Monday, April 30, 2007

The Compact Edition

Apparently a publisher called Orion Books is going to publish some new abridged versions of classics, and for mysterious reasons this is making news and causing some hand-wringing. Abridged versions of classics are hardly an invention of the time-squeezed 21st century, though, and it was the 50's who came up with the Reader's Digest Condensed versions of bestsellers. (Which, incidentally, are almost impossible to get rid of if you happen to inherit a boxful.)

Still, it's a dumb idea, unless you want to make money. The classics are all in the public domain, so anyone can publish them (and they're all on the Internet). There's not going to be any run on a new edition of Moby Dick without some aggressive marketing or perhaps the grace of Oprah. With the low overhead, appealing to the vain-but-lazy who want to feel like they've read a good book but can't really be bothered might actually work.

It's true that in the 19th century the leisured class had more time to fill, and writers included some padding and discursiveness. But we readers already have a way to deal with that. It's called skimming.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

One Last Proust Bit

I'll offer up this one last tidbit from Proust and his incapacity to directly address his (or his narrator's) homosexuality, before I leave it alone. It's interesting, though. Check out this passage, where "Marcel" is describing his lover (well--not quite lover, but that's another subject) Albertine's naked body:

The two high little breasts were so round that they seemed not so much integral parts of her body as two fruits that had ripened there; and her belly (hiding the place which, in men, is made ugly by something like the metal pin left sticking out of a statue when it is removed from its mould) was closed, at the meeting of the thighs, by two curves as gentle, as restful, as cloistered as the horizon when the sun has disappeared.

OK, got that? The guy is looking at a naked woman and he just can't help thinking about penises. You have got to love the sleight of hand going on there--"Man, my girl is hot, and by the way, I find male genitalia utterly revolting. Just wanted you to know."

Book group colleague Brian Hall pointed out at today's meeting that the entire unlikely arrangement of Albertine living in Marcel's house with him would be much more plausible if she were a man--an observation that brings the whole thing into perspective, as her real-life counterpart (or, counterparts, as history appears to have it, as she is thought to be a composite of two of Proust's love interests) probably was.

I've come around a bit on ISOLT 5, however--like the other volumes, it is fascinating as an exploration of the nature of memory. (Another book grouper, Jack Goldman, refers the curious to philosopher Henri Bergson, who evidently knew Proust and married a member of his family, for more on this subject.) But I am a plot-and-character guy, and prefer to have narrative momentum be the delivery vehicle for this kind of rumination. I am curious to see if Proust steers it back to my neighborhood in the final two volumes.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

We Did It For a Year

Not having had an even slightly memoir-worthy life, I've felt, as a writer, somewhat ripped off. But lately I've discovered that I don't need a whole interesting life -- all I need is one really cool year! The bookstore where I work is all of a sudden full of memoirs about people dedicating a single year to one extreme idea. Surely, I can think of something to spend the next year doing...

For instance: a couple of Canadians decided to spend a year eating only food produced within 100 miles of their house (see Plenty). Barbara Kingsolver, in a book coming out next week, went a step further: she moved from Arizona to West Virginia in order to spend a year growing her own food. No Impact Man doesn't have a book yet, but he does have a contract for one -- it will describe his year spent living in the city while creating as little trash and environmental impact as possible. And earlier this year Judith Levine published Not Buying It, about her year of not shopping. Worthy projects all!

But I can't help but wonder if they would have gotten the same kind of book deal if they'd said, Well, I'm just going to start buying less crap, or, Now I'm moving to the country and I'll be spending the next few years chopping the heads off my chickens! Because you know, and I know, that each of these books must end with a similar sentiment: Though my year of ________ is over, it has changed me forever, and I'll never fully go back to my unenlightened ways.

There's something very American, very New Year's Resolutiony, about putting on the virtuous hairshirt, just for a little while. If you changed your whole life forever, it would be like you thought you were better than everyone else.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Crazy Marcel is at it again

Welp, I'm back onto Proust, this time The Fugitive, otherwise known as In Search Of Lost Time 5: Shackin' Up. In this installment, Albertine has moved in with Marcel, a spectacularly implausible scenario that enables Proust to expound at great length upon the subject of sexual jealousy.

(And by the way, we now get to actually call him Marcel, as at last, after four volumes and thousands of pages, the nameless narrator throws us this brittle little bone:

Now she began to speak; her first words were "darling" or "my darling," followed by my Christian name, which, if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would produce "darling Marcel" or "my darling Marcel."

That's cleared up then!)

