30 March 2009

Hadley, Tessa. "She's the One." The New Yorker. 23 Mar 09. 62-69.

Look, I'm sorry. All I have time to Finish! these days are magazine articles. The books I pick up I scan so as to sum up and explicate them in six or seven sentences. It's no way to read.

I'm going to put forth an extended metaphor that like all metaphors maybe is flawed. It ties in to ideas about traditional and nontraditional writing styles that've been running through my mind lately. It also ties into something James Wood writes about in How Fiction Works about realism and convention, specifically that the former has become the latter to such an extent that, oh, it's so incredibly dull. (No handy, easily quotable quotes are presenting themselves, so take my word for it.)

In short: realism is very rarely not dull and conventional.

So, then, my analogy:
realism : food :: experimentalism : sex
I mean, here, to line up two instincts I seem to have as writer with two instincts I share with all of humanity. I mean also to do this without becoming one of those irritating diaristic bloggers whose sex life becomes eighth-rate e-pulp for a handful of anonymous RSS subscribers.

It seems in my life that food is of greater necessity than sex, that I hunger for the former more often and more physically than I do the latter. Call me a prude or whatever. And so maybe in line with this it also seems that bad food—like really bad and depressing food—hurts more and feels worse than bad sex. There's a Shoebox Greeting here, to be sure, but it's rare that "bad sex", whatever it might be, is all that bad. It's still pretty nice. It's still a treat. Afterward I feel kinda okay. But bad food, and by this I mean the sort of thing that's unpalatably, spit-it-out bad (a green-olive omelet, maybe, or cottage cheese on banana bread), is just unbearable. It makes me want to run away from myself or from life or something.

Such is the case with fiction. Realism is very much the food I run to books for, and when it's bad—when every metaphor rings obvious and when characters get so predictably marshaled toward conflict with one another, when unsurprising detail is meant to carry far more weight than it ever really could—I hate books and I hate life and writing and everything. I want to spit it out. I get very depressed. Experimental writing—which I don't have the time to try to define, but I basically mean both language-driven fiction and fiction of the impossible, so maybe "nontraditional writing" is best—when bad (when language performs without ever revealing, when surrealism fails to save a banal situation) is still kind of a treat. Afterward I feel kinda okay because at least I've been given access to something if not new then at least un-ordinary.

But sometimes realism is great. Like: great. And it's like when you sit down to eat a meal, and you take a bite and you make that noise in your throat, the one that goes: "Oh, yeah. Fuck I forgot that it could ever be like this." And just like that meal can remind you of everything you ever loved about eating as a kid, really good realism (which is probably just realism written "freshly", to continue to destroy food metaphors) makes you remember every reason you started reading as a kid and every reason you continue to come back.

Nontraditional writing, too, when great, is mindblowingly, impossibly great. It's a different kind of greatness. It's not, okay, a lesser kind of greatness. It's, at the risk of being gross, like drainingly great. And it's greatness is new, relatively. It's adult and mysterious. There's no early-developmental analogue. Okay? Maybe?

I'm losing control of this metaphor. Please open the comments window to dispense your ridicule. But all this is something that came to mind after reading Tessa Hadley's story in the New Yorker, which suffers from a flat ending that's asked to carry too much weight (though is probably the only way she could have ended it), but which also includes such incredibly food-great passages as this one:
Hilda complained about the farmer whose land they were walking on. She said that she had contacted the R.S.P.C.A. because he didn't treat the foot rot in his sheep, and that he'd tried to stop her walking there, although it was a public right of way. It was true that quite a few of the sheep seemed to be hobbling on three legs, or half kneeling, their front legs bent at the joint. Ally worried that the farmer would come out to confront them. She didn't want to have to take sides. As she tramped beside Hilda on the way back, the day draining out of the sky seemed to empty her, too, leaving her weightless. When they arrived back at the cottage, they could still see each other clearly, but the light was at its moment of transition, and, as soon as they went inside, the night outside the windows appeared perfectly dark. In the cottage downstairs there was only one room, with a kitchen at one end and a sitting room at the other, a flagged floor and a wood fire smoldering in a wide stone hearth, one wall stripped back to the naked stone. Hilda put logs on the fire and switched on a couple of lamps. (66)
Why do I love this so much, this whole story minus the end? It's not the verisimilitude that we traditionally value in realism so much as the density of it all. No: the quickness. Again, like McPhee, I'm attracted these days to writing that moves faster than I do, writing I have to keep up with. Hadley's story begins at a writing center, the sort of place where unpublished writers pay to get instruction from published ones, and probably the thing I like the most about this story is that after the first page we never go back to this writing center. Bad realism would follow certain rules (picked up, perhaps, in a paid course at a writing center) and "keep the story focused" on its "unique setting" and the relationship between Ally and Hilda would get straitjacketed into predictable gestures and exchanges taking place in predictable, professional locations. It would be unreal, it would taste like shit, and we'd all run upstairs, to the dirty unspeakable books we keep under the bed.

