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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

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Eudora Welty's amazing output during the 1940s

The third collection in Eudora Welty's "Collected Stories," from 1949, is apparently a group of linked stories - set in the fictional Morgana, Miss., and with overlapping characters and plot elements, a format somewhat unusual in the '40s but very prevalent today, to the point of being a cliche. I'm struck by a few things from the first two stories: first of all, Welty's astonishing output during a short span - 3/4s of her lifetime of short fiction produced or at least published in the 1940s! - three very strong and distinct volumes, each with several classic stories. Not sure why her productivity slowed in later years, though perhaps she turned toward novels (and her late, excellent memoir, The Optimist's Daughter) - in this third collection she is definitely interested in the network of characters that can make up a novel and in the longer form - the second story, which I'm still reading, June recital, is nearly novella length in itself. Also struck by the recurrence of the Welty themes: women abused, mistreated, or abandoned by their men (Shower of Gold), attachment to and even obsession with the houses of childhood, nursing the ill, voyeurism (June Recital), the link between sex and death of sex and suffering (couple in June Recital sneak into a semi-abandoned house to have sex, next-door neighbor sickly boy spies through telescope, sees someone try to set fire to the house). Third, struck by the re-emergence of Welty's comic narrative voice, something she beautifully established in some of her first stories, notably the famous Why I live at the P.O., but then moved away from as she tried different narrators - literary omniscient third person in particular - but her ease with comic Southern vernacular is a real gift and she uses it well in this third collection, particularly in Shower of Gold, which one of the characters narrates in a direct address form to the reader.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sex in the fiction of Eudora Welty

I don't know very much about Eudora Welty's life - I believe she never moved from her family home in Jackson and never married, but I have no idea whether she had any long-term or even short-term partners of either gender - she's of a place and generation in which personal life was private and what's public is only her published work - however, from that published work, it's obvious hat sexuality and sexual relations were a foreign land for her, fraught with strangeness and mystery and fear. Few of her stories, at least in the first two collections in her "Collected Stories," have any sexual themes whatever, but when there is love and passion in her stories it's either mystical and unrequited (A Memory) or full of pain and suffering - At the Landing, her last story in her collection A Wide Net, being a great example. It's a fairly long story, one of the few broken into parts, about a young and very shy woman who lives in apparently one of the grander houses in a backwater town, with her elderly and ill father, neither of them socializing at all with anyone in the community, but when her father dies, a man in town starts paying attention to her, then, during a tremendous flood, rescues her in a boat, feeds her steak and fish he's caught, then, in a scene of about half a sentence, has sex with her. After the flood she goes looking for him, leaves town for the first time, waits for him by the riverside, is brutally raped (again, a scene with no description whatsoever) by a gang of fishermen, end of story. Readers can't help but wonder the extent to which Welty identifies with this protagonist - one of her many lonely, shy, and housebound women, devoted to an ill and elderly man - and what it says about her view of love, sex, and men. Certainly, she is not comfortable with these topics and writes about them only with the greatest indirection or as melodramatic flashes within a thoughtful and atmospheric longer piece.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Eudora Welty and the issue of race

Livvie is one of the stronger stories in Eudora Welty's 2nd collection, A Wide net, in her "Collected Stories," a fairly simple narrative about a young woman (16) who marries a much older man, Solomon?, who takes her to his house in a remote section of the Natchez Trace, Mississippi, where he more or less keeps her imprisoned. Oddly, she seems to like the life and to love him, though without any great passion or reflection. Welty describes the "nice" house over several pages - some of her very best descriptive writing - an extraordinarily precise and surprising collection of details, the palmetto wallpaper, the hen feathers in the jelly jar, the black cap hanging from a peg - she does, after all make this remote house sound cozy and well cared for, but who would want to be there? to live there? There's an edge, a creepiness to this story - and then Solomon gets ill and Livvie tends to him, and she thinks a bit about the wider world, wandering off through the brush and fallen leaves, another beautiful passage - then meets one of the field hands (apparently works for Solomon, but she is never allowed to speak to them), who follows her home, Solomon wakes from near death, sees them, utters a malediction, and dies - and life goes on. Not much to the story, on some level, but on a deeper level it's about a whole life, and about a way of life, not mostly gone, seen and felt from the inside, from Livvie's naivete. It's also one of Welty's few early stories about black people, yet notably there is no interaction among the races - Welty's early stories reflect separation of races in the South in her time, yet they don't really reflect in any way on the issue of race - though later in her career she does.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Book Group visits the Goon Squad

