Monday, December 6, 2010

Memorable Novels 2010

I read with intent and interest quite a few novels this year, notably those New York Time Book Review front pagers, and for all of the complaints about the imperiled state of publishing and the apparent evidence of a lack of good novels out there, I must conclude that the hype in that hallowed reviewed selection is often well-deserved. I thought about making a best of list this year, but I always find that it’s too difficult to narrow down, and ignores the likelihood of reading selectively. So here, in lieu, are five standout novels that I found memorable and generally enjoyable this year. The recession may be dipping again, but the novel is alive and well in 2010.

Tom Rachman’s first novel, The Imperfectionists, with its intersecting character stories, conveys a historical mosaic of the lives of journalists working for a fictional Herald-Tribune-like paper based in Rome, and is compelling for its readability, humor and O’ Henry type blunt traumas. Rachman’s journalism background, with an emphasis on the concrete and the compressed, helps him to keep the numerous and at times confusing character’s stories--surprisingly dialogue heavy--from fading. Initially, I thought this was a misleadingly marketed “novel in stories,” though in fact few of the chapters could stand alone very well. The international locales give its occasionally flat characters a welcome dose of color, though the misery he inflicts on some of them has tinges of unnecessary cruelty.

Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut, also a first novel, which drew me in by its persuasive opening, almost doesn’t fulfill its promise. Ross carries through the premise of his story, however, a la, “Did David kill his wife?--and if so, how?” and is deft at calibrating the interactions of the main couple, David Pepin and his obese and ambivalently adored wife, Alice. The compounding details paint an evocative though wildly unbelievable event, and the use of the competing narratives of the two policemen who also happen to have a desire to dispatch their wives into oblivion, is overly contrived, but Mr. Peanut holds its sway in spite of the loose tying together that concludes the novel with a thud.

Ian McEwan’ Solar is an indulgent feast of satire that harkens back to Amsterdam, operating in a comedic-tragic register which recalls the bold mischief of his early short stories. There, the characters are young and depraved, making sense of the world from a limited understanding of it. What those life lessons earn the protagonist of Solar, Michael Beard, is a deficit. Youthful curiosity and glory is eventually replaced with the fading returns of post-middle-age survival. Beard isn’t a character easy to like, but he seems prototypically human, and it is as easy to laugh at him as it is to have hope for him in his failings.

Skippy Dies, by Irish novelist Paul Murray, is one of the best written, compulsively enjoyable books I’ve read all year, and possibly my favorite long novel (at 600 plus pages) of the year, of the kind that I couldn’t stop reading and yet didn’t want it to end. The story takes place among a boys’ boarding high school (here known as a “College”) with its resident students, teachers, and the complications of the much longed for creatures glanced across the lawn of a neighboring girls’ school. What almost halts some of the pleasure of the tale comes after Skippy does finally die, a foregone conclusion from the opening pages. But what works is Murray’s well-drawn characters, specifically Skippy and the inner torment of a pill popping fourteen year old mediated in a Joycean stream of consciousness.

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is a welcome step beyond The Corrections, though the novel that will probably top everyone’s best of lists has a few false logic notes with some of the character’s traits, and takes one through an oddly chosen many pages long narrative of the main character’s unlikely autobiography written in third person. For its many flaws, the novel is engaging, especially when the stakes are high and the specter of social grievances--infidelity, politics, and alcoholism--rear their subtextual heads. To use a broad adjective that Franzen seems so enamored of that it serves as an ineffective short-hand for the character’s assessments of each other, the novel is interesting. Franzen has a comic timing for hilarious turns of phrase, and the novel is at times guffaw out loud funny. The broad scope and convergence of the Bergland family’s self-involvements and misapprehensions of their own desires as they attain and rail at their freedoms, keep the novel rolling entertainingly forward.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Boxing The Demons

The tradition of maligning short fiction could have begun with John Cheever, following one of his early and persistent influences, Hemingway, though Hemingway might not have made a distinction between novels and stories as greater and lesser forms. In Blake Bailey’s expansive biography Cheever: A Life, it is apparent that Cheever thought writing short stories for the New Yorker year after year was not a worthy path for a serious writer. Yet a handful of his stories seem to have changed the fiction terrain forever after. In the cult of fiction hegemony, it’s sometimes difficult to separate the writer from their mythology, making them superhuman. All the easier if they’re dead. The man who writes his every naked personal desire and whim in his copious journals (published posthumously), and produces an estimable body of work (the stories, numbering in the hundreds, and five novels), is surprisingly humanized when the veneer is stripped away.

