Saturday, November 28, 2009

Stitches by David Small

A disturbing but compelling comic book memoir (graphic novel seems wrong given that it's not fiction and therefore not a novel) about a boy whose doctor father, thinking he was treating his son's sinuses, gave him hundreds of radiation treatments that subsequently gave the son cancer. At least that's the hook that's been used to promote the book, but truthfully Small's father giving him cancer seems a much less significant element of the memoir than the fact that his parents treated him extremely coldly and everyone in the family seemed to be in their own silent misery...

But storyline aside, I was thinking about how comic books are particularly well-suited to childhood stories because they can so clearly depict the child's eye view through the pictures. Prose writers always have to cope with the problem of putting the child's perspective into language which often exceeds the child's actual capacity for language and so you get a lot of articulate child narrators... Interestingly like many prose stories about childhood the narrator of this memoir is an adult looking the whole thing is actually in past tense. But while in a piece of prose writing this perspective is usually very noticeable (we never forget that it's an adult talking about his childhood), in this case I frequently forgot that it was an adult narrator. I think this is because a comic book can essentially have a present tense narrative and a past tense narrative running simultaneously. The pictures show things from a kid's eye view and feel like they are happening in the right now. And the dialogue is without tags so it never has to use said vs says. Thus the pictures are a present tense narrative. But the accompanying "voice over" is in past tense and adds that layer of adult reflection. So most of the time you feel like you're in the present tense (inside childhood), but when the past tense comes in, it's very easy to make the transition into adulthood. Prose writers could choose to write childhood in the present tense when in scene and past tense when doing more reflective adult narration, but I suspect it would never feel so seamless. And even in scene you'd most likely end up with non-childish language.

So in the end, it seems comic books are a particularly good form for looking back on childhood this case, pretty dark and scary ones.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Slumberland by Paul Beatty

A very funny novel by the author of the also funny White Boy Shuffle. The narrator, who goes by DJ Darky, moves to Berlin to find a reclusive musician, nicknamed The Schwa, to have him record the perfect beat the narrator has created. It's kind of a quest novel and so it does feel resolved when the Schwa gets found and the beat recorded (I'm not giving away much of a surprise there) but it's not really a novel too worried about plot. Instead, in DJ Darky, Beatty has created a narrator so clever and word-wise and observant that Beatty can take the novel anywhere. It's really just a forum for all his insanely sharp and original observations about life in the right now (except the novel takes place when the Berlin wall is coming down). This kind of thing--a novel that's mostly a stringing together of thoughts by a really clever narrator--could get pretty irritating if it came across as smug or overly convenient or just plain boring, but Beatty is just unbelievable in his ability to give a fresh take on familiar subjects. And it's precisely because the narrator can go anywhere in his references at a given moment (Beatty's ability to connect disparate things is uncanny) that the novel stays interesting. Back when I read The Master and Margarita, I talked about how the plot can go anywhere because Bulgakov holds it together with one central event, well in this case, the thinking can go anywhere because it's held together by one central character.

Case in point:

A dialogue between the narrator and his girlfriend when she won't turn on the heat: "'Doris, it's eight degrees in here. Do you know what that is in Fahrenheit?' 'About fifty degrees.' 'Fifty-one-point-eight degrees to be exact, which is the temperature at which black men lose their f-ing minds. In 1967 when my Uncle Billy turned down a scholarship to UCLA and volunteered to go to Vietnam, it was eight degrees Celsius. On that clear, blue, carry-me-back-to-Ol'-Virginny morning when Nat 'Crazy Like a Fox' Turner looked directly into a solar eclipse and decided there and then to kill every white person in the world--it was eight degrees Celsius. In Rocky II, when Apollo Creed agrees to give Rocky Balboa a rematch in Phila-f-ing-delphia, Rocky's hometown, it was eight degrees Celsius...'"

