Fiction

Exhibit 1.9.11

[SPOILER ALERT]

 

rats-nest-cover-196x300

The Literary Review recently posted some old [SPOILER ALERT]s on their website. The chapbook from Dzanc is long out of print, I believe, but these were really fun to write with Laura Eve, and I’m not going to let an opportunity to feel nostalgic about them slip away.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Laura Eves, Spoiler Alert

Exhibit 1.9.9

New Short Shorts

 

atlas-logo

 

I have three short shorts online in the new issue of The Atlas Review which is up right here. They are mostly notable for, in order:

“Romance, with Still Life”: Having what I recall being dinosaurs in it, but I can’t actually confirm that so don’t take this as some kind of explicit dino promise.

“The First Ghost”: Having no dinosaurs but one ghost who–[SPOILER ALERT]–is kind of an asshole.

“Diagnosis Stabbing”: Having no dinosaurs, no ghosts, but one character named Doctor Murder who leads a gang named after the “gang” from my hometown North “Platte”, Nebraska.

Comment / Posted in Dinosaurs, Fiction, Journals

Exhibit 1.9.8

New Story

 

epoch65-3

 

My short story “The First Woman on Earth, or: DENISE” is in the new Epoch. It’s mostly notable for causing me to read a lot about Pleistocene-era mammals. In short: they were basically all lionbears.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, First, Journals

Exhibit 1.9.2

New Story

 

summer-2014-cover

 

I’ve got a story in the summer issue of The Kenyon Review, and you can read the opening here. It’s mostly notable for being about a comedian (which I’m not). But the rest of the issue is great. Including a short credo by the great George Saunders. Pick up a copy maybe.

O, and I answered some questions about it (and other things) here.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Journals, Reviews

Exhibit 1.8.27

Work

 

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 9.18.54 AM

 

So I can’t remember what I’ve told you about, but I know these things have happened:

* I have a review of Lucy Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses in the new Permafrost Magazine. It’s really good. Both the journal and the book.

* I have a short short in the newest Ninth Letter and it includes a really awesome card with a relevant phone number you can call if so inclined (872-221-0006). It’s easily the coolest, most unexpected thing a journal has ever done with something I’ve written. I made Dave call it in a bookstore in San Francisco when we found a copy there. He was not amused. I was.

* I answered some questions for Switchback when I was at USF for the Emerging Writers’ Festival.

* I finished my term as the Kathy Fish Fellow at SmokeLong Quarterly with this piece here. It’s got a turtle in it. Thanks to everyone there for a great (if busy) year.

* I’m trying to use Instagram. Like the kids. Right here. I took that tree photo. You can expect lots of tree photos. I’m trying to warn you. About the trees. They’re coming. Slowly.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Unanswered questions, Writing

Exhibit 1.8.24

The Lazarus Project

 

The Lazarus Project Hemon

I bought this in Powell’s looking for something to read on the flight, mostly on the long ago recommendation of my friend Colin. Colin’s a smart guy, I thought, and I’m pretty sure I’ve really enjoyed the stories of Hemon’s that I’ve read. Also it’s right here in front of me and this store–though awesome blah blah–is huge and why not.

It was a nice call by the verystoppable duo of Colin and my giveupatude. Hemon’s a dazzlingly sharp writer, and here he pulls off that layering of modern malaise and historical poignancy that so many writers of the 9/11-era seem to drawn to. I’m sure someone has written about how the greatest horrors of the 20th century keep showing up in the “big” books of the 21st, and so often authors seem to want to highlight those incalculable sums by contrasting them with contemporary cuteness. Hemon, however, does it better than most by keeping the focus not on those massive death tolls but on the death of one man.

And what makes the book great is that the story of Lazarus Averbuch–a real-life immigrant killed by the chief of police in Chicago–is the secondary story here behind the journey our mostly inept Bosnian-American narrator takes to investigate him in Eastern Europe where we confront not only the Balkan Civil War but an entire century’s worth of violence that has not stopped (or become magical or precious). It’s then, when we get full access to Hemon’s humor and melancholy, that the book becomes bigger and more relevant than so many of the works this might sound like in summary. The failure of memory. The depth of displacement in immigration. The limitations of American aloofness. The self-destruction in European imaginations. The power of marriage. The impotence of marriage. It’s a big book with big ideas hung around some very small, self-deprecating shoulders.

Similar in some ways to O’Neill’s Netherland in its portrait of a fracturing identity after immigration and marriage, like that book, Hemon’s is one very firmly taking place in our century where Lazaruses still abound, always dying, coming back, dying again, making a pretty compelling metaphor for a man searching for himself in a country searching for itself in a world entirely indifferent to searches.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Fiction, Lazaruses

Exhibit 1.8.16

One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses

 

One Hundred Apocalypses Corin

 

I’m reviewing this book for somewhere so I’ll just say two things:

1. It’s great.

2. My review no longer uses the word eschew.

 

Comment / Posted in 2013, Apocalypses, Fiction

Exhibit 1.8.15

The Verificationist

 

AntrimTheVerificationist

 

I remember reading Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers on a plane some years ago and almost immediately deciding two things 1) Antrim is a genius and 2) I  shouldn’t read more Antrim lest I hurt myself reenacting his stunts. Well, the first has been recently confirmed by the MacArthur people and the second I knew was a promise I couldn’t keep.

There was just something so captivatingly effortless about that hilarious, impossible novel. I think a lot of authors probably have ideas for these sorts of novels but only Antrim can actually pull it off. And thank god. He did it again in The Verificationist, setting himself an even higher bar–not only one night in one room again but with substantially fewer characters. O, also the narrator spends most of the night at the pancake house held in a bear hug.

“Don’t let go of us,” I pleaded to the man holding me. By then I think I realized he had no intention of releasing me, that there was, for Richard as well as for me, something significant–something movingly, vividly pornographic–taking place.

“I love you, Tom,” he whispered…

Yeah, it’s pretty great.

I guess if you had to sum the book up in a rhyming cliche–and you don’t–you’d say it’s about paralysis through analysis, the struggle to comprehend something as volatile as one’s self let alone a wife, a colleague, a past and how more effort leads to fewer results. But it’s silly to reduce the bear hug to such a clear metaphor for our narrator being stuck. That move isn’t about him, it’s about Antrim and what art can do and what it can’t do, which is to say what a mind can do and what a mind can’t do. In the bear hug is life at its deepest and shallowest–striving futilely, comically for something you can imagine but can’t create.

Sooner or later you’ll be set back down in the world and then where will you be?

Comment / Posted in 2013, Donalds, Fiction

Exhibit 1.8.12

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

 

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

 

So I’ve obviously given up on writing about books I’ve been reading, but I’ll make an exception solely to push my nonsensical drawings further down the page. Also, it would be nice to start again even if just a paragraph or two.

So, this book by Charles Yu which I picked up last week at The Strand–as excellent a bookstore as its reputation promises–and read on the plane home. It should be difficult to be objective about something so in my teenage wheelhouse–and from an author whose stories I enjoy as much as Yu’s–but there’s something really fascinating about certain aspects here that I’ve been thinking about them almost as much as the book as a whole (even if as a whole it’s smart, funny, and often touching). But as a book divided along certain axis–to get all Yu–it’s sort of interestingly, even if mostly harmlessly at odds with itself.

Yep, there’s more than a little Douglas Adams here in the world building (sadsack people! sadsack computers!), a little Vonnegut in the casual metafiction (Yu is our author and our protagonist), and something Philip K. Dick-y about the whole thing serving as one big allegory (time travel as memory and the reclaiming of a father-son relationship). It is, as Colson Whitehead says in his blurb, “Cool as hell.”

And that’s maybe the most interesting thing to talk about. The parts that are “cool” in the sense of 13-year-old-me’s wheelhouse are mostly front-loaded in the description of this science fictional universe which, ultimately, become irrelevant halfway through when the “time loop” starts and the metaphor takes over. Up until the narrator shoots his future self–it’s in the first sentence, don’t worry–we basically are getting the Douglas Adams novel–complete with nerdy references and jolly satire–then after the Philip K. Dick novel (there’s probably a better way to describe a metaphor-heavy scifi made personal but he’s the best reference I’ve got). The metafictional stuff doesn’t really matter except, like meeting Luke Skywalker’s kid, it gives us a wink. It is, like much here, totally cool.

And I like the cool stuff, but the rest of the story isn’t cool. It’s better than that–personal and heartfelt and very much of our world. So it’s an interesting book, one without cohesion but still with purpose (or maybe a sense of the short story writer’s “Am I doing enough?” panic) that drives it toward these beats it doesn’t seem to need to hit just long enough to get us to the real story which still gets told in this interesting scientific and mathematic language for human emotions that is where the work really stands out on its own terms. That, more than the sci-fi world building, is where the cohesion is here but the book doesn’t seem to think that’s a selling point. Maybe the book is right. It’s certainly easier to describe as a metafictional romp through a sci-fi world than it is as a book about family but… it might not be a better book. It’s not, I don’t even think, the book we have after page 89.

None of this is to say it’s not completely enjoyable–it is–or that I wouldn’t recommend it–I would–but it’s the kind of book that ultimately might make a better case for Yu than for itself.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Fiction, Yus

Exhibit 1.8.10

Things

 

* I’ve got another short short up at SmokeLong right here and answered some questions about it here. This piece is mostly notable for having come from an old note I don’t remember making and, in the interview, give you a glimpse at the note next to it, too. I possibly have too many notes.

 

* I also have a few Sire Lines pieces up at a new journal called The Collapsar which you should read and submit to because those guys are going to do great stuff. My pieces come from the beginning and, well, that’s pretty much it. America!

 

* The Cupboard is open to submissions until the end of September so you’ve only got a little time left to get something together. So get something together already.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Links, Writing

Exhibit 1.8.3

In the Lake of the Woods

 

In the Lake of the Woods

 

There might not be a novelist I enjoy more but think about less than Tim O’Brien. Going After Cacciato is one of my favorites, but I can’t claim to have ever once gone back and studied its structure–though it’s brilliant–or typed its sentences–though they’re beautiful–or thought of it as the kind of book I’d aspire to write–though I suppose I would.

Somehow O’Brien only seems to exist for me as a reader which is refreshing, really. It’s a better, less selfish relationship than I feel like I have with Didion or Murakami or Nabokov. Those are writers I’d like to be when drunk on egotism or alcohol. O’Brien is a writer I’d like to read, and the only other one I can think of whose impact seems so perfectly quarantined from my own work is, not coincidentally, Joseph Heller.

It’s the war, of course. It’s always the war with O’Brien and you could blame him for it if he weren’t so damn compelling at using it as a way to show how there’s no real peace. O’Brien’s characters are haunted by half-memories and horrors, none more than the protagonist of In the Lake of the Woods which is not our would-be senator but the writer trying to reconstruct what’s happened. It’s O’Brien at his most personal and clever in these footnotes and hypotheses, never letting us forget that when we’re talking about Vietnam we’re talking about many narratives, only some of which even get told and almost none of which agree. Truth isn’t a concept O’Brien seems to believe in and thank god.

Because instead we get this, a mystery without a solution and a history still being fought over as the years fade (by none more than those who were there). There’s this confused swirling around the My Lai atrocity that runs round the novel and comes to a head with the writer’s realization that even he doesn’t even remember what he remembers of the war, or what has come from stories and movies, or what he’s just imagined. The only thing he knows is that “My own war does not belong to me.”, making the book, like all of O’Brien’s fiction about the war, a kind of reclamation from the army, the media, and, most of all, the trauma.

An impossible one, of course. Excepting maybe Oliver Stone, no one has done more to shape narratives about the war than O’Brien, and if he can’t make sense of it, no one can. So it’s no accident that his novels are magical and contradicting and solutionless. It’s a reclamation, I guess, but one mostly interested in making the case that the Vietnam soldier–maybe all soldiers–are the quintessential post-modern subjects.

That seems like more than enough for one writer to take on, and, while it’s terrible that anyone should have to follow in O’Brien’s bootsteps, this being the world, some surely will. We can only hope they hold onto as much humanity and imagination after so much violence set against those very things.

 

Comment / Posted in 2013, Fiction, Wars

Exhibit 1.8.2

Recess

 

So, I neglected to mention this last week, but I have my first short short of the fellowship up at Smokelong alongside a bunch of other great work. My piece is mostly notable for being–maybe–my only short short based on something that actually happened. Which you can read about in the accompanying interview here. And then read more of me talking about the fellowship here. The interviews are mostly notable for containing all of my words. I’m out…now.

 

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Journals, Recess

Exhibit 1.7.26

Versal

 

 

The new Versal is so awesome it broke the mail. It’s a seriously beautiful journal full of seriously great stuff, including a short thing by me which is mostly notable for making “graverobber” one word which I think it totally is. Otherwise these business cards are all wrong.

Go get it.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Fish, Journals

Exhibit 1.7.21

So This

 

I’m honored/shocked/excited to have won the Kathy Fish Fellowship from SmokeLong Quarterly, and I’m looking forward to working with them (and fellow fellow Megan). Four of my short shorts will be appearing on the website over the coming months and, I hope, they’ll live up to the position.

If curious, some examples of my short shorts can be found here, here, and here. They’re not always Franco-Prussian War allegories. Just usually.

 

Comment / Posted in Announcements, Fiction, Tal Bachmans

Exhibit 1.7.17

Marguerite Duras’s The Lover

 

 

I sure am reading some small, sad books. This one, however, is less the story of some grand, tragic romance than it is the careful consideration of one’s first, flawed affair which, even more than 50 years later, still stings with the specifics of its circumstances and its failure. Duras’s dreamy, nimble prose makes the absence of nostalgia here clear, and she doesn’t shy away from the truth of how she, a 15-year-old girl with a 27-year-old Chinese lover, entered into this affair for money and protection or how, though the collapse of it seemed to devastate her lover, the affair played a different role in her life.

Still, Duras wants to show how she was, in her way, no less in love with him despite her youth and the necessity of the affair to her making it out of a collapsing family. Love here is a complicated thing rising both easily and permanently, as with her toward her younger brother, as with her lover toward her, and also developing gently through the tortured growth of a life. He loves her blindly and completely regardless of age, race, or custom, but Duras, who stopped being a girl in his arms, it’s only after she’s left him, when she is a woman, that she seems to understand what it’s meant to her and to love him back long after it matters.

We’re united in a fundamental shame at having to live.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Fiction, Lovers

Exhibit 1.7.14

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

 

 

A lot of this book in other books, it seems to me, thinking specifically of Mary Robison’s excellent Why Did I Ever, but a great deal of Didion’s nonfiction as well. Maybe because I just re-read The White Album, but hard not to see this as kind of a companion piece, a kind of rewriting of that end of the 60s history from one of the floozies hanging around The Doors. Which is not to say Maria, our narrator, is a floozy, exactly (nor that she knows Jim Morrison), but she’s certainly adrift in the orbit of controlling, famous men and subject to the mental and physical violence that goes along with their lack of concern. An emotional history rather than a political one, Didion’s novel finds a way to say something about the emptying out of a depressive not through diagnosis but through the relentless and wrenching spirals of a life (oftentimes literally).

It’s a book about circles, basically.

At its best, it creates something beautiful out of exploring being (and heading) nowhere. At its worst, it unnecessarily strains against that definitionally limited narrative for the sense of scope and consequence Didion finds in her essays (leading to expositional 1st person passages in italics which add little but an ending, one we could have imagined just fine). Far more good than bad and more amazing than good, however, it’s a powerful book about powerlessness.

Two minutes in Silver Wells, two minutes here, two minutes there, it was going to be over in this bedroom in Encino, it could not last forever.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Fiction, Lies

Exhibit 1.7.13

Objectified

 

Apparently the only people more obsessed with my Chris O’Donnell-in-the-mid-90s-like locks than Mathias were all in my literature class last fall. We read work from Colson Whitehead, Anne Carson, Zadie Smith, Joseph O’Neill, Selah Saterstrom, and many, many amazing writers, but when I got my evaluations back, a theme emerged not related to the fracturing of the self in contemporary fiction:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And in case you think this is some kind of bragging and not the result of deep-seeded frustration to have made a real impact on the intellectual lives of many of my students, know that it wasn’t all positive:

 

 

Sometimes I worry even my own students won’t get my forthcoming experimental novel I Am Your Haircut.

1 Comment / Posted in Fiction, Mathiases, Teaching

Exhibit 1.7.8

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American

 

 

I remember seeing the adaptation of this movie in Des Moines at The Varsity and being blown away by Michael Caine and the movie and somehow Brendan Fraser (O, who am I kidding, I’ve liked Brendan Fraser since School Ties). It was one of those movies I felt so much that upon leaving the theatre I decided I’d never see it again. Or read the book. Or even watch School Ties. It was all dead to me.

And not because it was the best movie I’d ever seen–or even of that year, necessarily–just that there was something so uniquely devastating about Caine’s performance that, being a little bit precious and a whole lot of 19, I just up and decided that I wanted to keep the feeling of that theatre and that night. Like I said, it was one of those decisions one has with certain art, less about the movie maybe than me.

(I still do this sometimes, wanting to protect something, wanting to skip a test).

But of course I remember nothing about that night now, just some dusty pact I made that I tore up in order to finally read this book. Was I on a date? I think so, but I also remember seeing a movie there the very next week (or maybe the week before?) by myself. One was this, and one was The Pianist and while I’m almost certain I saw this with a girl, it would not shock me if I asked the girl–the girl would not want me to ask the girl, I’m pretty sure–and she said we actually saw Adrien Brody running through bombed-out buildings. Or that we saw both together. Or that we were in a group. Or neither.

And that’s the kind of necessary loss of one’s own life that’s all over Greene’s book, one that, if we can forgive it some of its unintentionally problematic representations, probably deserves a critical re-reading now that’s it’s so many decades freed from the wars in Vietnam. O, it’d be silly to ignore that stuff (or how awfully vindicated Greene must have felt for the rest of his life)*, but this is not primarily a book about Americans or Vietnam or even literal war. This is a book about losing love to time, that war, so much so its narrator often goes on long internal monologues like this one:

In the moment of shock there is little pain; pain began about three A.M. when I began to plan the life I had still somehow to live and to remember memories in order to somehow eliminate them. Happy memories are the worst, and I tried to remember the unhappy. I was practised. I had lived all this before. I knew I could do what was necessary but I was so much older–I felt I had little energy left to reconstruct.

Fowler is old or very nearly and unlike Barnes‘ guy already resigned to nothingness, he’s fighting to keep something after a life of supposed neutrality, one where he’s gone from station to station, woman to woman, until he’s finally learned most of the world’s–and his own–secret workings. And though there’s something like a happy ending here, by that point the book has already made its point the cost of certain knowledge. Fowler is the one who knows. Fowler is the one who hurts. Fowler is the one who has always done nothing.

Its beautifully done, this setup which pits his political conscience against his personal, history against future, love against love; this setup that let’s his cynicism be both his problem and his salvation. Because he knows the violence it will take to move forward but how he cannot stop himself anymore than the American can. Because if Pyle is a true believer of democracy, Fowler is a true believer in love (or at least his need for it, a distinction he would not be the least bit interested in).

And maybe I shouldn’t feel bad that I don’t remember the night of the movie better or that I can’t ask, but I still do.

 

* We also have to add Graham Greene to the E.M. Forster Memorial Wall of People Who Lived Way Later Than Seems Right. Greene died in 1991. It’s nearly possible for him to have caught an advance screening of School Ties before he went.
Comment / Posted in 2013, Americans, Fiction

Exhibit 1.7.5

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

 

 

A book written in decaf Earl Grey–and I mean that in a nice way and as a vague insult to this book’s drowningly milquetoast* Britishness–Barnes’s novel is a slight but chilling history of the end of a relationship some 40 years before the novel’s present action. Or maybe that’s not quite right. The present action is really only the second half of the novel, the bulk of the narrator’s life retroactively made summary in this telling, but one could just as easily say it’s a book of present and future, action and consequence, rather than mystery and unraveling. Ultimately, I suppose, it’s both which is why it’s far more compelling than it has any right to be.

It’s that sense of what’s lost not to cruelty but time that does it. We’re never stilled so we’re never sure if which pieces we want put back together and which we want swept under the rug. Which are nostalgia and which are need. Which were important and which only seem important due to some emotional compound interest. Because there are successes and there are failures here and one doesn’t erase the other, and neither does apology. And certainly Barnes is very much apologetic all the way through, the telling of our narrator’s life done with the self-deprecation of someone who has seen the present, and the plot–despite some details I’ll spare as they genuinely shocked me–mostly confined to a near-elderly man’s attempts to figure something out he missed 40 years before and his inability to understand what any of it should mean to him after a long, bland life.

(The book might be at its best when it hints at all the other stories that might have been told about our man, yet how this one, despite his barely being on the periphery of it, is the one that matters most, perhaps because he was outside it. The book might be at its worst in its occasional rueful boomer wankery about how things have changed).

All and all, it doesn’t amount to much in summary, but in creating a life that’s veered from regrettable to shruggable, Barnes has made something rather beautiful. O, it’s weak tea all right, but that’s sort of the point. Most lives are, the book suggests, but their absence of profundity doesn’t make them tragic and their tragedies don’t make them profound.

This book often is. When it was over, I had this strange urge to reach out to people I hadn’t spoken to in a long time to reconnect and say, “Sorry about all this being alive. Let’s do better than that. How are you?”

But the point, I suppose, is that you can’t. And of course I didn’t.

*Oddly, this word is a relatively late American addition to the language. I’ll let it stand.
Comment / Posted in 2013, Endings, Fiction

Exhibit 1.7.3

Falconer by John Cheever

 

 

I decided I’m going to do my best to write a sentence or two about the books I read. We’ll see how long this lasts.

So, here we go. Cheever’s Falconer probably read as far more edgy when it was published in 1977 though the heart of the story has very little to do with the casual homosexual relationships in Falconer prison and a great deal to do with the violence any relationship–to women, men, drugs, the past–enacts on a man. To be sure, the prison is a larger metaphor for any life’s denial and suffering, but in the book’s most loving relationship, Falconer comes to seem like a kind of safe space (as our narrator can love a man there but not, he knows, outside the walls). This is perhaps the greatest toll time has taken on the book: Cheever writes heartbreakingly about what it means to be in a prison he can’t imagine leaving.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Books, Fiction

Exhibit 1.6.24

Valentine’s Day Fiction

 

This is an old story–written in 2003 so one of my earliest–that was homeless so I thought I might give it one today because, despite or maybe because of its youth, I’ve always had a soft spot for it. And you.

 

 

Holyhead

 

Someone died—someone important. A knife in his chest, they found him. In a frenzy brought about equally by Mr. Henry’s wealth and the circumstances of his death, Holyhead emerged after years of suffering the world’s indifference to suffering its attention and its depravity. Nobody knew who killed Mr. Henry and only one person seemed to care for the man. Not us, we were just passing through, maybe lost.

I had pulled Brett’s old truck into what was the hamlet’s only hotel while Brett slept curled in the backseat hugging our only map to his chest. The temperature couldn’t have been much above freezing because I could see Brett’s sleepy breath as I shook him awake.

“Where are we?”

“Some place called Holyhead.”

“You heard of it?”

“No, but they have a hotel.”

The old building did not look promising. A white board with the word HOTEL  in blue letters hung above the one glass door, and by its size—only three stories of white bricks glowing sickly in moon—it might easily have been a sporting goods store or a funeral home. Inside we walked through dead air to a wooden desk with an old man behind it only slightly more alive. To our left there was a couch supporting some smokers. Behind the desk there were two numbered doors and a staircase with a brass rail that had oxidized and now matched the brown carpet on the floor.

“What gives?” Brett asked the clerk before signing for our room with one, presumably lumpy, bed.

“Sir?”

“Why only the one room?”

“The reporters, sir.”

“What?”

“He said reporters, Alex.”

“What reporters?”

“Those reporters,” the old clerk pointed a shaky finger toward the smokers. They took long drags from cigarettes with one hand and held papers in the other. The wrinkled reporters sat around reading their various papers, waiting for leads, wasting their hotel rooms we might otherwise have used.

“They’re here because of Mr. Henry.”

“You heard of Mr. Henry, Alex?”

“No,” I said.

“We’ve never heard of him.”

“Maybe that’s because the reporters just got here.”

“Oh, no. They’ve been here since it happened.”

“Since what happened?”

An old man found by his maid, bleeding all over his impeccable hardwood floor. There had been no break in. The knife had come from his kitchen, and there were no fingerprints save Henry’s. There was nobody who would want to murder the old man, and nobody who would not want to, either. Bleeding to death on his floor, he must have wondered how he could have found such neutrality in extremes. And of course what he’d done to lose it.

“So who did it?”

“Nobody knows,” the old man said. “Why do you think they’re here?”

“Who do you think did it then?” I said.

“Well—”

A man named Silvershmidt who wanted to move in on Mr. Henry’s real estate deals. An illegitimate son who had, to the embarrassment of his father, taken to using Henry as a last name some months before the old man’s death. An excommunicated business associate with a taxidermy fetish. A butler cut out of the will. Only the suspects any decent person gathers if they’ve led a life worth living.

“So which one do you figure did it?” Brett asked.

“The thing is, he left everything to a girl.”

“Who?”

The clerk’s eyes looked from side to side, and he leaned in close pursing his lips but he wouldn’t whisper the name.

