Thursday, January 31, 2008

As She Climbed Across The Table

I haven't read this Jonathan Lethem novel in years, and to my surprise, it's even better than I remembered. It's a love story, it's a science fiction novel, it's an academic comedy. I wish I'd written it.

Here's my favorite bit--one of my favorite bits of anything, when you get down to it:

Georges De Tooth was our resident deconstructionist, a tiny, horse-faced man who dressed in impeccable pinstriped suits, spoke in a feigned poly-European accent, and wore an overlarge, ill-fitting, white-blong wig. He could be seen hurrying between the English department and his car, an enormous leather briefcase gripped in both arms as if it were the cover of a manhole from which he had just emerged. Or sitting in faculty meetings, silent and pensive, chewing on the stem of an unloaded pipe, often held with the bowl facing sideways or down. The library housed a dozen or so of his slim, unreadable volumes, as well as a thick anthology of savage attacks by his enemies. He lived in a room at the YMCA. He had for fifteen years.
That's perfect, in my view. Lethem, like all great writers, is uneven, and I've kvetched about his stuff here before--but when he's good, he's great. This book actually has more heft than I remember--not physical heft, mind you--and I had completely forgotten the ending, which accomplishes the near-impossibility of living up to expectations.

It's not even worth saying what this novel is about. I could be a wag and say it's about nothing--way more about nothing than Seinfeld ever was--but that, as No. 2 used to say, would be telling. Suffice it to say that it's about a physics experiment that turns into a philosophical conundrum that turns into a romance. And that it contains the beautifully awful line, "Something happened to my penis."

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Shows About Books

The NY Times tells me that Daniel Menaker has left his old position at Random House and will be running a web-based show on books, with interviews -- kind of like a Charlie Rose thing, it seems. Though Menaker looks like a cutie in his rolled-sleeve oxford shirt and curly gray mop-top, I can't imagine I'll be stopping by. I have barely enough time to make the circuit of all my favorite blogs as it is -- watching an interview would seem unbearably time-consuming. I mean, I'd rather actually just read.

And here's a confession: not only do I dislike teevee shows about books, I don't even like books about books. So many memoirs about reading have come out in the last few years, about how the writer's life was affected by reading, about the impact of certain books. Bleah: even though I could possibly write one of those things myself, I have no interest in reading someone else's. I don't quite know why this is, except that maybe the experience the writer is detailing in his memoir is one that is actually available to anyone who reads the same books -- so why not go for the unmediated pleasure? Also, there's also the suspicion that these memoirs aren't actually about the books they purport to be about, but about the amazing sensitivity of the memoirist. Or maybe I just hate being told how to read something.

One show I did used to like was Michael Silverblatt's "Bookworm," which we got on the radio in Montana but don't get here. Actually, I loathed his snobby tone for the longest time, but I got over it eventually and began to enjoy his brainy, weird trains of thought. Ithaca is supposed to be getting its own public radio station in the next year -- WITH -- and maybe we can talk them into carrying that show...

Monday, January 28, 2008

Acme Novelty Library No. 18

I just finished reading the latest installment of Chris Ware's ongoing comic series, and it's my favorite thing from him in quite a while. I've been enjoying the single-day-of-school narrative, "Rusty Brown," that the last two books have focused on, but No. 18 returns to the one-legged anti-heroine of the "Building Stories" cartoons that ran last year in the New York Times Magazine. I'm glad for it. This installment deepens the character enormously, and brings real pathos to a series that I was worried might be a little too cute for its own good.

The front endpapers are devastating--a swirl of text and images, set against a black background, which represent the narrator's contemplation of suicide. You have to turn the book around and around to read it, and it's a big book--the result feels like driving the death bus. We read her fragmented thoughts, and watch her imagine who might discover her corpse: her parents, her landlady, her cat. It's terribly sad and real, as are the back endpapers, which depict her lying awake in bed, over and over, at different ages. The last drawing in the book shows a sleepless night at perhaps age three; her leg is not yet missing, but she is still sad.

In between we get some back story--a boyfriend, an abortion--but the real strength of the work comes from the Ware's stunning illumination of workaday detail. He shows us, over two pages, the evidence of time passing at a florist's: the light changing, the gradual droop of a rose. There's a wonderful bit where the protagonist tosses a pair of stained underpants into a washing machine, and I can't quite explain why it's so moving. And several pages are dedicated to stripping away the layers of her body, like the acetate pages in the encyclopedia she read as a child. We see her frumpy clothes, her flesh, her muscles and bones, while all around the panels tear away the layers of her misery. Ware's ability to move the eye around the page is unmatched; he continues to experiment with the architecture of comics in emotionally satisfying ways.

I wasn't as wild about Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings, the story of Ben Tanaka, an insufferable prick who nevertheless is always surrounded by beautiful women. Reviews of this book have praised its addressing of the politics of dating among Asian-Americans, but really, if you've been to college in the past twenty years, you've heard it all already.

What I do like about Tomine is his drawing style--he's great at depicting the bland details of urban living so that they seem wonderfully alive. His characters are also hugely expressive in their faces and body language--so much so that the best bits of this book are the panels where nobody's saying anything, and nothing's going on. This is why I love Tomine's New Yorker covers--they pack a lot of story into one picture. Special props for the look on Ben's girlfriend's face when she discovers his cache of white-girl porno, and he lamely points out that there's a Latino chick in there somewhere. It's perfect.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mary Robison

I have loved Mary Robison since I read her short story "I Am Twenty-One" in an anthology, I think, back in college. The collection that story's in, An Amateur's Guide to the Night, is an 80's-style minimalist masterpiece. Aw, crap, it's just a masterpiece! This is what I think minimalism was, in those days: every sentence had a whole story packed into it.

