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

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

Saturday, March 31, 2012


Always in search of good novellas for book group read I think for first time j d salinger's Franny which appeared on fellow bloggers reading the short story list of novellas and - is it really that great? A college couple starting an ivy league football weekend and it becomes increasingly evident that they are completely incompatible she Franny trying to articulate her fears and yearlings why she's given up acting the sense that everyone she knows is phony a sham echoes here of Holden caulfield? But in this case without the youthful energy and enmity more a freefloating anxiety just a troubled rich kid who most likely will end up just like those she loathed she doesn't seem to have the suicidal depravity of the glass character in bananafish. And her date lane picks up none of her desperate messages so full of himself a lot of potential here but you can already see Salinger starting to succumb to the pressure of fame sketching it out phoning it in soon to stop altogether.

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Friday, March 30, 2012

Story in new yorker

Story in current new yorker P.E. by victor indato another great example of the losers populating current American short fiction - much morebthe lunatic fringe of outsider than the lonely existential hero of 50 years ago. Today's outsider believes as does Fred in this story in parallel lives has severe social anxieties as well as body dysmorphia no connectionnw family friends neighbors um married and unlikely ever to be in other words far out on the fringes and I wonder if the type is becoming a trope or a cliche -
Do these people exist or do they exist in order to fuel a story? I totally got into this story in spite of these reservations but felt let down at the end as if indato was more interested in establishing a character or condition than in doing anything w his material. Promising talent though if he can develop an arc of a story.

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Rock music in a particular time and place - Ten Thousand Saints

The extent to which you'll probably like Eleanor Henderson's novel "Ten Thousand Saints" has to do with how much you can set aside the distractions of a rather baggy and aimless plot and enjoy her ability to evoke a time, place, and era - which is considerable. As the novel meanders toward its conclusion we embark on another band road trip, this time into the deep South, for no apparent reason, then a sudden return to NYC and, after much grungy low-life, surprisingly (or maybe not?) Eliza ensconces herself in Mom's beautiful upper West (?) Side apartment - she misses her mom, she's a good kid, after all. Actually, they're all good kids - which makes me like the novel, in a way, I was worried at the start that every one of the kids (and adults) would be lifeless losers, but the general benevolence of the characters, toward the end, kind of drains the novel of plot tension: there still remain, on the periphery, the vague threat that Tory, the town rich pothead bully, poses - but can we take that threat seriously when the protag is among a bunch of street-tough and street-smart NY rock musicians? Surely, they will take care of him. The other plot element is Johnny's secret life as a gay man, in love with a guy dying of AIDS. Seriously, can the other characters, especially his wife, Eliza, not be aware of this? All these quibbles aside, this novel feels like a very knowledgeable look at rock music in a particular time and place - much more so in my view than the more celebrated Visit from the Goon Squad, which felt to me researched, a view from the outside through the lens of research not experience.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

(Ten Thousand) Saints (and sinners): A tale of moral turpitude - and redemption -

Are they for real? I'm not sure I accept as a concept the idea of the "straight edge" gang of musicians and followers in Eleanor Henderson's novel "Ten Thousand Saints." Maybe there was such a group in the late '80s, but it's hard to buy the central premise that these guys were basically thugs in pursuit of peace, zealots in pursuit of freedom: this band of misfits has one thing bonding them, a commitment to clean and ascetic life, they give up drugs, alcohol, meat, and, for the truly devout, sex, and to some degree follow the teachings of Krishna - but at heart they're still punk kids of Vermont of thereabouts and they get into streetfights and they attack others in crude ways: spraying urine on a barbecue in process (that'll get 'em to give up meat!) and cutting through a barbed-wire fence to (try to) liberate some Vermont cows. I guess it's possible, but it strikes me more as a far-fetched writer's concept. To her credit, Henderson seems, in the 2nd half of this novel, intent on working her way out of a box - the first half we are oppressed by the complete moral turpitude of the young people we meet, and of their irresponsible parents, but the 2nd half of the novel, whether credible or not, is a tale of redemption - or so it seems. Henderson's skill at conveying amorality makes it all the harder for her to sell us on salvation.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Slouching toward Burlington: Second part of Ten Thousand Saints

The second part of Eleanor Henderson's "Ten Thousand Saints" does indeed take place in Vermont, but it's not exactly a version of the pastoral: we join the fetal-alcohol-syndrome teen Jude and his tattoo-artist macho but secretly gay older friend Johnny as they try to set up a band and to push the "straight edge" movement - no drugs, no alcohol, no sex, no meat - movement among the hard core punk kids of Burlington. So it's still a very rough around the edges crowd - but now without the hallucinogenic dynamism of New York City - they're in the sticks and they know it and perhaps overcompensate. So does the plotting, to some degree: Jude is looking for vengeance against the Burlington punks who smashed up his mother’s glass studio and improbably provokes a pretty violent fight; Johnny – recently married, but a marriage of convenience, manages to keep his sexual orientation secret but just learns that his NYC lover has AIDS, and he heads back to NYC to be tested himself and perhaps to face death (this is the 1980s). Cannot fault Henderson for building her novel thick with events and incidents and keeping the pace moving along fast – lots of characters but over time it’s easier to keep them straight – but it does seem she may be building toward some melodrama at the end when I think the novel could use a darker and more ambiguous tone – but we’ll see how it goes.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Desolation Row - and a version of pastoral? - in Ten Thousand Saints

