Archive | August, 2014

Interlude 2: A found fragment.

30 Aug

I’ve been revisiting some of my autobiographical pieces, which I realize is a documentation of my writerly life in my twenties. You can read them in order:

part 1: first novel blues

part 2: second novel madness

part 3: minor success

part 4: short story and a crackup

part 5: short story that goes nowhere

part 6: junket life and five stories

part 7: dreams of automatic writing

part 8: first scene from my wretched screenplay

part 9: shift in political consciousness and unfinished novel

—and I realized that most of the fiction I’ve written in my life—and there’s an assload, let me tell you—hasn’t been read by anyone. And often I didn’t intend for anyone to read it. This makes writing exhilarating, deeply weird and often untethered to the point of writing in the first place. Which is communication. And yet, knowing you’re writing something no one else will read gives the act a weird magical overlay, as if you are communicating with some unknown part of your self. It’s a liberating feeling. And akin to madness.

Anyway, I have so many little snippets of things—I write every day before I start work for five minutes with no goal or direction in mind, on top of manuscripts and ye old blog here—that I often stumble across stuff that seems to have been written by someone else. Another little bit of writing alchemy. Here’s a plot outline for something I never wrote. The file was named “Storybird for Class,” so this was probably going to be a digital picture book. Or something. I can’t imagine that was going to be the title of a short story, but as I don’t remember writing it or why that’s one more thing that is lost forever.

Anyway, here tis:

 

In a small village at the edge of a vast forest, a young girl is raised by a single mother. The mother is strong. She has short, black hair, long arms and legs, and carries around a short knife. The villagers are warriors; the forest outside is populated with ogres, dragons, demons and monsters. The mother spends her days husking corn and shelling peas, cooking stews and beating linens. Her life is hard, but so is everyone else’s. At nights, she puts her daughter to sleep and stares out at the slow red shift of the stars.

One day, the girl goes missing. The mother wanders through the dust streets and huts, but can’t find her anywhere. She can’t find any men, either.

They had left, and would not return.

 

 

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Interlude 1: a weird poem I found in a library book.

29 Aug

(Back to work, and the writing life stalls once again. I finished up a first draft of a new manuscript this summer, so that was something. Simone turns 5 in three months. Pearl is halfway to 3. Ye gods, the time.)

This morning, I found this note, written in a child’s handwriting, in a library book. I didn’t write it, and I haven’t edited it. I think it’s a poem of some kind, but it might just as easily be vocabulary words with a note tacked on to the end, or some type of cutup school assignment.

Here it is:

Corporation.
government
Collapse
Left to itself
but once all the good land
still it gave us a chance
The government.
Wouldn’t just
print more money.

Well, I hope you arrived safely.
Hi, sweetie.
Hope you are having fun.
Don’t forget to wear a sweater in the evenings.

The handwriting was a young child’s, a light scrawl in pencil. And I think it’s supposed to be a poem, but I can’t tell for sure.

Of course, I find odd stuff all the time. Once I found a religious poem that read like a new hymn. I find discarded marginalia on post-it notes, tarot cards, even a polaroid of a new naval cadet shaking hands with George Bush.

Anyway, thought it was worth sharing.

I kept the little slip of paper.

National Book Award winners, number 32: 1996’s Ship Fever, by Andrea Barrett.

22 Aug

 (I’ve been writing poems recently, which is insane. I’ve been reading more of it, but my mind seems to want to write poems now, instead of novels. Right now I’m working on what is turning into an epic poem from Aristotle, learning of Alexander the Great’s death. I’m often a mystery to myself.)

1.

In 1996, Andrea Barrett won the National Book Award for her intelligent and intriguing short story collection, Ship Fever.

The stories all revolve around scientists and doctors in the 19th century. Barrett’s style is clean and quick, with the major scientists (Linnaeus and Mendel, among others) often on the periphery of the narrative’s action.

The title story is the longest, the richest. It follows Lauchlin, a Canadian doctor, at odds with the superstitions still saturating his profession. Much of his life has been wasted. He’s in love with a married woman. He’s drifting. Then he takes the job dealing with the sick Irish arriving in boatloads on Canadian shores. He’s been tasked with helping save the malnourished and the near-dead as the potato famine rages back in Ireland. Here’s what he finds, as he moves inside dozens of ships, looking for contagious diseases:

 

“Into the hold: again, again. Already Lauchlin felt as though he knew that place by heart. The darkness, of course; and the rotting food, and the filth sloshing underfoot. The fetid bedding alive with vermin and everywhere the sick. But a last surprise awaited him here. He inched up to a berth in which two people lay mashed side by side. He leaned over to separate them, for comfort, and found that both were dead.