Right now I'm rereading Why Did I Ever, a 200-page novel told in about 500 fragments. It's about a middle-aged woman with two messed-up adult children, several ex-husbands and a job as a script doctor, which she is about to lose. She also has a speed habit, which explains the fragments. Here are a few of them:
Rifling this copy of Rolling Stone, I say, "Here's a full-page ad for the U.S. fucking Army. And do I hate Jann Wenner for running this ad? No. It's they who don't write him letters saying, 'Cancel our subscriptions, Butterball! You better rethink!"

That fat man driving around with his little pooch? Now why don't I know him or someone like him? That man, I bet, could make me very happy.

"What's with the bandage?" I ask the Deaf Lady. "Did you hurt your hand?"
"This? Just a mattress fire."
"Oh, don't tell me," I say.
She says, "Calm down, I made sure it was out."
"When did his happen?"
"Uh, yesterday."
"You couldn't mean yesteday. Yesterday -- "
"All right, all right. Then the other day it was," she says. "Get off my ass."
I hear her and deep down I realize that God put the Deaf Lady next door to me for a reason.

I shouldn't be, at this late hour, but I'm up in my room, walking all around, and I've got my hammer but not a goddamn thing to nail.
And I wasted too much time and spent too much time painting in here and painting everything. Yellow and red? It looks like a Midas Mufflers.

Sometimes I read a book and wish I could just call up the writer and take her out for a sandwich. Some writers seem like long-lost friends. It would probably creep them out to know it, though.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Books That Make You Dumb

It's Saturday, Rhian's at work, and I will take the horrible step of making the day's post not only a link, but a link I stole from Cory Doctorow. It's about an amusing new project by "disruptive technologist" Virgil Griffith, in which he has made a large chart identifying correlations between various books and the SAT scores of their readers.

"Yes," Griffith writes, "I'm aware correlation ≠ causation. The results are awesome regardless of direction of causality. You can stop sending me email about this distinction. Thanks." Nonscience notwithstanding, we are amused to see how low the Bible, The Color Purple, and Fight Club are skewing. Meanwhile, Nabokov and Garcia Marquez are tops among high scorers.

Always nice to have another excuse to be an insufferable snob, however unnecessary such a thing might be.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

How you know you're finished

I mentioned, a few posts ago, that I was about to send off a "finished" novel to my agent, and a few people wondered how I knew it was done. This is a pretty common question among writing students, too, for a very simple reason--nobody has ever managed to answer it adequately. And I'm not going to be able to here, either.

In a sense, the answer is simple--it's finished when you decide it's finished. Then, having made the decision, you "know" it to be true. But the objective truth, if there is one, is much more complicated--it depends on what we mean by "finished." Do we mean that the work is in its final state, on a bookstore shelf, ready to be bought? Perhaps--but Henry James is famous for rewriting all of his early published works, and I can think of several contemporary writers who have issued "director's cuts" of some of their books.

So maybe it's only really finished when the author dies, right? After that, it can't be changed. But of course we know, from the history of such long, complicated books as Ulysses and In Search Of Lost Time, that death doesn't bring the work to a close either. There will be different editions, complied by various scholars, based on various notes, statements, or secondhand recollections of the author. We were just complaining a few weeks back about the "unexpurgated" Carver stories now making their way into the public eye.

This is all kind of beside the point, because the real question was about how a writer--that is, me, or you--knows when to stop writing. But it's worth seeing the big picture first. A book is never finished: that should be at the forefront of the writer's mind. Once you've accepted that, you can confront the utter arbitrariness of completion, and just push it until you can't stand it for another second.

Who was it who said a book was done when you started putting back all the commas you removed in the previous draft? Probably a lot of people. It's a decent rule of thumb. You're finished when you become paralyzed by indecision. Of course, even that's not the end, because six months later, you'll be a different person--a person who will see the manuscript differently, and perhaps will have a clearer sense of what to do.

If you're lucky, though, the book will be published by then, and it will be too late. Because this process is agonizing, and sometimes you need to cut your losses and move on. You have to take what energy you have left and plough it into the next project--maybe that one will be the one that turns out perfect on the first try.

For me, personally, I have several "dones." There's the end of the first draft, where I have for the first time a complete, semi-coherent piece of work. Then there's the end of draft three, when I usually decide it's ready for Rhian, Ed, or another friend to read. Draft four or five goes to the agent, and maybe six or seven (if I've managed to get it accepted for publication) goes into galleys. And then there's the published version, which, for all practical purposes, I consider really done. This system does indeed help me know when I'm through--if I'm reaching draft three, for instance, it must be "done," by definition. The system creates artificial mental deadlines, which I force myself to meet, regardless of how incomplete the work is. Then I'm finished because it's time for me to be finished.

That said...I was paging through Mailman, my fourth novel, the other night, and I came across at least half a dozen sentences the current incarnation of myself would never allow to make it into print. Maybe someday...

Nah. I'm done.

PS: a note to the dorks out there...I'm posting this from Ubuntu Linux, which I just installed on my laptop. I recommend it--it has been way easier to set up than Vista was a few months ago, when I tried configuring Rhian's machine. If you're into open source, public domain, and all the other ethical systems that foster creative innovation, you might dig doing your writing in this environment.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Earthquake by Susan Barnes

I just wanted to mention a strange little book that I discovered recently on our store shelves: Earthquake is a collection of three stories that link together into a short, fictiony memoir. Barnes doesn't force her memories -- of an unusual childhood spent in Alaska and Massachusetts -- into any kind of straight narrative, but leaves them as fragments and anecdotes. Her writing is beautiful, unadorned, and clear as water. And funny, which I always like.

It's published by Turtle Point Press, and let me tell you: if the future lies in small presses publishing work like this, well... it's going to be an awfully nice future.

