Friday, January 30, 2009

Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

I don't really have any wisdom to impart about this collection of linked short stories about a seventh grade teacher other than the bits on teaching rang very true, the stories are amazingingly different from Bynum's lyric novel, Madeleine is Sleeping, and I really enjoyed the book all the way through. And here is a character moment I loved:

"On Parent's Night, Ms. Hempel felt fluttery and damp. She knew from past experience that she would make a burlesque of herself, that her every sentence would end with an exclamation point, and her hands would fly about wildly and despairingly, like two bats trapped inside a bedroom. The previous year, a boy named Zachary Bouchet had reported, 'My mother says that you smile too much.'"

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Blindness by Jose Saramago

I first became conscious of Saramago when he won the Nobel prize in 1998, but it wasn't until recently that I regularly heard students, friends, other writers talking about Blindness to the point that I finally bought a copy. I suppose that has to do with the movie coming out, but it's possible that it's the reverse, that the movie was finally made because the buzz on the book had been gradually building. This need for building buzz perhaps sounds ridiculous given that Saramago won the Nobel prize, but it seems to me lots of Nobel prize winners essentially go unread by even highly-literate Americans. Anyway...

The novel is an overtly allegorical tale of a country in which there is an epidemic of contagious blindness. Instead of seeing darkness the blind see a bright white that obliterates their vision (why is it that being in the light sounds so much more exhausting than being in the dark?). Lots of things interested me about the novel--which is strangely compelling despite its lack of in depth characterization and what seems at first to be an overly obvious metaphors (humans go blind, their animal natures are revealed). But in the end the characters are tremendously moving and the metaphor not so obvious. So the mystery is how did he pull that off...

One of the strengths of the novel is its absolutely classic plotting. One thing leads to the next in a totally believable manner but because the premise of the blindness is so clever the novel doesn't feel predictable. Warning: plot points revealed here. First the blind are quarantined (in appalling circumstances) then there are fights and abuses amongst the factions of the quarantined (one ward, who have the advantage of a gun and a blind man who has been blind all of his life, turns on all the others) then the quarantine fails as the inmates realize there are no longer any guards on the outside (they've all gone blind) then the inmates struggle to survive in the outside world where there is no power, no running water, no functioning economy...and then everybody gets their sight back. It's a novel with big plot points which is not something that you necessarily connect to a novel of ideas. I loved that about the book. Things happen just when you need them to. And I was continually curious as to what the consequences of each new problem would be.

But the classic plotting is attached to an unusual style. None of the characters have names--there are even some funny twists on calling everybody the blind man (the first blind man, the blind man with the eye patch, etc) and readers know almost nothing of their pasts. They exist only in the present. That's how they exist for the reader and how they exist for each other. Nameless, faceless, pastless. Which is great for the allegory but hard on the writer--how do you write scene, how do you keep the characters interesting. Well, as to writing scene, Saramago does something that seems crazy but oddly enough works. He mostly runs the dialogue together in single sentences so that two characters might have five exchanges or more of conversation with only commas separating their lines (he does use some dialogue tags within those sentences). Readers who are used to regular dialogue tags, paragraph breaks, etc have none of their usual comforts. We are, drum roll please...blinded. But it's almost never confusing. Saramago manages to have created personalities/inner lives for these characters that allow us to know who would say what and he quite smartly rarely has more than two characters talking at once. And he rarely has them express more than a single "sentence" at a time. But that doesn't seem overly simplistic because you're being pulled quickly through a long sentence of rapid exchanges.

Where I think the novel gets its necessary depth though is from the rare intrusions of the third person narrator who shifts the reader toward more complicated interpretations of the allegory, beyond the humans are blind in their hearts idea. I won't give those away, they're more important surprises than plot surprises are.

But Saramago's most important decision, most likely, was to make the central character a woman who chooses to go with her blind husband into quarantine even though she herself is somehow immune to the disease. She provides a necessary contrast to the experience of the others, she helps make their survival a lot more believable, and she serves as the reader's own avatar in the novel--the one who can see among the blind and yet so often feels helpless because of what she sees.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Don't Look Now by Daphne DuMaurier

The New York Review of Books has put out this new selection of short stories by Du Maurier, best known for the novel Rebecca, and for the Hitchcock adaptations of that book and her short story "The Birds." The title story, "Don't Look Now" was also made into a rather creepy but well-regarded film. And this is one reason I'm interested in the collection. (The other reason is I've loved Du Maurier since I was a girl and I found My Cousin Rachel on the shelves of the summer house my grandparents used to rent in Nonquit, Mass.) Anyway, in the fall I'll be teaching a graduate workshop on adapting fiction to film, so I've been giving some thought to my reading/viewing list. But I haven't collected my ideas on that yet, so in the meanwhile I'd just like to point out how well these stories prefigure contemporary American magic realism. (Du Maurier was British and writing largely in the 40s and 50s.)

While some of these stories are very lightweight (and irony or surprise heavy), some have held up quite well. I kept thinking of contemporary writers like Aimee Bender and especially Kelly Link and how they use strangeness to convey a sense of mystery and wonder about the real world. In a number of stories, Du Maurier bends time or brings in psychic phenomena or natural but extreme phenomena (such as those birds), but underneath readers understand that these are post-world-war stories, a kind of supernatural vision of post-traumatic stress. They're ghost stories with soul.