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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

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A novel fully deserving of its acclaim: Let the Great World Spin

Colum McCann's novel "Let the Great World Spin," based on first 150 pages or so, fully deserving of its acclaim - in a sense it's a series of novella-length set pieces (or longish short stories) about New Yorkers at an iconic moment in time - August 1974, when Petit crosses between the towers of the relatively new WTC (and all the contemporary echoes that theme evokes) and Nixon resigns and NYC is a much more crime-drug-graffiti rattled city than it is today. Gradually, we see how these lives intersect: first three characters (I will give some plot element away here) are an Irish monk devoted to working with prostitutes in the Bronx who dies in a car crash, a drug-addicted artist couple who may have caused the crash, an East side woman whose son has died in Vietnam (her connection not clear at this point). Yesterday's post noted echoes of Mrs. Dalloway in the first brief section, that these echoes become more profound esp in the section on the East Side woman, who is named Claire (cf Clarissa) and who is somewhat obsessive about the party/get-together she's hosting for other bereaved mothers, worrying particularly about flowers. M Cunningham played these notes - Dalloway in contemporary Manhattan - to different effect. Spin will also remind many of the movies about plot interections, particularly Crash and the much superior Lantana, and also may recall that collection of novellas about Irish/English Manhattan imigrees, Three Junes - but I also think it rises above all of its influences and creates a very vivid portrait of a city and some of its residents at a moment in time, it has a strong and compelling plot, and a clear style that never wallows in literary-reference or self-importance as others do.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

What Colum MCann (Let the Great World Spin) has in common with Chaucer

Started Colum McCann's "Let the Great World Spin," which won an NBA last year (whatever its merits, I assume it helps your award chances if you set your novel in nyc at an iconic new york moment) and in early pages it definitely promises to live up to its reputation. His writing is sharp and clear, he sets the opening scene - on the ground as Petite traverses on the wire between the WTC towers far overhead - very skillfully, and then steps back into the heart of the novel, building the life story of a young man in an impoverished Dublin family circa 1950. It's easy to discern the structure of this book, even if you hadn't read a word about it: McCann is writing about a number of people on ground level on this stirring day, their life stories, and their life intersections - a technique that goes way back, you could say it goes back to The Canterbury Tales, in which a seemingly random selection of individuals brought together by chance stands in as a portrait for an entire society at a moment in history; also draws on more Modern Lit tradition, think particularly of Mrs. Dalloway and of course Ulysses, set in one day, different characters interact and cross paths, creating a portrait of a city and a time (also note how in Mrs. Dalloway much of the focus is on airplane/s traversing overhead - ominous presentiment of aerial attack?). McCann seems to be one of those writers who slowly built a corpus unrecognized and then is placed in the forefront by one fine novel that gets attention - I hope for him this means that readers are discovering all of his works.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A brief literary history of Providence

Finishing Bruce DeSilva's really good crime novel, "Rogue Island," gets me thinking about the role Providence has played as a literary setting, DeSilva's being the latest in a recent bounty of Providence-set novels. Oddly, it seems to me there were not many books set in Providence for a long stretch of time - Lovecraft being the exception, though his Providence was rarely identified by name and though a few buildings made cameos the city wasn't meant to be a realistic portrayal. (Many really good writers have lived in Providence but written little about it,e.g., John Hawkes, Robert Coover.) Geoffrey Wolff set the contemporary trend afire with his eponymous novel that played off the split personality of the city, thugs and wiseguys living crossing paths with East Side gentry. Lately, with much greater focus on the thugs and petty mobsters, we've seen an abundance of crime novels set in Providence, DeSilva's the latest. Suddenly, there's a lot of shoulder-bumping: first there was Jan Brogan (female reporter with an addiction issue), then Mark Aresenault (another newspaper-based crime novel), now DeSilva - all three friends of mine and former colleagues of mine at the Providence Journal. Not sure if Arsenault or Brogan are planning to keep their characters going, but DeSilva definitely is, so we have more cool Providence noir to anticipate. (Another mystery writer, Richard Rosen, had done some Providence-based novels some years back, but not sure what he's writing today. Also worth mentioning Journal writer Mike Stanton whose nonfiction book on Providence is as rich in detail as any of the novels noted here.) Another friend, Jean McGarry, has written a number of books with Providence settings - her first collection, Airs of Providence, back in the '80s, and she's just come out with a new collection, Ocean State. Also note the recent novels of Ed Hardy, Anne Harleman, and Ann Hood, with many Providence settings and themes. So this city, long forgotten, is now a hot property for writers - but in almost every case it's a very dark view of Providence, from Lovecraft to DeSilva, that these writers offer to the world.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Noir itself is a nostalgic genre : Rogue Island

Author Bruce DeSilva responded to my blog post yesterday regarding his mystery novel, "Rogue Island," and we got into a discussion about my observation that the story, though set in the near present, feels as if it's set in an earlier era. I noted that Providence, the setting, is not nearly so down and out today as it was 20 years back, and that the protagonist, an investigative reporter named Mulligan, seems like a throwback to an earlier day in journalism when you were more likely to find plenty of hard-drinking, chain-smoking, streetwise reporters. Bruce notes that Providence is far from genteel beyond of the downtown renaissance district (true), that there still are plenty of reporters like Mulligan though they are (like newspapers) an endangered species (true), and that Mulligan does venture into some tony places on the waterfront and at the mall, though he feels uncomfortable there (also true). I guess in part it comes down to a feeling or mood - and it may have less to do with specifics of DeSilva's craftsmanship and plotting than with the nature of noir detective fiction itself. Isn't there something about the genre that is and always will be retro and nostalgic? It seems to me that every noir hero, by his/her nature, is looking for something, a time or place, that no longer exists. Noir itself is a nostalgic genre, though nostalgia of a specific type - like its characters, it's too hardboiled or sharp-edged to concede that it's sentimental at the core, its protagonists almost like medieval knights pledged to live by and restore a code of honor in a world that's gone to hell. Some noir writers today confront that nostalgia head-on - I'm thinking of a book I admired by Meaghan Abbott written today but set 50 years or so back. When it comes right down to it, though - whether DeSilva's Providence is real or not, contemporary or not, that may be fun to debate, but the main point is that he - like all really good writers - has created a world that's his, a Providence that's unique to his work, complete and compelling. As noted yesterday, I can't imagine that anyone, especially Rhode Islanders, wouldn't get a charge out of this book.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I can't imagine a mystery fan not devouring Rogue Island

