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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Friday, April 30, 2010

The scariest story you'll ever read - Alice Munro

Alice Munro's story "Child's Play," in "Too Much Happiness," is about as powerful and scary a story as you'll ever read. It's a story about a haunting, in a sense, but in no way a ghost story or a horror story; it's about how one horrifying incident from childhood can haunt a woman (two women, in this case) throughout their lives. This haunting is persistent theme in Munro's recent fiction, but reaches its pinnacle here (Spoiler!): two girls at summer camp intentionally drown a mentally disabled camper and tell nobody. As you read it, part of you says: why should they suffer so much? They were only children. Children make mistakes. And part says: They were monsters! Children know better. How cruel, how criminal! Munro offers no judgment. She describes the childhood memory (it's told in first person) in some detail, but the adult lives - the women are now in their 60s or so - are just sketched in, just enough so that we see how this horrible childhood incident has wounded them (particularly the narrator) and altered the course of their whole lives. We actually never know whether either of the women has ever confessed to the crime (other than through what we're reading). Story recalls a much longer, more gruesome story on similar theme by AS Byatt and the excellent novel Atonement (MacEwan), but what they told at great length Munro accomplishes with quick strokes, almost like a sketch. (This seems a peculiarly Brit-Canadian theme; do U.S authors write about childhood guilt in the same way?) My only quibble with the story: the meandering journey that leads the narrator from her friend's sickbed to the cathedral in Guelph where she may or may not "confess" to the crime - Munro could have ended the story in the hospital, I think. (The next story in the collection, Wood, is a dull afterthought, one of the few in which Munro strains for effect.)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Touble with titles but none with closing line: Alice Munro

Another pair of stories in Alice Munro's "Too Much Happiness" show yet another side of her work. These two, Face and Some People, are written in the first person, which is a bit unusual for her late work (though there are other examples). Face is particularly unusual, however, in that it's first-person male-narrator. Both of these stories center on one traumatic incident from childhood and its lifetime repercussions, and they're notable in that the incident is one of shame, discomfort, and confusion - not a great tragedy or personal catastrophe (rape, robbery, injury, death). In Face, a man disfigured by a birthmark, recalls when a childhood friend literally painted her face to look like him - in an act of solidarity, which all adults misunderstood as an act of cruelty, driving the young man further into isolation. In Some Women, the narrator recalls a summer job as an aide to a young man dying of leukemia and how she helped him perpetrate a scheme to gain some privacy and dignity. In both stories, the narrator looks back on the key incident from late in life and wonders how it may have changed life's course. The style is so deft and so quirky, the phasing so strange and unique, that these stories surpass the limitations of the genre. The narrators - like Munro, no doubt - are sharp and edgy, totally nonsentimental, with no self-pity and no remorse. If Munro has trouble with titles, which never do justice to her stories or her books, she has no trouble with closing lines, which almost always leave you breathless.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The darker and edgier late stories of Alice Munro

"Too Much Happiness" is kind of a joke as a title when you consider the themes that dominate Alice Munro's fiction, particularly her late (past 10 years?) fiction - which seems darker, edgier, more malevolent that her earlier work. Theme one: the child who disappears. She's written about this in a number of stories, notably the lengthy Runaway in an earlier collection and two already in the first 5 stories in this one - Deep-Holes being a perfect example. These stories are about a child who disappears from the family life and willfully makes no attempt to contact his or her parents, ever. Sometimes (Runaway) the child is seemingly happy, healthy, ordinary - it made that story a little difficult for me to accept. Sometimes the child is obviously disturbed, as in Deep-Holes - in this case the kind of tragic personality disorder that seems to have an onset during puberty. A typical Munro runaway is a successful student who suddenly cracks, gives it all up, opts for a different life. The son (Kent) in Deep-Holes vanishes, writes home once, not seen again for 9 years - then the mom discovers him in Toronto, where he is living in dire poverty and near delusion. Reminds me of Roth's American Pastoral - but the differences are telling, in that Munro's parents are strangely cool to the child's disappearance, they make apparently no great effort to track down their lost child, to rescue them. The other Munro trope evident here is the woman confronted with the sudden appearance of violence in her life: the first story in the collection, a woman whose husband kills their three children; the fifth story, about a man drifter who terrorizes a lonely widow. These are not graphic accounts a la Joyce Carol Oates, but more interior and pyschological, from the point of view always of the woman, cool and collected. They somehow remind me of Flannery O'Connor (esp. A Good Man is Hard to Find), but the characters are icy and upright Candadians, not Southern gothics.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Which living writers will be read 100 years from now?

Knockout stories by Alice Munro in her new collection, "Too Much Happiness," and what do you expect? She is a writer so accomplished, so dominant in her field - if you had to bet on which living writers (if any) will be read 100 years from now, wouldn't you put your money on Munro? All the more amazing in that she has such a narrow range of subject and style and has found so much depth, so much material, enough to create a life's work, a world. She almost exclusively writes stories (there is a novel in her life somewhere but nobody's read it), and they're all of a somewhat meandering style - I think she once aptly described it as entering a house and wandering through the rooms. They're not tight and symmetrical - the end is never easily forecast from the beginning, sometimes the focus of the story will even shift so the seeming protoagonist fades to the background. All of her stories set in either small-town Ontario (with occasional sidetrips to Toronto), often set some 40 years ago or in the presence but referencing back, or else in Vancouver/Vancouver Island - these being apparently the twin poles of Munro's life, one uptight and provincial and the other more relaxed, multicultural, west-coast hip (to a degree - this is Canada). Characters often young women trying to make sense of their lives - first love, first sex, first time in the city. Terrible things often happen, especially in the small farm towns. The first 3 stories in Too Much Happiness are great, and typical of Munro's late style - each an exemplar of one of the themes I noted above: one about a hotel maid whose husband is in a hospital for the criminally insane in small Ontario city, the next about a woman in Vancouver who comes across a story wirtten by child ex-husband's 2nd wife (this one very sly and funny, as the main character frets about whether the story is true to the facts of her life, something Munro must hear about all the time - a writer's view of how others see wriers), the 3rd about a young woman in Toronto introduced to a very odd subculture. These summaries do not do justice to the stories. Does Munro have a flaw? Yes - her titles, esp her book titles, are terrible.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The easy life of The New Yorker fiction editor