“He vomited into a corner, a place already so filthy he couldn’t make it worse. Then he scrambled up the ladder and hung breathing heavily over the rail. It was too much, it was impossible.”

Barrett is a very fine writer, economical, elegant. The stories work. They’re haunting, often thrilling and Barrett is masterly in describing the passage of time. But she isn’t soft. She isn’t sentimental. She isn’t re-assuring. Many of the stories detail the horror of aging. Here she is, in the story, “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,” having her narrator describe her husband and the passing years:

 

“Eventually our daughters grew up and moved away. And then, when I was nearly fifty, after Richard had been tenured and won his awards and grown almost unbearably self-satisfied, there came a time when the world went gray on me for the better part of a year.”

Barrett is similar to Alice Munro and William Trevor. There’s something calming about her work. But her focus on scientific discovery, and her adherence to the historical settings and details of her work, make her an intriguing writer.

 

Dignified and high-minded fiction.

Dignified and high-minded fiction.

In fact, it is the science that makes this very fine book feel unique. Barrett understands the mindset of the scientist bent on changing the world—a heady mix of arrogance, empathy, education, ambition, and philanthropy. Here one of her narrators says it well, referring to a lesson her husband, Richard, teaches young science students: “ . . . Richard would tell them the other Mendel story. The one I told him . . . . The one in which science is not just unappreciated, but bent by loneliness and longing.”

Loneliness, isolation, solitude, research, specimens, the misunderstanding of the larger world—Barrett uses the 19th century as a platform to get at the same issues surrounding so much of science today. And yet, the thing I took away from these stories was a melancholic acceptance of the passage of time. Here she has Linnaeus succumbing to forgetfulness:

 

“His once-famous memory was nearly gone, eroded by a series of strokes—he forgot where he was and what he was doing; he forgot the names of plants and animals; he forgot faces, places dates. Sometimes he forgot his own name. His mind, which had once seemed to hold he whole world, had been occupied by a great dark lake that spread farther every day and around which he tip-toed gingerly.”

Devastating.

2.

1996 was an intriguing year for American fiction. Chuck Palahniuk vaulted to the forefront of underground fiction with his macho-gay masochistic fantasy, Fight Club. David Foster Wallace published his epoch-defining magnum opus, Infinite Jest[1]. Joyce Carol Oates released her epic, truthy fiction, We Were the Mulvaneys. John Berendt published his epic, fictiony truth, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Stephen Millhauser—another intriguing short story writer—released his epic business novel, Martin Dressler. Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Ron Hansen, Elizabeth McCracken, Richard Ford and Janet Peery all published novels.

Infinite Jest remains a milestone. Fight Club seems to capture all of the ennui (yet little of the spirit) of the era. But Barrett’s book in its quiet, hushed desperation is probably the best of the lot.

[1] A hole in my reading life; I haven’t read it.

Interlude 2: Another poem: Aristotle on his deathbed in Euboea.

20 Aug

Aristotle on his deathbed in Euboea.

 

The only gods I believed in were the Furies the avengers the scourge.

Blind rage.

Ares clearly stalks the earth with gaping holes for eyes.

If there is a god of torture and lament I believe in him.

If there is a goddess of reversal of fortune, I believe in her.

A defining characteristic of life is sudden calamity.

Man always lives in perilous times.

(Why didn’t I see this sooner?)

Aphrodite is the greatest ideal, yet I hardly knew her.

I always wished Apollo would appear to me to me to me.

But he didn’t.

I wish I could have had a thousand children.

Each child carrying a piece of me into the future.

 

I have so much more to know so much more to see

The pleasure temples in Babylon.

The horse people beyond the known world.

Dust dervishes dancing on dreaded deserts.

Mountains that crest in the clouds.

 

I can see Callisthenes with his neck broken.

Killed by my former pupil.

I can see Socrates dead on a slab.

Poisoned by the people he loved.

I can see the great Philip cut down in a whirl.

Stabbed by a slave.

Ignominious, pointless, embarrassing.

The human body holds so much blood.

If there is anything sacred, it is human blood.

 

I was born in the hills of Macedonia.

I had rough hands.

I hunted.

I sang.

I ran through the dust and juniper.

In the summer the land was purple and yellow.

Royal colors for a wild place.

Where do these memories reside?

Where do they go when I die?

