Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Passage

I don't think I've ever had a book recommended to me more times than this one. Justin Cronin used to teach at Colgate, and all my friends at the conference there are friends of his, and this year The Passage was all anybody talked about. They all know I've got a thing for sci-fi and post-apocalypse stuff, so the conversations generally went like this:

Them: "You gotta read Justin's book!!!"
Me: "But isn't it about...vampires?"
Them: "They're not regular vampires."

Well, I read it. And I need to say right off the bat that I almost didn't make it through the first 25 pages, which are about a hooker with a heart of gold who gets horribly victimized by an evil college student. Ah, class war! The adorable, stuffed-animal clutching Innocent Beautiful Daughter didn't help matters, nor did the friendly nun into whose arms she flees.

But if this sounds awful to you, bear with it. The Passage is kind of awesome, and it's true what they say--they're not regular vampires.

I have long looked for a book that I could enjoy the way I enjoyed The Stand at 15: with total absorption and an utter lack of critical judgement. The Stand itself certainly isn't that book; I gave it another try a few years ago, and couldn't make it past the Improbably Old Magical Black Lady. And even though Cronin manages to employ not one, but two Improbably Old Magical Black Ladies in this novel, this is exactly the book I wanted. With Rhian and the kids out of town for the weekend, I set myself up on the sofa and didn't move until all the coffee and bourbon were gone.

The story, as I'm sure you know, is that military scientists inadvertently create bloodthirsty, and apparently immortal, monsters which are let loose upon the land. Flash forward a century: humanity is fucked, and the last few people left alive are trying to survive. Some intrepid adventurers set off on a road trip through the terrible hinterlands, in an effort to...well, it's never really clear what they're trying to achieve. But no matter. What happens to them is a total delight.

Cronin's former reputation is as a writer of literary short stories, but the weird thing here is that the most literary sections are the least successful. He relies far too heavily on characters' past suffering as a motivation for their present actions. Rape, abuse, murder, orphanhood--everyone is driven by wrongs that have been done to them. None of it is convincing, or necessary. The book could lose 150 pages, easy.

But oh boy, the other 650 really fly. Cronin has found his calling as a writer of popular fiction--in scenes of suspense and action, he is right on the money, and he is quite good at showing character in there here and now, without explanations. The monsters are really spectacular, too--scary, but weirdly sympathetic. Our innocent little girl from the first section has come back, see--she got the vampire virus, but it has made her immortal without turning her monstrous, and she can talk to the vampires with her mind. She knows who they used to be, and what it feels like to be them. With this device, Cronin manages to explore what it means to be human, what it means to survive, and in so doing trumps The Stand, with its good v. evil nuclear showdown. There's no evil in The Passage, only human error and human striving. There are even a couple of pretty good love stories, including a moment so heartbreaking I actually screamed. (He makes up for it later, don't worry.)

It bugged me a bit that the book basically starts over on page 210, by which time everyone you have met and gotten invested in is dead. And the middle section starts slowly. But stick to it, this is the real story, the one we will probably still be reading through the two announced sequels.

Yeah, sequels--the ending promises much, much more of the same. I have to confess, I am doubtful. Much of the fun here is the fun of discovery--having mysteries solved, being shown amazing things. The sequels? Well, one of the characters actually asks about this, in the penultimate chapter: "Now what?" she says. The reply is ominous. "Now we go to war."

Oh. My fear, of course, is that we are heading for season 3 of Lost: no more smoke monster, lots of torture. Time will tell if Cronin can avoid this trap. I'm guardedly optimistic, though. He sure knows how to show a guy a fun weekend--let's see how he does with a long-term relationship.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Old notebooks

Rhian will be mad, as she is preparing a post herself. But it'll keep. I have this strange and incorrect idea about myself that I don't take enough notes or have enough notebooks. Obviously this is nonsense--the house is littered with the things. I had been neglecting my personal archives for about five years, and they got pretty mouse-eaten and water-damaged...recently I moved them to my office at work, which I should have done a long time ago. Today I uploaded some photos of them to my flickr.

I used to use those big black sketchbooks, the kind with the hard covers--I kept one for years during college--a few shots of it are at that link. In grad school, I discovered the amazing National 43-581 chemistry lab notebook, with its blue hard covers, stitched binding, and green narrow-lined paper, which Missoula legend said was the notebook Richard Hugo favored for his poems. The photo above is one, containing the beginning of a lousy short story. I actually ordered a few of the smaller size today, the 43-571. In the pre-Moleskine era, these were as sweet as it got. I have also been using a Moleskine-knockoff hardcover notebook for music for about six years now, though the binding is shot and the elastic band is completely dead. There's a pic of it in that set.

I actually quite like the Moleskine notebooks these days, trendy as they are. Not many manufacturers line their notebooks narrowly enough for me, but those little brown Moleskine journals hit the sweet spot.