Though I whacked around the Atlantic in yesterday's post, I have to say this for the magazine, at least for its fiction issue: they are willing to showcase young (or career-beginning) writers, unlike, say The New Yorker, which now rarely if ever publishes anyone but the well established. (How hard could it be to be The New Yorker fiction editor? Your submission pile consists of the best fiction by the best writers in the world and the best novels, from which you can excerpt anything your heart desires?) Yesterday I mentioned one story from an unknown (to me) writer that I liked (A Simple Case), and another today: Hopefulness, by Ryan Mecklenberg, about a strange, troubled man who of all things runs the neighborhood watch in what seems to be a decent working-class neighborhood in some Midwestern suburb, and he takes his job way too seriously. Story swirls with disturbing undercurrents, broken marriages, a scary neighborhood kid in prison, an abandoned home gradually being looted and stripped. The narrator seems unaware that others see him as a maniac, obsessed with the rules and order - but he also seems unaware that they care for him in some sweet way, they see his distress and they want to ease his pain. The story has the dark humor of George Saunders, but there's a richness as well, a sense of community - reminds me a little of Virgin Suicides and That Night, but darker, too - a very promising writer. Another story - about conjoined twins (Spinal Hinge) is well written, but can't we put this topic to rest? There's an endless fascination with conjoined twins (and with literary doubles, I'm guilty of that fascination), but haven't there been at least two novels on this topic already? Isn't it really a form of sensationalism?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why writers are pissed off at The Atlantic

Am I wrong, or are most writers generally pissed off at The Atlantic, which always makes a big deal about their 200-year history as a literary magazine - they published Hawthorne, they published God - but has more or less turned its back on fiction for the past ten years or more? For a while, they took one story per issue (per month), usually not a great one, yet they had a fulltime fiction editor for some reason, whose job was to send out somewhat condescending rejection notes to the many supplicants (though my pal Ted Delaney did break through with two great stories, so go figure). Then they stopped publishing fiction altogether, except for special issues. Pretty much stopped reviewing fiction, too. Anyway, somehow one of those special fiction issues (supplements, actually) arrived here, and I've been reading it. I love the story "A Simple Case," by E.C. Osondu (turns out he teaches at PC, but I don't know him) - about a African (Nigerian, I think) man arrested in a raid on a brothel, where he's waiting for his girlfriend to finish her night's work. He's held at the station, then accused of a serious crime (a cop has to make an arrest to placate his superiors) and sent to a terrifying prison. It's Kafkaesque, but scarier because so real, and told so simply, like a great fable (somehow reminded me of the imprisoned escaped slaves in Amistad, as one explains the Christian faith to the others) - and has a simple, haunting ending of despair. That said, with the resources and prestige of the Atlantic and the vast number of great writers out there looking for venue, why isn't the whole issue of knockout caliber? The first story, by Jerome Charyn (Lorelei) gets off to a good start bet descends into bathos.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Trying not to be cranky, but...

Trying not to be cranky about "Lark & Termite," which has many strengths and has been incredibly well-reviewed, but honestly when a writer introduces supernatural elements 3/4 of the way through her novel, don't you sense someone fishing for a way out of a jam? Not that I was surprised - as noted in an earlier post, I could guess that the character Stample was real only to Lark (and to Termite?). What are we to make of a novel, one of whose strengths is its attention to the ordinary lives of working class Americans in a small city, when it becomes unmoored from reality? Not just the ghost, but the behavior of the characters: A flood is roaring through the city, sweeping up everything, rising toward the roofbeams, rats floating around, and the main character sits blithely in her attic rummaging through boxes of her late mother's possessions? Isn't she afraid? Wouldn't she do something? (The idea of the discovering boxes that contain the past history of an absent character is a rather creaky and improbably plot device unless handled deftly, as in the TV series Mad Men.) As noted previously, this is a very "cool" novel, but the torpor of the main characters strains credulity. BTW: anyone wanna take bets on whether Lark's mother is really dead? Not that there's not, at last, some action going - cross-town, where Lark's aunt/guardian, Nonie, finally has enough of the termagant Gladdie's harangues and, in a struggle, Gladdie falls down the cellar stairs and, perhaps, dies - and Nonie leaves her there. We'll see how that plays out. It's very difficult to manage a novel with alternating character point of view unless every alternation adds something to our knowledge, but too often in Lark & Termite we go over familiar material multiple times: a very writerly device, but not one that draws in readers, or at least it doesn't draw in me.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A readable book or a teachable book? Lark & Termite

I've had a few words to say about the lackluster pace of "Lark & Termite," but haven't said much about the structure of the book - and it is very carefully, even artfully structured. Jayne Anne Phillips builds the story through multiple strands of narrrative in two parallel paths of time, each on the same span of calendar days (3 days in late July), on path in Korea 1950, the other in West Va. 1959. What ties them together: in both a male (father in Korea, son in WVa) is disabled, cannot walk/ambulate on his own, cared for by a sensitive woman/girl and protected from the hostility of surroundings. Both involve retreats to tunnels. Both involve seeking safety in a confined space (this doesn't become obvious till near the end of Lark & Termite, as the two title characters retreat to the attic as the flood fills the house - a very well written section, obviously inspired by Katrina stories and images). There are other family interstices, kind of hard to follow at times, as we learn who Lark's father is, the complicated relations between her mother (Lola) and aunt/guardian (Nona - what's with these names?). Many strands for a reader to unravel, and it's not laid out in any simple way - it's a "cool" book that you have to work toward understanding. Oddly, though there are dramatic scenes - the massacre in the tunnel in Korea, the flood filling the whole town in WVa - it is definitely not a dramatic book. The element of tension that loomed early - does the state want to remove Termite from his home? - dissipates, as the state agent is a mysterious and helpful figure, possibly even a ghost or mirage? The book does flirt with magic realism. The mystery still unresolved is what happened to the mother of the two title characters (Lola). We do suspect that she's alive - somewhere. All these strands and echoes and parallels - do they make the book more readable? Or just more "teachable"?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Strengths & Weaknesses of Lark & Termite

