Reading some John Updike while traveling and last night read the beautiful In Football Season first story in old collection The Music School. Fans of Updike who haven't read this story in a long while (me) will enjoy coming back to it in part to see here early and almost encapsulated version of material he made continued use of right through stories and memoirs late in his life. This story seemingly simply a memory - always drawing from his ample childhood experiences so remarkable and fruitful for him in that they are not dramatic or traumatic the stuff of memoirs today but just deeply etched and perfectly recollected. In this one we see the by now v familiar U material of teenagers walking home from HS football game and the boys pairing off w girls a sensuous good night kiss on doorstep and the U walking on to house where his father sits w two other men counting the coins collected from ticket booth drinking beer and smoke and he watches slightly aside - after feeling so young and free and manly he now senses he is not yet of his father's world and now recalling this moment from about 15 years later beset by sense of loss and death. Don't we all have these moments and these fears? I like most aspiring writers have tried to capture this feeling and have even written about the ha football game from the view outside of the stadium - such a simple matter yet so elusive - as apt a definition of a great short story as know of or can devise.
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Friday, May 24, 2013
Was skeptical at first about Stephen Millhauser's story in current New Yorker, 13 Wives, expected, feared, some misogynistic male fantasy souped up literary version of Big Love, and first few paragraphs confirmed those trepidations, as narrator explains how he's so content and comfortable living in his great Queen Anne house with his 13 wives - OK, and how do they feel about this convenient, for him, arrangement?- and then he proceeds to describe each of the 13 in sequence - and the first is his total helpmate and spiritual match, if he bumps his shin she gets a bruise, and I thought Oh, spare me, but gradually, amazingly, this story drew me in - it begins to get pretty funny especially by wife # four who's a complete kvetch and continues to complain to him about everything - why don't I have a dehumidifier? - even as they're having sex = and by this point in the story I'm thinking, all right, these are multiple visions of the same wife, just as all of us have multiples visions of one another, especially of those we're closest to, but that would be pretty simplistic and Millhauser is anything but that, as the story moves on to stranger and more mysterious elements - a wife who floats, e.g. - and by the end we begin - just barely begin - to understand that the story is about a grander theme, it has something to do with how our observations and fantasies work to build our complete and complex understanding of other people and how in a sense our life is made up of the stories we construct for ourselves about our interactions with others - the last two "wives" are especially powerful moments in this story, the 12th a wife who is composed of the events that did not happen (as all of us wonder, how would my life have been different if this one event had not happened? and the 13th composed of the thousands of women he has seen for a passing moment and thought about even for a second as someone he could, who knows?, know and love, maybe, in another world or life or in a story.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
I'm probably not reading Parade's End with the attention it deserves, but I have to say I'm having trouble figuring out who's who and what's going on: the two main guys, Tietjens and Macmaster, are or seem to be on some kind of British government inspection or assignment - they work in some division that supplies data and reports to Parliament (I think), and there was some dust-up about a higher authority asking them to fake some data or draw erroneous conclusions - all very murky and poorly delineated. Ford Madox Ford is, I guess, known for writing in an elliptical style: he just throws us in among these characters, with little intro or back story and no authorial omniscience or guidance, and it's very hard to pick up all the clues and inferences, especially for an American reader a century later - I don't know whether Tietjens is meant to be a conservative or a progressive, because the party and the topical references mean nothing to me. All that said - this is not meant to be a mysterious, Pynchon-like narrative - it's a pretty straightforward story of marital discontent, just told in disconcerting manner (like The Good Soldier, if memory serves): because though T and M seem to be on assignment, they're not working very hard and T is mostly thinking about potential reconciliation with estranged wife, as the two exchange a series of cryptic telegrams - the novel is building toward their meet-up, I think. But along the way ... they pause to play a round of golf. There's a foursome with 3 caddies (boys), because T. for unclear reasons refuses to have a caddy (stubborn? cheap? refusal to exploit labor? eccentric?) - and the round gets interrupted by some women on the course protesting about women's voting rights. Well this doesn't go down among the great golf novels - not that there are many; there's a cliched idea that the smaller the ball the better the writing, but I don't see a lot of evidence for that, at least in fiction. Updike used golf very well in the Rabbit novels, esp Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, if I remember correctly, but other than that? There's only one great golf novel I can think of, and it's not too well known: Toby Olsen's Sea View. I wonder if golf for FMF is a central theme in the series of novels that make up Parade's End, or just an interlude.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
