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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

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Conservative? Progressive? Hard to pin down Hardy

Ultimately all you can say about Angel Clare is: what a glass of water, what a prick. After his ardent courtship of Tess ("Tess of the D'Urbervilles") in which he literally bullies her into not telling his why she hesitates to marry, he coldly and cruelly drives her out when she does confess to her "sin" : basically raped be a horrible man and bore his child. So this guy Angel who seems so noble - he believes in the virtues of work, he despises the class society, he is a gentleman, attentive - is worse than any of them, completely a slave to social convention and opinion, evidently deeply attracted to Tess because of her so-called noble lineage. The whole story stems from this preposterous idea that Tess's family is fallen nobility, every sorrow she endures follows from that mistaken premise. Finally, Angel leaves England for Brazil, and I expect he will come back and plead for Tess's hand but it will be too late, she will have moved on, she's a survivor and a realist. Morally, socially, it's a very tricky novel, and hard to pin Thomas Hardy to any ideology - one of his strengths and the strength of this book. Is it deeply socially conservative? Yes, in a way, in the romanticism of the agrarian life, for example. Is it progressive? Yes, in another way, it obviously shows how the pointless remnants of class society and the English idolatry of the aristocracy is a poison in the well. It's also a very beautiful and moving story about the "sentimental education" of a young woman. You almost sense that Hardy was ahead of his time and could have written even bolder, more striking works if he had been free to write (and publish) more openly about sexual power and politics.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Why doesn't Tess just confess? : Hardy, at least a near-great writer

I'm really getting won over by "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" and Hardy's amazing ability to create a whole world - it did take a while for me to become absorbed, which in a way is the mark of many great works of literature, their styles are so distinct that it takes a bit to come to know them and to read the vocabulary. At first I was feeling my way through it, trying to place Hardy in a literary context, but by the half-way point I am taken by the characters and their moral dilemmas, their strengths and failings, their humanity. Start with Tess - part of me was screaming at her, why don't you just tell Angel Clare about your past, about the child you bore "in sin," he loves you and he will forgive you, you can move to America and nobody will care. It struck me that 19th-century Wessex was such a different world, people didn't really talk and spill out their lives in confessions. But then after their wedding she does tell him - and he is stunned and revolted. He's not as good a man as she'd thought, as we'd thought. And we then look back and think, yes, maybe part of his attraction to her was his belief that she was from fallen nobility, despite his many protestations that class doesn't matter, perhaps to him it does matter all too much, he's a weak and bloodless man. What makes it so great is the way Hardy dramatizes these emotions through tempestuous almost cinematic scenes: Tess and Angel walking along the riverbank on a stormy night, he's a few paces ahead of her, a passing stranger wonders what could be tormenting this young couple. This is a novel imbued with its landscape, a setting so unusual, almost unique for fiction. Hardy may not have had the great broad comic vision of a Dickens or the interior acuity and stylstic inventiveness of the modernists but his work reads even today as well as any of them - if not a great writer definitely a near-great.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

How writer use and misuse exotic settings

Let's imagine Teo Olberht's story, "The Blue Water Djinn," in this week's New Yorker, in some other setting. She writes about a boy named Jack in an unnamed beach resort hotel, his mother about whom we know nothing gone to London, leaving Jack (apparently) in the care of the hotel owner? manager? staff?, all of whom have Arrabic-sounding names, so my guess is the hotel may be on one of the Red Sea Egyptian resorts such as Sharm-al-Sheik (sp?); Jack sees (we learn toward end of story) a French tourist, a rather lonely guy known for his pencil sketches, swimming naked and drowning - unclear if accident or suicide - and Jack the next day or so watches as they search for the man's body, recover it, hold a ceremony, etc. Jack says nothing. He's convinced (we don't know Jack's exact age) that the Frenchman (unnamed) was spirted away by water djinn. Okay as far as it goes, and pretty well written, but willfully and annoyingly unrevealing of key information - who is Jack and why is he here alone? - so again readers have to wonder if this is an excerpt from a novel (probably) or an opaque short story. How much of its effect depend on the exotic setting? A lot. You could place it on a Caribbean Island or even on Nantucket, say, changing names and some topical references - and it would be the same story, but it feels or seems more powerful and "universal" because it's set far away (from us). Okay, that's all fair - but on a deeper level I wonder what does the Arabic setting mean or say? Does it answer some question about Jack and his fears? Does it tell us something about his absent mother and unidentified father? If writers choose to set their fiction in unusual places, they have to make the location central to their fiction and not source of names, fauna, customs simply for "local color."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hardy the leftist? : Tess of the D'Urbervilles

The Norton Critical Edition of Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" that I'm reading has an essay on Hardy and Marxism, and it's easy, too easy maybe, to see the connection. Is Hardy a hero of the left? He was no doubt embraced by many, I can just see the Soviets championing Tess as an example of a working-class heroine and so on. And yes, nobody writes better, more feelingly, with less condescension about agrarian life in England than Hardy - a huge accomplishment totally setting him apart from his peers and forebears. Also, Angel Clare, Tess's love interest, seems to have progressive ideas about social class - he despises the landed aristocracy (though he's also strangely interested in them) and respects honest labor - again, a very progressive hero, and Hardy deserves great praise for presenting him so thoughtfully and without the layers of irony that so many other novelists would lay on thick. Hardy is nothing if not sincere. I'll have to see as I read farther into Tess whether it's truly a leftist novel - I think finally not when it comes down to it, as Hardy is interested in class and sees the evil nature of the strict English hierarchical society, but he's not so interested in change - maybe tending to romanticize the agrarian life too extensively. In the old terminology - there's no dialectics. Not that he has to be or should be a revolutionary, and he has to be honored for his progressive views, brave at the time and maybe even today.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A bridge between the two centuries: Hardy's novels

