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.