23 March 2009

McPhee, John. "Spin Right and Shoot Left." The New Yorker. 23 March 2009. 54-61.

I like nonfiction for reasons similar to what I once heard Philip Lopate say about his genre: I read it to watch a mind at work. I don't think much about truth or reality distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. I'm not interested in memoir, usually, at least I'm not interested in memoir because it might be telling me a story that may actually have happened to someone in this world. I'm not interested in nonfiction telling me a story at all. I read fiction for stories. Nonfiction gives me ideas about things.

I've read a smattering of John McPhee in my day, almost always in nonfiction writing classes. Usually I find him longwinded. Impressive but dull. Smarter than anything I'll ever accomplish but encumbered by data.

So what happened to McPhee when he wrote this lacrosse piece? Remnick should always hand McPhee a 4,000-word limit. His prose here jumps and pops like an ants-pantsed Kerri Strug. There's this looseness throughout, the work of a man so in control of his subject—McPhee's some honorary faculty member/teammate for Princeton's lacrosse team—that he's able to drop little facts of the matter in the most curious of his paragraph's spots. One paragraph about the International Federation of Women's Lacrosse Associations suddenly, five sentences in, slips into a discussion about the Iroquois and the Indian National Lacrosse Foundation. It's either some factor of septuagenarian wisdom or New-Yorker-veteran flippancy. Another paragraph about FOGOs (Face Off, Get Off players) consists chiefly of a long quotation from some lacrosse trade mag, then ends this way:
In 1888, Princeton's face-off man was Edgar Allen Poe. His granduncle (ibid.) wrote "The Raven."
And who cares? Factoids are like Doritos for the research-high nonfiction writer. We grab and grab and grab at them hoping they'll sustain us. Because we've uncovered so much stuff and having spent so long to find it and write it down we damn well better find a way to make the reader appreciate it.

The only way to handle it is to throw it in and get the hell right out. Quit building scenes and just string facts together. You'd think I'd've learned all this from "Slouching Towards Bethlehem". You'd think I could trust the material on its own by now.

19 March 2009

Marcus, Ben. "Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It." Harper's. October 2005.

We're back full circle with Tom Wolfe in this essay, in that the very thing Wolfe was decrying as "a literary game, words on a page being manipulated by an author" (49), Ben Marcus holds up as a purpose for writing: the pursuit of (and endless play with) new language shapes. (Indeed, reading Marcus back-to-back with Wolfe, it's clear that Wolfe's problem is that he sees the reality of post-Reagan America as far more linear and logical than do most other writers.) It's not just a matter of making language hard, of writing for the intelligentsia, it's a matter of seeking new opportunities or new methods by which language can represent reality.

The other key difference about Marcus's essay compared to the others we've looked at this week is that he's not coming to any new ideas about the direction his writing in specific or fiction writing in general should now go. He's not, like Wallace and Franzen, trying to figure out what (or why) to write. Like Wolfe, actually, Marcus knows what he wants to write, and he knows that what he wants to write has been disparaged, and so he’s writing a defense. "[W]hen a major, prize-winning novelist seeks frequent occasions to attack a diminishing and ever more powerless avant-garde and its readership, a response is in order," Marcus writes. The subtitle of this piece is, cleverly enough, "A Correction."

But before Franzen gets destroyed as the essay's title promises, Marcus has to describe what he means by "experimental writing"—a term, we'll see, that he's not a fan of. (Is anyone a fan of any term used to describe their writing? I don't know a single writer who willfully adopts the label "experimental" nor do I know anyone [except maybe me] who says he writes realism.)

He opens the essay with a lesson in physiology: the Wernicke's area is the locus of language comprehension in the brain, which was located all the way back in 1874. This is an important brain part for all writers, of course, but particularly so for writers like Marcus and those he's trying here to champion. If we think, Marcus suggests, of Wernicke's area as "the reader's muscle" (39), then we can come to a new understanding of books. They're things that work this muscle, or, in Marcus's words, books are "the fuel that allows this region of the brain to grow ever more capable" (40).