Or this: "I'd never been in love. I'd always thought love was like reading Leaves of Grass in a crowded Westside park on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, having to suppress the urge with each giddy turn of the page to share your joy with the surrounding world. By 'sharing' I don't mean quoting Whitman's rhythm-machine poetics to a group of strangers waiting for auditions to be posted at the Screen Actor's Guild, but wanting to stand up and scream, 'I'm reading Walt Whitman, you joyless, shallow, walking-the-dog-by-carrying-the-dog, casting-couch-wrinkles-imprinted-in-your-ass, associate-producer's-pubic-hairs-on-your-tongue, designer-perambulator-pushing-the-baby-you-and-your-Bel-Air-trophy-wife-had-by-inserting-someone-else's-sperm-bank-jizz-in-a-surrogate-mother's-uterus-because-you-and-your-sugar-daddy-were-too-busy-with-your-nonexistent-careers-to-f--k, no-day-job-having California Aryan assholes! I'm reading Whitman! F--k your purebred, pedigreed Russian wolfhound! F--k your WASP infant with the Hebrew name and the West Indian nanny! F--k your Norwegian au pair who's not as hot-looking as you thought she'd be! I'm reading Whitman, expanding my mind and melding with the universe! What have you done today? It's ten in the morning, do you know where your coke dealer is? Have you looked at the leaves of grass? No? I didn't think so!' That's what I thought love would be like. Reading Whitman and fighting the urge not to express your aesthetic superiority."

And also, the novel very cleverly sets its tone by having the black narrator go to a tanning salon in the first scene--seemingly a pointless, possibly crazy action--and he lets the reader see the absurdity of the moment--and then he reveals the narrator is in Berlin and desperate for some serotonin-sunshine. An absurd action committed for a rational reason. This is the narrator in a nutshell--he seems like a nut until you know him better.

The Wild Things by Dave Eggers

I don't have much to say about the content of this novel (an expanded version of the film version of the picture book, requested apparently and sanctioned by Maurice Sendak) other than I found it to have the same pros and cons as the film, which I liked but didn't love.

But what I really want to talk about is the fur! As many of you probably know, the novel came in two editions--regular and fur-covered. And I (of course!) bought the fur-covered one. I intended to give it to a family member as a gift but I decided she'd be too freaked out by it, and so naturally I kept it all for myself. And I am totally freaked out by it! And fascinated by it! The fur is presumably fake, but very convincing--I have a very wolf-like dog and this is very wolf-like fur, nearly indistinguishable from the dog's when I vacuum. But the fur (which covers the whole exterior of the book minus the two eyes peeking out) gets ruffled periodically and naturally I have to smooth it out (much like in a petting motion). And I am here to tell you petting a book makes you love it more! This is the answer to digital mucketymucking in the world of books. Publishers must make us love our books more! They should be like those electronic gadgets you have to feed and babytalk so they don't die. Put a chip in our books--if we don't read them or stroke them or speak them aloud--they die!

Okay, perhaps I go too far, but I've long thought that the publishing world is going to go increasingly high and low--e-books being low and fur-covered books (or the aforementioned bite-marked Firmin by Sam Savage) being high. The physical book (as opposed to the digital book) as art object and not just reading experience is a path I wouldn't mind following. Except in my opinion the low (e-book etc) should be priced way way lower than it is now. And I say that as someone who hopes to make royalties one day.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever

This is a nonfiction, non-academic work about the relationships that existed between Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau--with some appearances by Herman Melville, Henry James, and other notables. I always like reading about artists' communities and how friends can push each other to heights of success. And it always raises some questions: was it a genius-cluster (something in the water), how did such a thing form... In this case, the link is geography (much preferable to Facebook in my opinion)--these writers all lived in Concord, Mass--but also personality--as in the personality of Emerson. The book suggests it was really Emerson's financial support that allowed Thoreau, the Alcott family, and for a time Hawthorne, to survive. So while networking may also have helped each member of the group professionally, and mentoring and modeling (as in role-modeling) presumably also helped (I imagine especially for Alcott who was younger and got to watch these men build their writing careers), patronage may have mattered the most. The book is an entertaining read if you're interested in such things (I, for one, had no idea Thoreau was Alcott's teacher for awhile; and also knew next to nothing about Margaret Fuller or the Peabody sisters, who all turned out to be fascinating) and for all those who fuss about MFA programs, I can't help but think what we're trying to do formally is exactly what Emerson tried to do informally--provide financial support, mentoring, and community for developing writers.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Go check out my friend and colleague Andy Furman's essay in the latest issue of Ecotone!