Monday, December 29, 2008

Some highs and lows of 2008

Consider this list highly informal, haphazard, and largely unliterary.

BEST BOOKS. My favorite novels this year were probably Tom McCarthy's Remainder (in the lit category) and (in crime, my other big genre) Tana French's excellent In The Woods and The Likeness. In poetry I continued to hopelessly dig Frederick Seidel. In photography, my favorite this year was Jonas Bendiksen's The Places We Live, and in humor I loved Ian Frazier's Lamentations of the Father.

BEST ALBUMS. Honestly? I hardly paid any attention to music this year. I mean, I listened to it a lot, in shuffle mode, and I played a fair amount myself. But I seem to have at last lost the thread of contemporary music. The new records from Radiohead, Steve Malkmus, Vampire Weekend, and Electric President were good, but I didn't memorize entire albums' worth of lyrics as I once did. Alas. Or perhaps not alas, I haven't decided yet.

BEST MOVIE. This year, it was all about The Natural History of the Chicken.

BEST STUFF. Pentax cameras, Canon rangefinder lenses, Eastman 5222-XX film, Ubuntu Linux, the grass-fed steer portion (1/4 of one) that Rhian bought and which we're slowly devouring our way through, goldtop Tokai Love Rock guitar, packing peanuts made from cornstarch, TCHO chocolates, Blacet and Doepfer modular synthesizer products, waxed shoelaces, Cockos Reaper digital audio workstation, Buffalo Trace bourbon, New Balance cross-trainers, Golden Comet chickens, Adobe Lightroom, Tom Thumb 61-key upright piano ($100!), Fage yogurt, Netflix "Watch Instantly."

WORST WORD. The worst word of 2008 is "folks." The presidential campaign has ruined it forever. During one of the debates, Obama actually referred to terrorists as "folks." Et tu, Barack?

BEST MOMENT. Speaking of Obama, I was on the edge of my seat election night along with everyone else, and boy was I happy when he won. But it didn't move me the way I expected it to. That happened a couple of weeks later, at his first press conference as president-elect. The presser was utterly boring. Obama said nothing of substance (at least nothing new), and reporters didn't ask him anything that would have allowed him to show his stuff. But I actually wept. It was so normal, so uncontentious. It reminded me of the old days, when I didn't have to think about how awful the president was day in and day out. I still can't believe Obama is going to be president in a few weeks.

BEST LINGUISTIC PHENOMENON. LOLcats. I shit you not. I don't know why I love the stuff so much, but I do.

OTHER BEST LINGUISTIC PHENOMENON. The introduction of internet slang into actual speech. I have heard about half a dozen people say "teh" this year, and overheard a girl at the mall the other day shout, "EPIC FAIL!" I myself have actually, in lieu of laughing in response to a joke, merely said "lolz."

WORST LINGUISTIC PHENOMENON. The persistence of "Git 'r' done!"

BEST YOUTUBE. One of the most beautiful things I've seen or heard all year:

WORST YOUTUBE. Duh. Swinging baby.

Please feel free to join in, in the comments...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


There's a small part of me (very small, mind you) that can't stand the holiday season, because its particular rhythms pretty much enforce the accomplishment of nothing. Between now and January 5, when the kids return to school, I will be doing various advanced forms of nothing--reading, taking photos, playing some guitar, staring at the internet. But the stealth project of the coming weeks is the mental preparation for the novel that damned if I'm not going to start writing on the 5th.

So far I'm a little behind, in that I haven't given the thing a moment's thought. Well, that's not really true, I've been thinking about it for the better part of a year--but the particulars of how I'm going to write it, what's going to happen in it, its opening lines, what the voice is going to be like: all of that remains shrouded in mystery. There was a time when this would have panicked me--I used to be a big, big outliner. But over the years I've come to admit to myself how little I actually use the outlines, and how much of what's good in the book ends up being stuff I had no idea I was going to do.

So why not have no idea about the whole thing, right? Then it will all be good! Um, no, not really. But it won't be any worse than the outlined first drafts were.

What I have for this book are characters. I've got them all pretty much down in my head. I don't know a great deal about them, per se, but I know what they're like. I also know how they're going to come together, and that's what I be writing about when I start writing.

I have to admit, I quite like this feeling of incipience--the feeling that soon I'm going to try to make something. I might even like it more than the actual trying to make something, in fact. And the feeling is all wrapped up in the notion that 2009 is going to be a very different year for a lot of people--that it will be a year of sitting back, clearing our heads, and figuring out precisely what is really important to us and how to hold on it. Some people will not be able to hold on, and it makes me sad to think of it. But for those of us whose savings aren't wiped out, and who manage to keep our jobs, it could be a very good year, the kind that forces us to simplify, organize, and remember what makes our lives worth living. For me, it's my family, of course, and music and art and books, both reading them and, fingers crossed, writing them.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Are video games anything like novels?