If I sound a bit irked by the whole project, it's because ISOLT has increasingly, since the latter half of The Guermantes Way, borne an increasingly heavy burden of denial on the subject of the author's, and by extension the narrator's, homosexuality. That is to say, there's no question that the narrator ("my darling Marcel") is supposed to be straight, but no straight man I have ever met has climbed up a stepladder in order to watch, through a transom, for half an hour, two other men have sex (see, I think, the opening pages of Sodom and Gomorrah, which I could check if I hadn't already packed it for our move). This bit of cognitive dissonance was not difficult to tolerate during the early stages of the story, but now that, in ISOLT 5, we're treated to an endlessly unfolding escalation of the narrator's preoccupation with his live-in lover's own possible homosexuality, we have begun at last to roll our eyes. Throw in the predatory man-love of the sinister Baron de Charlus, the cringing engagement of the totally gay violinist Morel, and the lesbo collusion of Albertine's friend Andree, and we could be forgiven for wondering if, in fact, darling Marcel was the only heterosexual in early-twentieth-century Parisian society.

And as if all this isn't enough, how is it exactly that this unemployed wannabe writer is able to afford all these dresses, hats, gowns, and kimonos (yes, kimonos) that he gives to Albertine? It is all so danged convenient.

I know, I know, give a sickly fey cork-ensconced shut-in a break, you say. And you're right--there is a lot to love in this book (ably translated, I should add, by Carol Clark), most particularly the acerbic descriptions of the boneheaded Morel, and Charlus's devious efforts to control him. But I have got to confess that I miss the hell out of the Swanns, and Balbec, and dear old Grandma...and long for the future days of literature when a gay guy can just write a freaking book about being a gay guy.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Clothes They Stood Up In

I'm adding playwright Alan Bennett's little novel The Clothes They Stood Up In to the B-list. It's about an English couple who come home from the opera to find their apartment burgled and all their furniture and possessions missing. In many ways it's a perfect model for a novel: What do the characters want? They want their stuff back! I find myself going back to it over and over again -- or at least wishing I could go back to it, because even though Bennett is in the beginning of the alphabet, that book must be packed. I can't find it.

Bennett doesn't write much fiction at all -- this might be his only novel, and it's really a novella -- but I wish he'd write more. I first became interested in him after I'd read an interview in which he talked about having writer's block.

The Clothes They Stood Up In is published in America in the same volume as The Lady In the Van, a diary Bennett kept of the fifteen years an eccentric old woman lived in a van in his driveway. Really! It starts like this:

'I ran into a snake this afternoon,' Miss Shepherd said. 'It was coming up Parkway. It was long, grey snake -- a boa constrictor possibly. It looked poisonous. It was keeping close to the wall and seemed to know its way. I've a feeling it was heading for the van.' I was relieved that on this occasion she didn't demand that I ring the police, as she regularly did if anything out of the ordinary occurred. Perhaps this was too out of the ordinary (though it turned out that the pet shop in Parkway had been broken into the previous night, so she may have seen a snake). She brought her mug over and I made her a drink, which she took back to the van. 'I thought I'd better tell you,' she said, 'just to be on the safe side. I've had some close shaves with snakes.'


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Trouble With Purity

I have mixed feelings about the idea of artistic integrity. On one hand, I like to think I have it--that I do the work I want to do, that I'm passionate about, regardless of whether or not there's anything in it for me aside from the pleasure of making it. This is what we like to think about our favorite artists, too--we want them to be pure. We want them not to be tainted by the crass world of commerce that brings us their stuff. We want to think Alice Munro owes nothing to Barnes & Noble, that Radiohead is indifferent to Best Buy, that Frank Stella doesn't need Gagosian, just a hell of a lot of molten steel.

Indeed, I try to run my creative life as though this were true. Like Nabokov said--write for pleasure, publish for money. (Or...for not quite enough money.) But the fact is, most good artists are intimately involved with the institutions that bring the world their work--and, as those institutions are invariably flawed, sometimes catastrophically, the artist's relationship to them is flawed as well. The teaching writer gives something of herself to academia, something that might otherwise be contributed to her work. The musician will remind you from the stage that there are tee shirts in the back. The painter will allow herself to accept a commission from the internet mogul who will hide her painting away from everyone but him.

Is there something wrong with that? Yeah. But there isn't necessarily enough wrong with it to condemn the artist for it, and sometimes (heaven help us) it's a positive, productive kind of wrong.

Every once in a while I have the good fortune to be asked to write something for an anthology. "I'll pay you," I might be told, "if you write me a story about a Sonic Youth song." And my answer, almost invariably, is hell yes. I want the money. And I would never in a million years have written a Sonic Youth story. But now that somebody's going to pay me to, I'll do it. And sometimes those stories are better than the ones that come from pure intentions--because the only thing at stake is money, not my creative soul, and when my creative soul is free from care, I can relax enough to knock out something unusual and good.

In other words, the pressures of commerce may be great, but they are often less great than the pressures the artist puts on himself. Being given a reason to write besides pure self-expression is a boon to the self--it allows the self to take a vacation from having to measure up. "I'm just doing it for the money." What a relief! It doesn't have to be good, it just has to be done. And every once in a while, it's done better than it would otherwise have been.

This reminds me...maybe we need a Ward Six tee shirt...