Book group - generally agreed that Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad" was a challenge to read, in that it tells a story, but not in sequence and that each chapter is a separate entity and you have to adjust your thinking with every new chapter - different lead characters, different voices and modes, different time settings. TP particularly irked by this difficulty and wonders if Egan just being perverse or if there was a reason - I suggest the reason is on one level simply to keep us more alert and engaged, but also that she is primarily a short-story writer and each of these stands or could stand independently. MR reads a glowing, almost fawning review in the Guardian, and I wonder whether reviewer really loved the book as much as she said: it's one thing to describe everything a novel is or that the author intends it to be and another to actually like the book and enjoy reading it. Some, esp BR, admired the humor. Ultimately, I felt that Egan for some reason is writing a novel about very unlikable characters - but, like all authors, she does like her characters, and she is a nice person who genuinely wants good things to happen to these characters - and thus the dichotomy of this book, they're characters who should be doomed, but they're not, she finds (somewhat) happy endings for them. I was not convinced that she truly knows about the music industry - and M concurs, having heard that she didn't when starting out but did "research" - well, it feels that way, the music characters are pretty much just the stereotypes that any of us could imagine without doing the research, she doesn't really surprise is with rounded and complex people - it's a book for people (like us) who don't know the music business and like to think we do, or could. Several of us (me included) found that most compelling chapter to be the search and rescue mission for Sasha in Naples, and I for one wish it had been a little shorter and ended with Sasha rolling her uncle and stealing his wallet, not with his rescuing her - but this chapter feels genuine, as if these are truly people Egan knows, in contrast with the PR chapter and the celeb-journalism chapter, which are broadly humorous but not very knowledgeable about about the industries under satire. Also liked the NYU/suicide chapter - Egan writes well about adolescents under stress, in other words.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Remembrance of books past: Trying to recall a novel I read a month (!) agos

As I continue to read Eudora Welty's "Collected Stories" - noting the unevennes of her 2nd collection, A Wide Net, as suggested in the title - she's trying a number of different styles, and some don't seem to suit her at all - getting ready for book group tonight, which will discuss Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad," and, hm, how much do I remember of this collection/novel, which I read almost a month ago? It was a challenge keeping the threads of the plot together while reading, and more so in recollection; let me try: Central character is Bennie, a music exec, who starts out in a punkish high-school band in SF, meets a music exec from LA (who its on one of the band groupies?) and that guy becomes his mentor, later goes through a series of marriages, death of son by suicide, people visit him on his deathbed in LA - but back to Benny, he gets established in NYC primarily through one band, has a very effective assistant (Sasha?) who becomes the 2nd central character, she has # of problems including kleptomania, unable to have a secure relationship, Bennie's h.s. bandmate comes to see him (brings gift of fish), peripheral stories involve death of young NYU student by drowning and how this affected S's life and Benny's ex-wife and her attempts to manage am musician and run a PR shop - can't recall right now why that went bust - Egan ties up many loose ends at for a "happy" conclusion as Benny promotes his old h.s. buddy on a reunion concert and S or whatever her name is has left the business and enjoys a comfortable family life in a future-setting desert community. Will recall more by tonight and will see how discussion goes.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Alice is great but this story not one of Munro's best

It's Alice Munro, so at least you know the story is going to be worth reading, but Munro has set a very high bar for herself - or we've set it for her - and I think most would agree that Gravel, her story in the current New Yorker, is not one of her best. It certainly has the Munro elements: a strange and tragic childhood incident that haunts the central character over time, the small-town Canadian setting (apparently in the 70s or so, but feels earlier), the stifled housewife yearning to break free of a dull marriage and hoping to find herself through a connection to the arts. And yet - just think of the central act in this story and how poorly it stands up against the similar Munro story in which two girls drown a forlorn fellow-camper, and the action ruins their lives. In this case (spoilers here), an older sister - improbably - tells her younger sib that she is going to jump into the pond and to go seek help. The younger sib, strangely, does not respond very quickly and the sister drowns. This is a story of inaction rather than action: we don't see the most dramatic scene, in fact, the central character, in a Munro-like jump forward into present, says that she is unable to recall the details despite years of therapy. This does not help us, or the story. If I were with Munro in a workshop (hah!) I'd say: let's see the young girl come back to get her mom, let's see her barge in while her mom is having sex or let's see the door locked keeping her out - something to make this more precise and dramatic. Munro can be the master of subtlety and indirection, but this story feels under-developed, a missed opportunity.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The metaphors and hidden meanings of Welty's A Wide Net

Eudora Welty's story The Wide Net, in her "Collected Stories" (and the title story of her 2nd volume, from I think 1943), is one of those that narrate a simple and straightforward action but in fact suggest a far deeper meaning - not that it's an allegory, but that the action of the story is a metaphor of or an "imitation" of a a greater action. The story tells of a young man who comes home from a night of drinking and finds that his wife has gone and left him a note that she's drowned herself in the river. Improbably, he recruits his drinking buddy to help him drag the river to search for his wife's body. The two of them set off and over the course of the morning assemble a comically motley crew of men to help with this weird project, two big families (the Doyles and the Malones - this is in Mississippi, not Ireland), a locutions old "Doc" who loans them the wide net, two black boys (one of the few early Welty stories that includes blacks) - the drag the river, come up with lots of fish and some alligators, stop on a riverbank and cook and eat the fish, all go to sleep, meander on home where, unsurprisingly, the wife awaits. Story in its comic nature and its weird sense of community and common task, is somehow Chaucerian - like one of the "bawdy" tales in its raucous agrarian spirit with allegorical and religious intimations - what is it about? In some ways about a search for truth, god, salvation - hopelessly looking in the wrong place when in fact salvation resides nearby, within grasp? About the hidden plenitude of our world?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why one Edurora Welty short story works and another does not

