Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Monday, March 30, 2009


Victor LaValle has an essay on Black nationalism in the current issue of Bookforum. Bookforum is always online in its entirety. Check it out.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Last Last Chance by Fiona Maazel

I've been known to complain in the past that there weren't any contemporary women writing really wacked out novels (or even mildly wacked out novels) with really wacked out women characters but that's all changed in the past five years or so. And it might even be a benefit of creative writing workshops. Men and women in classes together seeing what each other do might actually have more influence on busting self-imposed gender boundaries than men and women reading each others books ever did. This is a really funny novel about a superplague (in a world of post-9/11 novels, this is really the first post-Anthrax novel, though some other hideously infectious lab specimen is used in lieu of Anthrax). Anyway the novel is narrated by a drug addict who happens to be the daughter of the scientist (who subsequently committed suicide) accused of loosing the superplague on the public. And there are some reincarnated Vikings. Kind of Denis Johnson meets Don DeLillo meets the guy that added zombies to Pride and Prejudice.

One of the hazards of workshop is that excess often gets trimmed. Even when it's allowed by the workshopees, it's typically suggested that the author pull back. This novel is not in the least pulled back and that's why it feels original. Actually I guess it doesn't feel totally original since I just called it a Jesus's Son's White Noise Zombie novel...but it feels original all the same. And one of the great choices Maazel makes is to pair this end of the world plague with a character who goes into rehab. It's a great juxtaposing of a Big Universal Theme and a Smaller Character Issue. What better way to suggest that there is always hope than to have a character kicking drugs when she's about to be superplagued out of existence? Well, the only better way is to include reincarnated Vikings who show there is always a second chance, and a third, and not just a last chance, but a last last chance.

Funny. Not perfect but funny.

One of my former grad students mentioned how she would never ask addicts to read Johnson's Jesus' Son because the book prizes cleverness in just the way that addicts need to let go of (I actually think the character moves from prizing cleverness to prizing moments of sincerity, but I see her point, readers definitely prize the cleverness). And this novel is similar...so I suppose I'm saying it's not something one should read to help with recovery, it's more like magic realism where the addiction is metaphor rather than reality. Which raises the question of should such a real problem be left to realism...the answer has to be no (no boundaries!)... but it's an ethical concern authors should at least take to heart.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Maybe twenty years ago this 1922 novel was made into a Merchant-Ivoryesque film that I really enjoyed and it turns out the adaptation was straight up, the novel is funny and pretty and simple in all the same ways. What's interesting though is the use of point of view is actually quite good in the novel, so you would think the absence of the characters' thoughts would be problematic in the film. But it turns out the characters are thinking in ways that are very consistent with the ways they are behaving so the only losses are some funny and fine turns of phrase (which would be a more noticeable loss if the dialogue weren't also funny and full of fine turns). But regardless the novel is a good example of third person omniscience. It's a big house novel in which four British women rent an Italian villa and have their senses reawakened and as go the senses so goes the heart...so love blooms all around. It's like The Secret Garden for grown-ups. Nowadays I suspect this would be written in four rotating first person views, but I really liked the consistency of the voice and how it held to one point of view per scene but actually used the movement from head to head (perspective to perspective) to create the sense that the novel was moving forward even though most of the action involved arguing over who would pour the tea in the garden and who would get to use Mrs. Fisher's pen.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

I admit it: I enjoy American Idol. And last night watching the battle between favorites Danny and Adam, I couldn't help but think the producers were trying to set this up as a good vs evil thing. There was young widower Danny dressed in white, clouds floating on a video in the background, singing "Jesus Take the Wheel" and there was Adam, fingernails painted black, flames shooting up behind him as he sang "Ring of Fire." And while I like Danny, I love Adam. I do. I love him. (Though for the record: I don't vote! I'm not that into it!)

