Monday, June 30, 2008

Squatters' Rights

I took a look at the new Ethan Canin novel, America America, in spite of the rather negative NYTBR review because I have a soft spot for Canin (who was very nice to me in a bookstore once, back in about 1992). I was surprised to see he's set his book in my home territory of Western New York, even though he's not from there and doesn't live there. In fact, the town he's invented is described as being an hour south of Buffalo and twenty minutes from Lake Erie -- right on top of my parents' house, actually.

But he also describes it as "not much farther" from Lake Ontario. That point on the map is almost two hours from Lake Ontario -- so far that if you're from there, it's not on your radar at all. Also, he talks about the Dutch pioneers (there were some Dutch there, but mostly they weren't) and gives a feel to the area that is decidedly downstate or Hudson River. He mentions horse farms and estates. It's more like Indian reservations, grape farms, and gutted-out factories. (I only read the beginning of the book, so maybe it gets more accurate later.)

Okay, whatever. He's making a place up, and that's a perfectly acceptable thing to do. But it really did chap my butt that he chose my little chunk of the map to super-impose his world over. As if there was nothing there to begin with.

And while we're at it, let me get this off my chest: for years Joyce Carol Oates has pissed me off by taking place names from my part of New York (Chautauqua County) and moving them to hers (Lockport area). Yes, we have some cool place names, but she's a writer with a terrific imagination. Why can't she make some up instead of looting ours?

I'm aware that this seems petty. But I'm writing this because I feel genuinely angry and offended. In fact, my feelings surprise me. Here in upstate New York, we don't have a lot of regionalist tendencies. Unlike other places I've lived in (the South, the West), we don't have a literature, much of a cuisine, or a hatred of outsiders. Our economy is bad, our accent is hard to pinpoint, our architecture is utilitarian. But it is a real place, with a history and a way of being.

When I sit down to write something, where the thing takes place is incredibly important. A Montana novel is not a Wales novel. Things that can happen in Louisiana will not happen in Western New York. Fiction is -- almost always -- tightly bound to its setting.

And I also think it's okay to make a place up -- but not to bulldoze a real place beneath it.

Maybe I'm mad because I feel like I should be writing about Western New York myself, and instead I'm spending my freetime doing things like razor-blading soap scum out of my kids' bathtub and reading the beginnings of other people's novels.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The text-covered world

Years ago, Rhian used to live in a house in Missoula, near the railroad tracks, that didn't have any off-street parking. But there was a garage behind it that occasionally had a free space in front of it, and one day she briefly stopped her Datsun there. When she returned there was a handwritten note attached to the windshield. It read:


There is something unforgettable about that line--it's not just awkward and ungrammatical, it's ideally awkward and ungrammatical. It sticks in your mind and won't let go. The same is true of a story my brother tells, about a friend of his who always ordered the same thing at the hot dog stand they patronized: "Gimme tree hoddogs, two wit kepitch, one wit not." This gets uttered at least three times a day in our house, and has pretty consistently for the past two years. And just this evening, during our family night out at the Chinese buffet, I received the following fortune: "A carrot a day, may keep cancer away."

Cancer! In my cookie!

I love the notion of a public text--the handlettered sign, the overheard cell phone conversation, the mash note found under a hedge. I've always felt that good fiction and poetry is inseparable from the rhythms, quirks, and foibles of common speech--a writer may embrace it fully, or react against it aggressively, but it's always part of the equation. The text of a book may be a secret whisper between the writer and reader, but language itself has a life of its own, out in the wild. Literature is a zoo, an awesome zoo of language, but sometimes it's just as enjoyable to stalk the beast out on the street.

I've made it something of a habit to photograph unusual or otherwise noteworthy texts in their natural environment--a few are below. Feel free to share a few specimens of your own.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Trends in Memoir

Boy, are there ever a lot of memoirs out there. One keeps thinking the genre has peaked, but no. It used to be that you had to have a really unusual experience or a notable life to write a memoir, but that's not true anymore. This is what you need now: a life story with a "hook" (being raised in an unusual family, or in an unusual place, or with an unusual condition), a terrible trauma that you survived, or a wacky/strenuous challenge that you decide to undertake (eating a hamburger in all 50 states, forgoing plastic, etc.)

