29 February 2008

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49 (1965). New York: Harper Perennial, 1999.

I'm if anything a fussy writer. The sort of guy who prefers to come up with excuses why all the factors surrounding the writing of some story or chapter aren't quite right, rather than actually sit down and let the thing get written anyway. I like to worry sentences, and I like to worry about sentences that sound like other sentences I've read so many times before. "She got out of the car and looked searchingly up at the sky." There's some piece in me that could never be satisfied with that sitting on the page.

For a while I thought this was big of me. I thought it meant I cared foremost about language. And maybe in the tiny, fussy domain of the short story it's the sort of thing readers won't like to be given, but in a novel such concern is a little ridiculous. Thinking hard about the ways I read novels I know that if everything's chugging along smoothly and I'm at full engagement with the story when I come across such a sentence all I do is register the information it gives me. Its blandness doesn't stop me in my tracks. And so there's room in novels for these sentences. James called novels shaggy beasts; finessing every god damn line will get nobody anywhere.

Oh, I imagine Pynchon has such sentences in this novel, but what I want to talk about are the other ones, the ones that won't probably ever get written again. Lots of the best sentences in this book spill down their pages. Some of them are "attainable," so to speak, in the challenge I made with myself as I read the book to assess my own ability to craft the sentences he already did. Ones like this one, where you just accumulate well observed details, aren't really that hard to write:
She thought of other, immobilized freight cars, where the kids sat on the floor planking and sang back, happy as fat, whatever came over the mother's pocket radio; of other squatters who stretched canvas for lean-tos behind smiling billboards along all the highways, or slept in junkyards in the stripped shells of wrecked Plymouths, or even, daring, spent the night up some pole in a lineman's tent like caterpillars, swung among a web of telephone wires, living in the very copper rigging and secular miracle of communication, untroubled by the dumb voltages flickering their miles, the night long, in the thousands of unheard messages (149).
Do-able, right? Well, maybe not "planking" or "swung". Those words would never occur to me in the places they fall. But then look at these, just a page later:
Perhaps she'd be hounded someday as far as joining Tristero itself, if it existed, in its twilight, its aloofness, its waiting. The waiting above all; if not for another set of possibilities to replace those that had conditioned the land to accept any San Narciso among its most tender flesh without a reflex or cry, then at least, at the very least, waiting for a symmetry of choices to break down, to go skew. She had heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided; and how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity? For now it was like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would be either a transcendent meaning, or only the earth. (15)
The former bit takes merely a good eye, perhaps some experience, and a decent way with words, all of which can be picked up in a short number of years. The latter, though, takes some new kind of mind all together. A nimble, fluid mind, that can make leaps of association that all sort of swell around one another.

Another thing that makes this book so rad is its subject: postal conspiracy. So nice to read something new. It's always very en vogue to write stories about "weird" types. For lots of uninspired writers with little imagination, weird gets translated into the noble rural poor. (I read at least 15 of these stories today for the lit-mag I screen for.) For others, and often for me, it translates to people with nontraditional jobs, the sorts of careers no one goes to school for.

Here the strangeness of philatelists, underground postmasters, and Jacobean community theatre folk all seems very closely strange, somehow. Maybe this whole entry is longhand for saying I can't find a way to call this book quirky. Is this only because of its age?

27 February 2008

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22 (1961). New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Some favorite paradoxes, brought back to memory and found mostly online in the wake of reading this novel and needing something smart and important to talk about in front of a roomful of 31 undergraduates, trusting me, I hope, on this one:
  • Zeno's Paradox argues that in a race between fleet-footed Achilles and the slow-as-hell Tortoise, one in which the former sportingly gives the latter a 100-yard head start, Achilles can never overtake the Tortoise and win the race. No matter how fast he runs, first he must get to the halfway point between him and the Tortoise. So, 50 yards. In the time he takes to get 50 yards, the Tortoise has advanced a little bit. Then A has to get halfway to that new point, which gives T some more advancing room. And so on, and so on. He's faster than the Tortoise, but he'll never win. But of course he'll win, but it's logically impossible for him to win.
  • The Liar's Paradox asks whether the statement, "I am lying," is true or false. If it's true, then the speaker is in fact lying, and therefore what he says cannot be true. If it's false, then the speaker must be lying, but because that's what he's claiming to do, his claim is true.
  • The Barber's Paradox is complicated, and I think my explanation of the thing in class the other night was flawed and missing some vital step. Go Wikipedia it or something.
  • Whether or not it's called The Omnipotence Paradox, this one asks the question, "Can an omnipotent being create a stone too heavy for it (that being) to lift?" If the answer is yes, it can of course create such a stone, then lifting it becomes something the omnipotent being cannot do, which means its not omnipotent. If the answer is no, it could create no such stone, then not being able to create the stone becomes something the omnipotent being cannot do.
It seems I may have learned nothing from this book. Paradoxes, especially those settled down in fun little hypothetical logic puzzles, are the domain of socially inept little boys (mostly) who were given books about Mensa as gifts from distant relatives who had no other clues about what sorts of presents would be well received. In Heller's novel, they're the domain of such boys all grown up, now finding themselves through some connection or another running a war in the Mediterranean. Colonel Cathcart, Colonel Korn, General Dreedle, et al., are the bad guys in this war novel, not solely because they're in charge (though this surely is a lot of it in such an anti-establishment novel as this one), but because they revel in the niggling little paradox games they come up with to avoid any direct responsibility.

