Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Good Brother

I don't know what's up lately with Chris Offutt, but for much of today I was thinking of his 1997 novel The Good Brother. The novel has two parts. There's a murder, there's some hiding out, first in Kentucky, the second up around Deep Creek, Montana. It's a very 1990s novel, not the grunge and the boom part, but the part I remember more clearly, the AM radio part, with survivalists, militiamen paranoia, government-hate rising to the level of domestic terrorism, and that decade's great waves of disenfranchisement.

He had a great sci-fi short story in the McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, and I know he's been teaching a bit. The internet machine tells me he's written a few episodes of the upcoming HBO series True Blood. I know he'd done some acting early in his life and recently in The Slaughter Rule, which is a very Missoula'd-up movie. But goll darn it, I want more novels and short stories from him.

He also gave me the best writing advice I've ever heard: "Be more vulnerable." I'm tryin', man. I'm tryin'.

What started me thinking about it was some idle reading of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. I'm teaching a summer class for teens, which entails a lot of sitting around while they write (by write I mean check their facebook) in the Idyllwild Arts library. So I'll read anything at this point, and the Tolkien was at the top of the stack. In a letter to W.H. Auden, an early champion of the Lord of the Rings business, Tolkien confesses that he didn't write with any grand plan, except for a few details, that there would be a spider, that Frodo would have trouble getting rid of the ring, for example, but beyond that, the unfolding of the story was a surprise to him. Guy walks into the woods, events ensue. It sounds so simple, doesn't it?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Crime Roundup

Hmm. This is the time of year when I generally make myself a giant pile of crime novels and plough through them with something close to ecstasy. But so far this summer there have been several piles, and the ecstasy has failed to materialize. I was never terribly hopeful about the state of crime fiction in general, but has writing in this genre gotten worse lately? Even a few well-known writers whose work I have repeatedly been assured I would love, and the reading of whom I had been holding off for the right moment, have disappointed.

One of them was George Pelecanos, whose The Night Gardener I actually quite liked. But then I turned to Right As Rain, one of the celebrated Derek Strange/Terry Quinn novels. I have to admit that I found it unbearably sanctimonious--the subject of these novels is race, and Pelecanos wields his Limbaughvian liberal straw men with embarrassing clumsiness, congratulating himself at every turn as, simultaneously, his characters emit angry speeches about white liberals who congratulate themselves at every turn. It's put me off this novelist entirely, in spite of my appreciation for the other book, which is really very skillful in its portrait of the social complexities of Washington, D.C.

Another letdown came in the form of Benjamin Black's novella The Lemur. I didn't mind the first novel by this writer, alter ego of the literary novelist John Banville, but here, in this shortened form, Black appears to have forgotten how to tell a story. The protagonist, a sour middle-aged man named John Glass, used to be a crack reporter. Now, he's married to an heiress he despises and has been hired to write his ex-CIA father-in-law's biography. He hires a researcher, the researcher finds out something, and then is murdered. Then there's eighty pages of people having the same inconclusive conversation over and over--Glass's mistress, a homicide detective, a jive-talkin' black journalist, the researcher's girlfriend--and then you find out the deadly information. There are never any clues, no gradual unveiling of detail. Instead, there are just a bunch of assholes--yes, every single character is a nasty, selfish, morally corrupt dullard--and a lot of descriptions of the wind in the trees. The book is weirdly static. Maybe it worked in its original incarnation as a serial in the New York Times Magazine, but here, it's a slog at 132 pages.

Worse yet was Will Lavender's Obedience, a book with a great premise: a college professor assigns his ethics class to solve a crime that has yet to be committed--and the crime turns out, quite possibly, to be real. Here's the passage, on page 55, that made me give up on this dreadful novel--in this scene, Dennis, an irresistebly charming young Republican, is being seduced by the Dean's wife:

She stripped off the wet bathing suit and left it in a heap at her jeweled feet...She had shaved her pussy into a fine little arrow of fuzz...Before he knew it he was coming, losing himself in the frenzied wake [they're on a boat, see. -JRL], the sloshing sound of the cove now a roar, Elizabeth with her head thrown back on top of him and her tits cupped in her own hands.

Wow. Now that's bad.

I did actually manage to enjoy two crime novels over the past couple of months. One is the new one from Sweden's Hakan Nesser, Mind's Eye, which pits Inspector Van Veeteren against an open-and-shut case that doesn't make any sense. It's dark and witty and filled with that great Scandinavian winking ennui--no masterpiece, but well-crafted, gripping, and refreshingly un-full of itself. The other good one is Stephen Carter's bestselling The Emperor of Ocean Park. I'm a little late to the party on this one, but Carter, a Yale law professor, appears to have managed to become an excellent novelist in his spare time. The book is a political thriller by way of Richard Ford or Jane Smiley--a wise, self-deprecating narrator; many smart social insights; nice, long sentences; wonderful characters. In the end, it's a little long and implausible, but it's hard to begrudge Carter the opportunity to stretch his limbs, the prose is so thoroughly enjoyable. I should add that Carter is writing about race, too--his fictional D.C. family is black--and he kicks Pelecanos's ass on the subject. I've got Carter's second book queued up and ready to go, for when I finish this new James Wood thing (How Fiction Works), which I will address in a future post. Short version: it's superb, so far. I admire rather than like Wood's reviewing, but this book is both smart and personable. More soon.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Crace Craze

John, I'm looking back over the 459 Ward Six posts and am shocked that none of us have mentioned the work of Jim Crace. I am informed that it is pronounced as one syllable, although he is European, or at least British. I first heard about him from you, regarding Being Dead, whose protagonists are a dead couple in some sand dunes. It sounded like too much of a trick, at the time, and I avoided the book until after I found The Gift of Stones and read it on the train between El Paso and Charlottesville. The Gift of Stones is a pre-Bronze Age story about a family of stoneworkers and the sadness of progress. Or something. What grabbed me about the book was the dawning realization that it was written almost entirely in iambics. It scans.