 

And will I be remembered?

And did I do any good?

And could I have molded Alexander to a more peaceful cast?

And are his sins my own?

And is history anything more than a hollow gong, a broken axe?

 

Archilochus, I wish we had known each other.

you must have been good for a desperate laugh.

I didn’t laugh enough in life I couldn’t see anything funny.

I loved tragedy.

I admired Diogenes.

I studied Euripides.

I worshiped Sophocles.

Hesiod, did you introduce chaos into the world?

(We would not have liked each other.)

Pythagorus, were you mad?

How did you entice so many followers to your absurd ways?

 

The seven wise men

—Solon, Bias, Thales, Periander, Chilon, Pittacus, Cleobulus—

what did you give the world?

Pith. Wit. Charm. Empty words. Precisely nothing.

 

An ache in my thoughts.

Cannot sleep.

There is an acrid smell in the air.

I wish the scent was lavender or honey.

Not this burnt, metallic taste in my mouth.

My enemies I had so many and I never quite understood why.

Is there a mathematical way of proving that everything is real?

Did my lists and organizing principles, did they do anything?

 

The clouds the clouds they are so familiar

I can feel my essence fading.

What happens to the eyes with age?

What causes a man’s wrists to grow weak?

There is something divine in the bedroom

I can say that with complete authority

Children are miracles

Gods exist somewhere

In the memory and imagination of man.

Peace is not the highest ideal.

 

There will be a stone at the end of time

On it, I want my name inscribed.

Interlude 1: poem for Osip Mandelstam.

19 Aug

Brief Ode to Osip Mandelstam.

 

Simple and beautiful.

Like a curved blade.

He wrote poems in the worst decades of the 20th century.

He used Greek myths to comment on the horror of Soviet Russia.

Deimos and Phobos run amok

Odysseus filled with space and time

Storms, horns, dragons, aside old men and cracked wheat.

A refugee lost in a dying age.

Truth is dark, he writes.

Children play with the bones of dead animals.

Bright minds disappear.

What was the true source of Achilles’s rage?

So frail and desperate and vicious and rude—

This world, the firmament seething with worms, he writes.

Time gnaws at me like a coin, he writes.

A tiny voice, elegant and wonderful

buffeted about by the bullies of history.

You took away all the oceans and rooms, he writes.

He offers so little solace.

But he gives so much beauty.

A black sun will rise, he writes.

 

I wonder if we’ve evolved out of his peculiar sensibility.

The refined simplicity of sunsets marred only by the screams of torture victims.

The stunning ancient artistry of crags and caves and mountains

Besieged by the corpses that besmirch the land.

Mounds of human heads are wandering into the distance, he writes.

 

Jesus, what a line.

 

Mandelstam.

A poet here nearly lost to the sands of time.

A cynic, an idolater, a victim.

He spent a lifetime writing his own epigraph.

“Nobody sees me. But in books much loved, and in children’s games I shall rise from the dead to say the sun is shining.”

National Book Award winners, number 31: 2001’s The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen.

15 Aug

1.

In 2001, Jonathan Franzen won the National Book Award for his egregiously overrated family melodrama, The Corrections.

Of all the books that have won the top award, The Corrections made me the most nervous. I didn’t like it. I don’t like Franzen. He’s both overwrought and underwhelming. He writes small stories in a grand, cloying style. He belongs to a group of hyperrealist writers that I’m not crazy about—John Updike is the greatest of them, and Philip Roth, I suppose, could also be lumped in with this group, although he’s often so funny that I can’t imagine he’d enjoy their company—that is the worst of middle brow thinking and high brow pretentiousness. A lot of people love Franzen. I have friends that cite The Corrections as their favorite novel. But I just don’t get it. The book’s prose and conceit struck me as slippery, yet over-the-top. So, full disclosure: I tried to re-read it, but I couldn’t.

So I must air my biases against Franzen up front: He has no guts. He has no panache. He’s too calm, too rationale. He loves minutia. He loves small moments (that often feel contrived and phony). He’s “serious.” He lacks the wildness I seek in contemporary novels, yet has too much cultural detritus to deliver a classic drama. In a word, he’s middle-brow.

Let me put it another way: Jonathan Franzen is not great. He’s not a terrible writer, he’s just undeserving of the near-endless plaudits and accolades.

