Monday, July 27, 2009

The Water's Edge

There's not much doubt in my mind anymore that Karin Fossum is the best living writer of crime fiction. She is amazing--the true heir to the mysteries of Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Her detective, Inspector Konrad Sejer, reminds the Scandinavian-crime fanatic of the similarly tall, quiet Martin Beck (after whom I modeled my own tall, quiet detective in my own unpublished, and perhaps never-to-be published, crime novel), though he is unique in his gentle humor and philosophical bent, and refreshing in his unwillingness to allow his passion for order to result in self-destruction. Sejer is dark and interesting without being tortured. He's got the confidence of P. D. James' Adam Dalgleish without any of the pretension. He's a good man, and a strange man.

The new book is about the disappearances of two children. Fossum manages to do something that I hate whenever any other crime novelist does it--she enters the mind of the killer, right off the bat. She does this not in order to front-load her stories with suspense, or demonstrate her artful recreation of the criminal mind, but because she regards crime as a human condition, its practitioners worthy of empathy. Her aims are literary: people interest her. In her novels you will never find a wild scramble across a warehouse floor for a dropped gun. You will never find the hunter become the hunted. You will never see anything happen just in the nick of time, nor a killer brilliantly taunt the police. You'll just see human beings grappling with their inherent nature.

Which is not to say this book isn't a page-turner. Fossum gives us two mysteries, then hands over the solution to one of them, gratis. The detectives think that both have the same solution; the reader knows they're wrong. This is where the suspense comes from: the disconnect between what we know and what they know. Think "Blood Simple." In the midst of this investigation, we also read about one strange marriage, one strange childhood, and several strange obsessions. There is no artificial energy here: no ticking time bomb, no race against the clock. Just the slow churn of deduction, accident, and moral complexity--the latter on prominent display here, when an offender has just been placed under arrest:

The cell faced a backyard with a brown Portakabin and several parked patrol cars. He saw Volvos and Fords. A row of green wheelie bins was lined up against the Portakabin. He paced the floor. He could take only a few steps before he had to turn around. He thought about those who had occupied the cell before him, thieves and robbers, murderers. He had nothing in common with them. [...] They had promised him something to eat, but no food had arrived.

And later, after the same offender has been sentenced:

He liked the workshop and he liked the food. He liked helping out in the kitchen, all the smells and the heat from the stove, the huge, steaming, bubbling pots.

He slept fairly well at night, curled up on his bunk in a fetal position. He was serving ten years. On completing his sentence he would be released back into the community, back to his lonely existence on benefits [...] No one would welcome him, he would be left to his own devices, his own pain and his own urges. All things considered, prison life was not as bad as he had imagined.

This book, all things considered, is better than I dared hope.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Stanley Elkin Pile

The Rake is reading Elkin, and shows off his stack here. So I thought I'd pile up ours, too. I mean, it's not often you have a chance to compare stacks of Elkin. Two are missing, though: The Magic Kingdom and The Franchiser, which are at JR's office.

I have to confess, though: I've only read a few.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

High Expectations

I have mixed feelings about the poet William Stafford, who wrote several charming, accessible books of poems before he died in 1993. Sometimes his poems were spot-on; othertimes, they were too cute. But he also wrote some excellent books on writing, including You Must Revise Your Life and Writing the Australian Crawl. And in one of these books, or maybe a different one, he says something to the effect that a writer's job is not to be his or her own editor. The editor is the editor. And the writer is the writer. So the writer should just churn out whatever and let the editor sort it all.

In other words, a writer has no responsibility to monitor the quality of her work.

I think this is very, very good advice, particularly for young writers, who have enough angst and doubt already and have no place sniffing out the whims of Manhattan.

However... I wonder about old, established writers. I just read a galley of the new Philip Roth novel, which is coming out in the fall. And of course it's very good. For most of it, I was really happy just being in Philip Roth's mind. But by the end, I thought, Hm. This doesn't do anything he hasn't already done. Also, it's short. It made me kind of wish he'd saved up and done a long one. Of course, the guy's 76, and while he's still at the top of his game, he probably feels the press of mortality. Maybe he's writing these little novels just to get them out.

Then again, my expectations are probably too high. You shouldn't expect a writer to get better and bigger with every book. And some writers' least exciting stuff is still worth reading. I just read the first quarter or third of the new Alice Munro novella in Harper's... she's my favorite writer, but I'm not too interested in finishing it. But I will, because it's her, and I know it will be worth it.