Let me join that chorus that's singing in praise of Bruce DeSilva's Providence-set mystery novel, "Rogue Island." I don't read lots of mysteries, so I can't judge it in that context, but honestly, based on first third or so, it stands up well to any novel. The writing is the calling card here. So many novel, genre novels and literary novels, are larded with lazy passages in which the writer trudges his or her way through exposition, barrels along with pointless dialogue, or smothers us in needless descriptive prose. Not here - DeSilva seems to have crafted every single line, every phrase. It's constantly funny, the descriptions are short and punchy, the characters are vivid and diverse - this book has a lot going for it and I can't imagine a mystery fan not devouring it. I was drawn to it because of old friendship with Bruce and obviously because of the Providence/newspaper setting. DeSilva is definitely working in the noir/Chandler tradition, with a hard-boiled narrator (in this case an investigative reporter, a modern twist on the genre) and dark city teeming with wise guys and corrupt pols. Some may compare it with Parker's Spenser novels, but DeSilva's Mulligan is far more willing to bend the rules to suit his needs and desires. DeSilva's portrayal of Providence will win him no friends on the Chamber of Commerce. I have only one quibble, and I may write more in this in later posts, but the Providence DeSilva creates bears little resemblance to the Providence of today, and I think the novel would be more accurate to time and place had DeSilva set it during the era in which he himself lived and worked in Providence, the mid-70s or perhaps earlier. I will pick up on this point later.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Roth is back

The vagaries of a writer's career are amazing - exhibit A Philip Roth. I am among those who joined in the chorus condemning his previous short novel, The Humbling, as among the worst things Roth hath wrought. Someone should have told him how dreadful it was before he went ahead and let it be published. But now, for any in despair that his career was set to be mummified in the 9-volume Library of America set, his new novel, "Nemesis," is clearly among his best in years, maybe among his best ever. It's short and poignant and provocative. For anyone who's even dared to think there's nothing new Roth could say about Newark in the '40s, he finds yet another way to examine and re-create his native city. This novel about a gym teacher, Bucky Cantor, who's working as a playground supervisor during the polio epidemic of 1944. He's the hero to the boys at the playground because of his athletic prowess and his bravery (he stands down a group of Italian teenage toughs who show up one day to taunt the Jewish kids). But he's also tormented because his poor eyesight has kept him out of the war. Mostly, the story is about how one kid after another is hit by polio, and the fear this spreads across the community, also the hatred and paranoia - ultimately, some of the grieving parents blame Bucky for allowing the kids to exert themselves in the summer heat, and he feels he may be the cause of the spread of the disease. The story is deeply imbued with symbolism/analogy - much like Camus' The Plague, for example, and in Bucky's ranting against a God who would create polio he touches on the lamentations of Holocaust literature. Many have said, rightly, that Roth is very weak on women characters, and though this is a male-dominated book his protrayal of Bucky's girlfriend and their tender, strained relationship is very touching and thoughtful. Roth is back.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Why Danticat makes it difficult for us to read The Dew Breaker

General agreement last night in book group that Edwidge Danticat's "The Dew Breaker" was beautifully written and terribly sad, and that we all feel great remorse for the sufferings of the people of Haiti and the role U.S. has played in that. Concern about how or why the Haitian immigrant community is so different from other immigrant communities, and some consensus that this is about greater trauma - other immigrants generally came to U.S. seeking freedom and opportunity, but the Haitians came fleeing danger at home. Also acknowledgment of the racism, that Haitian immigrants the only black immigrant community from Latin America. Trauma plays an important role in The Dew Breaker, all of the characters, even the next generation (though less so) suffer from that. Much discussion as to why Danticat chose to tell these stories in mosaic form, out of chronological order, making it difficult to follow the line of plot on first reading. Suggested that she does so in part to hold our deepest attention but also because the trauma they, and maybe she, experience make it difficult for her to tell the story in other than fragmented form. The whole collection is something like a miximal version of a New Yorker story : full of allusion and nuance, ending on a plangent note, but not building to any climax of resolution. I in particular discussed the lack of a final confrontation between the victims and the perpretrator, now living comfortably (though guilt-wracked) in nyc. Book is unusual in that it is about the refugees and exiles, but not only those fleeing oppression - a main character is one of the oppressors, and he is treated rather sympathetically.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Short story collections: linked v mosaic : Danticat