Monday, April 23, 2007


I've been thinking about the world as it appears in fiction, and how it's different from the real world. For instance, in FictionWorld, there are hardly any bathrooms. Probably about 25% of the population works in law enforcement in some capacity -- mostly PI's, but lots of police detectives, too. Hardly anyone is named "Barb" or "Patty," and there are a surprising number of people named "Lily" (though the real world is catching up). Of course things are much more interesting in FictionWorld -- rarely does a day go by without some important or meaningful event. Planes crash a lot. People's hunches are almost always correct. Children are weirdly precocious and clever or sweet, though there are some pretty nasty ones too. Red haired women are vastly over-represented, as are "spunky" women. The elderly are spry and/or full of wisdom. Women always pick the "nice" guy, though only after enormous gnashing of teeth and rending of garments and a terrible betrayal by the "sexy" guy. They are never the same guy.

Unlike in the real world, there are relatively few petty annoyances in FictionWorld: fewer torn fingernails, parking tickets, unflattering haircuts, mysterious smells in the fridge, plantar's warts. No cold sores at all. And that's a good thing: why bother with fiction if life's irritations are going to follow you there?

I do think FictionWorld could use more doughnuts.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Assistant Apprentice's Wife

May I respectfully inquire as to what's up with all the factota? It seems to me that the publishing industry's affair with assistants, apprentices, and wives is still going strong, and those of us who notice these things are beginning to wonder if we're seeing a creeping genrefication of literary fiction, whereby the only kind of character (predominantly female) anybody wants to read about is one who is subservient to somebody else. Rhian and I are fond of making up joke literary blockbuster titles, and over the years have come up with The Pornographer's Accountant, The Cousin's Wife, The Roommate's Psychiatrist, and The Limnologist's Analyst.

There is hope, however, as books like The Catastrophist have of late been piling up on publisher-bribed new trade tables at chain stores all over America--our protagonists (aha!) are getting some agency at last, and all of us are hunkered at our laptops, isting the night away. Here are a few titles you can have, for your literary romance, if you like: The Marriagist. The Friendist. The Pregnantist. The Boyfriendizer.

And while I'm all up in it here, can we have a moratorium on book covers that depict a photograph of an idle woman? Lying on a sofa, except with the back to the camera, or the head turned away, or cut off. Or sprawled in the grass, or lounging in a tree. And the subset of individual-body-part covers, let's jettison them too: all the shod feet (pumped feet, I guess, to be more specific) pressed modestly together, and all the hands holding flowers. Please, just once, I would like to see a cover upon which a woman is kicking somebody's ass, or injecting some insulin, or opening a bottle of beer. Instead what we get is waiting. Waiting, and looking pretty. Readers, what are you thinking when you pick these books up? "Oh, look--demure people! This one's for me."

I don't know if I get to say this, being a guy and all. But I think the publishing industry is addicted to rewarding writers who present women in a passive context, and to celebrating feminine attractiveness and good taste over intellectual ambition. Otherwise it would be Lydia Davis, Joanna Scott, Kathryn Davis, Barbara Gowdy, and Kelly Link you tripped over trying to get to the public restrooms at Borders, wouldn't it?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Kurt's in Heaven Now...

Though I've been thinking about Kurt Vonnegut since he died last week, I haven't had anything to say about him. Just: what a loss! There are other great writers left, but I can't think of any so cranky and well-loved.

I just finished Man Without a Country, a collection of short autobiographical and political essays, or scraps of essays. It's very much an old man's book: pessimistic and sentimental and packed with anecdotes.

Here's my favorite part (though there are lots of great bits):
I was a writer in 1968. I was a hack. I'd write anything to make money, you know. And what the hell, I'd seen this thing, I'd been through it, and so I was going to write a hack book about Dresden. You know, the kind that would be made into a movie and where Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and the others would play us. I tried to write, but I couldn't get it right. I kept writing crap.

So I went to a friend's house -- Bernie O'Hare, who'd been my pal. And we were trying to remember funny stuff about our time as prisoners of war in Dresden, tough talk and all that, stuff that would make a nifty war movie. And his wife, Mary O'Hare, blew her stack. She said, "You were nothing but babies then."

And that is true of soldiers. They are in fact babies. They are not movie stars. They are not Duke Wayne. And realizing that was the key, I was finally free to tell the truth. We were children and the subtitle of Slaughterhouse Five became The Children's Crusade.

Why had it taken me twenty-three years to write about what I had experienced in Dresden? We all came home with stories, and we all wanted to cash in, one way or another. And what Mary O'Hare was saying, in effect, was "Why don't you tell the truth for a change?"

And so he wrote a war novel that's packed with aliens and space travel. Instead of making his experience of war fit the expected narrative, he wrote it his own way, and it's about as true a book as you could hope to read.