So this might explain why I found it so much fun to be able to love the devil--and especially his trained cat--in this classic Russian novel. The Master and Margarita is a rollicking good read in which the devil, and his demonic posse, come to Moscow and wreak havoc on the elite. It's satire and I confess plenty went over my head as I'm not as informed as I should be on Stalinist (or honestly pre or post-Stalinist) Russia. But the absurdity of the actions and especially conversations that take place is really really funny. And often at the expense of writers and bureacrats who have lost their souls. Yes, this devil is punishing people for having lost their soul. Which brings me back to Adam--who seems like a sweet talented young guy who likes to costume himself and put on a show. He likes to be free. And yes, American Idol is hokey and blatantly commercial and sometimes really boring, and maybe not as democratic as it lays claim to be (there are weird moments of racism, classism and homophobia from judges and audience alike) but it's sure better than being jailed or exiled or merely unpublished for expressing your true self. It really is pretty American. Hmm, I'm pretty sure when my colleague recommended this novel, he wasn't expecting a defense of capitalist pop culture to be the result of my reading, but hey, I am what I am.

Anyway, as a writer, one of the things I most appreciated about the book was its willingness to go unexpected places. When I choose texts for students one of my goals is to show them what's possible. Even if at heart you're a realist or a minimalist or a romance writer, it's good to get out there and read things that do what you don't. Because on its own the imagination doesn't always get...well, imaginative. We repeat ourselves, we fall into comfortable habits, we copy what we've seen most often...and a novel this willing to go pretty much anywhere is a good reminder of what's possible in fiction. But one of the interesting tricks to this novel is how it uses its opening scene as an anchor.

Apparently Harry Crews tells his students that at the start of their fiction they need to declare their space. He likens this to how motorcycle riders have to drive in the middle of the lane so cars don't shove them onto the shoulder. And at the start of the novel, Bulgakov has a young poet talking with an elite journal editor when the devil (who they don't recognize, but readers will) interrupts them. The devil predicts the death (decapitation at the hand of a woman) of the editor and it soon comes to pass. The scene is presented humorously and it sets the tone for the rest of the novel. But more than that, it remains an anchor for the novel throughout. Lots of essentially unrelated plots unfold (including a second fiction following Pontius Pilate) and lots of essentially unrelated characters appear but Bulgakov periodically brings in reminders of that first scene and the two men involved...and it helps make the novel seem far less random than it could. The characters, action, or themes of the scene reappear just when readers might be losing the thread. So while this feels like a case of anything goes stylistically, it doesn't feel like random storylines thrown together into the soup. It ends up feeling very deliberate, a structure with a backbone.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

A long time ago my friend Ted told me about Terry Pratchett, but whenever I was faced with his ouevre in the library/bookstore/book vending-type-place, it was so large, I didn't know where to begin. But while hunting down a much more highbrow challenging intellectual life-changing brain-expanding read at the university library I wandered into the curriculum section and plucked this young adult novel at random. And I loved it. Funny, strange (there's a cheese named Horace that doesn't so much talk as mind-meld with the heroine), and charming. I've noticed that contemporary young adult lit has done really well by the just-verging-on-adolescence heroines (think Lyra, Hermione, and this novel's protagonist, Tiffany Aching) but it hasn't done so well with actual teenage girls (who seem all gossip girly). In other words, once boys enter the picture, the novels seem to fall apart and become stereotypical (Bella anyone?) swoony or bitchy girls. So somebody please write a novel with a teenage girl who is as great as these 12 year olds. I know Hermione grows up and Tiffany Aching apparently does too, but they really became icons at their younger--Harriet the Spy-esque ages. Actually I'd love to read a teen novel about a teenage couple in which both the boy and the girl (or any other gender pairing) are equally strong and in a strong relationship and busy saving the world. If you know of one let me know...

But my point...one of John Gardner's pearls on writing in Art of Fiction is how effective it can be to have your protagonist do the wrong thing for the right reason. The example I tend to give in class is Sethe in Beloved--she kills her children (an obviously wrong thing) to prevent them from being taken back into slavery (an arguably right reason). And so the conflict that ensues is provocative in part because it was caused by the protagonist, but the reader doesn't lose sympathy for the character as a result. And this is what happens in Wintersmith. Tiffany Aching dances with the Wintersmith even though she was told not to. Why? Mostly because she's a kid but partly because she really wants to and can't see the harm in it and her feet kind of take over. But all the conflict that ensues as a result of her having danced is her fault. So the level of investment in whether or not she is able to solve the conflict is higher. Her fault, her responsibility to fix. It's something I don't notice as often in kid lit where kids are often fated, born into their problems (i.e., Harry Potter).