Re-reading Edwidge Danticat's "The Dew Breaker," in prep for book group (tonight) and trying to piece together this mosaic. Seemingly Danticat, reacting against the supersaturation of "linked stories," which had become a writing-school cliche following success of several in the '80s, e.g., Minot's Monkeys (though the ancestry goes way back, say to Winesburg, Ohio, and others), told stories in an out-of-sequence way so that the connections would not be fully clear till the end of the set. Others have followed: Elizabeth Strout, Kate Walbert. Honestly, in all cases I wonder why they did this, if there was any conscious design at all. Why couldn't, shouldn't, the stories be told in sequence? In any event, Danticat's are not a perfectly linked set, except thematically (as in almost all story collections other than the few that dazzle by their variety): all are about Haitian exiles and their response to or recovery from the trauma of their youth (or of their parents' youth, in some cases). Several do concern the same set of characters, particularly the first and last stories, which are bookends, or more like the two sides of an old vinyl LP: in fact we experience the same phone conversation from both ends of the line. These stories about a Haitian enforcer assigned who kills a priest in prison and then marries and escapes to NYC. In the first story he reveals his secret past to his adult daughter; in the last, we see the events in the prison. In another of the (9) stories in the collection, we see him and wife and daughter going to church on xmas; another is of a young man back in Haiti reporting to his elderly aunt that he's found the man who killed his parents (not the same crime, but presumably the same character); a fifth story is of a samstress who imagines that the same ex enforcer lives in her neighborhood (she's interviewed by a young reporter, presumably a stand-in for Danticat). A sixth is of the basement rental in Brooklyn where perhaps the enforcer is a landlord, not clear. The other three stories connected in theme only: one about a boy in Haiti during an uprising, one about a Haitian nurse in an nyc hospital, can't recall the last.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A very atypical New Yorker story

Are we serious, am I really reading Tree Line, Kansas, 1934 (David Means?) in the New Yorker? I mean there's nothing wrong with this story, except that it reads like a few pages from a screenplay for a movie that might have been edgy in about 1960. Two feds on a stakeout watching an isolated Kansas farmhouse waiting to see if the gunman will return to search for the loot, one is a young guy steeped in theory and always talking and the other an older guy, who it seems looks back on this event from a later stage in his life, so we obviously know he survived and the young guy did not - and as we learn the young guy did not because of his own carelessness, and - so what? Are we to make anything of this story? It's very well told, well crafted, I can see the evident skill. But the whole point of it seems to be, or should be (in my view), how this moment of carelessness affected the life of the survivor, forever. And that's all just glossed over - we don't know, aren't told, what became of him. Maybe it's because the shooting death of one (but not the other) is not at all explained - how did the older guy avoid the bullets? Moreover, what would I say if I came on this story in a writers' group? Build into it some causality: don't just have the young guy randomly shot but have it happen because there's a flaw in his theory or because the older guy does something wrong and fateful and survives but feels guilt about it. My advice. Maybe this story is a part of a longer project? Maybe I'm just a bit stunned because this story is so atypical of the New Yorker - and I really don't object to that, I like to see some variety in the selections. But it doesn't feel like a complete and whole work of art - just a fragment.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A labyrinth that Kafka could not escape : The Castle

Even the most ardent fan of Franz Kafka's "The Castle" would have to concede that the novel drags through its last 50 or so pages - interminable monologues by two characters (Olga, Breugel?) discussing the arcana of the mysterious bureaucracy and heirarchy that imbues life in the village beneath the castle. The inventiveness of the earlier chapters is gone, as we're frozen in place with K., stuck as he listens to others - in fact in one instance K. is so painfully tired that he can barely listen and neither can we. It seems as if, like the castle itself, this novel became a labyrinth that Kafka could not find his way out of, and though he apparently sketched out a concluding chapter (in which K. dies), he could not get himself to that point. No wonder he abandoned it - it's one of those strange (few) works whose very incompletion is a testament to the grand vision - like St. John's Cathedral in NYC. One striking thing about the Shocken edition is the preface, pretentiously called an "Homage," by Thomas Mann. One heavy-hitter going to bat for another! Imagine someone of that stature writing an "homage" for a book today. As a matter of fact, there is nobody of that stature. Mann of course has some wise insight into Kafka and the castle, yet he does seem to miss or gloss over one point, the sexual and in particular the homoerotic content of the novel. For example, in scene mentioned above, K. is sitting on a man's bed, and soon finds himself lying on the bed, dozing off, and clutching the other man's feet. Not sure what to make of this but there seems to be a hint that K.'s attraction to the various barmaids, including his fiancee, Frieda, may be a screen for a deeper attraction that he feels toward men: the secretaries, his goofy assistants, the powerful and rarely seen Klamm. Yes, there is a strong religious element, which Mann describes, but also a confusing and tortured erotic element to the novel that's not so obvious and not so easy to grasp.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Kafka's nightmar vision of a mind in distress

The utter strangeness of Franz Kafka's "The Castle" makes the novel compelling and in some ways off-putting. It's not easy to read, but it's also mesmerizing and hypnotic - you feel as if you're dreaming while you're reading it, with its dream-logic and nightmarish frustrations and obstacles. Though the overt sexuality is very tame by contemporary standards, I was surprised with how directly Kafka takes on sexual and Oedipal themes, which seem from my memory to play little or no overt role in his short fiction (maybe I'm wrong there). Toward the end of The Castle, Kafka has one of the character, Olga, soar off on a talking-jag monologue in which she explains to K. the history of her family trauma, which, in brief, occurred because younger sister Amalia (who is at times described as black) rejected an offer? command? from one of the messengers from the castle who wanted her as his mistress. This action was a huge insult to the authorities - one of the rules of behavior in the village seems to be that the women submit themselves to the will of the men in the castle, and it's actually an honor to be noticed and selected - which led to the ostracism of her family and their downfall. Of course it's never clear whether the man who sought her is really an authority figure, and there's constant debate and discussion about the messengers and servants at the castle, whether they really do anything, whether the people they work for are really authority figures - everyone seems to have heard of the power figures at the castle - Klamm, Sortini, et al. - but nobody's sure they've really ever seen them, nobody knows what they do, whom they work for - it's a nightmare vision of an authoritarian state and of a mind in distress.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Don't all of us have a book like this on our shelves?: Richard Powers's story