Vonnegut was great because he never wasted a minute retelling all those comforting lies.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Audio Podcast: Heather McHugh

Earlier this afternoon I got to speak with Heather McHugh. Her books of poetry include Eyeshot, Hinge & Sign, Shades, and a slew of others; she has received two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. In 1999 she was elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. She teaches in the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College, and is Milliman Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington in Seattle. She's also one of my favorite living poets, and one of the few prominent writers to respond, back in the day, when Rhian and I solicited a bunch of bigwigs for our short-lived little mag, Teacup.

I can't recommend this podcast enough--McHugh is an awesome interviewee, full of energy and good humor, and the conversation took all kinds of unexpected turns. We discussed DJ music, the spondee, reading Finnegan's Wake aloud, and poetry as visual art. Check it out at the Writers At Cornell blog.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Iconic Characters

Man, wouldn't you love to write a book and have the protagonist become a household name? Like, you know, Holden Caulfield, or Hamlet, or Leopold Bloom. There was a time when I thought the name was what mattered--if you came up with a memorable name, people would think the character was iconic. Rabbit Angstrom. Damn! How can you beat that? I don't even like the Rabbit books (I don't mind Updike, but I'm more of a Henry Bech man), but I keep thinking I ought to try them again, and I believe it's because of the name.

I've tried, myself. My protagonists have been named Tim Mix, Grant Person, Happy Masters. An unpublished (so far) crime novel I wrote last year features a detective named Mal Friend. But it would appear that the book has to actually be kind of good. Like, you know, King Lear. With the book I'm working on now (about 50 pages to go, I think), I decided to just forget the memorable name thing. My protagonist is named Eric Loesch--a name that is rather dull, though I used it because it's (very) obscurely allegorical. In fact, his name really ought to have been Lethem, as I was trying to refer to the river Lethe, but of course it would be incredibly lame to appear to name him after another writer.

Huh, or maybe not. Maybe I should rename the guy Cormac Lahiri, or Truman Munro, or Flannery Alghieri Steel.

Or maybe I should try writing a decent book.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Nostalgia is Expensive

For years I've been half-assedly looking for a copy of this book:

It's the first book I ever got out of the library (the Pocatello, Idaho, public library) with my own library card. And it has what struck me, at the time, as a truly creative and hilarious plot -- Mr. Egbert Nosh goes for a walk one day and his house (and possibly his garage) get lonely, so they follow him. Reading it might have caused my first experience of professional envy.

For years I couldn't find any evidence that it so much as existed, and I wondered if I'd remembered the title wrong. But when I checked recently, there it was, several copies in fact. But the cheapest was $150, for an ex-library (Pocatello, maybe?) one.

I don't get it. Does it have a secret cult following, or what?

Abebooks, for those of you who haven't tried it, is incredible. I don't think I've ever failed to find a book on it, and the little book stores that contribute to it ship quickly and without fuss.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Scribbler Flicks

...Wherein we continue the Week of Snark by dissing the new Will Ferrell vehicle, Stranger Than Fiction. We rented this because it's about a lady writing a novel, but were kind of taken aback by its lameness. Emma Thompson is a "great" novelist who has writer's block--she can't figure out how to kill off her main character, a tactic for which she is famous. Will Ferrell is her main character, an IRS auditor who slowly comes to realize he's in a novel. Dustin Hoffman is an English professor with horrible taste, and Maggie Gyllenhall is the implausible love interest.

Where to begin? The plot is dumb, of course--we never learn how it is that Will Ferrell managed to live a whole life without having been in the novel before, and why everyone else he knows has had real lives, and how it is that Emma Thompson herself is alive, and real, in the same world as that of the novel she's writing. And any interesting metafictional issues these contradictions might raise are, of course, conspicuously absent. But what really chafes is Emma Thompson--not her performance, which is about as good as can be under the circumstances, but what passes for the writer's life. She's "blocked," you see, there in her completely bookless apartment, which in this movie means she's got the whole novel finished except she just can't think of a good way to kill the main character. Has anyone ever in the history of writing ever suffered from such a problem? It's what dreadful writers think--that all they need is a good idea, and the rest will come naturally. Meanwhile, ideas are a dime a dozen, and it's writing itself that's hard. The book itself--the one Will Ferrell is a character in--is spoken aloud throughout the movie, and is about the worst thing imaginable--cutesy, awkward, cliche-ridden drivel that features a magic wristwatch. This doesn't stop Dustin Hoffman from thinking it's a work of genius, though.

Which leads me to the worst part. See, Emma Thompson's publisher is so concerned about her "block" that they hire an assistant, played by Queen Latifah, to help her finish. How quaint! A world in which a publisher actually gives a flying fuck whether a "literary" writer ever writes another word in her life. What next, a just war? A free and fair election? Gun control?