As for these photos, I love the serendipitous beauty of handwritten notes--but, paging through these, it was sometimes obvious that I was trying to make them look beautiful, and thus they looked stupid. Maybe it's my own former innocence I find appealing, who knows. Anyway--post some notebook shots, if you got 'em.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Murzban throws down

Zaaang! W6 friend Murzban Shroff (who recently scored a win in his fight against obscenity charges in India) emailed me today to let me know about this Huffington Post interview, wherein (in the context of much praise for American writers and writing, including me (thanks, Murzban)) he has the following to say:

The biggest weakness of American literary culture is the academia that has crept in--the golden rules of creative writing, which present a sort of ready reckoner for evaluation. There are too many people trying to be writers and trying to make a story out of their lives. As a result, there is a certain degree of sameness in the writing: in not just the choice of themes (parents' divorce, death, sexual abuse, etc), but in the narrative arc, in the way the whole thing drums out. This happens mostly at the university level, where filters can be imposed in the creative writing programs, making entry-level barriers more rigorous, more discerning.

My response to this is my usual eye-roll, I'm afraid: I honestly do not blame academia for any of this. It is true that the academy has succeeded in making competent, mediocre writers out of people who perhaps shouldn't bother. But nobody is forcing this stuff to be published. If there's a failure here, it is in the risk-aversion and excessive chumminess of commercial publishing. For my part, as a teacher of writing, I am not trying to churn out new young literary phenoms. I am trying to help intelligent, passionate people discover and cultivate the best parts of themselves--and when this results in work of genuine promise, to encourage and help shape it.

I generally don't strive for consensus in my classes, and when I apply filters, as I sometimes must, it is for the purpose of filtering out the conventional and uninspired. I do strive to lure weirdos into my classes and make them weirder still. So don't blame me, dammit! I'm doin' my best. But I don't think I'm just trying to justify my existence when I say that, when it comes to undergraduate writing classes, the more the merrier. It's about more than creating great writing, at least for me. It is about creating better people through literary art. When we get our hands on a live one, of course, we are delighted; and our graduate program does set the bar for entry very high. But when my lower-level classes fill up, I tend not to cull.

I think Murzban's work is the exception that proves the rule about the conventionality of American publishing. We are big on Indian fiction here, but not enough editors and marketers are willing to think very far beyond incense and arranged marriages. Then again, that is what people seem to like. Indeed, maybe it isn't the conventionality of publishing that is the problem, but the conventionality of human beings. Nobody's ever going to thank you for being eccentric--and if anyone does, befriend them for life.

As for our friend Murzban, read the whole interview; it's excellent. And read his book.

Monday, July 19, 2010

My Index Of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge

Well now, here's a man after my own heart. At times, in this terrific collection of poems, Paul Guest seems to be channeling my very thoughts, or at least their velocity. After hanging out with a bunch of poets at the Colgate conference, I came home with a verse jones, and found myself with Rhian last week at the Strand in New York, where, while wearing pants one size too small (don't ask) vowed not to leave the poetry aisle until I'd found at least two excellent new books by people I'd never heard of.

I didn't quite make it--this is the only one I found. (I bought another, but it was by somebody I'd heard of.) These poems are earnest and manic and a little bit inscrutable, which is precisely what I like. Sometimes they remind me of Dean Young; they mostly remind me of Ed Skoog. And at their extremes they evoke the recent John Ashbery, who has been a bedside companion for weeks.

The title poem, which stands at the book's center like a drain, is a stone cold classic that I will be xeroxing and mailing to people for years to come. It's one of those crazy tours-de-force that fixes the deeply personal into a firmament of wild American randomness, like Whitman (note: one letter away from hit man) or Ginsburg. It's funny and painful. You get "sweet, sweet Crisco / coursing the byways of my broken heart," a boldly corny riff if I ever read one. Or "Strangers who stopped me in the street / or paid for my lunch / or wept over their dead son / or asked how many miles / in my wheelchair I could go. / The twenty-five miles in five hours / that would take me nowhere / except the car plant or pet food factory / the wind at night / would bring to everyone."

Man, I love that. Guest has a couple other collections and a recent memoir, check him out.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Daniel Clowes and Harvey Pekar

I have always been vaguely fond of Daniel Clowes' young-loser heroes and heroines, and enough a fan of his deadpan draftsmanship to pick up a new book whenever it came out. But in the end, I've always come around to thinking that he tends to pull his punches, that he always stops just short of genuine pathos. David Boring is a good example--there, Clowes seemed to be relying too heavily on his strengths, and on the prevailing tastes of his genre.