By the 4th "phase" of Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'urbervilles," in which Angel Clare, the preacher's son who's learning to be a farmer, embraces Tess and (later) asks her to marry him, we see why Hardy is truly (I think, and I can't be the first to think so) a bridge between the two centuries of literature. His frank, open sexuality and carnality - open at least by 19th-century standards - is a definite precursor of Lawrence and all that followed. Interesting to learn from some of the good notes in the Norton Critical Edition, which I'm reading, how much Hardy had to cut from or emend for the original serial publication of Tess - the final text is much more sexual and sensuous: Angel carrying the four women, one by one, across the mu puddle, for example, and even the scene of Tess's ravishment in the dark forest - all cut from the serial edition - disgraceful. But in other ways, he looks backwards, his characters seem to be 20th-century people caught in a 19th-century moral vice - Tess, the main example, so wracked by the guilt of her "sin," of having had (and maybe enjoyed?) sexual relations with the awful Alec D'Urberville, she can tell no one, she believes (rightly?) that Angel, and maybe no man, would want her, a fallen woman - this seems a throwback to Hawthorne (though Tess doesn't bear the guilt of adultery, just of premarital sex) and to the Victorians. And yet the Tess does not feel dated - the characters so fresh and alive, the settings so beautifully evoked, the relation between Hardy and his material so intense and original - like Courbet or Millet - a vision of a whole society, seldom captured in literature, evoked with great sympathy and beauty.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Turning up the flame beneath an unsimmering plot : Brooklyn

A rather tepid book group discussion last night of Colm Toibin's "Brooklyn" - a rarity for us in that we had no significant disagreements, all (8) of us pretty much liking the book, especially Toibin's clear and elegant writing style and his thoughtfulness about the central character, Eilis Lacy. We also shared the same concerns: the book was almost willfully placid, avoiding time and again opportunities to take a devious turn of plot, every time there was a potential point of tension the issue was resolved with no great harm to Eilis. That makes the book easy to read and somewhat pleasant, but at time not much more than a glass of water. Which led to the 2nd and in my view more central critique - that Eilis was an unbearably passive heroine, letting actions happen to her rather than taking action on her own. Some discussion here: J believing Eilis was a strong, tough character (to me, not necessarily in contradiction to her being passive). Why did she never tell her mother about her secret marriage? What would have happened had the mean Mrs. Kelly never threatened Eilis? We pretty much agreed she didn't so much decide to go back to Brooklyn as she let the fates decide it for her - even then couldn't bring herself to have a civil and direct conversation with Jim, just cruelly leaving him an ambiguous note. What a child! We also couldn't help trying to imagine it as a different book: A Hardy novel (B said), in which Tony tells her he's found someone else and she returns to Brooklyn to find herself alone again, for example. Perhaps we felt a need to turn up the flame beneath this unsimmering plot. Some of the group felt the the benevolent Father Flood was a sinister character, though he did nothing wrong in the book (he's the trope of the meddling friar, as in many Shakespeare plays). Also a general sense that the setting seemed well before the 1950s, at least in Brooklyn, though we agreed there may have been throwback enclaves at that time. We loved some of the odd scenes that were not totally necessary for the book but gave it depth and character, e.g., the swim-suit try-ons and Miss Forliti's sexual advances.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Novelists, sociological v. geographical : Thomas Hardy

Some passages in "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" clearly show Thomas Hardy at his best and remind us why, despite his occasional quaintness and faux bucolia, he remains one of the 19th-century writers we still read. For Hardy, landscape establishes character - if Faulkner, Tolstoy, Balzac, Dickens each create an entire society through their fiction, if they are something like sociological novelists, Hardy is a geographical novelist. Tess is formed by the landscape she passes through, and the different "phases" (as he calls them) of the novel, are dominated by their distinct topology: the dark forest in which Tess is raped, the long treacherous ride down the steep mountainside into the village of Tantridge (?), the enclosed nature of Tess's home village of Marlott, now in "phase" 3 (The Rally) her arrival in the open, alluvial planes - the land of large dairies (as opposed the small dairies of her native village), and nobody devotes more exquisite attention to these details than Hardy, noticing not only the open land and the vast dairy farms but even the way the water flows in the streams and how that characterizes the culture, the society. In this new landscape, Tess can relinquish her suffering and guilt over her "fall," and can, it seems, begin a new life. You'll probably learn more about dairy farming than you'll ever want to know, but the compensations are some beautiful writing, an occasional stunning insight (a passage on the strangeness of how music composed centuries ago can be in accord with our innermost feelings and emotions today, the dead speaking to us and living through us), and one of the last great 19th-century tapestry novels in which an entire life unfolds across the narrative.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A character who's run away from 19th-century fiction

I'd pretty much dismissed Karen Russell, for no good reason, as a writer elevated by smart marketing and a superclever novel title (St. Mary's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, or something like that), but I read her story in the current New Yorker, The Dredgeman's Revelation, and realized there's a lot more to her - of the batch of the vaunted 20 under 40 she has so far been the most surprising (everyone knew that Foer and some of the others are good) and most promising. Her story assuredly takes on a character, setting, and era not often written about and rarely today by any young writer - the Florida swamps, in the 30s Depression, a teenager running from an abusive stepparent (seeming to run away from the entire corpus of 19th-century fiction, that is) and finding solace in the miserable work on a barge dredging through a Florida swamp to create a canal (was there really such a thing?), he's the youngest on the crew, quiet but liked by all - a Billy Budd, actually, and we keep waiting for the worst to happen. It does, but not to him - to a pal scalded to death in a boiler explosion. Russel's writing is very assured, the setting and character beautifully evoked - again I'm going to quibble in that this is once again not a story but an excerpt (first chapter?) from a forthcoming novel. Are no young writers working on stories any more (Foer an exception here)? Maybe that makes sense, as stories tend to burn up too much autobiographical material - but magazines are the only home for good stories these days and editors owe it to the readership to find them.