Editors, especially these days, are probably motivated to publish *anything* by a known quantity -- a best-selling or prize-winning writer. Do you think a writer has an obligation to keep standards up, if editors aren't going to do it? (And to be clear: I was vaguely dissatisfied with the latest Munro and Roth, but who knows, maybe it's just me.) I can't help but think that William Stafford, for one, would have been a better poet if he didn't submit everything he wrote.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Gone Tomorrow

[NOTE: here is a super-long book review intended for another online organ that I ended up not writing for. Sorry if you've heard it all before...]

If I am perhaps a little bit disappointed in the new Lee Child thriller, it's the kind of disappointment you'd feel if the eleventh day of your tropical vacation were not quite as relaxing as the tenth, or if you were given a bottle of The Macallan for Fathers' Day, instead of a bottle of The Macallan and a hundred-dollar bill. It's the kind of disappointment that, from the vantage point of boredom and unhappiness, might look a lot like unbridled delight. For those of you who haven't read my previous Lee Child posts, here's a quick review:

Child is a Brit with a stridently American sensibility, or perhaps you'd call it an outsider's hyper-perceptiveness. His Reacher novels—and so far, they are the only novels he's written—are tightly plotted mystery-thrillers of refreshing variety, some of them fairly strict police procedurals, some of them daring-escape narratives, some of them ticking-time bomb suspense stories, some of them massive-conspiracy potboilers. They all feature Jack Reacher, a former military policeman turned aimless drifter, and are told, variously, in first or third person, in Reacher's past or his present. They also feature, pretty reliably, the following elements:

1) A spectacular fistfight in which Reacher is set upon by either three or four guys or a guy who is three or four times larger than him, which Reacher wins against all odds.
2) Some kind of escape from some kind of unbreachable prison.
3) A test of marksmanship involving firearms, which Reacher wins, because he is the most excellent shooter of guns ever in the entire world.
4) A scene in which Reacher buys some unflattering new clothes at random, then puts them on, throwing his old clothes into the trash.
5) A tough, intelligent, yet emotionally vulnerable woman, often a cop or government agent, who is slim and small-breasted and wears unostentatious clothing, and whom Reacher has sex with exactly once, or, more daringly, almost but not quite has sex with.
6) Reacher setting his "mental clock" to wake him at a particular time, which is accurate down to the minute.

Reacher is a big, strong guy, but the appeal of the series comes from his brilliantly analytical mind, which has the ability to see all the angles, all the time. He makes mistakes, but they are always temporary. He says little, and reserves action for the appropriate moment. He is competent at all things male, like a one-man A-Team. He knows the names of everything: engine parts, plants, architectural elements, guns. To Reacher, a bunch of computer cables aren't computer cables, they are "multi-strand copper cores, [with] tough plastic sheathing." Yet, due to his voluntary detachment from human society, he is amusingly unfamiliar with certain everyday items, and describes them as though you've never seen them either: plastic clamshell packaging, gourmet coffee, chain bookstores. There is a wonderful moment in the new book when Reacher, divested of his shoes, is forced to stop at Home Depot and buy "a pair of rubber gardening clogs," which we know as Crocs, and which he is wearing twenty pages later when he eludes a pair of federal agents in the subway.

A Reacher novel, broadly described, is presented as a series of puzzles. The puzzles are varied and endlessly entertaining: discovery of a computer password, escape from a dynamite-filled room, an extemporaneous psychological analysis, the landing of a crucial punch. Even walking down the street or ordering food at a restuarant, Reacher is solving a problem, crunching the numbers and acting according to his results. Child's prose is spare, clean, laced with sentence fragments and short independent clauses stitched together with conjunctions. Even the most mundane of passages is brisk and linear:

I slept well and woke up feeling good and I was out five minutes before eight. I forced my way through the crowds heading in and out of Penn Station and got breakfast in the back booth of a place on 33rd. Coffee, eggs, bacon, pancakes, and more coffee, all for six bucks, plus tax, plus tip.

That passage is from the new one, Gone Tomorrow, which takes place in and out of the New York City subway system, a setting that ought to be a spectacular one for a Reacher novel. Child's plots are all about topography: distances, directions, the dimensions of rooms and cars and airplanes and walls. Reacher is always having to estimate things, often in total darkness or with people chasing him. This book is no exception--pursued by various bad guys, he takes elusive action, riding trains on the inside and outside, leaping over hot rails, running up and down subway stairs.

