Sunday, September 28, 2008

Romeo and Juliet

Be honest--how many of you have read this thing since high school? I hadn't until yesterday, and good grief, it is not the play I thought I remembered. It was today's subject in my Hardcore Book Group, in which we are reading all of Shakespeare in roughly chronological order, and though opinions on it were diverse, we all agreed on one thing: there is some sick shit going on in Verona. I'll take it a step further and venture the opinion that "Romeo and Juliet" is a cruel, manipulative work about violent perverts. So there!

The general cultural appraisal of "R&J" would seem to be that it is a tragic tale of doomed love. Fair enough. But I was shocked at how detached it actually is from conventional sympathies. Romeo is painfully flighty, Juliet in open rebellion against her choleric father and embittered mother. "By my count," the Lady Capulet tells her marriage-shy daughter, "I was your mother much upon these years / That you are now a maid." In other words, I didn't get to be happy when I was thirteen, and neither should you. The supporting players say almost nothing that is not a double entendre, and their jokes often come at the most inappropriate moments; homoerotic tension abounds, even in the opening passages, wherein a couple of Capulet servingmen verbally duel with "tools," "naked weapons," and "standing" "pieces of flesh." Juliet's Nurse, commonly played as a source of comic relief, proves to be cruel and vindictive in the end, and bawdiness turns to bloodiness in an eyeblink whenever characters clash.

The play reads like a comedy for long pages until Mercutio is killed in act three; his "plague o' both your houses" tips the slapstick into doom, and from then on every move is a mistake, and every mistake results in death. There is, ultimately, nobody to truly engage our empathy--everyone is too small, too flawed, too shortsighted. It is easy to forget, if you haven't read the play in a while, that in act one Romeo is mooning over somebody named Rosaline, and when he starts in with Juliet everyone assumes he still talking about yesterday's girl. He is, in other words, an impetuous child. Threatening suicide is his answer to every problem, much as (accurately, it turns out) doomsaying is Juliet's response to every drama. Meanwhile, Capulet comes off as an affable oaf until he reams out Tybalt for street fighting; even then we give him the benefit of the doubt. Tybalt's a jerk, after all. But when he unleashes his fury on Juliet--"Hang thee, young baggage!"--we are shocked and appalled.

A reader can never get comfortable here; the play twists and turns and screams along at a furious pace, never giving anything time to sink in. But this, ultimately, is the source of its greatness. It's ugly and mean and mesmerizing, and surprisingly radical in purpose and method.

One group member compared it to the Divine Comedy--in that case of that famously blasphemous poem, its instant popularity became, in his words, "a cyst" that the Church had to grow around. What better way to defuse "Romeo and Juliet"'s power, another group member responded, than to force every high school student to read it? In my high school, we even watched the quite racy 1968 Franco Zeffirelli movie of it, ensuring our innoculation against the bonds between violence and sex.

On second thought, maybe that didn't work so well, after all.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The saddest book in the world

What is it? It turns out to be a harder question to answer than I first thought. I'm not talking about horrific, or disturbing, or violent--such books (and I'm talking about fiction here, because otherwise the question becomes all too easy to answer) are a cinch for most of us to stomach, and are in fact popular. Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian may be shocking, but it isn't going to bum you out. Well--for a little while, it will. But it is alien, and you can characterize it, in your mind, as a fantasy, and detach yourself from its bloody charms.

The obvious choice is the collected works of Virginia Woolf, of course, with particular attention to Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, and To The Lighthouse. The latter's middle section, that brief but incredibly detailed description of the empty house, with ivy crawling in the windows and soldiers dying far away, is quite the heartbreaker. I'm about halfway through Out Stealing Horses, and it too is definitely in the running.

I'm tempted to say Carver, but nah. There is ironic distance there, and this is not a bad thing. That's where the art is, in Carver. This month, all of David Foster Wallace seems unbearably sad, but perhaps that's just his death imposing itself over the work. From the next room, Rhian has shouted "The Velveteen Rabbit!", and so as long as we're doing children's books, allow me to throw in Charlotte's Web and the shamefully obscure Miss Osborne-The-Mop, a copy of which, in the early days of the internet, I managed to find for Rhian after her years of fruitless searching, thus scoring some serious marriage cred. (Knowing me, I probably spent it inside of a week.)