Strangely, I was very moved by Richard Powers's story in the current New Yorker, Let the Measures Tell (or something like that) - I think of Powers as a cerebral writer; his novels always seem to be intelligent but daunting (I've read only a couple), like giant ice-capped mountains, you're glad they exist but you don't really want to scale them. Maybe he's well-suited to the short story, in that the form it itself is so much less intimidating to the reader, we're willing to take on a greater challenge for a shorter go. This one, with its elusive title, is about an American student in England who buys a used paperback novel by a once-renowned, now obscure British novelist in the social-realist tradition. The unprepossessing theme/structure of this story: the student (a woman, you, story in 2nd person) keeps this book throughout her life, and closely watches as the author's reputation waxes and wanes, the book in a way becomes a monitor for her own life and career, through grad school, early years teaching, failed marriage, law school, remarriage, kids late and precocious, reading with kids, book club, final illness - throughout it all, the book is a fetish or a totem for her: a remembrance of her early days as a young woman when the world was all before her, she imagined the book was a great treasure, either an undiscovered great novelist or a rare book (at one point she thinks it may be inscribed by Churchill), and as her life changes, its disappointments and losses, the book reflects this in complex ways. I would never have thought a story like this could work. But then again: don't all of us (English majors, I mean) have books, or a book, on our shelves like this, a book that's not so much a novel as a totem, a relic from youth?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Franzen hardly needs my support, but...

Jonathan Franzen hardly needs my support (or anyone's) but still - what's with that takedown by B.R. Myers, or however he or she spells his or her name, in the Atlantic? Seriously, I would expect Franzen to come under assault by idiots like the ones who write for Exiled Online, but why The Atlantic? There's probably no serious magazine in America that has turned its back on fiction more deliberately than The Atlantic, pushing all fiction into the ghetto of an annual supplement and essnetially never reviewing fiction or commenting on it in any serious way, and then the Myers attack on one of the few serious and readable novels to come out in years. Myers earned his or her stripes with an Atlantic articles years back that became a book, The Reader's Manifesto, or something like that, and argued cogently against various trends in contemporary fiction and criticism - quite rightly criticizing those who judged novels on the basis of beautiful sentences - something critics and reviewers might do (they have to quote the sentences) but readers seldom or never do, readers, as one of the smart members of PAWs once noted in a writers' session, like plot. But this takedown of Freedom was ridiculous - begins by stating that you sometimes start a book and meet the uninteresting minor characters and then realize they are the main characters. Okay, ha ha. But why does he consider Franzen's characters uninteresting? Or unexplored? I think they are very much real and credible people going through the struggles in their lives to find love and success and recognition, making the mistakes so many make, paying the price, suffering, growing, moving on - very much real people, and he explores them in fullness and over time. And why compare Franzen with Delillo, or all writers? Totally random - their styles and interests are 180 degrees different, Delillo supercool and laced with paranoia and drawn to celebrity and fame, Franzen loose and observational and dour and drawn to social issues. Seems like the whole piece was an example of trophy hunting.

Monday, October 18, 2010

K the paranoid, the vicitm: How can you not identify with him? (The Castle)

Another "read" on Franz Kafka's "The Castle," and perhaps overlooked only because it's so obvious, is the political interpretation, the approach to the castle an analogue to working with and through any government bureaucracy, but particularly a totalitarian regime - the insignificance of the individual confronted with the mechanisms of the state, K. a pin caught in the cogwheel - he's apparently hired to do a job (land surveying) but on arrival is unable to approach those who've hired him or to get any clarity on the work he's supposed to do or whether that work was ever necessary or intended, then oddly gets "assigned" to a job as a school janitor - all of this echoes the mechanics of The Trial, in which someone is charged with a crime but cannot ever learn what or why or how to proceed - the government operating as some force completely controlling of our lives but as completely outside of our control as well, like the climate. The unknown and incomprehensible government all that much more terrifying that the brutal regime of say Darkness at Noon or the totalitarian 1984, because government in The Castle is or feels like a psychological force as well, something set up in opposition to each individual, the state v the individual, all the seeds of paranoia but presented in a way that is coldly rational, as seen from the paranoid (or is it the oppressed? the victim?) point of view. How can you not identify with K.? Haven't we all had these nightmares?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Three possible readings of Kafka's The Castle

Possible "meanings" of Frank Kafka's "The Castle" include (list could go on forever): It's about an Oedipal struggle. We all know of Kafka's legendary difficulties with his father, and he plays out these themes in this strange novel, with the protagonist, K., seeking to get an interview with a powerful male figure (Klamm) whom he observes only in occasional glimpses: a powerful man with a dark mustache sitting at a desk, drinking from a glass of beer. K.s mother-in-law (to be) has been the mistress of this Klamm, and he sees his mother-in-law as a very large figure, slouching on a bed in the dark - like a child's view of his mother perhaps, but mixed with sexual yearnings. So the novel is about this need for recognition by the father and to escape from the dominance of the mother. Also, Klamm is a "silent god" figure whom all revere but whom few knew or have seen, who controls all but gives nothing. K. has, about half-way through the book, received a letter from Klamm praising him (and his idiotic assistants) for their good work, and this deeply upsets K., in that he has done no work yet. He asks the totally ineffective messenger, Barnabus, to get a message to Klamm, but it's obvious that Barnabus can't do this. So there's another "reading," The Castle as an allegory of our incapacity to understand the ways of god to men. Another possibility: is The Castle actually about the act or, or art of, reading and interpretation, one of the first postmodern novels? The closer you get to perceiving the meaning of the novel, the more it recedes - much like K.'s approach to but inability to actually perceive the castle, just above the village but always hidden in mist and fog.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Castle: Easy to read, impossible to (fully) comprehend

