28 July 2008

Scott, James. "The Strings Attached". One Story. VI: 6, 2007.

Jim Scott's a friend I made at Sewanee, and he's very funny. He's the sort of funny guy one wants immediately to work up to the level and quickness of, to match jokes with jokes of your own that make him giggle as you also are giggling. This story I thought was going to be sad—it opens with the death of three-week-old twins—but then turns funny and silly in the ways of many standard quirky stories you run across these days. A strange town name (Tangent) and offbeat hobbies and jobs (philately, meatpacking, a bowling alley named Kegler's Paradise, etc.).

The story meanders in a nice way, unmoored subtly from the tug of a plotline, or maybe better said the ticking of a plot's clock. And then Arthur, its central character, decides on a whim to get a dog and the dog needs a names lead to the twins who never got names and the story gets all knotted again.

In the end it's a story about needing for one reason or another to stay put in the place you live your life. Arthur could leave Tangent. He should, probably, but he won't. There's those titular strings. And so because of this, I think Jim's able to take it easy on plot; rather than rush everything toward one character's conflict-resolution, we're given a town, and the people in the town.

It's a good new rule for writing: Give Us The Town And The People In The Town.

Speaking of rules of writing, I never did finish my Christine Schutt post. Essentially what I learned from her is what I think (according to another Sewanee funnyguy) she learned from Gordon Lish and according to the notes I took is this:
When you're writing a story, you aren't looking ahead to see what will happen next. You aren't adding new elements to make a story more complex. Instead, you look behind yourself. You're always looking back at the last sentence you wrote, and as you look back at it you ask yourself: What can I extract from this sentence that will darken or deepen the story? That's it. Every time you need to move forward it's a matter of darkening the story. It's a matter of going to a place you don't know anything about. It's a matter of surprise, and turning away from what you've previously written again and again, to the point where you've turned 180 degrees and come to the exact opposite of where you've begun, and but then turning away even from that, so that at the end of the story you are where you begun, except that everything's changed.
Despite the use of the blockquote tag that's not a quote or anything, but it pretty much sums it up. What's great about this is that it not only gives you an idea of how Christine puts together a story (or Gary Lutz or Diane Williams are any others of that ilk), but it applies even to "classic" or "traditional" stories we've all already talked about a thousand times before. It becomes a whole new way of thinking about structure.

Here are "A&P"'s opening sentences:
In walk these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. I'm in the third check-out slot, with my back to the door, so I don't see them until they're over by the bread....
Christine reads the girls in nothing but bathing suits as the element Updike extracts to darken the story, because here of course is the danger. You have all sorts of issues surrounding dress and decorum and sex and gender and class and privilege here, and so, she argues, while you think in this story these girls will be kicked out is it the narrator who leaves the store in the end. And this is the turning away from what's been written into places that will surprise you.

There's another great example in another canonical story (O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find") but I don't have the text handy to quote from it. Just pay attention to what the grandmother says in the opening paragraph and what happens at the end.

Here's an example from All Souls:
Damn. Her mother was in the dressing room. "Mom!"

"I'm sorry, I couldn't wait. You were all so beautiful." Mrs. Van de Ven, jostled, backed away from the door, watching. Far-fetched hair, lots of hair, spectacularly flying free of popping hair bands, hair astonishingly clean and glassy. If she could touch it..."

"Mother, please, we're all getting changed here."

"All right, all right, all right, all right," and she walked out to where the other parents were waiting with flowers."

Lisa said, "Everything looks like shit to me after my mother has seen it. (158, emphasis added)

21 July 2008

Schutt. Christine. All Souls. Orlando: Harcourt, 2008.

This is a novel about an 18-year-old girl who is sick with cancer that I've devoured over the past two days, while simultaneously attending the Sewanee Writers' Conference and listening over the phone to the news of my friend Sarah dying of cancer. Who has died of cancer (how terrible that sudden use of the past tense). It's been for me a very important book to have at arm's reach. Here's how I got to buying it.

Schutt's my reader here, which means she is the one faculty member who has read my manuscript closely enough to lead discussion on it in class and sit with me one on one to talk about it in specific and writing in general. She also has given arguably the best reading at the conference so far, despite the fact that it was in the late afternoon, as opposed to the more high-profile readings in the evening, after dinner. For better or for worse, American Letters is one of the last cultural realms in this country that suffers (I think the word apt) from elder worship—so argued A.O. Scott in that "Best Novels of the Past 25 Years" things in the Times a while back—and as Sewanee is entrenched in the south as much as it is in the world of American letters there's elder-worship going on here in spades. Schutt is not a young writer but she certainly is a new one and for me it was very important that she of all the faculty here has most recently been accoladed by national awards. Sewanee's got award-winners everywhere in the faculty, but Schutt's Florida was nominated for the National Book Award in 2005, which was like yesterday, and to me this made her the obvious candidate when trying to figure out who I should study for.