Am now reading the second collection, The Wide Net, in Eudora Welty's "Collected Stories," these still from the early 40s - she was very productive early in her writing life - and in fact am halfway through the title story, which looks to be one of her best. Struck immediately in this second collection by a few aspects: first, the stories tend to be longer. Welty's first collection, though distinctly her voice and setting, was typical of many first collections in that the stories were relatively short and economical and she was trying several different styles and voices - perhaps, seeking her own best fit. Second collections do tend to have longer stories - writers more confident in their voice, edging toward the prospect of that inevitable novel, allowing their characters to have more space to develop and grow. Also, a bit of fear of burning up all that material - each story a potential novel, now gone. Second, I have to wonder about the first story in the collection, First Love: why that title, that promises a romance, when the story has nothing of the sort (except an unfulfilled man-crush perhaps?). She sets herself a really difficult challenge, a story from the POV of a deaf man and therefore devoid of all dialog, which is giving away her perhaps greatest strength. This story, set in 19th century, does not work at all. She gets under way with the title story, that returns to the qualities that make her great - great dialog, sly wit, odd characters portrayed with great sympathy. Like many fine stories, it focuses on a single action: man's attempt to find his wife, whim he believes may have drowned herself in the river (because we don't believe she did even for a second, the story is comic and odd rather than tragic and highly wrought, but we'll see how it ends).

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The debut of a great American writer: Eudora Welty's first short-story collection

Finished the first "collection" (A Curtain of Green, 1941) in Eudora Welty's "Collected Stories," and can see that it was just a tremendous debut collection, in an era when short stories mattered and magazines actually published them - this collection obviously stood out and introduced a major writer, a writer very much of the South (all but one story set in the South, generally Mississippi) but not regional in the narrow, folksy sense - definitely a national writer. In addition to the obvious and famous standouts, such as Why I Live at the P.O., which truly established Welty's comic voice and wry sensibility, there were a few surprises for me: the very poignant A Memory (I think this and P.O. are the only ones in the fist person, but this narrator so obviously close to Welty that it seems more of an essay/memoir), a slight story on first glance but, as noted in an earlier post, a miniature account of her whole career and sensibility as a writer - turning away from the traditional and the "pretty" and drawing her inspiration from the lively, bumbling, sometimes foolish people all around her - the sand-tossers - while missing out personally on traditional love and marriage. Another surprise: The Death of a Traveling Salesman, a very sad and beautiful story about a salesman, ill, lost in rural Mississippi, taken into a farmhouse and taken care of briefly, and his misjudgments about the couple that takes him in: again, a story of missed connection, of yearning for love that is just out of reach, of the sadness of a life unfulfilled.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Does Eudora Welty write about issues of race?

For all her strengths, Eudora Welty does not write much about the social and political forces that were changing the world around her in the South in the 30s and 40s - at least as evidenced from the first 100 pp or so of her "Collected Stories" - interesting in that the last two stories in the collection, pretty often anthologized but not included in any of her books of stories - are on overt political/topical themes. It will be interesting, reading through the Collected, to see how she evolves toward that more engaged stance. But from the first stories, the ones in Curtain of Green, the South/Mississippi seems frozen in time, relations among the races and classes quit separate and distinct, the world just sleepily edging along. The title story does involve some kind of bonding between an elderly white woman and her black gardener/helper, but the story may as well have been written/set in 1840. Welty is incisive and witty, but not an "engaged" writer. It's interesting to note that the most nearly political story in the collection, so far, involves a married couple, guy out of work and despondent, living in New York - took a while for me even to figure that out, it was such a surprise - and the wife asks the husband if he'd gone to "the demonstration" - so Welty can deal with forces of social change, with the issue of unemployment and despair - but not on her home ground, which, as least to that point in her writing life, she sees as a world almost outside of time, slow and rich and eternal like the Mississippi.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Eudora Welty's story "A Memory" - a metaphor for her whole career

As many writers do in their first collection of stories, Eudora Welty tries a few different styles or modes in her first, A Curtain of Green (picked up in her "Collected Stories") - she brings her sharp observations and her wit to all of them, but some of the stories feel like she's trying on a pair of shes that don't quite fit. A Memory, for example, is a lovely little vignette in which she recalls a day she spent at a lakeshore beach during her high-school years, apparently alone, trying to picture the lake and the white pavilion as something she might paint, and she becomes terribly distracted and disturbed by a rowdy and crude family that settles down near her - the crudity of their behavior, tossing sand at one another, and their rather gross and overweight bodies, disturb her, as she tries to think about the boy whom she has a crush on and is too shy ever to speak to, though their hands brushed once on a stairway - story ends with family leaving, Welty in tears. In a way, it's a metaphor for or precursor of her whole career: while she yearns for some impossible romance that never consummates, her true "material," her work, isn't in the abstract painting but among families just like the one beside her: they're the people who made her a great American writer. Another story, Clytie, is an attempt at Southern Gothic, the ruined, self-destructive family, isolated in the community, tortured by alcoholism and madness, letting nobody into the house except the barber for weekly shaves - it's Faulkner gone nuts, you can see Welty straining for effect, but the story doesn't really fit her and it's a style she will abandon, wisely.