It all seems a little pat this time, though. Maybe it's the spectacular and detailed setting--there is just too much to work with. The plot, such as it is, isn't all that important—Reacher, while riding the subway, randomly witnesses a gruesome suicide, and its aftermath leads him into an ad-hoc investigation of a sinister conspiracy. This is really more plot than Reacher, and Child, need. My favorite Reacher novels--Echo Burning and the recent Bad Luck and Trouble--are painted with a more minimal palette. They start and end in the middle of nowhere, with Reacher appearing and disappearing like a ghost, performing incredible feats of strength, agility, and intelligence in barren landscapes, empty rooms, and situations without options. In Gone Tomorrow, anything can happen, and so there's no surprise when it does. To make matters worse, Child throws terrorism into the mix, making one of Reacher's nemeses a cell of murderous foreign baddies. These enemies are a little too easy to hate, the danger a little too dangerous.

The other problem with the new novel is that it's in the first person. I'm probably the only reader in the world bothered by this, but there is an essential problem with the first-person Reacher books: Reacher would never in a million years say all those words. He's a silent loner, not a yarn-spinner. As a result, this one feels a little fake, a little plasticky--the kind of story Reacher would tell if only Reacher told stories.

But like I said, I'm happy to enjoy The Macallan without the hundred-dollar bill. Child is consistently entertaining, and rarely falls prey to the dreary cliches of the mystery and thriller genres: class paranoia, excessive gruesomeness, lovingly annotated jazz soundtracks, excessive use of inept simile, and their ilk. Like Elmore Leonard, Child pays attention to the sound of words and rhythm of sentences. Like Arthur Conan Doyle, he is a master stylist in the area of deductive reasoning. And like Christmas, he can be counted on to reappear once a year. If you haven't read him, don't start with this one--but don't worry, you'll get to it eventually.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Talk: limiting exercises, formal recontextualizations, and gruesome sexual violence

OK, this is a cheat. But I'm home alone for three days and want to get some pages done on the novel-in-progress. So here is the just-posted YouTube video of my craft talk at Colgate a few weeks ago. It's about writing exercises in the style of Oulipo, and includes a few brief readings of some incidental and comic pieces I've done. Honestly, there are about eight posts worth of material in there. Well, maybe three. In the coming days, I'll post brief reviews of the new China Mieville and Lee Child books.

To be honest, I had no idea I moved my hands so much when I talked.

Thanks to Cody for posting these videos so promptly! And readers, please check out some of the other talks and readings as well.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

At Work

At Work is the recent hybrid memoir/monograph from Annie Leibovitz, the portrait photographer best known for her work in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. Leibovitz isn't my favorite photographer by a long shot--indeed, though I certainly like what she does, her subject matter doesn't interest me much, or at least it hasn't since her early days, when she shot informal, journalistic pictures, mostly of rock bands, most notably the Rolling Stones.

But there is something irresistible about this book, which reproduces many of her most famous pictures, and describes the circumstances under which they were taken. She is most interesting when talking about two things: the technical problems that a given photo posed, and the personalities of her subjects. It's a lot of fun learning how she ended up getting Keith Haring to paint his own penis, or John Cleese to hang upside down from a tree. When she gets the job of photographing Queen Elizabeth, she is faced with a serious dilemma--how the hell do you photograph Queen Elizabeth? The interesting thing about a career like Leibovitz's is that it consists of variations on a theme: she has a particular, rather circumscribed way of working, which she is constantly forced to adapt to new circumstances.

The book is written in an as-told-to style, in direct language, without a lot of contemplation or philosophizing. Personally, I'd have preferred a little more complexity, but that's not the kind of artist Leibovitz is, and it is inspiring to see somebody going about her work so enthusiastically and unpretentiously, and consistently. I also really appreciate the little section in the back about the equipment she uses--as a gear nerd, I was of course curious, and it's a pleasure to learn that she'll buy whatever newfangled thing comes along, just to give it a try. It's also refreshing to hear about somebody embracing digital technology with so little fuss. Though I love all things analog--film, audiotape, pencil and paper--I get a little weary of internet-based nostalgia for these things, and hearing people's elaborate justifications for using the tools they do. Leibovitz just likes using stuff to make other stuff. It seems to me a healthy attitude for a working artist.

The photos are great, of course, for what they are, and sometimes they transcend what they are, too, and turn into something really special. I think this comes from the seriousness and excitement with which Leibovitz regards her work: another case of dedication to craft giving way to art.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Ms. Hempel Chronicles

I've developed a backlog of books I've read and enjoyed over the past few weeks, and will be spending the next few days posting short reviews/glosses on them, for your edification and, with any luck, commentary. Today, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's Ms. Hempel Chronicles.

