Saturday, June 30, 2007

Why I'm not reading Chesil Beach

I think I've read almost everything of Ian MacEwan's, but (as I think I've posted before), Saturday was the end. I can't even bear to link to it. Anyway, even though I've gone back time and time again for another beating, I am finally through. I am not reading Chesil Beach.

I'm convinced it's actually worth explaining my reasoning at length. The thing is, MacEwan is an extraordinarily talented guy. He is so good sometimes at the little details of lived life that it makes you swoon. His problem, and I'm sorry if I seem a little obsessed with this, is his absolutely reliable need to undermine his best aesthetic choices with tidy, nervous middle class crap.

I guess I'm thinking mostly of the epilogue to Enduring Love, otherwise a wonderful book. The novel is about a stalker, and how the stalker's obsession causes the stalkee's girlfriend to doubt the stalkee's blamelessness. At its best, the book address the tricky question of whether we bring our misfortunes upon ourselves.

The ending basically answers the question. Nope, it says. This ending is a fake medical paper that not only "diagnoses" the stalker, thus snuffing out all of the book's psychological complexity, but coyly hints that the protagonist and his gf end up happily ever after.

I mean, gag me. Saturday is worse--I was willing to accept the scene where the heroic doctor protagonist (with his gorgeous poet daughter and brilliant white bluesman son) diagnoses (again!) the street thug, thus averting an attack--any novel deserves one outrageous implausibility, I suppose--but at the end, when a recitation of Matthew Arnold distracts the same guy, so that doc and bluesman get to tackle him on the stairs; and then doc later is forced to operate on the brain injuy the bad guy has just sustained--well, that was it for me.

Why do I hate this crap so much? It's because it's so goddam tidy--everything fits together in such a reassuring, life-affirming way; all doubt and enigma is erased, and God gets comfy again in His Heaven. It is, let me say again, drearily middle-class, this need to package the chaos of experience, to make things make so much freaking sense. Literature is not for explaining, it's for intensifying. It is a whetstone for experience, a tool to make things deadly sharp. MacEwan's narrative habits are like those of film director Robert Zemeckis, whose mysterious lost FedEx package leads Tom Hanks straight to middle-aged Second Love.

Yeah, yeah, but why do I hate it so much? I'll tell you why--because MacEwan's flaws are my flaws, almost to a T. It's why he drives me nuts, and why I keep going back. We like the people who remind us of our strengths, and we hate the ones who remind us of our faults, and MacEwan is both of those, for me. Like I was saying in the Organized Mind post, I need to get lost in the woods. I would love it if MacEwan got lost, too. But people who are praised so lavishly rarely do.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Breece D'J Pancake

I was reminded of Breece D'J Pancake's collection of stories by this bit in the NYTimes. (Not really the Times, but a "Times Blog," whatever that is -- all it meant to me was that I couldn't find it again when I searched the NYT website and had to unearth the link in my history).

I discovered him on the shelf of my college bookstore, where I used to go and blow my dishwashing money once every couple of weeks. It was his name that made me buy the book, which had been out for a few years by that time. And the stories were good: strong, distinctive, confident, and rural. I was from a small town and felt unsophisticated at my exclusive little college, ignorant of stylish things, and found Pancake inspiring in the way he wrote about every detail of life around him, without regard to hipness or sophistication or fashion. I could do something like that, I thought. I could never be Updike or Jay McInerney, but maybe I could be something like this country guy with the hilarious name.

Over the years I kept the book but forgot the stories. What I did remember was the strange story James Alan McPherson tells in the book's prologue: how Breece Pancake killed himself under mysterious circumstances a few years before the publication of the book. In later years I would come to know some people like that -- talented, tormented people who would never make it to middle age. But at the time I was shocked. How could you get published in The Atlantic, and then think life wasn't worth living?

Rereading the stories now, I find them odder than I remember, and more difficult and ambitious. There is something tough and unyielding about them. If Pancake had lived, I think his later work, more stories and probably novels, would have told us how to read these earlier stories. Sometimes when you read early work -- for example Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping -- you think, How in the world will she follow up on this? But with Breece Pancake, you think, This is all going somewhere interesting, but where? Unfortunately we will never know.