Indeed, children's literature, historically, has been a haven for gentle misery; when a book for adults is sad, it's called a "tearjerker" and is thought to be manipulative and in poor taste. For some reason, though, it's OK to choke up the kids.

Help me out here. What's the saddest book in the world?

Monday, September 22, 2008

The end of publishing, again...

...or, rather, the "publishing industry," which, broadly understood, is to publishing as Diebold is to democracy. This article in the latest issue of New York lays it all out for us once again, describing the way that commercial publishers have succumbed to the blockbuster model, wherein the whole farm is bet on some piece of crap or another which has to sell a million copies to have been worth it. The article is rather long, and contains lots of keening and hand-wringing from people who could have started taking a stand on principle ten years ago but didn't bother.

I dunno. This is an entertaining read, but it's sort of like attending the memorial service for a dead fashion-model girlfriend you stopped mourning years before, after which you went and happily married a normal woman. 99% of us fiction writers are resigned, at this point, to never getting to make a living off our work again, if we ever did before. The issue now is not the dying cries of the few who chose to remain on the Titanic, it's the beard-scratching all of us in the lifeboats have been doing. But New York is never going to run a piece on obscure publishers and their short-run literary releases.

I threw in the towel two years ago, when I started begging my then-agent to send my stuff to small publishers. It took a split with said agent to actually make this happen, and this time around I didn't even bother with the commercial houses. Why put oneself through the agony? I can't count the number of times an editor at some big house has reacted to my work with enthusiasm and optimism, only to be shot down by her betters. At those publishers, that's what it means to be an editor of literary fiction. From the New York piece:

Morale among many editorial staffers is dipping to all-time lows. Forget literary taste; everything is cost-benefit analysis. “What I’ve heard from editors is, ‘My judgment doesn’t count any longer,’ ” says Kent Carroll, who left his company, Carroll & Graf, after it was sold to a mini-conglomerate, and who now runs the boutique Europa Editions. “There used to be a reason to get into publishing,” says Carroll. “Whether they know it or not, they all want to be Maxwell Perkins. It’s a kind of secondary immortality. They didn’t flock to publishing because they want to publish Danielle Steel.”

My next novel will be published by a small, independent, non-New-York-based house next spring. And while they would like to generate bestsellers as much as the next guy, they have given me none of the withering pre-guilt I've gotten from almost every commercial house I've ever worked with. You novelists know what I'm talking about. The tone changes a few months before your book comes out--their confidence decays into hope, and then nervous ticcing, as they realize you're going to be another flop. In the weeks leading up to publication everybody seems to be on vacation, and a month afterward you can't even get the assistants on the phone.

It's hard to imagine that anything I will ever do in my life could support anyone's Manhattan apartment rent. Honestly, it was ridiculous to have ever thought this. But that was the roaring aughts for you. As for New York, can we please have a piece on happy, well-adjusted literary editors with reasonable expectations, and their plans for making a modest living doing what they love? Personally, I am tired of being asked to feel bad because Binky Urban is anxious.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Patrick Somerville, and the MacGuffin

I had the opportunity to speak this week with Patrick Somerville, as part of the Writers At Cornell podcast. Somerville was a student here a few years back, when I knew him slightly; since leaving Ithaca he has published a collection of stories; and his first novel, The Cradle, will be out in the spring. We talked about a lot of things (click the link and listen in), but most interesting to me was his description of how he came to write his novel.

The stories, as I mentioned to him in the interview, all pivot around events--tragedies, mistakes, embarrassments. Indeed, Somerville came to realize that this technique (a reliable one when it comes to short stories) had become a bad habit, and he struggled to figure out a new approach to narrative that would enable him to write a good novel. After a couple of false starts, he hit upon an idea--he would let a story spring from a MacGuffin.

Alfred Hitchcock didn't invent the MacGuffin, but he did invent the term, and popularized the concept. It's the device--generally an object--which propels the plot. It doesn't matter, ultimately, what the thing is--"In crook stories it is almost always the necklace," Hitchcock once said, "and in spy stories it is most always the papers"--it merely has to get the characters moving.

In Patrick's case, the MacGuffin is (as his title implies), a cradle. The protagonist, an amiable working-class midwesterner, has recently married, and his wife is eight months pregnant; she impulsively decides that their child must have the cradle that she herself slept in as an infant. The problem is that her mother ran out on her when she was seven, and nobody knows where she is. Protagonist agrees to the quest anyway; novel ensues.