Ultimately, you have to accept "Lark & Termite" for what it is and for what it is not (true of any book?). The writing throughout remains very strong, unusual, definitely the strength of the novel, particularly the chapters about the disabled young man, Termite. There have not been a whole lot of attempts in fiction to get right into the mind of a disabled young person - Faulkner did it well, the more recent Curious Case of the Dog... was OK. Jayne Anne Phillips has a very fine sympathy for her title character and is able to get quite effectively at the way he might see the world. It's particularly interesting to see her sense of how he uses language: to other character, it appears that he awkwardly repeats random phrases, but Termite thinks he is trying to help the others complete their thoughts. I'm a little disturbed to see a supernaturalist strand enter the narrative, as Termite for some reason seems able to picture the death (in Korea) of the father he never met. This seems unnecessary in a novel whose stength is its portrayal of ordinary people in their daily tribulations. Lark, the older sister who cares for Termite, is a very sympathetic character as well, and though her chapters are also beautifully crafted they in no way seem like the voice of a teenage girl, unless she's a prodigy (which Lark is not). As noted in earlier posts, this is not a novel built on plot, very little happens in the foreground, though we do get a lot of the back story of the older characters - early sibling rivalries, running away from home, multiple marriages, the Korean War. A fair amount of incident, I guess, but I'm waiting for some kind of tension, crisis, issue among the main characters and, except for the vague threat that the state might want to place Termite in a home, nothing much going on that I can see. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have a pretty broad range of literary taste, but I don't care for overly crafted, delicate novels of sensibility, and this, for all its strengths, is slipping into that status.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Less than the sum of its parts? (Lark & Termite)

No question that Jayne Anne Phillips is a very good writer, but there is another question: Is she a good novelist? I know that readers & critics have raved about "Lark and Termite," and it's easy to see why, page by page, scene by scene. I'm now well into the 2nd section, about a third of the way through the book, and it feels like a book entirely built around a premise. She has established these rather unusual characters, a good starting point for a novel - working-class family in a West Va. coal town ca 1959, devoted sister taking care of her severely disabled younger brother. But to this point, honestly, nothing has happened (at least in the foreground story; we also have a back story about the disabled boy's father, dying in a friendly-fire massacre in Korea ca 1950). I'm tempted to say that you can't really have a whole novel about a day in the life of one family told from multiple (or in this case alternating among 3 characters) POV, but of course you can - if you're James Joyce, if you're Faulkner, if you build a great deal of incident and variety and life into the texture of the novel. Lark and Termite, for all its strengths, feels suffocated. Another issue, at least for me, is that Phillips has no desire to or no capacity for entering finding the appropriate voice for her characters. I have no problem with first-person (or close third-person) narrations that imbue characters with a rich interior life a copious store of observations - see, Rabbit Angstrom - but especially in a first-person narration it helps to have the voice sound like the voice of a character (see, Faulkner). Phillips's Lark, a secretarial student of some intelligence but no worldliness, sounds like no one other than the author herself, with her writerly vocabulary rich with shards, orbs, and the like. I'll see where this goes, but it seems, so far, to be a novel that amounts to less than the sum of its parts.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Note to J.A. Phillps: Readers like plot!

I posted yesterday that Jayne Anne Phillips's "Lark & Termite" is a promising read, and the promise still holds, as I've finished the first section (about 1/4th of the book) - but that's a pretty long time to hold out on just a promise. Is this novel good? Yes, of course, by most measures: it's smart and beautifully written, passage by passage, page by page. It demands close attention, but you do feel you're in sure hands, that the author knows her characters and her little slice of the world. The premise, a struggling working class family ca. 1959, single mom, one daughter in secretarial school, a son severely disabled, with all the misunderstandings and lack of support of that era (still today to some degree). The debt to Faulkner is huge - but Phillips, I have to say, is no Faulkner. Faulkner is deservedly immortal for finding, or creating, an entire world in hi as he famously called it, postage stamp of native soil. Phillips hasn't (yet) created a world - just a premise, a set of conditions. I'm holding out hope, but the hope is fading: something has to happen in this novel, it can't be, or at least I hope it won't be, a portrait of a group of people in time. As someone in my writers' group bluntly put it when one renegade member said she didn't like to write stories with plot: Readers like plot. (Back story is OK, and there's plenty of it here, but there's a reason it's called back story.) I looked at the back of the volume and saw, unsurprisingly, that many sections of Lark & Termite have been anthologized or in lit magazines. Each section is gorgeous, but this book has the danger of becoming much less than the sum of its parts.