Thoughts on Bookselling

If you work in a bookstore, particularly an independent one, you hear a lot about "handselling," or pushing individual books that you personally love. Word of mouth and handselling is supposed to be what makes or breaks a lot of books. The other day I got to fill out a questionnaire from BookSense (the program from the American Booksellers Association that promotes selected titles) asking which books I "most enjoyed handselling" during 2007. Note they didn't ask that I had actually read any of the books -- just that I enjoyed selling them. And even though I'm probably one of the people at the store who is most into literary fiction, I had honestly only read three of the novels they listed. I'd only read one of the non-fiction (though I'd hurriedly skimmed a few others!) and none of the kids' books. I don't often read new hardcovers, anyway -- they're too expensive. I ended up doing write-in votes for fiction, because I care a lot about it... but I happily checked off the titles of other books I enjoyed selling but never read.

The thing is... people hardly ever come in and ask me, What should I read? More often they ask, What was that book reviewed in the Times? or Who was that guy on Terri Gross? About half the people come into the store with a particular book or magazine in mind. Another quarter are just looking around. The rest have a vague idea, and only a few of those really want suggestions from the schlump behind the counter.

Sometimes they do, though. Most often it's because they're buying a book as a gift. The most common requests are for a book for a kid they don't know that well -- I almost always recommend classics, because you don't want to give a new, untried book in that situation. I constantly push the Oz books, but so far, no one has ever bitten. I've had more luck with The Secret Garden. And you can't go wrong with Curious George, in my opinion, especially the first one in which George is smoking a pipe in one scene and goes to jail in another.

Another common request is for a book for "My mom, and it should be uplifting." In this case I recommend Sue Monk Kidd, because my own mom likes her. I've never cracked one of her books myself.

Recently a customer asked me for a book that could be read aloud to the whole family and that everyone would enjoy. Gosh, that had me flummoxed, especially when he said they'd already done the James Herriot books. He ended up recommending a book to me:"My Family and Other Animals" by Gerald Durrell. It sounded great, so I ordered us a copy.

One of the most popular features of our store is the Staff Favorites shelf, though. We do sell a lot of books from it, but I think it's also entertaining as a psychological artifact -- people like to look at the books and make guesses about the store staff. A friend of mine said, "I could guess the ages of everyone just by looking at those books." Ha!

Monday, January 21, 2008

My Remainder Post

Rhian intimated that I would be more articulate than she in my admiration for Tom McCarthy's Remainder, but I find myself at as much a loss as she was. It's a very peculiar piece of work, and one I enjoyed enormously--in fact I quickly added it to the syllabus of this "Weird Stories" class I'm teaching this semester.

It reminds me, as it did R., of Magnus Mills, but also of Kazuo Ishiguro, and to some extent The Magic Mountain. It's a book in which the narrator is concealing something from the reader, and possibly from himself as well. It's also about memory, a favorite subject of mine. Perhaps the most shocking thing about it is how completely is succeeds in the very ambitions I set for myself in writing my current novel-in-progress--though McCarthy and I are writing to different ends. I hope my book ends up being a tenth as absorbing as his.

The story, such as it is, is about a man who, in the wake of a mysterious accident, has an epiphany while staring at a crack in the wall of a friend's bathroom, which epiphany leads him to embark upon a series of increasingly elaborate re-enactments of apparently meaningless moments, in the hope of...well, we don't have any idea why he's doing it, actually. The plot is not quite the point here, though--it's the voice, which lives on this razor's edge between utterly convincing and completely unbelievable, and it's that sense of impending and inevitable collapse that drives the novel. He pretty much pulls it off in the end, though I found myself wishing it weren't so...Fight-Clubby. That said, if there was no such thing as Fight Club, I might have had no problem with it at all.

In any event, its success is derived from its attention the detail--it is, in fact, about detail itself--how we remember it, and how those memories create meaning. It would be the perfect assigned text to accompany my "ordinariness" post of last week--it shows that the ordinary is extraordinary, in as strange and satisfying a manner possible.

As for my novel...for better or worse, I'm sending it out tomorrow. How a person knows when his novel is finished is a topic for another day. (Although, hint: a person has no goddam idea.)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Year Without News

Well, I have to say I've had it. I can't take the news anymore. Yep, after eight years of up-and-down roller-coastering, of the crushingly inevitable horror that the war has become, that the presidency has become -- now that at least some of it is on the brink of being over, I realize I just can't take another second of it. I can't stand this sense of intense caring in the face of powerlessness anymore. I've erased all my news links. I'm going to spend the next year avoiding as much national news as I can.

Don't even tell me who wins the primaries, because I don't want to know!

Whew, thank God that's over.

In its place I'm going to read fiction. More and more fiction! Since we've been running this blog I've been introduced to so many great books -- I work in a bookstore, I live with a writer, but still: I have gaps in my reading. Huge ones. I'm going to spend the next year reading, but not the news.

The world of politics can do without me.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Should He Do It?

An anonymous commenter on the previous thread linked to this article in Slate about Dmitri Nabokov's dilemma--should he burn his father's last, unfinished manuscript, as explicitly directed by the great writer? Or should he release it to the world? The younger Nabokov describes the story as quite groundbreaking, but appears to be leaning toward destruction. His reasoning is evidently related to his frustration with chronic public misinterpretation of his father's work.

Personally, that sounds to me uncomfortably like "People are too dumb to deserve to see this." I am pretty much always against the dead writer in such cases, for two reasons. First, I think it's absurdly arrogant to think that you can control your public image after you're dead. In fact, it's foolish to think you can when you're alive. Of course Nabokov's arrogance is part of what made him such a delight--and if anyone actually deserved to be arrogant, it was him. In any event, death is final, and the dead belong to history--as much as, if not more than, they belong to their descendents.

