretty fascinating. The book is quite beautifully produced and full of visual ugliness, some of which is pretty astonishing and some of which is familiar, but the thing I responded to most was the idea that formal ugliness (which is differentiated from the beautiful, artistic portrayal of ugly things) tends to be defined by a lack of symmetry, of equilibrium. And in fiction writing, especially the short story, we talk a lot about balance and structure and things that don't fit the story...but sometimes too much, I think. The question is, is some ugliness necessary to prevent a story that's too smooth and ultimately bland. There are those who argue that the cracks in the whole make for beauty...that beauty doesn't exist without cracks... and perhaps the whole problem of the workshop story, something perfectly constructed which leaves you cold, is a lack of ugliness. Russell Banks, the man who changed my life by providing such a happy model of the writer-professor way back when I was a freshman, once told me I needed to take my hands off the wheel more often, and I confess this is something that I still struggle with. After all, if you take your hands off the wheel, you go off the road! Now intellectually I understand he was telling me I needed to go off the road. But I'm still not sure I've ever done it...though I don't white-knuckle my "driving" quite as much as I used to.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Easy Riders Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

I don't really have anything much writing-related to say about this book but I liked it a lot and fiction writers tend to find film interesting as well, and so I thought I'd mention it. It's a nonfiction account of the "new" Hollywood that arose out of the 60s counterculture and briefly ruled during the 70s. It covers the moment cinema went from Doris Day/Rock Hudson to Peter Fonda/Jack Nicholson and then on through the director-auteur movies of Coppola/Beatty/Ashby/Scorsese and into the blockbusters of Spielberg/Lucas. It's a real play by play of many influential films and has lots of interesting points about the pros and cons of having an auteur behind a film and the disasters that befall those auteurs who get an inflated sense of self. For those of us who write all by our lonesomes, film with all its collaboration can seem both terribly appealing and horrifying. Though I must say it was eye-opening to me once I signed on with an agent (and her team) and started hearing from editors, to realize just how collaborative fiction becomes when other people are considering investing their money in your project. Anyway... this book also made me realize why I could never be a journalist. I could never make all of the phone calls. As a well known phone-a-phobe, the thought of arranging, let alone holding, the hundreds of interviews (five years worth!) that Biskind conducted made me clutch my chest with one hand and put the other to my brow.

Update to my Graduate post: By coincidence there is a new book on the "new" Hollywood reviewed in the NYTBR this Sunday and it points out that the film of The Graduate changed Benjamin's interruption of the wedding from pre-vows to post-vows, so that Elaine is actually already married at the end of the film (there are other smaller changes in the adaptation of the whole wedding episode too) ... while this is significant difference (at least I guess I would think so if I were the bride or the groom), it seems less significant now than it probably did in 1967. And my point that this is a remarkably close adaptation remains the same.

Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller

I have a particular soft spot for weird fiction by women and so I enjoyed this short novel in which female animals suddenly grow increasingly human and female humans grow increasingly animalistic. It seems politically to have something to say about finding the middle ground between our instinctive and refined natures, but it's a good read mostly because of the central character, Pooch (later to go by Pucci), who was a family dog but increasingly took on lady of the house responsibilities, like babysitting, when the family mother lost her human nature. Now as a reader I also have a soft spot for the animals-as-human storylines that tend mostly to appear in young adult lit (Charlotte's Web, Incredible Journey, Watership Down) and another soft spot for the humans-and-their animals storylines that also tend mostly to appear in young adult lit (Black Stallion, Where the Red Fern Grows etc), but as a teacher I tend to greet any anthropomorphized animals that appear in workshop stories with some dread. Probably because stereotypical humans are bad enough but stereotypical dog-narrators are somehow worse. But what makes Pooch work as a character, I think, is precisely that she is neither dog nor human. She can't do all the things that humans do, and because she hasn't been humanish all that long she is quite naive, but she also has some fierce instincts. She is treated in a very realistic way as a dog who has become human rather than as a character who could just as easily be a human as a dog.