Monday, April 19, 2010

You have to work your way toward this novel : Lark & Termite

Started reading the promising, challenging "Lark & Termite," by Jayne Anne Phillips last night. It appears that it will alternate POV by chapter, perhaps shifting among 4 main characters (if the list of chapter titles at the opening is a true harbinger). First chapter is from the POV of a guy named Leavitt, young soldier in the Korean War - I wonder what drew Phillips to write about Korea? I know she's about my age, and that war seems very remote from our experience - I'm pretty sure some of her successful early work was about Vietnam vets. Anyway, Leavitt, a tough Jewish guy from Philly who has done everything he can to pull up his roots, was playing in a jazz band in, I think, Louisville, falls for the jazz singer, marries her, leaves for Korea, she's home pregnant about to deliver. Leavitt thought he'd have an easy hitch in Korea, it was 1950 before the way, learning the language on a GI program, playing some jazz, but as the war starts he's drawn into combat, eventually to leadership as so many die in skirmishes. So the chapter is full of tension and anguish, he cannot get in touch with his wife, from the field, he doubts he'll get home alive. Stylistically, the debt to Faulkner is enormous - in particular Sound & the Fury - it's like stream of consciousness but from the third person, with a pastiche of time elements and memories, so that the narrative picture only gradually comes into focus and your way remains somewhat opaque through the whole chapter. This is a novel you have to work toward, you have to bring something to it, as Phillips doesn't hand you all the narrative elements and lay it out for you easy.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Writer gets chance for second life: Exiles

Though this blog is not meant to be self-promotional, it happens that most of the reading I did yesterday was of "Exiles." The good news: Soho is bringing out a pb edition in September! That's great, because it's a chance for a second life for a book that really never found its readership, or at least I think that. A pb edition also gives the writer a rare chance at a 2nd life: I can, within some limits I guess, make changes to the published edition. So that's what I've been doing, going through the published version (and the last word version I sent to Soho) and marking a few changes. To be honest, Exiles has been subject to some harsh criticism on the blogosphere and elsewhere. I wish that didn't both me, though it does. I still believe in the book and have some faith in it and will not make wholesale changes to appease those who hated it or didn't get it. So be it. I have stopped reading reviews and commentary because I am too sensitive to criticism - that's a fault, I know, because you can certainly learn something from all criticism - but I'm under no obligation to suffer, either. As my friend Andy noted, if you accept the positive reviews you have to accept the bad ones, too. So I'm "accepting" neither - a fake indifference, I admit, but at least it preserves a bit of my sanity. So, what changes? For those interested, here's what I've learned:

deserters v resisters. The terms, as the character in the book discuss, are not interchangeable, deserters (leaving the military) being a subset of resisters (actively opposing the war). In some context, deserters are of higher stature - taking on much greater risk. But the term is also a bit derogatory. I think I overused it in the published edition, and have sometimes changed "deserters" to resisters or Americans when, on latest look, I thought it was more true to the characters and context.

lay/laid/lain: why do we have this in the English language? Even after copy editing and multiple reads, the usually annoying word grammar check found two misuses of lay/laid, which I corrected. (I should have used grammar check earlier - virtually never find it useful and have it turned off - but I gave it a runthrough mainly looking for typos, and it found none.)

The temple: One intelligent but unsympathetic reader took issue with a reference to a Shinto temple on a hippie farm in Ohio. He said Shinto never took root in America, it's strictly Japanese. Maybe so. I have a memory of a group of proselytes in NYC in the '60s trying to draw American students into a Shinto group (handing out cards on streetcorners, etc. - I even went to a service in someone's apartment). I wouldn't stake my life on it, though - could have been Zen or some other form of Buddhism. You know what? It doesn't matter to me in the least, it's totally irrelevant to the novel, so I changed Shinto to Buddhism. (Same reader thought it laughable that there was reference to being afraid of a charge of treason - he said that would have been impossible in that we never declared war, etc. - which may be true, but exiles in Sweden definitely talked about this possibility with fear. Nobody knew what the future would be or what consequences any resister could face.)

My friend Bill hated the reference to a drain in the floor (of a prison cell) "like an open wound." He correctly pointed out that a would is the opposite of a drain, it oozes in fact, and I agreed and changed that simile to something equally disturbing, maybe more so (reference to matted hair and toiletpaper).

A friendly reader correctly pointed out that there is no such thing as a "golden Lab," so I changed the reference to the correct yellow Lab. I have since seen this same error in at least one other novel.

I think that's it. Still open to more observations, if anyone's got 'em.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The writer who died way too young

The story of Roberto Bolano is sad, instructive, frustrating, heartbreaking, enraging - choose your adjective, all can apply. The poor guy could hardly earn a nickle while he was alive, apparently moving around from Latin America to Spain, perhaps some time in the U.S., doing a lot of writing, a little bit of publishing (nothing translated into English, or alomst nothing), dying way too young (about 50) of cancer, leaving behind lots of manuscripts, then, bang!, The New Yorker "discovers" him, publishes a story or two, and then nobody can get enough of Bolano, book after book comes out, each one raved about by reviewers, receiving awards, published in beautiful editions, complete success, way too late (for him). How about for us? I think I've posted on Bolano before, and I continue to read his work as it becomes available, am always amazed by his sensibilities, his ability to set a scene and evoke a world, a world so different from mine in most ways (Latin, footloose, kind of crazy) yet similar in others (literary passions, youthful ambition). His best stories, such as the oft-anthologized one about his trip to the coast with his father, stand up to any other fiction. Others start very well, create a mood or establish an offbeat, eccentric, lonely character but don't develop much beyond the premise. The story in this week's New Yorker, The Prefiguration of Lalo [?], is more of the latter - though maybe it's part of a longer work to come? Lalo tells his life story, or more accurately the story of his mother, a Colombian porn star, and some really intriguing minor characters appear, but to some degree the story is an opportunity for Bolano to do one of his "lists," a series of one-paragraph descriptions of various porn scripts (whole sections of his novel 2666 are devoted to lists on unseemly topics), whereas at other moments it's tender and provocative. I have to think that we may be doing some bottom-fishing here among the last remaining untranslated Bolano manuscripts, but who knows?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Who's on the Mount Rushmore of American horror fiction?