You don't experience the work of someone who later committed suicide the same way as you would if they had not. Nick Drake's work is colored, for me, by his short life, and after Elliot Smith died (probably by his own hand) I heard his songs differently -- radically so. Every suicide is a mystery, and the body of work left behind turns into a collection of clues.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Map in Your Head

I think my mind is too organized. I've been looking forward to getting back to my writing, and it's looking like next week is when it's going to happen. I have a couple of things I'd like to do--finish one story and start another--but I'm having some trouble getting exicted about it all. And I wonder if it's maybe because I actually plan to do those specific things. I think, after these weeks of organization and goal-oriented labor in the wake of our recent move, what I really need to do is fall off the map.

When I'm writing a novel, and need to make myself a pile of pages, mental order is indispensible for me--I can really cook, knowing what I'm supposed to be doing. But it's counter-productive when what I'd like is to open myself up to inspiration. To do that, a writer needs to wander--to read something weird, to take a long aimless walk, to call up someone you haven't spoken to in a while.

I'd like the map in my head to partially burn up in a fire. I'd like some little kid to draw extra roads on it, or somebody to spill a bottle of bleach on it, blotting out some of the routes. I'd like to cut it into pieces and tape them back together randomly, or try to draw it again from memory, or fold it in half and imagine that the roads now touching across the two halves of paper are connected for real, that distances can be spanned in a split second, that paths end abruptly or never end at all.

It would be nice to be able to go out and get such a map, but I believe I am going to have to make it myself, and in order to do that I will have to stop thinking about it. I'm going to have to think of other things--anything but my stories, anything but my map.

Easier said than done, though, for a nervous wreck like me.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Why I'm Not In a Book Group

I have nothing against the idea of book groups. In fact, I love book groups. And in spite of articles like this one (thanks to Syntax of Things) I don't even hate the corporate book groups -- anything that helps sell literary fiction is fantastic in my book. So to speak.

Yet. Yet. I'm not in one. Today I had a fantasy about starting one -- wouldn't it be nice to be compelled to read a book all the way through, and then have some girl friends over to chat about it? Yes, it would. It would be fun. Unless they chose a book I hated. Or unless they hated a book I chose (much worse, actually). All that airing of opinion. Hmph.

Actually, reading and socializing are opposites to me. Reading is a self-involved, indulgent, purely mental pleasure. Socializing is, well, about others. Having to deal with other people's experience of a book ruins the reading pleasure, and the reading gets in the way of getting to know other people. When I have the rare and delightful experience of spending time with other adult women, I want to talk about their lives, not fictional lives.

Anyway, I fully anticipate reneging on this post sometime in the future. My excellent friend Angele is moving to Florida very soon and I'm already totally lonely and missing her. Wouldn't starting a book group be the perfect excuse to to find some new friends???

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Those Were The Days

Back before there were internets, I used to have a fairly elaborate way of finding the used books I wanted. I had a list of good used bookstores that I'd known in my travels around the U.S., and I typed up several pages of sticky labels with their names and addresses on them, and another page of my own address. Then, every now and then, I would compile a list of books I wanted, and xerox enough copies to go around, and send them to all the bookstores. I would include with each a self-addressed, stamped postcard for the bookstores to respond with, in the event they had any of the books on my list.

Most of the books I actually ended up getting came from John K. King Books, in Detroit, still my favorite used bookstore in the world. I used to go there when I lived briefly in Ann Arbor. They have a web site now, but when you visit it (link above) the first thing you see is a giant sign reading



God knows I love the internet, but that notice is extremely gratifying to me. King Books is freaking enormous--it's a gigantic warehouse with floor after floor after row after row of shelf after shelf of books, any of which you can pick up and buy. This sounds kind of obvious, but I've become so used to getting whatever I want online that it has become hugely exotic to imagine an actual tangible warehouse full of old books you can walk around in.

What was I in search of, in those days? Evan S. Connell, Rick DeMarinis, Eudora Welty. I also managed to find, in one of my actual visits to the place, a rare copy of Death and the Good Life, the only novel--and a crime novel, at that--by poet Richard Hugo. (It's not even mentioned on his Wikipedia page.)