But the girls. The girls of Holyhead lived above a bar, and we might have met them two minutes sooner than we did if they ever bothered being at home. Brett was the one who wanted a drink, and the old clerk’s map was one straight line labeled Main Street and a dot on the right side labeled Bar. Still, we would have missed it all entirely if it hadn’t been for the neon sign above the door. We opened the door and stepped inside to find baskets full of brassieres and dresses and garbage sacks spilling out on an old rocking chair. “Hello?” we yelled as it was not inconceivable a town as precarious as Holyhead might have such a bar. But we walked into two of the bedrooms before deciding that the third one would not yield anything other than the strewn sheets and ashtrays full of candy wrappers and cigarette butts we’d already found.

Outside, the sign for the bar waited at its perch above the door. Brett was the one to find the bar’s actual entrance down a crumbling cement set of steps covered in umber leaves that had blown down from the street above. The entrance probably made perfect sense to those who had always followed their unquenchable thirst to the only bar in town, but for everyone who didn’t know the bar—but had the same thirst—the only recourse was a trip through an apartment and a walk around the building.

The bar sucked us inside with a rush of hot air. The girls sat together, the three of them laughing, sharing a bowl of pretzels, sitting on stools at the long bar on the far side of the room. There was an older man, weathered, clearly watching the girls from his table by the door. A khaki trench coat was strung over the only other chair at the table, a fedora and a half-gone beer sat in front of the grim face. As I walked past him I could see his eyes stay straight on the three of them as he brought the mug up to his lips, his eyes suddenly distorted wide in the glass, looking at me, looking at everyone. He had a meandering jaw line and receding hair, but his eyebrows were vibrant and expressive. They too were pointing at the girls.

Brett took a seat at the bar as I wandered over toward the jukebox with quarters in my pocket. Five plays for a quarter. Four selections in, the man sitting alone coughed.

“What?”

“Don’t play ‘My Light Love Leaps Lightly.’” He said it too loudly, like I was sitting across the bar with the girls, where he was looking.

“I don’t know that song.”

“Keep it that way for one more night.”

I returned to the yellowed pages of the listing, but only wanted to get up to those girls so I hit two random buttons and joined Brett at the bar. From behind me a chorus of voices yelled “My Light Love Leaps Lightly.” I was afraid to look back.

“What’s this?”

“I don’t know.”

The lyrics were gibberish: “my light love leaps lightly off the ship’s bow, my light love leaps lightly to her doom.”

“Your favorite song?” the bartender asked while running his thumbs underneath his red suspenders. He was in the classical style.

“I didn’t play it.”

He twisted the ends of his mustached, waxed, and shrugged his shoulders. “What’ll it be the?”

“Just a beer.”

“Now, if I bring it, you will admit that you ordered it, right?” The bartender guffawed and adjusted his bowtie, leaving greasy finger prints on the wings. Brett ordered a beer too and we waited. In the background the voices were building to a crescendo, taking the “My Light Love Leaps Lightly” higher and higher. The bartender brought the beers. We sat at the bar and drank them as the voices reached their apex and settled in for a long, triangle accompanied search for a nadir. “My Light Love Leaps Lightly” over and over and over, lower and lower, gone and gone.

“Did you play that?” one of the girls, I couldn’t tell which one, shouted from the other side of the bar.

“Of course,” I said. “It’s my favorite song.”

The middle girl bent over the bar to separate herself from the others and smiled. She placed a hand on one of the other’s shoulders and stepped off of her stool. Brett maybe nudged my leg on his way to entertain the remaining two girls who were still staring at the floor. The girl, that is to say the girl who was already somehow my girl, hopped on his vacated seat. She was short—eyes level with my throat—but she walked over tall and sat tall, and so she seemed tall. Dark hair fell in front of her green eyes and she smiled as if in on a joke I wanted know.

“You really love it?”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“He hates it,” she said, throwing a thumb back toward the watching man.

“Who’s he?”

“The detective.”

My girl, Samantha, summoned the bartender who winked at me as he took her order and I pulled out a bill. She was young, and her hair looked black under the neon beer signs that adorned the walls. We talked until my songs ran out. When my songs ran out I picked some more, but the jukebox played whatever the hell it wanted—odd songs, songs that only the girls admitted liking.

The girls of Holyhead were like other girls, like other murdering girls. They were not sisters exactly, but through a complicated string of death and abandonment they came to live in the same place, the apartment above, since they were too young to have been alone. Once their last caretaker died—someone’s forgotten great aunt, Samantha could not remember whose—they kept on together. I did not admit that Brett and I had been in the apartment, but she knew anyway.

“Everybody has been in our apartment..”

“Has the detective?”

“Nick? Of course. The police were there all day yesterday.”

She stood up and went to save the girls Brett talked at. Her two roommates held their hands in their laps, eyes on the floor. The three of them could have been sisters. Maybe they counted as such by that point. Brett winked. I looked at the detective. He didn’t. Samantha stayed talking with Brett and the other girls for a minute before returning with a large lime-colored purse.

“Brett said you would come up stairs.”

“He did?”

“Shouldn’t he have?”

“What’s upstairs?”

“My bed.”

We had only been in the apartment for a minute when the girls held counsel in a back bedroom. After moving a sack full of clown-covered wrapping paper off the couch, Brett and I sat down and went about picking at the yellow foam padding peaking up through the numerous tears, gashes, and popped seams of the fabric. I grabbed a newspaper out of garbage bag on the floor and scanned it out of habit. A clothing store in a place called Statesville was having a sale, a local boy had caught a record trout ice fishing, a man named Mr. Henry had been found to have no other health problems aside from the knife in his heart.

“Alex.”

“Yeah.”

“Take a look at that front page.”

I closed the paper and took a look at the first page. There between the weather forecast and a wedding announcement was a picture of our girls walking down the steps we’d walked up. That detective, Nick, was there with his hand on Samantha’s elbow. LOCAL WOMAN QUESTIONED IN HENRY MURDER. In the picture Samantha stood with her chin out, looking entirely above her escort and the wolf-eyed reporters capturing each other more than they could ever capture her.

“What do you think that means for us?” I asked.

“Well, I’m not going to kill you boys, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Samantha said leaning against the wall with a cigarette. “Come on, my bedroom.”

I gulped.

“The both of you.”

We gulped.

Back in the bedroom the two other girls were crying and putting into cardboard boxes the scattered representations of Samantha that made the room hers and not theirs. Stuffed llamas, pursed lips cut from magazines and taped to the walls, one framed photo of the three girls, her, as ever, in the middle. Samantha gestured toward the full-sized mattress, covered with a pink sheet, and together Brett and I sat down upon it awkwardly.

“Why you devils,” Samantha said. “That’s not going to help you move it.”

“Just testing,” I said.

“For weight,” Brett added.

“Can you manage?”

“Of course,” we lied.

Outside the detective leaned against the iron railing of the apartment, his face glowing blushed underneath the neon sign. His gloved hand brought a cigarette up to his mouth.

“Where you boys going with a mattress at this hour?”

“We don’t know.”

“Do you know who owns that pink sheet?”

“Oh, Nick, you know whose pink sheet that is,” Samantha said from somewhere behind us.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Brett pushed the mattress into my chest and I nearly took a tumble down the steps, would have been crushed at the bottom by a falling, pink block maybe. Might have felt just perfect maybe.

“Get moving, Alex.”

“That’s right,” the detective said. “You boys better get moving.”

We navigated the icy streets of Holyhead with our square, pink sail. Samantha led us through alleys and parks, over hills and round a pond. The occasional metallic scrape of a lighter let us know the detective followed and a game laugh and the slapping of a trench coat let us know she did too. Brett and I spit and wheezed, but never stopped the procession. The mattress stretched sinew and arched backs and the winter miles left our hands cracked and blue. Our ears burned pink; our nostrils froze round the edges. Still we never stopped. We walked past the hotel and a squadron of reporters came running when they saw that pink mattress. Everyone knew. Everyone joined, spitting and coughing until we reached, at last, the winding cobblestone drive up a hill to the only mansion in a hundred miles any old way.

Still walking backwards, I pressed my face into the pink and breathed in, leaving a burgundy circle of wetness on the sheet and the smell of lilacs in my nose. Everywhere else, too.

“A little farther,” Samantha said. “You’ll want to watch your step through the door there.”

Inside the house, its immaculate trappings remained in mourning with candles lighting a dim path to the large ballroom in back overlooking Holyhead. There, in a room with wooden floors polished until they gleamed with moonlight, Samantha told us to set the mattress down right in the middle under the skylight.

“You should go,” Samantha said to Brett.

“What about me?” I asked.

“You should stay.”

Outside, Brett told me later, the reporters nearly threw a party over the story of the murderess’s mattress and how everyone agreed the spot where we set it down was the very same where old Henry had been done in, agreed if for no other reason than it sounded like something that should be true even if it weren’t.

“I’m not going to be able to get her,” the detective muttered.

“That’s the end of it then,” a reporter said.

“The end of something.”

Inside the house, Samantha cried while we laid on the bed, a winter storm above us breaking the night. I tried to hold her but she turned her back to me. This was her house now and I imagined she would not stop imagining how she got it. Live with it instead of those other girls of Holyhead whose names I never knew. They probably stayed on in their own place passing nights in a bar where the jukebox played what it wanted to hear while up the hill someone hummed along by heart.

“Did you do it?” I asked.

That damned beautiful girl rolled to face me and maybe there’s not much mystery in any death and we sang together, “My light love leaps lightly down the mountainside, my light love leaps lightly to her doom.”

 

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Holidays, Pink

Exhibit 1.6.23

Teaching Stories of the Week

 

 

* A.M. Homes – “Do Not Disturb” – Which I wrote about (at length) here. A great story for talking about structure, character, and narration, one that rarely lets the reader or itself have it easy. And it, like the Moore, is a perfect example of showing how what is often used for melodrama can be refreshed. Here, cancer.

* Lorrie Moore – “Terrific Mother” – And here, baby killing. Well, maybe that’s not so often gone to, but it is melodramatic. Also serves as sort of a companion piece to the Homes as they’re both, at least in part, about being in flawed relationships while feeling sad and stuck in Europe. Really though, just another great realist character study which is tragic and funny. Dialogue, is, of course, top notch here, too.

* David Foster Wallace – “The Depressed Person” – Which I re-read while listening to this old pilot for a show where Jon Brion just plays music with a shy but game Elliott Smith. This, maybe, is the saddest thing I’ve ever done. No idea what I was thinking, but I like this story for the literature class I’m teaching coming on the heels of some Poe. It’s a particularly modern terror.

 

Comment / Posted in Davids, Fiction, Weeks

Exhibit 1.6.20

Hayden’s Ferry Review

 

 

Came home from the semester break to the new issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review, a favorite journal and one I’ve been sending to since I was a little writer with smaller glasses and bigger opinions on the National Book Awards. The issue’s theme is “In the Dark” which so far in my reading around has yielded lights out stuff from Léone Hampton, Colleen Coyne, and Caitlin Horrocks.

Lights out? Get it? Darkness. The joke is darkness.

My story is called “The Autopsy” and is mostly notable for not being sponsored by Sprite even though it should be sponsored by Sprite.

 

Sprite: Put it in you.

1 Comment / Posted in Fiction, Haydens, Journals

Exhibit 1.6.19

The Next Big Thing

 


 

What is the working title of your book?

Masochistically, I recently started a new novel which I am after, O maybe two weeks or so, about 11k words into despite holidays and travel and job interviews and planning next semester. I feel fairly proud of myself for my ability to ignore more immediate, fulfilling concerns in favor of a years long project about ghosts or whatever it is I write about.

Anyway, it’s currently called The City One Winter which will not be the final title. The final title will also not be Winterset which is also what I sometimes call it. That’s where John Wayne is from and since he’s not in the novel, it feels unfair to promise The Duke if I can’t deliver The Duke. Nor is it set in Winterfell from the Game of Thrones universe which is also what that evokes.

Although now it seems so obvious that I should have written a novel about John Wayne kicking heads in the Game of Thrones universe. I’ve done it all wrong. Writing, titling, life, all.

 

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Let’s see, it’s about sickness and entropy and family and America and failed utopia…I have no idea. I do write about that stuff a lot. It’s possible I just drew a few cards from my mental deck and that’s what came out.

More seriously: I imagined a city on fire and a girl in the arms of an older man who’d forgotten her name. I started there.

 

What genre does your book fall under?

Self-hurt.

 

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Let’s all hope it never comes to this.

 

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A girl follows the wanderings of a sick man who is trying to remember a love he lost in his youth.

 

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My book is flattered just to be so often referred to as a book. For something that has a typo in the first sentence, it really is quite the honor to imagine it represented, published, filmed, taken to the prom, reclaimed by the post-mo(on)dernists, etc.

 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I may have chosen the wrong project for this questionnaire. Let’s say I hope to have a draft done by the end of the summer. Or sooner. Or later. I’m not sure. It’s going to be a short novel–as is my want–so let’s say if I can keep up the current pace I’ll be done by then but, in all likelihood, I’m going to have to start over and overwrite and turn it into a screenplay and turn it back into a novel and will finish sometime around next winter. That’s good. It’s a winter book.

 

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I don’t know if inspiration ever plays into it, but, well, I guess I can say that the books I’ve been looking at while writing it are The Scarlet Letter, The Good Soldier, and Lolita. Not that it has anything to do with any of those amazing books, exactly, but they’ve been language guides. That’s pretty much what inspiration means to me.

 

To carry on the game, I tag:

I’ll tag my fellow Cupboard editors Dave Madden and emily danforth because I know they’re working on some stuff.

 

And thanks for the tag, Chris.

 

1 Comment / Posted in Fiction, Questions, Winter

Exhibit 1.6.10

New Morning

 

I just so happened to get contributor’s copies of two beautiful new journals on the same day and took some pictures in the morning sunlight as I read them and drank coffee. I can honestly say these are among the best designed journals out there–may in fact be the best designed journals out there–but it’s all the awesome stuff inside that should make you order them.

 

Paper Darts

 

 

So much incredible art and writing in this thing already. Plus, every page looks like that. A bit, from Brandi Wells’s “Letters Between Tortoise and Hare”:

Dear Hare,

We can go away together. Just the two of us. To the beach, to the ocean. I will teach you how to swim. I want to draw you into a place of familiarity, map the familiar on your body so that your body becomes a body more like my own…

 

 

The Normal School

 

 

This issue, a promised “Film and Music Spectacular,” seems to be chocked full of smart essays that I’m only beginning to read through but Elena Passarello’s “Communication Breakdown” has already stood out:

Let us not forget, too, that the most celebrated rock screams came from bodies that belong to the same subgeneration as our recent front-runners (and their most moneyed supporters). Sammy Hagar was born the same year as Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton. Rick Perry is seven months older than Tom Petty…

 

Grateful to the editors for including my things which, I can only hope, aren’t uglying it all up.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Journals, School

Exhibit 1.6.5

The Actual Book I’m Reading Next

So I read around in this when I got it, but I had to put it away until after my exams. Now I’m reading it for real, and I’m excited. You should read it too because you like excitement and good things and good people.

Pick it up.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Reading, Tyrones

Exhibit 1.6.1

John Barth

Stepping from the treacherous passage at last into the mirror-maze, he saw once again, more clearly than ever, how readily he deceived himself into supposing he was a person. He even foresaw, wincing at his dreadful self-knowledge, that he would repeat the deception, at ever-rarer intervals, all his wretched life, so fearful were the alternatives. Fame, madness, suicide; perhaps all three.

From “Lost in the Funhouse”

1 Comment / Posted in Americans, Fiction, Mirrors

Exhibit 1.5.27

Italo Calvino

Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can rediscover the continuity of time only in the novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years.

from If on a winter’s night a traveler

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Italians, Time

Exhibit. 1.5.26

On Bad Guys

So for a lot of reasons–reading dozens of books for comps, teaching a literature class, re-watching Fringe, Rex Ryan, everything else–I’ve been thinking a lot about “bad guys.” Previously, it had been an easy category to ignore in fiction or leave to movies and TV shows, forms of art where the old good vs. bad, white hat vs. black hat narrative structures exist a bit more clearly and persistently.

(Perhaps they weren’t quite as ravaged by modernity/post-modernity? Perhaps what we now call literary fiction, by definition, has always left these categories to whatever era’s popular forms? Or it’s both, that writers and readers don’t need or want a Dickens?)

In literary fiction, however, there’s rarely a clear antagonist, at least in the sense of being totally, irredeemably bad. It’s maybe a stupid distinction. Of course fiction still deals with these plots, just that those books tend to be bought at airports or marketed to children. There’s still the same impulse in genre work there’s always been–to entertain, thrill, titillate–and we still crave the escape of this even if now we prefer to take it over a screen with pretty actors. And, of course, a good deal of literary work does use and play with this same dichotomy, this same old plot, especially as every hot young (male) writer since Chabon seems to want to make a case for comic books and pulp novels as art.

Even then, however, things are rarely allowed to devolve into that clear relationship between good and bad. It’s simply not literary. Whatever qualities we want that word to carry–complex, layered, stylized–they’re the opposite of such a defined way of looking at the world and of plot. Anything else is genre stuff. And, as I said, it’s a binary that’s mostly breaking down–maybe one of the last after decades of trying to stomp these things out–but even as genre work creeps into the literary, it’s not able to bring the full starkness of contrast between its characters with it.

Far more often, the bad guy is anything but a person. The bad guy is government or a corporation or a religion or any other institution we’re comfortable calling into question when we know that to call a person such a word is silly and shallow and, with a few terribly notable exceptions, typically fails to grasp anywhere near the whole truth of a human being. And it’s not that there aren’t bad characters–there are–it’s that they’re caught up in the same problematic system as the protagonist and so their agency isn’t their own, they’re acting out learned behaviors, their sin is, unlike the protagonist, in being unable to see or separate themselves from what is corrupting them.

And this is interesting to me not because I care about having bad guys in literary fiction–and I know, I know they are out there–or even making a case for literary fiction as a category (which I certainly don’t care to do) but because the first thing most students seem to do is shift characters into these roles no matter how earned or unearned. It’s fascinating, both as a teacher and as a person who realizes how often this gets done in life as well.

For students, they typically don’t say “bad guy” but they often will come into class having read a complicated story without clear roles and say, “I was rooting for her.” or “He’s a jerk. I wanted bad things to happen to him.” And they say these things not because they’re misreading the story, but because most are coming from those genre narratives where these roles still exist and identifying them is the first step in understanding a plot.

(Teaching a class of high school aged students this summer who were obsessed with The Avengers, they would often assign characters–and themselves–the roles. So a particular strain of good guy would be “a Thor” and a bad guy “a total Loki”. For a few texts and films, it actually sort of worked).

So I was thinking about this when my class read A.M. Homes’s story “Do Not Disturb”, a perfect example of a story with a bad guy and of how literary fiction these days chooses to complicate that idea. It’s a story about how we lean on that narrative in real life, and it offers it to us itself in such a way that it’s almost impossible not to take the bait.

(Ha, I googled to see if the story was online–it’s not, I don’t think–and saw that Dave wrote about it here. I’m not going to read that yet, but I’m sure his thoughts are better)

In sum: wife is a mean person, gets cancer, gets meaner, husband tries to run away, can’t, the end. It is, frankly, a remarkably depressing story for anyone to read, especially for anyone who was in, is in, or plans to be in a relationship. And there’s this whole reversal of gender roles dynamic, too. The wife takes on all the traditionally masculine qualities while the husband the traditionally feminine. My students were so good at pointing out examples of this that I actually started to think a little less of the story. There are also times–the husband does not know how many ovaries a woman has; the version of femininity who finally comforts the husband is literally (though subtly) a French maid–where it’s more than a little ridiculous and on-the-nose.

It’s a very heavily constructed story in this sense, for good and bad. It begins and ends with a character writhing in pain and stuck on the floor, there’s the body of a husband who has jumped from a building our husband is compared to then later he gets the chance to jump from a great height himself, there’s a Ferris Wheel on which they are (again with this word) literally going around in circles, etc.

But to say these are fatal flaws or even flaws would be to miss the humor of the story. It’s very funny. And it’s meant to be over-the-top given that an essential element in understanding the story is putting weight on the husband’s narration. In his telling, the wife is certainly the bad guy. She’s uncommunicative, withholding, demeaning, sarcastic, cold, etc. All the words you might throw at a bad partner or hear from a friend post-breakup.

(I initially said post-divorce there until I realized none of my friends are divorced. Yet. See you back at the bar someday, guys!–is that a terrible joke? Feels like a terrible joke. Fine, fine, I’m the bad guy of my own blog post).

And god is she really those things. The students, rightly, hated her in the same way they hated a lot of characters who did far less to deserve it. She was the bad guy. The end. So I asked, does that make the husband the good guy? This they didn’t seem to want to grant–he’s whiny and ineffectual–but ultimately they decided yes, he has to be. She’s that bad and this is how these things work.

But it’s impossible that this is truly the case because if we accept, at the end of the story, that the wife is bad then we have to accept that the French maid is good. Call it a hunch, but I simply refuse to believe this is what A.M. Homes intends to say about what it means to be a woman. That the wife can really be summed up, as the husband seems to think and as she herself says, as simply “a bitch.” That what our highly sensitive, feminized male narrator really needs is for a sexualized woman to rub his feet and feed him chocolates so he can be a man again. I know in summary it seems ridiculous to think one could ever believe these things–that even by virtue of it being a “literary” story we know it can’t possibly be arguing for such politically incorrect reductions–but what allows that reading, what allows students (and I’m sure many others) to take the bait of hating her, is how completely that narrative pushes her into that bad guy role. And it needs her there because it’s only by coming to the brink of accepting that hate that the careful reader is able to see Homes’s far more complicated narrative.

And this, I suppose, is where we come back around to how bad guys are getting used most often in literary fiction these days. As a sort of a red herring, as one who throws those old narratives back into question. As critiques of institutions not people. Because the wife is unquestionably a selfish, awful person, but to fall into the trap of labeling her the bad guy is to miss the moments where is not those things. Her concern for having children. Her trauma of having that, and the very organs that make her a woman, stolen from her by her own body and a male-dominated medical establishment she’s a part of. Her own peevish, needy husband who wants something from her she cannot give, at least not now, maybe not ever. To miss these things is to deny her the full access to her own humanity. It’s to fail to understand that this is a story not solely about a sick wife or a put-upon husband but about a marriage.

And it’s not that to know this makes her anything but the bad guy or excuses her actions or her words. This is not some kind of “rewrite the fairy tale so the wolf is the victim” reading. It’s simply one that finds the subtle points among all the hyperbole because having even a modicum of sympathy for her throws the husband’s entire narrative into question. It’s to understand that structurally the story wants us to feel that closed loop suffocating both of these people. It’s to bemoan this marriage specifically, perhaps the whole institution generally, and certainly the ways gender roles, even if reversed, lead to trauma, miscommunication, and division. Her femininity is in crisis–likely always has been given her ambition and demeanor, her being “a bitch”–as is his masculinity (he’s not literally impotent–though god knows it wouldn’t surprise anyone–but he’s both denied sex and denies himself sex). Their marriage–all marriages?–is dependent on finding a balance in this dynamic and is, therefore, in crisis itself. The sickness only brings it to a head, cements their roles (her “bitch”; him “unappreciated caregiver”).

That his story has a bad guy, that it’s her, is not surprising. It’s still how we want to shape our narratives. We have to. We need to. I see it in both students in the classroom and in grad students understanding of a particular administrator. It’s simply easier than looking for the truth of the situation. More than that, it feels more natural when we’re all the heroes of our own stories. There’s nothing revelatory about that, I suppose–really, that Didion quote I gave the other day says more or less the same thing about shaping narratives only without the good/bad/selfish dynamic–but it’s an important thing for writers and readers of literary fiction to look for and be suspicious of.

And, of course, it’s an even more important thing for us as people to be suspicious of.

But for “Do Not Disturb”, understanding that impulse is essential to understanding the story and, if not accept or even forgive the wife, to see her (and not just her sickness) with sympathy she’s done nothing to earn and definitely wouldn’t want. We need to not take the bait of hating her because to do so is to accept the fantasy of definitions, the world as knowable, women as “Bitch” vs. French Maid, our struggles, our relationships with each other, as good vs. evil. We need to acknowledge that, once again, there are no bad guys though there are certainly bad things made worse, unthinkably worse, by being more complicated than that label. By being unfixable in all senses of the word.

3 Comments / Posted in Bad Guys, Fiction, Writing

Exhibit 1.5.21

Two Links

* I have a short piece giving some flash fiction bylaws over at Nano Fiction for their State of Flash series. I really do mean all of them. Especially the ones about poor, poor Doug.

* My short short “Biologists Study Grace” is over at Paper Darts and the entire page will soon be tattooed onto my back. Not really. probably. Maybe. Sort of. We’ll see. But it is quite pretty.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Links, Tattoos

Exhibit 1.4.4

Answers


I answered some questions for Midwestern Gothic here. Of course, that link includes a link right back here, so some of you are stuck in an endless Adam Peterson-loop while my cold, dead eyes look on disapprovingly. Or maybe it’s not at all like that. I really don’t know how you’re spending your day.

In any case, it’s a great journal and you should pick up a copy here.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Interviews, Loops

Exhibit 1.4.3

Archival


One of the first stories I ever published is now online as part of the new Madison Review website. And from the same Spring 2008 issue you can also read a poem by Adam Day. Apparently we were journal buddies before we shared an office.