In Neal Stephenson's wonderful 1996 novel The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, an orphan girl happens across a one-of-a-kind interactive "book," printed on electronic paper, which takes the place of a parent, teaching her how to live her life. I like this as a plot element, but I also like it as a metaphor, because narratives do teach us how to live, and we use them to teach others. How many of you have never said to your kid, "My uncle Al smoked those, and he died of emphysema at the age of 41"?

I was thinking of this the other night when, in an effort to head off some incipient preteen antisocial behavior on the part of our older boy, I opened up his Nintendo DS and fired up Kirby Super Star Ultra, a game involving an adorable puffball who rides on a star and inhales his enemies. I know, I know, sounds like a failed Sid & Marty Krofft show, but give the kid a break, he's 11.

Anyway, I am certainly aware that this is hardly the most sophisticated game out there. But I was amazed at the degree to which the game was swathed in narrative complexity. First-time players are offered the spectacle of a little play (complete with stage and puffball audience) that teaches you the basics of the game, and fills you in on the story. The controls, to a guy weaned on Pac-Man, are dizzyingly complicated; there are tons of possible actions, and the game, while goal-oriented, allows for elaborate exploration of its little world. As narrative, it is easily as absorbing as a novel (though never as satisfying as a good one).

Readers of this blog are probably aware of my preoccupation with non-literary influences, and I admit to being big into videogames in the early 80's, when "shoot the rocks into smaller rocks, then shoot the smaller rocks" was what passed for plot. But games are very, very different now, and I wonder what effects they're having on kids' sense of story--their understanding of life, and its goals and challenges. Some of these effects, doubtless, are bad. But perhaps, much in the same way that malnourished children are more likely to suffer the damaging effects of lead paint, games' ill effects are mostly felt by those whose social and emotional needs are not being met. Perhaps a healthy kid (like mine, I hope) is actually getting something out of the primitive narrative of video games. I think I did, maybe, though it would be hard to make a convincing case for it.

A few years ago, some enterprising geeks started "filming" dramatic short features using characters from first-person shooters as "actors," and overdubbing their own dialogue. The fact that they could do this with some success tells you that games could be a viable format for narrative art. So why not get rid of points, treasures, guns, and enemies, and make literary video games?

Well--for the same reason only a fool would devote his life to literary novels. There isn't much of a market. But it could be that games-as-art is only getting started. Or maybe the moment has passed.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Note From a Previous Self

I was looking at an old journal of mine, from 1992 or so, and found this bit of wisdom: "The secret to happiness: write every day and keep the house clean."

Well, it's something I keep forgetting and relearning. But for me, it's truer than ever. Writing and housekeeping are deeply connected somehow. I'm not the only woman I know whose domestic obligations are constantly getting tangled up with writing, either: we do a load of laundry before we sit down at the desk, or we write until we have to stop and buy groceries or cook dinner. I live in a household where the guy, also a writer, does half the housework, but -- and he'll correct me if I'm wrong -- I don't think he feels the same way about it. I know he likes a clean house, but it's not half the secret to his happiness.

Oh, my god. I sound like I'm in a ladies' magazine. I wish it weren't true, though. I wish my identity as a writer were stronger than my identity as mother, wife, or "The Chicken Lady."* Part of it is that I haven't published lately, but part of it is just that I find domestic life thoroughly absorbing.

And I can't even express what a surprise this is to me. At the time I wrote the note about a clean house, I thought I'd never get married. Then I thought I wouldn't have kids, or if I did, I'd be pretty indifferent at it. Turns out I love it and find it fascinating, more fascinating, usually, than writing.

Of course, kids grow up, stop asking you to read to them, join bands, grow beards, and move out. I suspect I'll return to my old ways eventually. And it's not like domesticity is incompatible with writing. It's just somewhat harder to get motivated.

Anyway, writing every day and keeping the house clean is good advice for all writers, don't you think? Not too clean, like Martha clean. But clean enough.

* No, I don't have a part-time job as a college football mascot. But I have a bunch of free ranging chickens, and lately when I tell someone where I live and which house, they say, "Oh, you're the Chicken Lady!"

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The final word

Posting has been light this week, thanks to the five-inch-thick pile of papers that has been lying under the mail table for the past month: page proofs of my two books that are coming out in spring, a novel and a story collection (the latter a U.S. edition of a book already published overseas, a few years ago). Those in the publishing trade will know that page proofs are printouts, on standard letter-sized paper, of the "designed" pages of a book, which represent the way they'll actually appear in the bound, printed edition. When you see a mistake in this context, it looks horrible, like a turd on the Thanksgiving table. You really want to fix it. From the writer's standpoint, page proofs are also the last chance--your final opportunity to make changes before the book hits the stores.