I really like memoirs, and I read a lot of them. For some reason they're easier to read than fiction, so when my brain feels fried (which it does a lot these days) I'll pick out the memoir from my teetering pile of unread books. So none of this is meant as criticism of the genre. It's true I'm slightly resentful of them, though -- I'm a fiction writer, and very loyal to that genre, and so far my life has not been memoir-worthy (I hope it never will be). And most memoirs are perfectly fine, but nothing I'd post about.

Mostly I'm just very curious about why this has happened. Experiences that once might have been channeled into fiction are now told straight, as memoir. Why? What changed since, say, the 70's? My mother used to read a lot of travel memoirs back then, but that and the autobiography of fame were really the only kinds of the thing that you could get back then. Why the hunger, now, to hear about a stranger's breast cancer, or young widowhood, or infertility?

JRL thinks it's marketing. A book about, say, adopting a baby from China (there's one on my store's new book table right now) has a ready-made audience: the thousands of people who've adopted from China. Or adopted at all. Everyone who knows someone with that experience will buy it for their friend as a gift. Same with the cancer memoir on the same table, and the autism one.

There's some truth to this, I think. Publishers are nervous these days, and books are expensive, and we might feel that they need to be educational somehow or giftable, to coin a term, before we shell out $27.95. Will I give my sister a literary novel from an unknown first novelist? Um, no. Will I give her a memoir about being gluten-intolerant? You bet.

But I don't think it's entirely the publishing industry pushing this stuff at us. I think there's an appetite. Some of the appetite for fiction has shifted. We want to read about real life. Did we not want to read about real life in 1975? In those days, the big beefy not-especially-well-written drama was big. We wanted to read about imaginary famous or rich people doing spectacular things. We didn't want to read about someone's terrible, but not famous, mother. (Joan Crawford yes, Mrs. Bilinski down the street, no.) We didn't care, in those days, about your obsessive compulsiveness.

Or did we? Maybe we did, but publishing was reluctant to get with the program. I remember being excited, in 1983 or so, about Go Ask Alice, the drug addiction memoir that was so titillating I had to stand in the library stacks in my snow boots and read it because my mom wouldn't let me get it out. Maybe there was a kind of literary snobbishness in publishing then that we're finally getting over.

Anyway, it's fascinating. These days, the terrible mother Mrs. Bilinski might get a whole memoir, if her daughter has literary ambitions. Who'd have thunk! And when will it end? It's got to end somewhere. Doesn't it? I certainly hope so, before one of my sons writes a book about how his mother limited him to an hour of computer time a day and wouldn't let him drink soda.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dying Young

I read two things over the weekend that got me thinking about artists who die young. One of them was Gillian Gaar's In Utero, from the "33 1/3" series of books about rock albums; it chronicles the recording of Nirvana's last (and, in my possibly minority opinion, best) album, in the year before Kurt Cobain's suicide. The other was Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, the famous story of the German doctor who sells his soul to Satan so that he can, um, get laid and play tricks at a dinner party.

Faustus is a good play--not a great one, I don't think, but there are plenty of rabid Marlovians (the ones who think he was Shakespeare) who would tar and feather me to hear my say it, were the internet, say, a Holiday Inn ballroom, rather than a bunch of fickle electrons. But the play's not the thing--it's the circumstances of Marlowe's death that interest me today. He was stabbed in the eye, in a roomful of state secret service dudes who said he started it. Cobain's suicide was quite straightforward by comparison, but even his death has been subjected to its own brace of conspiracy theories.

Judging from those two, if you're really sharp, and you kick it before the age of, say, thirty-five, you're golden. You may have left behind a terrific body of work, but posterity doesn't just listen to your three albums, or watch your four plays, and mutter "what a shame." Also factored into your permanent reputation is what might have been--the stuff you might possibly maybe definitely would have produced if you'd lived. If album C was better than album B was better than album A, then album M would have pitched the world into ecstatic chaos.