Adam is also an editor at Catch Up, a new journal of literature and comics. Check it out here.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Journals, Madisons

Exhibit 1.3.18

Camera Obscura

I knew since their first issue that Camera Obscura would be one of my favorite literary journals. It’s stylish without neurosis, smart without smugness, relevant without pandering. It’s weird how easy a journal like this can make the format and how, well, obsolete it can make other journals.

It’s not the photography that makes CO seem bigger–though it certainly doesn’t hurt–but the boldness of the fiction which, much like the design, always seems to be doing several things at once without falling into any of the usual traps. Like the photographs, it’s always worldly and adroit and, damnit, just hard to look away from. Take the opening to Vincent Czyz’s “The Nameless Saint”:

It was the hour when the lamplighter, toting a ladder over his shoulder, made his tedious rounds; when workers slogged through the streets as though souls on their way to purgatory; when bones turning to dust in graveyards unexpectedly shifted like a heap of logs burning on the grate. This was not the quarter of Samirska lit by theaters and cafes, cabarets and fine restaurants–a quarter smiling like a crescent moon in the dusk–here the restaurants had bare wooden floors and for a drima offered a bowl of cabbage soup or, for a few more, greasy stew and a slice of black village bread. here, mounted gendarmes patrolled the streets in pairs or not at all.

You want to read the rest of that story and the rest of that issue.

Of course, I have a story here which you probably don’t want to read and is mostly notable for having taken its title from the repeated line in an Arthur & Yu song (“1000 Words“) that Dave turned me onto a long time back. It seems appropriate to me that the story ended up in a journal with a photography emphasis, and I’m thrilled it’s there.

Please help them out by subscribing here or by checking your local Barnes & Noble. Unless you’re in Topeka in which case I think my parents already bought them all. See, that’s how much I care. I told my parents, and they don’t even know where I live.*

*That’s probably not true.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Journals, Owls

Exhibit 1.3.6

Foul Weather


The Weather Stations by Ryan Call from Caketrain

Despite all the tornadoes and hurricanes and tsunamis of the last few years, Call’s book is a shocking reminder that even more terrible things might be coming. Wind that kills, lightning that maims, sky that crumbles–the stories here aren’t post-apocalyptic, they’re simply apocalyptic. Worse, they’re powerfully personal. So often in lesser work a story’s heart shrinks as the disaster increases, but here the tragedies are always human ones. The weather here produces not destruction but terror, and it’s not on insubstantial difference. You don’t feel like the author is a child kicking over an anthill–he’s the ant.

I was able to read this entire book on the plane yesterday which I both recommend and warn you against. Recommend because it’s a great read that keeps the clouds moving quickly. Warn because this book tells you those clouds are trying to kill you and it’s impossible not to believe it. Those. Clouds. Are. Trying. To. Kill. You. I honestly didn’t think we were ever going to land and when we did, just a minute after I finished the last story, I was shocked when we all didn’t burst into applause out of wonder for our pilot. You know it’s a great book when it can re-mystify the commonplace.

And that’s what impressed me most as I turned the pages and the plane rocked slightly in the air. I didn’t want to land because I didn’t want to leave the book’s world. At that moment, we could have just floated away.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Weather

Exhibit 1.2.17

Things

* So I’ve got a Sire Line up at Everyday Genius right here. You should do what I do and have EG in your Google Reader. You will not be disappointed.

* That Sire Line is mostly notable for being the first one in the series. There are now 50. I have no idea how that project went from something inspired by a picture in Dave‘s bathroom to that .jpg I created at work (sorry, Mark!) to this terrible, long ridiculous thing.

* I’ll write more about both of these bookish soonish, I’m sure, but last week I read Mat Johnson’s Pym and received Ryan Call’s The Weather Stations which I’m going to start today-ish. You’re going to want them both. Trust me.

* The Cupboard is still having a contest. Tell your friends, submit, etc. The deadline is March 31st.

Comment / Posted in America, Fiction, Georges

Exhibit 1.2.12

Thing

* I have a short(er) story in the new issue of StoryQuarterly. It comes from a time when I thought 1,000 word stories were the future. Now I know that the real future is 500 word stories. It was a simpler time, 2009.

* Anyway, my thing is mostly notable for being a one-note joke about having to harvest a cowboy if you want a pair of cowboy boots. Sort of like how I had to kill that elephant to get these stylish tusks you’ve noticed me wearing. I did not, however, have to kill it with my bare hands. That I did for me. Also, to best Orwell. The pussy.

* Now I’ve made myself sad thinking about animal violence. I’m against it.

* I’m still reading through the issue–it’s fairly massive–but so far my favorite story actually has considerable animal violence (or at least animal death). Bethany Reece’s “The Dog Dies” won me over anyway. A collection of different dog deaths, it’s terribly sad but funny and touching in all the right ways. I didn’t want to like it, but I couldn’t help it, not when it includes lines about trying to slap a dog soul. It’s hard to explain why that works, but it does. I’m a fan.

* After, in penance, I stared at a picture of Brett’s dog soul for an hour:

Comment / Posted in Bretts, Fiction, Journals

Exhibit 1.2.10

Wieland

(Yep, another post on books. If you don’t care, you’ll probably enjoy this hyper-literal video of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson’s “Luckenbach, Texas.” I know I did.


)

Charles Brockden Brown’s novel makes two things clear: 1) the gothic is integral to American literature and 2) we should have seen M. Night Shyamalan coming. O, fine, a third thing: voice throwing is the world’s deadliest talent.

Why America couldn’t have produced compelling social novels is unclear to me, but her earliest books all seem to be obsessed with darkness and horror and the unsettling nature of life on the new continent. Without definitive social classes, nobody seems to know who to trust and so everyone is a rake or a murderer or some deviant ventriloquist. Wieland came out less than 15 years before Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, but they don’t feel like they exist in the same world. And, I suppose, they don’t.

Austen has her balls and parlors while Brockden Brown’s America feels like a free for all. There is still a moral order, just not one that anybody feels comfortable asserting except when it’s too late. At first the book even seems progressive. The titular Wieland is obsessed with reason and rationality rather than his father’s odd, Puritanical religion. His sister lives alone without comment and serves as the book’s narrator. Everyone, basically, feels like a free citizen in a land ruled by liberty rather than class or superstition.

O, then weird things start happening and then it all goes to hell. The brother no longer trusts his wife. The sister, too, is spurned by her suitor for being a hussy. One character believes God is telling him to kill everyone. It’s only after these things start happening does the claustrophobia of the early pages seem suffocating. America, in a word, was a little boring.

The Shyamalan twist is that some and possibly all of this turmoil was caused by a passing “biloquist” who helpfully explains how through a series of very reasonable coincidences, he was forced to throw his voice, a power he laments and had sworn not to use (it being too powerful. Something _________ must have realized a long time ago [___________ being where I would put the name of a famous ventriloquist if there were any {O,shit, Jeff Dunham. Well, I’m still not giving him the satisfaction}]). In any case, this wizard stops short of confessing to causing Wieland to murder his family, but it doesn’t really matter. The sister flees back to Europe where there’s still evil but it’s easier to recognize.

So what was wrong with America that this is where our imaginations immediately went? It’s tough to say, though there seems to be some reaction not only to the wilderness surrounding the colonies but to the breakdown of social order caused by democracy. This breakdown, which was hardly as severe as it must have seemed, is a little ridiculous to a modern reader–as is the one moment of spontaneous combustion–but the young country seems to have experienced a lot of terror in the space between reason and freewill. O, we might be able to reason our way into explanation (it’s usually ventriloquism) but that doesn’t mean some of us won’t fall back on superstition and violence and how will we know who those people are until they’re approaching us with axes?

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Texas

Exhibit 1.2.6

I Read This

I Should Get This

Well, okay, probably not a gold medal from the 2006 Winter Olympics, but I feel like I deserve something. I know reading the book is its own reward, but mostly I’m talking about having hauled it to and around Washington D.C. It’s heavy, in other words. And I don’t mean emotionally, I mean it weighs almost as much as my laptop. No, that’s not exactly as memorable as winning the luge, but it’s not so far off either. I’d settle for a bronze from Lillehammer.

As for the book, what can I say that hasn’t been said. It’s great. I prefer the small perfection of Jane Austen–whose work the book greatly resembles through the first two sections–but if you have ever wished she occasionally left the sitting room and wrote epic novels about a bunch of Russians, here’s your book. After those early sections, it’s as much social commentary as it a social novel but only occasionally does it feel didactic (sadly, one of those places is the ending but if you’ve made it that far, I imagine you’ve already given yourself over to it). Tolstoy obviously believes something about peasants and Christianity and hypocrisy and honor, but it’s shocking how beside the point all of that is to understanding the novel. Mostly, it’s hard not to read these portions of the novel without being all too aware of the wave that’s coming through history to take all of these people out. Every time Levin started going on about not educating workers, I screamed, “Look out, they’re coming to kill your children!” at the book.

(By the way, this completely ruined how smart and sensitive I was supposed to look while performatively reading it at coffee shops).

Around all that philosophy though is a really remarkable portrayal of humanity. There’s no overstating it: I can’t think of another book that has so accurately portrayed the human soul. All the contradictions and self-betrayals and doubt and relief–it’s what allows a book like this to transcend its philosophy and its timeliness and give reason to the epic social novel. Yeah, it’s never going to be my favorite kind of novel, but I can certainly understand the appeal of trying to signpost a moment with a monument big enough to be seen through history.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Medals

Exhibit 1.2.1

Best Movie Quotes to Pretend Are in The Great Gatsby

* “Here’s looking at you, kid.” — Tom Buchanan to Myrtle

* “Forget it, James, it’s North Dakota.” — Dad Gatsby

* “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” — Daisy

* “It was beauty killed the beast.” — Owl Eyes

* “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” — Dan Cody

* “I’m walking here! I’m walking here!” — Myrtle

* “You had me at hello.” — Nick

* “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” — Jordan

* “I’ll have what she’s having.” — Wolfsheim

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Movies

Exhibit 1.1.26

House (Boat) Party

I’m a bit in trouble on this book because I read it a couple of weeks back, couldn’t think of a take on it at the time, and now feel like I should say something. Um, it won the Booker? That’s worth something isn’t it?

[Goes and checks to see if David Mitchell has won one, sees that he hasn’t, decides it’s worth nothing]

So, yep, people living in boats along the Thames, somewhat focused around a young Canadian mother and her two daughters, one a moody pre-teen, one adopted from St. Julian’s School for Precocious Tots. In fact, I’m not entirely sure this entire book wasn’t written in anticipation of movie version to launch the career of a not-yet-conceived Dakota Fanning. She’s smart like an adult but whimsical like a child! Her idiosyncrasies are adorable! Just imagine a six-year old jumping rope in a dress and rain boots making intelligent observations about humanity and you’ve got a pretty good idea.

Anyway, there’s something great about the carefree wandering of the omniscient narration and the characters aren’t completely without interest. And I suppose living on a boat in the 60s must have been more scandalous than I’m giving it credit for, but I can’t help but compare this book to Drabble’s which had a lot more to say about the age, class, and country.

Maybe this is the way to put it: a lot of the novels I’ve read recently have been short but this is the only one that felt slight.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Rivers

Exhibit 1.1.25

The Western


A fun book that didn’t take me much longer to read than the new movie took to watch, and it’s easy to see why so many people love it. I certainly did.

(Quick movie comparison: almost identical with a great deal of the dialogue coming directly from the book, one short and unimportant addition, and, oddly, a few minor plot points changed, which both solves some tiny oddities and creates a few new ones).

Like a lot of the books I’ve read recently, it’s heavily voice driven. That’s probably not an accident given that they’re all for classes taught by the same person, but True Grit stands out for the oddity of its retrospective narration through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl on a manhunt for her father’s killer. That conceit alone could and does take this book a long way, but its the absolute appropriateness of her position that makes it compelling. Mattie is by far the smartest and most honorable character and in the running for the toughest. Her competition is all larger-than-life western characters, and so she is both straightman to the genre conventions around her and the wide-eyed gaze that creates them.

It seems a shame to even talk about the book this way. It’s just good. Exciting and funny and unsentimental right up until the stoicism of the genre breaks to show the character Mattie has never learned to hide.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Grit

Exhibit 1.1.24

A Perfectly Lovely Book


I don’t have much more to say about it though I guess some comment should be made about just how odd Margaret Drabble’s book’s plotting is. There’s a lot here that could be conflict but isn’t, just as the primary conceit of the book (a not particularly young but pretty and highly educated woman gets pregnant her first time having sex) could be treated as some kind of “ironical” misfortune but isn’t. In fact, early on two characters discuss their pregnancies in terms of Thomas Hardy’s Life’s Little Ironies and their differing conclusions inform the book only slightly less than the fact that, in both cases, everything worked out perfectly. …and everything worked out perfectly is a strange concept to build a plot around, but there it is.

Well, okay, “perfectly,” is maybe overstating it, but as well as could be expected if not slightly better. In some ways the book reminded me of a sitcom. Joey is not going to unexpectedly die in a mugging on the way home from Central Perk. We know things will work out fine and we watch to see our reassurances played out.

Who knows if Ms. Drabble had the will to do something awful to her characters, but she certainly didn’t have the desire. Yet somehow the book works on the strength of its sensitive, smart, and funny narrator. There’s real charm in how everything that should be a negative she somehow twists into a positive. Having an illegitimate child in the 1960s? No problem, because now the narrator can love. Being a single mother? She can enter into a mutually beneficial arrangement with a friend. Telling the parents? Someone else can do it.

The book is quite aware of its positivity and a great percentage of the words are spent inside the narrator’s mind pondering her situation and how, though it might clash with both the staid conventions of an older generation and the freer beliefs of her own, it is nevertheless a good one. The point seems to be that she can have a child on her own terms and still be happy and successful and free. As a political point, it’s now an old one (if not a little silly given we’re talking about a profoundly privileged character), but a great deal of the book seems intended to present a different side of the more familiar depictions of Swinging London. The narrator is clearly of an age and social standing where she should, like her friends, use the era’s hedonism to liberate herself yet instead chooses to do it by redefining domesticity and motherhood and love. I feel, I think, reassured.

Comment / Posted in Books, Cases For Perfection, Fiction

Exhibit 1.1.22

Dude’s Lyrical like Bernie Taupin

I think we’re all sick of language-driven novels published by obscure presses winning Pulitzers. Okay, so that never happens. Bully for the Pulitzer people and for Mr. Harding whose book is as remarkable as Marilynne Robinson says on the cover which is both a good thing and a bad thing.

And what’s remarkable about it is the writing. You really can’t talk about the book without talking about its lyricism which is, on some level, a detriment. I mean, I love lyrical, and there’s certainly something wondrous–though always in a strictly realistic way–to justify it here. Of course, there’s also just a lot of characters sitting and thinking and talking which all gets the same sparkly brush. Here, I’ll flip to a random page and grab the first sentence:

My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling at my skull–no my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea and wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels.

Ha! I swear that was random. Honestly, I was delighted when I saw the page. Anyway, I couldn’t have picked a better example of what makes this book awesome and, I hate to say it, admirably overwrought. It’s pretty much that all the way through and at times it’s beautiful and awesome–describing the electricity of a seizure, the imagination of a child–and at others it’s forced with the unworthy task of the book’s plot.

This maybe is part of my problem: the past is not, in itself, magical. I’m going to stop before I go off on some rant about nostalgia except to say that no one would write about their office job the way Harding writes about being a traveling salesman. It’s maddening to see such language applied not to the truly magical but to simply the past, as if beautiful things only existed between 1840 and 1962. And during those years, everything was equally beautiful–a sugar-glazed ham is identically as sublime as pulling a tooth with a pair of pliers.

It’s a minor complaint that one that kept me from really loving the book. I’m not even sure I’d say I liked it though I admired it a great deal (I’m obviously hedging. Am I the only one comfortable for having a category for art that I can like without, you know, liking?). So, in the end, an absolutely beautiful, marvelously written book and certainly one deserving of its accolades. But, at least to me, the book reaches for something more than just beauty and falls short. There’s a story about fathers and sons here, one about running away from a legacy, one about the painful gains and losses over a lifetime, but it’s all too slippery with rosewater.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Language

Exhibit 1.1.21

Huh


When McEwan’s book reaches its sudden conclusion–as spoiler-free as possible: a creepy family achieves maximum creepiness, somewhere V.C. Andrews blushes–it’s difficult to see past the shock of it all to any greater point. And that, I suppose, is the point, even if it’s not a very good one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a plenty interesting and insightful book–language, imagery, etc. all top-notch–but the final act it builds toward is achingly inevitable from the first pages and so it’s a matter of simply waiting it out. Of course, there’s a shocking act at the beginning too and even the first sentence–something from the narrator about not having killed his own father–seems needlessly incendiary as when that moment comes, there’s nothing to suggest the character did kill his father nor that anyone thought he did. It’s the literary equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater then, after everyone’s maimed on the floor, putting on a pornographic movie just to be a dick.

(Or is it like that? Is anything like that?)

So much shock, so little of interest behind it all. Maybe this book once said something about the depravity of British society (or at least the children) or maybe–likely–I’m missing something, but I set this book down feeling sad that someone so talented had wasted so much time aiming so low. Shock ages poorly, is the problem, and so absolutely it’s ghastly that this book involves incest but, you know what, so do about half the episodes of Law and Order: SVU. And yep, the events proceeding it are wonderfully described by a sensitive and complex character in the 1st person, but that blackhole of a moment is so strong that nobody else gets to be anything other than a scandalization-bot. Seemingly no other character has a choice, and those who have very good reasons to be disinterested or disturbed by it find themselves involved because this book is about a creepy family and if they’re ever going to be the creepiest family then everyone’s got to be on-board. Why they’d want to be isn’t important. What is important is that every reader closes the book feeling ashamed because we’re all implicated in it by how lovely the writing is. Well, I don’t care. This isn’t Lolita and dirty is not an emotion.

McEwan is better than this book, thank god. Apparently someone reminded him that–despite what a lot of immature writers seem to think–being shocking doesn’t mean being more honest and usually it means the opposite.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Gardens

Exhibit 1.1.19

Why Not


So, yes, more book posts. I’m sorry. I’m reading a lot, what can I say. It’s either that or contemplate why the tornado siren is going off. My theories: either it’s a test or God intends to finish what he started in Arkansas.

If it helps, I thought this book was fantastic. It’s smart and original and funny and, basically, everything the last book wasn’t (well, fine, the last book was smart. Maybe I should have gone with clever). This is the first Mary Robison I’ve read which I find slightly strange as it’s a name that feels really familiar to me, just one of those names you hear a lot if you deal in literary fiction. I might have read a story or two some where but none are coming to mind and so I suppose she’s nothing but a name and the vague impression that she’s Amy Hempel-y which is a good thing to be.

Why Did I Ever is told in 536 chapters (Well, “sections” anyway. If I have a gripe with the book it’s that these mostly numbered but occasionally titled sections are further broken up into chapters, as if without this the reader might be fooled into thinking these were short stories, as if any book needs two levels of numbering). Anyway, some representative ones:

141

That fat man driving around with his little pooch? Now why don’t I know him or someone like him? That man, I bet, could make me very happy.

365

Hollis is perched on one of the seats in the breakfast nook as we come in. He’s eating a pecan roll and reading the Book of Revelation. “Whoomp!” he says. “Did you ever know about this? ‘There will be no more night.'”

There are longer chapters though none more than a page or so and some as short as a single word. Despite the fragmentation, the book does work around a cohesive plot and an established set of characters. The narrator is a middle-aged woman working as a screenwriter for a film studio with two children only slightly more troubled than she is herself. It’s never sentimental and, despite the darkness, shockingly funny in little, real ways that always seem impossible to me. These kind of life-on-the-brink stories are done to death but rarely do they feel this fraught which is a credit to the form. These short chapters aren’t a gimmick, they’re a telling representation of the scattered thoughts of a woman in just enough control to get them in the right order but to see her own narrative.

As a teacher–not a reader–it’s strange to read a book like this that seems so clearly suited to imparting one lesson. I mean, there’s great dialogue and description and characterization and whatever else we’re all supposed to be doing. And it’s formally interesting and well-written in its own stark way. Plenty to say about that. Really though, it’s a book about voice and though the narrator reaches no great conclusion, it’s terribly sad to leave her.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Money

Exhibit 1.1.18

So Long


I’ve got this theory with exactly no evidence to support it but it goes something like this: everything we thought of as an MFA story was really a William Maxwell story because a William Maxwell story was a New Yorker story. These things–an MFA story, a New Yorker story–have all shifted, of course, but the influence lingers in older journal editors and writing professors who have theories on what’s good and bad, what’s possible and what isn’t.

For 40 years–notably coinciding with the rise of the MFA and therefore the rise of the short story–William Maxwell served as the fiction editor of the New Yorker publishing Cheever and Updike and O’Connor and all the rest. If we can assume his considerable influence in the literary world trickled down–and continues to still–Maxwell’s personal tastes were the bar which young writers had to clear. It’s not very useful to even attempt to define these things, but since people still bemoan the MFA story, Maxwell seems as likely a culprit as anyone. Unless you like these stories, in which case he’s a sort of hero standing up for the well-crafted sentence and the understated emotion.

Whatever. I don’t really care either way except that when reading So Long, See You Tomorrow it was hard not to see the type of overly polished and nostalgic navelgazing I used to hate when reading through the middle years of short story anthologies from the last century. And it’s not that I still hate this work–nor that I like it any better either–just that I’m past the point where I know what to say when confronted by it. I’ve never developed a vocabulary for intelligently describing how something can be well-wrought yet lifeless, interesting yet treated blandly. Nor do I know why sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t (though a sense of humor usually helps).

And so I don’t really know what to say about Maxwell’s book. It’s not that it’s bad, it isn’t, just that its careful portrait of three shifting families during the 1920s somehow fails to feel like anything more than the author’s working out some old and remarkably tiny guilt (in fact, Maxwell admits as much in a Paris Review interview here). To the book’s credit, it is not without an awareness of how inessential the narrator–the unnecessarily guilty feeling boy on the periphery of a love triangle and murder–is to the actual plot of the book, but it’s still like listening in to a particularly well-spoken person’s therapy session. What does it mean that this event meant something to the narrator? Why does he still think of it all these years later? What can he now realize with the benefit of experience?

Naturally, because this is that kind of story, these questions don’t really get answered and nor do they need to be. They’re not interesting questions. The event matters because we’re reading a book about it. He thinks about it because it was a love-triangle that ended in murder. Experience teaches him nothing that any one of the other characters couldn’t have told us at the time. It’s frustrating because a book that should be about the impossibility of love at a time when marriage meant something else and divorce was nigh impossible is instead about elderly malaise which drips through every sentence, every character, every workshop story, until the only thing any one can write about is how sort of maybe sometimes perhaps without knowing why we might kind of feel things.

Okay, not really. We can also write about people with crazy jobs. What if there was a blood factory!

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Tomorrow

Exhibit 1.1.15

Not About Baseball

No, seriously, Salter’s book is not about baseball. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. If you see someone’s copy and there is a dog-eared section, it’s not because that’s the part with the great story about Satchel Paige striking out Herbert Hoover.

I liked this well enough, I guess. I don’t know, it’s just a lot of sex and France so it’s hard to really dislike it, and it takes that rhapsodic realism that I liked in Coetzee’s book and trumps it by about a hundred gleeful uses of the word ‘prick.’ As pure language, it’s actually really remarkable as it’s all graceful fragments that shift perspective and tense without Salter ever seeming in less than total control.

I’m less enthralled with it as a story. It’s hard to know how much of this is what’s come after and how much is what came before, but as a story Salter’s book is firmly in the “rich ex-pats try to have more meaningful experiences in Europe but realize they cannot emigrate from themselves” camp. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s a bad sign when your book might best be described as “if Henry James and Henry Miller had a child who wrote a book.” I mean, Henry James-Miller can write, but still. It’s a bad sign.

Okay, there’s a little more going on than that. The narration is nicely odd (it’s a book of intimate moments narrated by an older guy who was present for exactly none of them), but it doesn’t ever do much with that obsession and so the plot never matches the transcendence of its language. When it comes to its inevitable shrug of an ending, it’s hard to feel like anything real was lost, at least for the two male characters who, like us, always knew where this was headed. The local girl, who they kept it from, has the most to lose, but somehow no one ever tells that story.

My copy’s introduction bemoans this book being treated as only a minor classic, but it’s hard to see it as anything else. It’s a good, stylish read if one can keep their monocle from falling out, and it’s almost daring enough to last.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Narrators, Not Baseball

Exhibit 1.1.14

The Street of Crocodiles

Bruno Schulz’s book has been recommended to me innumerable times over the years, so I’m glad I finally had an excuse to pick it up. I probably shouldn’t have needed one, but it’s one of those books that was championed by so many different people with so many different aesthetics that I couldn’t help but not read it. Not on purpose, really, just that I could never quite find the right mental bookshelf for it when some would say the writing was beautiful, others would say it was my kind of strange, and still others would talk about the characters or the history. This problem comes up for a lot of us, I imagine. Before reading a book or seeing a movie we want to pre-understand it, at least to some degree. Or, maybe, we’d just as soon go in blind but that’s rarely an option. Even if we know nothing about the work other than the person telling us about it–or the website where we hear of it, or the company that’s put it out–that’s still enough of a clue to make us ask Well, what’s it about? This we ask because we already think we have some idea of what it is.