First paragraph of that novel: "I imagine the three men having a good time. I imagine them singing." Go find it, if you can. In fact, I know you can. It's the internet era, after all.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


I got quite a surprise this week while making the rounds of my favorite political blogs--Digby gave a speech accepting an award on behalf of the progressive blogosphere, and it turns out she's a woman.

In retrospect this oughtn't surprise me, but it does. I guess it's because she chose a male pseudonym and there's a picture of a guy (Howard Beale) on her site. And she has a traditionally "male" way of writing--direct and confrontational, and highly organized--which when you think about it is not really particularly masculine at all. It's just allowed to seem that way, because it's what we've come to expect.

The first fiction workshop I ever took had a policy of submitting and workshopping stories anonymously. I've never encountered this tactic again and don't employ it myself--for the simple reason that everybody already knows who wrote all the stories. The workshoppee never offers any criticisms, and generally puts on an obvious poker face. Anyway, at the end of the class the prof always asked people to guess who the writer was, and of course everyone got it every time.

My first story for the class was about a woman visiting somebody in the hospital (I think), and when the workshop was over people started guessing. Nobody guessed me--the guesses were all women, presumably because the story was about one.

When you come down to it, most gender identifiers are bullshit, and I can certainly understand why a political blogger would want to establish a genderless identity for his or her ideas before eventually spilling the beans. But why would a fiction writer do it? Joe Klein, who has become so odious and embarrassing I can barely type his name without sighing deeply, did it so that his journalist self wouldn't be punished for mocking the Clintons (as if any journalist in the history of the world has gotten anything but approval for that)--in my view, a pretty lame move. Can anybody think of any other anonymous and pseudonomous novelists? (Not memoirists, please.) Did their reasons for anonymity make sense?

Your Secret Pal

Saturday, June 23, 2007

(Almost) Instant Books

Thanks to Ward Six pal Mr. Inertia, who sent us a link to this crazy device. I can't decide if it's super cool and useful or oddly medieval. Why go through all that trouble when you can just put the books online? Then again, we'd sell more at the bookstore if instead saying "Er, we don't have any in stock, but we can get a copy for you in less than a week," we could say, "Go have a cup of coffee and it'll be ready when you get back."

Most of the time when a customer wants a book NOW and can't wait, it's for a gift. Would an on-demand book make a good gift? Or would it look crummy and self-publishy? The other time when customers don't want to wait for a book is when it's for a class and they have a paper due. This machine would be extremely useful in a college library...

Friday, June 22, 2007

What Makes A Good Reading?

I was supposed to post yesterday, but I never got around to it, as I was at the Colgate Writers' Conference, giving a reading. If you dig the conference circuit, this one seems like a good one--I met a lot of nice people and had a fine time.

I have to admit, though, I don't like attending literary readings. More often than not, a good story seems to lose something rather than gain it, when it's read aloud. I often find myself falling asleep, even when the story is excellent. I think I'm programmed to receive narrative on the page--the ability to vary the pace of my reading, to glance back at what I've read, is part of the process, and I think most fiction, anyway, is written to be consumed this way.

Sometimes a reading's great, though. George Saunders is a wonderful reader--I could listen to him anytime. I still put on my old Robert Frost tapes sometimes, but never my recordings of Wallace Stevens, whose poetry I otherwise prefer. Last night I heard a novel excerpt from Hannah Tinti, with whom I shared the stage--she was wry and assured, and I enjoyed it a lot.

I think the reason these people succeed in their readings is that they have found the correct balance, or at least a correct balance, between fealty to the text and actual performance. Not too hammy, not too dry. A good reading can bring out more of the writer's personality than you found on the page; a bad one can make you think that story you liked wasn't so hot after all.