It's a very peculiar view of the practice (habit? hobby? desire? need?) of reading. The purpose of reading is to become a better reader (read: a smarter reader, read: a reader more quickly able to form logical connections between strings of language whose associative leaps are less prosaic). Marcus seems to read the way certain people lift dumbbells, where the lifting of the dumbbell isn't done in order to improve one's tennis swing, say, or achieve better control over one's bowling ball. The lifting of the dumbbell is done in order to be better at the lifting of a future, heavier dumbbell.

As a person who lifts dumbbells in order basically to pose more alluringly before a mirror, I can't fault the guy. Fine: reading is its own reward. This does away, as Franzen seeks to, with any demands that the novel "enrich" a person, or "comment" upon the world. These things, if they happen, happen by accident, or as a by-product of the reader's communion with language. One of the smartest things Marcus does in this essay is show that "experimental" and "realist" writing (isn't it the case that the real problem with those terms is how readily they demand ironic quote marks?) are not as at-odds as they traditionally get painted. Reality is every writer's domain.
No matter my interest in reality, in the way it feels to be alive, and the way language can be shaped into contours that surround and illuminate that feeling: because I don't write the conventional narrative language, and because I haven't often foregrounded the consciousness of characters in my fiction, and livestocked those characters in a recognizable setting, I will never be considered a realist. (41)
"Realism", Marcus convincingly argues, would operate as a better marker (a more accurate marker) were it an earned description, not a school in which one is given compulsory membership. In an ideal world, realism would be a term "conferred only on writing that actually builds unsentimentalized reality on the page, matches the complexity of life with an equally rich arrangement in language. It would be assigned no matter the stylistic or linguistic method, no matter the form" (42).

One thing his essay would benefit from would be some illustrations of writing that seems (or gets labeled as) "experimental" but which actually does a more accurate job of rendering reality than, say, Munro and Cheever and Updike have done. We get lists of endorsed writers whose work does this, but never a depiction of how they do it. But again, as Marcus writes, "This isn't a manifesto."

So, while language-driven writing has all (if not better) the capability of traditional writing to depict reality, there's this idea that for novels to be successful, they need to deliver their worlds in a familiar package. Here is where we start to get to Franzen, but first Marcus makes a pit stop at the 2004 National Book Award controversy. Do you remember it? Here were the finalists:
  • Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
  • Christine Schutt
  • Joan Silber
  • Lily Tuck (who won)
  • Kate Walbert
Never heard of them? This was the controversy: that books which sold very few copies and which hadn't become famous upon their publication were being offered a major award. "This," Marcus writes,
was a clear announcement that the value system for literature was tweaked to favor not people who actually read a lot of books but a borderline reader, highly coveted by the literary industry, who might read only one or two books in a year and who had damn sure better be recommended a prize-winning book that will flatter his intelligence and bring him warmly into the fold of the most audience-friendly writing. (41)
Here we have another Marcus-Franzen intersection: the myth of the general audience. One problem with publishing today seems to be that writers continue to write (or maybe that publishers continue to market) to this "borderline reader" who may or may not exist, rather than to the devoted subculture of the committed, compulsive reader who actually buys a lot of books.

Then he tears into Franzen, who, sure, needs to be exposed for the fame-seeker that he is (Marcus shows pretty clearly the ways Franzen's a writer "deeply antagonistic to writing. One senses him trying to lure his favorite writers away from language, plying them with the promises of other media, where no doubt they could achieve greater fame" [46]), but the weakness of this essay, for me, is the lengths to which Marcus goes to show, point-by-point, all the ways Franzen is wrong. It's weak not because I like Franzen. I agree probably with each one of Marcus's arguments surrounding Franzen's equation of literary achievement and fame. It's weak because all of Marcus's great ideas for what writing can be and do are put on hold for far too long.

Yes, there are wonderful moments. At his meanest (and sharpest) he sees in Franzen the unthinking totalitarianism of Bush II:
Franzen seems to have decided that if someone as smart as he is cannot enjoy [Gaddis’s] books, then all those who say they can must be lying. [. . .] [He] has also decided that his subjective experience must form a basic template for the reality of others. This is an unfortunate trait in a novelist: it is a failure of empathy, an inability to believe in varieties of artistic interest, and a refusal to accomodate beliefs other than his own. I recognize the personality type, and I did not vote for it. (48)
And there's also a nice analogy to the music world, in that Franzen "seems desperately frustrated by writers who don't actively court their audiences, who do not strive for his specific kind of clarity, and who take a little too much pleasure in language," which is "a little bit like Britney Spears complaining that the Silver Jews aren’t more melodic" (50).