It’s as if with Cheever, the themes--family, middle class livelihood, the desire for love, the lift of grace--never changed, and though he turned out sublime stories in “The Swimmer” and “Goodbye, My Brother,” knowing how long he struggled with the first novel, it was clear the major struggle, the ultimate performance, was going to be in a sustained work. The short story becomes a kind of trial run, a small performance.

Here, in Cheever’s first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle, is Rosalie, the young boarder at the Wapshot’s house, ruminating on thoughts of her date’s “secretive life”:

The thought of the picnic hamper reminded her of his plain, white-haired mother, who would have sent along something of herself in the basket--watchful, never disapproving, but saddened by the pleasures of her only son. He had his way. His neat, bleak and ugly bedroom was the axis of their house and the rapport between this man and his parents was so intense and tacit that it seemed secretive to Rosalie. Every room was dominated by souvenirs of his growth; guns, golf clubs, trophies from schools and camps and on the piano some music he had practiced ten years ago. The cool house and his contrite parents were strange to Rosalie and she thought that his white shirt that morning smelled of the yellow varnished floors where he took up his secretive life with Ma and Pa.

The prose signals the inner life of a woman who herself has secrets, and has not yet arrived into full self-possession. Mildly glum and resigned, Rosalie sees herself, too, in what she observes. The reader senses Cheever’s compassionate understanding of his character and a desire to reveal her beating heart.

Cheever was committed to the novel as an art form. He was not merely distancing himself in a kind of performance, which short stories really can be, and many novels simply are. In a literary novel, one gets a sense of who the writer is; it’s as if one gets an insight on the ruthlessness of the writer’s psyche.

The writer's sensibility is ever dominant in the biography, but it’s not just honesty, and not only brutal honesty (which would aim to call others on their shit but not necessarily to face it within oneself--a quality popularly known as “self-denial”). This sharpened sense of the interior life of one’s characters comes from first hand knowledge.

Cheever, who fueled himself on gin, whisky, and an unusual amount of self-loathing coupled with a genuine dog-like (dogged?) loyalty to loved ones, is initially conveyed to have the charm of a genial drunk. A self-destructiveness in Cheever’s journey comes in, maybe as more of a passive self-annihilation, through alcoholism. I couldn’t help but think on many occasions, “What a sad, miserable life.” Yet his life had its joys, too.

A writer who cannot transform their torments, or cannot get far enough past the source to risk a possibility for some more contented life, is trapped perhaps by their own image and expectations. Cheever is frequently characterized as a narcissist--the tragedy in such a figure is that they are their own worst enemy. They can never fully lift themselves up; there is no solid source within. Life has to be reconstituted incessantly from the next ego stroke. This is the forest for the trees analogy: one cannot see the world from staring at their own life for so long. Yet the ability to draw from life seems to be a therapy, too.

In trying to understand what draws me to novels that have a gravity, perhaps honesty is the prevalent quality: emotional, psychological, and spiritual. Maybe it’s as accurate to say, this is the writerly aspiration, or should be; what one should want to project in the best of their work. It’s the built-in bull-shit detector not even simply to oneself, which is where Hemingway’s seems to have short circuited; Hemingway was perpetually boxing his demons (in both senses of the word). The result is often transparent: retarded self-defensiveness posing as confidence, otherwise known as machismo. For Cheever, boxing his demons was more like having this box in an attic room where he could occasionally look in on it with cautious surprise and curious wonder.

Cheever’s struggles were not just something he could write himself out of, nor like so many celebrated writers who have followed him, was he satisfied with intellectualizing the grist for his mill (which is, ironically, perhaps an effort at self-preservation). The Wapshot Chronicle reveals he had the wisdom to acknowledge this, while reinforcing the complexity that centered him. This flawed human being, however tragic, was able to get his hands around the heart.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Reality Hunger Refraction*


Drawing from so many varied sources as Shields does, there is the question of, curiosity about, insistence upon, authority.


