21 December 2008

Saunders, George. The Braindead Megaphone. New York: Riverhead, 2007.

I'm feeling the need to compose this entry elsewhere, revise it, and then copy it into my Blogger dashboard window, as opposed to typing up what comes as it comes, scanning it over for typos (or not) and hitting "PUBLISH POST". Why I'm doing this is because of the metaphor Saunders titles his book of essays after: a general loudness and lack of sophistication in the parlance these days. And how it's a cause for some complex kind of ruin:
Megaphone Guy* [who stands at a party and dominates the conversation merely through volume] is a storyteller, but his stories are not so good. Or rather, his stories are limited. His stories have not had time to gestate—they go out too fast and to too broad an audience. Storytelling is a language-rich enterprise, but Megaphone Guy does not have time to generate powerful language. The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don't know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us. If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us [...]. (9-10, emphasis mine)
There's a number of essays that deal with this general theme of dumbing down and lack of empathy, and readers of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech (among other recent nonfiction) will maybe scan through a lot of this, filing it under "old hat." This, I think, is a good thing, because maybe doesn't it show that people are listening? In the same title essay, Saunders comes up with a laughably bad run-on sentence of the sort that seemed to fall hourly from Sarah Palin's mouth, and mentions that, these days, when this shit is uttered, nobody laughs, or cries, or otherwise points out the problem.

But is this still the case? Palin looked unassailable on paper—her narrative, positions, and family situation (well, until the dirt got dug up) perfectly tailored to a Bush-era ethos, and yet wasn't part of her downfall her idiocy, her inability to put together a sentence? If you want, if you're like me, you can read 2008's presidential race as a failure of the subliterate to outyell the literate. They gave the presidency to the guy who'd written books.

At any rate, I'm clearly not going to heed Saunders's passionate urging for careful revision here. I've got some notes of things I want to cover and I'm not even halfway through. This is what happens when you have two days of travel woes (hence my quick-reading of this book) and now a whole week of sitting around with family members. You have time to ramble. And still, I want to talk about revision for a bit. Ramblingly, probably.

That emphasized part of Saunders's quote above ("The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively") is one of the best articulations I've read of something I've always felt, and it also reads (only now as I was typing it out) as the reason why so much "online fiction" (by which I mean the shorter, language-driven stuff I often find in online journals) rarely holds my interest. Or, like, it does, but only as I'm reading it. Then I click elsewhere and it's immediately forgotten.

What's missing in these situations, I think, is that truth-seeking impulse. It's hard for me to figure out what they're saying, really. What they're trying to mean, or what they're even trying to do with meaning. I'm not implying that these fictions aren't revised, but I'm not sure they're revised "extensively," as Saunders asks for. What revisions are done seem to be language- / image-oriented, making the prose "tighter" to more optimally suit its eventual medium. And this is, sure, important work to do as a writer, but it's later work, it's finishing stuff, corresponding to what Carol Bly calls "literary fixing."

We writers, particularly those of us who go through graduate programs, are very, very good at literary fixing. We can trim excess and sharpen images better than anything. But what we're not as good at, or at least what I'm not as good at, because it's so much harder to teach and talk about, is what Bly calls (I think), "spiritual deepening," which is, yes, one of the shittiest terms ever (I think she also calls it "empathic questioning"), but it refers to the stage after the initial drafting when the writer looks at his story and asks himself some hard-to-answer questions. What have I written, here? What is it saying? What is it about? Where might it position itself along a continuum between the virtuous and the morally reprehensible, and why? And what questions does it itself ask?

Without taking this step (which is what I think Saunders means when he says "extensive"), fiction becomes a gorgeous mess. Or like a beautiful void. How many stories have we all read that say nothing, but say it incredibly well? This problem is the same problem Saunders writes about happening on a national scale: how often have we heard the television say something that sounds convincing and true, but is really vapid and ridiculous?

It's an important point to make, and Saunders makes it several times. If you've read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" you'll want to skip a lot of it. Or skim. Particularly the part where Saunders cites a euphemism-filled quote from a Nazi official regarding the killing of Jews in concentration camps that makes the same point as Orwell does with his "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results from doing so." You almost sort of wish Saunders would just say "If you really want to understand this point I'm trying to make about language and thought, you should go, as I have, time and again, to Orwell."

Because he's all about pumping up other authors in this book. The best stuff in it (besides maybe the reportage stuff he did for GQ in Dubai, Nepal, and along the U.S.-Mexican border) are the essays about Vonnegut, Barthelme, and Twain. I won't dawdle on this, but these essays are the best I've read on why Slaughterhouse Five, "The School", and Huck Finn are so good. I wish now that I'd brought all three with me on my trip.

Instead I've got Erdrich's The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (almost halfway through), Mark Simpson's (ed) Anti-Gay, and Bill Reichard's first book of poems. And lots of time. So more surely to come.


* One really awesome moment of symmetry, maybe, comes later in the book, where Saunders is reporting on a demonstration in Texas between the Minutemen and the Unión de Trabajadores del Suroeste, in which the latter have megaphones of their own and are chanting loud enough for the former's own "Deport them now!" chants to be all but drowned out. There's a black Vietnam vet standing on the side of the Unión, talking earnestly about how the Minutemen are only looking for a new minority to keep down, but that "the brown man built this country" &c., and he's making it hard for the Minutemen to counterargue, and but the whole thing is being drowned out by the Unión's megaphones, and so Saunders, perhaps aware of this metaphor that will run through his book and seizing a golden opportunity, actually runs over to the Unión, and points out what the vet is saying, and they run a bullhorn over to this vet so he can make his point more loudly. The Minutemen soon drive off to another location.

If this whole book were an essay, this would be its ultimate scene, or maybe penultimate, but as it stands in the book it's somewhere in the middle, and like not even heralded in any way like I would try to do. ("See? See, the megaphone can be put to good use, when in the right hands. Do you get it?")


Blogger A. Peterson said...

I thought you did very well despite the noticeable lack of spiritual deepening.

8:30 AM  

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