Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Craig Raine's "Julia and Byron"

Just a quickie here to say that I think this story in the new New Yorker, "Julia and Byron," is really excellent. Craig Raine is a new name to me; he's a British poet and literary editor, apparently, and does indeed write ficiton like a poet.

The story's first two-thirds documents a woman's fight against, and death by, cancer; and for all of that time the reader assumes that this is the ultimate subject of the story. Her name is Julia; we don't even realize she is married until she's nearly dead. At this point, the story enters the present tense, and Byron appears. He ushers her into death: "She smiled and water came out of her mouth and she died in his arms."

Can we take a moment to appreciate how strange that sentence is? Three independent clauses strung together without punctuation, offering each as the others' equal. It's a poet's sentence, with incredible balance and rhythm and economy.

From here on in, the story is Byron's. While Julia lies in state ("...the molded symmetrical smile began to pull to one side. It began to look like a smirk"), he reads her diaries and learns how rotten he was to her for all the years of their marriage. And the story ends this way:

For two years he was a grief Automat, crying unstoppably at the mention of her name. Then he remarried--a younger woman--and was a difficult husband.

I could do without the Automat, but that's otherwise what I would call a brilliant ending. It reminds me of Ann Beattie during her minimalist years--there's a refreshing confidence here that I haven't seen in a while. "We don't need to go through all that denoument, do we?" he seems to be asking us. "No, we don't, thanks then." And the transfer of point of view from Julia to Byron is similarly unfussy--she dies, he takes over.

There's a respect for the reader here that I admire and am flattered by--he knows we'll get it, he knows we don't need the window dressing. Everything is rendered in a lovely shorthand...it's delicate.

I would not mind some more New Yorker stories like this.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

JRL's new books, Amy's new baby

This is not a promotional blog, but I think it's worth telling our readers whenever one of us puts out a new book. And I've got two of them, coming out this Tuesday. One is a reissue of Pieces For The Left Hand, the 100-stories collection first published in the UK in 2005; the other is a new novel, Castle. You can buy both of them direct from Graywolf here.

There is also going to be a book tour, or more specifically a series of small book jaunts, starting today, here in Ithaca. Schedule is below. I'd love to see a few of you at the readings--if there's one near where you live, stop by and introduce yourself!

Sat Mar 28   3:00pm   The Bookery II, Ithaca, NY
Thu Apr 2   4:30pm   Goldwin Smith Hall, Cornell U., Ithaca, NY
Sun Apr 5   2:00pm   Newtonville Books, Newton, MA
Tue Apr 21   7:30pm   Community Bookstore, Brooklyn, NY
Wed Apr 29   TBA   Powell's Burnside, Portland, OR
Thu Apr 30   7:30pm   Elliott Bay, Seattle, WA
Thu May 28   TBA   Pete's Candy Store, Brooklyn, NY
Tue June 16   7:00pm   Prairie Lights, Iowa City, IA

Finally, big congrats to Moonlight Ambulette, who has produced a Moonlight Ambulino, the latest member of Litblogs: The Next Generation. Congratulations, Amy, she's a peach, and we dare you to name the next one Flannery.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Endings. What are they supposed to be, exactly?

So here's an open question to the readers of this blog. When it comes to endings, what the hell do you want? I ask this because "lousy ending" is perhaps the number one book review complaint. "Promising, but he wrote himself into a corner." "Good book, but the ending was a letdown." I can't tell you how many reviews of my work make criticisms like these. The "wrote himself into a corner" one really rankles, as it suggests that the writer is incompetent--that he doesn't know how to end a book. In my case, when I got that one, I was enraged: I ended the book in question precisely the way I wanted to, and was perfectly satisfied--at the time anyway.

Personally, I am rarely disappointed by a book's ending. Almost never, in fact. If I like a book all the way through, I almost always like the way it ends, too, unless the writer tries some audacious and/or desperate thing that falls flat (I'm sure we can all name a few examples of those). Books that just kind of stop are perfectly OK with me. So are epilogues that describe the future, or flashbacks, or unrequited affairs, or unsolved mysteries.

Ultimately, I don't care what a book is about. All I really care about is the experience of reading it--of the writer's frame of reference to the world, of her way of seeing. Of course I am attracted by certain subjects--crime, artistic endeavor, intense cogitation in narrative--but ultimately it doesn't matter. What's important is the human fabric of the book: the voice, the characters, the way one thought flows into another. I like texture and nuance. I like odd juxtapositions and interesting problems.