Rhian had encouraged me to read a recent piece, "Zombie Dan," which is a black comedy full of swearing, sex, experimental medicine, and mind reading. I went for it, and perhaps overhammed, but it was great fun to "do" the story in person. Ironically I love to read to an audience--alone in my office, writing, I am so totally not the center of attention, however desperately I like to imagine I am. So yes, I swore and did funny voices and made the most of my moment in the spotlight. It rained, then stopped, and then we all drank about eighteen beers. There are worse ways to spend an evening.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Neutrino Clock Offense

Jill and I were in Rosarito, Mexico for the last few days, feasting on lobster Puerto Nuevo style and staying out of the cold, sharky waters. We brought along two books for the beach, Michael Chabon’s new Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Alec Wilkinson’s The Happiest Man in the World. I’ve enjoyed Wilkinson’s New Yorker writings about flatfooting it in Wellfleet, but my interest in the Happiest Man is closer to home. Its subject, Poppa Neutrino, is my friend Ingrid’s father, and I spent the afternoon with him back in New Orleans in November while I took a break from the Pirate’s Alley Words and Music Festival. He explained to me his Neutrino Clock Offense for football, which made sense, and plans he was making for crossing the Pacific Ocean in a raft made out of trash. Considering we were having this conversation in a backyard still drying out from a month underwater, such plans seemed completely reasonable. Stranger things had been discussed in that backyard. Before we moved away from New Orleans, at a barbecue in that backyard, a parrot had fallen into the yard and waddled toward our chairs, and hung out for an hour before flying away again.

Of course I wish I’d written the book about Poppa Neutrino, or that he’d written his own book. But I’m glad Wilkinson got around to it. Hiss account of spending time with Poppa is excellent, and generous, and appropriately flipping between skepticism and revelation. It’s Lawrence Wechsler territory; an exhibition about Poppa Neutrino belongs in the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Miranda July in the New Yorker

It would be a lot of fun to hate Miranda July: after all, she's wildly successful in several genres and younger even than my little sister. Also, her book has the Eggersian imprimatur on its back cover. (Why oh why oh why?)

However, I don't hate her. Her story, "Roy Spivey," in the fiction issue of the NYer is all right. It's about the effect on a woman's life of having once sat next to a celebrity on the plane. It has some insightful moments and is gently funny. If you have ever read any Raymond Carver, though, you will see the name RAYMOND CARVER flash before your eyes as you read the the last lines of the story. It could almost be an exact quote. That's a bit distracting.

The reason I don't love Miranda July's writing, though, is that it has an incredibly small emotional range. I imagine her territory on the map of human experience as a little patio plopped down where wistful naivete and humorous popular culture overlap. She owns that patio. Raymond Carver, actually, had a similarly limited though mostly different range (perhaps they shared a driveway?) and one of the really tragic things about his death was that he seemed to be just breaking out of it into a new level of greatness when he died.

I really liked her movie You and Me and Everyone We Know, because it was surprising and generous and funny and had great characters (the younger child in the movie reminded JRL and me of our youngest kid, which completely and totally charmed me, of course). She does a similar thing in her fiction, though a much much smaller, lighter, and less affecting thing. Interesting factoid: her real name is Miranda Grossinger.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Novel Excerpts

I must say that I dislike most mainstream magazines' reluctance to admit that the short story you are reading is actually a novel excerpt. Sometimes you can tell, and sometimes you can't, and sometimes you suspect that what you're reading is an excerpt, because the writer's bio says that a new novel is coming out; and sometimes you wonder if maybe the thing you are certain is a novel excerpt is in fact a short story which just happens to have been published with a novel fast on its heels.

Anyway, there's a new Denis Johnson story in the New Yorker, which is kind of a big deal. Has he published any at all since Jesus' Son? I certainly can't remember any. This one's called "1966," and it's pretty good, and I'm sure everyone else has already posted about it. But Johnson has a new novel coming out in September, and maybe it's really an excerpt.

The thing is, there is a quality that a lot of excerpts have--a kind of artful lopsidedness, a feeling of unseen events unfolding--that can be very appealing. In fact, this quality is something I think maybe I should strive for in short stories--this sense that there are other things happening, somewhere, but that only their shadows fall across the page. Such pieces look like something glanced out the window of a speeding car, like the woman I saw today on State Street having a loud argument with two companions, exerting herself, sweating and red, over an umbrella-style stroller containing an uncomfortable-looking baby.