With The Street of Crocodiles, I’d gotten enough mixed messages that at some point not thinking about it was easier than thinking about it, at least until I actually read it. So I read it. Now I think I understand why it was always presented to me in so many diverse ways. It really is that wide a book–a fantastic childhood remembrance, a beautifully rendered physical world, a mythical reconstruction of a father figure. I honestly can’t think of any English language equivalent, certainly not one from 1934. The best I can do is to ask you to imagine Borges and Thomas Wolfe got together and wrote a short story collection that’s also maybe a novel. There, I hope that’s clear.

The attraction for me is really the father. The book is told through the son’s eyes, but he’s really the string keeping it grounded in some sort of nostalgic realism. Whenever there’s a description of spices or relatives or the streets in this small Polish town–and there are, a lot–it’s him. But the father–he of the bird marriages and campaign for tailor dummies’ rights–is where the book is most alive for me. Yes, I suppose it’s my kind of strange, but anyone who recommended it for other reasons wouldn’t have been wrong either. The translation is quite beautiful and there’s something compelling about this town whether or not anything absurd is happening. It’s realistic and it’s magical. It’s lush and it’s metaphysical. It’s sweet and it’s sad–made even more so by the course of history generally and Shulz’s life story specifically–and, I don’t know, I recommend it.

Bonus: Apparently the titular story was adapted into what, I gather, is a somewhat famous stop-motion film. I haven’t watched it yet, but I think I’ll do that…now:

Comment / Posted in Brunos, Fiction, Streets of Not Rage

Exhibit 1.1.12

Sonora Review


So since I’ve been home I’ve been reading a lot of books for an upcoming class, but my attention keeps getting pulled away by the new Sonora Review. You should go order it and read it and support them because, damnit, it’s just too awesome. I gather from the website this hand-bound model is a limited edition done by Spork Press*. I can easily say it’s as nicely put together as any literary journal I’ve ever been in.

And the work inside makes it worth it. I haven’t yet read everything, but current Cupboard author Andrew Borgstrom is in there with a great story, as is Kim Gek Lin Short whose prose poems are from the same world as her chapbook Run which I wrote about here. I’m not positive, but I think these are going to be in the book China Cowboy from Tarpaulin Sky. That’s a book you’re going to want.

Then there’s nonfiction from Brian Oliu “about” the old Nintendo game Double Dribble. I love that game, and this series (or whatever it is). Every so often I go watch the videos being made for these, especially this one:

My piece is mostly notable for featuring a character not named Miss Hampster. Once at a reading I mistakenly said this name the first time and then had to keep using it subsequently. It was hard.

* Initially I didn’t know what Sonora meant when they credited “Spork” but only because I’m an idiot. I’ve seen Spork Press stuff before and it’s always this nice looking.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Good Ideas, Journals

Exhibit 1.1.9

Waiting for the Barbarians


Okay, so I’m going to start posting about books I’ve read (or at least books I liked). I’ve said I was going to start doing this at least a half dozen times, but now I feel compelled, both by my desire to have some record of what I’m reading and my desire to stop looking at that creepy picture from the last post.

So, Waiting for the Barbarians. I’ll say this: it’s the first Coetzee I’ve read, and I’d read more. Coetzee previously belonged tangentially to a group of writers that, for reasons I’ve never been quite clear on, I steered clear of. Mostly these are novelists who came to prominence (at least on my timeline) in the 1980s and I–correctly or incorrectly–associate with a sort of smug misanthropy of upperclass white dudes of that era. In fact, if these writers formed a basketball team in 1987, it would look like this:

PG: Martin Amis
SG: Bret Easton Ellis
SF: Jay McInerney
PF: Tom Wolfe
C: John Updike

Coach: Christopher Hitchens

It would be a very terrible basketball team.

I formed this opinion without having read any of their books–or having seen them play basketball–and in the books I’ve read since, I was sometimes right and I was sometimes wrong. Certainly these writers are better than I probably want them to be and certainly there are strains of whatever lazy mysogony, pompousness, and reactionary fear I suspected to be in their work in books that I actually do like from around that time. But anyway, Coetzee somehow got lumped in with these folks in my mind, and I’m not even sure why. Actually, I probably know exactly why. The first book of his I heard of, Disgrace, which everyone seems to love, reads in summary like a book I would hate. Weary professor seduces student and doesn’t understand why this gets him fired? O fuck right off.

Still, I guess that’s not what the book is really about (or at least he learns his lesson or something when his daughter is raped which, sigh, whatever). And while I can’t speak for that book, I can now understand it’s probably not the book I think it is. Waiting for the Barbarians could also be summarized in ways that make it sound like that sort of book, but to do so would be to miss the point which is that it knows it’s that sort of book. Or at least that the protagonist is that sort of character, eventually realizes it, and spends most of the book trying to figure out why and to what end. Briefly, the Magistrate runs a town on the frontier of an unnamed Empire slowly building to a war against the nomadic barbarians who have been pushed to the mountains. Once the war, or something like it, starts, the Magistrate falls in with a barbarian girl who has been in his jail, and the rest of the book charts the causes and consequences of his infatuation.

That he doesn’t understand his infatuation is really the point in a book that is basically one big fable about colonialism. All the other aspects of it are somewhere in the representation of the Empire, but the Magistrate himself–a learned and liberal character–enacts the most subtle and damaging form of oppression in his treatment of the girl. He’s disgusted by torture but doesn’t understand that his ritualized and asexual washing of the girl’s broken body is perhaps even more dehumanizing than what broke it (as at least that makes sense in the context of a war). So, yes, it’s objectifying but intentionally so as he spends the latter pages of the book trying to understand what happened between the two of them while his body, like the Empire itself, begins to crumble.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the book is how enthusiastically it’s written. Honestly, I expected to find out it was his first novel, but I guess it’s his 3rd. At times it’s almost boyish in its obvious pleasure in describing the harsh landscape or in the Magistrate’s long self-reflective passages. Those were my favorite moments, but the book works on the whole, too. Maybe it’s allegory (we’re all the Empire!) is a little simplistic, but the exploration of colonial guilt is powerful and complex. On my basketball team of writers I liked more than I thought I would, Coetzee can play small forward.

3 Comments / Posted in Books, Fiction, Waiting

Exhibit 27.6

Elif Batuman’s “Get a Real Degree

I didn’t want to read another handwringing essay about MFA programs, but Batuman’s sucked me in with a strange combination of insightful critiques and obtuse generalities. It’s really a fascinating read as it gets so much right but even more so very wrong about creative writing programs. It’s hard to know how much of this is Batuman and how much of this is Mark McGurl, the author of the book she’s reviewing, but it’s easy to get the sense reading “Get a Real Degree” that no one involved in the process has ever actually been in a graduate-level writing program.

O, and admittedly they haven’t. Which is fine, preferable to the alternative, probably, but it disconnects the book and its review so thoroughly from the MFA that after a time Batuman might as well be writing about high school graduates or people who’ve eaten at McDonald’s. The MFA is–correctly–identified as a near universal credential for the past two or three generations of writers yet its the presumed universality of the MFA which leads Batuman far from her target. By trying to write about every program, she (or McGurl, again it’s hard to pinpoint where this is coming from) ends up writing about no programs. In the end it makes her conclusions no different from those old studies defining racial characteristics, a collection of conjecture and stereotypes seemingly done because it was easier than actually tackling the complicated truth.

O, and that’s an appropriate analogy because Batuman (for some reason) continues to reference Stuff White People Like.

Look, no one likes creative writing programs. I mean, we “like” them in the sense we attend them and teach at them and people, people I imagine I don’t like, waste considerable time ranking them, but very few MFA graduates could or would stand up for them as being essential to the production of literature. The historical truth of this is obvious, yet that does not mean the MFA–a degree I don’t have! (though it’s really a matter of semantics)–is worthless.

Sticking with McGurl and Batuman’s use of baseball as a metaphor, the MFA is the minor leagues, a place where one rarely learns anything more valuable than the time given to learn it. Baseball isn’t a different game at AA than it is in the majors yet most 20-year-olds can’t make the leap. Instead they play the game again and again until they either hone their talent enough to hang with the big kids or they get discouraged and quit. The 3-6 years players spend in the minors purport to teach players a lot of things but anyone who follows baseball knows they rarely do. The minors’ true value is in giving those players time to develop enough personally (maturity/community/etc.) and professionally (working hard despite the daily grind) and physically (steroids).

I guess that’s where the metaphor falls apart, but otherwise I think we might as well be talking about MFA programs. Sure, some pitchers actually do learn a changeup in the minors and some MFA students probably do learn “how to write,” but in my experience the vast majority of creative writing students going through MFAs simply grow into the writer that, in a more perfect world, they would have been anyway. They meet older students who influence them, they discover new books, they maybe become aware of why their writing is failing–all things they could theoretically do without the MFA yet likely never would. Not because most MFA programs know what they’re doing–they don’t, I don’t think–but because one’s physical presence at a program for those two years allows it to happen. Time to read, time to write, time to–shudder–grow. Yes, I know that makes MFA programs sound little better than 2-year-long summer camps. I don’t care. They are. This is a good thing.

Of course, now I’m falling into what is, I think, my biggest objection to Batuman’s review which is that neither she nor the author of the book she’s reviewing took the time to ask whether or not “The MFA Program” is even a thing. I mean, there are MFA programs, but are they really so universal that one can honestly write this sentence and have it apply to all of them:

Many of the problems in the programme may be viewed as the inevitable outcome of technique taken as telos.

I find this to be a shockingly naive observation from a very, very smart writer. Which program does this? We’re supposed to believe all of them do? Batuman (or perhaps McGurl) must be under the false impression that since the MFA is a degree then something must be taught. And since you can’t teach expression or imagination or experience, the programs must naturally spend all their time “fetishizing technique.” We then get this bizarre statement:

In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.

This confuses me for two reasons, the first being that choosing a book written in French completely baffles me by what she now means by “technical/technique” and the second being the impossibility of there being such a thing as well written bad book. If the book is bad, the writing is bad. I can’t speak for McGurl and Batuman’s unknowable capital P “Programme,” but my experience in writing workshops has rarely led me to see the quality of the writing detached from the quality of the book/story/whatever. If anything, I’ve often found that we don’t care enough about the quality of the writing, instead favoring to talk speculatively about a piece’s intentions.

Which I think takes us to the most interesting passages from Batuman:

But how does one calculate the literary value of sociopolitical grievances?…Literature is best suited for qualitative description, not quantitative accumulation. It isn’t an unhappiness contest, or an unhappiness-entitlement contest. The danger of Cisneros’s dig at her Iowa classmates, ‘cultivated in the finest schools in the country like hothouse orchids’, is the implication that the children of privilege don’t have stories to tell; that, because they aren’t from the barrio, they all have families like the one on Father Knows Best

The danger of ethnicising novelistic alienation is that it removes this dialectical and historical element from the novel. Instead of striving to capture real life by describing the disjuncture between pre-existing literature and the historical present, ‘high cultural pluralism’ simply strives to describe the greatest possible disjuncture from some static, imagined cultural dominant.

This is interesting and, while I still don’t know if it’s entirely representative of what I see being valued in the MFA, it’s certainly something worth thinking about. Still, it’s interesting McGurl and Batuman assign the commoditization of “persecution/difference” as something coming from MFAs rather than from larger cultural currents. It seems pretty clear to me that one could write about this phenomenon in any medium and any time post-WWII. Why is this “high cultural pluralism” suddenly an MFA issue? Perhaps Batuman gets closest to the heart of the problem when tying it to shame:

Shame explains the cult of persecutedness, a strategy designed to legitimise literary production as social advocacy, and make White People feel better

There is, I think, some value in pointing out the shame of literary production though I hardly think it’s the force in MFA programs Batuman thinks it is. Nor do I understand why it would be an emotion unique to MFA programs at all. That said, I found some truth in her saying programs treat fiction as a form of “empathy training” though I’m not sure this is quite the dagger she thinks it is, especially while holding up Dave Egger’s work as more forcefully pursuing social change. Other than that he doesn’t have an MFA, I don’t really understand the difference between him and the “cult of persecution” and I think someone could make a compelling case that he’s that cult’s spiritual leader, at least among Batuman’s “White People.”

Toward the end, Batuman asks, “Why can’t [programs] teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves?” This is a great question though I don’t think it’s the biggest one facing creative writing programs. Creative writing programs should teach as much literature as possible and, in my experiences, they do, often to the chagrin of their students (I’m currently reading The Faerie Queene in a classroom full of MFA students, for instance). Some programs don’t, of course, but many take their responsibility to literature both contemporary and classic seriously. Again, it’s a question that makes sense to me but I don’t think it’s the question anyone who has been through an MFA would ask.

I suppose I’m simply confused because I have all these terrible things to say about MFAs and Batuman wrote 9k words about programs without saying any of them. In the end, it’s a smart essay but it’s not about MFAs or the problems facing them. The shame Batuman writes about cuts a different way, not shame over one’s ineffectual career but over one’s ineffectual era. Only later will history choose our Stendhals and until then readers are going to have struggle with the rest of us. And we’re all failing and we’ve all got MFAs so obviously the latter causes the former. Of course, we’ve all gone to high school and all eaten at McDonald’s…

12 Comments / Posted in Elifs, Fiction, Literature

Exhibit 27.2

Stamp Stories

The good folks at MudLuscious Press asked me to contribute to their stamp stories project and I obliged. These are 1″ x 1″ stories that get sent out when you order from MudLuscious and other contributing presses. My story will be sent out with orders from Ampersand Books. Those books look great. You want those books.

Also, starting with our next volume, The Cupboard will once again be mailing out stamps, this time from Scott Garson and Joanna Howard. Excited.

If you’re interested, here are the other options I gave MLP: (one of these is actually my favorite)

The detective solved the murder this way: everyone did it or the heir confessed or the blood is in the foyer or the widow got everything or eureka! or the conspiracy disbanded or nothing happened and there is no body and no knives and everyone is fine forever.

I hold my breath and become more of myself. Vowing to keep only the things near the center of me, I bury the rest in sand. The enemies I’ve made of my eyes, the spies of my fingers—I despair over the places they’ve been that I never really was.

When she awoke, she remembered something about hands but could not remember if the feeling came from a dream or a nightmare or if she’d roll over to find someone clapping.

If you want to read the one MLP chose, order from them or Ampersand and cross your fingers. I promise, you’ll get something much better than the stamp.

Comment / Posted in 50, Fiction, The Cupboard

Exhibit 26.11

Short Shorts

* I have a short short online here at American Short Fiction‘s website. It’s about some kind of nonsense. Snake handling? Communication majors? Business cards? I don’t know.

* I also have a short piece in the new Indiana Review and am flattered to be among a bunch of writers I admire, including Houstonite Hannah Gamble who led that great poetry roundtable I mentioned some time back.

These, I think, are two great journals to support.

1 Comment / Posted in Cards, Fiction, Journals

Exhibit 26.10

Even Nabokov Is Talking about Inception

Golden haze, puffy bedquilt. Another awakening, but perhaps not yet the final one. This occurs not infrequently: You come to, and see yourself, say, sitting in an elegant second-class compartment with a couple of elegant strangers; actually, though, this is a false awakening, being merely the next layer of your dream, as if you were rising up from stratum to stratum but never reaching the surface, never emerging into reality. Your spellbound thought, however, mistakes every new layer of the dream for the door of reality. You believe in it, and holding your breath leave the railway station you have have been brought to in immemorial fantasies and cross the station square. You discern next to nothing, for the night is blurred by rain, your spectacles are foggy, and you want as quickly as possible to reach the ghostly hotel across the square so as to wash your face, change your shirt cuffs and then go wandering along dazzling streets. Something happens, however–an absurd mishap–and what seemed reality abruptly loses the tingle and tang of reality. Your consciousness was deceived: you are still fast asleep. Incoherent slumber dulls your mind. Then comes a new moment of specious awareness: this golden haze and your room in the hotel, whose name is “The Montevideo.” A shopkeeper you knew at home, a nostalgic Berliner, had jotted it down on a slip of paper for you. Yet who knows? Is this reality, the final reality, or just a new deceptive dream?

from King, Queen, Knave

Comment / Posted in Dreams, Fiction, Russians

Exhibit 25.16

Umpire Jim Joyce vs. Novelist James Joyce

FACIAL HAIR

vs.

Winner: Jim Joyce

HEAD ACCESSORIES

vs.

Winner: Tie.

SMOKING JACKET WEARING ABILITY

vs.

Winner: James Joyce by default

VISION

vs.

Winner: No one.

2 Comments / Posted in Baseball, Fiction, Jims

Exhibit 25.12

Netherland


I wrote about this Zadie Smith essay some time back wherein I acknowledged an ambivalence in seeking out well-wrought, realist fiction when my interests as a writer lie elsewhere. I’ve never known what to add to that conversation when so many books–over such a long period of time–can reasonably be said to have approached becoming the apotheosis. Smith had similar issues, writing, “to read [Netherland] is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done—in a sense that’s the problem.”

My thinking has changed somewhat since I first read Smith’s essay, not about writing what Smith calls “lyric Realism,” but about reading it. For a variety of reasons, I’ve encountered more of it in the last year, and while a lot of it still reads like skilled writers practicing a style they’ve learned by rote–that is to say lifeless and terrible with an abundance of characters named Pa and an underlying, unacknowledged conservatism that would scandalized its authors–occasionally something like Netherland comes along which manages to extract a lot of power out of the contradiction of using old ways to understand and describe a modern world. As a reader, I think it’s a great book. As a writer, I think it’s a great book, too, a reminder that whatever construction of fiction I might prefer cannot ignore books like this if it wants to claim openness as a value.

Smith, though obviously fond of the book, reads a little emptiness in Netherland‘s performance and while I agreed with her intuitively before reading it, afterward I’m not so sure. Or at least I’m not so sure her charge is best directed at this book. Can grand literary language and metaphor serve to turn our world, our persons into the ridiculously sublime at the expense of real tension, real danger, real real? Of course, and it’s this as much as anything that’s always pushed my tastes away from so much realism of this school. Everything is always so damned beautiful without being beautiful or damned, and the only thing real about any of it is that nothing impossible happens. For me, this wasn’t a book that fell into the trap of the unnecessarily exalted if only because it showed an awareness that such a trap exists (and that it really is a trap). Netherland is a book about how we can control how we see ourselves and the world and how we might, even if only in moments, even if there are consequences, choose to see grandly. That felt real to me.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Smiths

Exhibit 25.9

Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever


Leaving a writers’ conference with a bag full of books can be more than a little disorienting, and choosing the first one to read on the plane home becomes an impossible task. Do you go with a literary journal for a sampling of work? A book by someone you know? Eschew them all and buy whatever book about boy wizards can be found at the airport? After hours spent contemplating this decisions while hotel maids vacuumed over my feet and another family checked into the room, I chose Taylor’s debut story collection, and, if I may say, I think I chose well.

Among many other fine qualities, Taylor’s book is a writer’s book, full of deft language and style. More than anyone else, the stories here remind me of Breece D’J Pancake. There’s a similar undercurrent of sadness and sense of powerlessness here, and as with Pancake there’s something particularly youthful in that listlessness. With less heart it would be trite or with more anger it would be cynical, but Taylor makes these young lives grand with language and humor.

Consider the beginning of the short short “Finding Myself:”

I keep finding myself in places I don’t expect me, such as outside churches, lurking, peering in their dooryards, or inside my own hollow skull, living a life to which the term hardscrabble might be astutely or ironically applied. Luckily, there are no ironists or astuticians around to subject me to application. It’s just me in here–I’m not even wearing socks.

The best stories here stay in this vein though I’d be doing the collection a disservice if I made it sound navel-gazing. There’s a lot going on in these stories, and Taylor’s not a writer afraid of plot. But at least when I finished the book sometime before my plane landed, what I appreciated most were the moments like the one above, when these smart, sensitive narrators weren’t passive but weren’t quite ready to take charge of the world either. Their author, however, doesn’t have such problems as throughout the collection each word seems dropped by a hand that knows exactly where it belongs.

Comment / Posted in Best, Fiction, Things

Exhibit 25.5

Story Prompts I Would Give if I Taught Fiction

* Write a story about one of those Wooly Willy toys where you use magnets to draw metal filing eyebrows onto a face. In your story, the face should come alive at night. Not in an evil way. A trying too hard way.

* Think of the most embarrassing moment of your childhood and imagine the shame you felt. Picture the faces of the people who were there to witness your embarrassment. Imagine sensory details–how many people could you see? what did their laughter sound like? Write a story about bats.

* Your story should not include the Robocop.

* Time travel, it’s complicated. Think of a story with a time paradox (i.e. one character is his own grandfather). Don’t have the main character address this problem but have all the other characters ask about it relentlessly. At the end, have everyone agree it’s pretty weird.

* Write a road trip story. There must be two characters with the same name, the destination must be Phoenix, and they must arrive on time with no notable occurrences. It can be any model of car (pending approval of the instructor).

* Borrow the plot from a comedy skit on a rap album. This likely means your story is about some kind of game show. We can work with that.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Not Evil, Prompts

Exhibit 24.17

Reading List Review

Writers on Literature
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum – Ms. Hempel Chronicles
Jean Thompson – Who Do You Love
Edward Jones – Lost in the City
Christopher McIlroy – All My Relations
Elizabeth Strout – Olive Kitteridge
Alice Munro – Selected Stories

In case it’s not clear, this is a class on American short fiction. Well, there’s Munro, but I think American means North American. Or maybe it doesn’t and Canada can deal with it. I don’t care as long as I can link to my favorite Wikipedia entry for something that isn’t a real thing.

I have to admit, I’m a bit torn. On the one hand, these are all great books written by obviously talented writers. Our instructor’s genuine affection and belief in these books makes them impossible to ignore. On the other, they’re books I’d likely never read on my own (and nothing about reading them changed my mind). That situation is, I suppose, the great thing about taking such a class, but it’s also left me feeling confused about American short fiction and what it should do. Despite all the talent on display here, there’s little that grabs me about these texts, at least as books (all had at least one story I could stick up for more strongly).

Take Olive Kitteridge, likely the best of the books (aside from Munro) and more than deserving of its Pulitzer. It’s really quite phenomenal from story to story and is possibly the first “novel in stories” I’ve read that wears that label as more than marketing. It’s the ideal book for a graduate school fiction class, rich in description and character, full of the supposedly genuine. It’s also mostly uninspiring, at least to this writer. Each story seems to me a perfect example of what one is told to write in graduate school, the sort of stories I ignorantly associate with Iowa or whatever else I want to insult at the moment. It’s heartfelt and reflective and graceful and boring. It’s exactly the book I’m going to give my grandmother for Christmas (which is a compliment).

None of this is to say I didn’t enjoy it or learn from it–or any of the work here–just that I don’t feel it’s a conversation I’m presently capable of adding to. I can’t out character Thompson, or out setting Jones, etc. Each of these books does the things we are told are important and they do those things remarkably well. Those just aren’t the things that brought me to fiction. Though now that I think of it, I doubt very much it was short fiction that brought me to fiction either.

And so it’s good to read this stuff rather than only chasing the new. Munro is obviously a different case. I hadn’t read much of her that wasn’t in recent magazines. Certainly not my writing hero, I wouldn’t argue with anyone who claimed her as such. “Our Chekov” as the blurb says sounds about right. I’m just more of a Dostoyevsky guy.

Overall verdict: Eyes Opened/Shut

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, School

Exhibit 24.2

Books You Need

Like a Sea by Samuel Amadon

The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney by Christopher Higgs

I’m fortunate enough to know both of these guys, and while I don’t have the books yet, they’re both writers I trust. I’ve ordered them. Your turn.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Poetry

Exhibit 23.24

Things That Are True in a Story I Wrote for an Exercise Demanding a True Story

1. Depiction of human faces

2. Things that beep in gas stations

3. Poughkeepsie

4. Hotdogs

5. Depiction of human feelings

Comment / Posted in Exercises, Fiction, Truth

Exhibit 23.8

The Two Things I Had to Look Up on Wikipedia While Writing Today

1) Toucans
2) Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Fiction. Catch the fever.

Comment / Posted in Fevers, Fiction, Writing

Exhibit 23.6

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Among far greater accomplishments, Shirley Jackson is indirectly responsible for one of my favorite Simpsons‘ jokes. Being chased by a crazed dog, Bart yells, “Eat my short stories” and throws his copy of America’s 2nd Best Short Stories at the animal. The dog destroys the book and a piece of torn paper flutters by which says something like, “All in all, it had been a weird, weird lottery.”

That’s funny though only funny if you’ve read “The Lottery” which, you won’t be shocked to learn, does not actually end with that sentence. Instead it ends, “‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.”

The shocking violence of it is why it’s in every short story anthology ever printed and why, perhaps more than any other American short story, it’s become part of our consciousness (The Simpsons have made at least one other joke about it). Honestly, the only story that might even be close is “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” which takes a similar twist at the end but one too mysterious in its implications to have found the same foothold in popular culture (“A Good Man…” was published five years after “The Lottery” and is, despite its obvious debt, better).