The Devil's Larder is a book of short essays, mostly from fictional characters, about food and taste, written with a sort of sinister knowingness. I was surprised by this book, after reading a few novels. While still largely iambic, he allows in essays his sentences to play around more than in fiction, like Guy Davenport or Evan S. Connell. Like the best food writing, it's really about death.

Here's an excerpt. Scan it!

This afternoon, I thought I’d fill my time by making bread. My old wrists ache with tugging at the dough of what, I think, will have to be my final loaves. I tore a strip off for good luck, kissed it, put it on the window sill. I warmed the oven, greased the tins, and put the dough to cook on the highest shelf. Now I’m waiting at the window, with a smudge of flour on my lips and with the smell of baking bread rising through the house, for the yard to fill and darken with the shadows and the wings.

I haven't read Quarantine, because it's about Jesus, and I am wary of fiction that contains Jesus, having been raised around people who sneak a little Jesus or America into anything, like raisins in chocolate chip cookies, something they think is sweet and you would like, or perhaps need. Good sources inform me that I should put aside these assumptions and read Quarantine, and that it reads like Gift of Stones and The Pesthouse, all focused survival dramas in blasted zones.

The Pesthouse, Crace's most recent novel, is terrifying. I read this one on a train, too, the Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Palm Springs in June. The Sunset Limited is a good train for reading, because it is mostly stationary, stuck behind freight.

Here's the first paragraph of The Pesthouse:

Everybody died at night. Most were sleeping at the time, the lucky ones who were too tired or drunk or deaf or wrapped too tightly in their spreads to hear the hillside, destabilized by rain, collapse and slip beneath the waters of the lake. So these sleepers (six or seven hundred, at a guess; no-one ever came to count or claim the dead) breathed their last in passive company, unwarned and unexpectedly, without experiencing the fear. Their final moments, dormant in America.

Scan that, man. It begins, as epics properly do, with a trochee: EVryBODy DIED at NIGHT. and then another trochee: MOST were SLEEPing AT the TIME, the LUCKy ONES and so on, broken up every ten syllables or so to interrupt the rhythm, to keep you from noticing.

It's mastery, simply.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

More fun with language

Okay, maybe fun isn't the right word. Maybe obsessive-compulsive tics. This is how I feel sometimes about Ed's little alliteration game from the other day...amusing, enjoyable, insidious, malevolent.

Back when Rhian and I were about to welcome our first kid, we got into this weird habit. I guess she had mentioned to me once that Canadians pronounce the letter "h" differently from Americans--they say "haitch," not "aitch." (Canadians: true?) In any event, we promptly began tacking the letter "h" onto the front end of any word that began with a vowel, giving us "honions," "heggs," "you're a hasshole," etc.

When Owen was born, we quickly began calling him "O," which was immediately upgraded, thanks to Canada, "Ho," and from there, the wildly inappropriate "Ho Chi Minh." That was too long, so we shortened it to "Chi-Minh," which was shortened further still to "Cheem." For a long time, the baby was referred to as "Cheem." (I could spring from here to a discussion of pet names, but I'd rather stay married. You know what I'm talking about, though.)

We also went through a period of softening consonants (for instance, "p" became "b"; "t" became "d"), and then one of hardening them; and then we started doing both at once, so that "birds" became "pirts," a "backpack" turned into a "pagbag." We got over that one, eventually, but a few words have remained in the lexicon, as have a few artifacts of particular funny regional or international accents we've indulged over the years, or exaggerated parodies of people we've encountered.

I don't believe there's anything especially unusual or writery about any of this, though I assume we indulge it with a little extra elan, and get perhaps a little extra delight out of it, compared to your normal citizen. But ultimately, these games are, I would bet, common to most people, especially couples, who can evolve in-jokes with blinding speed. Examples abound: Cockney rhyming talk...LOLcat speech. (I knew we were in a new kind of era when I heard my department chair exclaim delightedly, during a VIP dinner, "I can has cheezburger!")

If you have any personal language amusements you'd like to torture us with, by all means, spill 'em. Or, should I say, zbill 'em.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


I recently returned from a few weeks driving around Mexico, visiting the very cool cities of Guadalajara, Guanajuato, Tepic, Matahuela, and Guyamas, Culiacan, and Mazatlan in the great state of Sinaloa, which is reportedly at war. It seemed as verdant and pastoral as eastern Kansas, however, despite reports in local papers with front-page photos of beheaded police, but we saw no beheadings, only an endlessness of highway and frijoles.