If you're dying to check out some writers on the screen, you're better off with A Fine Madness, in which Sean Connery plays a frustrated poet, and Jean Seberg the shrink who loves him. (And who is, incidentally, Rhian's favorite actress.) Connery's poet really does seem like a poet to me--his performance is hilarious and spot on. I'm partial to David Cronenburg's Naked Lunch, as well, particularly Judy Davis, and of course the hideous insectile typewriter and talking butt. And I even got a pretty good kick out of Secret Window, which, while not great, has Johnny Depp and John Turturro in it, and is based on a Stephen King story, which means at any rate that it has an OK plot. I liked The Squid And The Whale, too, although Laura Linney was criminally underused in it.

I'm sure there are others, but when you get down to it, there's a problem with writers as subjects for film drama that's hard to overcome. Writers are boring. Books are interesting.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Mistress's Daughter

Reviews keep calling A. M. Homes's new memoir, The Mistress's Daughter, riveting. And the first half of it is -- Homes describes how her loopy and desperate birth mother gets in touch with her after thirty years, and how Homes attempts to avoid her. If Homes seems a little, well, callous, who can judge her? She saves her fiercest wrath for her biological father, whom she names in the book and whose ass she describes. He may or may not deserve this treatment, but it was hard for me not to feel bad for him, which can't possibly be what the author intends.

So that bit, with all of its bitterness and fury, is indeed riveting -- like a drive-by shooting.

But then there's a long stretch of Homes imagining her mother's life, and an even longer trek through Homes's biological family history, and then a brief but sweetly sentimental evocation of her adopted grandmother and the pleasures of motherhood. These pages are haunted by an invisible person: Homes's adopted mother. Who is she? She's mentioned throughout the book, but barely described. I suppose Homes didn't want to write about her, but a reader can't help but think about her, a lot.

Memoirs have two layers: what the writer intends to say about her life, and what she doesn't say, but what comes across anyway. In this book it's difficult to separate the two, because Homes clearly wants to strip the genre of its pleasing nuggets of received wisdom and its easy conventions. But does she mean to sound so mean? Maybe she does, and maybe it's my own queasiness with brutal honesty that's the problem.

Or maybe there's no problem at all. After all, I read the whole thing.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Mini Quiz

This post finds its inspiration in a task I always assign to my writing class--a whim I got from a book, a long story, its origin a Gallic quill. An author--call him G.P.--spins a yarn from which a particular thing is missing. Long months past that day, a guy ports it cross-Atlantic, and you can now buy it in a bookshop. This story isn't bad, but what's amazing about it is its form--by limiting his tools, G.P. shows us how to hack unusual paths to innovation in lit. Now and again, a pupil, in doing this task, will whip up a fablous paragraph or two, stunning this prof with truly groovy wordsmithing. OK, OK, it's all a bit stilty, I'll grant you that. But what can you ask for, what with this limitation at hand?

I think a Ward Six fan can probably crack this conundrum, right? For this post is actually a child of this particular task, if a kinda crappy stab at it, anyway. If you know who G.P. is (this task outlaws my saying who), what his book is known by, which country G.P. was from, and what is missing, post it!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Audio Podcast: Alice Friman

I got a chance to talk with poet Alice Friman today. She's author of eight collections of poetry, most recently The Book of the Rotten Daughter and Zoo, winner of the Ezra Pound Poetry Award from Truman State University and the Sheila Margaret Motton Prize from the New England Poetry Club. She's received countless awards and fellowships and lives and teaches in Milledgeville, Georgia. We discussed revision, ghosts, and Flannery O'Connor--check it out at the Writers At Cornell blog.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Universe is Going to Give Me a Letterpress

Boy, do I want my own letterpress.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

That's pretty much all I have to say tonight. People are doing incredible stuff with letterpress these days, and I'm jealous as hell. A few years ago I tried taking a class at the Wells Book Arts Center but my timing was bad -- I almost immediately got pregnant and couldn't stand the smell of the solvents or the long drive up the lake.

Holy moly: this site actually sells fonts! Shoot, who needs links; the internets is lousy with beautiful pictures of small press work.

It seems to me that hand-printing is the perfect marriage of craftiness and bookishness. At the bookstore recently I thumbed through a copy of The Secret and discovered that all I have to do if I want my own letterpress is think hard about getting one, and the universe will send one to me, stat.

That, I can do.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Over the past five years I've done most of my writing in an 8-by-10-foot garden shed that I outfitted with bookshelves, a wood stove, and a hardwood floor. It stands in our back yard, and has stood mostly unused since September, when I started this teaching job--I have a nice big office at work now that is pleasant to write in.

But since we're putting our house up for sale, I had to clean out the shed, and I made a gruesome discovery--a mouse had taken up residence in my desk. (I think it's the same mouse I mentioned in the typewriter post, the one that lived briefly in one of our typewriters.) I spent the afternoon cleaning everything and burning all my old papers that stank of rodent, and at one point I encountered the poor little bugger, clinging in horror to the edge of a mesh paper basket. Sorry, dude.