It takes a while, but we finally get an explanation of just what's so great about language-driven writing.
While it might indeed be pleasurable to get what we knew we wanted [as we do in traditional realism], it is arguably sublime when a text creates in us desires we did not know we had, and then enlarges those desires without seeming desperate to please us. In fact, it's prose that actually doesn't worry about us, and I don't find that ungracious, because novel writing is not diplomacy. It's a hunger for something unknown, the belief that the world and its doings have yet to be fully explored. (48)
I like this, for the implication it makes that writing for oneself—or, actually, writing toward one's own interests and concerns—isn't masturbatory (or, as Marcus sardonically puts it, "dry-humping whatever glory hole [one] can find" [41]) but rather the age-old aim of the artist.

18 March 2009

Franzen, Jonathan. "Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels". Harper's. April 96. 35-54.

No one likes Jonathan Franzen. Surely, after his Oprah episode and the dreary irrelevant memoirs he published in the New Yorker several years ago he makes such dislike easy. But I like him. I do. I think he's smart and terribly good at running with an idea. I like him the way I like Jim Belushi, or friendly kittens to whom I'm allergic.

Franzen's essay was written six years after DFW's essay on TV and it's concerns are similar though directed less specifically at TV and more toward a mass- and multimedia culture of image. Whereas Wallace's problem was that TV is such a totalitarian force of ever-progenitive self-conscious irony that fiction writers are stuck writing in response/reaction to it, Franzen sees the problem as many others before and after him have: there aren't any interested readers left.

Well, it's not only this, it's also that novelists may have once been able to "tackle" the culture, but not longer. "The novelist," he writes, "has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read: where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture?" (40).

In other words (and here's especially where he and DFW line up), how can a novelist comment on our chimerical mainstream culture without becoming either (1) a product of that same culture or (2) so outdated (DFW uses the term "outmoded") as for your comment to be irrelevant?

Franzen's eventual answer is to direct those energies elsewhere, and engage a subculture of born readers rather than the supraculture of American Society. This seems at first to be almost petty (or pitiful) in its lack of ambition. It's not going to stop, so just give up. But once this problem is stated Franzen then goes to show a few key things that help us see where he's getting to.

One, the social novel is an obsolete relic. (Is that redundant? Probably, sorry.) Here's where he diverges from Tom Wolfe, in that even if all U.S. writers were to suddenly heed every word Wolfe wrote in Harper's in 1989 and start hoofing it to the streets to do some hardcore Breslinian reportage, the novels they'd produce would all be inferior records of contemporary U.S. mores than anything seen on TV or in movies or read online. Newer faster media have superceded novels in the job of reporting what the world is like. (Franzen calls Wolfe's essay "the high-water mark of sublime incomprehension, chiefly owing to "his failure to explain why his ideal New Social Novelist should not be writing scripts for Hollywood" [42].)

Two, though writers like to think of a general audience, such an audience is a myth. This is the part of the essay that he quotes Shirley Heath a lot, who's shown that readers—i.e., people who sort of kind of have to read—are formed, not innately created, due to the presence of specific external forces acting upon them in childhood. I won't get into all of it here, but what this means for Franzen is that readers form a community or subculture and that, if one does one's research, this has kind of always been the case.

Three, because the social novel (and the kind of democratic nation of keen, conscious readers it dreams of) is obsolete and because the community of readers comprises such a relatively small but fiercely devoted number of people, the novel cannot seek to inform/expose/enlighten, it can only seek substantivity.

That's a lousy word, but it ties in with how Heath understands serious fiction, that it's "substantive," meaning that it "impinges on the embedded circumstances in people’s lives in such a way that they have to deal with them." And what's cool about this idea of what constitutes literary fiction is how well it mirrors the act of creation of fiction on the writer's end. What else do we do as novelists but impinge circumstances on people's (well, characters') lives? Cutely, Heath argues that building characters (whether as a writer or reader) builds character.

And anyway, Franzen writes, the social novel's successes, whatever they may have been, were chiefly accidental, a function of time and technology, of the novel in the 19th and early 20th centuries having no real competitors. It's not a factor, as Wolfe tries to argue, of something inherent in the form of the novel. "Although the rise of identity-based fiction has coincided with the American novel's retreat from the mainstream," Franzen writes, stating as a plain fact what Wolfe points to as a troubling concern, "Shirley Heath's observations have reinforced my conviction that bringing 'meaningful news' is no longer so much a defining function of the novel as an accidental by-product" (48).