Eleanor Henderson's "Ten Thousand Saints" does grow on you - have just finished the first half of the book (Sad Song) - I am very impressed with her ability to evoke the look, feel, smell, and mood of New York City streets in the 80s, edgy and dangerous and much rougher around the edges than NYC today, the subways reeking and covered in tags and trash, scary guys on every corner who could rob you in a flash or just easily fall over dead. I've tried to evoke New York of a slightly earlier era - the early 70s - and touched on many of the facets that Henderson develops - the krishnas, the crappy phone booths long gone, the pathetic parks - and she outdoes me. Her New York is the closest in fiction that I've come to the crazy village metropolis that Dylan often evokes, as in Positively 4th Street, Like a Rolling Stone, and most especially Desolation Row - well, she's not at that level, but music always gets to us at a more intense and subliminal level. As to the novel itself, I am pleased that by the end of part 1 there seems to be at least one mature adult, or near-adult, character who's not entirely selfish and has the welfare of another in his heart and mind - I hope the novel doesn't turn sappy and sentimental on us in its second half in which, it appears, the main characters will return to Vermont (a version of pastoral?).

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A very debauched novel - Ten Thousand Saints

Whoops, what I posted yesterday? Hold that thought! I surmised from the first chapter of Eleanor Henderson's novel "Ten Thousand Saints" that the narrative would focus on some slacker teens in Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s, noting that this was a largely unexplored territory for literary fiction and that for a change the novel wouldn't be about preppies or privileged New York kids - and then I got to the second chapter, when the prep-school dropout arrives from New York with her bag of cocaine and her baggage of issues. Oh well, it's still a pretty powerful novel about some severely troubled teens from highly irresponsible families and how they make their way, or don't, through their difficult times. It's a very debauched novel, with more teenage sex, drug abuse, drinking, smoking, and ill behavior than anything I've read in a long time - since Less Than Zero, maybe - and I can't help but think that part of its appeal, or maybe I should say its critical success (because it's not exactly appealing) is the lurid thrill educated adult readers (those who read literary fiction) get from seeing a picture of youth that was never theirs, or their kids'. I suppose this picture is accurate, for some - though hardly typical and probably wildly exaggerated as well. The novel is compelling, and I'll say with it - but what it needs to lift it to the level of great would be some unfolding of the inner life of the characters, which so far I haven't seen. Are they fully rounded figures, or just a compilation of their conditions and their circumstances?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Is it dreamed?: Ten Thousand Saints

Started Eleanor Henderson's "Ten Thousand Saints" and finished only first chapter so far but pretty impressive start - not going to be an easy novel, clearly it's about very sad people on the margins of society, first chapter about two skateboarding, drug-abusing slacker teenage boys in a small city obviously based on Burlington, Vermont - so you can see right off that this is not well-trod ground for contemporary fiction - not in New York or London or LA, not on either coast, not about preppies or vampires - it's material more familiar in movies that in contemporary literary fiction (quite a few films about slacker guys, often comedies - but there was one recent one set in Portland or Seattle area that struck a similar chord). The boys, Jude and Teddy, aren't exactly sympathetic characters, but Henderson does a good job putting their lives in context: we get just enough info about their irresponsible parents and their 60s holdout mentality, probably a common family dynamic even today in Vermont (novel begins in the late 1980s I think). Henderson breaks the convention by telling us, in the first paragraph, that this will be the last day of Teddy's life - building an immediate dramatic tension and helping guide us as readers: we know to pay more attention to Jude, as he will more likely be an abiding character. Also have to love the first line of the novel: "Is it dreamed?" [he] asked. "Or dreamt?"

Friday, March 23, 2012

My, Antonya. An unconventional narrative in the current New Yorker

Antonya Nelson's story Chapter Two in the current New Yorker is a little darker and more ominous than other stories I've read from her, many of which focus on young Midwsterner women starting out in life and are striking for their impish, playful wit. Chapter Two is quirky, as are its characters, but not amusing like other Nelson stories - or, the wit comes in a different manner: it's actually a narrative wit. Nelson is trying something daring and unconventional here, playing with narrative possibilities. It's not as if her narrator is unreliable, though she may be, it's that the narrator herself tries to tell the story in several different ways or modes - just as writers often do, looking for the right place at which to begin a story, the best way to introduce characters, what details to place where in order to catch and hold an the audience, or the readership, attention and sympathy. She doesn't create multiple through self-conscious postmodern narrative experimentation; rather, she incorporates the narratives into the realistic frame of the story: her narrator is in A.A. and tells her story to varying groups (a mixed group, a women-only group) and develops different strategies for her story, about a seriously addicted and deranged wealthy neighbor, who arrives one evening on her doorstep, naked, each a part of the story that, taken together, comprise a full of very quirky picture. Not sure I'd want to read a whole collection of stories in this jumpy style, but taken on its own it's a good work that pushes the edges of the form.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Stewart O'Nan's kindness

Have been reading Stewart O'Nan's novel "Wish You Were Here" in part because his more recent novel, Emily, Alone, is supposed to be somewhat of a sequel - following the main character from Wish, Emily Maxwell, farther into her widowhood - and I hadn't read the first installment so wanted to be up to date. At some point, I will get on to Emily, Alone as well. Have read a number of O'Nan's books - not all, he's quite prolific - and find him to be one of the most observant of contemporary writers, a true realist in the tradition of Balzac or Zola, great family sagas that are more about situation and, to some degree, character than about plot of style: you feel you are truly there among his characters, whether it's this family of nine, each with his or her own traumas or agonies, stuck within one another in a summer cottage, or, in other works, such as his recent Night at the Lobster, the crew at a restaurant on one stormy winter night (though that was more plot-driven). Full disclosure: Stewart O'Nan was kind enough to provide a very nice jacket blurb for my novel, Exiles. I have to say that I didn't know Stewart, I still don't know him, we have no friends in common that I know of - I just sent him a copy of the novel because I admire his work and thought he might like mine and he did - took the time to read and comment on the work of a first-time novelist whom he didn't know. What a kind and generous soul. Most writers are supportive of others - we know how difficult the work is - and Stewart is one whose kindness I will always remember.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Summary of the the problems the characters face in Wish You Were Here

The trials and tribulations of the characters in Stewart O'Nan's novel "Wish You Were Here": Emily, main character, recently widowed, worried about her two adult children and wonders why they and their spouses are so cold to her; sister-in-law Arlene, feels peripheral and schoolmarmish, unsympathetic to the children, never married no kids, her career a disappointment living alone, world is changing too fast for her; son Ken, marginally employed, doubtful about chance for success as a photographer, apparently some kind of sexual frigidity; his wife, feels little connection to those around her, resentful of husband, feels he is pulling away from her; Emily's daughter Margaret, the most troubled of the lot, recovering addict, just split from husband, worried about money and about keeping her house, smokes too much and is a slob; her daughter Sarah, feels she's too pretty, kind of boy crazy but likely to make bad judgments; her brother Justin, suffers from some kind of phobia, afraid of being alone, and of the dark; Ken's daughter Ella, concerned that she's unattractive and about her sexual attraction to girls, especially her cousin; Ken's son Sam, concerned that he's the weakling, timid, somewhat sickly?, poor eater. Wow - wish you were there?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A multi-generational family saga that unfolds in one week, one place: Wish You Were Here

As noted yesterday, Stewart O'Nan's novel "Wish You Were Here" is a true family saga - but, unlike most such sagas published today, it doesn't encompass a great span of time - it's a family saga told within a tight, unified body of time and space: one week, in one summer house, with an extended family of 9 (plus dog), each with his or her own problems, history, baggage. It takes a bit of time to sort this out, but as the novel gets going it's impossible not to be captivated by the confluence of people and events. As it happens, most of the "events," at least so far, have occurred offstage so to speak: the death of Emily's husband (that's why they're at the summer cottage, preparing to sell it after she's been widowed), Meg's descent into alcoholism and breakup of her marriage, son (Ken?) who has lost his job and has dreams of becoming a photographer, and the kids are a bit more enigmatic - so what will happen, what is happening, in the novel itself, other than reflections and realizations about events of the past? A flash of drama has entered into the narrative, as the family stumbles on a scene of a crime, that turns out, perhaps, to be a kidnapping, and from what I know of O'Nan's work, this element will continue to develop and entwine itself into the lives of each of the characters - so we'll see what he does with this dramatic event.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A good, old-fashioned character-driven novel: Wish You Were Here

Stewart O'Nan's "Wish You Were Here" is, from first day (100 pp.) into it, a really good, old-fashioned, gossipy, character-driven story - it would probably make a good miniseries, by the way - essentially about a 60ish woman, Emily, recently widowed, who heads off with her in-law (husband's sister) and dog to spend a last week at the family vacation home, which they're about to sell; Emily is joined by her two children and their families - so we're getting together by my count 9 people and 1 dog, each with his or her own problems and issues (daughter going through nasty divorce, son recently lost his job and is trying perhaps vainly to establish himself as a photographer) - book divided into sections by day - and within each section we move about among the points of view of the various characters, though all told through the voice of an omniscient third-person narrator; the first section of the novel, the Saturday on which all arrive at the summer place in upstate NY near Chatauqua, has a lot of work to do establishing each of the nine characters - and it takes a while for us to get grounded and to keep each one straight - but O'Nan is a very sure-handed guide, his writing is clean and richly detailed without being overwhelming or stylized. He's one of the writers who has the greatest capacity for entering into the consciousness of others - his novels cover a very varied terrain and often focus on central characters who are quite different from O'Nan himself.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Beast in the Jungle: You want to yell at him: Kiss her, you idiot!