I'm still trying to figure out the characters in Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End; obviously it focuses on two guys, fellow employees in the British civil service, Macmaster, from a poor family in Scotland and thus much more of a striver, concerned with the proprieties and the conventions and with advancing his professional prospects, and his friend and currently flat-mat Chris Tietjens (such an unusal name - wondering if FMF id's with him, as his birth name was the German Heufner, which he abandoned for the anglo Ford) - T. is froma wealthy family and behaves like one of the privileged, scorning convention and drinking way too heavily. The two are on some kind of public assignment or inspection, it's not clear to me what they're doing exactly, but work in the civil service does not appear to be particularly demanding. Like FMF's more famous The Good Soldier, Parade's End appears to be a love story manque, as what's really driving these guys is T's difficult relationship with his estranged wife. In a long chapter that reads almost more like a play than a piece of fiction, heavily driven by arch dialogue, the wife tells her family friend, an Irish priest, why she's written to T. and told him she wants to revive the marriage - actually, she doesn't explain her motives at all - she tells the priest that she hates her husband and that she hates their child (not clear if T. is actually the father) - we haven't seen the child even for a second yet. Well this is certainly a very strange and sick woman - so why does she want to get back with T., and, more to the point, why would he accept her back? She will be nothing but trouble, and he knows it - he's a savant, can figure out all sorts of things and has a great store or arcane knowledge, but he obviously can't manage to run his own life - and she will be no help. So though about the first 50 pp or so of the novel, we are in a holding pattern: she's in Germany, having made the offer to reconcile, and he's in England waiting to hear more details from her - he sends her a long half-coherent telegram and she responds with a few cryptic words. They're like magnetic poles pushing each other away. The first "book" of the collection is call "Some Do Not..." - perhaps a reference to breaking the marriage vows? The setting is the 1910s, and war would seem to be on the horizon, but the characters are oblivious - they're lives are consumed with triviality and meanness, and all of this is likely to get blown to hell.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Edwardian fiction now has it's own display section in my town library, thanks to the BBC and PBS, but who's complaining? There are some great novels from the period, some I've read, many I haven't, so let's get started. Inspired also by TV - HBO in this case - I started Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End last night and yes, I know it's not exactly Edwardian (written from I think about 1929-31?) but its setting, mood, tempo, and style make it, let's say, retro-Edwardian. I know FMF primarily from The Good Soldier, a terrific novel, and for being the dedicatee of several (?) Conrad novels. I didn't know till yesterday that Parade's End is actually a quartet - was a little daunted by teh 800+ page Everyman edition, but knowing its a series of novels I may read them over an extended time, as I've done with Powell's Dance to the Music of Time and as I did (going on 2nd round) with Proust. OK, so the first 30 pp or so?: you know you're in a Georgian/Edwardian novel when you don't know where you are - at least if you're an American reader. Typical of the time, FMF just throws us into a railroad carriage with two guys, gives us a pretty good description of the two, Macmaster and some other unusual name, Treitling?, opposites in look and temperament, Macmaster well groomed and a bit uptight and T. kind of frumpy and a memory savant. They're off on some kind of British official inspection - who can keep this stuff straight, esp with all the references to class, schools, clubs, etc. - it's as full of social clues, more, than a Tom Wolfe novel, and these clues certainly fade over time. So forget about that - let's just figure out what's happening. T's wife has left him - this is kind of scandalous, and he declines to make the scandal worse by divorcing - he's been rooming with Macmaster in her absence, and now he's got word that she wants to reconcile, and he must decide: take her back into his life? (There's also a child, so you'd think the decision would be obvious, but still - this is British fiction, so maybe it would be obvious if they shared a dog.) Then we jump over to a German (?) spa, and we see his wife, and begin to get her point of view - that's about as far as I've gotten. Parade's End is surprisingly frank and open about sexuality, for its day - and I was surprised, so far, at how much of it is or will be a love story - I pictured from the title more of a war story. But I should have thought back to The Good Soldier, which is not a war story at all but a novel about passion gone wrong. FMF is sly and deceptive.