Friday, July 23, 2010

An artist who can't quite break free from convention : Hardy

By the end of part 1 of "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," Tess is a "fallen woman," seduced - raped, actually - by the insufferable Alec (?) D'Urbervilles, the spoiled son of the fake aristocrat. Thomas Hardy handles the scene of the rape with quaint 19th-century discretion, everything leading up to it - the ride on horseback into the forest, Tess falling asleep on the forest floor, D'Urberville leaving her and then coming back to find her a sleep with her lashes wet, and then he lies down beside her, and then - end of chapter, lights out! A young or inattentive reader might even miss it. Hardy is so sensual at times, his writing so full of passion simmering just below the boiling point - but he can't quite break free of the restrictions of his time and place, he was not born to be an avant-garde writer, just a "garde" writer. Perhaps that's why he gave up novels in mid-career and turned to poetry? Through the rest of the novel, we'll see what happens to the "fallen" Tess: is she a strong woman? Through the first section, she definitely is not - but she's a very sad woman, or really a sad young girl. Her parents are horrible, her society is provincial and closed-minded, and she has the misfortune of linking her fate to one of the nastiest, most selfish of cads in literture - can you blame her for her misfortune? Hardy's novel is more about fate than about character, although perhaps character will emerge and develop over the course of the story. It's a dark, gloomy world - the nighttime ride through the forest is an excellent emblem of Hardy's world - in which characters don't deserve their fate and have nowhere to turn, a post-deistic world.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I can't be the first to detect anti-Semitism in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, can I?

So "Tess of the "D'Urbervilles" is in the line of the Dickens novel, in which by some strange twist of fate thankless, boorish, egomaniacal parents (especially fathers) always seem to have sweet, beautiful, devoted children (usually daughters) - it's Little Dorrit moved to the English dales. Tess's father is dumb enough to believe that he's the last descendent of the D'Urbervilles, and when he and his wife learn that there's a distant relative living nearby the send Tess off to curry favor. She doesn't want to go, but calamity strikes: take beehives to market in the predawn (because her father got drunk and overslept), Tess falls asleep and her little wagon collides with the mail wagon, killing the Darbeyfield horse -- a true Hardyesque scene of seriocomic gore, with the horse bleeding to death in the darkness, still tethered. Guilty, Tess is willing to meet her wealthy relative and perhaps be taken into favor. Then we learn that the relative is a complete fraud, who made a fortune and then moved to Wessex and faked the D'Urberville name to appear to be old gentry rather than nouveau riches. The young man of the family is taken by Tess's beauty and, faking his mother's signature, offers her a job on the estate. Can I be the first? - I doubt it and hope not - to detect some anti-Semitism here, as Thomas Hardy describes the fake D'Urbervilles using a lot of anti-Semitic code words and clues: they earned their fortune through "money lending" (horrors!, whereas banking is all right I guess), the patriarch's name is "Simon" Stokes, the son is described as "swarthy," and other not-so-subtle hints. Nothing worse than a Jew pretending to be landed gentry, is there? With good old Darbeyfield it's comic, but with the Stokes-D'Urbervilles (they recently dropped the Stokes) its sinister and malevolent.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Hardy the Obscure: Why nobody reads him anymore

Does anyone read Thomas Hardy anymore (other than my sister)? He used to be on a lot of reading lists for AP English and the like, less so on college reading lists (none at my college, back in the day) - he was (and is) considered old-fashioned and kind of fussy, even for his time. He never really had a distinct breakthrough in style, or not enough of one, so he does stand out from the pack of his contemporaries and near contemporaries the way Dickens, Conrad, Lawrence (himself in disfavor, for different reasons) did and still do. In fact, he's fallen back deeper into the genteel, PBS obscurity of Thackeray, Trollope, et al. And yet - I've started rereading him, first time in more than 30 years, picking up "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" based on some reference to it that I came across and realizing I remember nothing at all about it. And I see immediately there are obvious stengths and beauties: he did create an entire world of "Dorset" over the span of many novels, so each work is part of overall design greater than the sum of its parts. That's always true when we consider a writer's "corpus," but more so for the very few who have a unified vision of their own works - Balzac, Faulkner. Tess immediately sets up a premise of a rather foolish peddler (Darbury?) who comes to believe he's the last surviving member of the great D'Urberville family - and we'll see how this changes his behavior and most important how it affects lovely daughter Tess. So it's a book about class, character, and setting - and with the unique Hardy strain of darkness, the element of his style, as best I can remember, that does set him apart, particularly in Jude the Obscure. He also had a way with titles!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I'm giving up on Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name and here's why

I am now tossing in the towel on Vendela Vida's "Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name." Despite its obvious strengths - a smart and sassy tone of voice in the 1st-person narrator, Clarissa, and a reasonably well-rendered exotic (to me) setting of northern Finland, the amateur plotting and architecture of this novel finally just completely drained my interest and I have no desire to work my way to the end. As noted in an earlier post, many novels begin with fairly extreme premises - a situation unlikely to happen but possible or imaginable - but then the burden is on the writer to make us care and believe. The writer has to be a trustworthy navigator, so that the plot unfolds in a credible and satisfying manner and so that we feel we are in the expert hands of someone fully comfortable with the material, someone who will guide is safely to the end of the trail. In this novel, which begins with the rather extreme premise of a mother abandoning family 14 years back and never found, and the daughter/narrator suddenly discovering that her mother had been married before to a Finn/Sami and that her apparent father was not her birth father, gets less credible as it proceeds. What finally through me over was: Clarissa is hitching through Lapland, a woman picks her up, says, gee, you remind me of someone, you look like her, an older American woman who works in an ice hotel. Gosh, could it be Clarissa's long-lost mother? This is the author's hand pushing the plot along in the clunkiest manner imaginable. Maybe this book is for others but not for me. I have to wonder about the absolutely fawning blurbs on the jacket from some major literary figures. How did she get them? Could it have anything to do with whom she knows and with favors owed or sought? Shocking!