“The Lottery’s” implications are not so subtle–there’s violence beneath the surface of the bucolic town–and so is an impossible story to forget. Whatever cruelty she saw in her smiling neighbors manifests itself in We Have Always Lived in the Castle as well. The story of Constance and Mary Katherine Blackwood, two sisters living with their disabled uncle six years after the rest of their family was murdered, it’s a novel that’s fascinating for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that it brings the pointless hatred of the town from “The Lottery” to the surface yet still manages to make its release shocking.

The townsfolk–correctly–believe one or both sisters committed the murders yet somehow it is their reaction to this crime rather than the crime itself which seems unpardonable. It’s clear they would treat the girls badly whether or not they were guilty. So, in a neat turn, the townsfolk become the inhuman ones (Mary Katherine calls the worst of them “demons” or “ghosts”). It’s a profoundly unsettling side the book forces the reader to take by having the funny, strange Mary Katherine do the narrating, and it’s deadly effective. Though unbalanced, the sisters’ lives are genuine lives. Every other character in the book is either needlessly cruel, grotesquely greedy, or, at best, motivated by something other than genuine kindness.

After the townsfolk release their anger on the Blackwood girls, they at least get the chance to feel regret (as opposed to the sudden ending of “The Lottery”). Still, it says more about their sense of embarrassment than their sense of decency. For Jackson, small towns mean small minds plotting against the vulnerable. It makes the girls’ isolation, if not their crimes, perfectly understandable. They are not innocent but they are not the demons.

Comment / Posted in 2nd Best, Books, Fiction

Exhibit 23.1

The Road

I don’t have much to say about the book. It’s good. Great, even. You’ve probably read it. It’s the one where a guy and his kid wander around apres apocalypse and do things Oprah likes (which is weird because if there’s one thing The Road makes clear it’s that chicks can’t handle the end of the world). The prose isn’t as stylized as some of McCarthy’s other work but it’s still incredible, capable of making a 270 page book where not much happens seem tight and fraught and inexhaustibly sad.

The movie, however, is interesting insomuch as it follows the book perfectly, is beautifully imagined, and adds absolutely nothing to the world. All of that makes it fairly hard to hate or even dislike. If anything, I suppose I might even say I liked the movie in terms of it having done exactly what I would have wanted the movie to do. Unfortunately, what I wanted it to do was something profoundly boring, a kind of failure of my own imagination in wanting only ashy skies and leering marauders. Of course, the book had already given me those images only now I got to see what they would look like with Aragorn in the frame and Cheetos product placements. I got to have the old man turned from something strange and intellectually menacing to Robert Duvall, America’s favorite wily grandfather.

There’s a lot of complaining about any film adaptation of a novel but rarely is the complaint that it follows the book too closely. And I’m not even sure if that’s what happened here. No Country for Old Men seemed to treat its source material with similar reverence yet the end result seemed to please everyone. Perhaps it’s because that book was supposedly a screenplay before it was a novel before it was a screenplay. Perhaps it’s because the Coen brothers are better filmmakers. Perhaps there was just more to work with than the sparse, empty world of The Road. In any case, the problem here is not that there is a movie of The Road but that I wanted to see it. And I wanted to see it exactly as how I saw it when reading the book. Then I did see it and it was skillful but empty. Worse, I will now always see it that way. That old guy is forever Harry Hogge.

Maybe I’ve been grading too much, but hours after leaving the theater I wished I had some physical representation of the movie so I could write “Why do you want this to exist?” on it.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Movies, Reviews

Exhibit 22.27

Literary Criticism Done as if I Were a Character’s Opinionated Friend and Could Give Them Advice Then Publish Said Advice in an Academic Journal and Become Bigger than Stanley Fish

Jurassic Park

Wait, really? Awesome. Well, sure, when you give me all the details it doesn’t sound quite so awesome. Yes, yes, Malcolm, you called it. Chaos Theory blah blah. I’m sure that will make you feel so much better when the pterodactyls are eating your face. I don’t know if they’re actually carnivores, you’re the one on Dinosaur Island. Fine, I’ll Wikipedia it. Yes, ate meat. There. No, it doesn’t say how to kill them. I don’t know, I’m sure it’s never come up before. If you were so certain this would happen, you should have packed a shotgun. Yes, I think a shotgun would probably kill them. I don’t know where there would be a shotgun. Ask the raptors. Sorry, sorry. That wasn’t funny. If the worst happens, I’ll tell the world your story. In the movie, I’ll make sure they cast Gary Sinise.

Comment / Posted in Criticism, Fiction, Islands

Exhibit 22.26

Literary Criticism Done as if I Were a Character’s Opinionated Friend and Could Give Them Advice Then Publish Said Advice in an Academic Journal and Become Bigger than Stanley Fish

Jane Eyre

Look, he isn’t going to leave her for you. You think he keeps her locked in the attic because he wants to break up with her? And that’s not the only thing he keeps locked up. Your dignity that’s what, Jiji. Yes, we’re all still upset about Helen but that doesn’t mean you need to go find yourself another Mr. Brocklehurst. What about that nice fellow, that Mr. Mason who is always creeping around? I bet his place doesn’t mysteriously start on fire. Or, yes, go to India. Even better. He doesn’t love you. What do you mean he made you prove it? He dressed up as what? O girl. O girl. O girl.

Comment / Posted in Classes, Criticism, Fiction

Exhibit 22.22

You should check out the new Cincinnati Review which features a great poem from fellow Ulysses-class attendee Adam Day, a Malamud review from the lovely Erin McGraw, and a Tommy-inspired piece from the always incredible Kevin Wilson along with a lot of other amazing work. It’s the first journal I’ve picked up in a while and started reading at page one. It felt good. Consider supporting them.

My thing is mostly notable for being an adaptation of a 2002 Clint Eastwood movie. There’s an excerpt up on their website under Issues–>Upcoming if you want to read how I described his face. Here’s a hint: grizzled.

1 Comment / Posted in Days, Fiction, Journals

Exhibit 22.17

What This Book Should Be About

Lance West is dirty cop who gets one last shot at redemption when the serial killer who murdered his young bride fifteen years ago reappears with a bloody murder in Lance’s own precinct. As the body count rises and superiors deny any connection, Lance risks everything to find the man who killed his Julia and made him the hard drinking, do anything for a conviction cop he’s become. Fifteen years ago he was a good cop looking to do right in an ugly world but since then he’s sunk into the ugly himself. Now with the cold but beautiful Internal Affairs agent Thora Bounty investigating him as he investigates his wife’s killer, Lance finds himself caught between doing what he has to do to avenge his wife and doing what’s right. While Thora gets closer to uncovering a shameful secret in Lance’s past, Lance gets closer to the Coat Room Killer, putting both Lance and Thora at risk…of dying…of falling in love.

What This Book Is About

I don’t know, two dudes walking around Dublin not talking to each other most of the time.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Good Ideas

Exhibit 22.6

Titles, Mostly Pun-Based, One Might Use for a Paper on Ulysses

1. Oxen of the Fun – Joyce and the playful metanarrative

2. Blaze a Trail – Boylan’s battle through Dublin as Iliad to Bloom’s Odyssey

3. What is a house without potted (m/s/t/n/p/b/f/h)eat? – Joycean advertising and the linguistic subversion of consumption

4. Youlysses? Melysses. – James Joyce and the Compulsorily Subjective

5. Hello, Molly! – The collapse of operatic structure and the invention of the modern musical

6. Bloom-ing Onion – Outback Steakhouse’s signature appetizer as high-modernist death adventure

7. Wondering Tocks – The broken chronograph as anti-modernist signifier and the violence of temporality

8. Dub(ious)lin- Irish nationalism, the death of Parnell, and the dissolution of colonial consensus

9. Wilde Girls – Gerty MacDowell and Millie Bloom as vanguards of a feminization of Wildean conceptions of sexuality

10. I said yes I will No – Affirmations of resistance and the turn toward the post-sexual

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Ulysses

Exhibit 19.12

Out Stealing Horses

This book, in both best and worst senses, is exactly what I expected when I joined the company book club: a well-reviewed, inoffensive novel about some elderly Scandinavian (I was very specific about what I expected). I think I’ve written before about the politics of how books get picked in clubs like these–and I use club loosely here as it’s really down to myself and at most two other people–and the priority isn’t to come up with something thought provoking, it’s to come up with something that everyone can finish. That way we can get together, have lunch, and shrug our shoulders when it’s time to talk about the book. With rare exceptions, no one seems to love or hate anything so the conversations on the book never quite seem to go longer than six or seven minutes before everyone has moved on to discussing the quality of the restaurant’s fries.

It’s fun.

And so Out Stealing Horses counts as a success in that we all finished and the restaurant’s fries were pretty good.

To be honest, it was a bit of a struggle to finish to the point where I put it off so long I had to wake up early to read the last thirty pages of the book the morning before the book club lunch. It’s not a bad book and, for me, it’s not a particularly good book either, just a slow story of a senescent Norwegian widower who takes to a remote cabin near the Swedish border in order to more or less relive the life he had with his father as a boy in 1948. I’m trying to think of an American equivalent, and the closest I can get is a leaner, more past-focused Richard Ford, a deeply intimate story that values it’s realism to a point near inaction. Or maybe it’s just that first-person, present tense narration which usually sets off warning signs for me. It’s not that there aren’t books written that way which I enjoy, it’s just that there are so many memorable ones I didn’t.

There’s also the run-on sentences. My god, the run-on sentences. I certainly don’t care typically, but they’re not put to any particular poetry here. The following isn’t the most egregious example, just one I found on a page I flipped to:

‘We’ll soon see to that,’ he says, pulling out the choke on his saw, which is a Husqvarna and not a Jonsered, and that too is a relief in a comic sort of way, as if we were doing something we are not in fact allowed to do, but which is certainly really fun, and he pulls the cord once or twice and slams the choke back in and then gripping the cord firmly he lets the saw sink as he pulls and it starts up with a fine growl, and in a trice the branch is off and cut into four parts.

But Petterson–I might suggest dropping that extra ‘T,’ Per. It’s going to make it much harder for you to find souvenir shotglasses with your last name on them and we all know ‘Per’ is a lost cause, too–does accomplish something really great here, and it’s all about his efficiency and structure. He moves seamlessly between the present and memory and he parallels just enough to make his storytelling efficient but rarely gimmicky. A lot of ground gets covered in these 230 pages, and it’s hard to think of any other contemporary American books that get us so inside a character in such little time. Not to mention the setting, some of the ancillary characters, hell, even the occasional Nazi. Somehow he managed a book that is both a slog to read and remarkably tight in its construction. I really don’t know how he did it.

And so maybe it’s not so much like Richard Ford’s work at all but just the Norwegian equivalent of Zadie Smith’s lyrical Realism (which I wrote about here). Certainly there’s a pretense to beauty here, if not in the composition than in the imagery which is lush and wild no matter the time period. In any case, it’s the kind of simple beauty that begs you to ponder it, deep rivers and cloudy skies and the like. Perfectly acceptable, maybe even meaningful, if you want to give it the time.

But reading this morning–flipping pages like it was a history textbook the morning before a test–it all felt a perfunctory, just another man thinking about how what was once promising grew so quickly old.

Comment / Posted in Books, Clubs, Fiction

Exhibit 19.2

Damn, someone has already taken the title I was planning on using for my novel.

I’d even mocked up a cover.

From the sounds of it, his book isn’t about using a greyhound strapped with TNT to kill the president so I should still be okay there.

The president is a dog racing fan, you see, and he naturally wants to pet the winner, a dog trained since birth to do two things: run fast and kill the president. Well, three things if you count sitting.

You know what, it would probably be easier if you just read it. I don’t like to explain what I’m trying to say with my work. You can figure out for yourself that it’s about my estranged father.

5 Comments / Posted in Books, Brett, Fiction

Exhibit 18.27

I received the new issue of Dislocate a few days back which has great work from, among others, Nin Andrews, (Lincoln-ite) Josh Ware, and Kevin Wilson whose story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth I’ll be writing about soon.

It also has a short short from me which is only notable for having an absurdly sad beginning–sort of a boring middle–and absurdly happy ending. I also once got to describe it to a famous writer at the now defunct Sadie’s Saloon in Lincoln. We were drunk–well, one of us was drunk–and hitting on all the girls despite the fact we were married–well, one of us was hitting on all the girls despite the fact we were married–and generally having a good time. I’d mostly been ignoring the famous writer because he wrote one of my favorite books and I don’t know what else I’d say to him, but I got pulled into a conversation by Heather who the famous writer seemed to have taken a liking to.

[Ed note: Heather would like it pointed out that he was hitting on everyone. Adam would like it pointed out that he wasn’t hitting on Adam. Not that that would have been something Adam would have wanted, exactly, but it might have been a little flattering].

I think I was supposed to defuse the situation by my introduction, but I was also a little on the famous writer’s side. I mean, he did write [book title] and fought in [war]. I’d probably spent most of the night before that point in a pair of sweatpants trying to beat Contra.

Heather, you can correct me here, but I believe we got to have this conversation on the way home.

Heather: Ugh, he just kept hitting on me.
Me: He did write [book title].
Heather: You think that excuses it?
Me: [a little bit thinks that excuses it]
Heather: You need to stop using the laser and stick with the spread gun.
Me: I would have changed out of my sweatpants if I’d known I was going to talk to him.

Anyway, so the famous writer starts talking about stories that either out of embarrassment or shame or the use of something he knows will upset them, he doesn’t share with his loved ones until he absolutely has to. I actually have one of these stories–this one in Dislocate–and I quickly describe the premise to the famous writer.

Famous writer: Who won’t you let read that one?
Me: [pointing at the only other person in the conversation]
Famous writer: She’s hot.
Me: I think she likes you, bro.
Heather: No I don’t.
Me: Hey, did you learn anything in [war] that might help me beat Contra?
Famous writer: Yes. Yes, I did.

Things in that story which are actually true:

1. There have been wars
2. Sadie’s Saloon is gone
3. I do have a self-destructive affinity for the laser gun in Contra
4. The new issue of Dislocate is great and you should read it

Okay, maybe one or two other things. Also, the song I am listening to just had a lyric that is also the name of this writer’s most famous book (but not my favorite). So that was weird.

I’m not really sure why I told that story, and I’m pretty sure this has gone on longer than my sad, bad, happy, still mostly bad piece in Dislocate. Here, J. Ware will save me. Here’s the first line of his poem “103107” which will take us all out on a high note:

If the antiquated movements of electrons have no history, then silver-clear shadows
can cut the moon in two.

1 Comment / Posted in Fiction, Journals, Tims

Exhibit 18.24

The Master and Margarita

With the exception of The Good Soldier, no book seems to get mentioned quite as often as Bulgakov’s masterwork when writers of a certain sort–my sort–talk about their favorite novels. The particulars are all on its side: banned and untranslated for decades, published posthumously with sections censored, several translations competing to handle all of the puns and allusions. In other words, even if it weren’t such a funny, strange read, there would still be plenty to talk about.

The story of the devil causing chaos in Stalinist Moscow, the novel initially seems to present itself as a rebuke to Soviet atheism as the head of a state-backed literary organization argues that Jesus never existed. A strange foreigner proves that he exists by telling him the story of Pontius Pilate–one of several times and several guises that Pilate’s story takes over the novel–which he knows because he was there. It’s odd seeing the devil stick up for the existence of Christ, but subverting our conceptions of good and evil is what the novel does best. Most notably, the devil is the hero here, at least a kind of hero. He argues convincingly that the world needs shadows as much as it needs light and that, to do away with darkness, you’d have to level everything and live with flat and boring.

But it’s hard to see Bulgakov as being much interested in the actual theistic considerations here. Rather, his is a satire of those who claim absolute truth without cause or curiosity. It’s a form of cowardice–which Pilate calls the greatest vice–to stake a claim without allowing objections. Its an argument Bulgakov makes personal in the character of The Master, a writer relegated to an asylum after his novel–about Pilate, naturally–is not only rejected but condemned by writers and publishers in league with the corrupt literary union. Even with what little I know of Bulgakov’s life, it’s easy to read the author’s plight into the story of The Master, an artist persecuted and ignored for daring to make art that challenges (or, in other words, actual art). Soviet bureaucracy gets hit hard here, but the bulk of the damage done by the devil is directed at the elite writers and critics who are more interested in food and comfortable apartments than in writing.

Pontius Pilate serves as the novel’s centerpiece and for good reason. Even in the Bible he’s a fascinating and complex character–Nietzsche seemed to think he was the only one worth listening to in the New Testament–and given his own narrative here his story seems even more complicated. He’s certainly not a good man, but he’s not a bad man either. Ultimately, for all his faults of personality, what he’s mostly guilty of is the cowardice he rails against, realizing too late that being brave doesn’t always come with a sword. As the character most uniquely situated in between good and evil–he’s a sinner yet acutely aware of his sin and repentant–he’s also the most human. In the end, he’s saved, but only when The Master’s novel redeems his humanity in the eyes of both the devil and the lord. Man’s art, in Bulgakov’s world, has insight that even Christ lacks.

(Which is why it seems certain that Bulgakov cares little about organized religion and a whole lot about art).

Just like The Good Soldier, it’s a fantastic book that deserves its reputation among writers. I’m really at a loss to say much else. A passionate, rational defense of the bravery and necessity of doubt and insurgency and art? A hilarious, sympathetic portrayal of the devil befuddling communists? A book some critics have called the Red Dawn of the literary world? Okay, so no critics have said that last one, but you count me as a fan in any case.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Religion

Exhibit 18.7

South of the Border, West of the Sun

Before I talk about the book–and I don’t know if I’ll have much to say–let me get this out of the way regarding yesterday’s post: yes, everyone knows what nugs are except me. How I’ve been able to watch 90% of the Method Man/Redman vehicle How High in approximately 108 different background viewings during college yet still not glean this information is beyond me. In penance, I’ll be listening to Phish all day.

Actually, no, no I won’t.

But know that I care. I don’t care enough to listen to Phish, but that only proves there might be a chance for me yet.

South of the Border, West of the Sun came out in 1992 but wasn’t given an English translation until 2000 when it followed The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami’s most ambitious (and best) novel. I’d avoided South… since the plot description and the quotes on the back of my paperback make it clear the book is Murakami at his most mundane. A boy falls in love with a girl at the age of 12 and, years later when he’s already married and comfortable, meets her again and has to choose between love and Love. No ethereal hotels. No sitting at the bottom of a well. No darkness coming in from the seams like in his best work. Even to a person who thinks the worst Murakami is better than just about anything, it sounded a little boring.

I finally broke down when I realized Murakami wrote South… around the same time as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It made me curious how he could have written his best and his worst novel at the same time. The answer: he didn’t.

Despite its faults, South… isn’t his worst novel, just his most somber. It reminded me quite a bit of “Tony Takitani,” a short story of his that was actually made into an (appropriately somber) film a few years ago. As in the story, Murakami’s narrator here reaches a comfortable middle age without knowing anything about himself or what he’s capable of. It’s a common enough conceit in Murakami’s work but while it generally sends the narrator so far inside of himself that he ends up outside of reality (or something like that–I don’t know), in both “Tony…” and South… what happens is tragic but banal, life altering but familiar enough you’d find a similar story on every city block.

I’m a biased reader, but somehow it works, I think. It doesn’t ever reach any great heights, but South… does just enough to make upper-class ennui seem a compelling, at times vital, subject. The redeeming quality seems to be that Murakami’s love triangle is sharper than most and, in the end, not really a triangle at all. The narrator loves his childhood friend more than his wife, that’s without question, and so the choice shifts from the all too familiar “Should I throw my career, family, comfort away for another woman?” to something about survival. Only after the other woman disappears does he realize what she’s known all along: their love isn’t about having a life together, it’s about dying together.

So for all of the simplicity of the book’s plot description, there is something new here, a glimpse of love frozen during those early moments where it seems like the best thing in the world would be to die in each other’s arms.

I don’t know what’s with me and the Youtube videos recently, but this one seems relevant.

Stay tuned as I continue to reinvent literary criticism with my Morrissey-based revelations.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Murakamis

Exhibit 18.2

Black Swan Green

I finally picked this up after I mentioned Cloud Atlas the other day and remembered that one of my favorite writers has a book out that I hadn’t read. Like Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s two previous novels–Ghostwritten and number9dream–aren’t bound to the conventional yet are highly readable, mostly because for all of the oddity in narration and plot, they’re intensely structured and beautifully written. Now there’s Black Swan Green which seems to be a conscious attempt to do the opposite. In that sense, sadly, it’s a success.

Part of the attraction of Mitchell’s books has always been how easily he moves not only between narrator but worlds. It’s difficult to imagine two books that travel quite as far as Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten do in their 300 or so pages, but Black Swan Green only twice leaves its titular English village and even then it’s only for a brief vacation to the coast. While Mitchell still shows some willingness to play around with the narrative, it’s clear that the anything fanciful here is strictly in the imagination of the 13-year-old narrator. It’s brave in a way to do such a conventional coming-of-age story for a writer like Mitchell, but that’s all external to the book itself which, despite a lot of good qualities, is fairly dull.

(I don’t know for certain about these things, but based on the quotes on my paperback, this seems to be Mitchell’s most acclaimed book. That’s disappointing but understandable. It’s well-written and readily accessible, offering Chuck Taylor’s full of nostalgia to anyone who came of age in the early 1980s which I imagine includes a fair number of book critics).

We’ve all read this story before. Only the music references and current events change. A boy lives an upper-middle-class life somewhere away from the city. His parents might or might not be happy but he doesn’t really understand their relationship (hint: they aren’t happy), he thinks his older sister hates him (she doesn’t, of course), girls don’t like him and he might not like them (somewhat surprisingly, he does like them), he’s obsessed with his own social status at school (the rising and falling of his popularity passes for tension here), and he has one flaw which he believes to be fatal (a fairly mild stutter). Even if this isn’t your life, it’s the life of hundreds of sensitive male narrators throughout time. There’s even an entire genre of music aimed at this particular demographic (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can come over and we’ll listen to my copy of Pinkerton).

Mitchell handles it which loads more style and a touch more magic than most, but it doesn’t make the stakes any higher. As in most bildingsroman–or I suppose this is really a künstlerroman, whatever–we know that for all the tortures of youth, the protagonist will emerge on the other side as an adult with different and presumably more important problems. The thing that itches most about books like this is seeing our moody narrator bemoaning his own small problems (he broke his grandfather’s watch!) while interacting with a host of actually interesting characters who are supposed to be our antagonists. I’d much rather see what the hated bully is up to with his abusive father than wait for our narrator to discover his father’s very obvious affair. Here’s the difference: the narrator’s problems can be definitively answered by saying, “You’ll be fine.” But I haven’t kissed a girl! “You’ll be fine.” But I worry about nuclear war! “You’ll be fine.” The bully, on the other hand, doesn’t have easy answers. He’ll probably come to a bad end, he’ll probably do nothing of note, but what he won’t do is look back at when he was 13 and think about all the great music he used to listen to around the time his dad nearly killed his mom.

(Contemporary books of this sort really do have soundtracks as if they were movies. Especially now that Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson have almost created a language out of pop songs, it’s really the easiest [laziest? whitest?] way to define a time period, mood, and character all in one reference).

That we get the middlebrow story isn’t unusual–it’s really the point–but Mitchell’s never been one to settle for the expected before. At times even he seems bored as he peppers in dreams, imagined ghosts, and, most tellingly, references and characters from Cloud Atlas, as if names alone can add a layer to the very simple reality he’s limited himself to. But the most daring thing he does is free himself from structure just as he limits his scope. At the beginning we meet the narrator’s speech therapist and she’s set up to be a major character but we never see her again and only get one late reference to her near the end. Until then, it’s unclear if he’s even still in therapy or if he’s quit. There are a lot of loose ends like this and together they’re my favorite part of the Black Swan Green. It makes the book broad and untidy but it’s also the most realistic part of a novel that sometimes seems forced into unrealistic realism (I’m not giving anything away if I tell you the climax is an overdue divorce).

To be honest, I think I’d decided to feel this way about the book before I read it so you shouldn’t let my bitterness over not getting to read another Cloud Atlas stop you from picking it up. Mitchell’s writing is as good as ever, even in the service of a precocious 13-year-old who might hit a little too close to home.

4 Comments / Posted in Books, Davids, Fiction

Exhibit 17.7

I hate to do another movie post, but Alex Carnevale’s great review of Watchmen here got me thinking about the movie and the book and why I felt so nonplussed by the entire thing.

(Quick follow up on yesterday’s post: While I was feeling embarrassed and lamenting my quasi-homonym error in my comment and grammatical error in my header, Dave was going all Seymour Hersh and learned the following things: 1) You can stream the movie in question on Netflix. I suggest you do this exactly as vehemently as I suggest you don’t do this; and 2) the Crazygirls are an actual show at the Riviera. Basically this means we watched a two-hour infomercial, but it was an infomercial with a guy called The Bombmaker. I’m okay with this. The Shamwow could learn something).

Simply put, I think I get nailed not only as a viewer of Watchmen but a reader, too, when Alex writes about the movie, “For all the critics who bash Watchmen, they’re missing the point. To them Alan Moore is just another superhero creator, with the same old origin stories colliding into a happy-ish ending. But for those of us whose brainflow was reversed by the complexity of Watchmen, this translation is our version of the good old days.”