For Somerville, this was a highly effective technique--he wrote a hundred pages in a week. Personally, I love plots like this (another Ithacan, Lamar Herrin, once did something similar in his amazing The Lies Boys Tell), and Patrick's reading of the opening chapter of The Cradle was terrific. The idea of the MacGuffin reminds us what a strange beast the creative imagination is--honestly, it doesn't matter what you use to get the motor running, and it may have no bearing on where you end up driving the thing. It just has to get you started.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Another loss: James Crumley

Through the grapevine I've learned that James Crumley has died. He'd been ill for years, so this is no great surprise, but it saddens nevertheless; Crumley was a fixture of the Montana writers' scene, and it's hard to imagine the region without him.

Like everybody who was ever a writer in Missoula, or hung out at Charlie B's on Higgins, I knew Jim a little. If you ever had a spare beer or cigarette, he was your friend, and if you had neither, he was your friend anyway. He was endearingly crotchety, full of stories about all the crazy people he'd ever met, and generous to young writers who'd read his stuff and wanted to talk to him; you could always find him on the margin of any party or picnic, smoking and drinking and waiting for somebody to wander over and start up a conversation.

He was a terrific writer, too; he produced a Vietnam novel, and seven mysteries, each starring one of his two detectives, Milo Milodragovich and C. W. Sughrue (and one starring both). It was his Montana mysteries, along with Richard Hugo's sole crack at the genre, that made me want to try my own small-town crime story.

A lot of people will be mourning him this week, because he knew everybody. Feel free to throw in a Crumley memory or two--I'm talkin' to you, Ed.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

New Henning Mankell, New Lawrence Block

Crime time again. I was pretty stoked to see a new Henning Mankell at Rhian's store last week, and stokeder still to see that it was called The Pyramid: And Four Other Kurt Wallander Mysteries. Mankell, you might recall, is the contemporary Swedish crime novelist who spearheaded the Scandanavian crime wave, the end of which we still haven't seen. In his early books, he seemed to be channeling Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the Swedish mystery duo of the sixties and seventies, whose ten novels are among my favorite books in any genre. I liked Mankell and his dour detective, Kurt Wallander, and have been following them for years.

I dunno, though. Mankell and I seemed to get a little tired of the series around the same time, and lately he appeared to have moved on to a bunch of non-series thrillers, none of which really caught my imagination. This book excited me, in theory--novellas and stories about Wallander, which were supposed to fill in some missing pieces of the series. Sounds good.

I'm not so sure the magic is back, though; and worse still, this book makes me wonder if maybe it wasn't there to begin with. Don't get me wrong, I still like this series, but these stories feel to me as though they're going through the motions, particularly the title story, "The Pyramid," which is a joyless exercise at best, presided over by a truly lame guiding metaphor. ("The pyramid" is a sketch Wallander makes while trying to figure out the crime, and really it's more of a triangle, and it doesn't help him solve it, anyway.) It reminds me that this series was always rather dry, if cut through with occasional flashes of deadpan humor; it lacked the ironic flair of some of the other prominent mysteries from the region. There are, of course, some of Mankell's trademark non sequiturs: "Martinsson walked into his office shortly before five. Wallander saw that he was starting to grow a mustache, but he said nothing." Or, "He stopped at the outskirts of Ystad and ate a hamburger, promising himself that it would be the last one of the year." But the rest is by the book. A mild disappointment.

The nice surprise this week is Lawrence Block's new one, Hit And Run. This is the latest in his recent series of novels starring Keller, the stamp-collecting hit man, which Mr. Saflo got Rhian and me hooked on over the summer, and in my view it's the best of the series by far. Unlike the others, which are constructed in an amiable, episodic, lackadaisical manner, this one has an actual plot, and it's a good one. Keller is on the road for one last job, but before he can pull it off, he ends up getting framed for the murder of the governor of Ohio. He goes into hiding, and has to figure how to avoid the authorities and assemble a new life for himself. The real success here was in putting Keller through the paces of a sustained narrative without snuffing out his sense of humor--the book is as funny and charming as anything of Block's I've read.