Knowing I wouldn't finish because it's due at the library today, I jumped ahead in "American Fantastic Tales" and read some H.P. Lovecraft's great "The Thing on the Doorstep" (after skimming through a tedious story about a minister who mesmerizes members of his audience, leading them to commit suicide, ugh). It's obvious that Poe and Lovecraft form the two bookends of this volume, the two faces on the Mount Rushmore of American horror fiction in its first phase. Lovecraft is by no means the best writer in this volume. His best stories and novels obviously cannot touch The Ambassadors, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Age of Innocence, The Great Gatsby - to name some of the greatest accomplishments of the other American writers who tried their hand and horror/fantasy/scifi. But Lovecraft, to his credit, devoted himself to this one genre, he developed a vision of the world that is uniquely and distinctly his own - which really what we ask of any great writer. Just reading a few pages of Thing on the Doorstep will tell you right away that he's not writing about a single strange event or a curious "tale," but that he has envisioned a world of such overwhelming strangeness and disturbance that it threatens the boundaries of sanity - his and ours. And I'm not talking about life on some other planet, life among aliens, or any of the farther reaches of science fiction. No, Lovecraft's world is ours, the people are real - but sad, loners, misfits, suffering from fear, and in touch with strange and dark forces that may, who knows?, exist all around us but of which we are totally unaware. He can take a setting or a place that most would consider ordinary and benign - he writes often about his native city, and my current home (workplace), Providence - and make it seem so strange and gothic that I don't recognize it, but when I walk the streets and think of him I cannot help but shudder. I'm not a huge devotee of the horror genre, but there's no doubt that Lovecraft is among the greats.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Benjamin Button: Why the story is better than the movie

Kind of amazing how much they had to change "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" to make a movie from the slight but haunting Fitzgerald story. The movie focused on lifelong, mutable love affair between Button (Brad Pitt) and, who?, Jennifer Connelly I think. The movie is about the pathos of his falling in love with her when he is young but in an old man's body, how the arcs of their lives come together, like ships passing or heavenly bodies in eclipse, and pass each other - a few years when their physical and actual ages make them a good and happy match, and then Button gets increasingly young with years till at last his wife is old and basically nurturing him as if he were a baby, which in a sense he is. The story has absolutely none of this pathos and romance. It's much more male-centered, even chauvinistic, the romantic aspects told entirely from Button's self-centered POV. He falls for the Baltimore heiress when he is very young but appearing to be mid-50s, and she says she loves an older man - but as he ages he is embarrassed to be seen with an older woman, and he jilts or ignores her. The story also has nothing of the strange sense of embarking on a journey of self-discovery late in life (Pitt take off on a motorcycle), other than a more juvenile desire to attend Harvard and play football for vengeance against old nemesis Yale - story seems very dated there. Still, the story is so much more spare than the cumbersome, overlong film and so much more matter-of-fact in its narration that the effect is more profound. Button's gradual loss of memory, consciousness, and context as he nears the end/beginning of his life is very mysterious and brings forth the point that the movie never realized: the end of life and the beginning of life are in some mysterious way identical. One of the best stories in "American Fantastic Tales."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Fitzgerald rarity - or it was, until they made the movie

Coming across "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," by F. Scott Fitzgerald, in "American Fantastic Tales" is like opening a window and getting a proverbial breath of fresh air. And why is that? For some reason, virtually every story in the anthology, in the genre of horror/fantasy, up through about 1920, is written in an overwrought, fustian prose, prose furnished like a Victorian parlor, and here comes Fitzgerald and the writing is clean and crisp and modern - Shaker-style, by comparison. It's partly his excellence as a writer (though some of the others in this anthology are excellent in their own right, but their prose seems to look backward, whereas Fitzgerald's looks forward); it's also, to be fair, that the subject matter of Button is quite different from most of the others stories in the anthology: it is certainly "fantastic" - story of a baby born as an old man whose life unfolds in reverse, as he gets younger through the years - but it doesn't have the sense of the grotesque, the loneliness, the gloom, the ghastly that all of the others have. It's almost comic in tone; it's a fantasy of the "what-if" variety, establishing a premise and then letting it play out. Should there be more such stories included? Well, I don't think there are many such stories (though this one has spurred some imitators recently - at least one recent novel ripped off the entire theme). Button had been a pretty obscure Fitzgerald story, but it's now better known because of the movie. I was amazed how much the movie embellished on this rather skeletal plot - not for the better.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Who's that howling? : Why some ghost stories are bad

Who knew Nathanael Hawthorne had a son who made a career as a writer? Julian - and his bio in the Straub's notes to Library of America "American Fantastic Tales" is one of the most interesting entries in the book. I'm sure there've been dissertations on Julian Hawthorne, the anxiety of influence, etc. (The Hawthornes are one of two father-son duos in this 2-volume set; guess the other.) All that said, Julian Hawthorne appears to be a shadow of the old man; you could say about his story (Absolute Evil): You're no Young Goodman Brown. The little twist here is a group goes to visit not a haunted house but a haunted island (shades of Lost?), but the problem is it's one of those stories where, first, we know way more than the characters so who cares?, there's no dramatic tension, we know which character is "possessed" and causing the midnight howlings, etc., even if the narrator, stupidly, doesn't. Second, the weaker ghost/haunting/possession stories simply posit the existence of the ghost, or in this case a werewolf, without any sense of where, how, or why this character? The narrator, a very independent Boston "spinster," as she calls herself, has suspicions about a minister who's "courting" her - she sees a glint of something evil in his eye. She goes off to a remote island for a vacation, and there are strange howling noises, then a wolf appears, then the wolf snatches a child - she gives chase, shoots the wolf, wolf escapes, later she meets the minister back in Boston and he's dying of a gunshot wound. Okay, in the story these things all happen, in a story anything can happen, but do they make sense, do they compel us, do they leave us with a sense of awe or wonder? The best ghost stories leave even the skeptics peeking over their shoulders at night, thinking, yes, maybe I'm missing something, maybe there's more to life (and death).