But more importantly, if a writer wants his stuff destroyed, he ought to have the balls to do it when he's alive. And if he doesn't do it when he's alive, then he doesn't really want it destroyed. What kind of wanker puts a burden like this on his surviving family? Vera was originally instructed to burn the note cards (Nabokov wrote on note cards, and in fact it was Vera who saved the ones containing Lolita from the trash incinerator, less then ten blocks from where I'm sitting right now), but couldn't bring herself to do it. And now Dmitri himself is growing old, and he can't do it either.

But now he might. I think this would be a shame. I'll go a step further, in fact, and say right here, out in public, that I enthusiastically encourage Rhian, our kids, and their future offspring to ignore completely any deathbed requests I might happen to make, especially any involving writing. With any luck I'll be tired, old, delirious, and full of shit, and once I'm gone, you may all do whatever you please.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mass Market Paperbacks Are Perfect

I was in the city yesterday to play some music--but before I did, I had an errand to run. I won't elaborate upon it here, but it was extremely dorky and necessitated my getting a large black flight case from Orchard Street to West 26th. And I am cheap, so no cab. I took the train.

As I was getting my case out of my bandmate's car, I saw, lying on the seat, the book I had been reading. (Remainder, of course, which so far I love.) I thought, should I take it with me? You never know when you're going to be stuck with nothing to do for ten minutes. I actually picked it up--but I knew it wouldn't fit in my coat pocket. It's a medium-sized trade paperback, and half the thing would have been poking out. So I left it, and hauled my case to the subway.

I got on the F at 2nd Avenue, and halfway to Lafayette Street the train ground to a halt. The lights flickered. The smell of acrid smoke began to filter through the crack between the doors. As it happened, a train up ahead had met some reeking demise, and we would be held up, confined in the tunnel, for nearly half an hour. Eventually, we would make it far enough to the next station to be able to evacuate through the front car--but meanwhile, I was stuck. With nothing to read.

If Remainder had been a mass market paperback, I would have thoroughly enjoyed the wait. But like most books I want to read, it wasn't. What's our beef with this wonderful invention? Why can't all books be published this way? If there were a decent publisher out there who would put out my stuff exclusively as mass market originals, I would fall over myself to get on board. It's the perfect format--small, cheap, egalitarian. It doesn't last forever, but it lasts long enough. Let libraries have the hardcovers, and fill the bookstores with books you can stick in your pocket. There are times when I have decided to read something exclusively because of its format, choosing it over books I actually wanted to read more, but would encumber me on my travels. I have actually re-read bad books for this reason.

Sometimes I have to stop and remind myself--what's this whole thing about? Writing, I mean. Am I doing it just to amuse myself? Sure--but I don't want to amuse myself in a drawer. I want people to read it. I want LOTS of people to read it. I want my blathering-ass self promulgated as efficiently as possible throughout the nation and world. Mass market paperbacks cost half what trade paperbacks do. Half! Why can't we all drop the charade and embrace them? The human pocket should never be without one.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tom McCarthy's Remainder

I quit reading this novel the first time I tried it, maybe ten pages in. The voice seemed awfully deadpan, and the premise -- a guy is injured in a terrible accident and is paid lots money not to talk about it -- only sort of interesting. I kept going because Matt Tiffany at Condalmo likes it so much. I'm glad I did, because although my initial impressions weren't all wrong, and I found myself speed-reading through some tedious parts, in the end I was dumbstruck.

It's hard to even talk about, because so much of the pleasure of Remainder is in the strange and unexpected ways it builds and gathers. I guess I can say this much: after his accident, and with his almost unlimited resources, the protagonist feels an irresistible drive to recreate a building he sees in a vision. This drive -- where it comes from, how it changes, where it leads -- is what the book is about. What a strange thing for a book to be about!

It reminds me a bit of Magnus Mills, whose characters also undertake odd and possibly meaningless tasks in a deadpan fashion, but unlike Mills, McCarthy goes all the way with his ideas -- he follows through. It's been two days since I've finished it, but my brain still feels weird. I feel like Remainder had things to say about art, fiction, history, trauma, the 20th century, terrorism, math, memory -- everything.

Well, JRL's reading it now, and no doubt he'll be more eloquent when he posts about it.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Curse of Ordinariness

I've alluded to this before, but I think maybe it deserves a post of its own. The other night I was trying to read a galley of a forthcoming book by a pretty well respected youngish midlist writer, and I honestly expected to like it. It involved terrorism, college professors, free speech--all kinds of sexy current stuff--and has all the hallmarks of a book that's going to get tons of great reviews and be nominated for awards.

The writing wasn't too bad, aside from some embarrassing grammatical and usage errors that I sincerely hope will be corrected in the published article...but it kept getting bogged down in the ordinary. I'm talking about those lengthy, lush examinations of Regular American Moments that we see so much these days, and which I think have come to be synonymous with "contemporary literature." Excessive elaboration on the obvious and normal--this, I think, is the disease du jour of American letters.

Raymond Carver reminded writers that there was a lot of material to be mined from "regular" America--he had the guts to point out, in his stories, that the educated and privileged did not own pathos and epiphany, in an era when it was unfashionable to do so. Certainly, this was a good thing, and he was good at it. But I fear that he, and some of his more skillful successors, inadvertently spawned an army of highly educated people who fetishized averageness--and this has since evolved into a mannerism so pervasive as to be largely invisible.

Here's my complaint: ordinariness is not interesting. Period. What a good writer discovers is what is extraordinary, hidden beneath the cloak of ordinariness. Think of Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, a hilarious page-turner about tooth-brushing, drinking straws, and milk cartons; or Alice Munro's brutal dissections of small towns, married love and betrayal. The proper aim of "ordinary life" fiction is not, in fact, to show just how very very wonderful it is to be ordinary; rather, it's to show that ordinary life is not ordinary. That people, regardless of how they choose to present themselves, are strange and interesting.