Then again...the other book I read this week was another in the 33 1/3 series, Ben Sisario's Doolittle, a chronicle of the Pixiess third album. (The book is both better written than the Nirvana one, and less engaging to read, due to Sisario's excessive erudition and worshipful tone--but I recommend it anyhow.) Charles Thompson, aka Black Francis, aka Frank Black, didn't die after the record was recorded. Indeed, he put out another bunch, both with and without the Pixies, and none of them are remotely as good as Doolittle. He lives today, somewhere in Oregon, with his girlfriend and their baby, and while he's pretty legendary, he's no Cobain, let alone Marlowe (apologies to his fans, but I'll take the Breeders over post-Doolittle Black any day).

When we read a writer we like, we don't just read what we're reading. We read what we could be reading--what we hope we might read someday. This is way we Obamites dig our candidate: you can count on him being a decent president, but there's just the tiniest chance that he might be great--legendary--world-altering. When a writer dies young, she is frozen in time, often at the height of her powers (which, it is often the case, are fueled by the same pressures that result in her death. Sylvia Plath, for instance). The graph of her awesomeness looks like a day trader's wet dream. You never imagine it changing direction (Hemingway). You never imagine it disappearing completely (Salinger).

This doesn't speak well for our older, healthier, more fortunate writers, one of which I hope someday to become. But those writers get to have something Breece D'J Pancake or John Kennedy Toole never got to have: a second act, and a third, and possibly a fourth. All I really can wish for, though, is that I don't have a fifth act like poor proud Faustus, with my various limbs scattered across a blood-smeared room.

Then again, what a way to go! I'd make the Norton Anthology for sure.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Writing and the Supernatural

I just finished reading Alison Lurie's memoir of her friendship with poet James Merrill and his partner David Jackson, Familiar Spirits. I loved it, partly because I really like Alison and her particular way of observing: she can be gossipy and tender at the same time. But her analysis of Jackson and Merrill's use of the Ouija board was also very interesting. For years and years they consulted a Ouija board almost daily, and developed long-lasting and important relationships with various "spirits" who communicated with them. Merrill's epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, was largely dictated by spirit guides.

What to make of all that? Lurie doesn't really know -- the notion of otherwise serious people becoming dependent on channelling spirits is baffling. She talks about how she used astrology in one of her novels, assigning a zodiacal sign to each of her characters to help develop them, and how she briefly thought she and Merrill and Jackson had something in common -- they all used the supernatural as an aid to creativity. But it was much more important to Merrill and Jackson. They actually believed in it. For years it occupied most of their free time.

Was it really spirits? Or was it a manifestation of their combined unconscious? Or was it one of them -- she suggests it was possibly Jackson, an unsuccessful novelist -- consciously or unconsciously pushing the planchette alone?

One of my favorite novels is Margaret Atwood's under-read Lady Oracle. It's about a woman who has a perfectly decent career writing historical romances, but who becomes suddenly famous when she writes a book of poetry by staring into a candle and writing automatically, in a trance. It's such a writerly fantasy: you close your eyes, stop thinking, stop trying hard, and let your hand just do all the writing on its own. And it's brilliant and you get famous.

But you know what? It's rather like what happens, anyway. (Not so much the brilliant and famous part.) But very often, writing comes from a place not entirely under your control. Writers often talk about their work going off in directions that surprise them, of characters having more life than the writer actually put into them. Where did all that come from? It can certainly feel supernatural.

Last summer when the final Harry Potter book came out, our store held a party and I read tarot cards for people all night. At first I felt like a terrible fraud, even though I didn't charge any money; I'm certainly not a tarot scholar by any means, plus I don't even believe in that stuff. But there was something about reading tarot that evening that was really tremendously fun and interesting. With some people, I had nothing. I blabbed for a few minutes, and they moved on. But with other people, I just looked at them and felt a connection, a knowingness. The cards were potent, everything I said felt important and true. Several people contacted me later and told me how accurate their reading was, how scarily apt the cards were.