Anyway, if the Johnson piece is a short story, it's better than if it's a novel excerpt, because he achieved that feeling without the absent novel. It's still enjoyable as an excerpt, though. I like this bit very much:

From his waistband he pulled a blue-steel .45 automatic and aimed it at the man, and the man dropped like a puppet with its strings cut and disappeared. Right at that time Houston heard an explosion. He tried to understand where this noise had come from, to find some explanation for it other than that Kinney had just shot this man in the chest.


The crazy bum said, "That's pretty nifty, man. I think you won that conversation."

I love how the sights arrive before the sounds, the way the two are separate things, like an excerpt and its parent novel.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Country Livin'

If you're wondering why Rhian hasn't posted much lately, it's because she's spending most of her time in her new role as chicken wrangler. We're gonna be raising some hens for laying, and thirty chicks came in the mail the other day. God know where all this will lead--pigs? sheep? government subsidies?--but meanwhile I can recommend some good rural fiction.

Everybody's read Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, but my favorite story of hers about roughing it is the novella Good Will, which contains an awesome bit about a teenager who sets a satellite dish on fire. I'm also a big fan of James Galvin, whose novels The Meadow and Fencing The Sky are small masterpieces of the genre. I've never been able to really embrace Kent Haruf--his stuff is a little too warm and fuzzy for my taste--but Plainsong isn't bad, in spite of its afterschool-special moments. And I really like the novels of the semi-obscure mid-century Montana writer Mildred Walker, particularly Winter Wheat. Walker was the mother of another Montana writer, the wonderful Ripley Schemm, whose house Rhian and I used to go to now and then in the years after we met. Why? "Hugofest," an annual Missoula celebration of Ripley's late husband, the great Washington-state (and, yes, Montana) poet Richard Hugo, who wrote so eloquently about both rural life and the working-class milieu he grew up in. And while we're in Montana, I can't help but mention James Welch, and our former teacher William Kittredge, both eloquent chroniclers of the agrarian landscape.

As for me, I'm not yet ready for prime time. I got lost in the woods last night trying to find a northwest passge to my backyard, and arrived home at dusk with soaking socks. Tonight I'll stay in and read.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Thinking About Diane Johnson

I have mentioned my good luck with garage sale books before -- another writer I first discovered in a .50 bin is Diane Johnson. (Or perhaps it was at the Hammond, Louisiana, Book Exchange: a great store, and not only because it was the only non-Christian book shop outside of NO in the whole state, just about.) It was Lying Low, a novel about a motley collection of people holed up for various reasons in an old Victorian house in a city in California, in the 70's. I found it clever and absorbing and ultimately rather haunting, though I wasn't sure I liked the ending (Johnson has a tendency, in many of her books, to finish up the various plotlines with a Big Bang). Several years later she published Le Divorce to great acclaim, and while this is also a smart, entertaining book, I didn't like it as much, because the characters seemed too comfortable and attractive, and hence, somewhat artificial.

In any case, after the great commercial success of Le Divorce, Plume republished most of Johnson's backlist -- a real treasure trove (though with goofy covers). Johnson is an old fashioned social novelist, more interested in the small vanities and betrayals of regular life than making political statements, though certainly political forces drive her books. The Shadow Knows is probably my favorite -- and forgive me if I've mentioned this book before, but it's a deeply paranoid story about a white divorced mother of four children living in public housing with her black maid. They're being stalked by someone, possibly their former maid (a fascinating and, these days, terribly politically incorrect character). The narrator, a formerly upper middle class woman, discusses race and class with almost shocking, even revelatory, frankness.

Few of my writer friends have read Johnson, perhaps because she doesn't have a lot of literary cred. You probably won't find many of her books on English class reading lists or toted around by creative writing majors. But her books are too smart, thoughtful, ingenious and, well, too strange to please those looking for the reassuring, tidy-ending books that we tend to categorize as "women's fiction." Diane Johnson has always done her own thing.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Dead Letters

Part of our recent move was to clear out and pack up my old writing shed. I didn't build this shed--it was prefab, from a place on the road to Ithaca called Midway Sales--but I did lots of work in it, insulating and adding a woodstove and bookcases. When I got a job last year, I started doing most of my writing in my office at work, and the shed went unused for a while.