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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Welty's characters v O'Connor's

Writers do love their own characters. We have long and complicated relationships with those we create, and the love can be difficult and challenging - but there you have it. When someone reviewed Exiles and found it a great story with unlikable characters - well, that really hurt - I'd have rather he'd found the opposite. I felt I could never be friends with that reviewer. Been continuing to read Eudora Welty's "Collected Stories" and thinking about her place in the pantheon, and in particular trying to distinguish and identify her style and way of thinking, in part by comparisons with her contemporaries. It's obvious to any reader that both Welty and Flannery O'Connor love their characters and get great pleasure and amusement from creating them, capturing them - particularly the dialogue and humor. It's also obvious that O'Connor's characters are more outsiders, even outlaws - and she has a much greater attraction to the grotesque. O'Connor loves her characters but, I suspect, with a bit of an edge, that it's a judgmental love. She doesn't condone them or their ill behavior, but she uses them as part of a grander scheme: her hard-wrought religious allegories. She will chronicle the sin but will not offer redemption - that's not her province. Welty's love for her characters is softer, at times even sentimental: think of The Hitch-Hiker and compare with A Good Man is Hard to Find: the killing in Welty's story more random and foolish, the main character is a good man, trying to do good in a world gone wrong. Other stories - The Key, The Whistle - show strong sympathy for the poor and dispossessed, something you almost never see in O'Connor.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Is Eurdora Welty a great American writer?

Eudora Welty's story Why I Live at the P.O., in her "Collected Stories," is justifiably one of her most famous, and if you didn't know is the source of the name "Eudora" for one of the earlier e-mail programs. More than any other, I think, this established her as one of the triumvirate of 20th-century Southern writers, each with many similarities (what makes them specific to their region and not just writers of the same place and era) and stark differences (what makes them great), I'm obviously thinking of Flannery O'Connor, whom I posted about yesterday, and Faulkner: yes, they all are comic, are you surprised? There are some truly risible passages of dialogue throughout Faulkner, especially in Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying - but he's a far more interior writer, and far more tendentious, at times pretentious, than EW or FO'C. Those two have many more similarities, as noted, but Welty it seems to me has a lighter touch, she's not as drawn to the gothic or the grotesque, but, like O'Connor (and Faulkner, too) has a great affection for the Southern working class and rednecks, a great ear for dialect, and an arch comic style, very evident in P.O. - you can see, in the characters talking past one another, the quips and cuts, the self-aggrandizement and self-importance, the style that evolved into the weird fiction of George Saunders or the zaniness of the short-lived JK Toole. The question for Welty always: Is there more than meets the eye? Is her comedy just a precursor to Steel Magnolias and a thousand sitcoms, or is she playing for greater stakes? I will keep reading the Collected Stories to get a sense of why, and whether, Welty is a great American writer.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Two titans of the South : Welty and O'Connor

It's amazing how similar - the early stories of Eudora Welty and the stories of Flannery O'Connor, in fact their lives are similar, too, at least on the capsule-biography level, two women of about the same age who, for reasons of health (O'Connor) and temperament (Welty) lived among family in Southern home town, never married, a bit of a literary outsider (O'Connor less so than she let on) whose reputation built slowly, O'Connor's cut short by early death. As to their writings, both write about smalltown Southern communities roughly from the 30s-60s, occasional excursions (by train) to bigger cities (Welty from the larger city of Jackson, O'Connor from small Ga. town but near Atlanta), and about working-class or rural people, gossipy, barely literate, fascinated with the grotesque, many of the stories built upon the arrival of a more-sophisticated stranger in town - just compare for example Welty's Petrified Man with O'Connor's Wise Blood (a novel), for example. In each, lots of carnival people, petty thieves and scoundrels, busy-body gossips. Lots of funny dialogue. One difference: O'Connor's stories often about religious hucksters and, at least according to the author, are built on Christian themes and models (hard to see that sometimes without FO'Cs own explication in her letters); Welty seems more purely secular, but maybe there are depths I haven't plumbed yet - will continue to read more Welty, as I go deeper into her "Collected Stories."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The saddest stories ever : Aleksandar Hemon and others on mortality

The saddest story you'll ever read - not exactly a story, an essay actually - is Aleksandar Hemon's terrifying and beautiful memoir, The Aquarium, in the current New Yorker - about the tragic illness (a rare form of brain cancer) that strikes his 9-month-old daughter. (Spoiler alert here) I've really admired Hemon's fiction, which expertly captures the thoughts and struggles of a European immigrant trying to learn the American culture and build a life - probably characters much like Hemon himself. This essay surpasses everything else he has written and brings him to new, frightening territory. As he notes, there is no way to justify or explain the death of a child, nothing can console and nothing can make the family the same ever again - though wounds do heal, they leave scars. His essay will obviously be compared with Lorrie Moore's famous story The Only People Here are People Like Us (?), and maybe also with two recent essays or stories that appeared in the NYer, Joyce Carol Oates's account of her husband's death and Francisco Goldman's of his young wife's - each of these four about the mysteries of the medical profession and about the cruelty of fate. Hemon's is particularly striking because of his amazing observations; one of the questions is: Why would someone write these stories? And he takes on this question and explores how language makes us whole and makes us human - how stories enable us to imagine the lives of others and thus know what it is to live a life. To all of these fine writers: you have touched the lives of many readers, and your sorrow has moved us. May you continue to grow, to recover, and to write, as you face another day.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The descent of a woman: Interesting story in current New Yorker