But like I said, I don't believe in that stuff. I didn't, and I still don't. What I believe in is the human unconscious. We know so much more than we let ourselves acknowledge -- about ourselves and about others and about human nature. The supernatural, I think, can be a way to get at that information.

I have what is possibly one of central New York's largest collection of Ouija boards. Yet I have never once tried to use one. I guess I'm scared of either eventuality -- what if it doesn't work? What if it does?

What do you think? Should I give it a try?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Malcolm Cowley on Storytelling

First off, I'd like to thank the W6 commenters and readers who came by NYU the other night to hear my reading and talk--the event was a lot of fun, and my co-presenters, Gish Jen and Ryan McIlvain, were smart, funny, and insightful. It was great to attach some faces to the blogger handles, and I hope I get to see you all again.

One of you--the commenter known as alicia--had taken the time to photocopy something for me, a Malcolm Cowley essay that appears to have originally been published in the seventies. Cowley was a Lost Generation writer as well known for his editing (Kerouac, Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson) as his poems and fiction; the essay in question (she only gave me the beginning) was anthologized in a book called And I Worked At The Writer's Trade.

The first paragraph is quite a surprise, and I'm going to present here in full:

There is no doubt whatever that storytelling has lost the privileged place it used to occupy in the literary world and much of the attention it used to receive from critics as well as readers. In the 1960s there was hardly a book reviewer who had not announced that the novel was dead. If the novel survived, it was in altered forms and with a different audience. Shorter fiction had almost disappeared from the more popular magazines. Somehow the idea had gotten around that storytelling was a primitive skill, a little easy, a little to be despised; that a book or a long poem that told a story was not quite "serious," did not "speak to the age"; and that plot, which is the story element, was a rather shameful concession to the audience.

Well! That all sounds familiar, doesn't it? Cowley goes on to indulge in a bit of darn-you-kids cantankerousness before praising various types of experimental fiction, while pointing out the ways in which the best of them do indeed manage, however unconventionally, to tell some kind of story.

We don't go in much on this blog for doomsaying or condemnations of the publishing industry, which was always imperfect and unprofitable, and will forever be in danger of extinction. I think the reason for our restraint on this subject is our abiding belief that 1) telling a story is an inalienable human compulsion and will always exist in one form or another; and 2) the ways in which a story can be told, from the simple and direct to the complex and oblique, are basically infinite, and infinitely interesting. I suspect I'm a little more confident than Rhian that the novel, or something like it, will endure--she can weigh in in the comments. But since we started doing this, I have felt, very strongly, that people who hold public funerals for written fiction are doing so more to justify their own despair than to identify any actual cultural problem. It's true, as Rhian has said before, that literary fiction lacks the cultural cachet it once enjoyed; but fiction's moment in the sun was brief, and was perhaps never meant to last. The novel is a subtle, insidious art form, and those of us who ply it, by and large, don't expect to be thanked for it.

Nevertheless, it's been nearly fifty years that the novel's been on its deathbed, and perhaps it's time to admit that it isn't going to die. Maybe it got so few hospice visitors that it figured it might as well live?

Alicia, thanks for the essay!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Shape of Your Idea

I often wonder how much a writer knows about a book before she actually puts pen to paper. Sometimes when reading I get the sense that the writer is as surprised by what's happening as I am, but other books (Ian McEwan's) feel premeditated to a much greater degree. But what did, say, Moby Dick feel like inside Melville's head? Was it just a little fishing story that got out of hand, or did he conceive of it as an enormous, encyclopedic, epic thing?

And what constitutes an "idea"? The other day I was telling JRL that I wanted to write a story about some people who go to a place and do a thing, but then a different thing happens. And he laughed because, really, that's nothing -- it's not an idea; it's barely a structure. Other times I get ideas that are really just images, like: a witch's hat blows across a stubbled cornfield. Sometimes, an idea that skimpy can feel really important, and it might work as a driving motif, but it's not enough fuel for 300 pages.