Well--it's not necessarily the end. John Updike apparently has a shelf of every one of his books, with changes marked on the pages, for a projected posthumous omnibus edition. Henry James considered some of his early works little more than first drafts, and completely rewrote them late in his career. James Joyce famously added around 100,000 words to the Ulysses proofs by hand, driving his printers batty.

But for me, it really is the end. I don't think there's a Lennon Library of America edition in the cards, I'm afraid--and even if there was, when I send in the proofs, that's it. It's over. Indeed, I just made, via email, what is pretty certainly the last edit to the novel. And I corrected some mistakes in the other book, as well. (A writer who was sent the stories for a blurb, generously returned one--along with two pages of grammar and usage mistakes she'd found.) Thinking about my older stuff, there's no question in my mind that there's room for improvement. Some of it actually makes me wince to think about. But for some reason, I feel the need to be true to those former versions of myself, the ones who made those mistakes. The mistakes, in the end, are more important to me now than the rest.

Of course I didn't think they were mistakes at the time. I thought the first couple of books were perfect, when I sent the proofs in. I would never think that now, about anything I've written--I've come to accept the inevitability of imperfection (I know, I know--most of you had this epiphany when you were like 12. But cut me some slack). Back when my career was starting out, though, I wrote a book review for a small magazine, and when it was published, I was appalled to find some horrible mistake in it--I can't recall what the mistake was, some formatting error, I think. I actually took the editor gently to task for introducing this mistake into my work, and received a sincere apology.

Then I thought to check my original file on my computer, and, lo and behold, the mistake was mine. I couldn't believe it! It was the kind of mistake I would never make. I groveled to that editor like I'd run his only child down in the street. He was puzzled by the force of my shame, but he didn't realize the breadth of the transformation I was undergoing. The myth of my infallibility, already on shaky ground, had fallen into a crack in the earth. Good riddance!

Indeed, I even kind of like mistakes now. I like to find a typo in a great book, or a bum note in a good song. I like to see a microphone dangling over a movie scene, or a birthday cake with a thumbprint on it. That is, I like the mistakes that other people have made. I still hate my own, but I expect them now. The proofs I sent out yesterday are doubtless full of things that will embarrass me. But a little embarrassment is a good thing. And not just for other people.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Missing and the Lost

Lately it seems that about fifty percent of new novels have a missing person in them. No, really: that many. I read a lot of flap copy in my job at the book store. And this isn't exactly a criticism, because I'm sort of obsessed with the subject myself. In the late 90's, I noticed that a woman who lived in our building was throwing away an awful lot of stuff. The other tenants and I watched the dumpster carefully: she was putting such great stuff in it, like clothes and unused file folders and even a pet taxi. These days, such behavior would make my hair stand on end, but back then we just thought, Great finds!

Later we heard that she had disappeared, leaving her kitchen cupboards full of shoes and her fridge full of iced tea. Her car showed up, ominously, at the end of a logging road.

And then she was found, hanging around a religious group in a distant town. It was such a bizarre interlude, and one I have never stopped thinking about. I remember with clarity the music I was listening to then, and the fact that during this time I once watched a pack rat crawl up the outside of our building, looking for a window to climb into.

A few years later, a guy here in Ithaca vanished on his way home from working at the Sunglass Hut in the local mall. He was a quiet guy who lived with his mother, and one day he left work on foot and was never seen again. I think of him every time I see the words "Sunglass Hut." Something happened to him, something strange and, from this perspective, inexplicable. But what?

Whatever happened to these people, it would be a good story. I suppose that's the appeal for these missing person novels: humane mystery. No blood, no viciousness, just pure mysterious absence.

But why now? Of course, I wonder if it's all about 9-11. American novels have always been about death and grief, but this missing person obsession: it's pretty new. What does it mean? What kind of social anxiety is it reflecting?

And here's another observation that may or may not be related: hardly anyone write social satire anymore. It might be my favorite kind of novel, but no one seems to have the heart for it anymore. I've started writing a few satires myself, and found them fizzling quickly. They make me feel bad, kind of. Francine Prose, who wrote the hilarious Big Foot Dreams, which made fun of tabloid journalism, and Hunters and Gatherers, which mocked New Age beliefs, has come out with Goldengrove, an apparently unsatirical novel about a character's struggles with the death of her sister. Prose always has her muzzle to the wind. What does it mean when she, too, has abandoned satire? If I knew her, I would ask her.