As a person without a wake of predictable and stagnant comics to look back upon, I read Watchmen as an entertaining but not particularly interesting graphic novel with at least as many cliches as complexities. I realize that at least some, if not most, of this is due to the book being internalized by the culture at large, its newness worn away and co-opted long before I picked it up more than 20 years after its publication. This certainly isn’t the book’s fault, I’m just one of many bad readers for it. In a lot of ways, my thoughts on Watchmen were similar to my thoughts on Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim: entertaining, dated, not a revelation for me like it might have been for others but a book I wouldn’t argue against.

But in my conversations about the comic and the upcoming movie, I found the niceness of my initial response–done, strangely, at the same time as Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping–fading and replaced with something closer to contempt. When I heard someone mention that the ending was changed, I thought, You mean the inter-dimensional squid thing? Thank god. When I’d read an article about how the director wanted to make the film as true to the material as possible, I could already imagine myself sitting in the theater squirming during another scene of Dr. Manhattan showing us how disconnected he is in the most obvious way possible while I wished the theater hadn’t switched to Pepsi and wondering if I should run and get some Junior Mints anyway.

This wasn’t my experience, not exactly, but it also wasn’t so far off. Mostly, I felt more certain than ever that Watchmen is not the book graphic novel fans should be exalting (and surely many aren’t). I’m the worst possible person to make this judgment, but there it is anyway. The movie–a solid B on the whole–suffered all of the same momentary concerns and preoccupations as the book and, in a world so greatly changed from the Cold War, just didn’t seem to have much to offer other than slightly turned super hero antics. That’s something, too, but it’s not much of a legacy.

This (finally) is why I loved Alex’s review as his explanation of why Watchmen is relevant is almost exactly at odds with my own viewing. I’m sure he’s right–can I mention again how poor a judge of Watchmen‘s value I am?–and it got me thinking about the novel I would hold up as the most similar, non-graphical example of this view of history: The Public Burning. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the shared Nixon, the Uncle Sam/Dr. Manhattan parallels, or the mostly off-screen but always prevalent public rage, but I think Coover’s novel is similarly concerned with the violence and control we’ll feel pressured to exert in order to maintain our country. Now, they’re still very different books and I just happen to prefer one to the other (and this is in no way to suggest Alex [who I don’t know] prefers one to the other or that anyone should prefer one to the other), but I at least feel like I get why Watchmen should be part of the conversation a little more now than I did while cringing through the “Hallelujah” scene.

Mercifully, I’ll end with this caveat/confession: Despite not really being taken in by Watchmen and its giant psychic squid monster thing, I have no doubt that there are comics that represent the best of anything published in a year, decade, century, whatever. That I don’t know these books is my failing first, the literary establishment’s (if there is such a thing) a distant second, and, well, no one else’s. I have no idea why I love so much other innovative and cross-genre work yet sort of hate graphic novels (even though I pretend I don’t), but I’m going to try to educate myself. Thankfully, I think I’m in year five of having a borrowed copy of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer.

This does not mean that I don’t hate [other forms of literature that I hate]. I still do. A lot.

4 Comments / Posted in Books, Comics, Fiction

Exhibit 17.3

Persuasion

Jane Austen’s last novel is the perfect length to read on a plane, something I imagine Miss Austen did not have planned. I appreciated it just the same (even if the book might be her worst, or at least the worst that I’ve read).

Worst is relative, of course, and the book traffics in the same delicate circles and concerns as her other novels with all of the satire and insight one would expect (not to mention an aristocratic family in financial peril, sisters, men with ulterior motives who seem good, men with pure motives who seem cold, etc.) It’s actually a little like the plots of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice thrown together, accelerated, and made good without as much complication. A woman, Anne, had her engagement broken over a suitor’s lack of title or money and is now on the brink of becoming a spinster while her younger sisters have either married for money or plan on it because their pompous baronet of a father has lost most of his fortune. So they let the property and move to Bath where, in some order, the old suitor reappears as a wealthy Navy officer, the baronet’s estranged heir makes amends with the family, and the messy business of figuring out who marries whom is undertaken.

There is no doubt that someone will marry the bachelors, and it’s clear from the beginning that the impediments are not so great to keep the just from getting what they want. As opposed to P&P where we’re to believe the characters fundamental manners are at odds, everyone here seems perfectly suited to be together and even the secondary concerns like money and class (which, I suppose, are really the primary concerns of the era for everyone but Austen’s heroines) have been overcome by the time the book begins. Austen clearly favors the nouveau riche class of Navy officers to the old aristocracy and makes a joke of how quickly the vain (but poor) baronet goes from objecting to any weathered and ugly officers renting his property to pleased to have them in his company. It’s a nice, droll little turn, but it’s also symptomatic of the book’s drive toward a happy ending.

Austen clearly wants Anne to end well and so complication is often replaced with simplicity here without much in the way of justification. From the beginning we know that the baronet will object to any marriage beneath his daughter’s stature, that Anne has lost her youth, that no one listens to her, that her old suitor holds her in disdain for the ending of their last engagement. These facts hold true only as long as convenient. Suddenly the baronet seems happy to see almost any engagement. Suddenly Anne is beautiful again and becomes the most eligible sister, the one people can’t stop talking about, the one the old suitor still loves.

There is an awareness on the author’s part that she’s not exactly earning these developments, and so toward the end the book turns to more general talk about class and honor and the difference between men and women in love. The plot is clearly a rack for Austen’s thoughts on what bothered her the last few years of her life, and it’s somewhat rewarding that she’s so hopeful. The old are young, the spinsters wives, the undeserving poor, the well-mannered but untitled exalted. So maybe it’s a bit of a wish fulfilled, but it’s a fair, particularly human wish.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Plane Babies

Exhibit 16.25

The Hundred Brothers

This is the first Donald Antrim novel I’ve ever read which is problematic as it isn’t really a novel. Or, at the least, it’s not what we often think of as a novel which is why it’s such a good novel.

(Look, that’s just the way this post is going to go).

This is a book that the worst kind of reviews–like the one you’re reading, for instance–would call a highwire act. 99 characters, one room, one night, no chapters, 200 pages. It might not sound that difficult, but when I realized the restraints Antrim was working with, I started to worry. Up to that point the book had been names and physical comedy and enough buttoned-up aristocratic absurdity to keep things moving. It was at page 20 I realized the entire book was to be names and physical comedy and enough buttoned-up, aristocratic absurdity to keep things moving. Mercifully, the buttons eventually come off, but Antrim is masterful at holding it off until just the right moment. We know something is horribly wrong with the world inside the room, but we don’t know quite what until the end and, even then, maybe not.

99 brothers (one is missing) come to the library of their father’s house to find Dad’s ashes and give the old man a proper burial. They congregate in the mansion’s massive red library where they do just about everything but read (unless it’s Victorian-era pornography) or look for their father’s ashes (no one can remember what the urn looks like). Despite the premise, the sheer volume of brothers keeps us from knowing all but a few as characters. Mostly they are names with horrible flaws, an entomologist who puts his beetles on the dinner table, an anthropologist taking a drug he found in South America. The rest are simply names used to describe the chaos they are enacting in the decrepit library. A football game is played. A massive fire is started. Most of the brothers end up injured in one calamity or another.

The reader only really knows the narrator, Doug–the family genealogist and what we believe to be the most normal brother–and even then he surprises us when he throws himself at the feet of Hiram, who at 90+ is the eldest brother, and refuses to let go. From that point forward it’s simply a matter of waiting for the other shoe–or, in this case, the library ceiling–to drop. As Doug becomes less and less reliable and the gathering of brother spends out of control, it’s clear there’s no safety net for Antrim, that his book is not the result of some Oulipo rulemaking but is instead exactly the book he wanted to write. Chapters would ruin this book. Plot would ruin this book. Not because the premise is fantastical or absurd–plenty of books with those characteristics have such things–or because it aims for language games–the prose here is good, spare–but because rather than exalting the author’s cleverness, it’s a book meant to be read as if there were no author. It’s a novel of fever.

We’re so close to Doug that by the time we realize his flaws we’re already sympathetic to his plight. The library is an excruciating place to be both for him and the reader. It’s hard to overstate the impact of reading petty nihilisms and not being able to do anything about it. We might gleefully read about a nuclear bomb destroying Brussels, never batting an eye, but Antrim’s book picks at our most human wounds. It’s the kind of book a reader wants to shake because no one is putting down coasters. And it’s not because we care about fictional water stains–though someone probably does–but because it’s clear that these petty niceties are there to protect us from ourselves. Once they begin to slip away in the library, we know it’s only a matter of time before someone really gets hurt.

This is why the book works. You can’t end a chapter with a brother breaking a footstool and expect anyone to hold their breath until they turn the page. Chapter breaks would give us exactly what we most want–the ability to yell STOP–which is of course exactly what we least need. It’s a amazing how much losing any white space does to change the way a book gets read. Suddenly it’s a sprint, and Antrim is right there with us to make sure we keep going faster until suddenly we can’t keep up. It takes a stunning amount of control yet, when done well as it is here, we never get to see who’s pulling the strings. Like the dead father who has caused the brothers so much anguish, the author is leaving the people in the library to their work. It’s refreshing to read a book that feels so damn modern while eschewing any sort of textual or meta games that draw attention to the works own creation. Of course, this book is now over a decade old so maybe it’s more of its time than I know.

In any case, it makes for a book that’s surprising even though we know the twists. We might be able to guess how it ends, but we can’t guess what it means until we get there. It’s at those moments where the book works best, taking entropy and making it tragic, unstoppable, damning. We know the consequences, but we still want to see ourselves in ruins.

2 Comments / Posted in Books, Donalds, Fiction

Exhibit 15.14

The Confessions of Max Tivoli

So I had to read one more novel in order to keep up with my company’s book club which, by the way, has dwindled to myself and two other people making it more of a book triumvirate which could be held in the backseat of a Civic. I look forward to the day when someone else quits halfway through whatever Elie Wiesel memoir we’re reading and it becomes a Book Partnership/Beach Volleyball Team.

The novel in question is Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli, an absolutely gigantic selling book from 2004 due to a glowing review from John Updike in the New Yorker and Mitch Albom picking it for the Today Show‘s book club. I won’t hold either of those things against the book, but O how I want to. I also probably shouldn’t say it was a best seller ‘due’ to those things, but I’m sure they didn’t hurt, neither did all of the other blurbs which are suffocating my paperback. Not knowing much about it other than its premise, I was a little unprepared for not just how big the sales for the book were but how, if you believed the praise, you might expect the response to have been even bigger.

Here’s a sample:

“Enchanting”–John Updike, The New Yorker “Devastating, heartbreaking…an astonishment.”–Esquire “****”–People “Quietly dazzling…keenly affecting.”–The New York Times Book Review “This year’s break-out novel.”–Entertainment Weekly “A devastating new writer”-Michael Cunningham “A fable of surpassing gravity and beauty.”–San Francisco Chronicle “One of the most talented writers around.”–Michael Chabon

That’s an impressive cross-section of both mainstream and literary voices coming out in favor of the book, and, I admit, the book deserves everything it got. Mitch Albom excepted. Nobody deserves that.

While I don’t think I liked it as much as anyone quoted above, there’s no reason to be a snob about something so well written. Mr. Updike is right to call it “enchanting” because there is very much a magic to the prose. Greer writes incredibly well, with a Chabonesque delicacy and ornateness which might veer toward cloying but never quite lets the reader catch his or her breath long enough to ask questions. The confessor is, like Mr. Greer’s reviewers, in a state of near constant rapture and no feeling or detail–especially if that feeling be love and that detail be old-timey–is above getting a few long, melodic sentences.

It’s a self-consciously anachronistic style which works nicely with the turn-of-the 20th century setting and the slightly Gothic plot. Like Benjamin Button before him, our Max Tivoli is born an old man and ages backward, along the way loving the same woman three different times (once each as an old man, a middle-aged man, and then as a young boy). So it is a love story, and a rather small one at that, something that costs the book a fair amount of gravitas since the plot seems to call for something epic (Fitzgerald’s story seems to have the same problem, the new Button movie seems to go to far in this direction from what I’ve read). It’s not that love stories are bad, but that the book’s lessons on loves are summed up with its first line, “We are each the love of someone’s life.”

While this is a perfectly acceptable first line, it is also a perfectly dumb thing to say about love. This is a book where love experienced as a teenager is permanent not just for one character but for all characters across genders, sexual orientation, and lifecycles. Greer is good enough that it doesn’t ever come across as damningly sentimental but it also isn’t a particularly complicated way to look at the world. The are other failings, too, mostly in how reluctant the book is to ever be away from its key relationship, as if taking more than two pages to explain the years Max is trying to die in a war will break the spell start asking questions.

Because there are questions (She really wouldn’t recognize him/notice he’s growing younger/believe him when he tells her?), but, in the end, they are all questions answered by the book’s premise. To buy into Max’s birth you have to buy into his life, and Greer makes it easy with a tight structure that forgoes most of the interim years to focus on Max at 5/65, 35/35, and 12/58. It’s such a well-plotted book that I wish Greer would have left behind the revelations he gives at the end of each section since they are neither surprising nor necessary. What drama there is here has been figured out long before Greer gets around to pulling the rug out from under us (especially with a certain character’s “coming out” which is an unnecessary move as Chabonesque in its shoehorning as the novel is in its prose).

In the end, the book works because of its style, simple structure, and even simpler take on its narrator’s predicament. And it does work, problems and all. It’s exactly the sort of a book I was expecting to read in a club like this only with prose to match what I might otherwise choose myself. The book may not last long–it’s not one for the ages–but it’s a good novel, a very good novel even, and so maybe Greer made the right choice to keep a big idea small. So what if the world is larger than this, because it’s rarely as lovely. That’s something, too.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Updikes

Exhibit 14.20

The World According to Garp

What an odd thing to write a book about a simmering war between the sexes and have most of its retribution and bitterness directed at women while the male protagonist, hardly a saint, is able to stand above and judge and have his comeuppance redirected to others. It’s certainly of its time, as in the 30 years since the book’s publication the long-anticipated gender war has failed to appear and Irving’s intention to use sex–both gender and the physical act–as a weapon seems fairly silly, like he’s brought a hand grenade to a schoolyard fight.

With the benefit of having a much looser morality without having to fret about it, Irving’s novel seems naked in its male-panic over women…and sex with women…and sex with women who were once men…and possibly sex with men (though this never comes up in the book which is actually quite interesting. There are plenty of men who turn into women and a great deal of worry about lesbians, but no actual gays that I can recall. The reasons for this conspicuous omission in a book otherwise wrapped up in its own “perversity” are probably worth looking into. There is a paper to be written there, Dave Madden). The heightened absurdity of so many of the accidents which befall the characters (which are, of course, not accidents to their author) might have once shielded the book from interpretation of its gender politics with humor, but I found very little funny about the book and a whole lot objectionable about the ways it’s written to protect its deified hero.

Garp is clearly an Irving stand-in or, at the very least, shares more than a few biographical details with his author (prep school, wrestling, his novels, etc.). Now, I don’t care one way or the other, and I agree with Irving that checking a book against a biography is a profoundly stupid way to read, but Irving says this–through Garp–constantly. Garp hates it when people think his books are autobiographical yet he also worries he’s lost his imagination and can only write autobiographically. For this reader, anything that might have been interesting about that meta-narrative is lost when it feels like the author is more interested in hedging his bets and protecting himself than in actually, you know, exploring that contrast.

So, too, Irving cuts off any charges of sexism by having them levelled preemptively at Garp who has ample time to defend himself. That it’s not a sexist book or at least isn’t a simple one, hardly matters when the author is openly daring you to call it one in the text itself. As a person unwilling to make this charge or to feel any anger when others unfairly make it, I thought Irving’s attempts to shoehorn it into every interaction cost the book a fair amount of its seriousness. At every turn Irving makes it so clear how he would like you to read his book that it is less The World According to Garp and more The World According to Garp According to John Irving (I totally wanted to say something pointless and mean like that since around page 300. Also, it would be very easy to wrap that whole argument up in a grand wrestling metaphor about defending oneself but I feel like Irving was daring the reader to do that, too).

Naturally, Irving isn’t giving up control of the book yet. In both the 20th anniversary essay in my paperback copy and in this BBC radio interview with him from this past summer’s 30th anniversary, Irving claims the novel is really about a father’s anxiety for his children’s safety. This is as much lie as truth, however, as the book is really about male anxiety for everything (which includes a fatherly concern for the safety of his children). Dropping the insane-feminists-versus-flawed-but-honorable-man’s-man angle is smart and reflects an awareness on Irving’s part on how the book has aged, but in the end we’re left with the book he wrote which is about nothing more than it’s about sex.

I liked it more than I’m letting on, though mostly I admired Irving’s skill with language and structure. At its best, it’s a haunting and charged book that’s comprehensive in a way that rarely feels heavy. It is also a book very much alive. So nobody here is saying the man can’t write–he’s very, very good–but there is one argument about the book that I don’t think Irving guarded himself against: it’s a cowardly novel.

From protecting the author by pre-articulating his defense to punishing the undeserving in order to provide catharsis for a different tragedy to–SPOILER ALERT THOUGH YOU WILL PROBABLY KNOW IT’S COMING DUE TO THE BOOK’S STRUCTURE–Garp’s martyrdom at the very Christ-like age of 33, it’s a book that thinks it’s taking chances without realizing the game is rigged. It’s not tragic, it’s self-flagellation that never leaves the writer’s control in order to become actually dangerous.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Johns

Exhibit 14.7

So Zadie Smith wrote about the future of the novel in The New York Review of Books and one of the novels she sees as being along one of two diverging “paths” for the novel is Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (which I wrote about here). The other novel is Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a book I feel like I have read a million glowing reviews of without once feeling even the slightest inkling to actually pick up. Smith helpfully explains why I might be such a case by setting up Netherland as the evolution of “lyrical Realism” whereas Remainder (a book I ordered the moment I first heard of it) is its antithesis, a book Smith associates with the avant garde (though I don’t think she ever gives this path a proper, oddly capitalized label). As a reader, like Smith seems to be, whose sympathies lie somewhere on the avant garde side of center (which really means I side with what’s innovative above all), it’s not shocking that O’Neill’s book doesn’t interest me while McCarthy’s I found immediately gripping.

(Although I have to say I’ve been a little taken aback by just how big Remainder seems to be getting recently. Not that it’s undeserving. Not at all, in fact. I just wouldn’t have pegged it as a book to capture the imagination of so many writers who seem to universally see it as a Very Important Book. Smith’s essay gives her reasons but I remain a little incredulous).

The entire essay is quite the read in exactly the exhaustive way you’d expect from The New York Review of Books (in other words, I no longer need to read O’Neill’s book or possibly any book ever again), but it’s worth it. I mostly agree with J. Robert Lennon’s take here which is that the Smith’s piece fundamental flaw is positioning the two books as opposites and absolutes. She does this in her opening and then spends most of the essay purposefully disproving (or accidentally ignoring) this premise.

At one point she writes:

When it comes to literary careers, it’s true: the pitch is queered. The literary economy sets up its stall on the road that leads to Netherland, alongwhich one might wave to Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow. Rarely has it been less aware (or less interested) in seeing what’s new on the route to Remainder, that skewed side road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard. Friction, fear, and outright hatred spring up often between these two traditions—yet they have revealing points of connection. At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov. For though manifestos feed on rupture, artworks themselves bear the trace of their own continuity.

How then these ideas of the novel are in competition in an artistic sense (as opposed to a commercial sense) is a little unclear though I suppose it hearkens back to Smith’s opening which suggests that while in healthy times literature gets multiple paths but in the unhealthy present we get but the one blocked by the Balzac-like realism of Netherland. I don’t know what to say about this other than I don’t think it’s true or even nearly true. If anything, it’s only becoming less true as traditional publishers struggle and small presses, the Internet, and other alternative venues pick up the slack.

That said, it really is a remarkable essay and I don’t mean to suggest that Smith doesn’t do well by her own premise. It’s an interesting autopsy of two very different books, but it does assume an either/or that I don’t necessarily buy into no matter how well written the argument (or how much smarter the argument’s author is than me).

Smith also sees the end of postmodernism in her most bomb-throwing of paragraphs:

Yet despite these theoretical assaults, the American metafiction that stood inopposition to Realism has been relegated to a safe corner of literary history,to be studied in postmodernity modules, and dismissed, by our most famous publiccritics, as a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart. Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, David Foster Wallace—all misguided ideologists, the novelist equivalents of the socialists in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. In this version of our literary history, the last man standing is the Balzac-Flaubert model, on the evidence of its extraordinary persistence. But the critiques persist, too. Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?

This, I think, is more true and a much more compelling argument. That said, I don’t think what Smith calls postmodernism is dead or necessarily even close to it (especially since I, for one, have a hard time seeing how Remainder is any less postmodern than the average DeLillo book). I like Lennon’s idea of acknowledging that what we call postmodernism is something simply inherent to narratives or our understanding of them and so a book like Remainder (or, say, The Raw Shark Texts) can be both referentially postmodern without being measured for its coffin.

Whatever the case, I think Smith’s right to say quite a good deal of literature (if not the best literature) comes from somewhere in between her two poles and, healthy world or no, I don’t see any reason why we have to choose.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Reviews

Exhibit 13.12

Love in the Time of Cholera

As I mentioned previously, I bought this book a few years back (and since the receipt was in the book I actually know exactly when: June 13, 2003, one month after I moved to Lincoln. Apparently I graduated from college, moved to Lincoln, bought plates and silverware for the first time, and then decided I needed Love in the Time of Cholera to finish my transition from undergraduate to adult jerknozzle).

The two or three times I picked it up with the intention of reading it always ended with me giving up at about page 15 for more interesting books and, even after finishing it, even after enjoying it mostly, I don’t think I was wrong. It’s not at all bad, but I can’t help but read it as a bit of a victory lap after the incredible One Hundred Years of Solitude (and, probably more pertinent to Marquez himself, the Nobel Prize he’d already won). Every page seems to have been written with the intention of doing something epic, but despite the staggering depth of our knowledge of the two lovers, in the end it’s hard for me to see anything except the fairly shallow story of a love triangle only seen as such by one corner.

The plot–a boy decides to never stop loving his young crush yet doesn’t get a chance to win her heart until they are both elderly–is pretty genius and every one of Marquez’s sentences is packed to the nouns with remarkable insight and detail, but it’s all treated with the same seriousness and scope as his Macondo. It’s possible I’m just cynical, but it’s not clear anything Marquez has to say about love (it can be a sickness like cholera! it changes over time! it can corrupt and pervert!) needed to have been treated with such seriousness. It’s a book that, despite its clear merits, that ends up quite a bit less alive than his earlier work. The one twist, such as it is, seems to be that the dedicated lover Florentino isn’t really a figure we’re supposed to revere though Marquez does his best not to judge the character’s clear deficiencies (not least of which is his seduction of a 12-year-old girl he’s charged with looking after).

It’s also possible I’m just too naive to have really been sucked in by the lengthy section of the book between the silly passion of their youthful love and the amazing quiet of their geriatric love. The majority of the book deals with the vagaries of marriage and when I liked the book the least I imagined that I was experiencing a highbrow, literary version of a sitcom like, say, According to Jim called Marriage Is Weird or maybe What’s the Deal with Love? That’s not nearly fair, but there is a certain upperclass domesticity to everything that happens in the middle of the book which is where the lifelessness seems to be seeping in. During these pages the most interesting characters (e.g. the heroine’s criminal but upwardly mobile father, a black woman who guides Florentino’s career) disappear so that we can go into the details of each small fight inside of marriage and each affair conducted outside of it. Like I said, marriage is weird. Also, this love thing seems to have some kind of, I don’t know, deal.

The book as a whole is much greater than its most sentimental and middle-aged moments, and, in the end, from any other author it would probably be a defining work. Marquez just so happens to be capable of much greater magic in both prose and intention that it’s a bit of a tepid achievement for me. Still, it’s a great title and, if nothing else, we can all take pleasure in the fact that this year is the 20th anniversary of people who want to impress a date listing this as their favorite book in order to seem like soft-hearted romantics. The book’s take on love seems to contradict this usage, but who am I to argue with John Cusack?

On a completely unrelated note, my favorite television show is Love, What the Eff, Yo?

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Sick

Exhibit 13.6

More like, The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Dick.

(high five)

Also acceptable would have been, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting about That Guy I Ratted Out to the Police That One Time Because I Was in Love with His Girlfriend and Was All Pissed He Came Back to Totally Step All Over My Game. I Wonder What Happened to That Guy? I Thought They Were Going to Kill Him but Maybe I Heard He Was Just Sent to Do Forced Labor in a Uranium Mine. I Don’t Know. Whatever. I Wonder What Happened to That Girl? I Should Totally Hit Her Up. God, I Haven’t Thought about Her Forever. Why Didn’t That Ever Work Out? Oh, That’s Right, I Sent That Dude Who Was Living with Her to His Death. Man, That Was Crazy Funny But Not Particularly Memorable. Thank God I Developed a Philosophy That Recuses Me from Any Feelings of Guilt or Responsibility. That Sure Was Convenient.

2 Comments / Posted in Congratulations, Fiction, Miles

Exhibit 12.27

So I’m reading my copy of Love in the Time of Cholera for the company book club, and it’s an old hardcover that I picked up for $2 at a used bookstore a while back. In all ways it seems not to have been read at all. Perfect spine. Perfect dust jacket. Unmarked pages…or so I thought. On page 154 there is one passage underlined in perfect pencil strokes done with the aid of a ruler or bookmark. Nothing before that. Nothing after that.