I meant, of course, to do a lot of writing while I was traveling, but ended up mostly sketching, drawing strange offshore islands and a pot of begonias on the hotel railing.

My notebook has become an increasingly important thing in my life. I've never had a process of writing, have, in fact, fought against any sort of routine. But I've reached the notebook stage that I notice informs high-school visual art students, with the notebook serving as sketchbook, commonplace book, to-do list, general weirding-out place, and a sifter. If something is not important enough to write in/tape in/spray adhesive in to my notebook, it will probably dissolve into the deep wells of my forgetting.

Perhaps a note here that nods towards a poem or story I might someday write. And lists of things. I've been assembling a list of two-word alliterative phrases such as Bee Beard, Car Cube, Tube Top, because they are awesome, especially in lengthy rows. Any suggestions are welcome.

Attitude Adjustment
Exiled Ex-Executioner
Zombie Zone


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What's experimental fiction? And do I like it?

Reviewing some of the stuff I've written here over the past month, it occurs to me that I might, of late, be coming off as an opponent of experimental fiction. I've come out, at any rate, against the high-falutin', the confusing, the obscure.

But, thinking about the stories I love, it's rather surprising to me how many of them could be filed under that slippery title: the short fiction of Donald Barthleme, Lydia Davis, Stephen Dixon; the novels of David Markson, Katherine Davis, Lynne Tillman (well--the one I've read, anyhow). There are other writers whose work I can't seem to warm up to, but whose intelligence and verve I admire: Ben Marcus, for example.

And so I started thinking--what makes experimental fiction good? With traditional fiction, it's much easier to explain why it works--a gripping plot, convincing characters, interesting situations, vivid settings. But how do you judge, say, a novel made up entirely of anecdotes about literary figures, delivered in a quasi-psychopathic deadpan? Or a short story in which all the words relating to sex are amusingly misspelled? Or a book with a table of contents, introduction, foreword, author's note, index, and acknowledgements, all bookending hundreds of blank pages?

The answer, at least for me, lies in the most fundamental of literary values: honesty. By honesty, I don't mean not lying--I mean, very simply, being true to one's own vision, in the face of all possible criticism, in the face of all probable unmarketability. There are writers of popular fiction whom I have praised here, who I think fit the bill: the thriller writer (thrillerist?) Lee Child, for instance, or the maddening, uneven, but eye-rollingly lovable Stephen King. Their talents, of course, also happen to shift a hell of a lot of units. There are writers of semi-conventional literary fiction, too; if you read this blog regularly, you know who they are, at least in our opinions. And experimental writers apply as well. These are people whom you feel, obtuse as their writing may be, are trying desperately to express something that is deeply important to them, in the only way they know how. All these writers are the same kind of writer, to me anyway--I see in them the desire to write the thing they wish existed, the thing they wish they could sit down and enjoy reading. At times, you might wonder why they would enjoy reading such a thing--but then again, think of your own tastes, the things you like that disgust your husband, the things that turn you on which, in some places, would land you in the hoosegow.

But of course, how do you tell? How do you know who's earnest and pure of heart, and who's a poser?

Well--you just know, of course. And then other people disagree with you and ruin your day, because, in the end, it's all a matter of taste. That said, though, for nearly every obsessive reader, there is somebody too wacky for prime-time whom they adore and understand, whom nobody else does, and that reader hangs on that writer's every lunatic word.

Ultimately, in my view, every piece of fiction that's any good was once an experiment. One man's experiment might be another's thin broth, of course--but it isn't the originality that matters, it's the personality. It's the sense that a writer is laying it on the line for her dumbass, fucked-up vision. It's the feeling that a writer is cackling as he types, thinking, "This is never going to be published, NEVER!" It's the sensation, thrilling and vertiginous, that a writer is doing something simultaneously pointless, vital, and frightening.

Do you adore some crazy shit everyone else regards as gobbledygook? I dare you to explain why.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Two books with trees in the title

This seems to be my week for tree books--entirely by coincidence I found myself picking up Mary Swan's novel The Boys In The Trees and Barbara Bosworth's large-format photography book Trees: National Champions at the same time. So here's a dual review.

I picked up the Swan book because of a blurb--from Alice Munro. I generally don't have much confidence in blurbs, but Munro is such a selective blurbist, and the official W6 Favorite Writer, and I figured how could I go wrong?

Hmm. Well, let me first say that The Boys In The Trees is a work of great integrity, artful restraint, and emotional depth. On the sentence level, it's superb, and I might well check out Swan's other book, a collection of stories. However, this novel is also one of the most maddening things I've ever read. Its point of view switches at random; sometimes it's in the first person and sometimes it's in the third; sometimes it's in past tense and sometimes it's in the present. Some of it takes place a really long time ago, some a somewhat long time ago, some not so long ago. There is literally no narrative momentum at all--events are all jumbled up in time, and sentences that indicate suspense turn out to be red herrings. Several times, some important memory is just out of reach...or a character realizes something's not quite right but can't recall what...and then the moment passes and you never find out what they mean.

