Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Movies for Writers

One of my graduate students has started a blog that I imagine readers of this blog will appreciate:


Monday, June 01, 2009

A Person of Interest by Susan Choi

Don DeLillo is one of my all-time favorite fiction writers, and so I always notice when a contemporary writer gets given the DeLillo comparision. And sometimes I wonder why. DeLillo himself seems so varied--all out funny in White Noise, meditative and serious in Mao II, floaty and strange in The Body Artist, all inclusive in Underworld... but I think what critics mean when they pull out the DeLilloism is the author has taken on social issues of our contemporary world.

And this novel, which I much admired, is the story of a Korean scientist and professor who is suspected of being a Unabomber-type when his colleague gets blown up by a mail bomb. It's a combo (and I think I read this in an interview with Choi) of the suspicion that the Asian scientist at Los Alamos came under and the Unabomber story. And the connection to real life definitely adds weight to the fiction. But really it's interesting for the characterizations, and it's weighty for the level of psychological, human insight not because it has something to say about the American media, or about othering, or about the Unabomber. DeLillo (in Mao mode) would have had lots of narrative comment about all those issues, but Choi tells the story of this one guy and what it would be like to be a real live, flawed, and innocent person suddenly under suspicion. I appreciated that she felt free to use contemporary history, but didn't feel obligated to comment on it directly.

One of the most interesting choices she makes is to veer off nearly 2/3 of the way through the novel (maybe more) into the point of view (still third person limited, just not the protagonist we've been with for most of the novel) of an unexpected character. It's the kind of thing that is a violation of the fake rules of the fictional universe--set a pattern and stick to it (in layman's terms, don't all of a sudden change perspectives)--but as a reader I didn't mind at all for the simple reason that she kept the writing and the character super interesting. There was no dip in her level of execution so I gave her the benefit of the doubt--and in fact felt a little relieved to break from the claustrophobia of sticking with an interesting but maddening character. And the pay off is good because the choice of whose perspective she followed is so good--and so unexpected. Now this could backfire--readers are suspicious of the hand of the writer suddenly coming up through the page and showing itself--but she immersed the reader so quickly and so deeply in this character's perspective--the psychic distance is so close to him--that you don't have time to pull back and go, what just happened? You go with her. Or at least I did.

One other small thing, the main character is called by his last name throughout--even other characters call him by his last name--and this has a great distancing effect. He's the kind of guy that doesn't let other people in close and that choice reflects that very nicely.

The Signal by Ron Carlson

Full disclosure: I have a deep and abiding love for Ron Carlson, who has been my mentor for more than ten years now. But who would you be if you didn't blog about the books by people you love?

One of the interesting things about reading everything that one writer puts out (and it's rare that I do that), is you notice when they drop certain habits. And lately Carlson has dropped the habit of being funny. Now, I'm sure he still is and can be, and I wouldn't be surprised if he comes out with some short stories soon that are once and again really funny. But this novel, despite some moments of humor, is not funny at all. It's absolutely and completely sincere. And lately it's not that often that I read fiction that is completely sincere. It's about the mourning of two losses the protagonist's wife (who he betrayed and she divorced him) and his father (who died just before his romance started years before with his wife). And even though the plot is a combined Western-shoot-out-Secret Agent thriller kind of thing (done literarily, of course), the book's heart is about how those two losses--and the nostalgic memories connected to them--seep through all the camping and hunting and manly action.

So it just made me think maybe humor sometimes comes at a cost. Because the light tone that I associate with a lot of Carlson's short stories--which I really enjoy--would have prevented the reader from really feeling the mourning that comes with this novel (as with Carlson's previous novel, Five Skies). Not to say heartbreak can't come with humor...probably my favorite novel of all time (if I really had to pick) is Catch-22, which is uber-funny and yet uber-serious. But perhaps a certain kind of narrator--that charming, smart-alecky one, needs to interrupt itself, and choose a different tone, for deeper impact. And in short stories, it's harder to vary tone. So short stories are often serious and sincere or funny and ironic. I'm not sure about this... for class we just read "Jon" by George Saunders, which is funny and ironic and a little bit glorious and awesome (in the literal sense not the Valley Girl sense) in its end. So I guess certain writers pull it off.

I recently mentioned in class that I never seemed to read comedies as realist and there was much protest at this--as real life is quite funny and often absurd--but real life doesn't come with such a one note point of view as most comedies do (because they leave out all the unfunny stuff). The context for the comment was Zadie Smith's White Teeth, another favorite of mine, but an example of when humor eliminates the chance of heartbreak (or heartlift). She chose humor over heartbreak though, I wouldn't say she went for both.