Writing fiction has little to do with telling someone how to live their life, or attempting to show them how, nor in edifying. It is a compulsion for turning out a possible reality, in words. (Maybe that should be, a variation of reality, or a supposition of reality, or just, a fiction.) It seems inherently material: words are tools, words are the medium. Words are the prime medium because they are where the point is put across.


In architecture school, I recognized this truth: limitations give me freedom.


Plot often comes out of a work incidentally. I'm thinking of statements such as: "She was in the park watching the men cut the grass." In the narrative convention, one expects and usually gets that something comes next, a further development and detail. A built-in anticipation, a narrative, a plot, drives the telling onward.


John Cheever mined exhaustively from his life for hundreds of stories, and several novels, and no one ever questioned that it was anything but fiction.


Truth doesn't reside in what happened, but how we come to frame what happened.


When I first saw Chris Marker's Sans Soleil, I thought it was a documentary. A voice over of a woman reading from the dispatches of an itinerant anthropologist. But it occurred to me after the second viewing that these letters were a fictional device.


Fiction doesn’t condone wholesale plagiarism, which would not be called sampling, because such literature is considered a deliberated work of intellect. The simplicity of its expression means the component parts are the whole of the thing. In general, literature is a one person show (usually). A work of literature is not multi-layered, thus it is far easier to appropriate illegally, and less recognizable when it is done.

276. To put it another way: Literature has the most worked out d.i.y. ethos next to your neighbor’s garage band, but neither is your neighbor’s band going to become as big as the Beatles, nor will P. Diddy be sampling them.


An interesting form could come out of, for example, “take the seventh line from the 92nd page of the first five books on your shelf with “The” in the title.”


I think plot is mostly a result of narrative. The concession I make toward plot is because it is usually demanded, and I am likely to admit, “I did not plot.” The basis of the demand is an inability to embrace something different, hybrid, open.


Does story necessarily seem to say everything happens for a reason? It is questionable to take only the strictest and literalist of terms for what anything is.


Plot, in the most compelling works, is almost residual. Cortazar’s Hopscotch; Beckett’s Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable; Bernhard’s On A Mountain; Carla Harryman’s Gardener of Stars; Bolano’s 2666.


The closer one gets to genre, the more over-determined the prose vehicle becomes: genre=anti-art.


We characterize fiction as an escape (and that this is somehow bad?), but isn’t that more an escape for the reader? Isn't there an equivalent escape for essay and memoir?


I craft for myself first, for an interested reader, second.


We aspire to life as art because when it’s done masterfully, that’s what it looks like.


Doubting myself one day, a friend edified me with my predicament (and paid me a high compliment): “You’re a painting, man. You’re a fucking Rauschenberg.”


In the naïveté of my writing apprenticeship, I assumed the goal of writing fiction was to strive to write something beautiful. I’ve come to see the goal as a combination of an artistic and aesthetic expression that aims at truth. The result will ultimately alienate some, and provide frisson, for others. So, it has more to do with truth than beauty, though that can be beautiful in itself.


*I’ll admit, I was prepared to despise David Shield’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Yet what’s so compelling is the ground covered in advancing an idea that I don’t in any way agree with (more or less, that “the novel is dead”). The ideas are presented in such a way that makes me think about the process of writing, and in so doing, made me manifest a bit myself (It is “a manifesto”). The book feels like a microcosm of how writing is about assimilating information and thinking on the page. Thus my review here is a reaction, a refraction, and a reflection. I have responded to a selection of the numbered segments (there are 618 in total) in the body text of Reality Hunger; the subsequent footnotes indicate the reference number and a facsimile of the text, or the complete text, whichever I found easier to crib from, in the book’s appendix. In the spirit of the book, I’m also playing fast and loose with attributions. If you want to see them in full, you will have to look at the book.

139. “In the end, I missed the pleasure of a fully imagined work in which the impulse to shape experience seems as strong as the impulse to reveal it.”

143. The notation refers to the Dogme 95 manifesto, which Shields quotes at length.

182. “For example, in Proust, who is to me at base an essayist, nothing ever happens. The only obstacles are that someone might rebuff someone else or someone might get sick or grow old, and even these are usually hypothetical obstacles. People get educations, travel, buy paintings, go on diplomatic missions, but the events are for the most part meetings between various people (or simply sightings of one person by another, sometimes thanks to a stroll or a ride in a carriage) and what these meetings being out on a psychological level, about life itself. How can a work be considered fiction when there's no plot? Philosophy, perhaps, or criticism, but not fiction.”