I wonder if people who desire certain kinds of endings, or have particular expectations for what an ending should do, are people who care too much what books are about. Could that be the problem? Or is it something else? Because honestly, I have never read a review in which the reviewer suggests alternate endings that would work better. They never say what they want! They only say they were disappointed.

Is it "closure" people want? I hope not. Resolution? The pieces fitting together? High drama? Secrets revealed? Lyrical flights? Somebody help me out here. I honestly believe that many good books cannot have satisfying endings--that some of the best books just simply can't be ended. There is nothing wrong wtih this. Some stories need to be this way. David Foster Wallace wrote a lot of them--that's one of the reasons I liked him.

When you don't like the ending of a book--putting aside big, dramatic blunders--what is it exactly that you don't like?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Criticizing other writers

We just got back from a few days out of town, visiting some friends. The friends are writers, and they invited some friends over for dinner, and the friends' friends were writers too. And then we went out and bumped into some more writers.

It was all a lot of fun--I like meeting other writers. But it's easy to see how the literary world can come to seem awfully incestuous. I've resisted many times, on this blog, the notion that contemporary literature is nothing more than a big clique, and that all that matters is who you know--the notion is cynical and reductive. But knowing lots of other writers is nearly inevitable, especially if you study or teach at a college, and for the most part it's desirable, too.

It becomes problematic, though, when you wish to perform the geuinely useful act of substantively criticizing other people's work. What if you end up on a panel with that writer someday, or have to deliver a reading together? What if that writer reviews books, as well, and yours falls onto her desk?

The screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas left a comment to the last post, in response to the thumbs-down I had just given his thriller. As you can see (and as he further proved in a subsequent email exchange), he's a good sport with a thick skin. But not everyone's like that. Indeed, hardly anyone is, and that's too bad.

Writers should criticize one another, respectfully and carefully. To offer only praise for the things you like doesn't quite constitute a useful dialogue--if something bugs you about a peer's work, and you can support your views, you ought to be able to express them, calmly, without the fear of making an enemy--and you should have the humility to accept similar criticism yourself. Of course, this is a hopelessly idealistic approach: in one of my many rants about book reviewing, I have probably said that the only people who are really qualified to review books are other writers. But other writers have prejudices and allegiances that are hard to overcome, and the results often come off either as hopeless snarking or professional backscratching, delivered with a wink.

I was talking with some colleagues about book reviewing, and I said that I preferred getting an intelligent bad review than a positive puff piece. And one colleague turned to me and said, "Bullshit." Well--she's kind of right. I certainly would prefer a ditzy rave to a thorough intellectual thrashing. But most of the reviews I've gotten that flattered me the most are ones that, at least in part, took me to task for subtle weaknesses in my work. One memorable review, in praising a recent book of mine, took the time to dismiss my first two, and my main reaction was, "Whoa--they actually read the first two." What I meant, I suppose, is that I would rather be read carefully than praised thoughtlessly, and accept the possibility that I might be found lacking. I think most serious writers feel the same way. We want to be part of something alive, something rigorous, not merely players in yet another form of casual entertainment. We need to keep one another on our toes, to have the respect to give and receive criticism.

All of this is on my mind, as I have a new book coming out next week and am bracing myself for negative reactions, or, worse, no reactions at all. I hope I can learn something from the former, but if I can't, I fear I will end up on my knees, begging the world for faint praise.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Thrillers and class

Can we talk for a moment about the world of mysteries and thrillers and its bizarre obsession with class? This week I went to the library and took out my usual stack of crime fiction, hoping one or two of the half dozen would work out all right, and this blurb caught my eye. It's on the back of the Peter Abrahams novel Deception, and is taken from a review by Michele Ross, published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, of Abrahams' last book, Nerve Damage:

I swear, if one more literary person says in that oh-so-condescendng tone, 'Oh, I don't read ... mysteries,' I'm going to take a novel by Peter Abrahams and smack him on his smug little head.