There is something awfully violating about having my desk infested. It's a big old (1930's, I'd say) wooden thing with drawers that stick and various parts falling off; it used to belong to a childhood neighbor, Mr. Baxter, who would sit at it in his cellar, thumbing through his vast collection of gruesome crime scene photos. Before I got it, I used to write at a buffet table, an idea I got from Chris Offutt, whose dank basement writing lair in Missoula inspired me to aestheticize glumly utilitarian surroundings into a kind of workaday literary fetish.

My desk at work is huge and hideous and aluminum, with a formica top printed in a woodlike pattern. It's awesome. You could fit entire children into the file drawers, though I mostly have them filled with excess paper napkins from the cafe underneath the arts library. I owned its love child when I was in college, an aluminum-and-formica affair barely big enough to get my legs under, and at it I wrote my first unfinished novel, a dumb fictionalization of some boring crap I did in high school.

My first actually-finished, worthless novel was called Telegraph Road, and it was about a rock band, and my teacher at the time said, "John, maybe you don't want this to be your first novel." It was written on the kitchen table. So were all the crappy short stories I wrote after college. I still write at the kitchen table from time to time. Different table, same vibe. And my juvenilia was written at a metal school desk my dad found at work, and later at my bedroom desk, the centerpiece of a hardwood desk-and-dresser sectional off of which my mother would clear any and all scraps of scribbled-on paper, however important, unless I carefully hid them.

Maybe it's my mother's fastidiousness that today makes me enjoy indulging in a hideously messy desk, with papers and books scattered everywhere, at least for short periods of time. The only thing I like better, in fact, is clearing it all off and starting something new. I can only hope that mouse, evicted once and for all, can similarly appreciate the pleasures of a fresh start.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Don DeLillo in the New Yorker

I just read DeLillo's new story in the NYer, though it's really an excerpt from the new novel that's coming in July. Since I've read about half of Falling Man (and it's not among the books we've put in Self-Storage) it was pretty familiar. In fact, it was so familiar, I couldn't really enjoy it. In fact, I kind of hated it.

I'm a fan of Don DeLillo because I like White Noise and Libra and because he has his own thing he works hard at -- a vision. Also, he's just plain talented, and a person has to respect that. But I couldn't read Underworld because of the excerpt he published in Harper's, a story he called "Pafko at the Wall." It was about baseball, which was bad enough, but it was also incredibly self-conscious. Forget it! JRL told me Underworld was great but I didn't have the stomach for it.

It's weird, though: when I was reading the New Yorker story I kept thinking, Hm, people are going to think this is pretty hot stuff. Yep, that bit there, pretty amazing! But at the same time, the material was so tired. It could be that I just read Ken Kalfus's book, which is about a very similar subject (man is in one of the Towers, survives, and it changes his personal relationships) or it could just be in the air. Or... it could be that DeLillo's style and his reputation overwhelms his subject. I found myself thinking that I couldn't even tell if the story was good or not, because I have all this backlog of feeling about DeLillo, and about 9-11, and about New Yorker stories.

I hated the excerpt because of the telegraphic dialog, which is meant to sound like real people talking but actually sounds like fake affected literary people, and because of the easy real-life drama. And -- and here I'm crawling very carefully out on a limb -- because it feels like DeLillo has appointed himself Voice of the Nation. I'm sure he didn't mean this, but reading that story I felt like I was being told how to interpret that day in 2001, and somehow that feels wrong.

I haven't talked to anyone else who's read it yet so I'm curious what people think about it.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

A Nasty Ending

I've posted about Ruth Rendell before--I've read almost all of her thrillers, police procedurals, and pseudonomous quasi-literary books (which she writes under the name Barbara Vine). Of all her books, the Vine ones are the most impressive, the procedurals the most exciting, and I loved the last Vine book, The Minotaur, a restrained gothic about a big scary house full of weirdos.

Her latest, which I got from (it's not out here yet) is called The Water's Lovely. At first I was very excited about this novel, as it contains several details germane to our personal lives--a house, like the one we're buying, that has been divided into two apartments; a house, like the one we're leaving, that someone was murdered in; and a bathroom that contains the exact same Bonnard print that ours does. And the opening pages are quite exciting.

But the book disappoints. The mystery (did what's-her-name really kill that dude in the tub?) isn't very mysterious, the intersecting story lines are static and not terribly interesting, and the characters are awful.

Let me clarify this, because Rendell is sometimes superb at writing about unappealing people. Her best books, like The Minotaur, are populated by fully articulated characters, their peculiarities part of a pattern, their often unpredictable actions driven by powerful and complex motivations. But sometimes she seems to be phoning it in, and you get the baser part of her soul--she is prone to overdosing on the vain, the vulgar, the low-class, and the greedy, their shallow thoughts flatly stamped onto the page.