Monday, May 20, 2013
Just a short post today on Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, because I liked and admired many things about the novel but it just failed to draw me in - Fountain has a warm sense for character, he has a rare knack for handling an ensemble narrative, he incorporates a ton of research or observations that makes us really feel that we are in the bowels of Cowboys stadium as a big game is about to begin, he has high moral values and good intentions as he's writing an unconventional war novel not about the action of battle not about individual heroism not even about the military way of thinking or the military-industrial complex, subject of much satire and indignation, but about the celebrity culture in the U.S. that sends young men off to fight with no clear purpose and then makes unwitting heroes of them and feels self-righteous and virtuous in expounding on the support for the troops, for the boys in uniform, upholders of freedom and American values - Fountain does a nice job on this using odd typography for the easy virtues and the spouting off, with words dripping down the page almost like a late ee cummings poem. All that said: if I were in a writers' group with Fountain I would say you have to build some tension into your plot; another thing I admire is his devotion to the classical unities of time, place, and action - however, where's the action? There needs to be some tension around Billy: is he thinking of leaving the service? Is he worried about some action he's taken, or not taken? Even the romantic element - he develops an instant crush on one of the cheerleaders - is there anything at stake here? Does she ask him to do something for her that puts him in moral jeopardy, or that makes him doubt the sincerity of her ardor? I could give about a hundred ideas - maybe none of them any good - but I felt that the novel was just flat as the playing field, one minor incident after another with no clear design and nothing to capture my interest other than the topic itself. The book has received wonderful reviews, and I wonder if any other readers shared my reservations, my disappointment.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Reluctantly I have to say that Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is starting to get a little thin as I read into the 2nd half of the novel - maybe it's a case of wrong expectations, but as we proceed with this story it becomes more evident that it's not really a story about the Afghan War or about a company (or squad, more accurately) of soldiers or even about one soldier, the eponymous Billy, but it's about America's celebrity culture, how we, and by we I mean the media in large part, create reluctant or abashed heroes, dazzle them with visions of wealth and fame, woo them and court them and then spit them out or toss them aside and move on. The entire novel, to this point, centers on one football game that the Bravo company, after a Time mag cover for wartime heroics and a nationwide tour, visits as guests of the D. Cowboys - but really to this point in the novel we don't know any of the characters in depth, we know little about their wartime service, what we see is how they interact with the big-shots who fawn over them, grabbing a bit of their patriotic luster by contact or osmosis. You could, I think, substitute any # of groups or individuals for Bravo Company: this could be a novel about perhaps Boston marathon victims or American Idol winners or first responders or any group thrown into the spotlight for a moment and dazzled by the brightness. That's not a bad thing in itself, but I'm really waiting for liftoff here - just not much has happened, and I don't feel, 150 pages in, that I had any more depth of understanding of these men than I did at the end of chapter one. Fountain is laying a foundation for a comparison of football and war as two national sports or past-times - which could be OK though to this point he hasn't really converged the two elements. I don't know, there's a lot to like about this novel, notably how effectively Fountain handles dialogue among many characters and his sense of humor and his inside knowledge about pro football (this will appeal to many readers though I'm not so interested in that topic), but as I have said in many posts novels need to follow some kind of design, usually an arc, and lead characters have to undergo a process or a journey, and this novel so far is too flat. I will read further, for a while.