And this I think is true of most of the major animal characters that I like the best. That they aren't simply human characters in animal skin, but rather that they blend the animal traits with the thinking ones.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Graduate by Charles Webb

The Graduate is one of my favorite movies, and so when I discovered there was a novel I was initially wary (having experienced the great Harold and Maude reading disappointment of 1999) but then I learned it had once sold millions of copies and was on the list of 1001 Books I must read before I die. And so I proceeded...

And it's the movie. I mean it's exactly the movie. Everything in the movie that's great (except the plastics bit and Dustin Hoffman banging his head on the closet door during the first foray into the Mrs. Robinson affair) is in the book. And not one thing more. The book is the movie. (Film critics would argue that it matters a great deal that the Wasp characters of the novel are turned into Jewish characters in the movie, but that's more about how Hoffman looks than how he acts. Though certainly for leading men of the sixties and seventies that shift in "acceptable" appearance (from Redford to Hoffman) mattered. (Right now I'm reading the great nonfiction book by Peter Biskind, Easy Riders Raging Bulls, that documents the time, so I'm reasonably well-versed).)

Anyway... there is literally no moment of omniscience in this novel. It's a remarkable show of restraint. Not once do we go into a character's head. And the dialogue is some of the funniest I've ever read. And so it makes a perfect translation to screen. Though this, of course, is in large part due to the actors (esp. Hoffman and Bancroft) and the director (Mike Nichols) capturing perfectly the flat, emotionally distant tone of the novel. And this perhaps explains why the book has been entirely replaced by the movie. New generations watch this movie, but as far as I know they don't read the novel. And I argue this is because they give you exactly the same experience, and given that our culture prefers film to literature, it's inevitable that the film won out. Now when a novel and a film give equally great but slightly different experiences, then perhaps both survive (suddenly all I can think of by way of example is Gone With the Wind and The Godfather neither of which should exactly be called literature--I'll have to hone this theory). Anyway the idea interests me as I hope my department will permit me to teach a grad workshop on adapting lit to film next year.

But The Graduate is worth reading even if you've seen the film. Partly to have a new way of experiencing these moments (though it's hard not to hear Hoffman's voice intoning "Mrs. Robinson, you are trying to seduce me....Aren't you?"). And the dialogue, especially between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson, is a case study in having two characters share a conversation in which they have opposite goals. Too often beginning writers create scenes in which one character has something to say and the other character is there to hear it. Not so here. And it makes for really really funny reading.

Poor Charles Webb. He gets no credit. Though apparently he did just publish a sequel, Home School, in January.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

I tried. I failed. I suspect I'll try again some other year. Actually as much as I love his story collection Jesus' Son, I've never managed to finish a Johnson novel.

I'm having commitment issues with books lately. I started Middlemarch (restarted, really) on a recent trip to Seattle and was enjoying it, but on my trip to New York the next week I left it behind for a reread of Gilead (which I also didn't finish, but you don't really need to finish rereads, do you?). I did manage to read a young adult novel (The School Story) that I liked and plan to use in my undergrad workshop on young adult writing next year--it's a sweet story and has the added value of laying out in detail the publishing process, which I assume my students will appreciate. I also managed to read the Ron Carlson short story "Beanball" which makes up the 100th issue of One-Story magazine, which is an enterprise I'm happy to support. I mentioned in class the other night how my former teachers (i.e. Carlson) continue to teach me via their careers--and it was interesting to see a story that felt a little different from other Carlson stories (not least because a gun goes off) yet isn't alien when placed along his other work.

One of the events I went to at AWP was the One-Story reading and it led me to think this about literary magazines--a lot of magazines have come and gone during the ten or so years I've been conscious of that market, but it's the ones like One-Story (which publishes one story per issue, every three weeks) that have a unique angle that make it. Either a personality-style angle (McSweeney's, Fence, N+1), a thematic one (Image, Alimentum), or both (Zoetrope). So to all would-be lit mag starters out there--what's your angle? Me, I'd really like to see an illustrated mag. (not a mag with art, most have that, but one that illustrates its stories).

Right now, I'm reading The Graduate which is both short and funny. Odds are good I'll stay committed to the end this time.