Long story short, I had forgotten that I left some birdseed out there, and mice got in. When I cleaned it all out last week, I discovered two dead mice, several nests, and mountains of mouse shit. A lot of stuff was ruined, including copies of my old books, some reference works, and, tragically, all my old correspondence. I'm talking about twenty years of letters--from family, friends, girlfriends, other writers*. There was no way to save them--the letters were packed tightly into a cardboard box, and the mice had mined the box for nesting material, and just pissed all over the place. It was thoroughly revolting. I briefly considered taking everything out that was remotely intact, photocopying it all, and keeping the copies--but we had to be out of the house in a few days, and I just did not see myself hauling the reeking bundle to work for the day. So out it went.

I can't say I regret this, but wow, I wish to hell I'd been more attentive and nipped this mouse thing in the bud. (I think I posted about it once before--I had noticed it earlier, but underestimated its severity.) Correspondence--it's a rare thing these days, you have to admit, and it's one of the few things I owned that was basically irreplacable. Someday I would have read those letters, but not anymore.

That said, I am pretty unsentimental, and don't even keep a journal, so the past, for me, is little more than what I can manage to remember. And there were a few letters in there I would probably have regretted rereading. At any rate they're all in the landfill by now, for better or worse, and I'm back to square one. Dang.

*One saving grace in all this is that I had all of Ed's letters and poems in a separate folder, which the mice didn't touch. Hope this doesn't disappoint you, Skoog--you are unpopular among rodents.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Altered Beast

I’ve been on hiatus as well, teaching and recovering from teaching. Went down to Los Angeles on Monday to see a read-through of the great Ruth McKee’s new play The Nightshade Family. She and the director are preparing for the Summer Play Festival in New York. I’ve been teaching with Ruth for the past year at Idyllwild Arts Academy. Working with her reminds me that my first urge to write was to create plays, the result of my grandmother, Pauline Ruppenthal, taking me to see plays in the 70s and 80s at Washington D.C.’s Arena Theater and the Kennedy Center. Wanting to write plays led me to act in plays in high school and college, a career I brought to a close when I realized the actors I knew were enormous bores. The drive to write plays, or any dramatic writing, dissipated at that time. I didn’t need plays. I’d found the theater of poems more complete, actor, writer, and audience all in one. More complete, and more private: the public side of me—the high school debater in a bow tie, the actor, the boaster—was an indulgence I didn’t want to keep buying all my life. Even now, when I read poems in public, some monster in me parts the curtains and asks if he’s missed his cue.

At one extreme, the privacy of Emily Dickinson. Somewhere before that, the privacy of the Pajamaist, the core poem of Matthew Zapruder’s recent book of poems, which I’ve been reading this week. It’s a sci-fi prose poem that reminds me of David Cronenberg and Cory Doctorow, yet as poem is hard to fully categorize. The last section tries to explain:

“Yet here I can imagine the Pajamist, suffering quietly and unobserved in his room, asleep in some ways, awake in so many others.”

My two oldest brothers started reading science fiction as teenagers in the 1960s and still do. Our house was aromatic with those mildewing paperbacks until my mother threw them out. I couldn’t ever get into them. I ran from their gigantic narratives and tendency toward the gimmick, but I’ve been coming around. J. Robert hipped me to China Mieville and Cory Doctorow last year and I’ve particularly been enjoying Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. I turn away from it, though, when it taps into the nerdy delight of Joe Tabbi, my college professor, in his “Hypertext” class circa 1992, and all the glee in his eyes at the destruction of my simple book-bound universe. Tabbi’s class was the first I heard of the internet machine, and I suspected it was an advanced form of the CB Radio. He suggested we drop out of college and move to Silicon Valley to continue our study of narrative and make a schmillion dollars. He should have been more insistent. Instead we took him pheasant hunting up in Nebraska (where the season opens a week earlier than in Kansas) and that was funny to watch. I mention him to add to Rhian’s discussion of the bicameral mind book, which he assigned as an introduction to the improbability of consciousness. Then we watched Altered States, which somehow is an interpretation of Jaynes’ ideas. Which brings me around to Altered Beast, the awesome video game they had at Showbiz Pizza on Gage Boulevard in Topeka, and the Matthew Sweet album of the same name.