Those who've read Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle" will remember exactly how it ends: Marcher, now fairly old (we don't know his exact age) realizes that the great and unique event that he has been waiting for his whole life has already passed him by: what makes him unique is that he is the only person who has been unable to experience love, a man without feelings and emotions, or, to anticipate a later work - a Man without Qualities. He realizes this in a final dramatic scene, at the gravesite of his friend Bartram, standing there cool and intellectual, and he sees a man visiting another grave wracked by tears. Marcher understands then that he has no feelings. This story is tragic and horrifying, more powerful now on re-reading than I remember from first encounter many years ago. On first go through there is something foolish and idiotic about Marcher and his eogism; reading story now I also see the tragedy of his life, of every life in a way, thinking of missed opportunities and broken connections that for the ragged sleeve of everyone's life - but are at the heart of this life. Also, it's easy now to understand that Marcher's life is an echo of James's, a sexual outsider, who repressed his feelings - but of course who triumphed over his loneliness by creating great art. The final scene between Marcher and Bartram is almost comical: she's so obviously trying to get him to declare that he loves her, and he just doesn't see it (it does seem like James thinks we don't see it either, which we obviously do - James a little too close to his protagonist here) - and we get classic example of late-James dialogue, characters just totally unable to express their feelings - and you want to jump right into the page and grab Marcher and say: Kiss her, you idiot, or grab Bartram and make her say: I love you, you madman! But, no, their tragedy is that they can't, don't - and she dies unloved and he, at the end, flings himself onto her grave, his life gone by him, wasted.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

James's great "secret"?

Seems I keep coming back to Henry James, despite more than occasional frustrations with the incredibly tortuous sentence constructions in his late work, but picked up collection of novellas and began re-reading The Beast in the Jungle, perhaps last read when I was in college (how could I possibly have understood it at that time?) - it's a really late James work - 1903? - and in a way a summary of every tragic and sad element in his life - what James's life would have been like (and my in fact have felt like) had he not written many great novels and stories. Briefly, story is of two people, young man meets a young woman, recalls that they had met some ten years previously, and he had confessed to her his great "secret" - she's the only one he's ever told and she has told no one. His great secret is that he believes that somewhere, sometime in his life he will undergo an extraordinary and unique experience - though he has no idea of what nature. She raises idea that this as he describes may be falling in love - but he says, no, it's an experience unique to him. The two go through a whole lifetime as Platonic friends, waiting for this experience to emerge, like an unseen beast in a jungle, ready to strike. It will be obvious to all readers now, a century away from James, that in part the "secret" was his homosexual desires - and in part the tragedy of his life was that he could not express these desires, in life or in art; the tragedy in Beast is that the two of them pass through an entire lifetime waiting for something to happen rather than acting on their feelings and emotions - declaring love for each other, falling in love, or else perhaps moving on? The irony, perhaps, his that his sense of a unique fate awaiting him is not unique at all - everyone has felt these thoughts and fears, though not perhaps to the morbid degree that will ruin a life, two lives.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The scope of a novel and the economical techniques of the story: Katherine Anne Porter

Yes I think Old Mortality, the first of 3 novellas in the very old Modern Library Katherine Anne Porter collection "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" is a very good piece of work - though much less well known that the other pieces in the collection and though Porter is much less well known than some of her contemporaries or near contemporaries - Wharton?, Cather?, O'Connor? Welty?, McCullers? - to name several, probably because her output was very limited for many years (then, if I recall correctly, she had a surprising best seller late in life, Ship of Fools - a BOMC selection that everyone was reading in the early 60s). Old Mortality is in 3 parts: first about two young girls about 1900 learning about the exotic history of their family, particularly about the legendary Aunt Amy who was wild and flirtatious, ended up marrying young and dying young; 2nd part the two girls are now in New Orleans boarding school and their father comes to visit and they meet Aunt Amy's husband, Gabriel (?) whom they imagined as dashing and romantic and now is a ruined alcoholic, a wreck; 3rd part, the younger (?) sister now about 18 and newly married en route to Gabriel's funeral, encounters a maiden aunt on the train who gives her another side to family saga, the romance as seen by an outsider, homely and excluded - in just about 100 pages if that the novella presents a whole family saga, material that other writers could develop over 500 pages but in a sense this is all it needs - maybe not a great novella but an excellent example of the economy of the form, the scope of a novel with the shorthand techniques, the rapid cuts in time and place, more typical of the story.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Looking at her characters from above, through a glass - K A Porter

Old Mortality is the least known (and read?) of the three novellas in Katherine Anne Porter's collection "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," which I'm reading in an ancient Modern Library edition - the novellas are all from the '30s. I'll withhold final judgment of Old Mortality till I finish, but from the start it's very promising: kind of like William Faulkner meets J.D. Salinger - a family saga, mostly about the eccentricities of a deceased aunt and others of her generation, as told or recollected by two (preteen?) sisters - the story recollected in fragments, out of chronological order, that gradually cohere into a full picture of a wealthy old Southern family. We'll see how it develops. The title story is pretty well-known, at least for its fabulous title, and it's beautifully written, but it does seem to be a period piece - it was a period piece even in the '30s in fact - looking back on life on the home front during World War I, the guilt that young men or even older men felt if they weren't serving, the thuggish pressure that the guys selling war bonds put on the women at home - who were being paid a pittance - these guys trying to look and act tough, as compensation. Story focuses on young woman reporter and her brief and sad relationship with a guy headed for the front - story takes some surprising tragic turns at the end. It's very evocative of a long-ago era, but ultimately feels a little cold and remote: the heroine suffers deeply, but Porter is a cold and unemotional writer, as if she's looking at her characters from above, through a glass. Perhaps that's why she's not as well known today as some of her contemporaries.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sin and expiation in K A Porter's Noon Wine