Where do I start? Good god. I suppose the obvious place is to ask who on earth these "literary people" are who hesitate, repulsed, before uttering the word "mysteries." As a literary person who spends almost all of my time with literary people, I have never met one. Indeed, some of the best recommendations for mysteries that I get come from the English department at Cornell, where I enjoy the benefit of an informal mystery-trading ring with, among others, a wunderkind Shakespeare scholar, one of the world's premier poststructuralists, and a department secretary. In other words, just about everyone enjoys mysteries, and there's really nobody who needs to be smacked on the head.

Of course I'm not going to blame Abrahams for his reviewer's comments. This is my third try at Abrahams, and I made it farther than ever before. But now I give up. He's not bad, but the book is so packed with "good writing" that I can't see the plot for all the fog; "good writing" in this case refers to the florid metaphoric overdescription of mundane detail that writers fill their books with when they're out of their depth. Meanwhile, the protagonist of Delusion is a sexy airhead who can't put two and two together. A pass, for me.

Next on the pile is The Silver Bear, the debut novel, about a contract killer, from screenwriter Derek Haas. It's appealingly slim and gives good flap, but the ponderous first-person narrative lost me within sentences. This is from the first paragraph:

If you saw me on the street, you might think, "what a nice, clean-cut young man. I'll bet he works in advertising or perhaps a nice accounting firm. I'll bet he's married and is just starting a family. I'll bet his parents raised him well." But you would be wrong. I am old in a thousand ways.

Uh huh. Of all the things this narrator can open his story with, he feels the need to tell us, right up front, that he IS NOT MIDDLE CLASS, OKAY?!? What professional murderer would care to ever say any such thing? This isn't the character speaking, here, it's the writer speaking to the audience, assuring them that they will be soon enjoy the frisson of empathizing with somebody outside their immediate value system. This reminds me of why I rarely like any first-person killer novels; I just never believe that this person would be talking at all. Even my favorite thrillerist, Lee Child, occasionally indulges in first-person narratives from his hero, Jack Reacher; these are terrific books, but when you read them, you have to block from your mind the absolute knowledge that Reacher would never in a million years say so many words at once.

Okay, scratch Derek Haas. Bring on the new Stephen King, Just After Sunset, which, let me say from the start, is in places really good. A few stories in here--"N.", "Harvey's Dream", "The New York Times At Special Bargain Rates"--are some of the best things King has written, so hooray for that. "Harvey's Dream" is particularly creepy.

But as regular readers of this blog already know, I consider King to be the king of class paranoia, and he doesn't disappoint. Here we have Henry, the soon-to-be-divorced husband of the protagonist of "The Gingerbread Girl," reacting to the news that she'll soon be visiting his working-class father's beach house:

"The conch shack." She could almost hear him sniff. Like Ho Hos and Twinkies, houses with only three rooms and no garage were not a part of Henry's belief system.

This is classic King--in a world of ghosts, monsters, and murderers, pretension is the ultimate enemy. Of course, Stephen King is very smart, and loves all kinds of literature, and can't resist referring, in his books, to all the great writers, musicians, and artists he has enjoyed in his life. And there is nothing wrong with that. But when he puts this knowledge into the minds of his characters, we get passages like this, from "The Things They Left Behind":

I even remember something one of those South American novelists said--you know, the ones they call the Magic Realists? Not the guy's name, that's not important, but this quote: [long quote from "the guy"]. Borges? Yes, it might have been Borges. Or it might have been Marquez.

Right. One of those guys--it's not like I care. I mean, I don't sit around, like, reading all the time, man. Mostly I repair my car and watch sports, but you know how it is, Mac, the way those Magic Realist quotes stick in your head. To be honest, it really fuckin' bugs me.

This post could go on for pages, as you probably know, if you read mysteries and thrillers. The question, of course, is why? Why is class paranoia the default mode for the thrillerist? You would think that the entire genre was made up of people whose greatest fear is that somewhere out there, some elbow-patched lit prof is thinking he's superior to them. Of course the genre was born in the pulps, which didn't used to get any respect; but of course now they do, they're taught in college classes, and oceans of ink about them have been spilled over the dissertations of the world. King especially is now widely lauded as an inspiration for all manner of literary fiction; he's certainly a powerful force behind my new novel.