Transformation is the central trope of Wayne Miller’s excellent book of poems Only The Senses Sleep. Wayne’s about the finest young poet around, with a special ability to write all the way through not only his poem, but your reading of that poem, and back to the poem, thrice around Saturn, and back to earth. “Sometimes the mouth of the world/ opens—though at the last minute,/ it always holds its tongue,” he writes at the end of “My Apartment as Diorama.”

Transformation, alteration…down in Los Angeles this weekend with my friend Cooper, who writes for the advertising trade, suggested that we all change our names to Pepsi Transformers in advance of having to do so at the command of our corporate overlords. I’m ready. Are you?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Reminiscing With Steve

Well, like Rhian, I haven't been reading much either--not even the internet, which is otherwise a mainstay of those times I can't concentrate on a book. But I have been getting my fill of stories this week from our old friend Steve Murray, who is in town to hang out and help us with our move.

Steve is a fine writer, but what he does more of is talking. He's a master of anecdotes, an inspiration for my book of really short stories, in fact the guy it's dedicated to. His stories usually center, like most good literary stories, around quirks of character--though they might have plots, the plots are worthless without the people they happen to and who make them happen.

The funny thing is, he and I know a lot of the same people, but they're often more vivid to me in his stories than they are in my memory. The stories recontextualize the memories--they give them depth and weight. Talking to him is like recharging the past--he reminds me of its potential to illuminate the present. People, places, and events we've shared become real again, and real in new ways.

It occurs to me, listening to him, that I need to spend more time noticing things and committing them to memory. I've been a writer for two thirds of my life, a professional one for ten years, and yet, believe it or not, I never seem to have a notebook or pen on me. When I'm preparing to write a story, I have to open a notebook and "take notes"--actually force myself to notice and remember. The process of writing, for me, is a process of creating an artificial world of memory through brute force, one convincing enough to stick a story into, and fast, before it disappears. Meanwhile, that world is real for Steve--realer, I think, than it is for me, anyhow--and it's the one he lives in.

Anyway, I think I ought to start spending more time in Steve's world, the world of the present and past. I feel like I'm always living about thirty seconds in the future, planning my next six moves ahead of time, and what the hell kind of writer lives there? A prolific one, I guess, but not necessarily a good one. Up here at the new place, you can see the weather coming from miles away, and it makes a guy philosophical. I'm going to try drifting on the sea of memory this summer, and we'll see what results.

Monday, June 11, 2007

On Not Reading

For the last week or so, I haven't been reading at all during the day, and only managing to read a page or two before falling asleep at night. For a while now it's been The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind , a totally crazy book that espouses the theory that humans weren't fully conscious until about 1000 BC, and that before that time, the hallucinated voices of gods guided their actions. Why this feels like good moving reading I don't know, except that it remains interesting even in one to two page chunks -- no plot to follow.

I've not-read before, most notably when my kids were smaller. Breastfeeding age is great for reading, but the time right after that, when they keep you up at night and crawl onto your lap whenever you sit down during the day, is hell on reading. In those days I'd fall asleep as soon as I so much as hefted a book in my hands. In fact, for me that period only ended a couple of years ago, when my youngest entered kindergarten.

I have to admit I miss heartily the days of childhood reading, when nobody cared if you shut your bedroom door and sprawled out on your floor and read whatever, all day long. One of my fondest memories is having appendicitis when I was 16, and literally fainting into the library books all over my floor. I woke up in a bed of books. It felt right.

Not reading feels wrong. The days mush into each other, no chapters, no covers. It feels lonely, too, and isolating. The days might be full of accomplishments, but not a lot of meaning or mystery.

It's not just the lack of time and energy that cuts into reading, but the fussiness that comes from having too many opinions about books. Sometimes my feelings about books are like a four-year-old boy's about food: I can't eat that, the rice touched the peas! Lately, between cleaning the new place, cleaning the old place, packing and unpacking and finding new places for my old junk, I yearn desperately for a potboiler, some big dreamy book, and time, and energy, and the generosity of spirit to fall full-bodied into it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

A Rare Hiatus

We just want to tell our handful of loyal readers and commenters that we'll be offline for the rest of the week. W6HQ is moving, and all is chaos. We'll be back Monday with a new location and a super powerful new wireless router.