The weirdness of Kafka only enhance by late-night insomniac reading - like stepping into the dream that you're not really having. Kafka's "The Castle" a big step toward darkness compared with the better-known The Trial, in that The Castle is much more explicitly sexual - K arrives in the village and is immediately smitten/beset upon by Freida, in days, maybe moments, she becomes his beloved and his fiancee - they fall on each other like animals, described somewhat vividly - people think of Kafka as deeply repressed, but not really so. However: he is a writer of obstacles and frustrations, and much The Castle is about the unreachability of goals - sex, power, security - everything just beyond the vale of perception and comprehension. K proceeds from one strange encounter to another, of course as in a dream, but there is almost a theological aspect to his journey, a contemporary pilgrim's progress (or lack of progress - precursor to Beckett and other postwar European absurdists). Summary: K arrives in village supposedly hired by the Castle (Klamm?) as a surveyor, cannot gain admittance to the castle, at last arranges meeting with the mayor, who tells him surveyor not needed, learns later from landlady (Frieda's mother) in odd sexual scene, long interview alone in her bedroom, that mayor is not powerful, then gets told he will be school janitor - all the while his assistants laugh and romp and mock him and do nothing, always showing up outside the door or window. Is this in some way about trying to find a god, a spiritual center, in a secular, capitalist, postfeudal modern world? The Castle is easy to read and almost impossible to fully comprehend.

Friday, October 15, 2010

How many writers' names have truly become adjectives?

How many writers' names have entered the lexicon as adjectives? Definitely Proustian. Shakespearean. Flaubertian? Miltonian? Spenserian? Lawrentian? Nabokovian? Dickensian? Dostoyevskian? Tolstoyan? Jamesian? Faulknerian? With exception perhaps of Proustian, all really just mean "similar to or in the style of X." You wouldn't even know what they mean if you hadn't read the author. Proustian has its own meaning, I think: ornate, detailed, rich with memory and recollection. We can talk about a Proustian moment. Shakespearean is unique unto itself - a superlative. But then there's and only one other that stands above even Proustian as a unique adjective, that is, understood be millions who've never read the author: Kafkaesque. It's come to mean strange, surreal, dreamlike, arbitrary with the hint of paranoia. We talk about a Kafkaesque situation, loosely modeled on his novels - usually, the Trial, some weird and interminable bureaucratic mix-up. And that is an accurate description of his work, but it's a surface description. Reading (for the first time) Franz Kafka's "The Castle." And yes Kafka more than any other writer captures the nightmare emotions of repetition, a goal just out of reach, strange behaviors and incongruities. But if his novels were just dreamscapes, they would be just curiosities. The Castle, at least initial pages, not quite as universal in theme as The Trial, with its scary parallels to totalitarian regimes today, but also maybe a deeper psychological study. I'm dissertations and books have been written about what the castle represents or "means" to K, to the reader: some sexual symbol, some repressed aspect of the psyche? Or does it "mean" nothing - it just sets, and keeps, the novel in motion, or stasis?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sometimes stories are better one at a time rather than in a collection

The last story in Edwige Danticat's "The Dew Breaker" (title story) puts together all (I think) of the pieces, connects the proverbial dots pulling together the 10 or so stories in the collection into a kind of novel. We see in this last story the particulars of the crime and prisoner abuse alluded to in the first story - the sweet and beloved Hatian-American father in the first story is now seen as the thuggish and abusive Haitian police officer who had to flee the country for his life and establish a new identity in the U.S. Most of the other stories in the collection (not all) examine the various tendrils of this single event - people seeking out the abusive officer for revenge, his family trying to cope with the mystery, and so on. I will have to look back to make all of the connections. It's a book of crime & punishment, in a way, but also a book about exile and generational curses and political oppression and the relation between first and 3rd world countries - lots of themes in a relatively short collection. I admire all the stories but am not, unfortunately, deeply moved by this collection, either - there's something a little cold and withdrawn about it, the chilliness of constructing a narrative out of pieces and fragments makes none of the stories feel complete or fully engaged. It's as if Danticat is feeling her way toward a more profound and integrated work of fiction, a novel (which probably was the more powerful Farming of Bones). It's a book with a lot of material but the tone is somewhat tentative and the material seems undigested and unintegrated - oddly, the stories are better (some of them) one at a time rather than collected.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Violence all around them, but the characters are serene : Danticat

It's amazing that a book (novel? story collection? not sure what to call it) that is centered on trauma and the survivors of trauma can be so serene and placid in tone. Perhaps that's part of the strategy for survival of trauma. In this case, Edwige Danticat's "The Dew Breaker," the trauma concerns the lives of Haitians at home and in exile (in NYC). She takes a very interesting and unusual tack; we suspect, from reading many other stories of political exile, that the main character(s) will be those who flee prosecution from a tyrannical government (Vietnam, Cambodia, South Africa, Afghanistan, USSR, to name a few) or flee from war (all of the above plus Bosnia), but, as Danticat surprises us in the first story, we see that (at least some) of her refugees are the oppressors - the horrible military police who tortured others at the command of the dictatorship (Duvalier father and son). The middle section of stories brings us back to Haiti, the exile's return, and in one particularly intriguing story a young man returns to find his aunt and tell her that back in NYC he has discovered the man who killed his parents (it's the same man we met in the first story, so wracked by guilt that he has kept his secret from his daughter all her life). We move even farther back in time, too, to a story set in 1986 (?) on the day Baby Doc fled the island and we see, through the eyes of a boy, the rampage and the vengeance against the Macoute (military police). So it's a collection with violence and vengeance simmering all around, but the characters are all buttoned down tight and express very little. It's how they survive.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The two greatest short-story writers of our time