For a while they're funny. Major Major Major Major (oh, the hilarity) realizes that if he makes a rule wherein the only time people can see him in his office is when he's not in, he never has to face a single problem. Colonel Korn can avoid the tough questions by making rules that the only people who are allowed at the education sessions to ask questions are those who never ask questions.

But then Aarfy comes in—Aarfy, you may remember, is the guy who rapes that Italian woman because he proudly never pays for sex, and then throws her out the window, killing her, because he can't have her going around saying terrible things about him. Aarfy's not an uppity-up, he's a regular army guy going on all these missions with the rest of them. He's also, as one of my students said, "A total douchebag":
"Back in school we were always doing things like that. I remember one day we tricked these two dumb high-school girls from town into the fraternity house and made them put out for all the fellows there who wanted them by threatening to call up their parents and say they were putting out for us. We kept them trapped in bed there for more than ten hours. We even smacked their faces a little when they started to complain. Then we took away their nickels and dimes and chewing gum and threw them out." (251)
This novel is one where so many good people die, and though Yossarian lives, Aarfy does, too.

In comedy writing, injustice is funny. I read that somewhere recently.

The following story is true. One Thanksgiving in my folks' new house, my dad saved the turkey's wishbone and gave it to me and my sister, who historically, as the youngest of three kids, got to pull on it each year. We hadn't done it in ages. I grabbed one end and my sister grabbed another, and I made a quick and deplorable decision. We yanked and I came out with the larger piece. "What did you wish for?" my sister asked.

"The smaller piece," I said, all proud of myself.

08 February 2008

Capote, Truman. Breakfast at Tiffany's (1950). New York: Vintage, 1993.

Maybe it's because I just got back from New York or maybe it's because this is the most recent New York novel I've read but I want to declare this book my favorite New York novel. What's its competition? Catcher in the Rye? Fortress of Solitude? Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing? I like all those books well enough, but for a New York novel (a genre I'm not even comfortable characterizing) this one wins because underlying the story of Holly Golightly and the unnamed narrator is....

I'm without words this morning. This is a reading morning and not a writing one. Whatever it is I'm trying to talk about is here in the novel's final lines:
"Flanked by potted plants and framed by clean lace curtains, [the cat] was seated in the window of a warm-looking room: I wondered what his name was, for I was certain he had one now, certain he'd arrived somewhere he belonged. African hut or whatever, I hope Holly has, too."
It's the kind of basic human desire I'm interested in these days: being in the place one is supposed by factors internal or external to be in, and the ways we can go about figuring out where that place might be.

It's a great ending because of course since the movie of this came out (which I haven't seen), Holly is so quintessentially New York. But she can't stay in New York. Maybe she only becomes quintessentially New York after she leaves New York.

God, what do these terms even mean?

05 February 2008

Firbank, Ronald. “Valmouth”. Valmouth and Other Stories (1919). Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1996.

Driven by dialogue, this novella tells the story of Valmouth, a resort town where the air is fine enough that most of its citizens live to be 100 or more (the town patron lived to 105). In the midst of them all is the “Oriental” woman Mrs. Yajñavalkya, who is a whiz at massage and the healing of bodily ailments, and who is able with these powers to traverse the classes of the citizenry at Valmouth. She tries to set the Lady Parvula up with the object of her obsessions: the virile young shepherd David Tooke. What we eventually come to find out from Mrs. Y is that David “has abjured [. . .] de female sex” (68), and by story’s end the two remain alone.

Gender and sexual queering happens in subtle little ways throughout this novella, much of it I imagine in the many lines of Latin its characters like to utter in brief asides. One needs in order to understand this story’s bends and shifts a full fluency not only in Latin and French but also in Greek and Roman myth. Firbank’s steeping of his narrative in the baroqueness of antiquity is de rigueur for queer writers of his time, but it doesn’t help his work last. I mean, World War I was going on at the time of his writing, and this is where he throws his best efforts?