The book is about a family that is decimated first by illness, then by violence; most of it focuses on the lives of people who come in contact with this family. The mission of the novel at first seems to be to figure out why it all happened--but that doesn't really pan out, in the end. Every little subplot is cut short. Characters appear and disappear without rhyme or reason, and every character dies miserable or lives a long life of profound loneliness. Because of this detachment from context, the novel is packed with passages that come off as hopelessly vague:

He knew Marianne's dilemma, could almost see the thoughts chasing round in her head as they faced each other across the table, knives in their hands. How much she wanted to know, wrestling with how she hated to need anything from him, even news. There were times he played with that, but just then he didn't have the heart for it. He told her how it had been and she said, Good.

I had to read that again and again and again, trying to figure out what each pronoun was referring to.

It's tempting to suggested that Swan just doesn't know how the hell to write a novel. But the book, as I said, has a certain integrity, and feels as though it is exactly as the author intended. For my part, I think it reads like a collection of notes in search of a story. I think Munro likes it because it has the quality of found material--the kind of stuff she probably reads all the time while researching her beautiful pieces of historical fiction. The reader has to do a lot of work to enjoy it. I did the work, and I enjoyed it, but I'm not sure the effort was worth it, for me.

Barbara Bosworth is a photographer best known for her large-format photos of outdoor subjects. Rhian, Ed and I knew her during her brief stay in Montana, where she staged a wonderful exhibition, at the museum where I worked, of pictures of hunters posing with their prey. Trees: National Champions is the result of a project spanning more than a decade, in which Bosworth traveled around the country taking pictures of the largest known tree of a number of species. Many of the photos are arranged in diptychs or triptychs, giving a panoramic view of tree's surroundings--some beautiful, some pedestrian. Large-format photos capture amazing amounts of detail, and this is evident even in book format (it's a big but not enormous coffee-table hardcover).

I have a postcard of a stunning Bosworth photo--a triptych of a mountain scene. Bosworth's late husband is in the first frame; she herself is in the second--and the second was taken after the husband's death. Nevertheless it appears to have been created all at once, suffusing the image with profound sadness and a hint of the supernatural. These tree photos also have a bit of this feeling about them; the multiple frames were invariably taken minutes apart, and so the scenes are inherently displaced in time. In at least one, you can see Bosworth's dog in two of the frames.

There are a lot of essays in the book, but none are by Barbara, unfortunately. I would have liked to hear more about her methodology and philosophy, which from meeting her I know are fascinating. Still, that's what Google's for. If you live in the southwest, and want to check out her current work, she has a show up at the Phoenix Art Museum, through July 27.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Summer Poetry at Idyllwild

This afternoon in Idyllwild, California, a number of poets will wander up to the amphitheater stage to read recent work, to conclude the week-long summer poetry festival here. It's a good group for a town of 1,000: Ted Kooser, Natasha Tretheway, Terrance Hayes, Eloise Klein Healy, Marie Howe, Charles Harper Webb, David St. John, Cecilia Woloch. All week these poets and about fifty students have been on campus, wandering the trails with notebooks, wearing shorts, eating salads, and talking shop. I love shop talk. There are, naturally, a few parties associated with the festival. Last night, the chief muckety-muck of the foundation had folks over for cocktails and snacks at his house, and I talked to a number of friends from Idyllwild, who, although they'd enjoyed the readings, especially the plain-spoken friendliness of Ted Kooser, felt it necessary to point out that they hate poetry, generally, and would never read it (although they might buy a book of it once in a while), and then say again how much they hate poetry, with a stringer emphasis on the word "hate." Because I like these people, I laugh along with them, admit that my mind drifts away too at a poetry reading, and that, yes, there's a lot of bad poetry out there. But I don't understand, really, what about poetry causes otherwise educated and thoughtful people to such extreme aversion. I quite like it.

Of the poets here at Idyllwild, there are two whose poems have been in high rotation in my mind for years, and I'll post them here. See if you like them or hate them.

Elegy for John Berryman (by Ted Kooser)

He had a head like a fire engine
and a heart like a shelf of old hats.

HUSH (by David St. John)

for my son

The way a tired Chippewa woman
Who’s lost a child gathers up black feathers,
Black quills & leaves
That she wraps & swaddles in a little bale, a shag
Cocoon she carries with her & speaks to always
As if it were the child,
Until she knows the soul has grown fat & clever,
That the child can find its own way at last;
Well, I go everywhere
Picking the dust out of the dust, scraping the breezes
Up off the floor, & gather them into a doll
Of you, to touch at the nape of the neck, to slip
Under my shirt like a rag—the way
Another man’s wallet rides above his heart. As you
Cry out, as if calling to a father you conjure
In the paling light, the voice rises, instead, in me.
Nothing stops it, the crying. Not the clove of moon,
Not the woman raking my back with her words. Our letters
Close. Sometimes, you ask
About the world; sometimes, I answer back. Nights
Return you to me for a while, as sleep returns sleep
To a landscape ravaged
& familiar. The dark watermark of your absence, a hush.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Something Must Give

Dear Wonderful people of the Blogosphere,

I don't want to do this, I hate doing this, but recently I forgot to take my kid to his violin lesson twice in a row, I haven't folded laundry in weeks, I have books piling up, and, most significantly, I haven't even tried to write in a month. I blame the fascinating baubles and treasures of the internet, among other distractions.