Monday, July 19, 2010

A journey of self-discovery or a writer spinning out a plot?

Anything's possible in life, and if you can imagine it it's probably happened somewhere. And even more is possible in fiction - life led in reverse from old age to childhood, ghosts watching us from above and controlling fate, talking animals, benevolent dictators. That said, writers - at least writers of conventional literary fiction - have an obligation to stay within the bounds of credibility or, if challenging the boundaries, to convince us that we're in safe hands. What's going on with Vendela Vida's "Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name"? From the start it was an improbable plot, but I've been willing to go along with her because her writing is quite good. But now, more than half-way through, I wonder about the book as a whole. Let's just start with the premise: a mother disappears, leaving behind 14-year-old daughter and mentally disabled son and loving husband. They never find her. On father's death, narrator, now 29, learns her mother had been married to a Finn and that he, ostensibly, is her father. Everyone else seemed to know this but not her (huh?). She goes off to Finland, finds her "father" by looking him up in the phonebook, and then he tells her that her mother had been raped by a Sami (i.e., Lapp) priest and that priest is her father. She, Clarissa, heads north to seek out the rapist/priest. Okay, so these are plot revelations, but hardly surprises and hardly credible outside the world of a writer's workshop. How could Clarissa be in the dark so long? Why did nobody search for her disappeared mother in Finland? How is it so easy for Clarissa to find these facts that have eluded everyone else? How does she afford this trip, by the way? I could go on - and I probably will finish the book (it's not that long), but is it really a journey of self-discovery, or a writer's inventing plot as she goes? And - judging from the adulatory blurbs from some major authors that I see on the jacket - I am really offending some literary gods by challenging Vida's creds, but come on, didn't anybody else find this well-written novel a huge stretch?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What makes for a great first-person narrative?

First-person narratives tend to live or die on the strength of the narrative voice - not necessarily a good thing. Some narrative voices are distinct and powerful enough to carry the weight, e.g., Holden Caulfield. Others, though, you have to wonder: could this story be told in the 3rd person, and if it were would there be anything to it? What's a great first-person narrative? For me, for the most part, it's a narrative with a distinctive voice but one that does not draw undue attention to itself, and a stor that could just as well be told in third person, that is, a story with some plot to it rather than a series of thinly related ruminations. And in fact I can reverse this a bit, and note that a great third-person narrative almost gives you the impression that it's first-person: The Rabbit novels, for example, are so closely associated with Rabbit Angstrom's tone and point of view that I bet many readers, thinking back, mistakenly remember them as if they're first-person. Vendela Vida's "Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name" has a distinct first-person narrator (Clarissa), who's witty and edgy - but my concern with the novel, about half-way through, is that her voice is in service of what? It's one of the many quest/road trip novels: character goes off in search of... usually, as in this case, a parent (often a sibling, departed lover, etc.). These can work well, but too often, as in this case, they're just sequential events. Vida has nicely adapted the first-person tone of many noirish narrators (Marlowe et al.), but she could do better with a more noirish plot. for example, Clarissa locates her long-lost Finnish father by looking him up in the phone book and calling him. Couldn't there have been more dramatic tension here? Vida's a really good writer, I will continue reading this book, and I do want to read her newest because I think she shows a lot of potential, but this one is a little sketchy.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Novels with crazy premises : Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

Novels with wacky premises, or, I've seen too much TV: exhibit A., Vandela Vida's "Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name." I love the allusive title, and I'm drawn to anything about northern Scandinavia (when will I learn?, after disappointments from the ballyhooed Stieg Larsson and from the unreadable Nobelist Haldor Laxness), but the tone of the book belies the title and the setting, a snappy, snarky, first-person account in very short (enumerated) segments of a young woman's quest to find her father (and perhaps her mother?) in Lapland. The contrast within the novel, what will make it work if Vida can sustain the tone, is the tension between this woman's odd, romantic quest and her embittered tone of voice, sexual, aggressive, sarcastic. Improbably, the 29ish narrator looks through papers on her father's death and discovers that the man who raised her was not her birth father - he had been someone (I guess) in northern Finland. Perhaps that's where her mother - who disappeared without a trace 15 years back - has gone? Oddly, many people, including narrator's fiance, have known about her parentage. This seems wildly improbable, also that this woman, even in the throes of grief, would abandon everything in her life, including fiance, to blindly search for her father. In first segment (cleverly titled Be Loved from misspelled floral display at funeral) narrator arrives in Helsinki and gets picked up (in both senses) by airport shuttle driver - one-night stand collapses as he falls drunk on the bathroom floor. That's one way to resolve a tricky plot element. What exactly is her personality? Would she really throw so much of her life away, and why?

Friday, July 16, 2010

A coming-of-age novel with no irony, ambiguity, cynicism, or sarcasm - can it really be?

Tony Early's "Jim the Boy" is a simple and sweet book, quite unusual in that regard, very retro. I kept, at least through the first half, expecting it to get much darker, as that's the way most books, even the young-adult fiction that Jim the Boy so closely resembles, develop a plot. Though some odd things happen toward the end of Jim, it maintains throughout its sweet sensibility. Jim is beloved by his uncles and his widowed mother and there no irony or ambiguity about it. Two crises of a sort beset Jim toward the end of the book and toward the end of his 10th year, as his uncles take him to see his dying grandfather, whom he'd never met, and they take him to visit is friend who's been stricken by polio. What's appealing about the book is the rather cool and indeterminate way that Early treats this material. In a typical "boy's" book, Jim and his friend would be best pals and Jim would help him recover or they'd decide that they could go on a wheelchair hike or that reading was better after all than baseball - but this novel is much more realistic. Jim's friendship is tentative, he doesn't quite know what to say, there's nothing he really can say and he leaves his friend in silence. As to the grandfather, there's no great confrontation or revelation, Jim looks at the old man and then moves on (an echo of the scene recalled early in the book when the grandfather comes to look at the infant Jim - they are two very separated people). At the end, Jim looks at a long vista and worries that the world is so big and he's "just a boy." That's very touching and credible. The book is no great breakthrough in re style or character, but it's a touching small story that deservedly found an audience - why not a movie?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Is Jim the Boy a young-adult novel?

Tony Early's much-praised first novel, "Jim the Boy," resists classification. If you were to just pick it up and start reading, everything about it, including the retro cover illustration on the original hb, would make you think it's a young-adult novel, and maybe it is for that matter. Jim Glass, the central character, is born days after his father dies and is raised by his widowed mother and 3 bachelor uncles on a N.C. farm. Story begins when he's 10, in the 1930s. He tries to show his uncles that he's ready for manhood, going out to spend the day with them hoeing the fields. Obviously he can't keep up, and he goes home ashamed and disappointed. This is a typical episode in the book - it's seen from Jim's POV, but we "see" more than Jim does and it's obvious that his uncles want to teach him the lesson that he should stay in school, that hoeing fields is not his destiny. The book is full of these sweet, anecdotal, country-wisdom episodes - each chapter is titled, and many could and did stand alone, at least one even in the New Yorker, a bit surprisingly. As the novel moves along, however, some more troubling and darker themes appear: who is Jim's grandfather and why did he hate Jim's father? What tensions will develop on the schoolyard between Jim and the boys from the remote mountain village (some of whom may know and loathe Jim's grandfather)? Who is this guy Whitey? Could he be in a relation with one of the "bachelor uncles"? It'll be interesting to see if Early pursues these more troubling themes or makes light of everything, a la McCall Smith and his so-called "sweet" stories about Soweto.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mengetu's story is promising, but is it a story or a "trailer" for his novel?

Some time ago I read Dinaw (?) Mengetsu's first novel, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears (?), and found it thoughtful and promising - a story about an African (Ethiopian?) immigrant in a gentrifying D.C. neighborhood - but also felt that it never quite got off the ground - once Mengetsu set the premise he kind of just let the story lie there - promising more than it could reasonably deliver (like the title). His story in the current New Yorker ("A good exit" ?) shows that he continues to develop his talents. There's a lot more going on in this story than in his entire novel. Mengetsu tells, seemingly autobiographically, of his father's flight from Ethiopia through the Sudan, where he worked in a port and was befriended by an older man, to Europe, imprisonment, political sanctuary, emigration to England, where he feels bitter and disillusioned and refuses to make good on his promise to the Sudanese man who helped him. This disillusionment not adequately explained, and Mengetsu rushes through the many events, but there's a richness of material here for him to work with - and, even more so, the story is narrated by a the African-American son teaching in a mostly white prep school in NYC, and that seems a promising issue to develop as well: the narrator explains how he feels displaced, alien, and how he tells this story to his students as a kind of healing, although in defiance of school practices. I talk about this as "promising" because, once again as I continue to see with New Yorker stories, this appears to be an excerpt or opening chapter from a forthcoming novel - not really a story at all but a trailer.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Pulitzer went to Tinkers, so maybe I'm the odd man out

It wouldn't be accurate to say that the ending of "Tinkers" is disappointing, as it was obvious that Paul Harding was feeling his way through the material and did not plan to bring this gentle novel to any grand culmination. I'm actually glad that he didn't try anything hokey or coincidental. He does introduce the odd extraneous element at the end - that George's father, Howard, who had left his family when George was a child, had somehow kept his eye on them and on George's development over the years. He could have foreshadowed this (maybe he did and the shadowing was too light or I was too dense to even see it), but as it happens the presence of Howard as an observer as no effect whatsoever on George's life. This is a novel that tells of 3 generations of men, but tells very little about them in the direct sense. The central character, George, slowly approaches his death (he's about 90 I think) over the course of the novel, but we never actually learn about his feelings about his father, about his guilt or confusion over the abandonment, in which he played a role. The strand here are left loose, perhaps intentionally, as this book more than any other I've read recently is about its own style, about relishing the beautiful sentences and cadences. Harding sketches in the lives of the 3 men much the way a poet would I suppose - he's a novelist as poet manque. But as a novelist - well, I'd say the jury's out but the (Pulitzer) jury resoundingly endorsed Tinker, so maybe I'm the odd one out but I found it very beautiful at times but wan as a novel. Novels are not compilations of sentences.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A novel that's more like a poem, open and ambiguous : Tinkers

In part 3 of "Tinkers" Paul Harding takes us back another generation, as Howard Crosby recollects his grandfather, a country preacher. The preacher apparently was devoting more and more time to his writing and less to his actual sermonizing. In what seems to be a sample of his writing (Harding makes you work hard to figure out who's the subject in the many small sections of this intricate book, and he shifts freely from 3rd to 1st-person narrative), the preacher (or Harding) seems deeply influenced by Whitman's style - not sure if we're meant to take his writing seriously of if it's over-the-top pomposity. The congregation apparently believes that the preacher is losing his sanity, and, with aid of his wife, the elders of the congregation take him away from his family - leaving the young Howard Crosby distraught. Howard goes off an spends an entire night half-submerged in a pond, where among other things he observes an Indian hunter guide sit in the water and swallow a trout whole. The line between delusion and reality is continuously blurred in Tinkers, and you can see its ancestry in Marilynne Robinson, John Hawkes, and most specifically Faulkner - the Bear seems a seminal work for Harding, particularly in Part 3. The theme of a father's insanity, his isolation from the family, and its effect on a young son is now a dominant motif in the book - yet we have no idea how this shaped the life and character of the ostensible protagonist, George Cosby, whose dying days dominated the first part of the novel and are now pushed into the background. There's a lot of material here and, drawing toward the close, I'm still not sure how Harding will shape it - or if it even needs a shape. This novel in some ways may be more like a poem - open and ambiguous.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Harding impresses me with his writing but he's like a wild, untamed riever

George's father, Howard Crosby, leaves the family rather than face possible incarceration in a hospital for the insane. He's not insane, he's epileptic (ca 1925), but it does seem rather insane to abandon apparently beloved and fairly large (4 kids?) family, in the middle of a Maine winter, setting off without notice or warning with the peddler's wagon and the mule - how will he survive, and, more important, how will they? This is a setup for a very good if somewhat over-the-top plot, which would be great except that it's not a set up, it comes about 2/3rds into "Tinkers," as if Paul Harding is feeling his way through the material. As with so many flashback plots, the tension is for the most part diminished as we know the final outcome - the family does survive. But we don't know (yet) at what cost, especially to George: Does he feel lifelong guilt about his father's abandoning the family, as the spring that set the action into motion was his father's biting George's hand during an epileptic fit. Maybe George thinks he's the cause? We don't know at this point what exactly the relation is between the two braids of the plot: George dying in bed in the present, and the struggles of his father and the young family about 90 years back. Harding continues to impress me with the sheer beauty of his writing, but he's like a wild river, untamed, the writing goes every which way and the story gets lost or submerged. We'll see how much of the story he can pull together in the final 2 sections (last third of the book).

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tinkers takes shape (half-way through)

About halfway through "Tinkers," Paul Harding (wisely) sets himself free from the structure he'd established - narrative passages alternating between the contemporary (90-year-old George Cosby in his dying days) and the past (George's father, Howard - not his grandfather, as I'd said on previous posts - on his rounds as a Yankee Peddler circa 1915) - and successfully braids the two strands of the story. The plot of the novel begins to crystallize, as we see more scenes of Howard and George interacting during George's childhood - in particular, a dramatic, seminal scene in which Howard falls into one of his epileptic fits, George tries to keep his father from biting his tongue, father bites George's hand, mother takes George to doctor for stitches, doctor suggests that Howard must be institutionalized, which I guess was common practice for epileptics in the early 20th century? We will begin to see where this leads - maybe Tinkers will have a conventional plot after all. I don't believe that "conventional plot" is essential to all novels, but I do believe that a novel must have a shape and a design and that all elements in a novel must contribute to its shape and serve a purpose. I also believe that no work of art should have any extraneous elements. As noted in previous posts, Tinkers, for all its strengths, at times seems to be a gallery for the exhibition of Harding's talents - and I know that was not his intention - but as the book moves along it does begin to take shape, and we'll see how it develops and where Harding leads us.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The greatest MFA writer's thesis of all time? : Tinkers

Another "ancestor" of Paul Harding's "Tinkers" is obviously Faulkner, and not just because of the trope of a man recollecting the details of his life through interior monologue while in the throes of dying and not just because of the braided plot, such as it is, alternating between the dying man's recollections and an account of the life of his (grand?)father - but the style and tone, rich with specific details, bursting with love of the language and expert command of the language, almost gorgeous, sportive joy in the English vocabulary, and the occasional launching into an odd philosophical observation or, more often, declaration about the state of the world - all this does seem Faulknerian. However: Tinkers doesn't have the scope of even the lesser Faulkner novels (maybe it doesn't need to or Harding didn't intend it to) but you don't have the sense of the life of a full community, a whole civilization living within what Faulkner famously called his little postage stamp of native soil. The characters are very isolate and solitary, so the overall effect is not always that of Harding's creation of a world but, more often, of Harding's showing off his facility with language - which is considerable. As noted in earlier post, this is a novel to me more of great promise than great accomplishment - I look forward to seeing what he can do with these obvious skills but don't really feel that this is a great novel by any stretch - more like the greatest mfa writer's thesis of all time.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Tinkers: Literary in the best and worst senses of the word

Yesterday started the hard-to-find "Tinkers" by Paul Harding, the surprise prize Pulitzer) winner. I really want to root for this being a great book - came from a minute literary publisher and almost no distribution or reviews to win the Pulitzer for fiction the only time the award has gone to a living author from a small press (JK Toole won for Confederacy - how nice to recognize someone after it's too late to do him any good in this world). Reviewers compared Harding with Updike and praised Tinkers as a true literary novel. Well, yes. It is literary - in the best and worst senses. Harding writes amazing scenes, amazing paragraphs, amazing sentences, in fact amazing words - why write "northern" when you can call it "boreal" for example. Readers/reviewers are I think always blown away by detailed descriptions of so-called manly things like hunting, fishing, building, carpentry - and Tinkers is just loaded with the arcana of home repair and construction, and in particular the repair of antique clocks. I'm impressed. But so far not moved. Story such as it is follows the last days of a 90ish retiree as he sinks toward death surrounded by family and memories, alternating with scenes of his grandfather, a peddler in n. new england in the 19th century and early 20th. Some tremendously imaginative scenes, no doubt - the opening in which the dying man imagines his house falling in on him as he sleeps, the grandfather's visit to maine hermit. These, however, for better or worse, are not scenes in the style of Updike who took the ordinary and found extraordinary angles and nuances; these are writerly scenes, very much in the style of Maryanne Robinson, who touts the book and was one of Harding's teachers - great writing that draws a lot of attention to itself. Hoping these great scenes begin to take shape as a story, as I continue with the book - and hoping that Harding will continue to develop his talent, which is abundant.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A novel that a barely reaches the simmering point : Brooklyn