Just because she got a nomination? I mean, she didn't even win. No, it's not that. It's because, and I hear the way this term sounds before I even type it, she's relevant. She's, like, writing now, and that writing she's doing now is unlike what was winning awards many, many years ago.

All Souls is a campus novel—so beloved genre—and concerns itself mostly with the senior girls surrounding Astra, the dying protagonist. And they're girls in full. Schutt, in her reading, called them "feckless girls" and then proceeded to read a section of the novel (each of the nine chapters is divided into titles subsections) about one of these feckless girls, Marlene:
Marlene picked her nose and sent what she found in it flying across the room. She was a dirty girl, she knew that much, and whatever the girls in school suspected her of—stealing, farting, lying—was true. The slut part was not true, although she wished it were, but all the dirty parts—yes, she was that girl. Look at her messy room, the unresolve of such disorder. She had no ambition but to dizzy herself into absence. (12, emphasis added)
I italicized that last line because it leads me to what I love the most about Schutt's writing, which I learned from her over coffee this morning, what has completely changed the way I go about putting a story together, getting from point A to point B. It involves, actually, forgetting about point B all together, but I'm extraordinarily tired, and I just this morning lost a close friend, and so on the off chance that you've come here quickly after my posting, you'll need to return, tomorrow I hope, and get the remainder of it then.

14 July 2008

Ball, Jesse. Parables & Lies. Lincoln: The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2008

While fairy tales aren't exactly fables they still instruct, even if the lesson one learns at the end is Don't Trust That Old Woman. Or: While Your Father May Have Remarried You Certainly Shouldn't Love This New Mother The Way You Loved Your Birth Mother And If You Want To Know Why Just Give Her One Month And One Glimpse At The Household's Coffers And You'll See What I Mean. The best Grimm's tales are the ones that end with this kind of resolution, this "Trust me, I know what I'm talking about" voice.

Here's the end of "Cat and Mouse in Partnership", which begins "A certain car had made the acquaintance of a mouse.":
[S]carcely had [the mouse] spoken before for the cat sprang on her, seized her, and swallowed her down. Verily, that is the way of the world.
Also great are the endings in which something idiomatic has been lost in translation. From "The Bremen Town Musicians" (Die Bremen Stadtmusikanten):
After this the robbers never again dared enter the house; but it suited the four musicians of Bremen so well that they did not care to leave it any more. And the mouth of him who last told this story is still warm.
Jesse Ball is familiar enough with Grimm and these kind of things pop up all over the place in Parables & Lies and that's why I loved it. Most of the stuff in the collection that sounds like it's a parable ends up teaching us nothing at all, ends up sometimes being anti-helpful, if that's possible. One of the stories is about a man who needs to build a house for his family, and it gives us some good folk-wisdom instruction: "He was a poor man, and his family was poorer still, for money is lost in every passing of hands, not least from the wages of a dutiful husband." This man's problem is whether to build his house with one door or two, and right at the moment that we think we'll get the kind of solution that will help us in our own lives, something dangerous hijacks the story:
[D]ay and night, the sun must be allowed to pass. Not just through all the broad and empty places, but through this town of man, and through that town of man, through anger and misfortune, through pettiness and filth. And every sun will be a deeper, a crueler sun. And every sun will know far better the shape, the broad dull shape, of the wound it makes on your face and arms, the wound it presses, deep through the windows of your eyes, where such things will be remembered, but can never be made good.
This is a book of constant danger-ridden hijacking, which is great for a book with so many road stories, so many travelers passing through the pages. You should buy a copy.

11 July 2008

Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory (1967). New York: Vintage International, 1989.

Nabokov had a brother named Sergey who was 10.5 months younger than him and, critics have discovered, gay. He died in a concentration camp, where in this book Nabokov says he was put for criticizing the Hitler regime. Critics have suggested he was put there for his sexuality. I bring all this up because it obviously interested me on a personal level, but also because it made me rethink (or perhaps just think more deeply about) Pale Fire.

The charge has been leveled against Nabokov (dumbly, well after his death, with the grand effect being "Who cares?) that he was homophobic. As a gay man, I don't buy it. Granted, I've read only four books. But Speak, Memory makes clear the remorse N feels for his poor relationship with Sergey, and without ruining too much of the magic of the book, I saw this remorse in Pale Fire.