Crime and thriller writers need to evolve. It's time for them to assume the habits of self-confidence and literary ambition that people like Stephen King have earned for them, and stop trying to have it both ways.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Cradle is not simple

Congratulations to W6 friend Patrick Somerville for this terrific review of his new novel in the New York Times. Somerville, whom I interviewed back in September as part of the Writers At Cornell series, is the author of a good story collection, Trouble. I liked those stories, and I like Somerville, but The Cradle is, in my view, a huge leap forward for this writer, and a testament to how much life is still left in straightforwardly written psychological realism.

I'm very suspicious, I should mention, of the whole "simplicity" thing. A few years back, there was a bit of hulabaloo when the long-blocked Tony Early rolled out a new, un-ironic version of himself in Jim The Boy, a book that I didn't like much. This was also around the time of the whole Jedediah Purdy thing, and it all seemed, at the time, a step back not just from postmodern angst, but emotional complexity, and I grew suspicious of anything that smacked of the New Simplicity.

Patrick's story collection is very guy. All the stories are, in some respect, about their protagonist's tussles with the notion of masculinity. And the novel, too, is a guy novel. Which is not remotely to say it's for guys to read. Indeed, it differs from the stories in the beautifully open moral and emotional qualities of its main character, a guy named Matt, whose pregnant wife, Marissa, has asked him to go find the cradle she slept in as a baby. The request is irrational in the extreme, and its fulfillment likely to be fraught with difficulties, but Matt decides to do it.

At first, the book takes the form of a fairly conventional quest narrative. Matt enounters a lot of strange characters, and gets himself into various apparently picayune situations, in the course of searching for the cradle. But when he finds it, he finds something else, as well--an intolerable situation, related to Marissa's own upbringing, which Matt alone has the power to rectify. The novel stops being about the quest and starts being about more important things--about being an adult, about having the courage to do the right thing, when the right thing is unimaginably complex and undesirable. Furthermore, this narrative is crosscut with a second one, about a mother terrified of her teenage son's impending military service in Iraq. This story line is set ten years after the main one, and it's unclear for quite a long time how they're connected. But they are, and they dovetail beautifully, magnifying and elaborating upon the book's already quietly established themes.

The prose is clear, funny, and supple; the characters are humanely drawn and wonderfully convincing. The whole thing is only a couple hundred pages. The book reminds me of a few of my favorite short novels--The Optimist's Daughter, The Name Of The World, Winter In The Blood, and I expect to return to it often. It's about hope and responsibility in the midst of chaos and confusion, which, in this spring of our discombobulation, may be just the ticket.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Ambition, and DFW's unfinished novel

You'd think that knowing all the facts would make you feel a little better about the outcome. But this New Yorker piece about David Foster Wallace's life, death, and career just makes me feel worse. I knew I would miss him, but I am surprised at how often I think of Wallace: at least once a week since his suicide, I've come across something, some cultural phenomenon or political imbroglio or literary controversy, and instantly regretted that Wallace would never see it, never know about it, never weigh in on it. His patterns of thought are permanently imprinted on my mind--more so than those of most people I actually know. That's because he put more of himself into his work than any other writer of my generation. He laid it on the line.

Anyway, the enormity of this loss is finally beginning to sink in. As Rhian said to me the other night, Wallace's ambition was a force that held all other writers aloft. No matter how lazy any of us was feeling, we could always be assured that Wallace was trying harder than everybody else. He was a leader, and there is really nobody to replace him. Oh, there are lots of excellent writers around our age, doing very fine work. But none of them has the personal and professional cachet that Wallace did--he was virtually synonymous with Contemporary American Literature, and it always made me proud to be engaged in the same kind of work as him.

That's not to say he was a writer of great books. I don't think he ever really produced one--he produced great bits of things. There's greatness in all of his stuff. But all of it was interestingly flawed. According to that New Yorker piece, he seemed to know this. His ambition was always three steps ahead of his ability. That's the mark of a great artist, in my book. His struggle to write the present unfinished novel, The Pale King, is incredibly sad and moving to behold.

This excerpt, "Wiggle Room," strikes me as pretty terrific, though I'm sure that it will soon be drenched in haterade, as was the previous excerpt. I am more confident than ever in my long-held opinion that Wallace was both the most nerdy of writers and the most sentimental, and these excerpts suggest that he was trying very hard to actualize his own truest self, the one that I have always been rooting for him to bring to the fore.