192. “The line between fact and fiction [...]” Raban

193. “[...] Just what is the relation of your memoir to the truth? It is as close as it can be. The moment you put pen to paper and begin to shape a story, the essential nature of life--that one damn thing after another--is lost.” Dorothy Gallagher, “Recognizing the Book That Needs to Be Written,” New York Times.

199. "[...] The border line between documentaries and feature films is blurred; in fact, it doesn't exist." Werner Herzog

261. Art is theft

276. Sampling, how rappers get the MC name.

283. A literary equivalent of sampling.

321. “Story seems to say that everything happens for a reason, and I want to say, No, it doesn’t.” Shields.

324. “The absence of plot leaves the reader room to think about other things.”

384-397. Various annotations on genre

420. “[...] I most admire those books that not only enable me to endure life but show me how they got there [...]”

503. “Everything in life, turned sideways, can look like--can be--art. Art suddenly looks and is more interesting, and life, astonishingly enough, starts to be livable.” Shields.

540. “Anything you do will be an abuse of somebody else’s aesthetics.” Rauschenberg.

601. "Beautiful Illusion."

Friday, April 23, 2010

Feast Of Excess

There is a notion that a novel has to be as healthy and bland as kale or else it isn’t literature. As if the unspoken rule is that it must only be sternly serious and if it happens to be enjoyable, then that must be an oversight on the writer’s part. This seems to be the root of a lot of the criticism of Ian Mc Ewan’s Solar, for what it is not.

That Mc Ewan’s novels are elaborately constructed marvels of prose and entertaining is a testament to his skill. (This could be lost on this NYTimes book reviewer.) If Solar does not reach the same high watermark that everyone was expecting after Atonement or On Chesil Beach, the writing is the epitome of Mc Ewan’s stylistic precision. Still, Mc Ewan is going for a laugh any time he describes a glutton’s eagerly anticipated meal:

“She took away the bowl with the three cold lozenges and set the main course down before him. Four wedges of skinless chicken breast interleaved with three minute steaks, the whole wrapped in bacon, with a honey and cheese topping, and served with twice-roasted jacket potatoes already impregnated with butter and cream cheese.”

Solar is an indulgent feast of satire.

Solar harkens back to the style of Amsterdam, operating in a comedic-tragic register which also recalls the bold mischief of Mc Ewan's early short stories. There, the characters are young and depraved, making sense of the world from a limited understanding of it. What those life lessons earn the protagonist of Solar, Michael Beard, is a deficit; forever after he will go to extremes to avoid humiliation at the hands of an associate, using whatever vengeance at his means, getting away with whatever he can. Youthful curiosity and glory is eventually replaced with the fading returns of post-middle-age survival. Beard isn’t a character easy to like, but he seems prototypically human, and it is as easy to laugh at him as it is to have hope for him in his failings.

Mc Ewan wallows in Beard’s excesses. This is the opposite of the life-saving and affirming protagonist in Saturday; Beard is a man who on the face of his accomplishments (Nobel Prize winning physicist) might be enviable, but is flailing with a dangerous lack of scruples. Maybe the degree to which a reader is willing to follow this reprehensible character is how much he or she recognizes the folly of human endeavor.

Self-consciousness drives Mc Ewan’s protagonists; he has consistently perfected the limited third person point of view, or, as James Wood has it, free indirect style. In particular, this consciousness allows Mc Ewan to confront moral quandary and force the character to interact with their world on a finite scale. The depth of this consciousness can be almost uncomfortably perverse and unbridled, backed up by the scientific mind that allows Mc Ewan to focus in on the protagonist’s whims with a dissecting knife. That this consciousness is rendered in more depth and literary-ness than the person having the experience would probably have is playing to the satire.

The rendering of Beard’s gluttony is anachronistic, almost indecent details applied to a novel of a lofty and timely subject (Global warming). The effect is ornate overstatement, words larded on because Mc Ewan can, that feels defiant--in a sense, he’s showing off--but it’s a sure-footed, often hilarious, touch.