Colm Toibin's "Brooklyn" fooled me a little. I was pretty sure that [ spoilers! ] Eilie would return to Ireland and stay there, leaving behind the sweet but somewhat feckless Tony - I thought the story was probably the life story of Toibin's mother (he's written a lot about mothers and sons). But I was wrong. The last part of the novel becomes something like Pride & Prejudice, with Eiler back home in Ireland, now courted assiduously by a handsome young man in her town who had shunned her in the first part of the novel but now sees her as a glamourous catch. Is he sincere and a good man? Or is he a cad taking advantage of her? She has to decide whether her initial prejudice toward him was wrong - ultimately decides that her place is back in Brooklyn, with Tony, whom she has secretly wed. So the novel, after 150 pages or with a series of events but with no plot to speak of - reminded me in a way of Mrs. Bridge, scenes accumulating into a life - becomes plot-driven, almost a romance novel. Is it a good novel? Despite the beautiful and clear writing throughout, it's not a great novel by any means - mainly because the main character is such a puff of air. Right to the end, she really makes no decisions, just continues to choose the path of least resistance, avoiding a scene, avoiding a confrontation, ultimately settling for Tony rather than returning to him with any enthusiasm - leaving a note for Jack or whatever his name is, finally telling her mother that she's been secretly married, and her mother doesn't want to talk about it. I understand that part of the theme is the taciturnity of her family (or her mother, anyway), but really it's a novel that barely even reaches the simmering point, a sketch for a novel, bloodless.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The immigrant story: Haven't we read this a thousand times? : Brooklyn

Colm Toibin has emerged as one of the best of the pack of Anglo-Irish writers. I thought The Master was a really fine literary novel, one of the few novels to take on seriously the challenge of making a writers (Henry James) the main character and making him and his life interesting - there was the tremendous interior conflict regarding James's sexual identity that gave Toibin plenty of material to work, and, even better, the novel made me want to go back and read more Henry James. Despite the strengths of that novel and others and his occasional short stories, I think it's too bad that "Brooklyn" has been his Amerian breakout novel (obviously because the American setting made the book more accessible to a wide range of serious American readers, such few as still exist anyway). Brooklyn - I'm more than half-way through - is beautifully written, as is everything Toibin writes, but as a novel it's pretty thin gruel (so far). In many ways the typical immigrant story - young woman leaves poverty behind, comes to America, after early struggles and homesickness forges a new identity for herself as she becomes financially independent and breaks the bonds of family and ethnicity, enjoying the freedoms of the new world. Is this news? Haven't we read this or seen it in film a thousand times? What would make this novel special would be a strong characterization and an engaging conflict of forces or ideas - in other words, character and plot. Eilie, the immigrant, is very indistinct and she just seems to glide through life, her cause championed by one kind soul after another who steps to her defense. Half-way through the book we begin to see emerging issues of racial conflict, and Eilie boldly speaks out against the racism and biases of some of her coterie, but this is not exactly standing up to a lynch mob. Strangely, everything about the novel feels early 20th-century or even 19th-century, and there are few time clues till pretty far in - and I was surprised to learn that the time is the late 40s. I think Toibin doesn't have a really clear idea of what the social and ethnic life was in New York at that time - not sure where or how he did his research (and he evidently did a lot) or if this story is somehow based on a real life - a relative or family friend?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Rereading Rabbit: Updike took no false steps

Between books, traveling, on a holiday with bookstores and libraries closed, I picked up the best book I could find lying around the house, which was "Rabbit, Run," and I don't plan to reread it but it was great just to dip into it again after many years, the first time I've gone back to the source since reading the complete series (of 4 novels + a novella) - amazing first of all how well and with what assurance Updike establishes the mood and feeling of a 1950s Pennsylvania small city, Brewer (aka Reading), with its suburb on a hill, Mt Judge, though by no means a wealthy suburb, the hills in Pennsylvania just another stretch of land, not like in, say, New Jersey, where the wealthier live higher up in the hills. the look of Brewer, from above, red almost terra cotta, and the narrow alleys, the walk past the old ice house, his, Rabbit's memories of the neighborhood in his childhood, the fighting couples, the pretty girls - seems so long ago, but it wasn't, really, as he's only about 24 but feeling trapped and washed up. Second, related to this, is the amazing comprehensiveness of Updike's vision of Brewer and the Angstrom family, right from these first few pages, how deftly he sketches in each character, and to look back from a vantage of 4 novels and almost 40 years later to see how he seemed to see the entire scope of the family and it's world, and how when we look back now we see how such tiny details have meaning and get played out later - the inkstains on his father's shirt tell us he's a printer, but we don't really know much about this till the 2nd volume. It seems he had to change nothing, made no false steps. Odd, that my memory was that Rabbit when right from the basketball court to his "run" across the state to W.Va., I'd forgot that he went home, spied on his parents and on Janet's, and how important that was to setting up who he is and what he's trying to escape.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Should I read David Mitchell?