So I'm going to take three months off from writing this blog, from reading blogs, and from all of it. JRL will keep it going and I might stop by now and then, but for the most part, I'll be offline.

See you in October, if Disney hasn't bought up the entire Internets!


Tove Jansson's "The Summer Book" revisited

Rhian already posted about this novel a few months ago, but I finally read it the other day and wanted to weigh in. I'm with her on this one: The Summer Book is one of the loveliest, most confident, and most unusual novels I've ever read. The biggest surprise about it is how radical it is.

Generally, when I read the word "radical," I reach for my TV remote. But Jansson's audacity is one that is entirely specific to her--it isn't showy or high-falutin', but clearly comes from her sense of who she is. Or, rather, was; she died in 2001, after a long career writing and illustrating a series of wonderful stories and comics for children. Most of the children's stuff is translated into English from Swedish, but only a couple of the adult books have been; the edition of The Summer Book we have is the current one, from NYRB, with an introduction by a hero of ours, Kathryn Davis.

The book, as Rhian mentioned in her post, is about a series of summers that a little girl spends on an island with her grandmother. The girl's mother has died--this is only mentioned once, but it suffuses every single scene in the book. The girl's father is living with them on the island, as well.

There is no plot--the novel is a series of vignettes. One of the three things that make me call this book "radical" is this particular tactic--though you've seen it before, it's rare to encounter a novel-in-stories that is so utterly confident in its abandonment of traditional narrative momentum. The second of the three is the book's treatment of time. The events, such as they are, clearly take place over several summers (many chapters start with something like "One summer..."), but they appear to be ordered by seasons: the early chapters take place in spring, the late ones August. Doesn't matter which year--what matters is the weather. The effect is to emphasize a certain habit of memory, the arrangement of experience by sensation. The third odd thing is the father: though he is living in close quarters with the grandmother and girl, and though he appears in almost every chapter, he never speaks. That is, he surely does speak, but his speech is never represented in the novel by dialogue. He's there, but this isn't his story, and his silent presence magnifies our sense of the mother's absence. I've never seen a writer do anything quite like this.

The book's climax--and yes, there is real emotional momentum here, subtly lashed to the changing seasons--comes when the girl, Sophia, dictates a book to her grandmother. The book, a description of the life habits of angleworms, is a devastating metaphor for the girl's separation from her mother; she gets the idea for writing it after a worm is accidentally cut in half with a shovel. "Presumably," Sophia dictates,

everything that happened to [the worms] after that only seemed like half as much, but this was also sort of a relief, and then, too, nothing they did was their fault any more, somehow. They just blamed each other. Or else they'd say that after a thing like that, you just weren't yourself any more.

It is a sad and beautiful flourish, and entirely original.

Jansson never calls attention to anything--she is perhaps the most self-assured novelist I've ever read. All you need to do is pay attention; and she is completely confident that you will. The prose is wonderfully simple, and ably translated by Thomas Teal; one gets the sense that Jansson is one of those rare writers who translate well.

Finally, I'd like to throw in a bit of praise for NYRB, which has reprinted a great number of fantastic forgotten classics--Stoner, Lolly Willowes, The Magic Pudding (another hilarious kids' book), and many others. I wish they would start publishing new books, by current writers. There is a need out there to discover and publish books that are liable to be forgotten before they're even published--quiet masterpieces with nowhere else to go.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


How important is it that a reader believe what's happening in a novel? The obvious answer is that it's sometimes important, but sometimes it isn't -- when reading fantasy, for instance, you don't have to believe that a golden chalice can make you fly. If you like fantasy, you're probably willing to suspend disbelief.

But lately, it seems I'm somewhat less willing than the average reader to buy what I'm reading (see my post about fake geography here), and it makes me feel like an old crank. I just finished Darin Strauss's More Than It Hurts You, which is in many ways fascinating novel: it's about a young couple accused (and, Strauss lets you know right away, guilty of) deliberately making their young son sick. The mother's guilty, anyway -- much of the interesting tension in the book is about the father's bewildered trust. The couple is Jewish and the accusing doctor is black, which is another complication. It's got all the good stuff: social and cultural commentary, psychology, relationships, etc.

What I couldn't shake throughout the reading of the book -- in spite of my intense interest in the characters and what was going to happen to them -- was the sense that it just wouldn't happen like this. I didn't buy that mother would do what she did for the reasons she did, but mostly I didn't believe that the doctor would make the accusations she did with so little evidence. I told myself that Strauss had no doubt done his research and based it all on fact, possibly even a real case... but still. I couldn't make the leap.

A quick look at some on-line reviews reveals that no one else had this reaction, so it's just me.

It's got me wondering why I demand so much believability from a work of fiction. It's made up!, I told myself. It's pretend, so just go with it! But I kept formulating my little internal arguments about what seemed in character and what didn't, which was distracting. Not so distracting that I didn't finish the 400 page book in about three sittings, though.

Is believability in a novel a function of the facts -- of how closely the material hews to reality -- or does it come from something fuzzier, like a sense of trust? And I wonder if losing a reader's trust a particular risk of the social novel: since it has to be absolutely true to reality in order to make accurate comments on the culture, it needs to convince in every particular. Other kinds of novel have more freedom, I think, to play fast and loose with believability.