Monday, April 12, 2010

All fiction is historical and all history is fictive

Though "Wolf Hall" has won the Booker and the NBCC Award it got to awards from our book group; John, who recommended the book, retains his enthusiasm and actually read through it a 2nd time and enjoyed it just as fervently, but he was flying solo this time. At least three of us (including me) reported literally plodding our way through scene after scene, dutifully completing the chore of reading the novel. Not sure that anyone of the other 6 even finished Wolf Hall. We did discuss for quite some time what the book tells us about Henry VIII and rise of Britain as a world power, politically and culturally, about Cromwell's personality, about the class relations, about the strange obsessions with the particulars of religious belief, about the differences in portrayal of Cromwell and More in Wolf Hall and A Man for All Seasons, and about why Wolf Hall is unaccessible to American readers. I was particularly interested in Joan's difficulty with reading historical fiction; I agree, in that we don't know quite what the boundaries are: we tend to read it as historical biography, to "learn" about (in this case) Cromwell, but we are uncertain how many liberties the writer takes (Hilary Mantel offers no guidance on this). But can we accept it, enjoy it, as fiction only? In this case, I would say no - if these were made-up characters in a fantasy kingdom, no one would read this novel. I talked about the difficult of categorizing, and that you have to see all narrative writing as part of a single spectrum, with historical documents on one extreme and personal narrative/memoir on the other, with gradations in between: in a sense, all novels are historical to some degree (they're set somewhere and tell something about a culture, time, and place) and all histories are "fiction" in that the take disparate incidents and pull them together into some kind of narrative shape.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Narrative boundaries: Can ghosts be real (in fiction)?

First of all - as if to prove my point that I confuse Edith Wharton and Willa Cather - I managed to do just that in yesterday's post. Wharton wrote the story "Afterward," which is about a couple that rents a Tudor mansion in Dorset and the husband is haunted by a man he'd ruined in business. I should have known this, as the story is the far more Jamesian of the two (Wharton and James were close). Cather wrote "Consequences," about a man who is pursued by a ghost and hounded into suicide. Story set in NYC among clubbish professional men seems atypical of Cather, and not a great story. The next story in the Library of America "American Fantastic Tales," by Ellen Glasgow, called The Distant (?) Third, is a good contrast with the preceding set of "cool" ghost stories (the ghost vision validated by someone perfectly sane). In this one, only the "good" people can see the ghost - image of a young girl who has apparently died. This is a pretty sophisticated story, playing along the edges of pscyhological thriller and fantasy/horror and exploring the boundaries of narration: how are we to determine which vision is "real"? Does the ghost exist? Or are those who see it delusional? Story is: a woman's husband, a prominent doctor (Dr. Maradick), hires the narrratror to be the night nurse for his wife, who, he believes, is mentally ill. He (and others) claim her daughter has died; she (and the narrator!) see the young girl from time to time. Eventually, the woman sent away to an asylum, where she dies - but the narrator continues to see the ghost of the girl, and she speaks up to the powerful doctor - which apparently ruins her future as a nurse. Once again, the influence of Turn of the Screw is strong - bringing children into ghost stories is a great device that has become a staple of a lot of films. (Note: Am also posting today on the film of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" on my other blog,

Saturday, April 10, 2010

"Cool" v "Hot" ghost stories

Three stories grouped together in LofA "American Fantastic Tales": James's The Jolly Corner, Edith Wharton's (title?), and Willa Cather's "Afterwards" (am I the only one who confuses Wharton and Cather?). They make a good set - they are "cool" ghost stories - and they show how American ghost stories begin to emerge in the early 20th century and how they differ from the earlier type. James's is about a man haunted by a ghost (an image of himself?) in his childhood home; Wharton's about a rouee who is pursued by a ghost of a man he had wronged; Wharton's, similarly, is about a man haunted by a ghost of a man he had wronged in business. A hugely important element in each story is the verification of the ghost - in each case another sane or objective observer sees the ghost. So we've moved away from the idea that the haunted are the insane, the disturbed: "hot" ghost stories. Also, we've moved away from the idea tht ghosts are strange, supernatural, or odious. Each of the ghosts in these stories could (and does) walk the street and appear normal. Only the haunted knows the ghost as a specter. The James story actually has a happy ending (couple embraces), but the Wharton and Cather stories do not: the ghost exacts revenge and the young man kills himself (Wharton) and the businessman vanishes (Cather). These are stories of revenge - the ghost becomes an agent. Despite their settings - esp the Cather story, set in a British Tudor manse - they don't feel especially ghostly or fantastic. The existence of a ghost is accepted as a premise that makes the story possible. But these stories come out of the age of industry and prosperity - the American century - and you can see that they were written for a specific market, the literary magazines so popular 100 years ago and gone today, replaced, as a source of income for writers, by university teaching posts.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Henry James as playwright? Get me rewrite!

I have to laugh when read - as in the bio notes from Peter Straub in the Library of America "American Fantastic Tales" - that Henry James tried to write for the theater and was crushed by his failure. That's like my saying I tried for years to become a matador and was crushed by my failure (the bull might have been more direct in his disapproval than the critics). Is there a writer in the history of literature less suited to the theater than Henry James? Anyone - among serious, intelligent writers - less skilled at getting a story moving and at building dramatic conflict (other than interior, psychological conflict)? Anyone who writes worse, or at least less credible dialogue? Just imagine any - ANY - of the dialogue on The Jolly Corner, the "ghost" story included in American Fantastic Tales, and you, too, will laugh. The story itself is okay, hardly one of James's masterpieces, but unlike many others of the genre there's some psychological depth to it. James's hero (Sidon? don't remember his name) sees a ghostly figure, haunting his childhood home (now vacant), and imagines it as another version of himself, what he might have become had he never left home. His lady friend - unlike in most James stories they actually do fall in love at the end of the story, which ends in an embrace - at least that's theatrical! - sees the same vision, and instead of its pushing her away from him, it draws her to him. She loves both versions of the man. This is a very good theme and maybe only James could have come up with it, but his strange, tortured writing style ca 1908 makes the story almost impenetrable. In other hands, maybe it could be...a movie. Hey - get me rewrite! Next story in the anthology, Golden Baby, by Alice Brown, is a sort of Conrad knockoff, but strangely haunting, not bad at all.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Whatever happened to Henry James?