Much of the narrative of Solar relies too readily on the withholding of information. In a more high minded work it might be considered manipulative, but this is light treatment of a heavy topic. The problem for Mc Ewan is taking a subject too earnestly and becoming heavy-handed, bogged down in technical jargon and plot machinations as he did in Saturday. In Solar, he applies his research to make the stakes relevant, though the reader may find that these stakes are largely misconstrued. Beard is the center of his own universe.

Solar begins tentatively, with a back-story summary, though this exposition provides signposts for the novel’s departures. If a novel is a journey, there are enough clues from Mc Ewan that the reader will be taken on an adventure. And ultimately, Solar achieves what a novel should, engaging the reader in a world that suspends in wonder, be that wonder at the skill of the writer, or at the anticipatory pleasure of what is to come. The repast can be a feast to binge on, or a satisfying meal to savor. It’s all good.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Beautiful Necessity

"What I know about writing I know from having read the work of the great writers." So says Richard Bausch in The Atlantic, regarding his one foray into contributing to an ill-fated how to collection of essays in which his work was unceremoniously left out.

I think the impulse to offer how to advice is as much out of reminding oneself how it is done, as a form of practice; if someone finds it useful, so much the better. What I like in Bausch's attitude is that he makes explicit what I assume, in my good nature or goodwill, is everyone's motivation. Of course this is naive. I suspect there are millions of people for whom writing is not derived from "a kind of beautiful necessity."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

McEwan On Process

Ian McEwan, during his visit to San Francisco to promote Solar, was on KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny this morning, and he responded to a few questions I asked about craft and process. I’ve transcribed his compelling response here:

“My important bit of process is hesitation. If I get an idea, I sit on it. I don’t do anything with it. If it’s a good idea on Monday, it better be a good idea three Mondays later. And often it isn’t. What can seem like a fantastic idea one end of the week, will fade by the other end. So I am a great hesitator, I pause, I brood. Sometimes I don’t even allow myself to take notes about a scene that I’m going to write because I don’t want to start crystallizing it into words. So I carry a lot around in my mind. I am someone who can sit by the delayed luggage carousel for twenty-five minutes quite happily just turning over the stuff that’s there; I don’t need a notebook.

On the other hand . . . I’m a great one for writing the opening paragraph for novels I need never actually complete. Knowing I don’t have to write them confers a great deal of freedom on me. And I’ve started one or two novels that way recently, just idly turning out a sentence or a paragraph that intrigued me.”

A link to the full audio mp3 of the program is available here.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

McEwan Over London

"Whichever direction his gaze fell, this was home, his native corner of the planet. The fields and hedgerows, once tended by medieval peasants and eighteenth-century laborers, still visibly patterened the land in irregular quadrilaterals, and every brook, fence, and pigsty, virtually every tree, was known and probably named in the Domesday Book after all-conquering William in 1085 conferred with his advisers and sent his men all over England. And ever since, named again with greater refinement, owned, used, costed, traded, mortgaged; mature like a thick-crusted Stilton, as richly stuffed with varied humanity as Babel, as historical as the Nile Delta, teeming like a charnel house with ghosts, in public discourse as dissonant as a rookery in full throat. One day this brash and ancient kingdom might yield to the force of multiple cravings, to the dreamy temptations of a giant metropolis, a Mexico City, São Paulo, and Los Angeles combined, to effloresce from London to the Medway to Southampton to Oxford, back to London, a modern form of quadrilateral, burying all previous hedges and trees. Who knew, perhaps it would be a triumph of racial harmony and brilliant buildings, a world city, the most admired world city in the world.

How, wondered Beard as his plane at last quit the stack on a banking hairpin tangent and lined itself up north of the Thames to begin its descent, could we ever begin to restrain ourselves? We appeared, at this height, like a spreading lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mold enveloping a soft fruit--we were such a wild success. Up there with the spores!"

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Reality Hunger's Discontent

The death warrant for the novel always seems to be a celebration. Literary forms grow and transform over time; undeniably, the novel may be the most open, enigmatic and constantly challenging of forms. Why would there be a need to pronounce the novel dead if it wasn’t in fact alive and well? One rarely hears novelists proclaiming the end of the memoir, or the end of poetry.
In fact, so often people have a vehement dislike for and anger towards “the novel”--to which I often think: what did the novel ever do to you? Because it is a difficult form that defeats. Maybe what ultimately defeats is a lack of commercial success.