So why write? Or, when writing, write what? I keep quoting, but Franzen's saying it all better than my paraphrases could. "Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society—to help solve our contemporary problems—seems to me a peculiarly American delusion. To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them: isn't this enough? Isn't it a lot?" (49).

What I like about this quotation (and it may be my favorite from the essay; when I just reread it for the fourth or fifth time this morning I underlined it with the kind of recognition I do when singing along to like an R.E.M. song I once spent an early-Nineties evening listening to closely and repeatedly to learn the lyrics of) is how it seems to sit like Switzerland between the Germany of J. Franzen and the France of B. Marcus. If the one thing hunters and animal rights activists can agree on is that extinction is a very, very bad thing, the foremost importance of careful, honest sentences seems to be what Franzen and Marcus can share a beer over. It's the way we can as readers enjoy as I do both Franzen and Marcus, and I'm surprised it's the conclusion we've come to in this essay. I suppose the issue now becomes (between realists and nonrealists) what "authenticity" means in the quote above, and whether taking refuge is an adequate response on the part of the reader.

But what I'm taking away from this is the whole "meaningful news" as "accidental by-product" of the novel. Because lying therein is the possibility that novels can indeed do this. (Franzen's caveat, though, is that "[i]t's all too easy to jump from the knowledge that the novel can have agency to the conviction that it must have agency" [52].) Both The Corrections and Infinite Jest followed these essays about the difficulty of writing novels that mean or say anything, and yet look at how much they say or comment on. And yet these comments are always sublimated to characters. The Corrections is only a novel about a family that's all grown up. And by sticking to this, Franzen somehow found all manner of things to say about psychopharmacology, haute cuisine, post-SSR Baltic states, and Caribbean cruises.

All this out of tending to one's sentences. This, amid the driest spell of my writing life in the past few years, gives me some hope.

17 March 2009

Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997.

I'm going to try to give a brief summary of the argument here and then a discussion on its problems in as brief a time as possible, for a couple reasons. One is that the essay is 60 pages and took two hours of close pencilling to get through. Another is that I have to run to the grocery store and get final ingredients for tonight's traditional Irish dinner. What's not helping? My tedious explanation of all this for you.

This essay has a thesis, and I know this because one of its subsections is titled "I Do Have a Thesis", and that thesis is that television has become (by 1990, when this was written) so masterfully good at embodying and depicting ironic self-consciousness, that there's no way fiction can exist today without taking television into some kind of account. And even more so: TV is so good at what it does, that any attempts on the part of fiction writers to change or alter the U.S. self as it's been formed by TV will be always rendered irrelevant.

The bulk of the essay is filled with DFW's careful delineation of the ways TV has grown increasingly self-aware and increasingly adept at dismissing any critiques of its vapidity by in fact celebrating vapidity not just in itself but in its millions of viewers. I can't go into this in full, so you'll have to just trust it's true. Trust it's true that because of TV, what is now the most authentic mode of human experience is the understanding (and rendering) of oneself as continually watchable. And that (this one's easier and more obvious) TV has coöpted rebellion in all but its most militaristic forms (although maybe a case could be made...), such that one lone viewer viewing alone in his room is shown ways to rebel from the crowd by buying products which, of course, are on TV solely because of their ability to be bought by millions of other lone viewers.

So here's the problem, for fiction writers, in DFW's words:
[H]ow to rebel against TV's aesthetic of rebellion, how to snap readers awake to the fact that our televisual culture has become a cynical, narcissistic, essentially empty phenomenon, when television regularly celebrates just these features in itself and its viewers? (69)
In short: apres TV, whither U.S. fiction?

One direction is what DFW calls "Image Fiction", which "uses the transient received myths of popular culture as a world in which to imagine fictions of 'real,' albeit pop-mediated, characters" (50). In other words, the early stories of DFW's Girl with Curious Hair, particularly "Little Expressionless Animals" (Sajak, Trebek), "My Television Appearance" (Letterman), and "Lyndon" (Baines Johnson). Though he never refers to any of these stories either directly or in-, lots of this essay reads, if you know yer DFW enough, like a kind of apologia for his 80s fiction, and a confused need to figure out where to go next. (In this way it's a lot like Franzen's later Harper's essay, in terms of the moment in a writer's career at which it appears; Infinite Jest is just on the horizon for DFW when he wrote this, and indeed there's a reference to Depend Adult Undergarments early in the essay, and enough going on with notions of television and addiction to render this essay a practical foreword to the novel.)