But I love this new book Wilson. A novel-in-vignettes that spans a long, sad life, it sees Clowes experimenting with narrative and visual style, and digging deeply into aspects of human character he'd previously explored only glancingly. Wilson, a single man, is pathologically unpleasant, narcissistic, and paranoid; he vaccillates wildly between knowing himself all too well and seeming not to know himself at all. He is pathetic and mean, loving and loathesome--and weirdly appealing nevertheless. Clowes renders him in a variety of comic styles, morphing him according to subject and mood; the vignettes are laid out as Sunday funnies, of a sort you'd never see in the paper, with deeply depressing punch lines in the final panel. The book is a real achievement for Clowes, and has moved me firmly into the category of dedicated fan.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't add here to the chorus of praise for the brilliant, uncategorizable Harvey Pekar, who died this week at 70. We loved his work and will miss it.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

An interview with Téa Obreht

For a while now I haven't been cross-posting with the Writers At Cornell podcast blog that I maintain--W6 deserves its own posts, I decided. (As a result, you might have missed interviews with Paul Muldoon and Billy Collins, among others, so do stop by there.) But I want to make an exception today for my former student Téa Obreht, whose novel The Tiger's Wife is due out in the spring, and who is the youngest member of this year's New Yorker "20 Under 40" lineup. The interview is sort of embarrassingly informal--honestly, I am a little bit in awe of my ludicrously talented student--but I'm delighted to get to file an early dispatch from what will doubtless be a mini-industry in Téa Obreht media coverage. The interview is about 20 minutes long, and should already be waiting on your iTunes if you are a subscriber to the podcast.

In other news, blogging on the iPad is a PITA. Fetching an image alone is absurdly time-consuming, and when you come back to your tab in Safari, all the forms have been refreshed. Blogger needs a tablet interface, eh?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cloud Atlas

People have been recommending this book to me for so long that it seemed inevitable that I would never get around to it. But then last fall my friend Edward forcibly lent me a copy--I found it in my mailbox at work--and, some months later, another friend spent twenty minutes of a car trip telling me how good it was. So I went to my office, got the book, and dug in.

The pleasures of this novel are many, as are my qualms about it. But the pleasures are great and the qualms are petty. It's really quite a masterful piece of work, with all of the qualifications that word unusual project of an unusual writer.

In case you haven't had the pleasure, Cloud Atlas is essentially a series of nested novellas spanning several hundred years, from a recognizable past to a dystopian future. The novellas are connected in clever ways--primarily by theme, but also (successfully) by some interesting inter-textual shenanigans and (not so successfully) a series of identical birthmarks. Each novella is written in a drastically different style--there's a journal, a series of letters, a pulp mystery, a kind of neo-gothic comedy, a sci-fi story, and...well, I won't even bother trying to describe the last one. The stories are arranged in a kind of pyramid, each but the final one split into two, so that you get the first half of every story first, moving forward through time, and then the second half as you return to the past.

I tried to resist this novel: it is at times too didactic (especially the ending), too tricky, too virtuosic. But Mitchell is so good. I'm not terribly wild about the journal or mystery sections, but even those are executed with tremendous skill; the writer's ability to inhabit different characters, historical situations, and styles of language is simply incredible. Reading him, I kept hearing that line from Charles Baxter's "Gryphon," where the narrator is scolded by his friend for attempting to ape their wildly inventive teacher: "Don't you try to do it. You'll just sound like a jerk." It's hard for a writer to read this book--at times, Mitchell seems like a different species of creature entirely.

I guess my primary complaint with this novel is that it's all so arbitrary--the structure just seems like an excuse for Mitchell to show off his chops. But hell--I enjoyed pretty much every second of it, so who am I to complain? He's got a new one out, and a bunch of others I haven't read, so I'm going to dive in and see if Mitchell doesn't end up becoming my favorite new superhuman writer.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Ideas for the storage and display of books

First off, a quick note on my return from hiatus--my thanks to all of my friends, peers, students and colleagues at the Colgate Writers' Conference, especially W6 commenters Hope and Gallagher, who workshopped their novels-in-progress with me--it was great fun, and the talks especially were better than ever this year. (They should be hitting YouTube shortly and I will repost mine here.) Hope to see you all again in 2011.

So there you have it--Rhian's office is clean. Walking into it is like walking into an orderly mind--I am jealous, and now have to go back into my studioffice and pick up all the microphone cables and other crap the floor is covered with.

One thing we discovered as Rhian started putting away the many stacks of books that used to be sitting on her floor: we don't have enough bookcases. I don't know how this is possible, I just installed a new one last year, but it's already full. We do get rid of books now and again, and I bring some to my office at school, but honestly--we need some ideas for what to do with them all.

Generally we get our bookcases at the Unfinished Furniture Store on the west side. (I think it's called something else now actually.) But the house ends up with something of a college-dorm feel, as a result. I have been trolling the internet for ideas and come up with a few--building bookshelves into staircases, recessing walls and building shelves in between studs. In our old house, we had one room with a single bookshelf up above the window frames, going around three walls--that was cool, and maybe I can build something like it again here. I could also completely transform one windowed wall of my room, the one beside my desk.

This is particularly important to me now that I have read four or five books on the iPad and found the experience surprisingly lacking. It isn't the iPad, which is fairly pleasant to use. Rather, it is the apathetic, ham-handed execution of the ebook medium in the hands of major publishers. Ugly design, formatting errors, awkward senses that they are just tossing shit up there as fast as they can to cash in on the rush.

The tech is not mature, in other words. And the paper book still feels great. So let's hear your storage ideas.