Picking up from yesterday's post on Katherine Anne Porter's novella "Noon Wine," I went back and re-read the ending and clarified some thoughts. If you haven't read it: toward the end, a repugnant bounty hunter, Hatch, shows on the Thompson farm in search of the hired man, Helton, who's wanted for a long-ago murder; Thompson becomes outraged (why? because he has grown to like and trust Helton? or because Helton is his source of well-being, exploited labor?) and scuffles with Hatch. Helton comes rusing in (why? to protect Thompson, who's treated him miserably for years?) and Hatch appears to stab at Helton with a Bowie knife; Thompson kills Hatch with an axe. Jump forward in time: Helton dies in captivity; Thompson is cleared after a murder trial, then feels he has to visit all the neighborhood families to assure them he's not a murderer - and Ancient Mariner-like urge to tell the story and seek absolution. Realizing that none believe him, he ultimately shoots himself. So what is there to this story - yes, in a way, it's a kind of Christian expiation and redemption for Thompson, but in a dark way, he has no great vision or sense of hope or salvation. He's a ruined man, and for what? As he himself says, he didn't have to kill Hatch. It's a very odd story that, as noted yesterday, doesn't provide answers but pulls us, taunts us, to meet it more than half-way: Is Thompson a good man who made a terrible mistake and suffers for his sin? Or a violent, exploitative man who got what he deserved? And in the end - does the difference matter? It's hard, almost impossible, to feel any sympathy for Thompson, but it may be that the one noble action of his life was trying to defend his hired man, and his action turned out to doom all of them: Helton, Hatch, himself.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Noon Wine leaves us wondering: What would we do?

Katherine Anne Porters novella, or long short story perhaps, Noon Wine, feels contemporary in an odd way - probably because it was a bit of a period piece when written: written in the 1930s but describing a remote Texas dairy farm at the beginning of the 20th century. The strength of the story is its vivid depiction of the hardships of life in rural America at a time before there were any social services whatsoever: story about a farmer, Thompson, who's gruff and miserly, but has a tough life - he's obviously unsuited to dairy farming, and is under great pressure in that his wife is ill and unable to do all the farm-wife chores, which are massive. A man wanders onto the property looking for work and Thompson - after some truly nasty racist remarks about his recent hired men - takes him on at a ridiculously low wage. The hired man, Helton, taciturn to the point of obsession (reminds me a bit of Bartleby), is a great worker and turns the farm - and therefore the whole life of the Thompson family around. Story hinges on a scene of revelation: rather obnoxious guy - a bounty hunter perhaps? - shows up looking for Helton, who's apparently wanted for murder (of his brother?) many years back. So does Thompson betray Helton? or valiantly rise to his defense? And if he does defend him, is it because he has gone through a moral conversion from having worked with Helton, and realized he is a good man, despite the allegations? Or does he defend him for selfish reasons: He can't live without Helton, or more accurately with exploiting Helton's labor? Porter more or less backs off from this dramatic, and ethical, conflict - and in a way the story is better for that, leaving the questions open and letting us ponder: what should he have done? what would we do?

Monday, March 12, 2012

The three final, sad stories from Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers's last three stories, written in the 1950s (I think) when she was in her last years, incredibly sad - though the fiction for which she's best known has streaks of darkness, these last three are pieces of misery and failure, painfully and accurately delineated: A Domestic Dilemma, about a wife and mother uprooted from her native South and declining deeply into alcoholism with her husband helplessly standing by, The Haunted Boy about a boy traumatized by his mother's mental illness and suicide attempt, and the last story, Who Has Seen the Wind?, about a failed writer (and husband) getting lost in the miasma of alcohol: the common thread, obviously, is disappointment, abandonment, wasted talent, and the effect of all of the above on the innocent bystanders, spouses but more particularly children (McCullers's greatest strength as a writer is her comprehension of the child's point of view). Obviously there are autobiographical elements in these stories - McCullers's husband was a failed writer, alcoholic, suicide victim - but she also I think sees elements of herself in the ruined characters: I don't know if she was an alcoholic, but she must have been troubled by her early fame and the struggles later in life to produce anything to live up to her early reputation. Apparently she tried to make Wind into a play - she did very well with the dramatic version of Member of the Wedding - and if she had it would have been seen as a precursor to Who's Afraid of Va. Woolf? - but I'm afraid it would have been without the elaborate machinations and surprises of Woolf - just a descent into meanness and depression - better left as a story.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fetishism of the familiar in The New Yorker

I don't like knocking around someone else's work but I have to say I read Donald Antrim's story "Ever Since," I think that's the title, taken cleverly from the first two words of the story, which appears in current New Yorker, and was left thinking: Huh? What possibly led the New Yorker fiction editors, whoever they may be, to say this is one of the 50 best stories we'll see all year? No doubt the writing is good, better than good even: it's a story about a 30something guy, recently separated from long-time girlfriend, now at a book-debut party with new girlfriend who's a publicist working the event, they're in a west side loft owned by a wealthy poet, it's very crowded, there's lots of drinking, mingling, broken conversations, flirting, ultimately Jonathan leaves party, phones his ex, learns she's about to get married, tearfully returns, clumsily proposes to new girlfriend - all this but so what? I give Antrim credit, it's very difficult to orchestrate this kind of story, to keep the many characters and strands untangled. But honestly is there anything fresh and new in this piece? Is it, as with so many other NYer "stories," actually part of a longer piece that will give it proper context? Or did it appeal to NYer editors because it's such familiar turf to them? There was a time when the New Yorker could rightly be criticized for a fetishism of the exotic; I'm wondering if these days the editors are subject to a fetishism of the familiar.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Why couldn't The New Yorker recognize the unique sensibility of Carson McCullers

The first (and only, I think) 3 stories that Carson McCullers sold to The New Yorker, from the 1930s when she was in her early 20s, are - actually - atypical of McCullers's work. It was as if, then as now, The New Yorker was unwilling to take a chance on her when she was unpublished but was all over her once she became a phenom sensation with The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The stories they took - Jockey, Lady Ismeralda (?) and the King of Finland, and Correspondence - really differ from the apprentice work that was published either late in McCullers's life or posthumously (and is now in her "Collected Stories"): for one thing, the first two stories are not about the struggles of precocious misfit kids but are about adults; they're not set in the South, but one is in Saratoga (racing season) and the other at a college in N.J. Correspondence is about a young woman, but again differs from earlier McCullers in that it's an experiment (rather tepid, but still) in form - a story in (unanswered) letters. If we had only these 3 to go on, McCullers's reputation would - well, it would not exist. The New Yorker, in those days, was not really willing or able to recognize what was special and even unique in McCullers's sensibility; but, she did find receptive publishers later and throughout her short life.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Characters and coldness: The dispassion of Carson McCullers

Reading through Carson McCullers's "Collected Stories," you can see that the first few are very good stories, but remarkable only in that she was a teenager when she wrote them - and for the viewpoint they give us on the novels she would go on to write. The next group of stories date from her days as an undergrad at NYU, the mid-1030s, and they're pretty strong by any measure and especially so when you think, a college kid wrote these? Really? Two are particularly notable: Aliens, about a Jewish man (she always identifies him as such, but it's not clear to me why his ethnicity is important - unless he's meant to represent The Wandering Jew? but why? ) riding a bus through the South, it's unclear what he's leaving or where he's headed, engages in some conversation with his seatmate and observes the passing scenery, very unfamiliar to him - not much happens, but the end of the story, which I won't disclose here, is very deft and surprising. Wunderkind was her first published story - an account of a young woman who's been studying the piano but apparently loses her talent - leading to a strained relation with her long-time teacher. Evidently, there are autobiographical elements in this story. McCullers's characters tend to be outsiders, often of ambiguous sexual orientation, doubtful about the worth, abandoned or mistreated by the elders, parents in particular, prone to taking risks and to indulging in sudden, impetuous behaviors. All writers love their characters to some degree, even inhabit them to some degree, but there's also in McCullers a kind of cold, clinical dispassion: her characters at times seem like specimens rather than people.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The early stories of Carson McCullers and what they reveal

Let's face it - if Shakespeare hadn't written Hamlet, would anyone have ever heard of Titus Andronicus? Similarly, in a much diminished way, if Carson McCullers hadn't written The Member of the Wedding and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, would there be any reason to read the short stories she wrote when she was a teenager in Columbus, Georgia, or a sophomore at NYU? No, the only reason we read them is to get a more full picture of the life and mind of the creator of these beloved and seminal novels. I picked up McCullers's "Complete Stories" mainly to read Ballad of the Sad Cafe, but now am going back to read the stories, which are obviously of uneven quality but, still, all things considered, pretty astonishing: The first 5 or so in the collection were unpublished for many years though one or two were published late in her life and others published in posthumous collection. The first, Sucker, about a teenage boy his is heartlessly mean to an adopted younger brother, is very powerful and gives a window into McCullers's sensibility: a strong identification with the outsiders and the lonely - putting her in the mainstream of American literary fiction, short stories in particular, in that regard - and an unflinching ability to look at psychological cruelty. Another one, Bright Sky?, seems quite autobiographical, about a teenage girl, deathly ill, more or less ignored by a self-involved mother. These stories would not stand up all that well on their own - but they don't have to; they do help us get a full picture of the mind of a fine writer, in the early stages of finding her voice and figuring out her world.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The climactic event in The Member of the Wedding is ... elided.

One of the strangest aspects of Carson McCullers's "The Member of the Wedding" is that - there's no wedding. Or, more accurately, the wedding, the climactic event toward which the whole novella seems to be building, is elided: throughout the first two sections, about 80 percent of the novel I would guess, we focus on Frankie Addams, and the issue or problem that sets the story in motion is that her brother is getting married in 2 days and she wants to, and expects to, go off with brother and bride and travel the world with them, live with them: she's obviously a very lonely and odd young (12) girl, very needy, precocious in some ways and terribly immature in others. We never expect the brother - whom we barely see anywhere in this novel - to take her with him, and it's not clear whether she truly expects that or is just articulating a fantasy. In any case, we never "see" what happens: Frankie goes off to the wedding in a nearby town, and then, bang, the next scene she's riding home in a bus and crying. The main dramatic moment is not dramatized. That makes us think: maybe the novel isn't what it seems, maybe it's not about the wedding at all bu about Frankie and her coming of age: her encounter with a soldier who tries to pick her up - she's incredibly naive to go into a hotel room with him, and incredibly mature to bash him over the head - shockingly, this girl who rattles on about everything to strangers, never tells anyone about this episode as far as we can see. Frankie will seem to many like a precursor to Holden Caulfield - even though she doesn't narrate her own story, so much is told through dialogue that we have her voice in our heads as clear as any narrative voice - but like HC she has that mixture of cockiness, worldliness, toughness, set against neediness, vulnerability, and naivete. The last section of the novel give us a little glimpse into a somewhat later - a year? two? - in Frankie's life, and we can see that she will move on, make friends, albeit other misfits like herself, will suffer and grow from her suffering. It's a much tougher and more unflinching novel than I'd expected - I think the movie version, from what I can recall, made Frankie more cute and sweet - and a very powerful delineation, mostly through dialogue, or a character, but it does feel like a short story extended to gargantuan, without the development, action, and complex web of relationships that we generally expect in a novel.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The loneliness of The Member of the Wedding

The long second section of Carson McCullers's "The Member of the Wedding" takes place, at least so far, on one day - this is that rare novel/novella that comes very close to honoring the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action - and though not a whole lot happens - Frankie (now calling herself F. Jasmine) shops for a dress for the wedding, walks around downtown telling everyone about the big event - odd behavior for a 12-year-old, has an encounter with a soldier on leave (it's during the 2nd World War) who tries to pick her up - as you can see, McCullers is uncertain and uneven about the age, maturity, and sexual orientation of Frankie, just as Frankie herself (and maybe McCullers herself at that age) is uncertain and questioning, and then the second half of the second section brings Frankie back to the Addams home where she, and Berenice and young cousin John Henry engage in very wide-ranging discussion about the events past and to come: the great strength of McCullers's writing is the quirky dialogue that moves by fits and starts, full of Southern loquaciousness and concision and full of odd turns of phrase - her dialogue by no means advances the action but it sharply delineates character and gives firm sense of place as well. As we near the conclusion, the question really is: who is Frankie? How serious is she in her need and desire to join her brother and his bride in their life after the wedding? She is not a typical adolescent, though the anxiety she feels throughout is something most adolescents can identify with or at least recognize - but it does seem to me that Frankie is disturbed in a way that McCullers keeps just below the surface: she's sassy to the point of crude and unfeeling toward Berenice (her family cook, a black woman of about 40, unlucky in love), and then strangely tender and vulnerable - she's a lonely, almost isolate young girl, trying to figure out who she is, just as we are, without very few signposts.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Instant pop psychological diagnosis of Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding

They didn't have the vocabulary, or the diagnoses, to talk about Carson McCullers's "The Member of the Wedding" when it was published (1946), but we have it today - in fact we probably have too much instant amateur diagnoses such as I'm going to offer - but doesn't it seem that Frankie Addams, the 12-year-old central figure in Member is well onto the Asperger's Syndrome spectrum - her anti-social and impetuous behavior, her strange walk through the small town on the day before the wedding as she steps into various stores and even into a bar (it seems) and blurts out, with no context, her life story? Also, what are we to make of a 12-year-old girl who sleeps in the same bed as her father (widowed when Frankie's mother died in childbirth)? Frankie on first pass-through might seem a little like a typical troubled, bright, questioning adolescent - bewildered by the sexuality all around her - the heart of the story is her brother's pending wedding and her sense that she will be abandoned in this small town and boring life once her brother marries (even though he's been in the service in Alaska). And I think the movie version, excellent as it was, softened Frankie and made her more cute and typical - in reading the novel (for the first time), I can see that she's more deeply troubled and headed for danger, psychological or physical, though possibly beyond the boundaries of this story.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The meaning and the significance of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

So in Carson McCullers's "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" a fellow, generally described is simply The Hunchback but addressed as Cousin Lyman, shows up unannounced and unknown in the small Georgia town and becomes the central figure in the story. Let's look at Lyman for a moment: he's first seen approaching the town on a long, empty dusky road, arrives looking very bedraggled, small and of indeterminate age (later he claims to have no idea how long he's been on the earth, 10 years or 100 years); Miss Amelia pats him on his hump and invites him in, and, to everyone's surprise, he takes up residence in her house - though nobody's sure of the nature of their sexual relationship, if any. She feeds him well and rubs him with various lotions to build his strength. Then, after several years, her ex-husband, Macy, gets out of the pen and returns to town; Lyman, immediately taken with Macy, follows him around, tagging after him, Macy being largely indifferent. Lyman desperately tries to get Macy's attention, particularly by doing a trick that always seems to work: wiggling his ears! Macy and Amelia, at climax of story, have a big free-form fight in the cafe; Amelia finally has Macy down for the count when: Lyman leaps twelve feet in the air, lands on her back, and Macy is freed and wins the fight. Lyman and Macy make a wreck of the cafe and then leave town, never to be seen again. What to make of this? Does it strike you that every single element of Lyman's behavior is exactly like that of a dog (if you substitute tail wiggling for ear wiggling)? McCullers could have made him a stray dog and it would have been the same story, exactly. Except he's not a dog - so is it about a sexual rivalry, or a sexual question that Amelia must answer, which man is she attracted to: the brute or the wimp? Or, were Lyman and Macy in cahoots in prison, and they'd cooked up this whole scheme to get vengeance on Amelia (a little echo of Playboy of the Western World)? A strange story - perhaps over-rated when put on lists of great novellas because too much left unsaid and undeveloped, but for establishment of atmosphere and for the grotesquerie of character it's quite notable.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Ballad of the Sad Cafe: Is there more to this novella than the Southern Gothic grotesqueries?

On one level, Carson McCullers's novella "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" is another in the long line of Southern gothics, its main strength, if you call it that, is the establishment in a very short span of a trio of completely eccenctric almost grotesque characters, or characterizations: Miss Amelia, the litigious and cantankerous owner of the cafe, softened by sudden and unexpected love for - Cousin Lyman, the garrulous hunchback who wanders into the tiny town, impoverished and unknown, and is immediately taken in by the wealthy Amelia; the 3rd? - A's husband, at one time the best-looking and toughest guy in town who fell for her, married her, and was expelled after 10 days - A's strange love life and her sexual predilections all very mysterious to the town, and to us, as nothing is revealed outright but we can "diagnose" her from afar - we are in the POV of the narrator, an unnamed town resident, who sees only the glimpses of Miss A. and hears only the town talk - no privileged info - we're looking into her darkened windows for glimpses of her life. When all's said and done, so to speak - what do we have? Is there more to this story that its evident eccentricity? So far, it seems more like a tale than a moral tale - when the greatest writers present odd, peculiar characters they enable us to see beyond or beneath the eccentricity, to feel pity and terror, or love and relief - as one example think of Richard III or any Dostoyevsky hero. In Sad Cafe, I'm not sure but I think we are too much "outside" of the characters - looking from the street into the darkened windows - which may have something to do with this piece's location on the border between novel (where characters have more chance to unfold and open) and short story, where the establishment of one mood, one type, can often suffice.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Why McCullers is less read today than her contemporary sisters of the South

Carson McCullers's novella "The Ballad of the Sade Cafe" opens as a classic case of one of the dominant literary motifs: a stranger comes to town. McCuller's starts in the present (of her day, that is, about 1950) in a small Georgia town with a deserted and dilapidated Main Street, probably much like many Midwest prairie towns today, and with one large building that's seen better days and seems to be inhabited by an elderly, ghostly woman who occasionally looks out her window at the nothingness around her but never ventures out into that nothingness. Then we go back and learn her history: she was the wealthiest and oddest person in a town of oddities, miserly, litigious, seemingly asexual - looking very much like a man, and her one relationship with another person was a 10-day marriage. The central story opens with her and some men standing around on her front steps when a figure appears in the distance, approaches, turns out to be a hunchbacked man who claims to be her cousin. The guys think he's after her money, but oddly she shares some drinks, invites him inside, and he's not seen again for a few days. Townsfolk think she's murdered him - but, lo, he appears again and it seems she's taken him on as a what? lover? business partner? relative? And why would she? Is he weirdly hypnotic in his deformity, like Richard III? Or is she perverse in some way? These are questions McCullers will answer. She's obviously yet another one of the great mid-20th century Southern writers, but today she's much less well known that her sisters of the South, Welty and O'Connor. Not sure why that is. Perhaps her political sensibilities were less cautious, less acute - this very promising novella, in its first few pages, is kind of off-putting in its casual racism and even anti-Semitism - maybe accurately depicting the views of the people of the time, but stated so directly that it's hard to dissociate those views from McC. herself, unfair as that may be.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Narrative lines, narrative maps, and Alice Munro's fiction

Alice Munro's story "Haven" in the current New Yorker is an atypical entry from Alice the Great - mostly because of its focus and compression. What makes her stories so distinct and powerful is not their concentration but their expanse, the way she starts with a premise and then lets it meander along, building or discovering many connections over time - as if her stories are not narrative lines but narrative maps. Haven is more typical of the genre: focusing on one character and one "action," more or less - story of an early-teenage girl in Canada, where else?, in the 70s - tho as AM points out in the first paragraph not the 70s that most of us imagine or remember, much more uptight and provincial, left with her aunt and uncle as her adventuresome parents head off for a year on some kind of mission to Ghana. Though that action in itself raises eyebrows, we learn little about the parents - most of the story is about the aunt and uncle, the aunt seemingly completely devoted to her husband - the title refers to their home as being like a "haven" for the man of the house - but he, as we see moment by moment, is a cruel and bullying man: after one dinner, when wife asks how it was, he says, terrible, and goes off and eats a pb sandwich not because he's hungry but to drive home a point. Story comes to its climax when his sister, a musician, comes to town, he doesn't like her, wife entertains her anyway, when husband finds out he goes into one of his ridiculous snits - this time eating beans out of a can more or less. All told, it's a very powerful sketch of a totally unlikable man - though he's the beloved doctor in his small community, so what does that tell you? - but there isn't as much content, as many surprises, as many quirky moments in this as in most other Munro stories.