The problem with Image Fiction, as DFW sees it, is that it comes close to a respectable project of a new form of representation (whereas Realism, he argues, was/is all about connecting the reader to selves and nations and cultures he may never otherwise see—i.e., making the strange familiar—Image Fiction works after the samenessing of TV to recover a texture to our world and make the familiar strange) but inevitably Image Fiction fails because of the ironic, deadpan tone it takes in this strangification. Irony, it's clear, did a great job for the early metafictionists of exposing hypocrisies in the Father-Knows-Best culture of its time, but irony, it's also clear, is "singulary unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks" (67). Image Fiction, then, isn't so much subversive and critical as it is itself hyperinformed by television. It operates cynically but is in fact naïve.

It's Mark Leyner who bears the brunt of DFW's attack on Image Fiction, specifically his novel My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, which he describes in ways that'll seem familiar not only to anyone who's read the novel, but also to anyone who's read any experimental/lyric/nonrealist/hip/online fiction in the past ten years or so:
There’s [in the Leyner] a brashly irreverent rejection of "outmoded" concepts like integrated plot or enduring character. Instead there's a series of dazzingly creative parodic vignettes, designed to appeal to the 45 seconds of near-Zen concentration we call the TV attention span. In the absence of plot, unifying the vignettes are moods—antic anxiety, the overstimulated stasis of too many choices and no chooser’s manual, irreverent brashness toward televisual reality. (80)
This kind of stuff is, for DFW, "the ultimate union of U.S. television and fiction [. . .]—doomed to shallowness by its desire to ridicule a TV-culture whose mockery of itself and all value already absorbs all ridicule."

And so we get (again?) to the problem. This kind of writing isn't at all revolutionary or even new, in that it's just doing what TV's been doing for years and years now. And then so one wants to find another solution, another direction for fiction now that postmodernism and post-postmodernism no longer work, but really any other approach to a more "authentic" form of fiction is going to itself be rendered irrelevant by TV. What do we do, go for integrated plot and enduring character? Sure, at the risk of coming across like a total fucking ninny.

DFW, I think, found another way. An obvious way, once you think about it. He ironized irony. (This is Marshall Boswell's idea.) Looking at the fiction that'll come after this essay, you have, time and again, characters and narrators exposing the hypocrisies of the ironic stance as being far more naïve than those standing so ironically would ever allow themselves to admit. Think of the hideous men in all those interviews: what makes them hideous isn't so much the ways they treat and think about women, their hideousness lies in the quickness with which they're ready to confess to all this. It's the common pose seen everywhere on TV: "Hey, I'm just keeping it real." If we can brandish self-consciousness before others expose its lack in us, all sins, no matter how mortal, can be magically forgiven.

The only unforgivable sin of course is not being in on the joke.

16 March 2009

Jin, Ha. Waiting. New York: Pantheon, 1999.

A love story set in and somewhat formed by China's Cultural Revolution. Lin Kong is a man who married an unattractive woman with old-fashioned bound feet through an arranged marriage, and leaves her (and his daughter) for a military-hospital post in the city. He's there 50 weeks a year and soon falls in love with Manna, a comrade at the hospital. Every year Lin tries to go back home and divorce his wife, but each time she changes her mind at the last minute, or her brother intervenes to plead her case.

The truth of the matter is that Lin is just as complicit in each failed divorce as his wife is. Maybe more so. As the book's title suggests, indecision and uncertainty is the reigning mood here. The writing throughout is crisp and plain, like in a folk tale—which, indeed, is often what it feels like one is reading with this book. The plot is fast-paced and economic, as we have about twenty years to get through in under 350 pages, and so suddenly in Part 2 Lin's cousin comes on the scene hoping to be set up with a potential wife, and Lin asks Manna if she'd rather not wait for him and try to marry this cousin. After she agrees to meet him, the chapter ends: "So Lin planned to introduce the two in June" (109). Next chapter opens with that introduction.

Something about this economy makes the novel's sudden dips into a close, close third-person point of view seem clunky and contrived. At the moment of Lin's greatest indecision, Jin creates this voice he can "speak to" in his head, and the back-and-forth thought dialogue seems to come right out of ENGL 252.

Still and all, it's a smartly told tale. The Cultural Revolution, with its laws and customs, hovers all around the margins of the book, coming to the fore only in certain moments like Lin and Manna's eventual wedding, where the couple wear matching uniforms and bow three times to a portrait of Mao, as though he were present to sanction this marriage—which in a way he was.

13 March 2009

Wolfe, Tom. "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel."” Harper's. Nov 89, 45-56.