Meanwhile, patronize our blogroll!

John and Rhian

Monday, June 4, 2007

Crazy Borders Survey?

So I was traveling with a friend yesterday (my bandmate in this electronica duo I'm in--we were going to a geek music festival) and he mentioned that he had received a strange email from Borders. You know, the bookstore chain. He had signed up for their Corporate Fealty Bonus Program, whatever it's called, and so got put on some kind of mailing list.

The email said something along the lines of, "Help Decide Which Books Are Published!" It contained a link to an online survey in which unpublished books were described, and their potential covers displayed, and with these meager details, the Borders customer was supposed to decide which of them he or she would like to be published. No text excerpts form the books were provided--just the covers and a summary. My bandmate said that there were a few current bestsellers and new books on the list, supposedly as control specimens, and that he was quite certain that the others were real unpublished books by real writers. He did a bit of research and learned that the writers were in fact genuine people, and the books described had not yet been published.

I don't think he was pulling my leg. If he is describing this accurately, it is truly horrifying, putting the usual chain-bookstore front-table payola to shame. Have any of you heard about this, or gotten this email? (My bandmate doesn't think he has the link anymore--and by the way he did NOT complete the survey.) Fill us in if you have.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Bookforum: Fiction Into Film

The new Bookforum has a pretty good piece on books that are turned into movies, featuring interviews with novelists, screenwriters, and directors. I was particularly impressed by Alexander Payne's contribution, in which he addresses the question of just how much the filmmaker owes the novelist. Nothing, is the answer. "Adapting often means marauding," he says.

I think he's right. Movies that hew too closely to books are often little more than bad snapshots of books, and who wants that? A good book is already finished. It does not require improvement or enhancement. Go ahead and let a film be inspired by a good book, but make it a good film first and foremost.

This stuff is on my mind because a movie of Mailman is, and has been for some time, in the the works. God only knows if it will ever come to fruition, but there is a script now, and I have read a draft, and it's pretty good. In fact, it's hilarious--and not a single one of the jokes, nor half of the plot, is mine.

For some reason I found the experience of reading this script to be strangely flattering--more so, I think, than if I'd read a more faithful adaptation. The screenwriter had used something I did as a springboard for his own work--but that work remained his own, and my book has remained my own.

It remains to be seen, though, if an actual movie is produced, whether it will wear away at the imaginative process a reader of the book might experience. Ultimately, that's the problem with film adaptations--they implant themselves in your mind. Film is a tyrranical medium; it commands all the major senses, and creates new memories that are sometimes indistinguishable from the truth. (Recall the declining Reagan, reminiscing about the war years he only really experienced on film.) In any event, even if the Mailman movie never makes it to the screen, I now have my own imaginary version in my head, fully cast, shot, and scored--a version that, I'm certain, the actual movie would ruin entirely.

BTW, don't miss, in the same issue of Bookforum, a new book review by W6 chum Paul Maliszewski!

Friday, June 1, 2007

Eleven Years

JRL and I have been married eleven years today, and shouldn't we be out eating a fancy meal somewhere? Yes, we should. Instead we spent the day getting ready to move (sorting kid clothes, buying furniture, kicking junk out of the way). Oh well -- what's the traditional material for the eleventh year, anyway? A microfiber dust cloth, I think.

I've been trying to think of really good novels about marriage, but the only one that keeps coming to mind is Lynne Sharon Schwartz's Rough Strife, which was firmly out of print when I read it years ago (garage sale find (garage sales were so much better before eBay)). It's about the marriage of two egotistical people and how they battle, and I remember being impressed with how smart it is. You don't often see a really thoughtful or brainy take on marriage. Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road is one long marital squabble, and of course there are lots of books in which people are married, but fewer books that focus specifically on the nature of that relationship. The longer I stay married the more mysterious it seems.

Hey, I just noticed I'm wearing the same shorts I wore the morning before we got married. Could it all just come down to... lucky shorts?