Laura Groff's - not a familiar name to me - shows up in the New Yorker summer fiction issue with a pretty good story, Above and Below, somewhat long and peripatetic account of a young grad student or T.A., English, in unnamed Florida university, who more or less goes off the rails and drifts into homelessness and some version of depression or perhaps bipolar disorder. Groff describes in great detail her spiraling descent, and the story has a good pace, keeps moving along as the (unnamed) central character goes deeper toward the bottom - from what starts out as maybe a few days camping at the beach and ends up living out of dumpsters and getting by in what seems like a commune of slovenly outcasts. We feel for this woman and keep hoping she'll get her life back on track but her descent seems so inevitable and unavoidable. She seems to have no friends, and Groff explains her difficult family life, her mother locked into her own problems and despair. As with so many New Yorker stories, this one seems to be a part of a longer work, with a little coda at the end of the story jumping forward several years in time - why do that? It's as if Groff, or the NYer editors, didn't know how to bring this narrative to a conclusion. A few elements were confusing: why is she talking about a "prairie" at the end when the whole story seems to be set in Florida? And what's the time setting? There are references to computers (laptops?) being tossed from a dorm window, but also to pay phones. All of this might be cleared up in the longer work from which this seems to be a selection.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why characters in short stories differ from characters in novels

Short stories tend to be about outsiders and eccentrics. The lead characters and narrators have very little space in which to establish their identities, and as a result they tend to be have extreme behaviors and distinctive traits. The scope of the narrative is small and tight, and therefore short stories tend to have few characters - which also means that stories often involve social isolates. Can you imagine an Austen or a Dickens character in a short story? Can you imagine a Raymond Carver character in a novel? This short story phenomenon parallels the traditional American v British dichotomy: Americans writing about outsiders who "head out for the territories" and British writing about characters yearning for inclusion in society (has much to do with class culture v democracy). There are exceptions to every premise, too: Dostoyevsky certainly writes novels about loners and eccentrics; Updike and Beattie certainly write stories with complex, novel-like social structures. Reading a bit more in Aleksandar Hemon's Best European Fiction 2011, struck by all these observations about the short story, with the added element that European writers, judging from this anthology (or from Hemon's personal tastes) are much more drawn to experiment in form and to narrative ambiguity than are American writers. Frank Berry's Doctor Sot a good example, and a good story: alcoholic doctor drawn to a hippie-type settlement on the outskirts of his town, spends the night there while his jovial wife, back at home, does - something? Not clear even on re-reading what exactly she does: howls at the moon? Who knows? But the story is poignant and also a bit decrepit, like just about every other one I read in this anthology.

Monday, June 13, 2011

European v American short fiction - some thoughts

Poking around in the Alexsandar Hemon collection Best European Fiction 2011, and am struck by a few things: first, almost none of the authors in the collection are familiar (to me) -in fact only one I'm sure I've read before is Hilary Mantel, and her short story, about a girl dying of anorexia, is about as different from her well-known novel, Wolf Hall, as you can imagine: short, contemporary, harrowing. I haven't systematically read through it, but have read some of the stories Hemon singles out in his introduction, and am struck by the differences between this collection and the annual collections of the best American stories or Prize Stories (O.Henry Awards): the European stories are more literary, at least in the sense of pushing the edges of literary form and technique, unusual narratives, a focus on the grotesque and the surreal (Ugliest Woman in the World - about a circus sideshow love affair/marriage; another story entirely about a man in his apartment while a woman he's about to have an affair with freshens up in the bathroom, but then she vanishes - huh?) - compare these with American collections in which the spirits of realism still rules; yes, many of the characters are outsiders and loners, but the stories tend to be told in much more conventional ways - there's much less experimentation with form and point of view. On the basis about just a few stories, it's ridiculous to generalize - the collection may have more to do with Hemon's taste than with an overall cultural trend - but I wonder what it says about the marketplace for literary ideas, in this profit- and celebrity-driven culture compared with the rest of the world.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Where have you been, Jeffrey Eugenides?

Jeffrey Eugenides is, I would guess, a deliberate writer - very limited output over the years, everything he writes is thoughtful and imaginative and really good - Virgin Suicides was a landmark first novel, one of the few to try a first-person plural narrative and to do so successfully, others have tried since and the voice rings hollow. Middlesex was vast, strange, moving, unusual, deservedly and perhaps surprisingly, given its gender-unconventional protagonist, won a Pulitzer, but it did have the vast historical scope and a terrific account of an American urban landscape (Detroit) in time of chaos (70s race riots) - in short, his two novels are in some ways quite conventional and in other ways push boundaries of subject and style. Word in the current New Yorker is that he has a 3rd novel coming out in the fall - and the summer fiction issue contain a Eugenides "story," which I would guess is actually a section from the forthcoming novel - and it bodes well, the piece, Asleep in the Lord, is about an American living in Calcutta in the 1980s, volunteering at Mother Teresa's Home and wrestling, struggling, with issues of his faith: is he doing this work to serve Christ, or to meet some ego need, and are the two needs maybe one and the same? He feels guilty that his faith is not as strong as the faith of the other volunteers, and he finds them stiff, boring - yet he's also repulsed by the other travelers he meets, particularly by one guy who boasts of his sexual exploits in Bangkok. Lot of potential to develop this character and his moral uncertainties into a novel.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Just browsing: How we decide what to read next