Wolfe got a lot of flack, I think, from this article, which he wrote after publishing The Bonfire of the Vanities and while he was working on A Man in Full. It's in one sense a response to the critics of Bonfire who felt the novel was a sprawling messy hybrid of fictionalized reportage—Wolfe doing Wolfe while making characters up. And this article's thesis is, if I can try to sub it up briefly, that since World War II what is both heralded and also simply desired in American literature (well, let's just say the novel in specific) is a smaller kind of novel. It's not so much a novel of ideas as it is an overly performative novel. The novel as game, something geared more and more geared toward the gradually developing intelligentsia and less toward the middle class, where the novel once aimed itself. The "death" of the novel, such as it may be, Wolfe argues, is really just an overly fussy refining of a novel's inherent aims or abilities.

What Wolfe always wanted to write was the novel of New York in what he calls "the American century" (it’s keenly apparent reading this in 2009 that that century is very much over) a la the novels of London and Paris in their nineteenth centuries. That is, he wanted to be the American Balzac or Dickens. And he makes a good case about the value of such writing, in that these writers never really impressed or attracted the intelligentsia of their times, but rather sought popular readerships. Now the idea of seeking a popular readership is sort of just to hold a flag up saying "No thanks I actually don’t want to get good reviews to say nothing of the respect of my peers."

One'll find holes in the argument if one looks closely enough. One thing, for me, is that I'm not quite sure how to sort out the chicken-egg origins of all this. I mean: the novel is, now, without question, terribly irrelevant compared to its pre-television forefather. This is what Franzen's big Harper's essay is all about: why try to write a social novel that describes the world when practically every new medium that's come out in the 20th century does a far faster and more accurate job than the novel can? But Wolfe seems to argue that it's this narrowing of the novel's scope—this distrustful turn away from realism over the last fifty years or so—that has led the novel toward its current irrelevance. Not, as I'd assume to be the case, that the novel's inability to be socially relevant has then led writers to seek out new projects or goals for what the novel can do.

Having read this after Wood's book, I'm now fully on board with the notion that realism isn't just a school of writing but rather the central mechanism that makes narrative work, which is to say, that makes a reader look at words thrown together and see in them something of his own relative experience. Wood says realism isn't a genre but rather the thing that allows all other genres to exist. Here's how Wolfe puts it:
The introduction of realism in literature in the eighteenth century by Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett was like the introduction of electricity into engineering. It was not just another device. The effect on the emotions of an everyday realism such as Richardson's was something that had never been conceived of before. It was realism that created the "absorbing" or "gripping" quality that is peculiar to the novel, the quality that makes the reader feel that he has been pulled not only into the setting of the story but also into the minds and central nervous system of the character. (50)
He follows this with an astoundingly tall claim: "No one was ever moved to tears by reading about the unhappy fates of heroes and heroines in Homer [. . .] or Shakespeare" (50). Really, Tom? No one ever in the hundreds of years since both those guys started writing?

If a move away from realism is the problem, the solution as Wolfe argues, is for more reportage. Novelists need to get out in the world and write about what they see. As a person who came to writing through journalism—and a person who worried for years about what on earth to write when he wrote fiction—the command ment is a sound one. Reportage, Wolfe says, gives a writer "something to say." Without it, all writers have is a facility with words. And I’ve complained enough in this venue about beautiful language with nothing behind it to belabor the point further.

At any rate, I'm rereading Marcus's anti-realist / -Franzen screed next week, as well as Franzen's take on this, and Wallace's "E Unibus Plurum" and probably even Zadie Smith’s recent take on the debate, all in preparation for my scholarly paper for the field list in my comprehensive exams, which is going to take a close look at all these recent writers writing on what's needed in contemporary fiction and figure out okay: what are the problems? What are the demands? What are the novels that have been written in the last 20 years or so that have in some way responded, either directly or in-, to these problems and demands?

Oh and I also have to blog about Ha Jin’s Waiting, which wasn't bad but also not so great, despite winning the 1999 National Book Award.

And upon rereading, one final confession: I yearn (mostly) for realism in the novels I read but am usually bored by its use in short stories. This isn't entirely true, but I think it might have something to do with why George Saunders has not yet written a novel.

12 March 2009

Danticat, Edwidge. The Farming of Bones. New York: Penguin, 1998.

A diasporic novel in line with Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K and McCarthy's The Road. Which is to say, it follows people trying to escape turmoil, in this case Amabelle and other Haitian workers as they try to escape the Dominican Republic during the "Parsley massacre" of 1937—called such due to the shibboleth used by the Dominican soldiers to determine a person's heritage. (They'd hold up a sprig of parsley and ask, "What is this?" and if you answered in the Haitian Creole, you died.)