Realism can cut many ways, but works best with a comic glow and a terse lack of sentimentality. (Check out The End of Vandalism for a fantastic example.) Franzen does the opposite. He writes in a large, tragic manner, creating a giant, sprawling character study where very little happens. (Mark Haddon covers similar territory in his A Spot of Bother, but it’s a much better read.) A pop novel, in all the good and bad that term conveys. Light-weight despite its heft and grammatical density, as well as clumsy, inelegant and stuffed with trivialities.

The story follows a family with three adult children: Chip, a failed screenwriter; Denise, a chef; and Gary, a white collar suburbanite. The mother’s name is Enid, and she wants all her children at home for a holiday. Perhaps the last family holiday. The father’s name is Alfred, and he is sliding into dementia. The novel tracks the family dissolving, and eventually reuniting, around the father’s decline. Along the way, his pettiness, his autocratic cruelty, and his weird unreason from their childhood resurfaces. He comes across as something out of Pat Conroy territory, mean and small-minded and smart. They each carry with them decades of hurt feelings, resentments, anger, and neglect.

Alfred’s failing faculties provide most of the emotional ballast of the novel, and there are some excruciating scenes. He doesn’t want to admit he’s dissipating—he doesn’t want to concede—and his family, a bit abused over the years, don’t want to admit it, either. The mutual myopia leads to a series of small disasters, culminating in a horrifying cruise trip. Here Franzen describes the father’s diminishing state:

 

“His exhaustion deepened when he went upstairs. The kitchen and dining room were ablaze in light, and there appeared to be a small boy slumped over the dining-room table, his face on his place mat. The scene was so wrong, so sick with Revenge, that for a moment Alfred honestly thought the boy at the table was a ghost from his own childhood

“He groped for switches as if the light were a poison gas he had to stop the flow of.”

The first paragraph radiates with a creeping menace. But it’s that second paragraph, right there, that reveals all of Franzen’s deficiencies as a writer. Read it a few times.

Each family member has a plot, involving dreams and schemes and money and failure. And if it all sounds grand and cathartic and moving, well, it isn’t. Much of the novel is marbled with pop culture of the time period, and Franzen substitutes an ironic investigation into the pop trends for real gravitas. He is vague when he should be specific (there are far too many scenes where characters talk about small things and the point of the scene is unclear), and specific when he should be vague (he spends way too much time describing interiors, and he over-explains the interior thoughts of his characters, leaving little ambiguity).

Really just pretty bad.

Really just pretty bad.

Chip, the failed screenwriter, in particular, involves solipsistic, repetitive, and quite boring writing. Here’s an excerpt where Chip is working on a screenplay, working and failing:

 

“In order to salvage his artistic and intellectual ambitions, he added a long theoretical opening monologue. But this monologue was so unreadable that every time he turned on his computer he had to go and tinker with it. Soon he was spending the bulk of each work session compulsively honing the monologue. And when he despaired of shortening it any further without sacrificing important thematic material, he started fussing with the margins and hyphenation to make the monologue end at the bottom of page 6 rather than the bottom of page 7. He replaced the word ‘continue’ with ‘go on’ to save three spaces, thus allowing the word ‘(trans)act(ion)s’ to be hyphenated after the second t, which triggered a whole cascade of longer lines and more efficient hyphenations.”

Do I need to comment? Is this a scene from a great or even good American novel? What the fuck am I reading?

So Franzen also overwrites, and he isn’t alone. There’s a tendency towards over-furnished fiction—as Virginia Wolff coined it—wherein writers over-describe locales in lieu of story. Or fall into frenzied interior states where very little is actually happening. Characters watch TV, or sit in airports, and the epiphanies and the images doth flow in an cascade that is dizzying and overpowering, but it’s only smoke, not fire.

He does have a handle on the zeitgeist. He captures restaurant culture, the nascent foodie thing that began to percolate in the mid-90s and blew up by the new century. He also creates the best (or worst, depending on your point of view) example of the manic pixie girl stereotype, the larger than life bi-sexual, slightly unhinged adventuress that plagued American film and fiction for fifteen or so years[1].

 

2.

What constitutes middle-brow fiction is a hefty debate. If a book doesn’t threaten the reader’s beliefs or sensibilities in some way—high-brow literature uses characters and ideas (and sometimes the form itself), low-brow violence and/or pornography—then it’s middle brow. If it appears to be sophisticated but in the final tally is quite simple, then it’s middle-brow.