The benchmark of commercial viability is difficult to come by. Only a few books make it to the darling list. One of the results of this is the attempt to invent a new form. Another is to go meta.

Because the form has existed for so long, so effectively, and in light of technology, it seems viable to question the novel’s means and methods are no longer relevant or somehow wanting. Experimental writers take this up as a badge of honor, subverting narrative in the “traditional” sense (The failure to play the commercial game is to buck tradition, to deny what a marketing machine expects and searches for).

To identify a benchmark as baseline is usually the best most writers can wish for; then, to remain undaunted in the long haul of writing a novel, to say nothing of writing one of originality, is a meager dream. This might explain the proliferation of that type of novel that people supposedly want to read, the block buster, which is usually anti-original, formulaic, genre work.

To imagine that anyone is so in love with “reality” or aching for it, we have reality TV programming. But don’t imagine that those reality narratives aren’t shaped into some from of drama in the editing room (to lesser or greater effect--I’m willing to bet that among the writers on those programs is a novelist or two).

Without the anointment of commercial success, and having failed to live up to the demands of the form, so called re-invention is necessary. This is also known as a good career move.

David Shield’s Reality Hunger appropriates samples, sound bites, other writer’s pithy phrases out of context, and re-contextualizes them. He is utilizing the plagiaristic taboo writ large. This is the nature of the web having its influence on publishing. As with blogs, there is so much work to reference and draw from, to lead the reader to more and more information. One has to get read. The present horizon of the mobile text (the ephemeral written word on the web) means the writer can’t count on anyone getting that far into any one particular book. Yet Reality Hunger is a book, not an online text.

Reality Hunger as a text is a great idea. The style is a gimmick that provokes, seizing on the controversial aspects of recent memoir scandal (the appropriating element), as well as wrecking the house on the way out the door (the death of the novel element). But I won’t call it art.

Providing an antidote to an imagined problem is a proven marketing ploy, its effectiveness is a foregone conclusion once the publisher rallies behind it. Whatever the form of Reality Hunger is, it will never replace the novel.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Death Of Craft

There seems to be a lot of hand wringing and grief over the end of publishing in its traditional form. If you doubt you had a stake in it to begin with, it becomes easier to embrace the changes. I still don’t quite know what any of this means to me as a writer, but I’m worrying a lot less about what will come of it. And I’m glad to see that the book will never die. Maybe this should be considered the beginnings of a renaissance.

That writers can’t/won’t any longer make money from their work is considered inevitable. Journalism is becoming devalued. An untenable practice. The gist of this scenario is the fear that one’s work will become too easily copied, or reproduced (read: stolen) or worse still, evaporated into digital ether.

Rather than fret with Y2K type doomsaying, I’d rather see concern about craft. Until someone wants to read the work, fears of a plagiaristic public or “the end of cultural civilization” is off the radar.

I can see the day where craft might seem like it is no longer relevant. Is it wrong to say the writing is on the wall? (insert favorite mobile technology here.) There’s just too many voices clamoring to be heard (and voices here is as much the bloggorhea, the instant message which strains to be relevant). I trust I’m not alone in the dogged pursuit of craft. Even as much as the blog has an instantaneous thrill, I still insist thoughts committed to paper gestate before they appear here.

For all the immediacy of technology, the presumed benefit it offers an unheard of writer, I still avoid most of the technology whose expediency is largely useless to me. Had I had this technology available to me fifteen or twenty years ago, I think I would have been less wary, but I’m more interested in saying something useful or enlightening, rather than just chattering away on any old subject. I imagine that’s the case for a lot of writers who consider writing an art form.

On the optimistic side, the clamor is bolstered by the directives that getting published has become so commonplace as to be considered “easy.” But it’s not that easy. Not if you are trying to place your work where it might actually be read.

The all consuming needs of technology seemingly make it easier for more people to have a voice. The proliferation of voices implies there are more voices that want to be heard, and thus less with anything to say, or at least, less with any distinction. To which my immediate concern is an Orwellian death of craft. But the practice of writing has not been rolled under the bus. The tools of technology should not be imagined to have usurped craft.

