Saturday, August 23, 2008

Bolaño The Great

At the cafe recently I saw a woman with a copy of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. I got so excited I almost dropped my latte. I wanted to rush over to talk about the book with her, to see if she loved it as much as I did--but as these impulses go, I checked myself. Maybe I had overestimated the novel. What’s to say she wasn’t so easily charmed?

Was it all that I recalled? I decided to go back and re-read The Savage Detectives. It is a bigger surprise the second time around. It will stand for me as an exemplary, nearly perfect novel. Much of it has to do with Bolaño’s ability to weave a compelling tale and just hook me in--the goal of any narrative, of course. Bolaño writes as if everything depends on his words. It’s a beautiful gift to have as a writer. The effect can come off as irreverent, even mildly shocking. You realize, as you read, that for the moment, everything does depend on his words.

I read the book vicariously, as Bolaño’s subject was easily my own fantasy for myself when I first started writing. When I was the age of the novel’s protagonist, the idealistic, seventeen year old Juan Garcia Madero, I imagined I was a poet. Except that, in my coming of age, I hadn’t been reading much poetry--beyond the eventual spark in an undergrad class in the Romantic poets, who inspired me to pen my feelings into verse -- I was primarily interested in writing it. I had no literary community to glom onto and was probably too timid to look for one. But I loved to attend academic poetry readings and once asked Robert Creeley (at an interview and reading with Charles Simic, probably in 1993 or so, well into my first attempts at writing fiction) what he thought the difference was between writing prose and poetry. All I recall of his response was my sudden discombobulation at the fact that he was taking the time to answer my question thoughtfully.

In The Savage Detectives, Garcia Madero (the name everyone calls the narrator) relates the early start of the Visceral Realists, a stand in for the actual group of Infrarealists that Bolaño was a founding member of (in the book, Bolano is Arturo Belano), along with one Ulises Lima. The subtext is in this diary, essentially the first half of the novel, a kind of pseudo documentary of this group that intends to overthrow the Mexican poetry tradition of Octavio Paz, whom Garcia Madera refers to as “our great enemy” in the first pages: “Our situation (as far as I could understand) is unsustainable, trapped as we are between the reign of Octavio Paz and the reign of Pablo Neruda. In other words, between a rock and a hard place.”

Garcia Madero, empowered by falling in with this group, is eager to alleviate himself of his virginity and achieve edification. He thus makes lists of his older companions' stolen books to eventually read, and details his lusts for the women around him in his frequently frank, sometimes illicit, diary entries.

Much of the narrative is focused around the Font house and the two alluring sisters, Angelica and Maria, and their father, the sporadically unstable Quim. The Fonts are the center of the tenuous initial get-togethers, casually social and political, that forms the fabric of their group. The intent of the Visceral Realists is to publish a journal that will exceed their founder’s previous effort, embodied in a magazine that exists almost as an innuendo, an eponym, entitled Lee Harvey Oswald, that takes its title from a misreading of a publisher’s name.

Poetic prose--something a reader might almost expect from a poet--does not really characterize Bolaño’s style. There are definite poetic moments, but this isn’t prose you so much as savor but devour, reading for the sheer joy of the voice, to take in the story. (Here’s a thought: might voice be style?) But neither is it merely “serviceable” prose. For example, when Garcia Madero first encounters the sisters, he compares them, noticing in Angelica that: “When I saw her, or rather when I saw that she was looking at me...I felt as if a hand, its fingers long and delicate but very strong, was squeezing my heart. I know Lima and Belano wouldn’t approve of that image, but it fits my feelings like a glove.”

In part II of the book, Bolaño employs dozens of first person narrators who are portrayed in interviews retelling the history of the movement covering a period of twenty years. (By part III, we are charmed again with Garcia Madero’s diary going into a new year.) Amusing the reader and occasionally giving a palatable dose of tedium. Yet all of the narrators, because they are so invested in their experiences--make their tale-tellings resound and magnify.

The effect reminded me of Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train, where characters seem to drift on their own self-interests, but somewhere along the line we are enlightened to discover they are inter-connected in unusual, unexpected ways. Against the clumsiness of a single narrator revealing to us what he chooses (the purview of the unreliable narrator), we have instead a series of wonderfully subjective interpretations: because no two people remember events exactly the same.