A topic isn't an idea; an image isn't one; a plot isn't even one, because there are only a handful of those (at least that's what I'm told). So what does a good, compelling idea look like these days? Is it a plot plus a character? A character plus a dilemma? A plot with a hook?

Yeah, I'm trying to come up with something new to write. I feel like I have tons of material, endless crap I'd love to write about, but it's all an undifferentiated mass. How to tease an elegant little idea out of all that? Do I focus on developing a character, or a plot, or what?

One time when I was in this situation, having put aside one thing and fishing around for the next, all I had was a setting. I knew I wanted to write about a particular place. I had no idea what was going to happen in this place, but I was having fun taking notes about the objects and scenery there. Then one afternoon, walking around my apartment and listening to the radio, I heard a news story that gave me a rudimentary plot and a vague structure. That was enough! I had no characters yet, but I had the a setting with some interesting stuff in it and the basic building blocks of a story. The combination of the two was my idea -- the setting or story alone wasn't enough.

It's so weird -- every time I sit down to write something, I feel like I have no idea what I'm doing. For some reason it doesn't matter that I've worked through this problem before. It's write, learn, forget, then write, learn, forget again.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

New York Books

I was in the city the other day and will be there again on Tuesday evening (if anyone's interested in saying hi, it's for this event at NYU), and I find myself thinking about fiction set in New York. Personally, I've always been slightly annoyed by books set in real cities. I realize this is kind of insane--indeed, it means that I am annoyed by some of my favorite books ever--but I really can't stand the kind of ready-made detail this tactic sometimes results in, the sort of gratuitous I'm-an-urban-novelist kind of crap, you know, the lists of street names and subway routes; the tenement apartments that smell, without fail, "of boiled cabbage," as if this is something anybody eats; the rich mixture of immigrants; the prostitutes and wiseguys; etc. There is a kind of writer who is so damned proud of himself for living in New York that he will remind you of this cool insider knowledge at every available opportunity, until you feel as though you're reading a condemnation of your own town, as much as you are a celebration of New York.

That said, I sure would never turn up my nose at, say, Edith Wharton. I think she's sufficiently pre-hip to have avoided any whiff of pretension, and The Age of Innocence is a classic. When I was younger, I admit, I really liked Paul Auster, whose writing is so closely affiliated with the city; but I can tell you the exact moment he lost me forever. It was in the novel, I forget which, where the protagonist is following another guy through the streets for weeks, in apparently random directions. And eventually the protagonist realizes that his quarry has been spelling out words with his travels, if you were tracing his movements on a map. This concept bugged the crap out of me--not its implausibility, which I had no problem with, but the adolescent obviousness of the thing, and its arbitrariness. New York's streets: I love them, Auster seemed to be saying. Whatever, dude, I found myself replying.

Much more my speed is the early Stephen Dixon stuff, particularly the bizarre "The Hole," which begins, audaciously, "The city planetarium blew up." I also love Madison Smartt Bell's "The Lie Detector," with its complicated arrangements of landlords and apartments (that's set in New York, right? Maybe it isn't--I don't have the book here with me. But it has become New York in my mind. Maybe it's Hoboken), and the earlier stories of Siri Hustvedt (maybe they're Hoboken too), whom I haven't read until Auster stuck her into one of his novels, along with himself and their kids, as a character. If you don't know what I mean, I urge you not to seek it out. I enjoyed Jonathan Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn," but couldn't get myself excited about "Fortress of Solitude," which celebrated the legendary borough with what seemed to me excessive enthusiasm. This might well be my own bias, though--I am generally a fan of Lethem's.

And though I've never lived in New York, I've put some stuff there myself. One story, about a guy who escapes the Twin Towers and starts a new life, was freaking awful, and I got all the streets and parks wrong, and I threw it out. Another, "Zombie Dan," never actually mentions New York, though it's obvious that's where it is set.