Is there anyone, anywhere in the world, outside of an English graduate program or faculty, that has any desire to read the late works of Henry James? James is a writer who makes the most out of a little, the shrewdest and sharpest observer of the nuances of expression and behavior and the subtlest expressions of emotion. His early and middle works are extremely limited in scope - always about the same people, well-to-do Americans and high-born but not quite as well to do Europeans, generally with nothing to do in life but ponder their own self-importance, characters of amazing privilege who are unaware of their good fortune and who do little or nothing to help others in the world - they think they're worldly but the actually provincials. Of course James does not write about these people with irony or detachment: he's one of them, with the single exception that he writes, and that's a huge exception. Then what happens? In his late works, his style becomes so amazingly, distressingly self-conscious, the sentences meander for ever, full of more clauses and parenthetical qualifications, often putting "words" in "quotes" to "set them off" for no "apparent" reason. Ugh. Unreadable! As his brother William put it, Henry tends to chew more than he can bite off. I once read the change in style had to do with his writing by typewriter (thank god he didn't have a laptop). "The Jolly Corner" is the James selection in American Fantastic Tales; an odd choice, in that The Turn of the Screw is a more famous ghost story, and the best - but not set in America and maybe too long? The first half of The Jolly Corner could be summarized in one phrase - man spends time in vacant house in which he grew up listening for ghosts - but of course so could Proust, and that would miss everything. The question is: was there anything worth not missing? More in next post.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Why we don't write about work - or do we?

Started Brian Loory's story "TV" in The New Yorker, didn't finish - I know, it's a very short story, but I got home really late and the Red Sox were playing the Yankees... Anyway, story is about a guy who stays home from work and turns on the TV and watches a guy sitting at his desk in an office and gradually realizes he is watching himself at work. Over time, he continues to watch the show, but his "self" moves around the channels onto several other shows: watches himself perform heart surgery on a medical show (then has sex with the prettiest nurse - best sex he'd had in years, the unnamed protagonist notes), break up a drug ring on a cop show, etc. In some ways this is a sharp commentary on how we watch media, how we live vicariously through it. In other ways, it's about the thin membrane that separates so-called reality TV from dramatic television. It's also about the alienation of office life - a subject that has been treated comically both on TV (The Office) and film (Office Space), though less so in fiction. I saw an essay recently, somewhere, wondering why it is that most people spend most of their lives at work but there is relatively little fiction about work (maybe because most writers don't spend most of their lives at work, in a conventional sense?). There are some exceptions, though, from Heller and Yates to more recent books like I think it's called Then We Came to the End, The Bug (about Silicon Valley work) - and that doesn't count the many newspaper novels (typical work for many writers such as this one). So I think it's a false premise, there are a lot of novels about work, but not so many about office work other than novels of comic high anxiety.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Here's another twist on the ghost story: the benevolent spirit, as evidenced in the somewhat slight but innovative "The Shell of Sense" (?)in the Library of America "American Fantastic Tales." This story narrated from the POV of the ghost of spirit; it begins in the bedroom, the spirit (a woman) looking on, finding the room slightly changed, different than she would have left it. Obviously, from the context - this anthology made up mostly of ghost/vampire/madness stories - we know pretty quickly that the narrator is a dead woman. Might have been more effective to come across the story in a magazine and be left puzzled for a few pages. Once we get our bearings in the story, it's pretty straightforward - she makes her presence known - a cold, misty fog it seems - to her sister and her widowed husband, and gently brings them together, finding some kind of peace for herself. Sweet. The story doesn't dwell or really explore the potential darker aspects: would have been a much harder-edged story if the spirit felt anger or jealousy or pain, for example, or if her haunting had inadvertently driven the couple apart. This trope of benevolent spirits has appeare a lot in recent books and, especially films (Spoiler alert here!), such as the terrific Sixth Sense (will Shmaylyan ever make another good movie?), the Lovely Bones, all the Twilight movies, Ghost, et al. Still, benevolent ghost stories remain a subgenre, a palliative for kids scared in the night. If ghosts were good we wouldn't read about them.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Ghosts and Vampires - anywhere but here!

Posted yesterday that ghost (and vampire) stories seem a little more Old World, less American - and a sequence of three early-20th century stories in "American Fantastic Tales" (Library of America) bears this out (I know I'm generalizing from a small sample): three stories set in Iceland, remote part of Italy, Africa. It's as if the exotic setting were necessary to make the ghost or vampire story credible: these things happen elsewhere, not here in America. Why is that? Is there something about ghosts and vampires that seems intrinsically antidemocratic, linked to old notions of social class and the linkage of church and state? Later in the 20th century, of course, ghosts and vampires were well integrated into American popular literature (and film); as noted in previous post, Stephen King led the way in showing how horror can be much more frightening in an unexpected setting, just as Hitchcock showed that an open space (a cornfield) can be a scarier place that a dark alley. Each of these foreign-setting ghost stories is quite good, by the way - I could picture any of them as a good short film or even a feature. The African-set story, about African magic/witch doctors, owes an obvious debt to Conrad: his method of narration, a bunch of old gents gathered in a club, or on ship deck, or wherever, and one launches into a long that he claims hardly to believe himself - the frame builds credibility for the story. An Ambrose Bierce story is also quite good, and shows some imaginative narrative technique, three sections, each for the POV of a different character - it's not exactly Rashomon, but you need all three sections to comprehend the full story.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Are ghosts unAmerican?