And I'm especially reminded of that moment in Lolita when Humbert tells us he was once diagnosed (by a psychotherapist, and even my cursory scan of Nabokov's writings makes it abundantly clear that the man dismissed Freudianism wholesale) as a homosexual. His reaction is to crack up, and in this laughter I see Nabokov laughing not at homosexuals, but at the culture of the 1950s that saw homosexuality as some illness to be treated, that could easily conflate homosexuality and pedophilia as two sides of the same coin.

All said, this book wasn't too engrossing. Incredibly written, but I found myself scanning over pages at times. Here's my favorite passage, favorite for the way N. starts with an ailment I share and yet pushes it to an almost mad-scientist amplitude. And the language!:
All my life I've been a poor go-to-sleeper. People in trains, who lay their newspaper aside, fold their silly arms, and immediately, with an offensive familiarity of demeanor, start snoring, amaze me as much as the uninhibited chap who cozily defecates in the presence of a chatty tubber, or participates in huge demonstrations, or joins some union in order to dissolve in it. Sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals. It is a mental torture I find debasing. The strain and drain of composition often force me, alas, to swallow a strong pill that gives me an hour or two of frightful nightmares or even to accept the comic relief of a midday snooze, the way a senile rake might totter to the nearest enthusiasm; but I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius. No matter how great my weariness, the wrench of parting with consciousness is unspeakably repulsive to me. I loathe Somnus, that black-masked headsman binding me to the block; and if in the course of years, with the approach of a far more thorough and still more risible disintegration, which nowanights, I confess, detracts much from the routine terrors of sleep, I have grown so accustomed to my bedtime ordeal as almost to swagger while the familiar ax is coming out of its great velvet-lined double-bass case, initially I had no such comfort or defense: I had nothing—except one token light in the potentially refulgent chandelier of Mademoiselle [his governess]'s bedroom, whose door, by our family doctor's decree (I salute you, Dr. Sokolov!), remained slightly ajar. Its vertical line of lambency (which a child's tears could transform into dazzling rays of compassion) was something I could cling to, since in absolute darkness my head would swim and my mind melt in a travesty of the death struggle. (108-9)

10 July 2008

Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner (Abridged). Audiobook: 200?

Really boring and sentimental, N and I thought, with dull language almost throughout. Sentimental and dull with such sentences as, "All my life, I'd been around men. That night, I discovered the tenderness of a woman." Ha! Boring because nothing bad really ever happens to Amir, the narrator. He likes to talk about the tragedy in his life, but whatever deaths happen around him (and I guess there are a bunch) don't create any real problems for Amir. They're just sad. He and his dad leave Afghanistan (pronounced by Mr. Hosseini as /ahf-HOHN-ee-STAHN/) without much trouble. Someone in their group is threatened to be raped, another shot, and some understanding higher-ranked military guy suddenly appears to save the day. Amir falls in love and marries the first Afghan woman he meets. She is beautiful and of a good family. He's told he has a gift for storytelling and decides to write a novel, which he does in the matter of a paragraph. After sending it out to agents he gets representation within months, and the book is taken by a New York house. So easy!

We announced our dislike of the novel at a gathering of friends yesterday, and such outrage! I think it was a factor of abridgement. I announced to N on the drive that if I was ever so lucky to have one of my books produced in audio format I would make a series of demands:
  • I don't want to read it. This isn't just a factor of universal I Hate My Recorded Voice queasiness, but more a personal factor of my not liking acting or performance in general. To be forced in a studio to read, aloud, "'I said shut up!' he yelled"! No thank you. (Of course, another solution is just not to write shitty dialogue.)
  • I get to choose who does read it. I mean, Ann Coulter or Carson Kressley reading something I wrote? No thank you.
  • I don't want to edit the book for an abridgement. An abridged version is fine, I just don't want to have to be the one who decides what gets cut. I imagine this (and, well, all of these) is the job of an editor, and I probably wouldn't ever have to worry about it.
  • No new sentences written by the editor. Like, say there's a paragraph that contains a necessary plot element but is long and maybe even overwritten (in my stuff? never!), words can be excised from said paragraph, but no new words can be inserted. No summary sentence can be composed to stand in its place. This is getting very nitpicky, but really, I don't want people reading a sentence I didn't write and attributing it to me.
I just wonder how much of this last one happened with TKR. Maybe abridging a book isn't at all difficult. Maybe all you have to do is remove all obstacles and hardship, and just usher protagonists toward the goals set for them in a matter of a paragraph or two.