After sampling a few of Block's other series mysteries (the dude writes a LOT of freaking books), Rhian and I have come around to thinking that plot is not, perhaps, his strong point. But here, he's got his mojo working, and the material seems fresh and snappy. A few apparently meaningless early details come back to shock and delight, and though something incredibly awful appears to happen in this book, have faith, and push on through. There's light at the end of the barrel.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Oh no--I just heard about David Foster Wallace's death at 46. He was one of my favorite writers--as I've said here from time to time, I loved his work even when I didn't like it. He was a master of moving readers with the banal, and seemed simultaneously populist and avant-garde...I will really, really miss his voice.

I didn't know him, but met him once. "This is the guy from Ithaca!" he told the woman he was with at the time--Wallace was born here in 1962. I found him to be cheerful, funny, and very collegial to a writer he didn't have to give the time of day to.

This blog offers its condolences to his friends and family, and everyone who liked his stuff, as we did.

EDIT: After sleeping on it, I am feeling even more devastated about this. I'm not sure how many other writers feel this way, but it's as though our generation has lost its literary leader--Wallace's writing was never universally praised and loved, but his status as an innovator was unchallenged, and I think he served as an example to a lot of us. He was the first writer our age who got out there and distinguished himself--a guy about whom you could think, at least somebody is trying that kind of thing. He was our Barthleme, or Borges, and I suspect that a lot of people who don't like him now will admit ten years from now how great a writer we just lost.

Rhian pointed out something to me last night that I don't think is often said about Wallace: he cared very, very deeply about his subjects, and took everything to heart. This was manifested most powerfully in his essays--his piece about the Iowa State Fair, for instance, and the more recent "Consider The Lobster." It's easy to speculate that perhaps it was this powerful, painful engagement with the world that killed him.

I dunno. I've always considered myself to be a fairly self-contained writer, but today I feel rudderless.

ANOTHER EDIT: Oh, for Pete's sake:

Two later collections of stories — “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” (1999) and “Oblivion” (2004), which both featured whiny, narcissistic characters — suggested a falling off of ambition and a claustrophobic solipsism of the sort Mr. Wallace himself once decried.

That's our Michiko, couldn't resist one last swipe. FWIW, I think those books are excellent, particularly the former.

Shauna Seliy, and the Structure of the Novel

I had a wonderful opportunity this week--my old friend Shauna Seliy came to town to give a reading, and we got caught up on the Writers At Cornell podcast. We mostly talked about her new novel, her first, When We Get There, which I believe I plumped for last year here on the blog (and which I enthusiastically blurbed on the back cover). I don't think it's just my affection for Shauna that makes me think this book is wonderful, but I was surprised to hear how it had been written.

The book had originally consisted, Shauna told me (and told the audience at Cornell Thursday afternoon), of a series of linked stories. But she decided that they ought to be a novel, ripped them apart, and put them back together again, with a new narrative line (a missing mother) that ran through the whole. The process of writing and editing had taken ten years.

The surprising part is that the result appears seamless to me--I assumed Shauna had been writing unrelated stories all this time, and then wrote the novel whole-cloth in the recent past. A theme of our conversations this week was just how different novels are from one another--even within the conventions of the genre, you can do almost anything.

Those of you who are writers, how do you structure your stuff? Is the structure dictated by the material, or do you envision a structure into which the material can be poured, like wax into a mold? I've let the former happen (Mailman), and I've imposed the latter on my work (my first two books), and while both methods can do the trick, I think the former is where most of the potential is.

It's hard, though, to have the confidence to let the material take over the process--to allow the chips to fall where they may. And sometimes the instinct to do so is, in fact, wrong, and the book must be taken apart and put back together again, as Shauna's was. Her book goes to show, however, that the artificiality of that process needn't create a work that feels artificial--indeed, When We Get There unfolds very naturally, as if it had always been intended that way.

All of narrative is illusion--the creation of coherence from abstraction, compulsion, and arbitrary whim. Sometimes I think I ought to be thinking about this process more. At other times I think I shouldn't think about it at all.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

e-Book Readers: Now You're Talkin'

I believe this has been the longest gap in posting this blog has ever suffered. My apologies--my semester of teaching was getting underway.

There will be a substantial post later today or tomorrow about my friend, the novelist Shauna Seliy, and the subject of narrative structure in novels. But for now, here's this: the first e-paper device that I might actually want to someday own. It's made by a company called Plastic Logic, and is very large, thin, and evidently bright. And more importantly, is it not slated to be dependent, as the Amazon Kindle is, upon subscriptions to proprietary content--indeed, it reads pdfs. In the demo video posted at that link, the reader is referred to as a "business reading device," but if, like me, you spend a lot of time reading manuscripts from students and friends which you are not obliged to mark up, and which, in paper form, you would promptly recycle or discard after using, this might be the ideal way to do it. And does "gesture-based user interface" mean a touchscreen? Maybe you will be able to mark stuff up after all. Check out the way the dorky dude in the vid "turns the page" by stroking his thumb across the screen (not that it appears to be working quite right!).