Anyone else have this experience?

Note: Literary Rejections On Display is hosting a book club with Strauss's book as its first choice. Go here to read all about it!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Marilynne Robinson's "Jack"

Back when Pavement was my favorite band, around 1993, I eagerly awaited their third album, which was said to be in the making. I had listened to the first two almost exclusive of much else for years, and this new record would be the first one to come out since they'd become my favorite band. The anticipation was killing me.

When the album finally came out, though, I didn't buy it right away. In fact, I didn't buy it at all, until long after I'd bought and come to like the fourth album. By this time, I still loved the band, but my admiration had become less maniacal. The fourth album I bought the day it came out.

It should be obvious why I held off on that record ("Wowee Zowee"): I didn't want to be disappointed. I didn't want my perfect love affair with the band to change. As it happens, when I finally did get it, I was kind of disappointed (though I like it fine now), and perhaps that experience served as the template for my non-reading of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Her first novel in more than 20 years, Gilead followed one of my favorite books ever, the pretty much perfect Housekeeping, and because it could not possibly be as good as that book, I didn't read it. Simple.

Now, however, I'm going to go blow the dust off it and get to work. I just read "Jack," an excerpt from Robinson's forthcoming third novel, in the new Harper's, and it is excellent. It takes place in the same town as the last book (the town is called Gilead) and its characters appear to be tangential to the Gilead ones. A woman, Glory, is the youngest of seven siblings, and comes home to care for her ailing father, a gentle widower. She is leaving behind a relationship that has not quite managed to become a marriage. After a few weeks back home, a letter arrives from her ne'er-do-well brother, Jack; he's coming to visit for the first time in 20 years. Then he shows up. End of story.

Sound exciting? No, it doesn't. It is exciting to read, though. "Jack" does what Robinson is so good at--it describes, in lavish detail, incredibly subtle emotions. Here, Glory has been considering her youthful innocence, and then turns her attention to her parents:

Her parents were, in their way, fully as innocent as she was, having put aside their innocence on practical grounds, not in the belief that it had been discredited but because they accepted the terms of life in this world as a treaty to be preferred to conflict, though by no means ideal in itself. Experience had taught them that truth had sharp edges and hard corners, and could be seriously at odds with kindness.

It's all very old-fashioned and quite gripping at the same time.

If I'm going to be totally honest, there was another reason I skipped Gilead, and that's that it was a book about, in part, religion. I am not antireligious, but I am certainly irreligious, and, like a lot of even the most devout people, I had, by the time Gilead came out in 2004, gotten very weary of the sanctimonious triteness that had come to characterize popular religious expression; and frankly the last thing I wanted to do was read about anybody's "faith."

But I ought to have had a bit of faith in Robinson. She obviously has still got it going on, and presumably she did back in 2004, when my disappointment in my fellow man had reached its nadir. This week I'll try to make up for lost time.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Summer Reading

I have great memories of summer reading. I read Jane Eyre on the beach when I was fifteen, visiting Florida for the the first time with my parents. Almost twenty years later, I read Valley of the Dolls on the beach in New Jersey; not quite as good, but just as absorbing. During another summer I took a train across the country and read Crime and Punishment; later in that trip, or maybe during a different one, I read the first four or five Sue Grafton mysteries. I had made up a fake identity that trip and lied about myself to the young fellow sitting next to me, who borrowed all the Sue Graftons and liked them quite a bit, as I did. But I didn't like the later ones in the series as much, maybe because I wasn't reading them under my false identity anymore.

These days, long out of school, I find my summers not too much different from the rest of the year, except for the week in August we spend with JR's family on the Jersey Shore. I always bring books on that trip, and they turn out to be the wrong books, and then I have to go to a certain tiny bookshop in a town called Harvey Cedars and buy all new books. Usually JR and the boys wait in the car while I hurriedly grab whatever, and it's always perfect.

So far, this year, finding extra reading time while the boys take their swimming lessons, I've been reading John Gardner's On Moral Fiction. Though I find his anti-experimental view a bit limiting, it's hard not to agree with a lot he says. So far my favorite bit is Lore Segal's introduction, though. She describes a time when writers got together at dinner parties and had heated discussions about the purpose of literature. I've been to a few dinner parties with writers, and things seem to be a lot less heated these days. Apparently William Gass once said, at one of these shindigs, that "on the page, the holocaust and a corncob have the same weight." Which caused fellow guest Cynthia Ozick to feel a bit faint, as you can imagine.

Recently I found myself over at Literary Rejections on Display, accidently running with a crowd bent on taking down Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng and more recently More Than it Hurts You. I criticized an essay he wrote, other commenters followed up with digs at his author photo and the plot summaries of novels on Amazon and his biography, and now, feeling terrible about the whole thing, I went and bought his book. Which looks good and thick and pretty compelling: it's about Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Whoa! I don't think I'll wait for the beach to read it.

What do you like to read in the summer?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What makes bad fiction bad?

I try oh so very hard not to read book reviews--certainly not of my own stuff, but not any others, either. Every once in a while, though, I do it, usually if it's a review of a writer I like, or know personally. And usually the reviewer slights the writer in some incomprehensible, off-the-wall manner, relying on some kind of obscure personal obsession as a basis for criticizing the work, and leaving the actual substance of it unaddressed. And I grind my teeth and throw my hands in the air and ask the heavens why.