Does this happen to you? Need a book to read - finished Visit from the Goon Squad, liked it, but as I often do I move back and forth between classics and contemporary fiction, so poked around among my own library, hm, anything appealing?, not really, obviously have read at least once most of what I want to read or ever will read, Middlemarch has been beckoning for a re-read but it's so long and my pb edition is so beat up and small type - drifted through our nice but very small neighborhood bookstore, which, sad to say, is becoming more of a gift shop every day - at least it's surviving - looked across new fiction, nothing I'd want to read - then into the fiction aisles. Remembering the Proust volume I finished a few weeks ago and thinking of looking for the second volume, Among Young Girls, but, no, they don't even have Swann's Way - remembering looking at the list of Penguin Classics at the back - Master and Margarita? - I've never read it! - but they don't have that either. Bought a gift and left. Today - to the library! Yes, I have on one of my apps a list of books I hope to read, will check it before I go or at the library - will look first at new fiction, just because - but they never seem to have what I want - either too obscure and they don't order it or too popular (I should put books on reserve - but then they seem to come while I'm in the middle of War and Peace) - so will go to the back shelves - who ever browses there? - and see what I find, maybe Master and Margarita after all? Or else: back the New Yorker summer fiction issue, at least for a day or so.

Friday, June 10, 2011

George Saunders, the heir to Flannery O'Connor

George Saunders continues to stake out for himself a unique place among the weird and bizarre of American short fiction - he's the obvious heir to Flannery O'Connor, czarina of the grotesque - but his characters have a 21st-century, sectarian malaise, they're people we know, kinda, or at least people we see without knowing, the ones pushing shopping carts along a broken sidewalk and driving an old Chevy with a tailpipe dragging. Saunders is funny and obsessive and observant, and what's more I think he's improving as a writer as he tries new styles and moves off (some of) his familiar ground. Strangely, he first wrote bizarre stories that edged on the futurism and sci-fi, reminded me just a little of Calvino, about people living in amusement parks of the future, and you'd think that would be a one-trick but he got a lot of material out of that postage stamp of ground. It seems that now he continues to write about the down-and-out, bu with a little more of a contemporary, political edge - he's veering closer to a form of realism. His story, Home, in the current New Yorker, is a good example - about a vet of one of the contemporary wars (which one? Iraq or Afghanistan? Nobody seems to know, which is part of the mystique and critique of this story) who comes home to a broken marriage and a highly dysfunctional family. As with other recent Saunders stories, it starts off comical and becomes more menacing as the narrative proceeds, we're not sure of the depth of the rage that the main character feels nor of what danger he represents to his family and to society. A sly, subtle critique of contemporary culture - and really strangely funny, too, a la O'Connor but with an even sharper edge.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The newly anointed of The New Yorker - but why?

Can someone tell me why The New Yorker has such a jones for Tessa Hedley? Seems there's a story by her in the magazine once a month - she's their newly anointed. There's no question that her writing is good, clean, professional, and that she actually writes stories and not novels that to be artfully sliced into stories for instant publication. There's also a good balance in her work, for American readers, between the familiar (stories set in England, written in English) and the exotic or unfamiliar: she writes generally about working-class life in contemporary Britain, something we don't see much of elsewhere in fiction these days, and not much generally anywhere from a woman's POV - though Pat Barker has done so in a historical context and there's a very interesting Scottish filmmaker exploring similar material (Red Road). All that said, I find Hedley to be kind of a drink of water, her story in current New Yorker, Clever Girl, a good example of her strengths and weaknesses: very carefully set up characters and situation, girl with mom and stepfather moves into new subdivision in Bristol suburb, which Hedley nicely conveys, the smell of cement in the hallway, the treestumps in the half-cleared backyard, the conversations heard through the cheap walls and doors. It's a step up in life, but life is hard. Yet after the set-up, what? Does anything actually happen in this story? Do we actually know anything more about the narrator or her friend, Madeleine, at the end than we did at the beginning? The story is an homage, in a way, to Munro - two girls on the verge of trouble - but the comparison doesn't do Hedley any favors. Not that anyone measures up well against Alice the Great.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Expecting too much from A Visit from the Goon Squad?