Have we Americans become... earnest? Yow.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Jim Woodring

I thought I'd take a moment this evening to crawl out from under my pile of student papers to write about a favorite cartoonist of mine. First, though, let me plump for a truly wonderful comics store, Dreamscape Comics in Bethlehem, PA. My parents live nearby, and thought the place would be a nice afternoon trip for our kids; as it happens, I'm the one who left the store with a teetering pile of graphic goodness, while everyone else waited for me outside.

The first thing I looked for when I arrived there (and found promptly) was Jim Woodring's The Portable Frank. I'd read a few of these stories before, in comics anthologies, but didn't realize until recently they'd been collected in a couple of books. I first encountered Woodring in the liner notes, and on the cover, of a record by the band Christmas (if you know them, you know their album In Excelcior Dayglo, but the one in question was the late, James-McNew era Vortex). The drawings were cryptic, evocative, and more than a little bit scary; they included a hammer-weilding man with a drawing for a face, a flying insect with what looks like a testicle for a head, and a monstrous larval fish emerging from a glass of water set on a windowsill. They were simultaneously prosaic and surreal, and backgrounded by fractal shapes whose curves seemed...somehow...Freudian.

"Frank" is probably what Woodring is best known for. This wordless strip features a cat--well, I think he's a cat--with Mickey Mouse hands and feet, who lives in a kind of onion dome and has a pet that looks kind of like a squashed toaster. The two of them go out on little jaunts, encounter frightening, inexplicable creatures and situations, and return home, often disturbingly transformed. Here's a summary of a typical strip, "Gentlemanhog." Frank is out walking with his friend, a pyramid-shaped chicken (in other strips, the chicken is often having a yard sale). They discover a pot full of fireworks. They blow up a tree, and then the chicken, against Frank's warning, ties some firecrackers to the tail of a sleeping hog-man (a recurring figure who is alternately fierce and pathetic, but always deeply sad). The explosions frighten the hog-man, who runs into the wilderness until he becomes lost. He finds a strange garden, and once there, drinks from a fountain. It is then that he is approached by a black man.

No, not an African-American man. A black man. Like, a silhouette. The man leads the hog-man into his home, an Arab-styled open-air mansion, and there, over time, he civilizes the hog-man, teaching him how to read, do laundry, and wear clothes. Eventually the black man dies (by melting in his bed), and the hog-man lives alone...until one day he sees Frank through his spyglass, walking across the wasteland with a bundle on a stick, like a hobo. The hog-man invites him inside, and the two enjoy a nice glass of wine. The hog-man then asks Frank to wait, goes out on a motorcycle, and returns with a package. A few panels later, he places a large covered platter in front of Frank, and removes the lid. It's the pyramid-shaped chicken, plucked and roasted!

Hmm. Well, you had to be there. There is something about Woodring's style--his simple, clear lines and juvenile appeal, combined with his dark humor and slightly revolting symbolism--that really gets me excited. He's not trying to do anything in particular--he appears to have no social agenda, and seems uninterested in literary devices. But his work is so thoroughly the product of personal obsession and visual intuition, that it strikes me with unusual force.

From Fantagraphics Books, of course.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Lately I've started to read several novels that I've been really excited about, novels with wonderful concepts and solid, evocative writing -- at least in the first chapter or two. And then something happens. The story stops moving forward, the voice grows stiff or foggy and hard to follow, and the book just turns into a real slog. In fact, lately it's the rule rather than the exception that this happens. It's like watching someone tread water or churn butter, except there's no butter. What's going on?

Surely some of this is just me, because usually these books are well-praised and admired. Maybe I don't have a lot of patience for the slow bits. But I have a couple of alternate theories. Maybe the writers sold their books on the basis of the beginnings, and then panicked at the prospect of writing 300 more pages. Or maybe the writers are still early in their careers and have spent a lot of time writing short stories and simply don't know what to do after page 50.

Or maybe it's just that great concepts are over-rated, and the abilities to write clearly and compellingly and to sustain a storyline are very rare things indeed.

I've learned not to name names on this blog when I'm being mean, because writers have a way of Googling themselves and I really don't want to ruin anyone's coffee break. But one example is All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, a novel with a terrific review in the New York Times, and a great set up: a cranky medieval re-enactor goes to Europe to search for his missing son. The prologue and first chapter are just perfect: funny and tender and arch. But I'm on page 92 now and working hard to persuade myself to keep going. I think I will, because I just love the idea so much. But what happened to all that clever energy?

Here's one last theory, based on evolutionary biology: it doesn't matter what happens after page 50, because if the reader has gotten that far, he's already bought the book. There's a lot of pressure to make the blurbs, the cover, the title, and the first chapter really great, but not so much on the middle. Perhaps eventually, like tails on primates, the middles of books will disappear altogether.