For the life of me, I don't know what she gets out of it. Somebody good enough to write Anna's Book or Road Rage (a terrific procedural--see the B-List sidebar) is willing to give us a lame menagerie like the one in The Water's Lovely? The worst part is that, in the end, (spoiler alert--here, I'll print it in white so you have to select the text to read it) all the people you hate the most end up getting happily married to one another, and the only two people you like get killed by a tsunami on the last page. I think this is the worst ending I've ever seen from her.

That said, she's disappointed me before, then come roaring back with something great. Perhaps these little thrillers have a purpose--the discharge of excess misanthropy, maybe, freeing the author to give her real characters the humanity they deserve. Meanwhile, I don't recommend this new book--though I have to admit, I did read to the end.

EDIT: Hey, P.S., this is our 100th post!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Robert Lowell's Collected Poems

Why do we remember what we remember? Over Christmas I was talking to a psychologist friend of ours, who suggested that how we think about our lives depends on what we remember. But what if what we remember depends on what we think?

I took a class in college called Poetry Since 1945, and aside from my writing workshops, it might have been the most memorable class I ever took. It wasn't the class so much as the material, which was a revelation. I remember sitting at a wooden desk by a huge flung-open window that spring, being bowled over again and again by certain lines.

One was, "Like the sun she rises, in her flame-flamingo infants' wear."

For years I thought of that line. I couldn't remember who the poet was or any of the rest of the poem -- only that line. What was so great about it? Nothing in particular. I liked the sound of flame-flamingo and the image of it: pink flames. The line just gave me a feeling I liked, a sense of quiet urban shabbiness and a baby's oblivious optimism. I felt briefly injected into another life.

When the Internet got rolling I realized I could find this, or any poem at all, so I did: it's "Memories of West Street and Lepke," by Robert Lowell. This surprised me, because I had never thought of Lowell as one of my favorites. But Lowell's Collected Poems just came out in paperback, and even though I'm trying to move and it's a big book I bought it. And it's a delight. What Lowell was so good at was letting you know what his life was like -- what it was like to be him, to be in his head. Obviously there's much more than that. But it's what appeals to me, a confirmed non-poet.

Still, I wonder why that line, why not others? What's the logic behind the tangle of lines and stanzas that stick with us, and those that don't? Maybe, in this particular case, the image of a girl baby in pajamas awakened some almost totally stifled memory in me. "Flame-flamingo" -- after a long, gray-and-white winter bright colors are stimulating. Could that be enough?

Poetry can do a lot of things, but I like the way it works like a fishing net, trawling through forgotten parts of our brains, catching on things we maybe never noticed before.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Finishing Things

We're packing, putting things in storage, painting and cleaning as a prelude to putting our house on the market. This all happened quickly, and we haven't had much time to prepare...and we really need to be finished by Monday night. This gives us a nice ending: whatever we've accomplished by Monday night, that's what we're going to have done. The end. The deadline defines the goal.

Sometimes I wish writing were like that. Due to a family trip, and now this real estate hulabaloo, I've had to neglect my novel. But I've been thinking about it, and I know where it's headed now, and what the ending will be, and how much more I have to write. Sometime this spring, probably in May, I'll finish.

But of course not really. I already know of some things that will have to be added, and some that will be cut. I'm already making these changes in my head. Generally, I do a draft, then I spend a week at the coffee shop with a red pen, and then over the next month I do another draft. Then I give it to Rhian, Ed, Bob, Brian, and/or some other people, and they give me comments, and then I do another draft and send it to my agent.

And then if I'm lucky a publisher picks it up, and I do a major overhaul, and then a minor one, and then copyedits, then page proofs, and then galleys. And even if the thing makes it all the way into a bookstore, it doesn't really feel finished. It was, is, and always will be a sort of nebulous imaginary thingness without real boundaries. It's a big sloppy idea. It's never quite real, and it's never quite done.

My youthful vision of book publishing comes from the ending of Back To The Future, when Crispin Glover's big boxful of his latest science fiction hit arrives, and everyone beams, except for Michael J. Fox, who is still rattled from having come a little too close to porking his own mom. The truth, however, is much more complicated, and ultimately more interesting. I wish I could experience that theoretical rush one is supposed to get upon "finishing," but I guess I prefer the geeky pleasures of the endlessly unfolding process.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Audio Podcast: Emily Rosko

Rhian's right, Ward Six is indeed tired. The self-storage warehouse is giving us some highly amusing short story ideas, though. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I just posted an interview with poet Emily Rosko. She was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in the Midwest, and later taught English in Siberia. A recipient of the Stegner, Ruth Lilly, and Javits fellowships, she holds degrees from Cornell and Purdue universities. Her poems have appeared in journals such as Another Chicago Magazine, The Beloit Poetry Journal, and Denver Quarterly, and her new book is Raw Goods Inventory. We talked about her book and how it came together, the efficacy of creative writing programs, how what's not in a poem is as important as what is, and people who talk too much. Check it out at the Writers At Cornell blog.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Ward Six Seems A Little Tired

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JRL and I aren't doing much reading this week. In fact, we're doing the opposite: we're removing books from our house on orders from our real estate agents -- they take up space that prospective buyers might wish to imagine a dining room table in. Our library currently stops at "I."