Another terrific story from Alice ("The Great") Munro in the New Yorker, Corrie, and does anyone agree with me that if you picked this story up by the forelock and dropping it in Ireland you'd have a William Trevor story? Not that there aren't deep similarities between Munro and Trevor, other than that they're probably the two greatest story writers of our time. Both writer a lot about loneliness and sorrow (what else is new?) but in particular about people living their lives in remote, isolate places, forgotten by history and far from the literary mainstream (though Munro has also written a lot of stories about various literary and new age people on the British Columbia coast and in Vancouver, people much like her it seems). What differs in this story is that Munro has adopted a new much tighter literary style. Typically, Munro's stories unfold, or, in her famous characterization, it's as if she walks into a house and wanders room to room - a character we might start off with turns out to be a peripheral figure as the focus shifts to another character. I thought it might happen in Corrie, as we begin to learn less about the eponymous Corrie and more about her maid, Sadie. But no, it's a very well-crafted gem of a story, the ending, while not entirely surprising to me, was still a bit of a shock and quite appalling. In a very few pages we get the lineaments of Corrie's entire life, her lifelong affair with a businessman from a neighboring small town, we see the insularity and the pettiness of provincial Canada in mid-late 20th century. We also get a little echo or hat-tip to Flannery O'Connor and her famous story about the lame woman seduced by a traveling Bible salesman.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Linked stories were the genre cliche of the 90s

Linked stories were truly the cliche of the 90s, after the great but brief short-story renaissance, after the great territory was opened up primarily by Raymond Carver, with his deceptive stories that looked so easy to do but were easy to do badly and nearly impossible to do well. But in Carver's wake followed thousands of would be minimalist story writers, and then as things happened many of these writers wanted to conquer the mountain and write a novel - the linked story became the easy path up the hill, and a perfect route out of grad school and into an assistant professorship - I was told once that virtually every candidate applying for an opening at RIC was allegedly working on a collection of "linked stories," and I believe very few of those were ever published. There were a few monuments of the genre - Monkeys being among the better and among the first. Edwige Danticat's "The Dew Breaker" is a later strain of the genre, from 2004 I think. Her strength is first of all that each of the stories stands very well on its own, second that they share a cultural setting and a wistful mood and that the don't feel like a cliff notes version of a novel, and third that there's variety of tone and voice from story to story. First four all concern Haitian immigrants to NYC, their said separation from the homeland, their struggle to get by in low-paying jobs and poor housing. Takes a bit before we realize that 3 of the 4 clearly are about the same family, though seen from different POVs (the 4th probably is, too, but the connection not yet clear). She plays the stories like pieces in a mosaic, willfully deciding against presenting the elements in chronological sequence - by the end we will, or should, have a more complete picture.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Deeply flawed but thoroughly credible characters - Franzen, and Tolstoy

Discussing the end of Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" (spoilers, obviously): It is of course a surprise that Patty and Walter do get together, but then once they reconcile it feels like an inevitability. Through the course of this fine novel, we sometimes hate them - Walter in particular becomes more of a crank throughout the book - and often feel sorry for them and generally, love em or hate em, we understand them, a great tribute to Franzen's writing and thinking. How many other contemporary books really do explore character so thoroughly, really unfolding the way they think and react and feel, and exploring their family history, their background, their whole lives really? By the end, it's good they got back together - why should both continue to suffer? Franzen's a strange talent - the knock on him is that none of his characters is likable, but that's not so, his characters in Freedom are deeply flawed but thoroughly credible. Franzen's obvious model is Tolstoy, War and Peace especially, and he even references it occasionally in Freedom, and the last chapters feel especially Tolstoyan, as we see the characters in a kind of coda, about six years after the key events in the novel conclude, and they're much more mature and serene and willing to come together and reconcile their hurts and differences. Patty - we see it at the end - was always destined for the upright Walter, and Walter will try, in his way, to do good and to get along in the world. All the turbulence and hatred is behind him at the end. Should there have been a scene of true confrontation between Patty and her horrible mother? Yes, probably, Franzen lets her mom off too easily, but the scene in which Patty asks her mother why she never came to her b-ball games is probably more true to life than a blowout confrontation would have been. All told, a really strong novel, beautifully written and conceived, worth the wait.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

One way not to resolve a plot : Franzen's Freedom

A word of advice to all novelists : don't kill of your characters (especially toward the end of a book) with a car accident. It doesn't work, doesn't ring true. I know that people do die in car accidents and I know a few writers (Charles Baxter, old friend) have made this device work - but as a rule it doesn't, it feels like the author intruding in order to resolve plot difficulties. A crashed vehicle sure relieves the author of a lot of pressure, right? I would not say that Jonathan Franzen is running out of steam toward the end of "Freedom," in that the novel is still roiling with energy and great insights, some incidental and some innate to the story - like few other writers he really does work to plumb the depths of his characters' psyche and history, and with each succeeding chapter we feel we understand them more, they are characters to continue to grow and unfold through the course of the book - but Franzen did have to resolve (spoiler alert) the Walter-Lalitha relationship somehow and by sending her careening off the highway in West Virginia he took an easy bye - and also, planted too many heavy-handed clues (drive carefully!) - one of the few slips in this pretty powerful book. I'm in the home stretch, as Franzen wraps with a "six years later" section, inspired I would guess on Tolstoy's serene conclusion to War and Peace, not exactly on the same order of magnitude, but one of the few American novels that can play in that league. We know the characters very well by the end - do we like them any more? Patty remains the central character, and at this point I'm still not sure what I think about her, which is actually a compliment to Franzen - she's rich with ambiguity, like most people we know.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The needy, the self-centered - and will they redeem themselves?: Franzen's Freedom