The passage:

“…he convinced her that one comes into the world with a predetermined allotment of lays, and whoever does not use them for whatever reason, one’s own or someone else’s, willingly or unwillingly, loses them forever.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I bought David Duchovny’s copy of Love in the Time of Cholera.

Topical!

Comment / Posted in Books, Davids, Fiction

Exhibit 12.15

Pale Fire

I’ve put off writing about this book since I liked it too much to have any objective take on it. I don’t know if it’s my favorite of Nabakov’s–I have a soft spot for The Real Life of Sebastian Knight–but like most of his work it is so thoroughly better than what everyone else is doing that it’s hard to maintain perspective.

Dave turned me on to the argument between Shadeans–those who believe Shade invented Kinbote and is the author of the entire text–and Kinboteans who believe the opposite, that Shade is the invention of Kinbote. Although I suppose I’d rather believe the latter–I felt very sorry for Kinbote and hated Shaded more than a little–it strikes me as being a typical academic gesture toward postulating exactly the opposite of the popular position in order to seem interesting.

(This move also works with movies, indie rock, and celebrity crushes. On a completely unrelated note, I loved the Speed Racer movie, I hate Radiohead, and I intend to talk about these shocking opinions at length when I’m married to Swoozie Kurtz).

Figuring out the “real story” is part of the fun of the book, but it’s ultimately futile. Nabakov himself seems to have had pretty definite ideas about the reality he intended (his position is that there is no Kinbote at all but only a mad Russian scholar who is a very minor character in the book). If that mystery is all the book had to offer, it would be an impossible burden to put on the reader, something akin to a movie where we realize that the evil mastermind was a guy the hero passed on the street (in other words, a move M. Night Shyamalan would make). Fortunately, there’s so much here that what’s true is unimportant. It’s a tragic, beautiful world and that so much of it seems to be someone’s delusion only makes it sadder.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Sebastians

Exhibit 12.13

The Moviegoer

It’s a strange feeling to read a novel after having read a host of books it clearly inspired in some way. There’s more than a little of Percy’s hero Jack (Binx) Bolling in a character like Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, more than a little of the nascent awareness of the convergence of reality, technology, and culture that finds itself all grown up in time for DeLillo, and more than a little of Bolling’s ill-defined spiritual “quest” in a great many boring books published since 1961 (and, occasionally, someone does something really interesting with these ennui-plagued journeys like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder which I wrote about here).

I guess part of my problem is that I tend to hate insipid, self-important characters like Bascombe, and while I had quite a bit more sympathy for Bolling–he at least had a war–there’s no getting around the fact that his existential crisis is fairly mundane. He’s a young-ish bond trader living in a suburb of New Orleans whose only pleasures are movies, seducing his plump secretaries, and visiting his aunt and clinically depressed cousin. It occurred to me more than once that the cousin’s story might have been a far more interesting one (certainly a more dramatic one), but the book gets the two characters together enough that Kate, the cousin, is able to give some life to both the plot and Binx himself. Of course, this is one of those books where the plot exists only as a coat rack to hang the characters’ jackets rather than a living thing itself. Binx simply doesn’t know what to do with himself. Everyone seems to agree that he’d be good in “research” (one of the few bits of humor in the book), but the concept is as ethereal as his own malaise (although he does imagine that as a physical thing hunting him down).

So he does what he’s always done until his life as a functioning-melancholic collides with one who is decidedly non-functioning. Does it make him realize how shallow his own sadness is? Does it alert him to a greater suffering in the world? Honestly, it doesn’t seem too, but Binx does reclaim a bit of the basic human sympathy he’s lost by the end of the book though Percy seems to make it deliberately unclear if Binx has truly awakened or if he’s only shifted his troubles onto the back of another. It will make me seem like I don’t like this book when I say: Thank God Percy avoided the temptation to explore this character further in later books. Yes, I’m looking at you, Updike.

Because in the end it’s a very thoughtful, sweet book. The language and characters are all very stunning and while its plot may be a pensive, existential one, Percy handles it perfectly. Maybe it’s just because I’m watching Mad Men (which is set in the same year) and the main characters share a few qualities, but this book seemed to really nail the strange period after the Korean War but before the Beatles. Everyone is making money and there’s a strong push back toward a normal pre-war domesticity, but a few, like Binx and Don Draper, have begun to realize how much, and how permanently, everything has changed. Draper deals with it by being at the forefront of the new world he doesn’t like and then feeling guilty while Binx deals with it by doing nothing and then feeling guilty. Updike’s loathsome Rabbit Angstrom (also a member of the class of ’60-’61) deals with it like a less intelligent and principled Draper, but he too feels the worry and the guilt.

Of these I probably prefer Percy’s work the most. Even if not perfect, it’s a compelling version of America’s despair–a pretty funny contrast to the European version, incidentally–and although it’s not actually in the text, I choose to insert my own corrections for the segregated, upper-classness of it all.

And it’s not that one needs to, exactly, but I’ll be the first to admit that Updike and Ford have ruined mundane soul searching for me. Perhaps I’ll go to the park later and think about this and the world’s even greater failures while children run past trying to get their kite to take life. Even on the dying autumn grass the kite is beautiful and not a disappointment because there will always be kites and wind and autumn days in the park. I will wish badly to tell them this, but, even though I will have thought differently a moment earlier, it is I who will start to tear up when the kite again falls limply to the earth. The children will only shrug as children do, having yet to learn to see each failure as connected to every other failure in their short lives.

Oh, Jesus, now I’m doing it.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Updikes

Exhibit 12.10

As part of my continued withdrawal from The Wire I’ve been trying to find a new television show on DVD to really take an interest in and fill my lunch hour in a way Chef Boyardee never can. So, not at all because Emmy voters told me to, I’ve begun to watch Mad Men just like everyone else started to 13 months ago. This way I can go back in my own mind and re-have all those conversations I ruined last year.

Last Year
You: Oh, god, are you watching Mad Men? It’s great.
Me: Is that like a spinoff to Mad About You?
You: No. Not at all.
Me: Because that show was great, right? I mean, cousin Ira! Yeah!
You:
Me: I bet Paul Reiser would be available for a spinoff. Maybe I’ll post this to the message board.
You: What?
Me: So, how ’bout this September 2007 weather?

Mental Revision
You: Oh, god, are you watching Mad Men? It’s great.
Me: Totes. Don Draper!
You and Me: (high five) (on the flipside) (nodding)

My initial impressions are positive. Seems smart, exceedingly well made, etc. The problems are mostly confined to the fact that its treatment of ’50s-early ’60s patriarchy and sexism is far more a matter of male wish fulfillment than anything else (at least through the first disc. I imagine there are some comeuppances to come up). There is also a bit of uncommitted yearning for a return to a simpler time, but my guess is that once the show complicates its boys club office the same way it complicates its portrait of domestic life that things will start to take off. We’ll see.

Anyway, I only bring it up in order to work in a heavy-handed Mad About You reference and to explore my least favorite aspect of the show, a little problem I’ll call The Wink Conundrum. Fair warning, there’s nothing I’d call a spoiler coming but I am going to be referencing moments from the first three episodes.

The Wink Conundrum is not unique to Mad Men or in any way a conundrum. Here’s an example of the type of little moments, winks if you will, which I hate in novels, stories, movies, etc. and which Mad Men has in abundance through the first few episodes: A mother calls her young children into the kitchen where she’s smoking with a friend. The children have been playing and one has a plastic dry cleaning bag over his head. The mother, angry, yells for the child to come closer so she can chastise him. We all know what’s coming…or not. “If the clothes that were in that bag are on the floor, you’re going to be in big trouble,” the mother says.

Wink.

Moments like these are inevitable in a show like this to a certain degree, but it’s that heavily implied wink that always ruins it for me. Yes, some pregnant women smoked and drank in 1960, but we don’t have to see the most conspicuous drink order this side of a Sam Adams’ commercial to get that message. Moments later we see a guy slap a young boy in front of the boy’s father after the kid spills something. The father approaches angrily…he’s going to attack the other guy…nope, he too is mad at the kid. Wink.

The Wink Conundrum is actually an ancillary of the Forrest Gump Problem, something which might have an actual name and certainly existed long before Mr. Gump. Still, that awful, awful movie was my first encounter with it though it’s pretty much informed almost every major novel of the last fifty years that takes place in the near past. The Problem is simple to spot by its arbitrary and anti-narrative tendency to insert either historical figures into the path of the protagonist or, alternatively, insert its protagonist into specific historical events (see Ragtime, Middlesex, Against the Day, Kavalier and Clay, etc.) God, I hate it when novels do that (which is not to say I hate the novels themselves although I usually do) and the do it a lot. Thanks to this issue, I’m currently under the impression that everyone in the 1920s had the chance to meet Henry Ford and Houdini because they spent their days wandering around the country making cameos in each citizens’ life.

What binds the two phenomenons together is a post-WWII/popular culture nostalgia that manifests itself as false condemnation in the case of The Wink and nudge-nudge navel gazing in the case of The Problem. I suppose at their heart both stem from an innate to desire to see one’s generation (or, if one feels guilty enough, one’s parent’s generation) as having sprung from uncivilized chaos (The Wink) yet having succeeded to produce greatness and meaning (The Problem).

I doubt it’s just a boomer issue either, but I guess we’ll see when someone writes a novel wherein the protagonist meets Kurt Cobain at a basement show in Seattle, does drugs until ’96, starts a search engine company which makes him wealthy, moves into a penthouse in Manhattan next door to Warren Buffett’s, watches 9/11 from his balcony, is converted to Christianity by Rick Warren, and then ends up becoming the first ambassador to Space Australia (I’m guessing on that last bit).

I’d like to believe that a novel like that will never be written (or that a holographic cable show won’t come out in 2050 with winking nods to eating organic food), but it’s inevitable. Hopefully whatever poor soul has to write that book at least does it with a sense of humor that seems to have skipped a generation.

You didn’t see where that post was going, did you? Oh well, we’ll always have the Mad About You joke.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Movies, Television

Exhibit 11.22

Housekeeping and Watchmen

Because they’re pretty much the same book. Here, it’s so obvious:

Ruth -> Nite Owl (II)
Sylvie -> Rorshach
The Lake -> Dr. Manhattan

Frankly, I don’t know how Alan Moore ever got away with such blatant plagiarism.

Actually, it’s just that I finished Housekeeping a while back but forgot to blog about it. I then got so caught up in Watchmen that I figured I’d just wait and do them both together. Even ignoring the distinction in form, they are remarkably dissimilar books. The former is a somber, poetic tale of family deconstructed by wilderness and the other is, um, about masked vigilantes in an alternative present, many of whom are driven mad by their singular focus on saving the world.

They do have their similarities, both thematically and practically. They are, in a way, both about the surprising impermanence of family (though Watchmen‘s family is really more a loosely organized club) and both have a very 1970s-1980s sense of decline (though Housekeeping‘s is more post-Carter nostalgia and Watchmen‘s more of a Reagan-era Cold War millenialism). More overtly, each one is a considered a modern classic and both have places on Time‘s list of the 100 Best English Language Novels (since 1923).

(Then again, so does The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which renders the entire list completely stupid).

In almost every other way, however, they are polar opposites. Even its 15 degrees off center reality, Watchmen places itself very firmly in the culture whereas Housekeeping might as well take place on Mars for how little the outside world matters to the isolated, naturalistic characters. Incidentally, it most certainly doesn’t take place on Mars while part of Watchmen does.

I guess the other thing they have in common is that I really enjoyed both of them. I’ve been trying to figure out what this means in case of Watchmen since it’s the first comic book/graphic novel I’ve ever really read. I’m sure I picked up comic books when I was a kid, but I never really understood how to read them. At some point a few years back, Dave let me borrow another well regarded graphic novel and I couldn’t even make past the third page. Frankly, I don’t know if I would have even attempted to read Watchmen if I hadn’t started reading newspaper comics during the intervening years. Just one more thing I can thank Mary Worth for, I suppose.

That said, although I loved Watchmen and couldn’t wait to pick it back up, I don’t know if I know enough about graphic novels to feel like it belongs in the same sentence as Housekeeping as a modern classic of literature. I don’t doubt that it’s “the greatest graphic novel of all-time” as everyone says, but I suppose I’m still at the point where I possibly undervalue that title. As with the most recent Batman movie, I thought it was great, a real accomplishment that stoodout among all the other superhero entertainment of the last few years, but it didn’t exactly affect me in a profound way. If anything, I appreciate that movie too much due to some of its shitty predecessors (“ICE TO MEET YOU!”) that make it look like Kurosawa by comparison. But since I’ve never had to deal with the cliches and loopy continuity of comic books, I might not be giving Watchmen the same headstart.

Still, even in this zany era where a lot of writers who are now in their 40s want to proclaim the artistic value of comics as on par with novels, I don’t know if I buy the book as great literature. Thoroughly entertaining and satisfying literature? Sure, that’s an incredibly important and valuable thing, and this certainly fits the bill. But, in the end, there’s still enough rote and puerile elements here (mostly due to the requirements of this being a, albeit turned, superhero story) that it’s hard to see this as timeless. I now really want to go check out some of the non-superhero graphic novels to see if it’s just my poor, unenlightened biases holding me back from recognizing a graphic novel, even one I loved, from being worthy of a place in the canon.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Graphic Novels

Exhibit 11.7

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

The best thing I can say about the book is that the author’s talent and intelligence is so apparent on every page that even though I didn’t particularly like it–and at times loathed it intensely–I would not at all hesitate to pick up Pessl’s next book. Some first novels read as culminations of every story, love, and simile an author has available to them, removing any need to read the next and the next and the next increasingly disappointing book. Others, like this one, seem to be the tortured beginning of something greater.

I don’t really want to get into the specifics of what I found problematic about the book, mostly because doing so would necessarily contain spoilers. I will say that it’s the sort of novel where 400 pages into a 500 page book the story becomes something completely different, rendering the somewhat tedious previous explorations of an ultimately unimportant social scene useless. The sort of book where every character is unlikeable yet unchanging. The sort of book where a character literally makes one phone call and the person who answers gladly sends her the solution to the mystery. The sort of book that ends with a character taking a heartbreaking action which they would never take if for no other reason than that it solves none of their problems. The sort of book where anyone paying attention can immediately identify at least 8 reasons why the plot makes no sense (#4: Knowing all the connections, why did they move to the town at all?). The sort of book with an awesome title made silly because it is completely arbitrary.

(I mean, there’s not even a little Calamity Physics here. What the hell? I came for the Calamity Physics).

Despite these failings, it does become completely gripping in its jarring, incohesive second half. Between the exaggerated take on prep school that dominates the beginning and the murder mystery that drives the conclusion, there were probably two good books to choose from here but forced together each half renders the other inert. Compared to The Secret History–which this book owes a large debt to–none of the characters here use the tragedy to expose their true selves or cast accusations or make tough choices. Instead they complain or run away but that’s okay because–and this is what got me–none of them are suspects or, outside of the narrator, in any way driven to find the truth. By the time the book gets around to ending, we’ve got new problems.

Mostly it’s disappointing because there’s so much good and new about the style of the book and it seems like that could have been put to a greater end. Or maybe I’m wrong. Know that a great number of people a lot smarter than me–including the person who recommended it–loved it. I can see why it would be an easy book to forgive.

Comment / Posted in Books, Cases Against Perfection, Fiction

Exhibit 10.19

The Raw Shark Texts

Sometimes I’m easy. If you write a novel that quotes Murakami and Calvino, features an ethereal “conceptual shark” as an antagonist, and includes an underground world of people who explore unspace, well, I’m probably going to enjoy your book. If the last quarter of the book is more or less a retelling of Jaws, all the better. Steven Hall’s debut novel has all of these things and quite a bit more in a quick 450 pages. I might try to review it at length soon so I’ll keep my thoughts here brief.

I loved it.

Okay, less brief:

The plot – it probably won’t do any good to describe it to you. Not that it’s difficult to follow, exactly, just that its delightful oddity might seem over-the-top out of context. Here goes: Eric Sanderson wakes up in his house without any memories. The prior Eric Sanderson has foreseen this occurrence and arranged for a series of notes, letters, and mementos to arrive. These are less than helpful since the prior Eric Sanderson doesn’t seem to remember much more than our Eric Sanderson because a conceptual shark–called a Ludovician–has been eating his memories. And it’s coming back.

You know, that old story.

It’s hard to express just how well the conceptual elements are handled. The shark isn’t a shark…but it’s totally a shark, peaking its fin above the floor of his consciousness and hunting Eric Sanderson down until it has eaten everything except his pointless human shell. Part of the beauty of the book–both as an object and as a concept–is that it visualizes its language-based terrors as pictures crafted out of words. It’s pretty incredible to see a novel–a thriller no less–so singularly focused on thought and language and culture that it’s impossible to describe the book without touching on how those elements form us as people.

As you might have noticed, it’s a highly original book. Still, it’s not always perfect. The language seems to erode as the pages go on, possible because the author (like this reader) might have preferred to spend the entire book in his dark, theoretical underworld rather than pushing the plot toward the Jaws reenactment. Also, the ending seems to want us to question the reliability of the narrator, but of course every reader is already doing that given his condition. The thing is, most if not all readers will decide that they don’t care if he’s crazy as we’re people looking for a good story not detectives trying to find what’s real in a world of impossibility. It’s more fun to believe in the shark than it is to doubt it, and risking our faith for a wink seems pointless if not disrespectful.

Besides, we know which side the author falls on. The world here is too remarkable to dismiss so easily.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Grave Conditions

Exhibit 10.16

Speaking of the book club, it’s almost my time to pick a book. It’s been agreed that it can’t be anything that one of us has already read, so I’m looking for suggestions.

Unfortunately, it has to be something that the local library has at least three copies of which pretty much means it needs to be something relatively new (past 2-3 years) and popular (like a book club pick), preferably already in paperback for those of us buying the book. Also, I don’t think they’d go for a short story collection and I don’t think I’d go for a memoir.

Books I’m considering:

The Confessions of Max Tivoli
Pros: Might be good or at least not suck
Cons: Don’t know if I can handle another narrator with an alternative lifecycle

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Pros: Probably good, I actually want to read it
Cons: Not yet in paperback, not enough at library

Okay, I now realize those are the only two I’m really considering and one isn’t even really possible. There are plenty of others, but none really meet the library requirement. You can check here. If there are less than three copies available, it’s probably not going to work. It’s amazing, even some of the biggest books of the last two years only have one or two copies in the entire system.

I would actually really like to read a classic, but none that I haven’t read and are readily available really come to mind. Sigh.

So start suggesting already.

6 Comments / Posted in Books, Fiction, Oskars

Exhibit 10.15

Forever

This is the first book that has made me really regret being in the company’s book club. And it’s not that it’s awful, exactly, just that it’s the sort of consensus book that any group of readers will inevitably gravitate toward. It’s a bestseller. It’s high-concept without literary pretense. It’s got sex and violence and spooky. It’s vaguely timely.

It’s also pretty much bullocks. Our hero–a label I often use as a synonym for protagonist but here I literally mean hero– is a young Irishman in the mid-1700s who finds out he’s not Catholic or Protestant but some kind of ill-defined tribal/Gaelic thing. Oh, and Jewish. There’s probably an offensive joke to be made given these surprising developments, but there’s very little humor to be had in these pages as our hero is too busy being wronged and then avenging wrongs. After his father is murdered, our hero follows his killer to colonial Manhattan but not before befriending a mysterious slave. How to describe the slave…hmm…did you see The Green Mile? The Legend of Bagger Vance? No? Well, let’s just say he’s magical. And a negro. So, yeah, some kind of magical negro basically.

After avenging his father’s death–for the moment, at least, we’re told that his tribe requires him to kill any and all male heirs as well. This is remarkably nonsensical for revenge purposes but great for tying a plot together!–our wounded hero is saved by Bagger Vance who, without even asking, grants him eternal life on the condition that he never leaves Manhattan. Um, thanks, Bagger.

It should be mentioned that this is nearly half way through the book and the American revolution hasn’t happened yet. This lallygagging through the beginning and ending of the story forces the novel to move quickly through the intervening centuries but not first without the obligatory cameos from George Washington and Boss Tweed. Mostly our hero, like The Dude, abides until the day Bagger returns to set him free. Eventually the book settles into post-millennial New York where our man has established a comfortable, anonymous existence as a sometime reporter, sometime playboy who mostly just seems miserable with still having to be alive. As the reader surely feels the same way, it would be nice if everyone just got put out of their misery a little sooner, but that can’t happen until a scion of his enemy appears in New York, he meets a long prophesied woman, and something happens during the second week of September 2001.

It’s that event, used here as a shameless attempt to insert drama into the languid final pages, that looms largest in the last section. The character literally can’t take two steps without pausing to look at the majestic towers. I’m reminded of this Onion article. When not looking at the towers, the author fulfills his contractual obligation to J&R Music World by repeatedly mentioning the store. I’m not joking, he mentions the full name of the store at least 10 times, as if everyone in Manhattan runs around navigating by using J&R Music World as a point of reference.

“Well, just go eight blocks past J&R Music World and then take a right. Walk another four blocks to the north of J&R Music World, then take a right, walk eight blocks in the direction of J&R Music World, and then walk four blocks south and you’ll have reached the J&R Music World. Seriously, they’ve got great deals on Sony Walkmans.”

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t a direct quote.

The worst part–maybe, there’s a lot of competition–is that our immortal hero who has lived through 300 years finds himself nostalgic for Charlie Parker and Willie Mays. He laments that “the kids” don’t know these bastions of American history. Apparently not even the immortal are free from white, middle-class, boomer nostalgia. I try not to swear on this blog, but seriously, fuck you, guy who wrote this.

On top of it all, the book ends poorly on a note of ambiguity. Basically we’ve spent 600 pages waiting to know if this guy is going to kill off the family of the man who murdered his father and if he’s ever going to die and the book tells us…maybe. Well, maybe I think that’s an absurd copout for a book that could have allowed itself at least one risky move. Apparently that part of the book was cut out to allow more space for condescension toward Africans and the Irish. I’d actually like to imagine that this is how the entire book was edited down from a 2,000 page manuscript to a scant 600 pages.

Should I include the scene where the character does something unexpected, the guy who wrote this asks himself. No, I should instead include the scene where the character draws prostitute vaginas.

I’m not joking. Sadly, neither was the guy who wrote this.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Unbelievable

Exhibit 10.10

I have a story in the new Madison Review which you can order by clicking here. This is also an older story, but one of my favorites since it’s a) titled “Carom” and b) one of two stories I wrote at the time that really had me feeling like I’d figured something out about how I wanted to write. Of course, the other one–which I like even more–isn’t published. I should send it somewhere. You can have it, if you want. Maybe I’ll post it here.

“Carom” is about a guy named Smith who wakes up and realizes his roommate (and exactly everything his roommate owned, down to half of the things they purchased together) has disappeared. Oh, and the guy’s girlfriend finds her biological parents after years of searching and realizes that her last name is Smith, too. Oh, and he thinks his ex-girlfriend might have had his baby without telling him. She’s remarried to a man named…Smith. So there’s a lot going on. I should have made it a novel. Maybe later.

It is my only story inspired by a kid with the last name Smith I used to work with at Holiday Trav-L-Park. His sister married a guy also named Smith, but he told me they researched it beforehand to make sure there were no shared relations.

I remain unconvinced.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Smiths, Writing

Exhibit 10.6

Voodoo Heart

I don’t even remember how I found out about Scott Snyder’s debut collection of stories, but I’m glad I picked it up. There are quite a few really great stories here and even at its lowest points it’s always interesting and well-written. Quite a success, all and all.

At the heart of most of the stories here is the central protagonist’s self-doubt which has driven them from their loved ones and stifled their advancement in life until they end up in places they hadn’t heard of until they found themselves there alone and discontent. A good number of the stories feature some kind of encounter with the grotesque (a brain-damaged country singer, a famous actress disfigured in a wreck, etc.) which work as a nice counterpoint to make the protagonist’s ennui-based melancholy seem all the more shallow.

The first story had me worried, bogged down as it was in the brand of desperately cute quirkiness that few contemporary writers are immune from (this one included). Our hero, fresh from his job of lassoing barrels filled with people who intend to go over Niagara Falls, chases after a blimp carrying his former girlfriend who, I should mention, previously worked as a fake wax figure in a wax museum. Yeah, it was a bit much, the kind of overreaching that can be palatable in a single story but deathly mawkish in a full-length collection. Characters with quirky jobs who fall in love with character with quirky jobs…I mean, jesus, I feel like there are at least two stories doing that in every journal I read (sometimes written, poorly, by me). Oh well. I guess I’ve already covered my thoughts on this type of work here, but mostly I wish it were a little bit less per(vasive/suasive).

See what I did there.

Anyway, more to the point, Snyder does it better than most, but he’s even better when he lets something else drive his fiction. The best stories here, including the title story, my favorite, manage to be original without veering into the emotional vacuum of pure oddity. The compelling strangeness of these stories comes from the way they explore the fringes of American geography and history with characters realistically shaped by their backwoods environment. It makes for a cohesive collection of work even though individual stories are separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Heart

Exhibit 10.2


The Cupboard has returned and we’re ready to announce that our first volume will be Parables & Lies from Jesse Ball. It’s not available yet–and won’t be for at least a couple of weeks–but the website has been updated with subscription information and excerpts. I’m posting it here in the hopes that if you’re a sympathetic reader of this blog, you might go to the site, poke around a little, and let us know what you think.