Now, the book I was reading does indeed come to heave itself out of the tar pit of regularity, and eventually becomes quite dramatic. But the overall sensibility remains slack--its observations are workaday, its sentences way too long. I worry that this isn't even something we notice anymore, until we read something really strange--new or old--to remind us what it's all supposed to be about. That life is bizarre, no matter how conventional it thinks it is.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Ursula Le Guin on Reading

I would have found Ursula Le Guin's essay in the February Harper's more interesting if I didn't agree with every word in it. (No link, print only I guess!) She writes about the alarmist report from the NEA -- "To Read or Not to Read" -- in which they claimed 43% of Americans hadn't read a book all year. In this report one of these Americans was quoted as saying, "I just get sleepy when I read."

And Le Guin just shrugs her shoulders, as I did. So what? I've met lots of good, smart people who don't read. I don't think we book-loving people should waste a minute trying to foist our pleasure onto people who'd rather be doing anything else. And maybe it's just my milieu, but it seems to me that reading is a much more popular pastime than it was in, say, 1982. We had Judy Blume and Leon Uris and Waldenbooks* -- no Amazon, no Oprah, no book clubs, no lit blogs, no Harry Potter. Most of the books I read as a child were written decades before. Perhaps the stats prove me wrong. Anyway, whatever. What are we going to do -- make the books we write and publish more like American Idol?

Le Guin goes on to talk about reading as a social phenomenon. Yes! Best-sellers are read only partly for their entertainment or educational value -- often they're read because everyone else is reading them, and no one wants to be left out. Harry Potter is a good example. A huge part of their success is just the human desire to be part of something fun and social. And publishers just can't predict which books are going to take off in this way.

I won't spoil the whole essay for you. (I just love Harper's. In every issue they have something that risks being obscure, crazy, overlong, or just plain strange. No stories about Irish priests in boats for them!)
* Oh yeah: we also had Ursula LeGuin, who wrote the Earthsea books, perhaps the only fantasy novels I can stand.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Bulwer-Lytton Results Are In

I'm sure everybody's blogging this today--or yesterday, if they were actually awake--but the results of this year's worst-possible-novel-opening contest have been announced. Here are a few of the winners:

The Winner
Gerald began--but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them "permanently" meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash--to pee.

Jim Gleeson
Madison, WI

The Barents sea heaved and churned like a tortured animal in pain, the howling wind tearing packets of icy green water from the shuddering crests of the waves, atomizing it into mist that was again laid flat by the growing fury of the storm as Kevin Tucker switched off the bedside light in his Tuba City, Arizona, single-wide trailer and by the time the phone woke him at 7:38, had pretty much blown itself out with no damage.

Scott Palmer
Klamath Falls, OR

Grand Panjandrum's Award
LaVerne was undeniably underdressed for this frigid weather; her black, rain-soaked tank top offered no protection and seemed to cling to her torso out of sheer rage, while her tie-dyed boa scarf hung lifeless around her neck like a giant, exhausted, pipe cleaner recently discarded after near-criminal overuse by an obviously sadistic (and rather flamboyant) plumber.

Andrew Cavallari
Northfield, IL

These are pretty funny--as are the winners in all the various genres--but I think my favorite out of all of them is this "Dishonorable Mention" from the children's literature category:

Out of a hole in the ground popped a bunny rabbit which had a long thick orange carrot between its teeth and a big splotch of mud on its back that had dried into a dirt clump the size of a tumor.

Veronica Perez
Palm Springs, FL

The other winners are kinda slapstick; that one is just bizarre. I think the thing I like about this contest is that, to write a "bad" opening, you have to subscribe to the idea that there is such a thing as a "good" opening, and be able to articulate what that isn't. This is worth thinking about! Overdoing it is just one way to be bad--I'd like to see this contest expand its range of badness.

Anyway, good for a few yuks!

Friday, January 11, 2008

DFW in Harper's

Just a brief post tonight to signal my noticing of this new David Foster Wallace thinger in the Readings section of the new Harper's. It's labeled a "scene" and also "from a work in progress," and reads kind of like a truncated long short story.

I like it. This is sort of meaningless, as I basically like all of Wallace, even the things I don't like. He is one of those artists--like the Coen Brothers or The Flaming Lips--whom I appreciate on a very deep, more or less permanent level, and I forgive him for all the sucking he needs to do in order to produce something really good.

This does not suck, but it could be filed in the same drawer as the Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri stories I was complaining about a couple weeks ago--it is doing its thing in overly familiar territory. But there's something about Wallace's territory--the arena of scary, squirrely little mental tics and unhealthy but irrepressible impulses--that seems bottomlessly valuable to me. This piece is a monologue, on the part of a (very echt-Wallace) awkward and pedantic office worker, about his relationship with, and fear of, a colleague's baby. And at the end--which we can safely presume is not really the end--the baby starts talking to him like an adult. It's rather creepy--the talking baby may represent new territory for Wallace. We'll see.

What's your take on Wallace? There have been times I thought maybe I was tired of his schtick, and then whammo, he once again writes something amazing. I don't know if this is it. It certainly has something going on, though.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Naming Your Babies

A commenter on the last post (investment banker (??) Grant Munroe) mentioned using notebooks to collect potential character names and suggested a post on that topic. Hey, why not! Naming characters might be the most fun part of writing fiction.

One summer when I was a teenager I copied an entire Dictionary of Names into my notebook. It certainly ticked off my mother, who thought my time might be better spent studying for my SATs or maybe getting a job, and yeah, she was probably right. But I loved names, and still do. I love the way a name creates a person, but also how the person creates the name. I have a *wee* touch of synesthesia, if that's possible, and different letters and sounds create different color and sense impressions in me. My own name, Rhian, for example, makes me think of raw hamburger. Why? Well, R is red, for obvious reasons, and h is soft, light green on its own, but in combination with other letters whitish and streaky. The rest of the letters are just kind of squeezy, somehow. So: red, whitish and streaky, and squeezy = raw hamburger.

We named my oldest son "Owen," and the combination of the black O and the furry, gray W and the curled up "en" brings to mind a folded gray wool sweater. A son should be like a gray sweater, don't you think?

"Amy" makes me think of small pearl earrings, so Amy would be a good name for a small, well-dressed character -- or conversely, a large, messy character whose name would either stand in funny contrast to reality or would indicate a hidden side of her.

I named the character in my first novel "Naomi," because the letters are all black, blue, and purple, and the "Na" has a feeling of shyness, of turning away. My character has black hair and in an early draft wore blue dresses and black shoes, so it fit. Her last name was originally "Fry," which is a kind of funny name, I think, like the fried chicken I ate while writing the book. I can't remember why I changed it -- too funny? -- but eventually it became "Ash," which of course has connotations of fragility and death, and that worked.

Once I was driving to my in-laws in Pennsylvania and saw a funeral home called "Morninghoff and Sons." Wow, I liked the name "Morninghoff." I thought I could write a whole book about a person named Morninghoff. And her first name came to me out of the air: Mindy. Mindy Morninghoff. She's the person in the novel I'm working on now, and her name is the only thing I'm sure about.

Though I love bizarre names (my grandmother swore she had a friend named Ida Violet Bottom, and she used to chuckle whenever we passed her neighbor, P.Hart) and have spent hours looking for them in the phone book, I don't really use them in writing. The best character names, I think, are one degree away from bland. "Tim Miller" wouldn't make a great character name, because it's too forgettable, but "Tim Mix," a name in one of JRL's books, is good because it's just barely off-kilter, just as real names are. In fact, I think that one was straight out of the Missoula phone book. I could barely read The Crying of Lot 49 because the main character was named "Oedipa Maas" and it was too ridiculous, I didn't believe it.

What are your favorite methods of naming characters?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Taking Notes

I don't know how many other writers are like this, but I hardly ever write anything down. I don't have a notebook full of ideas that I carry around with me, and I never seem to have a pen handy. I don't think this is a good thing, mind you--in fact I think it's stupid. I can't tell you how many good ideas I've gotten and forgotten--I think my stories would be more varied, my novels more detailed, if I could actually manage to keep a notebook and pen in my pocket.

I do keep notebooks for each novel I write--I use these narrow-ruled, slightly-less-than-letter-sized, cream-colored, spiral-bound notebooks for that...I bought like twenty of them ten years ago for this purpose. But if you look at them in chronological order, over the six novels I've written (one is unpublished), the amount of stuff in them gets progressively smaller. The novel I'm finishing now, I never even started a notebook for.

Again, bad thing? I think it is. I don't have any evidence for this opinion, though. I think I'm just lazy and impatient, and I fill my head up with too much useless crap. Perhaps next time around I should go back to the old way--fill a notebook with ideas, and carry around one of those sexy little Moleskine jobbers for incidental jottings and bursts of inspiration. But I probably won't. I will probably go off half-cocked as usual and just sit down and start making shit up. Just thinking about taking notes makes me cringe right now. Why on earth would that be?

There is one place, however, where I do take notes, and that's in bed--I suppose it's there that my mind is clearest, and something good often comes to me there. Back in the day, I used to accomplish this by groping on the bedside table in he dark for some random scrap of paper (usually the bookmark in whatever I happened to be reading, which I then sacrificed for the cause) and a pencil, then scribbling blindly there, and hoping I'd be able to read it in the morning. But nowadays I use one of these. Rhian's mom, a closeted novelist, got it for me. I rolled my eyes when I saw it--it seemed so terribly Levengeresque--but it turns out it's amazing. You pull the pen out, and the light comes on--and your note cards are right there for you. Unfortunately the note cards it comes with are hideously adorned with moons and stars, but I'll run out in about 2014 and will get to replace them with plain white ones. After six years, by the way, the batteries are still going strong!

One of these days I ought to get a shrink to tell me why I never take notes--in the daytime, anyway. It feels almost like a test of my ideas--if they're not good enough to stick in my mind without assistance, they're not worth having. Or maybe that's just letting myself off the hook.

That's it! I'm going to do it! I'm going to take some goddam notes!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Writing Technology

Last weekend's NYTimes Magazine had an essay by Virginia Heffernan about Scrivener, a writing software. It looks pretty lovely: you can shuffle notes on it, and pin stuff to a pretend corkboard, and use an outline. Nice! In my dark hours of confusion and desk mess and despair, I might come to believe that a tidy and friendly virtual environment would make all the difference. It wouldn't, though.

I believe that a writer's tools do shape the writing a little bit, or at least the writing experience. Microsoft Word's thesaurus is a terrible one, for example, and I hate to think of all the millions of people out there relying on it for just the right word, only to find a small handful of inadequate ones instead. And using a word processing program is a different experience from typing drafts on a typewriter or scrawling them in notebooks -- it makes it easier to move stuff around and edit, but it also makes your writing look finished even when it's not.

I wrote my first stories in ballpoint pen in a stenographer's notebook, the kind with a spiral on top. That's the kind my sixth grade teacher wanted us to use, perhaps because they were journalisty. The binding didn't get in your way when you wrote. In high school I learned to type, but never felt comfortable composing on a typewriter; I'd write in a notebook and type out the final draft.

I started using a computer in college, down in the library basement. The program was called NewWord, and I saved the stories on 5-inch floppy disks. I still composed in notebooks (brown paper cover, college ruled). After college I drove across the west with my boyfriend in a car loaded with everything I owned, including all those floppy disks with my stories on them. In Arizona it got really hot (115 degrees) and we had no air-conditioning in the car (still don't, sigh) and so I stuck the disks in the ice-filled cooler. That night in the motel room I fished them out from among the floating cheese and apples and propped them around the room to dry, but they were ruined. That was when I first started to realize there was some danger in this new technology. I could have retyped the stories from my paper copies, but I never did.

In grad school there was a lot of writing to do, so I bought my own computer and started to compose directly on it, using Microsoft Word. Those were good times: I had a whole new and different voice, too. Was this because of composing on the computer, or just because I'd been out of school for a couple of years and was a different person? The weird thing was, once I switched to composing on a screen, I couldn't do it on paper any more.

This worked for me for many years, until we got the internet and I found myself distracted by all the interesting "research" just a few clicks away. My friend had this nifty thing called an AlphaSmart -- it's a sturdy little low-tech electronic typewriter that stores your writing until you plug it into your computer, where it pours your work into a word processing program for you to edit. You can only see a few lines of your writing at once, which can be a good thing. I bought one, and have enjoyed it for the last couple of years; they've been kind of dry years writing-wise, but I don't think it's the AlphaSmart's fault.

Switching technologies like this has made me more flexible about writing in general. In the last year I've gone back to writing in notebooks, too, just cheapo dollar-store notebooks and pens or pencils or whatever. (The Individual Voice has some interesting commentary on Moleskine notebooks, which are my favorites and beautiful, maybe too beautiful.) It's easy to get caught up in the perfectness of your tools, but it's better not to imbue them with magical, creativity-inducing powers.

Or is it?? Sometimes I think, If only I had one of those nice, perfect brown-paper college notebooks, I'd know exactly how to proceed with this novel/thing. In Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, the protagonist only uses brightly colored markers to write her historical romances -- apple green was one, I remember. There's something awfully appealing about that. Does a little magical thinking help the creative process? What do you think?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Groovy East Coast Events Featuring W6 Personnel

First off is something Skoog just sent me. If you're anywhere near Hadley, Mass--let's say, within 500 miles--you'll want to attend:

Books Out Loud Dance Party!
Readings . Live Music . Dancing

Join essentials, wünderarts, and many more as we celebrate the written word with music, readings, and a whole lot of dancing! Featuring John Hodgman of The Daily Show and The Areas of My Expertise, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Kelly Link, Rachel Sherman, Ed Skoog, Who Shot Hollywood, and More...

When and Where:
From 7:00 pm until 11:00 pm, January 26, 2008 at the American Legion Hall in Hadley, MA. Only a limited number of tickets available so get yours NOW!

Kelly Link is one of my favorite new story writers, Ed is a badass of course, and John Hodgman is a very funny man who has not been spoiled by fame. In fact, he's even more unassuming than ever before. Go to it!

Also, my electronica band, The Bemus Point, will be playing at The Annex in lower Manhattan next Tuesday, January 15. The Annex is at 152 Orchard Street, click the link for a map. We'll go on at 10, followed by our friend Ubertar, a multifarious instrument builder and mircotonal whiz. Come on out for a wild night of thoughtful chin-stroking!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Spinster Novels

Moonlight Ambulette recently wrote about Lolly Willowes, a novel published in 1926 by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I had never read it but thought it sounded exactly like what I wanted to read, so I got one from and had them send it to me via speedy mail. (I was desperate. Another book I was reading self-destructed 1/3 through. More on that one when/if I finish it.) It's every bit as good as she says (no surprise; MA has great taste) and it occurred to me that Lolly Willowes belongs to a type of book I love: the spinster novel, or novels about women who don't find happiness in love and have to approach life from a different direction. It's probably an inevitable novel type; so many women writers are, if not spinsters, women who feel at odds with traditional expectations for them.

Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House is another great novel of this type -- it's about a librarian's unrequited love for a boy giant. Rachel Cusk's The Country Life -- in many ways the funniest novel ever -- is another, about a woman with a mysterious past who gets a job taking care of a hilariously sharp-tongued disabled boy. And of course there's Zoe Heller's What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal about the awkward friendship between two women, one of whom falls in absurd love with a teenage boy (the movie of this book, though starring Judy Dench, was not as good). Also, Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter (Welty is the Queen of Spinsterish Writers), Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, and much of the oeuvre of Anita Brookner, just off the top of my head. Though I'm not technically a spinster, being married, I do identify quite powerfully with these characters, perhaps in the same way children with two living parents identify with literary orphans.

It seems to be a favorite type of novel among British women writers, actually. Now, why would that be?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Two Good Poets You Never Heard Of

To be fair, I'm sure some of you have. In any event, if I'm not mistaken, it was Ed who told me about both. I was given to remember them this morning because...well...actually I have no idea why. I was dragging the Christmas tree out the front door and a few lines popped into my head.

The lines are the fourth stanza below--the poem is by Robert Francis.


From where I stand the sheep stand still
As stones against the stony hill.

The stones are gray
And so are they.

And both are weatherworn and round,
Leading the eye back to the ground.

Two mingled flocks—
The sheep, the rocks.

And still no sheep stirs from its place
Or lifts its Babylonian face.

That was almost the epigraph for my third novel, which is about sheep. But I decided to go with no epigraph at all. Francis also wrote a charming, understated memoir called The Trouble With Francis--a great title.

The other poet is Henri Coulette. Here's a lovely little poem about a cat.


Lord of the Tenth Life,
Welcome my Jerome,
A fierce, gold tabby.
Make him feel at home.

He loves bird and mouse.
He loves a man's lap,
And in winter light,
Paws tucked in, a nap.

I should have posted that when our cat died, but I didn't think of it... Happy Saturday.

Friday, January 4, 2008

On Second Thought

I've been feeling a little guilty about saying an MFA isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Okay, it's probably more helpful to have an MFA on a resume than the equivalent two years of temp work, which is what I'd have otherwise. And certainly, for me, the experience was more than worthwhile; it was life-changing.