Ultimately, I love New York. But I don't want to read novels about it unless I really have to. I like a fictional city to be fictional--I love the profound intimacy of a fully invented world. In a way, writing set in New York is too easy--the place is so damned interesting, so thrilling and multifarious, and every time I see it in fiction I roll my eyes. It's like chocolate bars or naked girls: its value is inherent, permanent, and obvious. There's nothing to be convinced of, and writers are most interesting when they have to work for your attention.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Popular History

I'm a geek, so it's kind of surprising to me that I don't seek out works of popular history more often. I'd love to know everything about the Civil War, or the lives of notable people, or daily life in ancient Rome. But I rarely seek out books on these subjects.

I think the answer to this mystery can be provided in an anecdote. A few years back, I was asked by my college alumni magazine to review a new book by a well-reputed historian, and professor at the college. Like a good reviewer, I first went and read the books that made him famous, and then read the new one. They were all good, but the new one represented a step back, I thought. As a piece of historical research, it was superb. The guy had some major chops in his field, and I said so in the review. But he made a mistake--he framed most of the book as a "nonfiction novel," in order to make it more dramatically satisfying, and spent a lot of page time "getting into the heads" of his subjects.

In this endeavor, the famous historian failed, at least in my view. He was a very poor novelist, cribbing his moves from half-baked popular fiction; and his generally tight, engaging writing style collapsed into purple effusion. He was out of his element--and I said that in my review too.

Whoops. I emailed the thing to the editor, and never heard from him again. The piece ran, and I got paid, but it was clear I had been scrubbed off the reviewer list. The famous historian, I belatedly realized, was not to be insulted.

Still, I believe my complaints were legitimate. When a book says NONFICTION on the spine, that's what I want to read. Dramatization is one thing, but dramatic reconstruction is hooey. Here's an example: I'm reading a really good book right now, James Swanson's Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln's Killer. (Yeah, that subtitle is gramatically wonky..."chase for"?...maybe "hunt for" or "chase of," but...never mind.) Swanson is similar to my reviewee in that his book is obsessively researched, and dramatized in a lively fashion. He's better at the dramatization than the other guy, but you still get bits like this:

Whoever told Booth about the president's theater party had unknowingly activated in his mind an imaginary clock that, even as he sat on the front step of Ford's, chuckling aloud as he read his letter, began ticking down, minute by minute.

First of all, the weary clock metaphor does not contribute to the drama of the inevitable event. But "chuckling aloud"? I don't think so. You can't do that without a footnote. Swanson says, in the notes,

I do not cite sources for each and every fact in the book...Manhunt is meant to be not an encyclopedia of the assassination, but a dramatic account...that unfolds, as much as possible, in real time.

Hmm. If he's got a citation in his files for that chuckle, I'll eat my tricorn.

I wish more popular historians would allow the drama of their subjects to speak for itself. We don't need the chuckling Booth--it's easy enough to imagine what he must have been thinking. In fact, Swanson could have said exactly that. "We can only imagine what Booth must have been thinking, as he paused on the steps of the theater, mere hours from the president's death." You know--interpolation. The historian's guiding hand, suggesting things for us to consider, rather than making up things to hand to us, fully formed.

Still, this is a really good book, and I highly recommend it. I wish more historical dramatizations were as restrained as this one usually is.

Monday, June 9, 2008

I Hate Gardening Books

I have been gardening for several years now and can't seem to get any better at it. Seems that every year brings new, unforeseen challenges: if it's not the bad soil, it's the drought, or the rain, or the Mexican bean beetles, or the groundhogs, or the shrivelly disease, or the voles. I keep returning to gardening books for answers, but there are none. Instead they show me beautiful pictures, like this one:

Okay, that's really from the internet, but you get the idea. This is what MY bean plants look like this year, after the heat wave and the Great Slug Massacre of June 5th:

I should have made sure the shot included the beer bottles I left lying around as slug traps -- that would give you a better feel for it.

Most of the gardening books at my store were originally published in England, where the soil is black, moist, and crumbly, and there are no deer. In a dry season, digging my clay soil is like chopping through a city sidewalk. The compost I try to work into it just dries up and blows away. And we have voles: I was watering a zucchini plant the other day and it just sank into the ground and disappeared into some rodent's living room.