An example of this in The Savage Detectives involves a sword fight on the beach--and calls to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s duel in Tender is the Night. Where Fitzgerald, in my possibly faulty recollection, attempts to play the duel straight, and thus, self-consciously melodramatically, the absurd sequence is an opportunity for Bolaño to play for its variety. Bolaño is something of a melodramatist, too, albeit smiling through clenched teeth. He never takes any of it too seriously.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

New Letters Finalist

For the second time, a story of mine has been selected by the preliminary judges as a fiction finalist for evaluation by the final judge in the 2008 New Letters Awards for Writers. “What We Have Seen Waiting for the War to End” was selected with 20 other entries from among over 1,400 entries. (That's 1 out of 70, or .0142 percent). This is the second time for me, as another story of mine, “Double Kayak” was a finalist selected for the 2007 New Letters Awards.

Stay tuned and cross your fingers for me!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Vox Not Popular

To write to be read--to be published, in other words--is to make an appeal. There are probably reams of psychological studies about the personality types that are drawn to fiction writing (to say nothing of writing in general). Could this also manifest in the types of characters one writes--where the impulse to make a likable character has a direct correlation to wanting the work to be liked?

I learned the habit of appealing to readers from writing fiction, but only so far. If you write enough fiction, your hidden agendas take over. At some point, I stopped thinking about who liked my work or not. I’ve probably been unwittingly revealing my subconscious. But this reminds me of the maxim that Charles Baxter mentions more than once in Burning Down the House: “Characters don’t have to be likable, they only need to be interesting.” I’m not inclined to always be polite and ingratiating with my fiction, but for some reason my work has often elicited vehemence.

You have to be bold as a fiction writer, with the courage of your convictions behind your words, otherwise you aren’t going to interest yourself in the writing enough to keep at it. I remember one of my advisors once saying that she was often afraid she might write something that would embarrass her. For the longest time I tried to figure out what I might write that I would feel embarrassed by. I never fully understood what she meant by her statement, but I concluded that, at the very least, I’m always going to stay true to myself. How I do that is by pushing myself and not worrying about what people think. Maybe that’s my superego writing from the point of view of a snake.

Voice is a tack in fiction that I’ve lately become fond of utilizing. More specifically, to find the voice of a first person narrator who will cajole a reader into staying with the narrative. Or, better still, perhaps, a first person narrator who can hook the reader and perform all the mise en scène that can lead to surprise, to make the reader eager to find out what happens next. Several writers I’ve been enjoying lately have a mastery of that voice (for example, the narrators in Jim Shepard’s great collection of stories, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, or Nam Le’s gun running youth in “Cartagena”, and several of Richard Lange’s misanthropes in Dead Boys) . Although I read it for an entirely different reason, voice is what stood out for me in John Banville’s The Sea.

What is voice, exactly? Nabokov, whom Banville is often compared to, to my ears (because voice comes out in the reading-- you can hear it, whether or not you read it aloud--maybe that’s the simplest definition) sounds a consistent voice through his books, a stately, avuncular, often on the fringes of crazy, man of privilege and tired sophistication. Nabokov created this voice, arguably, or parodied it so well, with such consistency that it is a gold standard. In The Sea, Banville appropriates this voice in the character of Max Morden.

Max Morden is not a really likable character. Perhaps pitiable. Yet his idiosyncrasies make him interesting. When he confesses “I have always suffered from what I think must be an overly acute awareness of the mingled aromas that emanate from the human concourse”, I’m intrigued. Maybe voyeurism compels me. Although I wouldn’t want to sit at the Pier Head and have a whisky with him, at the safe distance of the page, I’m curious enough to want to see where he’s going.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A (Cautionary?) Tale...

...about simultaneous submissions. And, a story about a story that isn’t really a story, but a chapter from a novel.

In April of 2007 I submitted a story, really a chapter from my novel, which I had carefully transformed into a short story, to two markets. One was for a writing conference that had an affiliation with a decent print journal, which I’ll call Journal A, and one was a UK slightly academic looking journal with a remarkable pedigree. The story managed to get second place in a contest and I went on to an amazing writing conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in the summer of 2007. The story was then slated to be published in the magazine connected to that conference (Journal A).

End of story?

Not quite.