The two last stories/chapters in Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad" bring or at least try to bring a bit of closure to this loosely structured novel/collection in which the characters appear in one another's stories so that, by the end, we get a sketch or outline of the life story of at least the two central characters, Bennie Salazar, rock-music producer, and Sasha, his sometime assistant. The last two stories - one imaginatively done as PPT slides by Sasha's daughter sometime circa 2020 reports that Sasha has reconnected with old NYU boyfriend and settled into domestic tranquility after her tumultuous youth and the last story, more conventional, shows Bennie as a 60ish man, remarried with young kids, a minor player in the music business and promoting - through some vaguely defined social-media strategies - a comeback concert by his old high-school bandmate, Scottie. Not sure, overall, what to make of this book. Yes, on the one hand the stories are each pretty interesting and Egan works in a whole gallery of narrative style, from conventional to experimental, a variety of voices and points of view. On the other hand, do these linked stories or chapters really cohere into a larger narrative shape? They do on the level of plot - by the end, we know the facts of the life of a number of characters, especially Sasha and Bennie. But what we gain in scope we lose in depth. I don't feel I know any of these characters deeply, the way I would expect by the end to know the main character of a novel. Perhaps the main character is the music industry itself, how it changes and evolves over time - or perhaps it's meant to be about surfaces, not depths. Perhaps I'm expecting too much, though the book does come at us with an array of prizes and glowing reviews.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Two highlights of A Visit from the Goon Squad

Two pretty good stories/chapters nearing the end of Jennifer Egan's novel/collection "A Visit from the Goon Squad," particularly liked the one about a college student returning to NYU after wrist-slashing suicide attempt, a story with a lot of pathos, the "link" to the rest of the stories is Sasha, the music-biz assistant we met in first chapter, kleptomaniac, unhappy in all her relationships, now we see her in college, at that time in life already struggling with her illness, entered college late (21?) after a few years in Europe, a time, she confesses, during which she stole and sold herself in order to get money to get by - and despite all the grimness of these characters, story is kind of sweet. The guy who tried to kill himself is regretful that he never had a relationship with Sasha, she's now involved with another guy, Drew, and the suicide guy is odd man out - though it's also a bit of a three-way friendship, a la Jules and Jim. Most effectively, Egan gives us the sense of how the kid (he's a 19-year-old football jock, odd for NYU I think) feels that everyone is speaking too carefully to him, afraid of what he might do. End of story very powerful as the two guys swim in the East River - unlikely even on "E," but well conveyed, scary. Next story goes back in Sasha's life to her time in Europe and the efforts of her uncle, a feckless art prof., to find her and bring her home - echoes here of Roth's American Pastoral, though not as grim. Hard to believe how indifferent the uncle is to her, but a pretty good portrayal of a troubled young American girl running away from her life. Egan's greatest strength may be her ability to write about troubled young adults.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Can we care about characters we don't like? A Visit from the Goon Squad

For Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad" to work for me, she'll have to get me to understand and care about a group of people whom I would ordinarily dismiss as egocentric low-lifes and degenerates - and in the initial chapters she does a good job of setting them up as such, drug- and sex-addled leeches sucking the blood of the music industry, people with no talents other than self-promotion and with no loyalty to family and friends and no sense of purpose. They're comical, to a degree, and vividly drawn, but they are in no way appealing characters. Over the course of a novel, we would expect to get to know them more deeply, to see their vulnerabilities and hopes and fears, to know them in a way others, even themselves, hardly know them. A paramount example would be Rabbit Angstrom in the Updike novels, a guy few of us would ordinarily like but whom we come to understand and care for as his personality unfolds, and develops, over time. The problem looming in Goon Squad, as I pass the half-way point, is that, first, Egan seems to be going for breadth rather than depth, introducing many characters at the expense of examining any one in novelistic detail: it's a portrait of an industry and a way of life rather than of any one person. Okay, but satirizing the music biz pretty easy pickings. Second looming problem is that her satire, in Part B, is becoming ever more broad and noncredible, as we read about a minor publicist who takes on a despotic general as a client (hardly likely) and a tepid satire of celebrity journalism. Can Egan get this novel/collection back on track?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bits and Pieces: A novel as literary mosaic - A Visit from the Goon Squad

Finished part A (side A?) of Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad"; although the book (novel?) is a challenge because of the plethora of characters, the shift in POV and protagonist from story to story, and the jumps back and forward in time from story to story and even within stories, without clear narrative or editorial signposts (e.g., a date at the top of each story/chapter?), the work does come together more and more as you go through it - it's a mosaic made of sharply cut pieces of glass that at first look like mere shards (a least-favorite word - so overused as a metaphor - but here I mean it literally) but gradually begin to look like a complete picture. Of what? By end of part A it's evident that it's mostly about Bennie, a very successful record producer, whom we see from his high-school days in SF as a member of a punk band through his time at the top of the industry in NY (would producers have offices in downtown office towers even then?) to the present when he's less sure of himself, aging, impotent, marriage broken up. Around Bennie are his mentor, Lou, whom we also see in his prowess in Safari and on his deathbed in a later story; Sasha, the sexy assistant with a kleptomania problem, possibly Scottie, a bandmate from youth now pretty much on the skids in lower Manhattan. We definitely need to learn more about at least one of these peripheral characters to make the whole story cohere, but we are gradually learning more about Bennie. It's a very unusual way to tell a story - I think she could have been more straightforward and direct with the narration but if she can bring it all off by the end it will be quite an accomplishment.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