Strangely, this activity seems to have shrunk the bookish part of my brain. Can it be that the physical presence of books makes a person think about them, read them, have ideas about them? If so, that would be a good argument against the eBook.

Or maybe I'm just pooped from all the cleaning.

In any event, this is temporary. If our lucks holds, soon someone will agree to buy this place and we can haul our books back from the storage space at the edge of town, where they are being guarded by a man with a limp and a tiny earring and a Weird-Al-Yankovich-style hairdo.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Tools For Serious Readers, Eh?

OK, so this is where I am supposed to say how loathsome the Levenger catalog is. And, all right, I'm saying it. It's loathsome.

But wow, that doesn't feel too good. It's true that this catalog of reading and writing accoutrements represents the complete capitulation of the literary impulse to vulgar materialism. Take for instance this paragraph, an introduction to the "Reading Tools" section of the Levenger website:

Make your reading more enjoyable by using a book holder, bookmark, or book weight designed with you in mind. Display your favorite novels with one of our unique bookends. Shop our collection of useful reading accessories including magnifiers, clips and cutters, and products designed for reading in bed.

"Display your favorite novels?" Ew. So that's what it's all about, eh, proving to your friends that you enjoy the finer things in life, like say the latest Nora Roberts or Christopher Hitchens. Ay caramba. And "products designed for reading in bed." These turn out to include the "Laplander" lap desk, the "Laplighter" clip-on lamp, a two-hundred-dollar cashmere blanket, electric lights that look like candles (sort of), a two-hundred-dollar bed tray, and, I shit you not, a $250 reading lamp. To look at this page is to imagine oneself nearly crowded out of bed by one's possessions, like a three-year-old with his stuffed animals.

Except that, you know, some of it looks kinda cool. Especially those blankets. Wow. Curled up under one of those babies with some serial killer novel propped up on my chest...ooh yeah!

Because, disgusting as it is to think of reading as a kind of is. Especially the reading of fiction, which brings you so deeply into the lives of others--more deeply than you can ever get into anyone real, anyone whom you actually know, including your spouse, or your kids. Novels let you read minds.

And writing the things is worse still--getting into people's heads, and then making them think things. Evil things. Crazy things, sexy things. You writers know what I'm talking about--there is something...stirring about fiction writing. One is prone to bouts of sudden and disturbing arousal. At least I am.

Did I just admit that?

So look here, if I feel the need to get it on, or make some people I made up get it on, while sitting in a Leather Freedom Desk Chair W/Neck Support (Classic) to the tune of $1,448, and if you happen to have a problem with just don't get it, man. I'm a serious reader.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Never Let Me Go

I read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go recently, and loved it, but when I recommended it to friends I generally found that people didn't like it as much as I did. They complained that it was boring -- okay, I could see that: its pace is patient and quiet -- or that the "big secret" of the novel was obvious. I'm not going to supply any spoilers, here, but the slow and inevitable realization about what that secret is was one of the great pleasures of that book for me. I don't think it's supposed to be a surprise. The way the reader grows accustomed to the strangeness of the secret mimics the way the characters in the book's alternate reality must also have grown used to it.

But I also liked Ishiguro's fastidious building of his world -- the peculiar ordinariness of it. The only other Ishiguro I've read is The Remains of the Day, which I read maybe fifteen years ago, out loud, on a road trip. All that sticks with me from that reading is the voice of the butler and its sense of restrained emotion, both of which are echoed in Never Let Me Go. JRL suggested I also read The Unconsoled, but I couldn't get past the dream-like elevator scene that that book opens with, and When We Were Orphans, which I put down about half-way through and haven't picked up again.

Ishiguro does something really weird in his books -- at first I thought it was just a tic of Never Let Me Go's narrator, Kathy H., but he does it in When We Were Orphans, too, which is one of the reasons I stopped reading it: at the end of sections or chapters he'll give a broad and deliberately suspenseful hint about what's to come. For example, from NLMG:
And if these incidents now seem full of significance and all of a piece, it's probably because I'm looking at them in the light of what came later -- particularly what happened that day at the pavilion while we were sheltering from the downpour.

And then after the white space he goes on to describe what did happen that day at the pavilion. It wouldn't be a problem if he did it once or twice or even three times, or even if he did it compulsively in one book -- but when I found that this stylistic quirk crossed into other books (and it's in The Remains of the Day, too, though I didn't notice it when I read it) I found it extremely annoying. Is Ishiguro afraid people will quit reading if they're not promised some tempting nugget in the next section? Does he even know he's doing it? It feels like a device he learned to get himself from one plot point to the next, but it's something he ought to be able to put away at this time in his career. How many Booker nominations does he have?