All I know is, good timing, Khaled. Very good timing.

Colbert, Stephen. I Am America (And So Can You!) (Abridged). Audiobook: 2008.

Stephen Colbert (that is, "Stephen Colbert") is Roman Catholic! This surprised me, does it surprise you? All I know about the right is that they hate rational discussion and think Catholics aren't Christian—at least this is what I learned from Chick tracts. My favorite thing I remember from the book was a amendment he gives to the term Judeo-Christian: "Think of it like Sears-Roebuck. Judeo is Roebuck."

Though I was told the book has charts and graphs and funny visual jokes, I'd recommend it in the audiobook version. It's just long enough in the abridgement, and while I like Colbert and his show the whole joke of it doesn't have much lasting power. Which is to say it's sort of a theme-and-variations approach that I don't think I'd want to read the entirety of. Plus on the audiobook you get Colbert's great delivery on lines such as the above, and folks like Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello reading certain characters.

09 July 2008

Sedaris, David. When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Audiobook: 2008.

N & I drove to Michigan this past weekend for a friend's wedding, held in a copse of trees at the far end of a field of grass, with fabric pinned high on the treetrunks and hanging down, becoming the ersatz columns of the cathedral that the man who led the ceremony asked us to see all around us.

Here's my take on Sedaris, or maybe my take on Sedaris before I listened to this book: Naked is easily his best work because it's his most thorough, his most unencumbered by his own fame. If we were to compare his oeuvre to MTV's The Real World, Naked is the original New York season (despite not being Sedaris's first book). In New York, the cast members were people already living in the city (with the Alabama exception) and trying to make a living; the whole "be on TV" part of it was something they dealt with in the name of free housing. Now, of course, teens run at the chance to go live in some other city just to "have their lives taped," just for the fame it might bring, and what they actually do on the show is dull as a result. Naked is the masterpiece because the essays therein are longer and more satisfying; the whole thing is memoir in its finest form of sifting through the past to let someone understand how life (or maybe just a life) gets lived.

Then he got wildly famous and was able to publish any old essay in any old magazine. This, I recognize, is a factor of his talent both as a writer and a humorist, not a factor of his name. Still, even as "far back" as Me Talk Pretty One Day, I left much of the essays with a sense of incompletion. "Picka Pocketoni"? Why wasn't this narrator doing anything? It wasn't enough just to stand there and report, I felt.

A lot of WYAEiF is about how wealthy and glamorous Sedaris's life is, and how wealthy he was growing up, which is something I'd never really sensed before. He talks about the cork-lined dining room at his parents' house with the (at the time) contemporary Danish modern furniture. (N got especially excited at this point, and I hope the print version includes a photo.) He talks about the $20K he spent to quit smoking by moving to Tokyo for three months. He mentions an $8K first-class ticket he bought. He mentions a lot of airplane rides; I think at least three of the essays have their roots in something that happened to D.S. while flying across the Atlantic. This smacks to me of a writer who's run out of things to write about; and yet there are essays about old neighbors ("That's Amore", one of the collection's best), so it seems Sedaris still has enough memories to last a few more books.

I heard from Sean Wilsey that in some interview somewhere, Sedaris confessed that he was getting to the point in his life where he'd act in a scene explicitly for the purposes of creating something to write about. I remember a friend of mine back in Pittsburgh doing this sort of thing all the time. He had a cover story in the alt-weekly about skydiving, and it was clear from the piece itself that 90 percent of the motivation behind his going sky-diving was that he'd write about it for an alt-weekly. Maybe Sedaris has a history of this (I can't imagine he just wanted to up and go to a nudist colony on his own; clearly, he saw great material in the exercise) but something about the heft of those earlier essays ("Santaland Diaries", too) makes them seem more honest. In the interview, Sedaris was talking specifically about the decision to cough so hard on a plane that his throat lozenge would be expelled from his mouth. He thought, Let's see what happens, and coughed. This action begins one of the essays in this book, and it's never revealed as constructed.

I'm not aligning myself with that camp of Memoir Exposers For The Truth. My complaint isn't that Sedaris makes things up. It's that at one time, behind the essays, was this guy David Sedaris, or as close to the guy as we could get, and now it seems that behind all these essays lies "The Writer David Sedaris". I'm not making myself clear.

(Which, incidentally, is one thing I can't fault Sedaris for. His timing in writing is impeccable and his descriptions apt and lovely in places. Oh and funny. The book in just incredibly, unendingly funny.)


To come: Colbert's I Am America and So Can You! and ... The Kite Runner?