World War II/Holocaust novels rediscovered after 50 years

Hans Keilson died yesterday at 100+, his life an amazing story, which you can read of in NYT obit - wrote a few novels in the 40s about life under Nazi rule, resettled in the Netherlands, became a psychiatrist (?) specializing in war trauma, his books faded into complete obscurity, somehow rediscovered supposedly by an editor pawing through a bin of used books, republished and translated, and now his two books, Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key, rightly heralded as two of the best accounts of the sufferings of WWII and the horrors of life under Nazi rule - so how could these two great books be lost to history and saved by chance? How rare that Keilson should live 100 years and see this resurrection! - does it have to do with his retirement from the literary scene, his focus on another field - did he need a promotion machine to keep his works alive and read? Did he settle in the wrong (too obscure) country? Is it a whim or chance or fashion that some writers are world-famous and others are in the dustbin? Makes me realize that there are a number of "discovered" WWII novels come forward in recent years, each with its own weird back story, notably:
Keilson's Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key
Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise - but this one discovered in manuscript and published for the first time in the 21st century - author died in camps, after (unheroically and unsuccesfully) denying her Judaism though heroically writing this great, unfinished novel
Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone - author mentally ill after (and maybe before) war, had some success but then forgotten, now republished and a minor classic
Chang (?) Love in a Fallen City, not all WWII stories, though the title one is, set n Hong Kong, author dies in obscurity in Berkeley many years later - repubished to good notices but still pretty obscure - amazingly good stories

Friday, June 3, 2011

Low-lifes living the high life (for a time): Visit from the Goon Squad

Fourth chapter - or story, if you prefer - in Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad" is the very successful Safari, which first appeared in the New Yorker. As with the first three chapter/stories in this novel/collection, a thin thread ties one to the next - a minor or peripheral character in each story becomes a central character in the next, with minimal overlap of characters appearing in succeeding stories, a lot of jumping in time and place, not just from story to story but also within the stories. As a novel, Goon Squad doesn't have a true narrative arc (at least not yet), but it does have a unifying theme, in that each story is about the rock-music business, primarily from the business/producer POV - and Egan seems knowledgeable about this and able to convey quite effectively the crassness, the sleaziness, and the egotism of this world - a world of low-lifes living the high life (for a time, anyway). Safari is one of the more successful stories in that it does, as most great stories do, focus on a single event - in this case, an attack by a lion during a tourist safari, and how one of the guides, a washed-out drifter, shoots the lion and becomes a hero for a moment, thereby winning (for a night) the affections of the hottie who's accompanying the much-older record producer, Lou. Got it? That's a lot, and the story, as many of Egan's do, has way too many characters to keep straight, but following the main action it's a pretty good evocation of people in transition and distress. Many people will notice how in this story, set in the mid-70s, Egan jumps forward and tells us what became of some of the main characters over the next 40 years - kind of a cheap trick, if you ask me, unfolding a great deal of plot as pure statement, without earning it or developing it. But a worthwhile experiment - some may like it and find it convincing.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Linked Out: Why it's difficult to read a collection of "linked stories"

Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad," now three chapters in, remains entertaining but challenging - each chapter more or less an independent story with links among the characters: i.e., the first chapter focuses on Sasha and references her boss, a music producer, (why do I keep forgetting his name?), second is about the producer going to check on one of his groups, Sasha plays a minor role in this, he thinks about among other things his youth in a punk band in SF, and the third chapter is in fact about him in his youth, but mostly from the POV of one of the girls who hung around with the band back in h.s. days. The challenge isn't so much the shifts in POV or time but in the great proliferation of characters. When we read a collection of stories, we fall into a certain mind set or rhythm in which we re-gear or reorient our mind and expectations with each new story: we start fresh, each character will be new, the situation will be new and it will form an arc and resolve, at least to some degree. When we read a novel, we expect the characters to grow, change, interact with one another, over the course of a long arc of events that will cohere in some linear or logical manner. The linked stories, the fuel that has propelled a thousand MFA writing programs, create a hybrid expectation, and, while the linked stories may be an effective device for a writer, they are challenging for a reader - especially when, as in this case, they're not linked chronologically but thematically.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Lots of promise in the opening of A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan's much-praised "Visit from the Goon Squad" gets off to a promising start - a novel about low-lifes on the periphery of the music business (bit of a redundancy there?) - first chapter story of Sasha, 35, youthful looking, an assistant to a music producer, with a serious streak of kleptomania, she lifts a purse in a hotel lady's room, then returns it remorsefully, goes home with her (younger) date, whom she'd met through a Web site and whom she doesn't care for much, they have sex, she rifles through his wallet, that's about it - but told very artfully, Egan moving effortlessly between straight narrative of Sasha's evening and her later reflections thereon on the couch of her psychologist, Coz. Not sure what to make of the story - but Sasha appears peripherally in second chapter, focused on her boss (Sanchez?), a record producer in NYC, driving off to the suburbs to talk with a sister-group that's no longer very successful and full of angst about his sexuality and his broken marriage. Egan's novel has the potential to be really good, if she can bring these elements together and make this work truly a novel - I am a little concerned that the chapters may be stories strung together without any true plot development - and if she can make it an exploration of depth of character and not a voyeuristic tour into the dark side. Her capacity to use the psychologist (psychiatrist?) for reflection and insight seems a hopeful device. Style is definitely open and readable and funny at times.