I glanced at this novel-in-stories at the bookstore when it was published last year, and didn't immediately feel a strong desire to read it. But then I heard a talk given by the novelist Jennifer Vanderbes on the subject of different kinds of motion in fiction, which used passages from this book as examples. And I liked them enough to give it a try.

The book is about a schoolteacher (the Ms. Hempel of the title) in her late twenties, a book lover with artistic leanings (if not ambitions), who has a superficial resemblance to the author. There is no plot to speak of--just a few characters, a few situations (and not even very awkward ones, at that), and a lot of mild cogitation and observation. There is almost no conflict, save for a bit of barely-examined existential angst, and pretty much no drama whatsoever, unless you count a few distant memories about Ms. Hempel's childhood. The language is simple, the pace slow.

So how come I like it so much? I'm still not quite sure. It is a study in ordinariness, rendered with unusual restraint. Ms. Hempel is not a fascinating character at all--and yet I hung on her every thought. There is no suspense, or any other of the usual devices used to move a book along, and yet I turned the pages with real eagerness and pleasure.

This is instructive for me right now, as I am writing a meandering book with no real story, and am feeling increasingly self-conscious about this, as though I will need to add something later on, some kind of structural accelerant to get the thing kicked into gear. But this book reminds me of how little you need to write an interesting book. You just need to render life interestingly.

Easier said than done, of course. The motion here (as Jen Vanderbes said in her talk) is in the flow of one idea to another, in the way Ms. Hempel's mind trips from subject to subject. There is life in her conception of her circumscribed world. The least interesting parts of the book are the ones that seem most intended to captivate: Ms. Hempel's contemplation of her Chinese heritage, a chapter about a colleague's pregnancy. It's when Bynum doesn't seem to be trying to do anything that the novel is most successful: Ms. Hempel's encounters with students, a field trip, banter with her disaffected colleagues.

It's like they always told you in school: be yourself! In a way, it's the worst advice in the world. What if you're a loser? What if you're a dick? Maybe then you should be somebody else, eh? Writing a book like this requires confidence that you're being interesting, and then actually being interesting. And this kind of confidence can be hard to come by.

But Ms. Hempel Chronicles makes me think that it's worth giving it a shot. The petty-crime subplot I have been uneasily contemplating for my book may not be necessary. Which is a good thing, because I don't like it. Here's hoping the world isn't bored to tears in its absence.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Everything I'm Cracked Up To Be

While in Iowa last month on the book tour, I met a journalist named John Kenyon, who, over burgers and beers, told me that I absolutely had to read this recent memoir by nineties indie rocker Jen Trynin.

I dunno. Rock memoirs are the kind of thing I think I ought to really love, but rarely do. They are usually about the same things--being bad, deciding to be good again, having hits, going on the road, coming home, divorcing, remarrying, being unpopular, being popular again. Not many of them are very smart, and almost none of them are written very well.

But this one is, and I really liked it. Trynin's story is depressingly familiar--aspiring rock musician can't get a label, and so starts her own. She puts out a record. Big labels finally get interested. They're gonna make her a star. They re-release the record and send her on tour. And then it isn't the hit they were hoping for, and everyone she liked at the label quits, and the band gets into a fight, and everything falls apart. The end.

Somehow though I really enjoyed Trynin's version of this story. I think it's the writing--she's straightforward and engaging, yet capable of surprising and funny turns of phrase. She writes with real humility and self-deprecating good humor about her brief fame; she is unabashed about her crushes on guys, her insecurity about her self-image and her guitar playing, her relative ignorance of rock culture. There are some great bits, including a few nice dream sequences, and a wonderful, dreamlike (but apparently real) incident involving an endless series of terrifyingly identical interconnected hotel rooms. When she cheated on her boyfriend, I gasped in horror; when her Super Reverb died during sound check, I shed a little rock and roll tear. Even though this isn't nearly my favorite book I read this year, I felt a deep affinity for Trynin--I actually just mailed her a fan letter.

Maybe I'm sentimental. In the mid-nineties, when the book takes place, I was half-assedly doing the same things Trynin was doing for real, and it's not hard to imagine my way into her situation. Of course the same thing would later happen to me, on a miniature scale, in the literary world that is now falling all over itself to replicate the failures of the record industry: but that's the way of the artist, I suppose. Indeed, I wish more rock memoirs were about being an artist, rather than about being a star.