The heavens decline to respond, so here's my theory--or A theory, anyway. I think we--meaning, you know, literate culture--have a problem talking about why we dislike things. We're pretty good at praise--it's not unusual for somebody to tell me they like a book, and then tell me precisely why, and for me to read the book and like the same thing. "The characters are hilarious." "It has an exciting plot." "The prose is clear and engaging." But ask somebody why they don't like a book, often you'll get something like "It just sucks," or "It's boring." There are, of course, specific things that make the book bad, but we often just can't put our fingers on them. I believe that book reviewers, and all readers, for that matter, could use a refresher course on criticism--and I don't mean, like, literary theory, I mean simple, ordinary expressions of dissatisfaction.

FWIW, here are some of the things I don't like, if I don't like a book.

1) The characters' actions are agenda-driven, not personality-driven. Like the book reviewers cited above, some fiction writers seem to have some hidden bee in their bonnet, which is never quite obvious but causes the characters to behave in implausible ways. The otherwise-entertaining novels of Tom Wolfe are like this--the characters, while lively, never act like human beings--they act like missionaries from the church of Tom Wolfe. This would be fine, if his novels presented themselves as such (I still wouldn't like them, but they would make more sense), but they present themselves as social realism. Which leads me to:

2) The writer doesn't follow the rules she has set for herself. This is very common in crime fiction, when a book is set up like a third-limited police procedural, and a hundred pages in, you get a bunch of italicized crap from the mind of the killer, who just happens, at that particular moment, not to be thinking about his own identity. This is done in order to raise tension, or to show how awesome the writer is at understanding the criminal mind. Big whoop! More generally, this problem comes into play when a writer limits himself in some way, then discovers the limitations are too stringent. And so the goalposts get moved. Lame.

3) Prose-writing ambition outstrips prose-writing ability. In fact, this is my number one complaint about books I don't like--the prose is too fancy. I don't insist upon absolute simplicity in prose, only the degree of complexity that is necessary to achieve the goals of the book, which may be very great, or may be very small. Simple prose, of course, does not equal a lack of sophistication--but I think this is exactly what most writers believe. Florid metaphor, clever overdesription of meaningless detail, gratuitously convoluted sentence structure, and all manner of back-slapping hamminess: that's what I don't like. Unfortunately, book reviewers rarely talk about prose--they don't know how to. To read the NYTBR every week (not that I do), you'd think that novels weren't made of prose at all, but rotting dog corpses, so athletically is the topic avoided.

4) Unnecessarily elaborate chronological manipulation. Since when are all novels required to jump around wildly in time? Since when do we need flashbacks every other page, explaining the origin of every present action? If you want to be radical, do this: 200 pages of rigid linearity, then the phrase "Twenty years later," then 200 more pages of rigid linearity. I dare ya.

5) A narrow frame of reference. I don't mind reading a novel about rich socialites--no, really, I don't. But if the novel pretends that rich socialites are the only people in the entire world, forget it. Similarly, it's a disease of much contemporary bad fiction that poor rural people are off living poor rural people lives, without any particular notion of the outside world, and without the benefit of sophisticated thinking. You don't have to have Bill Gates land a helicopter in the middle of the dog run, but if you're going to write about "the poor," you should write about the things that make them human, not the things that make them different from the MFA grad with an internship at ICM who's doing the writing. Bill Kittredge, my old teacher, used to say, "You don't need to spend any time proving a cowboy's a cowboy." You do need to prove that the cowboy is real, though. Within the local must lurk the universal.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. I'd love to hear your complaints--not just your pet peeves, mind you, but the things you wish you read in book reviews but never do. Perhaps, for instance, you object to phrases like "the tip of the iceberg." Perhaps you dislike poorly supported diatribes. Knives out!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Two Atlantic Essays

Nicholas Carr has an essay in the new Atlantic speculating that the internet is changing our brains. No doubt it is. As he says in his article, technologies do that: the printing press, the word processor. Still, his argument is pretty thin. He and his friends, he says, don't like to read long stuff anymore, and he thinks it has to do with the fact that he spends so much time surfing the internet. Though he doesn't say it outright, I suspect he's talking mainly about novels, though he includes long articles in his claim. His friend says, "I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader." A little webstalking reveals that Carr, too, was an English major. I found his picture as well, and he appears to be in his forties.

Could it be that Carr and his cronies just don't have the time, patience, and imaginative muscles for fiction anymore? I can't tell you how many people I know who've hit their forties and decide they just don't like novels as much as they used to. This was happening before the internet, so it could be just an age and life-stage thing. As you get older and live a little, what seemed new and original in many novels now seems obvious and trite. I still love fiction, but I have less and less tolerance for unbrilliant fiction.

Actually, now that I think about it, the same goes for some nonfiction: after decades of heavy reading, you see the same old arguments, the same clever moves. Carr says all he does these days is skim, just like he does on the internet. But that's probably all he needs to do -- just get the main points -- because the other stuff he's seen before.