Who knew Frank Norris would be in "Fantastic American Tales" (Library of America)? Isn't he the muckracker who wrote The Octopus and McTeague? Started reading his "fantastic tale" last night, strangely it's set in Iceland of all places, about a guy who hires a shepherd, a big burly man who frightens others in the village because he has no faith. One winter night - during a storm, I think - the shepherd disappears. An expedition follows the footprints through the snow, up a mountain, following some kind of inhuman tracks. They find the frozen corpse of the shepherd, with the inhuman tracks leading farther up the mountain. When they come back for the corpse later, it's gone. Then the ghost of the shepherd appears in the window one night! Ghost stories - the heart and soul of the fantastic, but in a sense they're more imbued in the European (and Asian?) tradition, we don't see as many among the American writers. Not sure why that is. And even this ghost story is placed in a northern-European setting. Are ghosts unAmerican? Do you need to be part of a long tradition of religious faith for ghosts completely to resonate? I know that there are exceptions, that no doubt there are plenty of American ghost stories, but it seems from the selection in this anthology that Americans are more drawn to stories of madness, of haunted places, of curses, of visions - and less so to visitations. Will finish the story (rather long) tonight I hope (also, opening day against the Yankees, plus Easter...) - wondering if I will finish the anthology. Though you can learn a lot about reading through an entire seletion, it also feels, at times, like the Twilight Zone marathon weekend, in which the uncanny gradually becomes "canny" and less affecting.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Haunting can happen anywhere

Well, shouldn't read when I'm too tired to remember what I've read, and have to say that the stories in "American Fantastic Tales" (Library of America) begin to blend together (are they supposed to? is that the point of an anthology? to create from many pieces a single composition, like a mosaic? or should each piece remain distinct and unique?). But one other "trope" emerged from last night's reading, from the somewhat disjointed story "The Itinerant House" - the theme of the haunted house (or place). At least on evidence of this anthology, this trope did not emerge till near the 20th century, but we're very familiar with it today, as a haunted location works very well on film, better than in print maybe. The Itinerant House combines the haunted locale with the idea of a curse through the generations (as in the earlier In Olde New England), as well as the theme of the mad scientist/experimenter. A woman, jilted in love, dies; a mad scientist/lodger brings her back to life (using electricity - you can see the early 20th-century fascination with that technology, as we today would write mind control through wireless communication and the like). She doesn't want to live, utters a curse, and the house remains haunted, bringing death on many future inhabitants, and so on. All rather preposterous of course - but it began a cascade of writers trying to outdo one another creating creepy gothic manses inhabited by ghosts and ghouls and other spirits. Until Stephen King turned it all on its head and showed that it's even scarier for these visitations to take place in an ordinary suburban setting. Haunting can happen anywhere - that's what makes it really frightening.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Dreams, Delusions, & Madness: Can you tell the difference?

Two types of "fantastic" stories: you/the narrator are totally insane and everybody knows it but you! Or: you/the narrator, are completely sane and have seen or experienced something uncanny, and everybody thinks you're nuts! These two tropes seemed to be really popular in the late 19th century, at least judging by the selections in the Library of America "American Fantastic Tales." The Repairer of Reputations (Campbell?) is a pretty good example of the first, as the narrator believes he's a king, has a crown that he keeps in a vault, etc., but from a few hints, such as comments other characters make to him, we know that he's in a complete fantasy world. This story isn't great, but it's quite unsettling in some ways (set in the future, which then was 1920, he imagines a public-works program in which suicide pavilions are set up in city parks. hmm) The most interest concept in the story is imagining a play in verse called The Yellow King that disturbs the mind of all who read it. (Apparently, this was a connecting link through a whole book of stories.) This clearly is the precursor to some recent Japanese horror films and American remakes. As to the other type of story, another selection in this anthology, The Dead Valley, is a decent example: young man goes for long hike with pet dog, finds himself in a horrible wasteland, wakes in bed suffering from a brain fever, nobody believes he went, so he retraces his steps, finds the skeleton of the dog. It really happened! This kind of story is much simpler, very often shows up in high-school lit magazines - and in The Twilight Zone and all its imitations. Seems there was endless fascination in the 1890s with the worlds of dreams and of madness: is it real? Or all in your imagination? And what's the difference?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A mysterious stranger can be good...or evil

"Thurlo's Christmas Story," by ? Bangs, makes a good contrast with the powerful, feminist Yellow Wallpaper, this one about a man going mad, primarily from the stress of his work (he's a writer). Thurlo has to write an xmas story by an October 5th deadline for his magazine editor. He's unable to do so; his words seem to break apart on the page. He writes a long "letter" (i.e., the story we are reading) to his editor explaining his failure: he's been going mad, seeing his "double" as a version of all the evil thoughts within in, an evil twin. Oddly, as he is trying to write, an "elderly" (50 years old, yikes!) man rings his bell - introduces himself as a great fan. They talk, the mysterious stranger leaves a manuscript of a story, says Thurlo can submit it; it's a masterpiece. After trepidation, Thurlo sends it in; the editor responds that he received 24 blank pages, and Thurlo writes the story we're reading as an explanation. Last paragraphs: editor responds that the explanation itself is the best thing Thurlo has ever written. A touch of postmodernist whimsy here, well before its time - as on another level of cognition this story by the obscure Bangs (an editor himself his day, according to Straub's notes in the Library of America "Fantastic American Tales," is no doubt the best story Bangs ever wrote. The mysterious stranger is another kind of trope in "fantastic" fiction, sometimes benevolent and sometimes not. This story has both. Next story in the anthology is futurist story, written ca 1890 set in 1920! He didn't get much right; I'm still reading it and trying to make sense of it.