For what it's worth, I bought Trynin's first record after reading the book. It's good--very much the kind of thing I was into at the time, and in retrospect I don't know how I missed it then. The second single, "Better Than Nothing," is catchy as hell, and though Rhian and I have some ideas about why it didn't make the grade that summer, the summer Alannis Morrissette was blasting out of every coffee shop, it's still kind of hard to believe it wasn't a hit.

Friday, July 3, 2009

I Will Hate You Till The Day I Die

So, in the last week, a couple of well-known and popular writers have responded with surprising venom to negative reviews. Well, can you blame them? What with the publishing climate as iffy and spooky as it is right now, a negative review must feel like that first snowflake felt to the Donner Party.

Part of me thinks this refreshing honesty is awesome. I wish we heard from more writers about what they think of reviewers. Because though I do a little bit of each, writing and reviewing, I identify with writers. And man, it grates, to think of those critics -- with their day jobs and their regular pay checks -- ruining the careers of us creative types because they feel like it, because they can, because it's cool!! (Hold on, I need a drink.) Also, who doesn't love a good dust up?

But at the same time... what exactly are those writers thinking? To react like that, to argue with a reviewer, you kind of have to think that the critic has no right to an opinion and is, in effect, a lesser being. Even if you secretly think that, you'd think it would be embarassing for people to know that about you. In the days before blog comments and Twitter, there would have been time for Good Judgement to sail in and prevent this sort of thing.

Writers: the solution is Don't read reviews! The time for feedback, positive or negative, is before the galleys come in. Yeah, it's probably impossible not to read the New York Times Book Review, but if you're lucky enough to get in it at all, you have to cowboy up and take it like a hero. And thank the gods for blessing you with a such a career.

Anyway, positive reviews can make you feel almost as bad, if they like the wrong thing, or if they think you're something you're not. And what happens if you go around believing your good reviews? Then you become an insufferable jerk. You can't win, reading reviews.

And do we really want a world where critics are nervous about writers' reactions? Cripes, no, we don't. While we could do without bitterness and backstabbing in critics, we also don't want timidity. Give reviewers the space for passion, craziness, mistakes, love, and hatred. It's a wonderful thing that they're taking books seriously at all, these days.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Breaking a literary taboo

This week at the Colgate Writers' Conference (and for those of you who missed the comments of the conference post, I highly recommend this smart, friendly, incredibly fun event), I had a student who had written a very long, complicated novel spanning many years, and incorporating many points of view. And the student broke a major literary taboo: that is, the novel featured a hugely important piece of secret knowledge on which the whole story hinged--and also featured a close third-person narrative from the point of view of the only character who held this piece of knowledge. And yet this character just happened never to think about the vital information.

Generally speaking, I consider this a terrible cheat. It's a fairly common tactic in lousy police procedurals, where the detective's point of view is casually intercut with scenes from the mind of the killer--whose identity and location coincidentally never cross his mind.

Why does this bother me so much? It's a violation of what I consider to be the prime directive of literary narrative: the exploration of consciousness. I'll accept all manner of plot implausibilities, but when a writer makes people think in an impossible way, I become very, very impatient. If you can't trust the narrator to give you an accurate representation of the characters' minds, you can't trust the book at all.

And yet sometimes writers kind of almost get away with it. I just read The Girl Who Played With Fire, the pretty good sequel to Steig Larsson's terrific The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (I'm not going to review it here, but I can tell you the ending, while exciting, is embarrasingly implausible), and I saw this taboo broken many, many times. A character is suspected of committing three murders. Did she do it? We get 75 pages from her point of view before she happens to think about it. In this case, it nearly works--the character in question has a highly unusual, compartmentalized mind, and you can almost make a case for her not considering her own possible role in the murders over several weeks. Ultimately, though, it's a lame trick, and cheapens the book.

Karin Fossum, on the other hand, pulls it off in The Indian Bride, a superior and highly unusual crime novel; our killer is hidden in plain sight, and from himself, in a very effective literary sleight-of-hand. But it works because it makes sense for the character to think this way. It's never just for Fossum's convenience.

Of course, you can do this easily in the first person--first person narrations are inherently untrustworthy, and sometimes a writer foregrounds this quality, as in Kazuo Ishiguro's great unreliable-narrator novels. But the third-person narrator is supposed to be somebody you trust--somebody who understands the characters entirely, and doesn't let them get away with anything. It's a rule made to be broken, but break it at your own risk.