After the writing conference, I returned eagerly to the states with a stack of writing to work on, and to await the journal to contact me about the story. I had forgotten about the UK Journal, and after months of not hearing anything, I decided that the piece was never going to get published, anywhere. By the end of the year, a full nine months at least since I had sent it to both markets, I received an e-mail from the UK Journal informing me that if I revised my piece, the referee would take another look at it. So, I revised the piece per their comments, which were generally sound, and submitted the story to my writing workshop. They all unanimously approved, and I sent it back to the UK Journal. Then, I basically forgot it. Forgot Thailand (well, not really--Thailand is unforgettable), forgot Journal A. I thought, it’s been almost a year, and nothing. I went on a couple of short vacations, had given up hope of this journal, and pretty much forgot about the story. I was writing on more stories, revising a novel, thinking about the big picture, all that. In February of this year, the journal that initially was to publish the story finally contacted me about it; they were sending a proof for me to review. I wrote back and said, you know, I’ve revised this piece in the past year, would you look at the new version? Of course, this was the version I had revised for the UK Journal. Journal A agreed, and with a back and forth of a few months, two or three drafts of the story typeset for proofing, they eventually sent me a final copy to proof. Middle initial, get the bio right, remove an exclamation point here, change some of the wording there, etc. So, as of a week ago, I thought, finally, my chapter from my novel will finally be published, and all the world will get to read it!

Not so fast.

Last Thursday, after nine months, I received an email from the editor of the UK Journal. They were “delighted” to accept the the story. The referee offered the following commentary on it:

“There is a persuasive narrative voice here - I'm not sure how long it could be sustained in a longer piece, though I have seen similar from writers such as John Banville and Paul Auster (in their own way - though sometimes it could use some of Banville's descriptive powers). Nevertheless, it is no less powerful for all that, the short staccato sentences, clipped and jagged, jab a finger pointedly at the reader leaving no doubt as to their meaning.”

Needless to say, I was excited. I was also in a bit of a quandary.

I asked half a dozen writer friends (many of whom have gone through this process in their own careers) what I should do. The consensus was, if it is going to be published in Journal A, you can’t very well let the UK Journal take it. I knew this, I just needed to hear someone else say it.

Over the weekend I dashed to the bookstore for a copy of John Banville’s Booker Prize winning novel “The Sea,” which is, as expected, quite remarkable, thus further flattering me. Nothing like being compared to John Banville and Paul Auster to stroke one’s ego...

The prestige factor of this UK Journal was ultimately more appealing to me. They had published a lot of well known writers over time. Their editorial board alone was prestigious enough to make a Pulitzer committee proud. Who knows what further audience I might get across the pond? But I knew that Journal A was finally publishing the story. I decided to be content with that. I wrote an email to the UK Journal telling them that I was withdrawing the piece.

Now, either this is a very good piece, or I really lucked out only sending it to two places. I believe it is good. Maybe I lucked out, also. Although many journals say, “NO SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS,” every writer I know says, to hell with that. Send your work where you want it, if someone wants it, they’ll let you know. I’m not sure there was any prohibition on simultaneous submissions in either of these journals. But the long waiting that accompanied this was unusual, I believe. It was over seventeen months since I first sent it out. For months, nothing. So, was this situation terrible, or really unusual? Not really. Do I wish it could work out a bit differently? Perhaps. On the other hand, as a writer friend says, it’s always good to be wanted.

The Literary Welcome

Welcome to the liteary. Again.

About four years ago I wrote a blog called, “The Literary.” I decided to end it as I had found some unplanned conflict between my creative work and my journalism. Often, being too open about my opinions, the words came back to bite me.

But I’ve been feeling a lack since not writing it--I enjoyed casting my thoughts out there and getting feedback on them. I had so many people read that blog and email me, it was a kind of nice little literary community that I found through the web, and I enjoyed it. Thus, I’ve decided to attempt it again. So, “The Literary” is reborn. Or, to borrow the sign on a local taqueria, this is my Grand Re-Opening.

This is a (hopefully) productive diversion. I’m still taking all the time I can to write fiction, send work out, wait patiently for rejection letters.

Yes, wait patiently for rejections. It sound harsh, but that’s the way it goes. And in this stack of rejections, I have to admit, quite a few of what I’m calling “positive rejections.” These become my little blurbs to feed my continuing effort. Here is one:

“Dear Robert-- A very good story--I was waiting for it to go beyond a situational sketch. It felt like good journalism, and didn’t go as deep as I was hoping for. But it’s good work and I’d love to see more of your writing.”

And this one:

“Extremely interesting idea--written from perspective of Iraqi. We enjoyed your piece--perhaps strengthen story line, voice is fantastic.”