Anyway, as I said, I don't disagree that the internet is probably changing the way we think. It probably is, but I don't think it's turning us all into shallow idiots, or at least not to a huge degree. I suspect its effects are subtler and not entirely negative.

Part of what's going on with Carr, and with a lot of the "Western Civilization is being killed by the bloggers/internet/social networking sites!" stuff is just the democratization of the culture. If you do all your reading at the library and in professional journals, it's easy to avoid the idiocy of others. The internet seems shallow because everyone has an equal voice, and hate to say it, but some of those voices are shallow. But there's good, deep, interesting thinking going on, too, and Carr hasn't proven to me that there's anything intrinsic to the medium that prevents good thinking.

The other essay I wanted to mention is Sandra Tsing Loh's critique of that feminist(?) book that came out a little while back, Linda Hirshman's Get to Work!... And Get a Life, Before It's Too Late. (I really like Sandra Tsing Loh's humorous, light, self-deprecating personal essays, but I don't think the style translates well to more serious topics. This article is rather too self-consciously "funny," as if she's nervous that telling it straight would be boring. It wouldn't.) Hirshman's book urges women to stop thinking of childrearing as "work" and to instead go out join the workforce and get paid in cash, like men. And that women who decide to stay home with their kids are dragging all women down. I have mixed feelings about this. I've mentioned before my despair at seeing my women friends give up their dreams and career ambitions, particularly their writing, because of the pressures of family life. I do wish the burden of household drudgery fell equally on men and women. However -- and this is Loh's argument, too -- most jobs suck, anyway. Counting bolts at a factory, and passing on the burden of childcare to another woman, isn't necessarily a more rewarding way to spend your time than being with your kid, to you or to society at large. However, for some women it might be, and is probably a financial necessity, and I don't see the point in being judgemental. Like The New York Times, Hirshman seems to think everyone is upper middle class.

I didn't include any links to The Atlantic because they don't publish fiction as a regular feature anymore, dammit! Curses on them!

Sorry this post is so long, Nicholas Carr.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Hairsplitting to the finish line

Here's what I spent the past few days doing. My novel, as I've mentioned in a couple of other posts, is basically finished, and I've been spending the summer so far working on the final changes with my editor. It had been through its last pass before copyediting, and I was just crossing T's and dotting I's when I became fixated on the last line.

I won't put it here, for fear that it will semi-spoil the ending for the nine or ten people who are eager to read it. However, let's just say it's more or less this:

I strode outside, slid my sword into its scabbard, and began my quest.

So, just to make sure you understand: the book is not a medieval adventure, OK? It takes place in the present day, in spite of the title ("Castle"). But the sentence above is structurally similar to the real last line.

Now, I stared at that thing for about ten minutes, and after some consideration, changed it to this:

I strode outside, slid my sword into its scabbard, and set off on my quest.

Then I alerted my agent, editor, and editoral director, and asked them to please make the change in their copies of the ms. Done!

Except of course I wasn't. Yesterday, the cat woke me up at 5:30, and I couldn't go back to sleep, from thinking about that sentence. What I didn't like was "off on." Off on? What the hell was that? Of course, you don't notice that unless you're obsessing over it, which I was--but it's the last sentence, and it has to be perfect, in meaning, rhythm, and connotation. So at 6AM I emailed everyone again and asked them to please change it to

I strode outside, slid my sword into its scabbard, and set out on my quest.

And I immediately turned off my computer and didn't turn it on again until midafternoon.

You see the problem, right? "set out" and "outside" in the same sentence. Again, it's perfectly clear, but that repetition does not sound right. After another 12 hours of consideration, and a request for my associates to vote on which was best, I went back to "set off on my quest." I'll leave it that way until I get the copyedits, and maybe I'll come up with something better.

There's a school of thought that says that, when you start changing things and changing them back, you're done. The implication is that eleventh-hour hairsplitting is inherently unproductive, and if you're doing it, the problem isn't the work, the problem is you. And personally, I'm sympathetic to that argument. I'm a writer who likes to get things done, and move on to something new, and hairsplitting of this nature is not especially conducive to that goal.

That said, if you're not hairsplitting, maybe you're in the wrong line of work. The sound, the feel, of sentences is important. It's what fiction writing is. Psychological acuity, emotional depth, gripping narrative: these are the things we like to see in a book. But the way they're delivered is as important as any of them individually, and perhaps as important as all of them together. As important, say, as the pot is, when you're making soup.

Every novelist has to find his comfort zone between the need for every sentence to be perfect, and the need to get it over with already. Skimp on the former, you're a hack. Skimp on the latter, you never publish a thing. For some of us, there is no comfort zone, and it's these writers who suffer from a block. And there's danger in finding a comfort zone, too, because if you get too comfortable there, you'll never discover anything new in your work. You will be boring.

Anyway, making art of any kind is a balancing act: between self-confidence and self-loathing; between accessibility and obscurity; between the audience and the artist. Most of the time, a good writer isn't even aware of being balanced: she is in her element. Sometimes, though, even the best writer looks down and notices how narrow the rope is, how far the drop is, and wonders how exactly she's managed to keep standing there all this time.

That's what I was doing this week. But houseguests are coming, and it's summer, and so I'm scabbarding my sword and beginning my quest.

Setting off on my quest.