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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

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Best novels about each state

Cam across a FB link to a site callled something like quiklit, which right now is running its list of books about each of the 50 states. A very cool idea. I can't possibly recommend all or even many of these books, but it does inspire me to think about a (partial) list of books about (some of) the states; I don't think my list will have any overlap with theirs:

Alaska: Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade. John Hawkes
California: The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon.
Florida: Their Eyes Were Watching God. ZN Hurston
Illinois: The Adventures of Augie March. Bellow
Iowa: Shoeless Joe. Kinsella.
Louisiana: The Moviegoer. Percy.
Maine: It. King
Maryland: The Floating Opera. Barth.
Massachusetts: Moby-Dick.
Michigan: The Feast of Love. Baxter.
Mississippi: The Sound and the Fury
Missouri: The Corrections. Franzen.
Nebraska: My Antonia. Cather.
New Hampshire: Continental Drift. Banks.
New Jersey: American Pastoral (agreeing with quiklit here).Roth.
New York: The Great Gatsby
North Carolina: Look Homeward, Angel. Wolfe. 
Oregon: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Kesey.
Pennsylvania: Rabbit, Run. Updike.
Rhode Island: Providence. Wolff.
South Carolina: Edisto. Powell.
Texas: Lonesome Dove. McMurtry.
Utah: The Executioner's Son. Mailer.
Vermont: My Secret History. Tartt.

All are novels; no repeats by author. I'm sure I will revisit, maybe fill in the blanks or recollect books that I'd forgotten that will bump others off the list.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Sexuality in Winesburg, Ohio

Have posted recently on the pervasive loneliness in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, which I'm reading in the Library of America Collected Stories edition - which meets the usual high standards for fine editing and presentation that has marked LoA for 25 years or so. One of the stories in Winesburg, in fact, is title Loneliness; any one of them could be. But another element throughout the stories, not as apparent to a contemporary reader, perhaps, is the sexuality. These stories by today's standard, of course, are pretty tepid, but by the standards of the 1920s, popular magazine fiction, they are downright "steamy," or at least very frank about sexual drives. In fact, sexual frustration and inhibition lies at the heart of the loneliness in almost every one of the stories. Not in particular the pair of stories about the Presbyterian minister married to a wealthy but frigid, very upright woman (daughter of a Cleveland underwear manufacturer, hm); from his study he begins to peer at a woman in the house across the way, as she lies on her bed and reads - he fantasizes about her bare neck and shoulders (as I said, very tepid by today's standards) and eventually her fantasies overwhelm him - it's hard to figure out exactly what he does, but among other things he punches through the stained-glass window that partially obstructs his view of her; in a companion story, the woman comes on to her former student (she's a high-school teacher), George Willard, the reporter and central character in these stories. He rebuffs her, but then lies in bed holding his pillow and thinking about her - or about someone. Almost all of the stories - of eccentrics, loners, alcoholics, killers - involve repressed sexual urges. Anderson takes on this theme much more directly than other writers of his time, and I imagine he faced a lot of criticism and some difficulties in publishing in the magazines of the day - in that he wrote about unwed mothers, prostitutes, domestic violence, obsession, fetishes - not topics for Ladies Home Journal or Saturday Evening Post. He created a vision of a small Midwestern town that upended all of the sentimentality and romanticism of popular convention and expectation, and even compared with other great writers of his era who wrote about the Midwest - Cather, an obvious point of comparison - his vision, though simpler and a bit crude, is more steeped in sexuality and much darker. It's obvious why a pervasive theme in Winesburg is the drive to "get out of town" and it's obvious why Anderson did so. You have to leave town to tell this story, and you can't go home again.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Against the darkness of American short fiction - a few writers who are different