All this shit I had to Wikipedia, but it's there, in the book. Like, the book is a great historical account of the five days or so that the massacre lasted, and for this I have to give it a lot of credit. It's peculiar that Danticat selects such a narrow scope for his novel; Amabelle's our narrator, and so we see only her immediate world throughout the book, and thus any figures such as the Generalissimo or the Dominican army are shadowy figures relegated to the novel's margins. But then again, such is the experience of massacres/disasters from a victim's viewpoint. Danticat's novel isn't so much about the massacre itself as it is about the massacre's effect on people like Amabelle—people who for a time lived on two sides of a border, forced one day to choose one or the other.

The novel opens with the birth of twins (Amabelle works in the Dominican Republic as a midwife), and a car accident that has killed a Haitian cane worker. It still remains unclear what this accident is doing in the novel. The way it's presented, it seem like what's to come is a novel about two different communities clashing over this event. But once the massacre comes, decreed from on high, there's little time or interest in arguing over justice for the dead man's family. And nothing ever comes of it.

A struggle to get through. Very little going on on the sentence level. POV in straightforward delivery. I wouldn't recommend the book.

09 March 2009

Akeley, Delia. Jungle Portraits. New York: MacMillan, 1930.

Delia Akeley is renowned in her own right—she's the first woman to explore any number of African locales—but for the most part she's famous as the first wife of Carl Akeley, called by some the Father of Modern Taxidermy. This book was published four years after his death, and six years after he left her for a woman almost half his age. I, of course, had to read it for research, and by the end I was mostly skimming.

The hunting narrative, I've decided, is a dull, dull genre. There's a flatness to the hunting story that makes it proceed more like Freytag's line than Freytag's triangle:

Exposition: The hunter decides to venture out to find an animal.
Turning point: The hunter sees the animal.
Rising Action: Here the hunter takes his first shot, and strangely enough it doesn't matter whether he hits or not. Regardless, two things can happen here:
  1. The animal runs off. This begins the chase.
  2. The animal stays put, either hurt or merely stunned, and the hunter creeps closer.
Climax: The hunter hits with a critical shot and the animal goes down.
Denoument: The meat is discarded or eaten. The skin is stuffed, or not.

It's that rising action that's so dull. Because yes, nearly every single hunt is different, but it's merely a procedural difference. Not a dramatic one. Nothing ever changes. Nothing surprises. The animal is pursued and felled. The end.

Delia keeps hunting stories to a minimum here (especially compared to Carl), and instead tries to make her 1930s reader feel the wealth of exotica that Africa has to offer. Or at least had to offer Delia, on her several expensive safari trips she undertook with museum funds.

The book is a post-colonialist's nightmare (or dream, depending on what kind of paper she's hoping to write). Natives' skin is described, nearly always, as "dusky," and much fun is had over how quickly they are prone to laughter and dancing. It's all very weird because Delia is respectful throughout, and seems to admire the men she worked with on safari (particularly her cabin boy, Ali), and yet neither she nor her editor seemed to notice how belittling the tone is almost throughout. "A well-proportioned pygmy," reads one photo caption.

Oh well, earlier times I guess.

I always thought Delia was my favorite of the Akeley wives. Mary Jobe swept in very late in Carl's life, and after he dies her letters to the management of the American Museum of Natural History are just so cloying and gross, begging for an office or even just a desk for her to continue her busywork on keeping Akeley's legacy going. She also worked her ass off to get Delia's name removed from everything she could, as though she were Akeley's first real love.

But then Delia seems to selfish and paltry in this book. The chapter she chooses to end it with, after a lengthy and interesting account of her living for a time with a pygmy tribe, is one that tells of the night she bullied twenty porters into taking her through the jungle at night to find Carl's body, which had been recently trampled by an elephant. They don't want to go because nothing is darker than the African jungle in the middle of the night. She insults all of them and threatens them with her gun, and the lesson, I guess, of the chapter is thank god she found such courage. "The fact that his wounds were care for [by Delia] so promptly prevented infection," she writes, "and without doubt saved his life."

Bully for you, Mickie. (This was her nickname. From Carl's biographer: "Delia, a.k.a. Mickie for her bellicose ways, was forever getting into scrapes.") Your husband was, maybe, a dick for leaving you, but you brought back to New York a monkey you kept in a dress that tore up the furniture and made your lives hell. And yet you could never part with the thing. What was going on in that bellicose head?