The lesson to take away from this, for all of us who write fiction, is to stop being such wimp-assed pencil pushers and get out of our comfort zones once and for all. Wallace isn't going to cover us anymore. If contemporary literature is going to be taken seriously, we're going to have to make literature worth taking seriously, even if it fails, as so much of Wallace's brilliantest stuff did. Otherwise we'll be relegated to the cultural footnote the film industry has been stuffing us into for years. Fiction writing should not be an amusing affectation. It should be the ultimate expression of being human, as Wallace thought it should be. Try harder. That's what we all have to do.

As for the unfinished novel--I'm looking forward to seeing what this thing is, and imagining what it might have been. Clearly Wallace wanted it out there--he left it neatly organized for his wife to find, and I think he would have had no trouble destroying it, along with himself, if that's what he felt was necessary. Perhaps it's a message to all of us who aspired to be more like him: this is as much as I could do, you take it from here.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


The writing continues apace. I now have 120 pages of...something. It's a strange sensation: I have never prepared so little to write a book. I took some notes a while back but I don't know where I put them. Everything is coming from the constant cogitation I expend on the project every day. Continuity errors are doubtless piling up, and I dread having to face them later, but I'm having more fun writing than I have in years, which is more than ample compensation.

Anyhow, now that I have gotten over the initial push into "can't give up now" territory, I'll be posting more frequently. Please return to your original regimen of visiting the blog!

Today I want to offer a bit of praise for a friend's book. Paul Maliszewski's Fakers (weird--the dust jacket at that link isn't remotely like the one I have in front of me) is a loosely structured collection of essays about literary frauds, including Stephen Glass, James Frey, and J. T. Leroy. Maliszewski also writes about writers who write about fakes (Peter Carey), the nature of tall tales, and the literary world's meta-appreciation of the specious "spectric school" of poetry. The book opens with one of the writer's own brushes with controversy: Maliszewski, while grudgingly working for a business newspaper in Syracuse in the late nineties, began a psudonomous ironic letter-writing campaign to the paper, and ended up writing parodic editorials under several assumed names, which his editor published in earnest, believing their authors to be real people. The plot unraveled, of course, and Maliszewski ended up being threatened by the FBI. The story is crazy and very funny (and is not even, in my view, the most interesting of Paul's pseudonomous exploits--but you'll have to ask him about that), and sets the tone for what proves to be an intelligent and highly entertaining exploration of frauds and why we fall for them.

One thing that occurs to me reading about these writers--particularly the memoirists "LeRoy" and Frey--is that they have to be admired for their shrewdness. They understood that, by and large, publishers aren't interested in good stories so much as stories that tell people what they want to hear. The world, these writers decided, wants street-smart victim narratives, and so that's what they wrote. The writers are to blame for their frauds, of course. But insofar as they are literary monsters, they're the monsters the publishing industry created, the result of their endless pandering to conventional tastes. Which of course brings me back to one of my hobby horses: the sad misapprehension that publishers can maintain a 12% profit margin while remaining culturally relevant. But you don't need to hear that again.

There's one quite surprising story here, as well, about, of all people, Michael Chabon. Chabon evidently delivers, from time to time, a lecture entitled "Golems I Have Known," in which he relates the (ultimately redemptive) story of his discovery that a favorite writer of his from childhood, a man named Colby, was actually his neighbor--and a discredited Holocaust memoirist, a faker. The lecture itself, it turns out, is almost entirely a fabrication. Chabon doesn't make any particular claims about the lecture's factuality, but he doesn't call it fiction, either, and many of his listeners assume the story to be true. Maliszewski interviewed Chabon for Fakers, and addresses, very effectively I think, the moral pitfalls of the situation. Is Chabon merely doing what he's good at--that is, inventing a story--for a greater good: to convey the power of the imagination, and remind listeners of people's capacity for forgiveness? Or is he snatching for himself a bit of the moral authority that a connection to the Holocaust can confer on a writer? In the end, I don't know, and neither does Maliszewski. Chabon doesn't seem to, either.

Fakes only really work in the cultural moment for which they are created. "We're not likely," Maliszewski writes, "to get fooled by the fakes of our fathers." If you have a good eye, and if you're not invested in the mores of the moment, you can spot them as they happen. Rhian, for instance, saw through Stephen Glass in an instant: she identified his psychic-hotline piece in Harper's as bullshit the moment she read it.

Not me, though. I bought it. What can I say? I wanted to believe.