I'll continue to be concerned with relevance, and craft. Relevance is in trying to get to truth, and to say what’s important. Being able to say that because it’s important to me, I trust it might also be for someone willing to read me.

Maybe this is the future, right here.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Return To Form?

I’m getting ahead of myself before I’ve even had time to read the new Banville, but I enjoyed what Maureen Corrigan had to say on Fresh Air in her review of The Infinities:

“I used to put a lot of stock in an adage about writing. It went roughly like this: "If a student says he wants to be a writer because he has something to say, discourage him. But if a student says she wants to be a writer because she likes to play around with words, well, that student may have what it takes to be a writer.

I don't believe in absolutes about writing anymore: People write out of all sorts of longings and take many roundabout paths to producing good books. But I thought of that axiom as I was reading John Banville's new book, The Infinities.”

I usually find her gloating reviews annoying, but this time she’s whetted my appetite.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Coetzee Reduction

The affinity with Beckett, though not always obvious, is apparent in Coetzee. His work often feels like it is attended to by lab coated technicians. This precision in Coetzee might make his writing dull for some readers, but clean prose is appealing. In the kindest sense of the word, this sterility keeps the words measured, never wavering in pitch. He is writing from his own register, untouched by any other writer, and untouchable. This is the uniqueness of voice; it’s a quality of the writers I can count on one hand who I secretly admire but can’t quite admit that I love. (Does love of a writer equal a desire to want to emulate the writer?) This voice elevates Coetzee above the merely functional writers far and wide. But voice doesn’t necessarily make one adored.

In Summertime, the surprise of the author writing about himself and calling it fiction sates a prurient fascination, and yet we are aware he is not writing strict autobiography; in fact, the Coetzee in Summertime is dead. The stature of the real Coetzee imposes a Zelig-like quality in the narrative, and it’s conspicuously his thoughts on what others might think about him as the prodigal returning to shock them (Coetzee’s femmes) from their comfort zones. By absenting himself, he is everywhere.

As in Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, Coetzee frames this narrative of a self-referencing narrator within the story. Coetzee takes this a step further, imposing a mental puzzle on the narrative that calls into question the layered self-referencing. It is one thing to refer to your earlier pseudo-autobiographical self as “he,” as in Youth, but when a narrator transcribes another character’s words back to her as “she,” complete with running editorial from this subject character, there are intrusions that feel like a fold in the brain:

“In the Standton set in which she [Carol] and Klaus move, she confides, quite advanced things go on. She does not spell out what these advanced things may be, and she, Margot, does not want to ask, but they seem to have to do with sex.

I won’t let you write that. You can’t write that about Carol.

It’s what you told me.

Yes, but you can’t write down every word I say and broadcast it to the world. I never agreed to that. Carol will never speak to me again.

All right, I’ll cut it out or tone it down, I promise. Just hear me to the end. Can I go on?

Go on.

Coetzee’s dialogue blanches with the moral indignation that feels Doestoyevskian: there is no urge for the put upon character to resist saying what everyone wants to ignore.

In Coetzee there is a lack of adornment. His writing might be the stripping away of all poetic language (or what I mean by this loose term for inflated, purple, adjective laden writing), so that what is left either zips along for you or it violates a cardinal rule of the creative writing manifestos (“show don’t tell”). Coetzee writes psychological prose. But it’s not describing a lot of action, it’s more of thought and gesture. The style is a discursive and projected thinking on the part of the character.

Writing consciously in this vein--and Coetzee is never an unconscious writer; self-conscious, yes--rolls the story forward. One doesn’t dwell and linger; the lack of modifying words drives the narrative because Coetzee has already distilled the prose to a reduction, and it’s necessarily succinct.

Thinking about Coetzee, after reading him, is almost a gray wash. It becomes difficult to recall specific moments in his work, or why they make an impression. But I find reading him is like settling into a highly engineered piece of machinery--even when I might have the hesitation of doubt, however brief, I’m soon rocketing back into the stream of the writing. I have come to trust him. There is a compelling consistency in his writing, like religion. Or from the words of a character in Summertime: “As a writer he knew what he was doing, he had a certain style, and style is the beginning of distinction.”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Books Once Loved

The idea that I can’t love a book forever feels despairing to me. Or formative.