I think middle-brow art has an important place. Much of the old Hollywood that I love—Singin’ in the Rain, Casablanca, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, It’s a Wonderful Life, and so on—falls into this category. Middle-brow art often celebrates values of family, civilization and basic decency. And although middle-brow art often slips into cliché, these are not bad things to celebrate. And, just as important, this middle-brow culture gives artists something to push against. Many of the great artistic movements—the Romantics, Dadaism, the Beats, the French and British New Waves—resulted from pushback against a dominant middle-brow culture.

And nowadays we probably have too much low-brow art. Superhero comics—which I absolutely love—have invaded not only film but fiction, too. Our best writers dabble in science fiction and noir. Low-brow art can be punishing, needlessly cruel, stupidly callow and relentlessly boorish. Low-brow art often isn’t fun, despite appearances to the contrary. Low-brow art often embodies the worst sexism, racism, and so on that a culture has buried within it. And, perhaps most important of all, low-brow can’t be pushed against; it has no boundaries, just titillation. In many ways the low-brow genres work best in the hands of their own practitioners[2].

And—in what is of course a ridiculously simplified system—high-brow has its drawbacks too. High-brow can be cold, calculating affectations, and often just false. The actions of characters in many high-brow novels are just wrong, contrived, utterly stupid, implausible. High-brow novels can be wordy, silly, self-serious. They can also feel joyless, overly cerebral, lifeless, intentionally esoteric and alienating. And I’m an unrepentant snob!

So middle-brow art and culture has its place, and it’s an important one, and I think that in some ways we’ve lost the elegant middle-brow novel. I don’t read them—I suppose Jess Walters writes them, that’s one I can think of, I don’t know, Elizabeth Stroud?—and I don’t know many people who do.

But I despise when a middle-brow artist tries to pawn off his/her fiction as high art. I always feel cheated. And I hate middle-brow novels that feel convoluted and stretched, as if a few hundred pages isn’t enough space to come to age-old conclusions.

Franzen was and is praised for being revolutionary when he isn’t. He’s an old school, 19th century novelist in a post-modernist pose.

 

3.

Franzen makes me cranky. He isn’t a bad writer. I just find him an invidious presence in American letters. There are great novels dealing with family drama and trauma, and there are fantastic, character-driven works of literature, and there are wonderful, challenging avant garde works of fiction coming out every year. So how the fuck did Franzen win so much notoriety? Hell, even his champions say things like, “Franzen takes stereotypical characters and situations and then breathes life into them,” a left-handed compliment if I ever heard one.

Yet in some ways, The Corrections stands as a weird testament to the time right before 9/11 derailed so much of our thinking. The novel has little to say in the way of politics. The characters are distinctly self-involved Americans, stand-ins for the Clinton-era boomers who drifted through a malaise of their own self-content. Franzen’s characters are faced with the ennui of too much material success, not enough spiritual meaning. They drift, and the patriarch’s encroaching senility is a good metaphor for the national feeling near the end of Clinton’s presidency: a dumbfounded, bamboozled phased out weirdness. This is the greatest civilization in the history of the world? MTV and Mission Impossible II and Meet the Parents?

The nightmare world—that the U.S. has played an enormous hand in—hadn’t yet blasted its way back into the public consciousness. Yet people knew in a deep-rooted way that the peace and prosperity were unearned.

So we limped along, a country bickering over absurd little symbols and petulant nonsense while the suffering and misery and violence of the larger world was streaking right towards us. We grew complacent[3]. Things seemed too easy.

And Franzen understood this! Buried somewhere inside this too-long novel is the shadowy presence of doom, not just for these characters but for the civilization that created them. He did see things. He did scratch at something big. His novel, for all its myriad flaws, is a time capsule of American culture right before things once again spun off the rails.

Anyway, Franzen beat some good books. Mark Danielewski published his dynamite, and supremely unnerving horror/typographical post-modern art book, House of Leaves. Philip Roth released his loved and hated The Human Stain. Michael Chabon put out his epic study of the first comic book creators, The Adventures of Cavalier and Klay. Barbara Kingsolver published Prodigal Summer. Dan Chaon—a great young writer—released Among the Missing. Jennifer Egan, Susan Straight, Myla Goldberg, and T.C. Boyle all put out new novels.

Franzen’s was not the best, it was not the most interesting, it was and remains a less than advertised family drama gilded with too much topical information. How he became a household name is beyond me.

 

[1] Kate Winslett delivers the best example of this in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

[2] Read Richard Stark’s Parker novels if you want to see what I mean.

[3] And no, I don’t believe this was a two-party problem, but I’m trying to avoid too much overt political commentary in these little reviews. And for god’s sake I’m not saying we were militarily complacent.