There's a wireless interface as well, for downloading newspapers and paid content. And Plastic Logic is apparently also working on a flexible e-ink device that will feel more like an actual newspaper.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Irakli Kakabadze, and writing as politics

And speaking of the former Soviet republics, I got the chance today to talk with Irakli Kakabadze, Georgian novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer and (yes!) spoken word artist, as part of the Writers At Cornell podcast. Irakli is living in Ithaca as part of the Ithaca City of Asylum project, which offers residencies to writers forced to leave their home countries. Last year's writer, Sarah Mkhonza, was the subject of one of my podcasts back in May.

These writers have made me rethink my resistance to the idea that all writing--all art, for that matter--is political. Obviously, there is no truly good argument that it isn't--indeed, as Irakli points out in our interview (that's a direct link to the 26MB mp3 download), all living is political. But I've always found it expedient to place an arbitrary wall between art and politics. My conception of art as a "pure" form of expression, something that should exist exclusively for its own sake, without contamination by more immediate or practical concerns, would never have been able to endure any kind of rational analysis, but it was convenient--it made writing feel, to me, like a private zone, a safe space.

I suppose I knew pretty soon after September 11th, though, that the wall was crumbling. By around 2004, when I started writing Happyland, my novel-in-serial, I began to find it impossible to push away my political anxieties while I worked, and so I re-fashioned that novel, previously drafted as a Garrison-Keilloresque feel-good comedy, into a quasi-allegory of Rovian politics. It wasn't quite good enough, though, to bring these parts of my life together. The new novel goes a little farther; its politics are a bit less disguised, though I don't think it reads like a tract.

But I'm not sure if I'm ever going to unify these parts of myself. In an ideal society, perhaps, politics would never be separate from daily life, a thing to engage or deny. They would be inalienable, obligatory, and benevolent. And maybe what we have in the US is as close as it's possible for a large, wealthy country to achieve. Even in the best of times, though, there is friction between the personal and the political--the two are inseparable and bitterly opposed. Maybe some good art can come from the heat of that fault line. But wow, it's tough to make that work.

In any event, mixing art and politics is part of what forced Irakli to flee Georgia, which makes him something of a badass. You should listen to the interview--not my half, which is even more bumbling than usual, but his. It's shocking to find somebody so cheerful and enthusiastic in the face of gargantuan and terrifying world events--he's somebody who believes very strongly in the power of art to change societies. It's refreshing to find anyone within these borders who does.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Jonas Bendiksen's "Satellites"

On a recommendation from a photography forum, I picked up a copy of Satellites, a book by Norwegian photojournalist Jonas Bendiksen. A chunky, affordable hardcover with distinctive glossy black page edges, the book is a striking artifact before you even open it, and it only gets better from there.

Bendiksen is quite young--he writes that he traveled to Russia in 1998, when he was twenty, and a few years later was kicked out, due to "a bureaucratic misstep." He goes on:

I spent much of the next five years traveling through the fringes of the former Soviet empire, exploring the oblique stories of half-forgotten enclaves and restless territories...I found isolated communities struggling to redefine themselves and, in the process, questioning what constitutes a legitimate claim to independence or autonomy.

Among the places he visits are a forgotten Siberian outpost to which Stalin lured Zionist Jews in the 1930's; the spaceship crash zones of Kazahkstan, where people scavenge launch debris; and the former beach resort of Abkhazia, half-destroyed in the early nineties by a war with neighboring Georgia. The photos are simply stunning--dark, sometimes out of focus, with colors wildly shifted off balance, they have a grim, eccentric force. Subjects are often pushed off to the side of the frame, foregrounded by evocative blur, or lost in backlight, yet the distortion strengthens the image, ennobles the subject. Bendiksen's emotionally direct, aesthetically oblique approach is an inspiration to me, both as an amateur photographer and a writer--a good artist should show you a new way of seeing, and this book succeeds wildly at that.

Here are a couple of pictures, swiped with the magic of Google: