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

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

Friday, September 30, 2011

Two guilty men - the old murderer and his neighbor, in Charles Baxter's story

Still suffering from a bit of Red Sox aftershock, but the good news is will have more time for reading in the coming days, months - read one more story in Charles Baxter's collection "Gryphon," the very effective The Old Murderer - what a great title, by the way. Set-up is a man in a perhaps somewhat down-at-heels suburban neighborhood learns that his new next-door neighbor is a murderer who's presumably now out on parole, finished serving his term. The main character has the expected fears and trepidations, and then we learn that the character is an alcoholic trying very hard to stay sober - desperate one night, he calls his AA friend, a surgeon who drank his way out of the profession; we learn that the main character was pretty horrible to his ex wife and kids, and in bits of pieces we learn now horrible - he actually hit his daughter in the face with a book (if I remember this detail right), and of course the irony is that the old murderer next door, who killed his wife, still believes the crime was justified or at least comprehensible, whereas the main character tortures himself with guilt and remorse - and yet the two guys are not so different, you wonder in fact whether they will become friends, despite the obvious strangeness of the murderer: he has a very weird conversational affect, joking about building a spaceship in his basement, and you wonder to what degree he may still be a threat - once you've murdered you will also be a murderer, and there's no escape from that fact or fate. This is one of the more overtly ironic of Baxter's stories, effective in how it incrementally reveals character, but somewhat less plotdriven then his earlier stories - in these later stories Baxter is getting more open in form and slightly more unconventional in style and structure, though he will never be called avant-garde.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Charles Baxter v Joyce Carol Oates: two types of violence

Ghosts, one of the recent stories collected in Charles Baxter's "Gryphon," is one of Baxter's strangest and most elusive stories. A woman - single mom, temporarily living with her father who's recovering from a serious stroke, in front of the house weeding, listening to her infant son via a baby monitor, is confronted by a strange man who stops in front of her house, talks to her, then even follows her into the house - she has to tell him to "please ... get the fuck away." Have you read this far in Gryphon? Then you know that ultimately this man will not physically harm the woman, that no grave accident of event will occur - Baxter's stories almost always gravitate toward the safe and the sane - but this story is disturbing because of what you could call its interior violence, far more troubling than the ultra-violent - imagine how Joyce Carol Oates, for example, would develop a story from this premise. Over time the woman makes contact with the strange man, he actually takes her out to dinner, to the amazement of the woman and one of her friends, they even have sex - and then the man tells the woman that he grew up in the neighborhood (initially, he'd lied and said he lived in that house), that he knew her mom, who was in fact suffering from traumatic stress and was insane, that her mom scared the shit out of him when he was a kid and she burst into his house and tried to kidnap him (she'd lost a 2-year-old to illness). So there's a kind of revenge going on here, but the story is especially haunting because of the delicate way Baxter handles and develops the woman's psyche: how she's drawn to this dangerous man, he meets some need for her, whether penance, or freedom, breaking free from her father, learning the truth about her mysterious mother - no question definitively answered, but a really strong and strange short sketch about a character in crisis and how she emerges whole.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Charles Baxter's most Updike-like story

First of the uncollected Charles Baxter stories in his latest book, "Gryphon," is called Poor Devils - the 8 or so uncollected are all from the past 14 years (since Believers, 1997), and it will be interesting to see how Baxter's style and thoughts have changed or evolved. Poor Devils strikes me as probably his most Updike-like story, not exactly in the style, as his metaphors are apt and often striking but rarely if ever as complex and elaborate as Updike's, but definitely in the world of the characters: a couple recently divorced, cleaning up the house they owned together as they prepare to transfer it to new owners, a young and hopeful couple. the story examines the tensions, particularly the sexual tensions, in the marriage, now over - and touches on the infidelities, both parties, and on the professional failures, especially his, a mediocre artist who'd dreamed of fame and will never have it. In Updike-like manner, the two of them begin t get it on with each other - but they do break it off, she has to leave, on a date, apparently - she says little about that - and he's left alone with his frustrated desires and his sense of loss. Reminds me a little of that great Updike story about a divorced husband/father called back to his ex's home to do some repairs - also a wonderful Chabon story about a couple that has sex in the bedroom of a house they're looking at with a realtor; it's a good story, unusual for Baxter in its coldness and blunt sexuality, but does explore his familiar themes of broken relationships and of good people trying to move on with their small-town, curtailed lives.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rescue and redemption in Charles Baxter's short stories

Another Charles Baxter story from his 1997 collection, Believers, reprinted in his latest collection, "Gryphon," that shows the typical Baxter sensibility: divorce, disaster, loneliness, rescue, redemption: a father with teenage children in an unspecified Midwest locale gathers family to watch and enjoy the flooding of a local river - references to how what used to be seen as a natural disaster is now enjoyed as a local spectacle, which hints at some grander movement in American culture, in which everything is entertainment, the National Parks a version of Disneyland?, and then the real theme of the story emerges: first wife has apparently returned to town in part to visit with teenage son, which brings forth waves of sadness and jealousy on part of dad/husband, he recalls how beautiful his ex-wife was, how he couldn't believe she would fall for him (bearish and homely), and his feeling of desolation and failure when she left him (and their young son), not for another man but just to be alone with her beauty - and now he's remarried, with a new wife - both were nurses - and she's maybe not as beautiful but amazingly caring and not threatened by the return of the ex. Husband goes out for a drive, sees son and ex across the flooded river from him, wades into the water, prepares to swim toward them, is swept away - nearly drowns - but somehow son pulls him to shore, the ex notes that he's in shock, they get him into the warm car and all is OK: other writers would have pushed this story toward tragedy or even melodrama, but Baxter believes in redemption, maybe in resurrection - hos stories hover on the edge of darkness but move toward the light.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Three thoughts about Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome

Following book-group discussion last night, three additional observations about Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome": First, most American fiction of the 19th century and early 20th century contained the idea of freedome and the possibility of escape, whether to the West and "the territories" (Huck Finn), to sea (Melville), to Europe (James, Hemingway, Fitzgerald) - the country seemed open to many possibilities, not the least of which was the possibility of starting over; but Ethan Frome is a claustrophobic novella, though there is a wistful reference to a character to went West and made good, that escape is impossible for Ethan and for any of the characters - they're stuck. Second, as much as anything else this is a book about poverty, rural poverty in particular. The Tea Party ought to read it; is this the world they would want, in which the "government" does nothing to promote the welfare of anyone, in which everyone is completely dependent on their fate and their families, and a poor girl like Mattie is confined to a life of misery, perhaps of prostitution, because her family went broke? Third, is Zeena really as horrible she appears in this novella? No doubt, she is a nasty person, a harridan, a bully, possibly a liar - but Wharton goes through a great deal of trouble to set up an elaborate narrator scheme here - this is not told by an omniscient narrator but by the young engineer, who apparently gets most of his information from Ethan - and how reliable is Ethan's account? Zeena is just as desperate as Mattie - without her marriage and without Ethan to run the farm, she would also be confined to the poor house, so is she wrong to recognize the threat Mattie raises to the marriage and to try to get her the hell out of there? All the perceptions of Zeena are Ehtan's - of course he would see her as cruel and nasty, because she stands in the way of his gratification. The only scene in which we actually see her shows herr to be a caring person, nursing the ill and injured Mattie (as she once did Ethan's mother). There may be layers of complexity not evident on first read-through.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Rolling Stones, terrorism, and Charles Baxter's fiction

Two stories from Believers (1997) collected in Charles Baxter's "Gryphon" show very different sides of Baxter and his sensibility: Kiss Away is one of the longest of his stories, but touches on the familiar themes and settings - Midwestern, young single woman, somewhat intellectual (listens to rather obscure classical music, as do many Baxter characters) and intelligent but a real underachiever, unemployed and near poverty, meets an ambling free spirit, and, after an improbably long period during which they have breakfast together every day and plan a job hunt, they finally have sex and she totally falls for him - and then an ex contacts her and tells her very frightening secrets about the guy - but are they true? Is he a violent psychopath, or is the ex a crazed and jealous destructive woman? Many writers would play up the dark side of this, have the relation actually become violent or have the relation break off and the characters end in sorrow, but Baxter brings the young couple together at the end, triumphing over this adversity - but characteristically with dark and mysterious background notes, especially the weird echo of the Stone song (from which the title comes) with it haunting recollection of Altamont and death. A second story, much shorter, The Next Building I Plan to Bomb, is in far darker hues and one of the few in which Baxter indulgences in some surreal imagery: a seemingly very straight-laced banker find a possibly threatening note and it sends him on a course toward his own destruction - we surprisingly learn that this guy picks up male hookers and takes them to cheap motels, then tries to work this out in therapy. As we watch his personal struggles, the threatening note, which many characters dismiss as a prank or misinterpret, hovers in the background, menacing everything - much like the threat of terror in our lives today, everywhere.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Realism, Hyper-realism, Charles Baxter's short fiction

Next three stories from Charles Baxter's 1990 collection brought together in his collection "Gryphon" all have simple titles and are rather traditional stories: a boy goes out for a drive with his older brother, who picks up his girlfriend, a kind of initiation for the younger brother; a man becomes obsessed with the problem of the homeless and errantly brings a homeless man into his tidy home with kind of dire consequences; a young Swede on a business trip to Detroit meets a beautiful young woman and oddly falls in love with her (in one day) and she jilts him. Okay, none of these is particularly dramatic - in fact, the capsule summaries of each that I just wrote make each one sound more dramatic than it actually is; for example, the homeless man: can you imagine how much devastation he could have caused? (Did you see Boudu Saved from Drowning, or Down and Out in Beverly Hills), destroying the house, freaking out the kid, breaking up the marriage? But in Baxter's distinct and recognizable style, the stories touch on the odd and the dangerous but revert back to a default position of normal - his characters are kind and gentle souls, caring, a bit foolhardy, and they do crazy things (going to a park in Detroit to pick up a girl?), and though things tend to work out okay they are in some way moved and changed by their experiences - much as in life. Baxter's stories are in that way hyper-realistic - not the pared-down realism of a Carver but hyper-real like a high-def photo, that makes you scrutinize what's in the picture and ponder what's outside the frame. The true model may Chekhov.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A uniquely Midwestern type of alienation: Charles Baxter's stories

An incredible loneliness and isolation permeates Charles Baxter's late 80s stories collected in "Gryphon." Read two of the five from this period last night, and both involved that familiar type in American fiction, especially short fiction: the loner, the outsider. In one, a 40ish divorcee who enjoys teaching an evening class in composition, takes his mother to the class - she's an elderly radical/leftist, and she builds a grater sympathy with the students than he's ever able to accomplish - but in a sweet way, it's obvious how much he loves his somewhat daffy mother, and it's obvious that he has a sweet relation with a new girlfriend - they both enjoy skating at night - and that she's very kind to his mother as well, even if her kindness is not reciprocated. Next story from this period concerns a middle-aged man somewhat depressed who meets a teenage waif at the Detroit zoo, buys her a hamburger and takes her home to her working-class suburb where her dad, a single father, at first suspicious of this stranger eventually befriends him - two lonely guys puzzled by the mysteries of women and of their lives. This story strikes me as a little weaker; the central character well into the story goes home to his wife and kids and then later on an excursion to a shopping mall where they see the waif's dad participate in some kind of Santa contest? This part of the story feels disconnected from the rest - the character seems so unlikely to be a married man, and if he is one, his marriage should be much more tense and on the wane - it's full of latent longing and perhaps latent homosexuality, but CB pulls away from these themes rather than develop them. As noted in previous posts, he has a uniquely Midwestern sense of alienation: the loners who haunt the short stories of his contemporaries such as Carver or Ford turn out to be far more well-meaning and kind than we'd ever expect them to be.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Two ways in which Charles Baxter is a Midwestern writer

The next 4 stories in Charles Baxter's "Gryphon" are from the early 80s, his 2nd book (Harmony of the World) and first from a commercial/major publisher. You can see from these four why he was truly an emerging writer by that time in his career - they have an totally odd and disconcerting style: easy, calm, and colloquial in style - very Midwestern, you might say - but jarring, bone-in-the-throat in content: stories about near suicides and sudden deaths and bizarre and threatening behavior, the stormor the chasm beneath the surface (also very Midwestern?). This group includes the title story for the collection, "Gryphon," a powerful story told in first person about a substitute teacher and how she torments the children in a small-town 5th-grade class - she thinks she's being inspirational and creative, but disturbs them with near psychotic statements such as sometimes 61 plus 5 does not = 66, when I say so. Finally pulls out a Tarot deck and begins telling fortunes, tells one kid he will die: the kid is then damaged, marked, and else terrified. The one off note in the story is that the kid tells the principal and the teacher is fired immediately - maybe that's what really happened (story seems very much close to something that may have happened to B., although I suspect he didn't fight with the death-marked kid), but it also seems to force the story to shy away from its consequences. My own school experience was that authorities always sided with the teacher (though subs may be different). Other stories in this section about the sudden death of a child and the withering death of a relationship are profound, disturbing, and distinctly Baxter's in tone.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Charles Baxter's short fiction: the first stories

Started latest book from old friend Charles (Charlie) Baxter, "Gryphon," last night, a selection of stories from across his long and glorious career, about half the stories in the selection from his three or four collections, dating back to the 70s, and the remaining are from the past 10 years or so, I think, and to date uncollected. Some of these I've read before; most, not. Started last night with the first three, which are from his earliest collection, ca 1985, originally from U. of Missouri Press, later picked up by Vintage (amazing how hard it is for commercial publishers to recognize great talent and promise, until others have recognized it for them). The first three stories share Baxter's special sensibility and style: a kind of flat and unaffected dialog, a bit in the tradition of Raymond Carver, who reigned supreme in the 80s, but with a bit more quirkiness and humor - the characters talking at cross-purposes and not truly understanding one another. The first, The Would-be Father, introduces elements that will be in many other Baxter stories and novels: the unexpected, tragic death from car accident of a young couple, an older person who's on the verge of delusion or dementia (2nd story about a 52nd anniversary non-celebration picks this up as well), the sensitivity to the flat, rural Midwestern landscape. The 3rd story, Harmony of the World, told in first person - making me wonder about why first-person narratives are easiest to read, more on that in another post - shows Baxter's wide-ranging intelligence and curiosity, about a failed musical prodigy who links, unhappily, with a troubled young woman who believes she can perform as a classical singer. Baxter incorporates lots of info about music, performance, and rather obscure musicians, but characteristically he does so very deftly, it doesn't feel pedantic or boastful but like a pleasant and accurate emanation of thought and knowledge from the narrator himself.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The New Yorker takes a chance!

Catching up: Last 12 posts were from the road, from my iphone, apologize for the many typos, for the short and truncated thoughts, for the superficialities, and for any other shortcomings - blame it on the technology. Much better to post @ home and from a desktop!

The New Yorker this week actually takes a chance and publishes a new writer, evidently at the beginning of his career (an MFA student in Wyoming, no less, according to the notes), Callan Wink, who steps in with a story called, I think, Dog Run Moon. It's obvious why the editors selected this piece: Wink's writing is strong a sharp and funny and full of regional details, might remind readers of some of the other tough-guy (mostly Western) writers who've come along, variously including Carver (the best), Thom Jones (where has he been), TC Boyle, and Denis Johnson, and might add Annie Proulx, at least for attention to landscape details. Story briefly about a working-class young guy recently broken off a long-term relationship living in a trailer in a lumber town and working at the saw mill, steals (or liberates, as he prefers) a neighbor's dog and, when the guys find out he's stolen their dog and come after him with a knife and gun he takes off, running naked with the dog beneath the moonlight (see title). The writing is totally captivating and his description of the menacing characters very on point and powerful. If I may quibble with this very good and very promising story, I'd have to say it's very hard to buy into this premise: would even a mournful and jilted and depressed and desperate young man do such an act, steal a dog and then run off - naked - with the dog and two madmen in pursuit on an ATV? Could anyone run through the night, eluding pursuers? Well, the whole story may be symbolic on some level, a level I missed - but I'll take the story for what it is, a glimpse into the developing possibilities of a talent on the rise.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Henry James The Aspern Papers

September 19, 2011

So now Juliana Borderleau is certain that the unnamed narrator is in search Aspern's love letters to her and she meets with him and tries to get him to sign a six-month lease and he, incredibly stupidly, thinks she is getting greedy inspired by his initial offer to rent a suite. To us it's obvious where she's going: her interest is in building a life for her niece, Tita, and she is trying to keep the narrator there as long as possible in hopes of building a relation between the two. The question is does she really have papers to let him have in return or has he just been caught in a trap of his own making? again we see the essential James theme played out before us - the clash between art and love or between ambition and devotion There is mp question what J would choose but he's a smart enough writer to use the fictional premises to examine the consequences of decisions he would never make.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Henry James The Aspern Papers

September 18, 2011

The (unnamed ?) narrator of The Aspern Papers is one of those opaque narrators whom we can see right through - about halfway through the novella he tells TIta that he is a huge devotee of Aspern and even confesses that he writes about Aspern - and he actually believes that she can't see through his ruse that she doesn't realize then if not sooner that he's rented the apartment from them in order to get access to Aspern's letters? Of course she sees this and she's preparing to strike a bargain with him. He doesn't even get it that Juliana wants to speak with him not to discuss the valuable letters or the stupid flowers he has promised the women but to try to arrange a marriage for her niece TIta. So the narrator takes TIta for a gondola ride and some ices and he thinks that will be enough to win her over? Flowers and flirtation and flattery? No, he will have to give a lot more than that to get the papers. This novella is very compelling, definitely one of James's best - a conflict set up right from the outset and we watch a real collision of wills as two strong characters fight over high stakes. We know that we will never see the papers - the question is will the quest for them destroy the narrator - and everyone else?

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Henry James The Aspern Papers

September 17, 2011

Isn't the narrator of the Aspern papers nothing more than a paparazzi? Despite his elegant manners and his rationale, isn't he really just sneaking his way into proximity w the borderlau women in order to steal their most valuable possession, the eponymous papers, wreck their privacy, and in the process destroy their lives, especially Tita's? He has at last made contact w her and, while pretending to be hurt by their refusal to socialize or even to thank him for the flowers he'd promised, he pumps her for private info and feigns interest in her well-being. What a snake - another garden reference , btw. What does it signify that all of the characters, including Aspern, are Americans? Like J, they all have abandoned their native land. And have become pseudo Europeans - even parodies of European manners and mores. Why do they do so? Some lack of confidence in where they come from, in who they are - which leads to the great conflict in J himself - his fear of his own sexuality and the need to protect a secret, much like Juliana protecting the letters from Aspern. What could they reveal? What truth?

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Henry James The Aspern Papers

Narrator continues to be a prig and a fool - the readers knowing or seeing much more about him than he thinks heE is revealing - after first three sections of the novella be is distressed at how little progress he has made in his scheme so he reverts to his initial strategy - winning them thru flowers. He had wormed his way into their lives by pretending to love their garden and now he feels obligated to hire someone to landscape the whole place - what does this garden theme mean to James? Not the obvious - a locale of lost innocence as there are no innocents in this novella but I think J is interested in cultivated v natural or wild beauty. The narrator thinks he can be in control of everyone's destiny as if he can be or play a god but he is soon to learn that he is not so charming and compelling a character as he thinks. The beauty of the story is that in part we root for him and want him to succeed - uncovering a cache of letters by a great artist would be an advance to our culture so he's on the right side But his methods are nefarious - J puts us in same moral quagmire as he puts his narrator - how much can we compromise or tolerate in service to literature?

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Friday, September 16, 2011

Henry James The Aspern Papers

Sept 14 2011
Read only a bit more of James's Aspern and am struck by how deftly he sets up the protagonist and his mission - he will do anything or so he says to gain access to Aspern's love letters , which will present him w a moral or ethical dilemma. He says he will if he has to "make love to the young lady" in his quaint and outmoded way of speaking and his friend who told him of the two women living in Venice and perhaps in possession of these valuable papers says to him something like wait till you see her. This is James's odd sense of romance and sexual dread at work. J cannot imagine a normal romance between these 2. For him as for his protagonist love is something to be endured to achieve another perhaps greater end in this case literary coup But for J maybe to achieve literary greatness It's obvious to contemp readers as it was perhaps not to earlier readers that J was a homosexual probably repressed - toiban's the master examined this very well - and we can think about J in relationship to Freudian theories abt repression but really I thin J gave up a parr of his emotionL life in order to devote himself fully to his art - and that is one part of what he explores in Aspern - the other part being how the devotion to art at all costs can be harmful or even ruinous to others.

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Henry James The Aspern Papers

September 15, 2011

The narrator of The Aspern Papers is so insufferable , one of James's great prigs, spoiled egotistical and indifferent to the needs and feelings of others. He has only this in his favor: unlike many, most, James heroes he at least has a profession and is devoted to it maybe too much so. He will do anything to get his hands on the eponymous papers, even dissemble and trifle w the feelings of an innocent other, Tita Bordelerau (sp?). I haven't read The A papers in
many years but I suspect or at least hope that the narrator will get what's coming to him, the he will actually fall in love with TIta and that she will break his heart and he will learn something about ethical values - he seems so genteel and well mannered but is in fact a liar and a boor, whether he knows it or not. Devotion in the service of art beauty and truth is admirable but destroying the heart of another is contemtuous. Will he learn that? Will James?

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Henry James The Aspern Papers

Sept 14 2011
Read only a bit more of James's Aspern and am struck by how deftly he sets up the protagonist and his mission - he will do anything or so he says to gain access to Aspern's love letters , which will present him w a moral or ethical dilemma. He says he will if he has to "make love to the young lady" in his quaint and outmoded way of speaking and his friend who told him of the two women living in Venice and perhaps in possession of these valuable papers says to him something like wait till you see her. This is James's odd sense of romance and sexual dread at work. J cannot imagine a normal romance between these 2. For him as for his protagonist love is something to be endured to achieve another perhaps greater end in this case literary coup But for J maybe to achieve literary greatness It's obvious to contemp readers as it was perhaps not to earlier readers that J was a homosexual probably repressed - toiban's the master examined this very well - and we can think about J in relationship to Freudian theories abt repression but really I thin J gave up a parr of his emotionL life in order to devote himself fully to his art - and that is one part of what he explores in Aspern - the other part being how the devotion to art at all costs can be harmful or even ruinous to others.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

John Updike The Poorhouse fair

Part 2 becomes even more explicitly religious as the residents of the poorhouse recall the old director w the distinctively Jewish name of Mendelsohn running their meetings from on high his dinner table at the head of the rectory on a stage and he seems to me like an OT god But the new director, Conner, wants to be among the people - a NT god? - but he is not accepted the residents don't love him - are they meant to be sinners who cannot accept grace And salvation. Perhaps I think this and seek allegorical significance because I know the novels thAt U would go on to write. But it's inescapable the Poorhouse involves more than the very quiet almost placid events of the story itself - these people must represent something - as in so many great novels and stories there's an ineffability about Poorhouse it seems to point beyond itself to a greater and more profound meaning that is elusive and mysterious and just beyond our grasp.

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Henry James short stories

September 13, 2011

I have to admit it: I put aside john Updike's The Poorhousr Fair and moved on in this cAse to Henry james. Nothing wrong w Poorhouse but by halfway thru I just wasn't that excited by it or moved by the story which seemed quaint and antique - impressive and unusual as a first novel but the kind of work that would not be published today, which says something about publishing. Also the kind of work that we have moved beyond - Updike himself certainly did so quickly in his 2nd novel - so today the main reason to read it is curiosity about how Updike began. My curiosity is satisfied. So I moved on to a collection of Henry James short stories, not so short really, and began w The Aspern Papers, which starts off great the typical James lonely protagonist in this case a literary biographer in pursuit of info abt the writer Aspern, modeled it seems on Keats?, and the protagonist seeks out the women who supposedly hold never-seen letters fro Aspern. We'll see what kids of deals and entanglements and moral or ethical compromises ensue as he bargains for access to the letters.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

John Updike The Poorhouse Fair

Updike's first novel is in 3 parts. Just finished part 1 and begun 2. Still struck by how unusual Poorhouse is as a first novel - the odd and quiet theme and the elderly and impoverished characters. Toward end of part one the first young character introduced - the guy delivering soft drinks to the fair - hoping to get the job done quickly so he can go see his girlfriend in Newark - and he has a memory of her stripping for him in back seat of his car - he gets a glimpse of her pubic hair and we get a glimpse of the writer U was soon to become. It's as if this character was an early incarnation of Rabbit. Interesting that U set Poorhouse in NJ, about which he seems to know little - his references to Newark feel fake and tepid compared w Roth - and that the Pa of brewer of the Rabbit novels is visible just across the Delaware - as if U could see the territory he was meant to explore but he wasn't ready to go there just yet.

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

John Updike The Poorhouse Fair

Think about this as the cast of characters for your first novel: three old men living in a rural new jersey poorhouse, one somewhat of a leader but a bit of a pompous windbag the second a foulmouthed former newark electrician who ha it on for the director of the Inst And the third a hypocondriac who rats out the other two to the director for who knows what benefit and the Fourth major character is the Dir himself obsessed w how the residents see him and disturbed by comparisons w his predecessor. Can u imagine this published today? No sex no young or appealing chara no movie possibilities plot revolves around their preparations for the annual fair - and yet it's v good w glimpses of the writer U wAs to become the allegorical sense of the Dir as a benevolent NT god and the residents in their way seeking grace ( a story I once wrote had similar allegorical themes abt a camp - never published and I ca understand why not).

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Friday, September 9, 2011

Murikami city of cats

Cats - not the musical - the murikami story

The h murikami story City of cats in the current new yorker is one of the best I've read from him in some time. This story pulls together in a woven strand some of the elements And qualities that have made murikami's stories so distinct and memorable : the lonely male protagonist estranged from family , professionally successful , w western tastes , as well as elements of the fantastic and surreal. In some of M's more recent stories the supernatural has seemed to me awkwardly shoehorned in to resolve plot elements but in this one M uses the supernatural as both realistic plot device and symb : protag goes to visit estranged father in nursing home father doesn't recognize him it seems tho maybe father just refuses to recognize. Son reads story aloud abt young man who gets off train and finds self in city populated only by cats and no way to leave all trains just race thru station not seeing him -mAkes us think there may b other worlds we all pass thru wout seeing which there are and also that son in this story is speaking of himself
leading a secret life and unable to learn the truth abt his fa - he suspects his re fa is someone else someone his mo had an affair w - he Asks his fa but gets only cryptic answers and must settle for that - as in all life - and all M - stories : there is seldom a single answer or explanation.

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John Updike The Poorhouse Fair

Started John Updike's The poorhouse Fair , his first novel, which I'd never read and which I have in an ancient, cheap pb. Amazed that this wAs his first novel and not just for the obvious quality but struck by the maturity of the theme and setting : how odd that a young writer would set his first novel in a poorhouse,much like a Sr center or rest home. The three characters we meet in the first chapter are all cranky, eccentric elderly men. So unconventional - virtually every other first novel perhaps thru out history is autobiographical - write what you know. Well Updike did go on to do so but we see over his long career that he knew or cld imagine his way into so many people and situations. It wAs as if this first novel was a challenge to himself and perhaps to the lit establishment: can u imagone trying to pitch a novel about d guys sitting on a potholes porch and overbuilt? We do see some glimpses of the great writer U was to become: subtle and beautiful descriptions of landscapes often overlooked: the fields around Trenton and the banks of th industrial Delaware.

If you're going to (read) The Poorhouse Fair

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Panic City: Shirley Jackson's New York stories

After coming down pretty hard on Shirley Jackson's short stories in yesterday's post, I have to add today that The Lottery is as good a story as you'll ever read: mysterious, creepy, provocative, beautifully paced, understated narrative. It's obvious why it is anthologized so often and why it has essentially made Jackson's literary reputation and ensured that she is still read, to a degree, today. I wonder, though, whether it makes us expect from her fiction something that she couldn't or wouldn't deliver: do we expect all her stories to touch on the bizarre and the macabre, do we expect her to be a scriptwriter for The Twilight Zone? Only a few of the stories (in her only story collection, "The Lottery and Other Stories") have the a similar creepiness and disassociation - and they cluster near the end of the book (are they her more mature stories? The Modern Library edition give no hint as to publishing history or chronology): The Tooth, about a woman who goes to New York to have a tooth extracted and experiences some odd hallucinations (like too many other Jackson stories, the premise promises a lot, but she doesn't completely deliver) or the story about a Vermont couple who go to New York for a vacation and the woman gradually gets overwhelmed by panic and dread: it will remind readers of the great The Yellow Wallpaper. The intro to the Modern Library edition suggests that scapegoats are a major theme running through Jackson's stories, and I suppose that's true - she is interested in needless cruelty and in outsiders - but other stories quite effectively establish a milieu of anxiety - but then do very little with that premise or mood. There are some great moments throughout this collection, but to the extent that Jackson is a great or even very good writer, it's not evident from the stories, with the exception of The Lottery: these are trial runs for greater works.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Shirley, you jest?: Shirley Jackson and the short-story format

I'm thinking Shirley Jackson just, plain and simple, was not a great short-story writer, The Lottery aside. Reading through "The Lottery and other Stories," it's clear she was a good writer - and so are thousands of students in grad programs today. But her stories, mostly tales of sad New York singles who've never made it in their chosen professions and who are unlucky in love and who seemed to be facing with stalwart equanimity a life of loneliness, just don't seem to break a lot of ground. They're very often a pretty intriguing situation - a character sketch, a bit of milieu - that never develop into a full and moving story. I realize that many writers then and today specialize in vignettes - little wisps of a story that offer only a mood or a sensibility but not an arc of story, depth of character, of clearly defined conflict or action - think of the stories of Salinger and, maybe even more so, of Hemingway - but Jackson's don't have that elusive quality. It's as if she's trying to tell a traditional story and can't quite bring it off. I know she wrote quite a few novels and several memoirs during her too-short lifetime, and I remember being absolutely terrified by The Haunting of Hill House, so she obviously had talent in the traditional development of plot, but I think the story was not her most comfortable genre. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm missing something very subtle in her style, but the stories don't capture the dark and macabre qualities that made much of her writing famous in its time.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Was Shirley Jackson a good short-story writer?

As I'd feared, Shirley Jackson's somewhat long story Elizabeth, in "The Lottery and Other Stories," doesn't really make good on its promises - it establishes a kind of interesting central character, Elizabeth Style, a literary agent with a sad, downbeat professional and personal life, and begins with a potential conflict at the office, as her boss and sometime liver has hired a new secretary, the sexy young Daphne. Can your foresee many dramatic possibilities in this triumvirate? Can you even imagine a movie? A miniseries? I can, and I have to believe Jackson could, too, and that she maybe began this story as a novel and then more or less abandoned it, took out the knife, cut it short, and called it a day, that is, called it a story. It ends with Elizabeth conniving to cost Daphne her job and then its the end of a rainy day at work. There are so many elements her introduced and not developed: the weird minister who keeps sending his poems (and his checks) and whom the the agents cling to for dear life, the counter-boy who submits a play manuscript to another agency, to Elizabeth's chagrin - and most of all the potential sexual and professional tensions between the women and between each of them and the boss (Robbie?). It seems weird to say that about someone who wrote perhaps the most-anthologized story of the century (The Lottery), but perhaps Jackson's metier wasn't really the story at all - she needed a longer for to let her talents unfold and blossom.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Thank you for your submission: Shirley Jackson's story about a literary agency

Reading the (somewhat) long story by Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth, in her (only) story collection, "The Lottery and other Stories" (Modern Library ed.), not finished yet but it strikes me as an interesting melange: about a single 30ish New York woman working in a literary agency as the "fiction department," the head agent, Robbie, runs the place and it's under his name, Robert Stax, and there's only one other employee, a newly hired, sexy secretary, Daphne. So far whole story taking place in one morning, a rainy, dreary day, Elizabeth (last name, Style - clever, too clever by half?) goes to work, through her daily routine, stops by coffee shop (relic of 40s Manhattan there no more) where counterboy tells her he's finished his play but sent it to another agency (she's hurt by this), then to work - over the course of the first half of the story we realize that the agency not only is shabby and very unsuccessful but that it's really just a sham - they write enthusiastic letters to all who submit mss. and then offer, for a fee, to provide editing service to make the (mostly horrible) material suitable for submission to an editor. Also we gradually learn that Elizabeth and Robbie are lovers, but with evidently very little commitment or passion on either part. This story is in part an homage to many detective/crime novels - the agency setting, the guy in charge with his loyal and devoted girl Friday - but transposed to a literary agency and the focus on the woman: much more of a Manhattan story, more a story of a lonely careerist, and more of a credible, realistic piece that most detective stories, which are, for the most part, entertaining but on the far verge of reality. I have hopes for the story but have also noticed from the others in the collection that Jackson can be slow to pull the trigger on her plots - things rarely reach a climax or a crisis point, and the resolutions tend to be ambiguous at best, often just unresolved.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

I'm not ready for e-books

Maybe it will happen someday but right now I'm a long way from every reading let alone buying an e-book - i think they definitely have a function and they have a future, but I still like the idea of holding a book in my hand and reading words printed on paper (and scribbling marginal notes and corrections on paper occasionally, too). I didn't feel that way about PCs when they entered into our world - any technological advance to make writing easier and faster was wonderful, as far as I could see, but reading is another matter (or another story). The Times has today what for me is a kind of sad story about the demise of the paperback, sales down 14 percent, replaced by e-books. Yes, the mass-market paperback is a disposable product, like a Bic lighter or a goldfish. But what will it mean when they exist no more? I can accept that downloading an ebook is a much faster way to get the book into the hands or before the eyes of a reader. But if the only way you can get a books is electronically - then essentially the whole idea of browsing through a bookstore, or talking to the sales help, of the serendipitous discovery of a book you'd never heard of but that you might read and love, is totally gone. We'll only search for (and order, and read) the books we know of already - that is, the highly publicized books on sensational topics or by brand-name authors. It will to an ever greater extent narrow the field of literature - more will be out there and available - publishers might even expand their so-called lists as there will be virtually no cost involved in publishing an e-author and keeping him or her in "print" forever, but they will publicize even fewer books. Take a look at the best seller list already: it's a disgrace, so narrowly focused on a few writers and on a few genres. E-books are another step toward the homogenization of literature and the deracination of culture.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Action Jackson: Shirley Jackson's stories about race

Shirley Jackson took up the theme of race in some of her 1940s-era (?) stories collected in "The Lottery and Other Stories." I don't know that she was way ahead of her time or anything, but it's admirable that she took on the issue head-on when, it seems looking back, that the typical New Yorker story of the era was nonpolitical or apolitical and about a fairly narrow social strata (I may be exaggerating). Recently read and posted on Eudora Welty's Collected Stories, many from the same era, and it was amazing how few of her stories had anything to do with racial relations - which one would think would be an inescapable topic for someone who lived in and wrote about Mississippi in the pre-Civil Rights era. That said, Jackson wasn't a deeply thoughtful or analytic writer, and her stories on racial relations are somewhat tendentious and meant to build upon a minor shock of recognition - which is to say, we're meant to be quite a bit smarter than the characters (and maybe a little less smart than the author): one story about a white boy who brings home a black friend and the white mom condescendingly makes assumptions based on stereotypes and offers the boy (Boyd) some old clothes, assuming he needs charity in fact his dad is gainfully employed (the nice touch in the story is that the boys don't even notice the condescension and just go on playing together). Another story involves a woman new to an old neighborhood who is shunned because she hires a black man to help her around the yard - seems a bit of a stretch, but it shows the subtleties of prejudice and the perniciousness of racism, even in a minor key. But the stories, for all their strengths, are pretty much two-dimensional sketches and they are not the works that gave Jackson her lasting reputation: those would be her stories of the gothic, the macabre, and the bizarre.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Jackson Five: Some Shirley Jackson stories that work, and others that don't

Read a few (5?) more stories in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery and Other Stoires," and it's quite a mix. The first section are mostly stories of young, rather lonely people living in New York - despite their sometimes unusual plot mechanism they are essentially sad social portraits - a typical example being the story about a woman who comes to NY to be a dancer, obviously will never make it in the arts, she goes to look at some furniture for sale in a Greenwich Village apartment, someone calls and believes she lives in the apartment, she plays along with it, for a while. We sense the sadness and isolation of thee people - a type that doesn't exist any longer, not in the same way, as NYC today is so far out of the price range of so many young people - but I find the stories a little disappointing, Jackson unwilling or unable to push them to their extremes. One story of a woman who suspects an elderly resident of her rooming house of petty theft - and she snoops in the woman's room and finds her possessions that - and then doesn't really do anything about this - the stories all seem to stop short. The quality picks up in the 2nd section, where we see some of the types stories for which Jackson is well known, macabre elements incorporated seamlessly into ordinary life: the man who sits next to a young boy on a train and, across the aisle from mom and sister, tells gruesome stories, to the mom's horror and the boy's delight; or woman who needs to train her dog to stay out of a chicken coop and receives a series of horrifying suggestions about how to do so: chain a dead chicken around the dog's neck, for example, and everyone but the woman is undisturbed by these suggestions. Other stories are just tendentious and easy to see through right from the beginning: the boy who's misbehaving at school and tells his parents of a misbehaving child named "Charles" - we can see this coming a mile away, even if the characters can't.