We’re also officially taking subscriptions now and they’re quite the deal. For $10 you get a year’s worth (4 volumes) of incredible prose. You can also buy the volumes individually for $3 but that’s just silly. These are absolutely as inexpensive as we can make them while still putting out a high-quality publication and we think you’ll be pleased with the final product.

There will be a lot more details, pictures, and unrequested email announcements coming from us in the near future, but for now just please check out the website, read the excerpts from Jesse’s incredible work, and let Dave or I know if you have any thoughts.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Good Ideas, The Cupboard

Exhibit 9.24

Then We Came to the End

Joshua Ferris’s debut novel is good. Very good. So good, in fact, that I’m really having a hard time coming up with anything to say about it other than repeated assertions of its quality. Which is not to say it’s a shallow book, but rather it’s just a satisfying one, the rare novel that I find myself unwilling to look into too deeply out of the fear that I’ll find an excuse to enjoy it less than I did.

The story of an advertising agency struggling through the post-dotcom malaise, Ferris’s novel lays out a smartly satirical version of the modern American office. Despite contemporary attempts to make it something else through coffee bars and Aeron chairs, the office in Then We… is still a work place, its inhabitants still workers. That they love work as much as they loathe it is something they are constantly aware of even if they are not quite capable of admitting it to themselves. Their desperate struggle to keep their jobs through the economic downturn seems to have made them subconsciously aware of the fact that despite their varied, half-hearted interests (writing, pranks, adultery, etc.) their jobs are all they really have.

The collection of workers, age 25-35, a “generation that hasn’t seen war,” speaks in the first person plural, a very clever narrative device that allows the book both the intimacy and anonymity of an office. The reader knows just enough about the characters to tell them apart but is unable to follow them home or really know them beyond the fuzzy truth of office gossip. It works remarkably well, but also very differently than, say, The Virgin Suicides, another book in the first person plural. Whereas that book was about the collective gaze’s ability to destroy, this book’s collective is one of shared consciousness. By looking inward rather than outward, the mass narrator of Then We… uses the limits of its construction to mimic the limits of individualism (and individual knowledge) in a deceptively impersonal work environment. It’s just as effective as The Virgin Suicides, but in exactly the opposite way.

What both books share is the lack of accountability the ‘we’ allows. Decisions are made but no one makes them. Betrayals and friendships are formed but the reasons can only be guessed (and then gossiped). The emotions are equally shared, making every moment of sadness or pleasure small and universal. Not surprisingly, the most successful character is one who intentionally keeps himself out of the group and finds himself climbing up the corporate ladder (his reasons for doing so are spelled out painfully in a long conversation, perhaps the book’s biggest misstep).

The narration is not without its drawbacks, however, but Ferris proves himself to be a remarkably instinctual writer who shifts the novel just when the voice begins to wane. It really is an impressive feat to keep all of the balls in the air as he does, and by the time the book heads into its final pages, the ‘we’ has become a character of its own which he also makes pay off nicely in the book’s nostalgic and melancholy ending about how much we can miss people we barely even knew.

Comment / Posted in Agency, Books, Fiction

Exhibit 9.18

The Thirteenth Tale

This was another work book club pick and based on the early buzz around the water cooler (ed note: we don’t actually have a water cooler) it’s going over a lot better than The History of Love. That’s a shame because THoL has a bit more weight to it, but it’s hard to resist a gripping mystery, especially won with such reverence for the books it’s liberally borrowing from.

Apparently a lot of people felt this way as this book was huge. Or so I’m told. Despite being a Times #1 bestseller with favorable reviews, I’d never heard of the book when a coworker suggested it. There’s probably a lesson there about the sometimes arbitrary distinctions that separate commercial fiction from literary fiction. This book, like a lot of the books that get picked for book clubs just like mine, doesn’t straddle that line as much as it refuses to stake a claim. Its language isn’t the most artful but it’s mostly graceful and compelling. Its plot is a mystery with a strong gothic element, but it’s literary rather than sensational, purposefully following in the tradition of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre (nearly to a fault). Ultimately, it’s not a book I’ll find myself mulling over years later or returning to, but it’s a book that more than deserves its successes, literary or commercial.

To put it another way: there aren’t enough books that work this well to spend time worrying about its literary value. It does exactly what it means to do, even if it all it means to do is tell a good story.

There’s a place for that on my bookshelf.

Update: Odd. Two hours after I wrote this post I came across an essay by Michael Chabon defending entertainment in literature. He, as expected, says it better.

Comment / Posted in Books, Clubs, Fiction

Exhibit 9.11

The new 580 Split has a lot of fantastic work in it and at least three pieces by current Lincoln residents including my good friend Tyrone. His pieces are great (as are Josh’s poems), and it’s only my story dragging down Team Nebraska. The story’s about a town that floods when a dam breaks which is something that was always promised when I was a kid but never actually happened.

I also have a story in the new Southern Indiana Review which continues my trend of appearing in journals with ‘South’ in the title. There’s also a lot of great work in this one, and it’s a really beautiful journal, too. Oddly, my story here also mentions a flood, but it’s really about chicken rearing and fire starting. Appropriately, it’s titled “The Pyromaniac’s Chickens” and is a very, very old story. Like heating up Easy Mac in a dorm room old. Like excited about a new Weezer album old. Like smuggling beer in a duffel bag old.

You probably get the idea.

You should really pick up those journals for the work of the other writers and the fine editors who put them together. I feel very lucky to have appeared in those journals at all. Like smuggling beer in a duffel bag lucky.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Journals, Writing

Exhibit 9.5

The Pink Institution

It’s a horrific book in the best sense of the word. The characters are sketches but their devastation is real, and it’s a hard book to read without thinking of modernists classics (mostly Faulkner) that get every last bit of sadness out of each word. It’s a book of beautiful language which, in this case, doesn’t mean poetic or rhapsodizing language but rather an innovative use of the page’s white space and words that cut. The writing and the physical presentation of the book–complete with old photographs and text from a ball program–work so well together that it’s easy to image the fragmented text dilapidating in conjunction with its story.

I haven’t spent much time on that side of the Mason-Dixon line, but books like this one (not to mention Barry Hannah and Larry Brown, etc.) make it hard to believe the Civil War has ever really ended. Saterstrom’s work which isn’t so much about the South as it is the Southern condition. The story of four generations of a family told in 140 sparsely worded pages, the book works in cycles of abuse, alcoholism, and neglect. Each generation repeats the last one’s mistakes, and even as modernity slowly breaks into the novel the characters remain mired in an antebellum angst which they pass on to the next generation.

As you might have gathered, it’s a dark book. The characters get scarred early and seem to spend the rest of their lives making sure their own children get hurt worse than they did. But it’s also a quiely beautiful work that stands apart from a lot of contemporary literature. It reads like a classic that people have been reading for a long time, and one imagines they will be.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction

Exhibit 8.22

Thursday, April 17th
7pm
Callen Conference Center, Smith Curtis Building
Nebraska Wesleyan University

I’ll be going to this and will probably write up some thoughts about her great book The Pink Institution sometime between now and then. Or maybe after. I really don’t want to make a promise I can’t keep.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Promise, Readings

Exhibit 8.14

William Henry Lewis reads fiction tonight at Nebraska Wesleyan
7pm
Callen Conference Center

I’m excited. Should be a great reading.

Last night we saw Man’s Last Great Invention play at Duffy’s. Very good stuff. They once did a live soundtrack to Predator which was also superbly executed.

I don’t imagine the WHL reading will be in service of any 80s action movies, but I’m not ready to rule it out.

Comment / Posted in Fiction, Live, Readings

Exhibit 8.8

The Intuitionist

Colson Whitehead’s novel is about race. And elevators. Actually, mostly elevators. Which are, presumably, a metaphor for racial progress. So it’s still about race. But elevators, too.

The city is never named, nor is the year given, but it is more or less an alternate version of pre-Civil Rights era New York where elevators have allowed the city to achieve a lasting and modern verticality (notably to Lila Mae, the city’s first black, female elevator inspector, mankind has achieved this technological advancement far faster than its achieved any commitment to equality). For whatever reason, elevator inspectors are an essential cog in public service, the equivalent of police and firemen not just in their duties but in their cronyism, corruption, and insider fraternity. Lila Mae isn’t liked, not just because of her race and gender, but because she is an Intuitionist–a kind of elevator inspector who intuits problems without a physical examination of the elevator–who are opposed by the Empiricists, traditional elevator inspectors who hold power in the profession’s guild.

There’s an election coming up for the elevator guild presidency that, for the first time, an Intuitionist might win. An elevator crashes. It’s one Lila Mae has inspected. She’s a high profile Intuitionist so it’s not unreasonable to assume it’s been done to influence the election. But why? But who? But elevators?

If it sounds silly–and it probably sounds silly–it’s also remarkably brilliant. At no point does Whitehead take his subject anything less than absolutely seriously. In this world, journals are filled the minutiae of elevator repair, new elevator models are introduced to great fanfare and publicity, and who wins the elevator guild election dominates the media. That’s just how it is, and that commitment makes for a powerful allegory. Even rhapsodizing by the founder of Intuitionism on the coming age of ‘second elevation’ works for both the plot and the purpose and only at the end does Whitehead’s book strain to contain its message underneath its genre construction.

You see, it’s a mystery. To keep her job, Lila Mae needs to discover who set up the elevator crash, but she quickly realizes she can’t trust anyone, even her fellow Intuitionists. Her isolation can’t be separated from her race and gender and both ultimately play an essential role in the plot. The allegory is too powerful to ignored, but it wouldn’t be fair to the book to stop one’s reading there. It’s a really gripping plot, elevators and all, and it doesn’t hurt that Whitehead is an incredible prose stylist.

He’s that good, capable of long passages of rhapsodizing over his intricate world while still keeping things moving. He’s the rare writer capable of adapting his prose to fit the action of the book, and he does it almost sentence by sentence without it ever fracturing or feeling disjointed. I’ve been lucky to read a lot of good books recently, but I’m not sure if any were exactly what I wanted to read in the way The Intuitionist was. I want to read more novels like this one. I want to read more Colson Whitehead.

Maybe I should say that I don’t know if it ended particularly well. Or at least it ended abruptly with some threads resolved better than others. Or maybe I was just sad it was over.

You can check out the first chapter here. I think you should.

2 Comments / Posted in Books, Elevators, Fiction

Exhibit 7.20

The History of Love

I read Nicole Krauss’s book as part of my company’s book club, and while I get the feeling that some of the others didn’t enjoy it, I thought it was pretty great and the ideal book for a club of diverse readers like ours. It’s a quick, easy read that features a fair amount of pleasure in its language, plot, and message. Plus this book was everywhere a year or two ago, and reading it places you in conversation with millions of other book club readers across the country. Isn’t that what these things are all about?

Anyway, it’s one of those books that propels itself forward by hiding from the reader. If only the characters all wrote each other letters or Googled each other or had MySpace pages, none of this would really be necessary. But they don’t, and therefore the 24o pages of the book are mostly concerned with unravelling mysteries of distance.

Two main characters narrate the book. One, a Holocaust survivor originally from Poland, lives out his last few years with his friend Bruno in New York City while wondering how to meet the son who doesn’t know he exists. The other, a 14/15-year-old girl, deals with the death of her father by involving herself in the translation project of her mother. What ties these and a few other narrative threads together is a book called The History of Love which passes through each of these characters’ hands.

Various obstacles prevent any one character–or reader–from connecting the dots between them until, of course, the end. Mostly the obstacles are sad reminders of the fragmentation of diaspora but a few seem less than genuine, coincidences and choices made not by rational characters but by an author needing to buy more time. Still, it’s a really well constructed book full of stunning moments where the characters are capable of creating genuine heartbreak.

I probably wouldn’t have read it without the book club, but if I wanted to go eat Mexican food with them, I sort of had to. And I’m glad I did. Isn’t that what these things are all about?

Last thought: It’s remarkably unimportant to mention that Krauss’s husband is Jonathan Safran Foer, but I find it fascinating, and a little endearing, that this book shares so much with his two novels. Not just the plot elements–the Holocaust, a quirky old Man, children hunting for someone/thing around New York City–but how the books read and feel. If someone says, I want to read something like Everything is Illuminated, the obvious answer is The History of Love. And it has nothing to do with them being married. Or everything. Who knows.

Comment / Posted in Clubs, Fiction, Reading

Exhibit 7.17

Ben Marcus
Nebraska Wesleyan – Callen Conference Center
Thursday, March 6th
7pm
Comment / Posted in Fiction, Good Ideas, Readings

Exhibit 6.25


Went to see Chris Bachelder read at Nebraska Wesleyan last night. He was fantastic, reading a gripping section of his book U.S.! which is apparently about the repeated assassination and resurrection of Upton Sinclair. Hard to beat that.

He also has an e-book available from McSweeney’s here. Go take a look.

3 Comments / Posted in Books, Fiction, Readings

Exhibit 6.23

Remainder

I don’t remember what I expected when I picked up Tom McCarthy’s book, but it wasn’t exactly what I ended up getting. The premise of the book synopsizes really well: something falls from the sky and nearly kills our narrator at which point, armed with a large settlement, he begins to experience distinct visions which he then tries to painstakingly recreate. What I didn’t see coming is that the key phrase in the synopsis is ‘painstakingly recreate.’

In most books, the room around the plot is filled with side characters or subplots. You might be reading a spy novel but the spy might be in love, etc. McCarthy’s book is adamant in sticking to its main plot and the stubbornness is admirable if not always thrilling. The narrator hires actors, architects, and set designers to reenact a moment that may or may not have actually happened to him, and once he becomes bored with that reenactment, he begins another. What’s really fascinating is that though the premise is odd, the sheer exactness and mundane nature of the initial reenactments–finding the right smell of liver, scattering the ground with cigarette butts–can make it a bit of a chore in places though that’s undoubtedly the point.

I almost loved this book, but in the end I think I admired it more. McCarthy is a great writer though his prose isn’t particularly poetic or showy. His great gift is finding a way to get inside the scenes we see again and again and make it compelling each time. For a writer, it’s a bit of a high wire act of a novel. With no other plot and only one other major character–the “facilitator” hired to oversee the reenactments–there isn’t anywhere to hide in a novel like this. There is one character with one inexplicable purpose.

I imagine most readers will have either accepted the premise or put the book down at a certain point, and it’s frustrating when late in the book a possible explanation is offered for why the character is demanding these reenactments. At that point, I’d already decided I didn’t want an explanation and it comes off as a little heavy-handed, the one explanation in a book where even the narrator’s accident doesn’t get one. We get early on that he’s not the most reliable of narrators, but the beauty of the book is that the only thing to hold on to are his responses to the scenes he plays again and again. We’re at his mercy to tell us what’s real yet he doesn’t. Only he can tell us why he’s doing what he’s doing and though we are so closely in his head in every way, he never does. Each tiny bit of zen happiness he gets when the scene is done exactly right is what propels him, and the book, forward. We may not understand why he chooses the scenes he does or why he chooses at all, but we understand how it makes him feel. No explanations are necessary.

I suppose something should be said about the end. It comes quickly and the actual mechanisms of it are telegraphed pretty obviously. As the reenactments take the narrator closer and closer to danger, the mundane is no longer enough and the book’s ending seems appropriately inevitable.

Ultimately, I’m not sure quite how to feel about the book. I didn’t always enjoy reading it due to its exactness and straightforward prose, but those are also the things that brought about its best moments. At one point I was certain the book should have been a novella, but as it went on I realized it would have been pointless if the description had been condensed. There were times when I wanted someone to tell the narrator that what he was doing was crazy and times when I wanted him to do crazier things. It’s that kind of book. Until the ending, the book seems purposefully designed not to force the reader into new meanings. Its steadfast single-mindedness makes the reader enact all of the twists him or herself. The book keeps doing what it’s doing while our perceptions of it shift because, like life, it just keeps going through the same motions. Perhaps the narrator is just better than the rest of us at picking the moments that matter.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Reenactments

Exhibit 6.7

Samedi the Deafness

Jesse Ball’s book concerns a mnemonist, James Sim, who stumbles upon a man dying from a wound in his chest who tells Sim about a conspiracy that threatens to undo the fabric of society. The same day a man kills himself in front of the White House bearing an oblique but threatening message from someone calling himself Samedi. Sim’s efforts to discover the nature of the conspiracy leads him to a hospital for chronic liars who, naturally, obfuscate the true nature of the conspiracy (if there is one at all).

But that’s just the setup. Once the book settles in, it’s far less of a thriller than might be imagined. The fate of the nation rests in the balance, but no one, including our hero, really seems that concerned about it. If anything, Sim is more concerned with determining whether or not he can live among the conspirators than stopping them. In addition to his prodigious memory, Ball provides Sim with a surprising amount of insecurity. He’s the sort of narrator capable of acting decisively on every impulse but then analyzes every action until he determines he should have done the opposite.

It slows the speed in an effective way, making the action something separate from the plot. Surrounded by diagnosed liars, Sim has to pick through their mistruths in order to solve his mystery yet the conspirators are the liars. Whatever their motives might be, whatever the nature of the conspiracy is, Sim is forever unable to reconcile the incongruous pieces of the puzzle or think beyond the last thing he’s told.

(If only there was a word for books where intricate, absurd organizations confuse and frustrate an overmatched protagonist. It’s sort of like something that guy one guy wrote. You know, the guy with books about trials and whatnot. Grisham or whatever.)

It’s a brilliant world Ball has here, familiar only in its disappointments. But it’s an elusive book, and even when I finished the final page I wasn’t quite sure if Ball’s meditative anti-thriller really wanted to say something about the nature of truth, conspiracy, and deafness or if those elements were just something the author discovered as he discovered the characters’ names (Ball says he took from tombstones). The potential for making a political statement here is impossible to ignore since Samedi’s aim is to humble and reconstruct America, yet somehow Ball and his hero don’t touch on whether or not it’s a good thing. Frankly, I was glad.

The point seems to be that in a world of mistruths, Sim is incapable of moral outrage. Right and wrong have become as intertwined as true and false. Until he can get answers, he’s impotent and since no answer seems forthcoming, he will remain that way. That this makes him complicit never quite occurs to the character though it’s hard to avoid as a reader.

It’s such a strange and captivating read that it’s impossible to lament the somewhat unconcerned narrator. The reader, like Sim, is too driven to find the truth to bother with the fact that there’s no time to consider what the truth might mean.

Comment / Posted in Books, Deafness, Fiction

Exhibit 6.1

Absurdistan

Well, you should be reading Gary Shteyngart’s second novel now instead of wasting your time here. It’s exactly the sort of hysterical, profane satire that doesn’t come up a lot any more. Or, if it does, it usually targets celebrity or media or something small and fleeting and American. Shteyngart’s book targets those things to–at least in a way–but his obese, America-loving Russian oligarch stumbles into a bigger story of oil and politics in a crumbling former Soviet state named Absurdistan.

Misha, the oligarch, is an insatiable glutton for anything that comes his way–food, affection, conflict, etc.–and his beloved adopted country of America holds the largest excess of his vices. Struggling to obtain a visa to return to New York, he gets stuck in a staged civil war between Absurdistan’s two not-at-all distinct religious factions who are after the country’s rich oil reserves and the wealthy Halliburton contracts they’ll bring. An empathetic child in a fat man’s body, Misha’s money allows him to avoid recognizing the actors that create the world’s problems which he believes hurt him deeply. He thinks he understands hunger but he’s nearly orgasmic when feasting. He thinks he understands diaspora but only sees it in his own displacement from America.

Shteyngart keeps Misha sympathetic and where most authors might have slowly stripped him of his money and health, Shteyngart makes him complicit in the devastation of the country around him until the wall of his weight and money finally cracks and the world comes in. It’s a book about oil and greed and democracy, but mostly it’s about the loss of reason and principle in the selfish quest of a country, of a man, for wealth.

Oh, it’s also hilarious and remarkably well-written.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Shteyngarts

Exhibit 5.24

Brief Encounters With Che Guevara

This debut collection from Ben Fountain is everywhere. I had just finished reading the back cover–the second or third occasion in which I had read the back cover without making the leap of purchasing the book–when I walked into a clothing store which, for whatever reason, just happened to be selling the book on clearance. I picked it up for the plane ride back to Nebraska and while I certainly wasn’t disappointed, I wasn’t in love either.

Oddly, I read the entire collection save for the final story on the plane, and when I picked it up at home last week and read the final story it was like I was reading an entirely different book. That story, “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” is a strange, journalistic tale of an eleven-fingered Pianist playing in pre-WWI Vienna and is easily my favorite story of the collection. It accomplishes one of my favorite tricks of good fiction: I was convinced it was a true story, going so far as to turn to the Internet just to verify it was apocryphal. It’s a very good story, exactly the kind of thing you’d hate to teach because its big pleasure is in its telling and not its showing. I’m not sure if there is a single moment you could even call a ‘scene’ in the entire story, but it’s so much better for it.

The prose here is accomplished but straightforward, written mostly in mid-length sentences full of meaning-heavy similes and thoughtful reflection. Fountain does it so well that it would be juvenile to say these are the type of stories that M.F.A. programs typically produce and then want to publish in their literary journals, but during the lesser stories I had a hard time thinking anything differently. What saves them is their engagement with the world–mostly South America and Haiti–because though we’ve read stories like these, we haven’t read these stories.

As the title somewhat inadvertently suggests, most here are ‘encounter’ stories of an American meets the 3rd world variety. Despite some misgivings, I actually liked the non-encounter story–“Bouki and Cocaine”– the best of the Latin America stories. The others seemed to expect shock when we learn of the hypocrisy of revolution or awe at the strangeness of a foreign culture, and maybe I’m too cynical or Fountain is too polite but I felt I understood what the stories were trying to tell me long before they finished telling me. It’s not the sort of thing I would usually let bother me except that I felt these were very moral stories. Fountain obviously cares deeply for the places he’s been and it’s that wide, generous view of the world that separates the book from so many others.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel like every time a story was about to do something really interesting–a woman’s soldier husband returns from Haiti practicing Voodoo!–Fountain pulls back–she does nothing about it and learns a lesson about marriage. Only “Fingers” truly punches. The rest are like handshakes from someone whose name you are trying to remember. It usually ends up okay.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Fountains

Exhibit 5.21

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

I feel like I may have a hard time writing about this book. Not only did I read it weeks ago, I went into it with unreasonably high expectations which may have clouded my opinion of it slightly. That is not to say I didn’t love it–I did–but I felt like I enjoyed it more for its prose and its noir than its statement. That isn’t even a critique, it’s just a reversal of expectation that’s left me somewhat confused as to what place it occupies in Chabon’s canon.

The premise, much discussed, is immediately compelling and from the first sentence Chabon instills his broken hero with the desperation and cynicism of his exiled race. The plot moves in Chandler-esque fits and starts punctuated with scenes of our detective isolated, drunk, and unsure of his life and his case. Those, the moments where you can smell the cigarettes, the moments where the premise becomes background rather than what is driving the plot, were my favorite. Let’s call this the small plot (which is to say small in scope not importance).

There’s so much that’s memorable about the world Chabon has created that it almost hurts to say that I was happier when the book was just a murder mystery set in an alternate reality. It’s an almost irresistible thing to imagine and it’s flawless as a setting. As an actor in the plot, however, I found myself less convinced with how Chabon’s Sitka leads to this murder leads to this conspiracy leads to this ending. Let’s call this the big plot.

The big plot bothers me though it’s hardly the sort of thing to ruin a novel. It bothers me not because it was any more implausible than anything else in the novel (okay, maybe slightly more) but because I think it takes the leap from an ahistorical but potential reality to something that depends fundamentally on counter-intuitive logic. It’s one thing to casually mention that there was an extended war with Cuba sometime in the 60s or that Marilyn Monroe was first lady as these are really only dressing to the little plot. But when the big plot relies on motivations that seem counter to our understanding of the world, it feels a bit like a cheat.

The rules that govern the little plot seem appropriate for a world only slightly removed from our own. The rules that govern the big plot seem to suggest a more fundamental difference. It’s certainly not an unbridgeable gap, but I’m not sure that it ever gets adequately covered here. Learning the true nature of the big plot, our hero reacts–as we must–incredulously yet he doesn’t seemed shocked by the daunting levels of corruption and commitment needed to pull off such a scheme that, at least in any world related to our own, is undertaken with a very shaky motive.

I’d like to think that I’m just over thinking it–and I probably am–but I couldn’t help but feel like a brilliant, touching story with an unbeatable premise came to a bad end. The little plot is a perfectly wrought murder mystery written in stunning prose. The big plot is at best an ending that reached a little too far and at worst a small political point scored at the expense of the novel’s internal logic and continuity. It’s probably a little both, but it was enough to leave me thinking about how much I disliked being pulled out of the world in the last 50 pages after having read through the previous 350 as if they contained some delicious secret.

Even so, it’s still a fascinating book and deserving of its place on any year end list it finds itself on.

Last thought:
One of my favorite aspects of Chabon’s work is how compelling he can make characters who aren’t on the page. Like Grady Tripp’s wife in Wonder Boys or Art’s father in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the victim here is a great character though he is, of course, dead.

Comment / Posted in Books, Chabons, Fiction