All I'm asking for is less fantasy and a little more realism in these gardening books. Maybe it's impossible -- who would garden at all if they knew they'd be going through what I did with my corn crop: waiting and waiting for the weather to warm up, finally planting 250 seeds in the rain, followed by a heart-stopping late frost, daily checking for sprouts, the purchase and installation of two nets to keep the crows from stealing the seeds, and... nothing. Maybe five seedlings came up. Knee high by the Fourth of July my granny's behind!! It was even worse than the last time I tried planting corn in 2004, when crows stole all the seeds and I had to replant, and then the resulting five or six corn cobs tasted terrible, anyway. After all that!

Or more to the point, who would buy a book with pictures of ugly, slug-infested, vole-chewed plants? I would. It would make me feel better.

EDIT: OK, this is John posting here...I just thought I'd add a little something to Rhian's post--a mockup I made of our forthcoming gardening book. What do you think--would you buy it? Click for a larger image--you don't want to miss a single shitty detail.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Lee Child's "Nothing To Lose"

This summer weather is making me lax (in the nineties three days running now, and no posts from me), so I suppose it's appropriate that I'm already deep into the trashy pleasures of the season.

Well--that's not fair. Lee Child isn't trashy. I've posted about him before, and this new book, if anything, firms up my respect for this writer; he's certainly among the very best writers of actual sentences working in the very limited thriller genre, by which I mean there is no overwriting, no howlers, no fakery, no gratuitous anything. It's just solid, straightforward mystery, suspense, and generous detail. And in spite of a few reviews (well--Amazon customer comments) suggesting that this one isn't up to Child's usual standards, I think it's one of the best ever.

In case you don't recall: Child's hero is an ex-military policeman named Jack Reacher, whose disillusionment with the Army has led him to become a drifter, albeit a spectacularly skillful one who is occasionally called in by his former colleagues to handle some awful situation. In this new book, however, Reacher happens upon the drama by hitchhiking into it: he arrives in a small town in Colorado, enters a diner, and is completely ignored by the waitress. Then, minutes later, a quartet of goons drives up, walks in, and tells him to get out of town. Reacher demands--and gets--his coffee, then he he declines, with understated violence, to obey the goons' commands.

Reacher's curiosity about the town leads him to team up with a cop from the next town over (she's hot stuff, natch), and the two of them uncover a bizarre conspiracy that involves military contracting, stolen uranium, and end-times religion. Along the way, Child takes a few well-aimed potshots at the sorry state of US veterans' hospitals, the Iraq war, and the disastrous stop-loss policy that's been gutting our military. It's good stuff.

But the plot is less interesting than the fabric of the story--Child, British-born, somehow has managed to master all things American, and his remote Colorado towns are incredibly vivid and absorbing. He knows the names of everything, and he knows how everything works, and he sees all the tiny things that bring a place to life. A rental sign has been "lettered in a careful amateur." The Rocky mountains at night are "faintly visible, dim and blue and bulky, with their north-facing snow channels lit up like ghostly blades." In a motel bathroom, "The motel soap was white and came in a small thin paper-wrapped morsel, and he used the whole bar." The key to a long-abandoned rooming house apartment is described this way: "It was a worn brass item with a length of furred string tied through the hole. The string had an old metal eyelet on it, as if the eyelet was all that was left of a paper label." We never have to endure hearing about Reacher's favorite jazz CD's, or his drinking problem, or his rocky relationship with his estranged wife and son. He's just a conduit for all things exciting and interesting and fun; his rootlessness is a profound relief.

At the moment, I'm not in the mood for artful elaboration--it's too hot to show off. Child is just the ticket.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Tove Jansson's The Summer Book

I finished this book this morning, and I think it's going on my top ten all-time favorites list. It's beautiful, and I don't say that lightly. Jansson, whom we've mentioned here as the author of our favorite kids' books, the Moomintroll series, was a Swedish-speaking Finn who died in 2001. She lived for years on an island in the Gulf of Finland. The Summer Book (which is for adults) is about such an island, and about two people who live on it: a six-year-old girl and her very old grandmother.