I guess what I'm reacting to is the idea that MFA-holders are central to the literary establishment right now, and that non-MFA holders are outsiders -- and I feel that whether this is an accurate assessment or not, it really shouldn't be this way. I don't think a degree program can somehow confer artistic skill, or that the possession of such a degree denotes it. JRL will disgree with me here, but I do think the academy does have a numbing and dulling effect on literature -- though it doesn't have to, and not every program does. But in general, at least some of the blame for the tide of competent mediocrity we have to wade through at the bookstore can be laid at the foot of graduate writing programs. What would Flannery O'Connor say? They encourage too many young writers. There are over 300 graduate writing programs, for cripe's sake. We don't need that many writers. What we need are readers. How many literary magazines can claim they have more people on their subscription list than manuscripts submitted each year? Or even each month? Not many!

But most of the blame for the fact that it's very hard to find a good new book to read belongs to the stupidities of the marketplace. Of course.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Tree of Smoke

Well! For a little while there, during the holidays, it seemed like I might never finish Denis Johnson's new book. Those first 200 pages require a certain degree of concentration which, in the throes of the holiday season, I was only barely up for. It was the writing that kept me going--the unexpected, and unexpectedly apt, knots of prose; the blackly comic character observations; the small, rich, bizarre bits of aliveness that surfaced in surprising places. The book lacked momentum, though--and while I would have been happy to read another 400 pages like that, my eventual praise might have been grudging.

Johnson is one of my favorite writers, but, although he's written more novels than anything else, his novels have always been the least satisfying (to this reader) of his books. His stories and poems were what really got my motor running--the novels were like abandoned farms out of which beautiful things sometimes implausibly sprung. I wanted to think he had a great one in him, but I wasn't confident that he did. Angels came close, and I liked the slight but shapely The Name of the World. Every time, though, it felt like he was trying, and failing, to break through some big old snowbank. The beginning of this book was good, but it begged the question--is this all going somewhere, or is it just a big mess?

And then the thing just caught fire, and all the paths began to converge, and I read the rest of the book in desperate hundred-page gulps. It's really good. There's even a plot, and it's a fairly simple one, in the end: F. X. Sands, a CIA agent, manages to put into motion, at the outset of the Vietnam War, a grand, brilliant, and ultimately pointless plan, by the force of nothing more than his gargantuan charisma--and ends up ruining a lot of people's lives. The book is populated by his followers and victims, very few of whom come out of the war--or the book--with anything resembling a viable life.

It's the details that are complicated, and this is why the first third of the novel is hard going. The characters are introduced, and their relationship to Sands; none of them know what he's up to, and none of them ever really will. What Johnson gives us is the map of their confusion, and for a time, their confusion is our confusion. But when the war reaches the characters--Sands has commandeered a mountaintop for reasons nobody quite understands, and it is forced to endure the Tet Offensive--we are suddenly reading a page-turner, a thriller. Sands' plan, what there ever was of it, unravels, and the momentum of the novel comes from its unraveling.

Johnson never seemed able to figure out a way to bring the deadpan, sideways motion of his stories into a novel, let alone a long one. The style was there, but the purpose seemed lost. Here, he's made it happen, and the novel is purposeful, elegant, beautifully balanced, yet as idiosyncratic and peculiar as anything he's written. The dialogue reads like an endlessly unfolding series of miracles--it's just masterful lit-verité, and a joy to read. The violence is very real and utterly unadorned. Madness (a common destination for many characters here) is rendered with aching plausibility and deep sadness. Also, the book is often hilarious, sometimes mere moments before it becomes horrifying. It's this great lurching thing that somehow manages to seem balletic and beautiful--a weird, lopsided masterpiece.

Johnson's coming to Cornell for the semester, by the way, and with any luck I'll get the opportunity to interview him for the podcast, when his reading comes around. Stay tuned for that. Meanwhile, read this perfectly flawed piece of work, it's great.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008


We're thinking that we're going to start putting more links here, and more shorter posts, too. Here's one to start, a rather interesting article by Philip Pullman about the difference between a "story" and "literature:"

And despite the profound and unsettling discoveries of modernism and post-modernism, and everything they show us about the unreliability of the narrator and the fallacy of omniscience, some of us still, when we read, are happy to accept that the narrative voice has the right to comment on a character, whether tartly or sympathetically, and the ability to go into that character's mind and tell us what's going on there. Do we ever stop to wonder how extraordinary it is that a disembodied voice can seem to tell us what is happening in someone's mind?

That narrative voice, with those mysterious powers, is the reason I write novels. I'm intoxicated by it.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

We're One

One year old today, that is. Rhian devised this blog as a 2007 New Year's resolution, and brought me on board, and we swore we would post every day for a year. That was the goal.

Well--we didn't quite meet it. But we came close enough, making this perhaps the only New Year's resolution we have ever jointly kept. This was originally going to be the end of the road, but Ward Six has come to feel like a third child, and its readers--and good God, where did you all come from?!--a reliable stable of cousins. So we'll be continuing indefinitely, and we hope you will all come along for the ride.

We'll keep trying to put something up every day, with a "major" post every other, and forgive us if we start repeating ourselves, because we have a way of repeating ourselves. But literature seems never to exhaust itself--we continue to love it, and love talking about it, and we want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for listening.

And, I should add, for talking back. Because it was never the hit counter that mattered--it was the comments. All the best moments here at W6 have come not in our posts, but in your responses to them, and we both check back a dozen times a day, to see what people are saying to one another.

Rhian may post her own suite of thanks, but I know I can speak for her when I say how grateful we both are for your attention and participation. Zoe, 5 Red Pandas, Individual Voice, the whole lot of you--it's been great having you around. And Ed, thanks for your hyperlink-rich co-blogging, which we hope will continue.

Be well this year, enjoy all there is to enjoy, and write like madmen. With affection--