Walter reads Patty's confession of infidelity and (worse) lifelong attraction to Richard and sexual indifference to Walter and he flips out and kicks Patty out of his life, and I'm on the verge of feeling a great deal of sympathy for Walter, who rightly feels humiliated and as if he's wasted his life loving Patty, and also feeling sorry for Patty (both of them from horrible families, though in the Tolstoyan manner horrible in completely different ways) as she tries to explain to Walter that she really does love him and want him - a little too late for that, I'd say, but still - and then you feel, hey, what the hell: Walter's all too eager to take up with his young assistant, Lalitha, and Patty (we saw this in an earlier scene) debarks straight for Richard's doorstep (you'd think she'd have some friends, somewhere, who would take her in?), so ultimately you feel, or I feel: to hell with them, more despicable characters who had tough childhoods, sure, but never grew up, remained perpetually needy and self-centered. Are these typical Jonathan Franzen characters? Is this what "Freedom," with all the meanings of that title, is all about? It's a book, much like The Corrections, that you can love reading but that you can't really love because it's so cold at its heart and so dark in its deterministic view of human nature. Can Walter redeem himself in the last 100 pages? Could anyone? We see him at the big news conference opening the body-armor plant tell off the corrupt mining company and defense contractor (easy targets for sure), in a scene much like the rampage at the end of Bonfire of the Vanities, but I don't know if he will become a better person or just continue with his indulgences, somewhat less guilt-wracked.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

For the spoiled brats in Freedom: I say to hell with them

A hundred or so pages back Joey told his dad, Walter, that he was in trouble, and now (about p 450) we find out why: Joey cut a deal as a "sub-sub" with a sleazy right-wing friend who was supplying crappy Polish-made trucks to the US forces in Iraq - Joey to supply spare parts and turn a $50k investment into $500k. He gets the parts from Paraguay, ships them - predictably, as he sees on a news report, they fail and an American convoy gets stranded and wiped out. Should he go public with this news? Good question - but it's all set on shaky ground, as I'm never convinced a spoiled and sheltered kid like Joey could have brought off this kind of deal. I thought he was going to be wiped out and deep in debt. We also see in this section how Joey secretly married Connie, a deeply troubled young woman, they flew off to Argentina with Jenna. Jenna is as unlikable as they come, and Joey not much better. What a dark view of humanity Jonathan Franzen has! People get worse as they get older, and the each generation is nastier and more self-involved than the last. "Freedom" is one of the most compelling books I've read this year, and it will no doubt be on many year-end best lists, even mine, but it's a book without any lightness of being, its characters are all in ruins. Some have said Franzen does not write well about women, but the most sympathetic character is Patty Bergland - though she becomes quite the harridan, estranged from her husband and kids, at least we see in her case why: her own horrible parents. She's a character who deserves better (maybe her husband, Walter, does, too). For the rest of the spoiled brats in "Freedom" (another Franzen irony is the title itself), my attitude is: to hell with them.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why do all the characters become as awful as their parents? : Franzen's Freedom

Joey told his dad, Walter, that he's in a lot of trouble and now, piece by piece, we're completing the picture of his trouble - all of his own doing. He's a selfish, nasty, self-centered kid who's had everything handed to him and screws it all up. Again, he keeps within the pattern of the book, which is reaction formation - he does all in his power to be different from his parents and becomes equally horrible in a different way. That pattern I can understand. I can't quite understand the drift that goes on within generations. Patty & Walter Bergland seemed like a perfectly "nice" couple who broke free of terrible childhoods, found each other, found some meaning in life and family. And what happened? Why do they, over the course of the novel, become as awful as their own parents, though in a different way - drinking, fighting, cheating? Walter at least seems to have some political values - although he betrays his values given the opportunity - working for a nature conservancy controlled by a pillaging coal magnate. Compelling as I find Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom," I'm disturbed by the darkness of his view of humanity, by the little shop of horrors that forms the gallery of his characters. It's beyond satire - I don't think satire is hi milieu - it's just a grim expose of how people behave, or misbehave. The book is losing is moral anchor, as Patty, the "nice" daughter/wife/mother, goes down the tubes. I am about 2/3 of the way through and hoping that the characters, at least one character?, will learn something and mature and show a sign of maturity and hope.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Franzen and a word I (almost never) use : Irony

Back in the '70s there were about a million doctoral dissertations, articles, books with the word "irony" in the title (you could look it up), it was the mode of the era - cool, snarky, we're so hip and with it that we're saying this but really meaning that, or, conversely, the author's saying this but he doesn't even know that he's really saying that, etc. - it was not my favorite mode, I don't believe I ever wrote about it, the politically aware (few) of us believed in dialectics, not on the one hand, on the other hand, but these two forces in opposition will collide and lead to change. That said, irony makes a little comeback in today's coolworld, and Jonathan Franzen has some fun with irony in "Freedom" : as four characters gather in the Bergland Georgetown home to plan for Walter's next big charity-foundation, limiting population growth, the irony being (none too subtle) that the meeting is seething with sexual tensions and jealousies and anxieties, and in the broader scheme the entire novel is about how children overcompensate for the sins of the parents and in the process recreate those sins or create new ones (the antithesis) on their own: distant parent leads to overprotective daughter which leads to rebellious son. Zero population growth could resolve all the problems delineated in Freedom. In fact, if could alleviate every problem in our civilization - but it won't happen. Better to find another planet to colonize. Franzen is extremely smart and observant and this novel is anything but tendentious - its little dash of irony may be bit heavy-handed, but the story clips along, compellingly.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Franzen's women: strong, competitive, attractive - too subservient?