The little girl's mother has recently died, and this is mentioned exactly once, in the beginning. The rest of the book happens over 21 short chapters, or vignettes, that each have a subject and stand pretty much alone. In one they get a cat, in another they build a model of Venice out in the marsh, in another they experience a huge storm. There is a lot of walking about, lying on moss, poking things with walking sticks. Somehow it is all lovely, unsentimental, funny, and heartbreaking.

Ugh, I hate describing books -- I can never get them to sound as good as they are (or as bad, for that matter). Kathryn Davis wrote the introduction for the edition I read, the new New York Review of Books one, and since she quotes some of the best lines, I suggest you save it for last, as I did.

Books like this one remind me how little needs to happen in a novel. Sometimes all you need is a good, clear eye to hold everything together.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


That, I've decided, is what I like. Process. Results, while important, are not the point. The point is process.

I've been thinking about this lately because of my extra-literary activities: with school out and my novel finished, I've been taking lots of photos and recording some music. Now, there are simple ways of achieving these goals. Digital technology has made recording and photography simple; anybody with a good idea and some basic skills can take a decent picture or record a good-sounding song.

But in spite of these advantages, I keep putting things into my path--problems I have to solve, obstacles I need to overcome. The last song I recorded, I tracked it to a 4-track reel to reel made in the seventies. Then I transferred the material to a computer and added to it. And the last pictures I took, I didn't take with my fancy new DSLR camera--I used a film camera and lens made in the late sixties, and shot on black and white film. And then I developed the film, using four different chemicals, and scanned the negatives onto a computer, where I processed the photos further.

What's the point, when I might have gotten it all right instantly with a digital recorder, a digital camera? Obviously--the process.

If you're a writer, you like process. Occasionally I'll meet a book enthusiast who has an idea for a book. "Now all I have to do is write it." That person isn't a writer--a writer is somebody who likes writing. Ideas--those are a dime a dozen. You can find more ideas in one day's morning paper than you can ever write in a lifetime. The idea is merely a method of getting to the process--and if you're really cooking, the process will often overwhelm the idea, will change it into something else. I like to say that the novel I'm starting is ruined the moment I write the first sentence. What I mean is that my original idea begins to die when I start writing--the writing creates the idea. The process determines the content.

In music, and in photography, the medium we use determines our results. We may compose an image differently knowing we've only got a dozen exposures left; we might only shoot B&W because we don't feel like paying the supermarket to develop color. We may be more accepting of error in our music when the medium is hard to edit--our song might well be rougher, stranger, have more personality.

Similarly, when we let process dictate what we write, we write something more interesting. The process helps us forget our outer selves and dig more deeply into our thoughts, feelings, and motivations. The process can make you forget about publishing, about what your mom will think, about what your kids might be doing at the moment.

If the medium is the message, then the process is the point.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Publishers, Schmublishers

Who needs a corporation to publish your stuff when you have one of these guys?

The type cabinet used to belong to JRL's mom, and the little press on top is my (40th) birthday present. For those who care about such things, it's a Kelsey Excelsior Mercury Model 5-8. Careful readers of this blog might remember when, several months ago, I read Rhonda Byrne's The Secret and decided to ask the universe for a letterpress. Well, it worked! However, if I'd thought to ask JR's friend Terry from Aurora -- a guy who does letterpress stuff for a living -- where to get one, it would have happened a lot sooner. Duh! Reading The Secret made me dumb. (Thank you, Terry.)

The press will only print 5 X 7 pages, so this is a good time to start writing short short stories. A few days ago I got Flash Fiction Forward, an anthology of 80 very short stories, and I'm really enjoying it. I think I have an idea how to write them: you need to know how you're going to end from the very first word. The story is about getting there as efficiently as possible. I wrote a bunch of short shorts a few years ago but they all felt kind of pointless -- probably they didn't have a point. This time I'll make sure I know the ending when I start and see if that makes a difference.

Does anyone else have any short-short writing secrets? Maybe I should just ask the universe for ideas.