From the introduction and the back-cover copy, what people seem to love most about Firbank is his florid style, and this, yes, I’ll grant him any day. He cracks up his sentences’ syntaxes in such a way that they seem always on the verge of falling apart. See, for instance, such lines as “Miss Tooke turned yearningly her head” (10), and “Mrs Hurstpierpoint extended toward her guest a hand that was not (as Lady Parvula confided afterwards to the Lady Lucy Saunter) too scrupulously clean” (23-24), and even the exquisite, “Here and there, an orchard, in silhouette, showed all in black blossom against an extravagant sky” (6). Even when he goes overboard (“The sky was empurpled towards the west” [70]) I admire the attempt.

I think of it as a queer syntax, a discretely queer style. The best way I can explain or try to justify this is that it’s a syntax I’ve been in my own writing of late working deliberately toward. It’s more than a matter of juggling one’s clauses in the name either of disrupting the passive reader’s syntactic expectations, or of asserting every time no matter what words and phrases come one’s way on the vitality of the periodic sentence. It’s...well, here, from my journal:
I want to stick with this voice, this kind of convoluted syntax that allows its sentences to roll onward and onward down the page putting in with a kind of recklessness these appositives here and there and mixing up the order of words as a means I guess of finding within a sentence a kind of innate tension between enough detail and too much, or between relevant details and needless digression. Also a tension between a stuttering kind of insecurity and an assertive, Hemingwayan/Steinian commaless strength.
Yes, that’s the sort of thing I’ve been worrying about in the MS Word file I open up most mornings before the morning’s writing gets commenced. No, it’s not helping me actually to produce a full completed manuscript any time soon. Like the high-school loner who designs album covers, T-shirts, and tour routes for the band of his whose music he hasn’t yet bothered to write, I am a dilettante.

Mann, Thomas. “Death in Venice.” Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories (1911). H.T. Lowe-Porter, trans. New York: Vintage, 1954.

A novella of man-boy love and a disease that starts to mysteriously kill unsuspecting people, if that’s not redundant. One can’t help in reading the story but think of AIDS, particularly in the way Mann describes the attempts of the state to cover up the illness (cholera, in this instance): “[T]he fears of the people supported the persistant policy of silence and denial. The city’s first medical officer [. . .] had indignantly resigned his office and been privily replaced by a more competant person.”

Gustave Aschenbach, the hero of the story who falls in self-surprised love with the young Polish boy Tadzio, is an author and widower who finds himself in Venice after a spell of wanderlust brought on by the face of a stranger in the street. Mann takes much time and care building up this guy’s credentials—he’s not just a writer, but a noteworthy writer, an author, really, whose work has inspired those who’ve come after him. Indeed, he’s created a new kind of literary hero, described as “[t]he conception of an intellectual and virginial manliness, which clenches its teeth and stands in modest defiance of the swords and spears that pierce its side” (11). Mann’s narrator continues:
That was beautiful [. . .] it was exact, despite the suggestion of too great passivity it held. Forbearance in the fact of fate, beauty constant under torture, are not merely passive. They are a positive achievement, an explicit triumph; and the figure of Sebastian is the most beautiful symbol, if not of art as a whole, yet certainly of the art we speak of here. (11)
Saint Sebastian—all tied up and flayed with arrows—has for a long time been a symbol of homosexual beauty and adjunctery, or maybe it’s just a matter of him being our unofficial patron saint. For a long time I thought this was kind of gross. I thought it had to do with eroticism (he’s always painted wearing little more than a loincloth, sometimes even nude) and the glorification of suffering. But I like here how Mann reads Sebastian and finds strength and heroism in the traditionally “passive” protagonist. Forbearance as something that one achieves, rather than some default one falls back on. This is very much along the same lines of what Kushner describes in Angels in America.

03 February 2008

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Another reread. There's one line that sticks out to me more than any other, even this long after I Finished! the book: "Lolita girl! Brave Dolly Schiller!"

This is if you recall who Lolita becomes, this Dolly Schiller gal, pregnant and married to a working class guy named Joe (I think). I found it hard while reading this book to worry about Humbert's creepiness, or his criminality. I found it easy while reading this book to hate Humbert all the same, or well no, not hate but I guess laugh at in ways Nabokov I think invited me to. And then chapter 29 in part 2 came along (the place from where the above quote is taken) and I found it very hard to do the latter, very easy to do the former, and I ended up caring so fully for this guy. How does this happen?

And wow how about all those dick jokes, huh? "I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you."

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925.

I've been in New York City for ten days, and I finished this novel ages ago. I've been in New York City for so long I'm coming up with false causalities in all my sentences.

A fourth-time reread. All I can say this time is how fast this book moves. I know it's short and all, but I forgot how drowning in dialogue it is. So dialogue heavy! Also it's clear that every scene except those where some important backstory is being orated to Nick is filled with at least three people. It reminds me of some old fiction/storytelling advice I once read or heard: Put two people in a room you have a flat little dialogue. Put three people in a room and you have drama.