The next section of Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" belongs to Walter, as we travel with him and his beautiful assistant, Lalitha, through W. Va. where they complete the sleazy deal to save the wilderness by opening it up to coal mining. Walter is a somewhat confusing character, less well realized than the others in this book. As a college student he was a nebish and generally unimpressive - winning the prize, Patty, through his dogged devotion and persistence. It's odd, then, that as a 47-year-old he's testy and argumentative - perhaps we're to see this as the effects of a ruined marriage (Patty's gotten pretty testy herself). Also puzzling as to why he's so attractive to Lalitha. Bit of an aging male fantasy there - also in the case of the washed-up musician, Richard Katz, although there at least there's the attraction to a one-time celebrity in a hip field. The magnetic attraction of these older guys is one of the flaws of this novel and in Franzen's thinking. But not a fatal flaw. It's still a pretty powerful section of the novel, as we get great description of the wracked WVA landscape and of some of its scarier inhabitants. Subtheme is son Joey's ongoing relationship with the devoted, nearly Stepford-wife-devoted, girlfriend, Connie, who come to see him in NYC over xmas break. Praise for Franzen is immense, deserved, but not universal, and I think some of the issue may be women uncomfortable with the role women play in his books - strong characters, competitive, attractive - but ultimately, too subservient and wracked by guilt. We'll see how this plays out, especially with Patty, the most attractive and sympathetic character in this cast.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Likable characters (whom you might not like if you knew them as we, privileged readers, do) : Franzen's Freedom

Next section of Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" centers on Joe(y) Bergland, now a freshman at UVA, separated from girlfriend Connie and struggling to establish or restore his relationship with his mother, Patty, the central character in the novel. By this point a clear pattern emerges in the novel and in Franzen's overall sense of character and family dynamics: we have see Patty, with her distant parents, struggling her whole life to win approval and recognition, primarily by being "nice" and a great mom, and now we see her son, smothered by Patty's over-involvement, rebelling and separating, spends last two years of h.s. living (next door) with girlfriend, then off to college and pushing Connie away from him as he tries to live "on his own" - and his behavior is totally "not nice." Generations alter between overly likable characters (though you might not like them if you really knew them in the way we, privileged readers, know them) and overly unlikable characters (though you might like them if you really knew them the way we know them). In fact, part of the beauty of Franzen's writing is his sympathy for all of his characters, or at least his willingness to and ability to open them up to us, to let us see the struggles they go through to realize themselves, their conflicts and fears and foibles. His characters are more fully rounded that almost any others of recent fiction, at least since the Rabbit novels (which Franzen's recall, in their exploration of families, across generations, and in particular in their awareness of culture tags and moments in a way that fully recalls the time and place without ever being showoff with brand names and name checks).

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A second type of novel - better? worse? - emerges midway through Freedom

Jonathan Franzen introduces a new and possibly the dominant plot element in "Freedom" toward the end of the second long section (2004) as burned-out 40ish Indie rocker Richard lunches with his old college pal and estranged best friend, Walter (central figure in first part of book) and (new character) Walter's beautiful and enamored assistant, Lalitha. Franzen's terrific writing sags a bit in this portion of the book, as he uses this conversation to unspool a great swath of plot: wealthy industrialist has set up an environmental foundation - Walter's the director - to save an endangered bird (cerulean warbler, pictured strikingly on the cover, and remarked upon in all Franzen interviews that note his interest in bird watching), but the foundation seems to have some nefarious ulterior motives, like clearing land for coal mining, which Walter excuses or ignores. In other words, Walter has sold out his soul. Richard is both proud of Walter for attracting an acolyte like Lalitha and immensely jealous, wanting Lalitha's intentions (he always competes with the hapless Walter) and wonder about the state of the marriage (Patty is in the background in this section, torn by guilt). The influences in this section of the novel range from Roth (the transcribed interview of Richard, with his snarky answers to the student's questions, could come from a tortured Rothian artist) and, who knows?, maybe to Stieg Larsson, with the clumsy unfolding of the plot mechanics - but hoping the writing gets back on track as we probe deeper into the process of Walter's downfall. But it does seem to be a different kind of novel emerging nearly midway through the book. Better? Worse? Not sure.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Franzen in the tradition of the great naturalists - Flaubert, Stendahl, Tolstoy

As foreseen, Patty has sex with Richard and of course she's excited by him in ways she never has been by her kind and tepid husband, Walter. And of course, nice person that she is, she's torn by guilt and remorse - continues to pursue Richard, lies to Walter, gets deeper into drink, grows farther from her children. Franzen gives a terrific account of her visit to daughter at college - filled with tension and estrangement. Patty has managed, in some ways, to replicate the failures of her own mother. Literary references and echoes abound: DH Lawrence and War and Peace, in particular. Then moves onto 2nd section of the book, 2004, this one evidently more focused on Richard and his waning career as a musician - a brief late-life success as an indie-rocker, based on album Nameless Lake inspired by his wistful longing for Patty (she's well aware of the connection but of course the hapless Richard is not). Richard, having burned through the earnings of his brief success, is back to building rooftop decks for Tribeca plutocrats. And Patty and Walter have moved from St Paul to Georgetown - which evidenty will be the first (for final?) stage in their tragic downfall. Sorry to dwell so much on plot here - but Franzen among contemporary writers really thinks about plot and about character as well. Though some fault him for over-writing, and he even jokes himself about getting the story moving, I find "Freedom" really compelling and completely credible. His characters are people we've all known and their agonies are those we've all experienced. So much of literature today is drawn from the exotic - it's as if few are willing or able to examine our own time and place unless in a satiric or ironic format. Franzen - like very few others (Joseph O'Neil may be one) - is truly in the tradition of the great naturalists, Flaubert, Stendahl, Tolstoy.