Should I read David Mitchell? It's almost become a responsibility of good literary citizenship to do so. He has been coronated, he has won the triple crown, within a week a New Yorker review (by James Wood), a times magazine profile, and a NYTBR cover review (by David Eggers). Does endorsement come any higher and more suddenly than this? Yes, The Thousand Autumns for Jan De Groot, or whatever the name of his new novel is, is his sixth book (in about 11) years and yes as all of the stories note three of his previous 5 have been Booker finalists and yes Cloud Atlas is much-talked about - but the powers that be have chosen the current moment to anoint him, to recognize the current king of high-brow literary ambition (often a brit, there have been a few recent pretenders to the throne, since the passage of D F Wallace and the impenetrability of Vollman - think of that book from last year about a 19t-c mapmaker that many talked of but nobody so far as I know actually read). I will read Mitchell. In fact, I have read Mitchell, or tried to, taking up Black Swan Green and finding it, well, OK, but not in the end something I wanted to devote all that much time to - yet I understand that it's a somewhat atypical work for him. Reading between the lines of Eggers and Wood, it seems that neither of them actually loved reading Thousand Autumns, though each respects deeply Mitchell's talent, maybe even genious (judging from the NYT mag, he's also something of a sketch artist and collagist). I will probably take up Cloud Atlas. The question is: is he a writer that anyone acually does enjoy reading, or is he just something that we stand before in awe, like monument or the Pacific (silent on a peak in Darien)?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Why the death of Simon Bolivar is a perfect Garcia Marquez subject

Finished "The General in His Labyrinth" - like many Everyman Library books a great book with a tedious, pedantic introduction - glad i didn't read it till the end. Concluding the novel, i see how the life or more accurately the death of Simon Bolivar is the perfect, almost the clicheed, Garcia Marquez subject, the old man dying and recollecting, in a nonlinear fashion, the conquests of his long life as he laments and refuses to acknowledge the failings and the decay of his body. A new dimension for Garcia Marquez in this rather late novel is the historical - based on a historical and not a familial nor fictive figure. He notes that he did quite a bit of research, and relied heavily on information from new friends and old, scholars and historians - yet the book never reeks of research & history. Like all of his fiction, it is nonlinear in form, and this effectively does capture the workings of the mind of a dying man. I would say that it does get a little tedious toward the end, as the direction is clear, ineluctable - the book quite intentionally lacks the drama of Bolivar's life, it's drama recollected, the war and the political intrigue are all there but in memory, not in the dramatic foreground. Interesting that the great emotional crisis of his life - the death of his 20-year-old wife and his decision to leave his life of comfort and gentility and devote himself to the liberation of the americas, is dispatched of in a single paragraph in the last chapter! Also interesting the G-M says he was drawn to the story by his interest in the river that Bolivar traveled - which he had traveled numerous times by steamer in his youth. It would be like me writing a novel about, say, President Kennedy because of my interest in the Garden State Parkway. And it's true that his writing about the river is probably the best and most evocative in the book - it's widening into swampland, the first vision of the coast -- but the book does not take the shape of a river journey, it's not Huck Finn, for example. It's a funeral procession. Other books of old men heading toward the grave? I know I've read others, can't recall them right now. All Garcia Marquez books are great in some ways; this is not his greatest but a significant and distinct entry in his corpus.

Friday, July 2, 2010

What's happened to the short story?

Sarah S-L Bynum's story is the 20 under 40 entry in this week's New Yorker - again leaving me a bit puzzled. It starts off well with a pretty good sassy attitude, a mom, apparently a Manhattenite?, with young daughter anxious about admission to preschool, attends some screening events, gets a letter saying daughter not going to be admitted, she writes a "thank you" note back, feels like a jerk - okay, good premise, but where is the story going, where did it go, I can't even remember how it ended - maybe because, like so many stories recently in the magazine the story didn't end, in fact it isn't even a story - it's a fragment, something from a larger work - I'm just guessing but don't you think that's the case? So what's happened to the "art of the story"? Stories, generations ago a a great way for writers to a. make a living and b. try out elements of their craft, have totally evolved - in the 80s stories were a very "hot" medium, publishers were looking for the next great collection - this the aftermath of raymond carver and anne beattie, two great writers who showed how much the form could accomplish with economy of space and language and keen attention to detail. So a lot of writers emerged with stories - and some went on to pretty successful careers, though primarily as novelists - the vogue for the story passed, as publishers realized that, though "reader" like stories, "book buyers" want a novel. But stories live, in a sense, in graduate writing programs, though even there the vogue has been for "connected stories," another '80s outgrowth (though there were a handful of earlier versions, e.g., sherwood anderson, even faulkner) - a neither here-nor-there format but an easy step through way for a young writer who can't summon the courage to climb the mountain of a novel on the first go can patch together a quasi-novel, made of pieces. And here we are today with the opposite -novels broken up into stories so that magazines can find pieces to show off a writer's work, they're really sample cases trailers, informative in their way but just not a complete reading experience. Does anyone else notice this? More on this in future posts.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Funny to watch Garcia Marquez struggle with material that bores him and turn to what he wants to write about: sex

In Gracia Marquez fashion, the focus of "The General in His Labyrinth" moves away from the political intrigue and the many wars for independence in Latin America and more toward sexual conquest. He has totally made Simon Bolivar into a Garcia Marquez character, as he should. And it's almost comical to watch Garcia Marquez struggle with the material that obviously bores him, the political intrigue, the backstabbing, the revolutions and counterrevolutions, and move on to what interests him - the romantic, sexual, nostalgic. Bolivar is "old" (46?) and dying, and of course he remembers the many loves of his life, some lasting many years, some one night only, all of them entwined and intersecting and overlapping, as he never could or would commit to one woman. It's an eternal Garcia Marquez theme, the love that has the power to shape a whole life, even if the lovers are separated by miles and by years - Bolivar for that matter may just as well have been one of the provincial "Dons" who inhabit most of Garcia Marquez's other novels. You don't want to read this book as a testament of historic fact, though it may be quite accurate and based on sources, who knows?, but you read it as Garcia Marquez on a grand scale, painting with his distinct style on a historical canvas. It adds something, I guess, that Simon Bolivar is a real and famous historic figure, but the novel would (at least for a N.American reader) read just as powerfully and effectively if the character were entirely fictive.