There are a handful of books I claim to love. So it’s odd to go back to them. Does the love fade, or did my taste change, or is a book love good only for one brief moment in time? Mating, by Norman Rush, is feeling like that. When I first read the novel in 2001 or so, I remember feeling a lot more giddy with the book--the classic recognition that the book was written for me. That idea is fast approaching a cliché--but this is how I feel when I find a book I can’t wait to keep reading--only hoping it won’t end. Re-reading Mating now, though I can see what is compelling in the writing, I also find the first person narrator too self-conscious at times, the writing clever in the manner that I’ve been criticized for, and am now, post-MFA, overly conscious about.

As much as I enjoyed and was sucked into Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, at the end of the book, I wasn’t as in love. The prose is crafted but doesn't attain an untouchable category for me. The novel is certainly well plotted, and masterfully executed, but the prose is largely getting from point A to point B. There isn’t much that I take away from the characters or the prose that will stick with me.

And maybe that’s the point: the love has to take hold from the start. At the end of Chaon’s book, I thought, it is good, perhaps even brilliant. I could learn from this book. But do I want to re-read it again? Doubtful.

The beloved category books work a magic that is maybe from a combination of where I was in my life when I read it, and as much from what I brought to the work.

For awhile now I’ve been disabusing myself of the notion that I can go back to the books I once loved and feel the same frisson all over as if I hadn’t read dozens if not hundreds of book since, enough to have altered my tastes and views (as well as what time will effect) so that I could never go back and find the same experience again of a book.

But as I’ve been finding fewer new books I’m eager to read, I’ve become so desperate that I’ve even gone back to ones I read a year or two ago and really liked, if not quite loved, and re-reading them. The trouble with this practice is that I still know the story too well, and so I have to look for something else to draw me into the narrative. Often then, I get caught up in the surface (having glided across it, perhaps, initially). Because if the surface isn’t smooth, or is reflecting something I didn’t notice before, suddenly that’s all I see. I might forget the depth I easily found in the first read through.

This is not a definitive list, but among the handful of books I’ve gone back to and found richer and more rewarding the second or third read--and that I loved from the start--would be The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and The Sea by John Banville. (I eagerly await Banville’s The Infinites, which is being touted as a return to form, which I welcome.) I’d add to this Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March, Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre, and Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch. Most of Beckett’s novels I can re-read forever, too.

Still, maybe the idea that that book love is unchanging is one best jettisoned. Why would I ever need to keep trying to find the next one, otherwise? I may say, “This is a perfect book,” or, “I loved it,” but maybe that’s just infatuation.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Two Thousand Ten

The saying, “Do what you love and the success will follow,” is always one I’ve heeded, religiously. Primarily because my priority is to do work that I enjoy since I’m going to spend so much time doing it. Writing has certainly led this call for me, though after years of practice, the hankering for further extrinsic reward is undeniable. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily financial as some think it is. It is about public acknowledgement, perhaps, though the numbers of beloved artists who are satisfied with their work are probably equal to those that are dissatisfied.

I often wonder about motivation for my fellow writers--I don’t get people who want to write because they want to make a best seller list (which seems equal to thinking you could win the pick six). I don’t get people who want to write though they don’t like to read. It’s as if everyone wants to be a writer, as if it’s been glamorized beyond recognition. For the longest time, everyone wanted to be an architect, or at least this is how it was reflected in Hollywood screenplays.

I know that, in 2010, I’m still deepening my practice, I’m still learning and loving the work, the craft on the page, the music and conceptual frisson that can be found, and deployed, in a long work of fiction. It’s the life of the mind, still, just as it was for me seventeen years ago. I don’t expect a huge success, but the incremental one has been encouraging and rewarding. I’m reminded of when, four years ago, my college advisor tried to level me a bit with what he presumed to be my false ambition; no matter what, I still appreciated that honest advice, though his cautionary reaction was more fitting advice to someone who hadn’t struggled at something that he was going to do no matter what reward he got out of it.

No matter what one talks about in the pursuit of a writing career, there is no field I know that has so many naysayers who don’t want you to have this thing you are passionate about on your terms. Unfortunately, these are often the gatekeepers; fortunately, they’re not all naysayers. All of these naysayers can’t take the love of the writing away, and I’m confident I’ll outlast so many of them that I won’t eventually care anymore.

Happy 2010!