Friend WS had asked for suggestions of uplifting fiction that was not schlock or schmaltz, and as noted in previous posts the list is short - and the list would most definitely not include Sherwood Andeson's Winesburg, Ohio, with its steady drumbeat, story after story (25 in all I think) of lost souls, lonely people, broken hearts, embittered personalities, early deaths, violence and alcoholism - all in this one little Ohio town. It's a pretty fine collection but the problem is it's all in the same key, in fact its the same tune over and over again, relentless. Very impressive when I was younger, less so today, as I see more clearly that Anderson's portrayal of the dark heart of his home town is in its way as false and distorted a picture as a postcard of sunset over cornfields. As noted yesterday, the American short story is native ground for versions of loneliness, but in responding to WS's inquiry I did think of several (American) short-story writers whose work is in some ways and in general upbeat and positive, stories of assimilation rather than alienation, serious stories that also use humor effectively, among them Charles Baxter's Gryphon, Jhumpa Lahiriri's Interpreter of Maladies, Ann Beattie's New Yorker Stories, Lorrie Moore's Birds of America, and Antonya Nelson (not sure which collection to recommend, have mostly read her in the NYer). These writers to a degree go against the grain of modern American short fiction, which is often unrelentlessly dark and often satiric - but each has a distinct voice and a serious take on the world, and a serious commitment to short fiction as well (Baxter the only one on this short list who may be primarily a novelist).

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Versions of loneliness in the short story

Richard yates's great collection of short stories is called something like 11 forms of loneliness and that can stand as a template for much of American lit Especially short stories in that practically every america short story is aversion of loneliness (more so in novels in that stories tend to have narrower cast of characters and therefor tend to focus on a single character in isolation rather in social interaction). Really thinking about this in reading Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, in the  Library of America collected stories - it could well be called 25 forms of loneliness. Each one involves a person with shattered dreams foiled aspirations misunderstood and misused - social outsiders one after another. E.g. story I just finished about a teenage girl who gives her virginity up to a newspaper reporter in this small town. He moves on to chicago and writes to her for a time but eventually ignores her tho she keeps waiting for him till at last at the "old" age of 27 she realizes she will be alone forever. this story v typical of the collection - these many character in a small town where we would expect a strong sense of community and social ties but in fact we see these many lives of quiet desperation barely touching. Each man and woman is an island. I think the reason Anderson's reputation has not really endured over the years may be because of the heavy-handed nature of his work - the theme is obvious and repeated throughout but tho each time w different topical details the same mood prevails. Writers who treat loneliness w greater complexity and extremity - Chekhov, carver, and Hemingway to cite 3 v different examples - are more widely read and respected: think of the diff in the composition of loneliness say between the lady w the lap dog , the guy in the hotel room in clean well-lighted space, and the family w the dead son in Carver's great story about the birthday cake - each expressed so differently, each version of loneliness seen as a unique incident and not part of and endless cycle of repetition. Anderson led the way but others have taken the theme much further and deeper.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

How Sherwood Anderson influenced so many - and then was forgotten

Who didn't read Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, years ago, and who wouldn't admit that, for all its tendentiousness and at times pretension, it wasn't a tremendous influence? Every young writer or aspiring writer probably read it, in my gen usually in an old Modern Library ed., and I remember not only being blown away by the simplicity of the stories, each a stark evocation of character and mood (plot less so) - these were the American counterparts to Dubliners, though I didn't know that at all when I first read Winesburg, and saw also for the first time how stories, each in its own a small thing, could work together to create a much grander whole, the whole greater than the sum of its parts etc., in other words, it was my first experience with "linked stories," which has gone on to become first the staple and then the overwhelming cliche of graduate writing programs. In particular what Winesburg meant to me and I'm sure to many others was that there's material everywhere - you didn't have to live in NYC, Paris, or Moscow to be a serious writer. It made me think that, even in my dull suburban NJ town, there were many stories and that maybe I could write some of them. Sad that Anderson is now almost completely eclipsed in fame by his no doubt greater contemporaries - probably because he never wrote a great novel, and never progressed much beyond his original themes - but am glad to have a chance to go back to his work and see how it stands up - esp. in the Library of America edition, which old friend Charlie Baxter edited (to my surprise on picking up this vol. in the library). Initial impression is that the stories are very dated in some ways, a little over-wrought, a little obvious, but there's also no denying their emotional power - the sad story of the schoolteacher living in near isolation and under and assumed name after an accusation of fondling boys, the physician with almost no patients who tells his life story to the young reporter, Willard. Willard is of course the authorial stand-in, and we see this all through his eyes (though he is not the narrator) - it is pretty obvious that he will become the aged writer that we meet in the prologue to these stories. He's also the one every young reader and aspiring writer (e.g., me at age 15) identified with - the listener, the chronicler, the one who would maybe get away.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Sure, I like humor: Serious lit that makes you feel good about life

Friend WS (not William Shakespeare) and I resume discussion about "uplifting" books that are not schlock - that is, books worth reading that make you feel good about yourself and about life - well, started reading Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (New American Library ed.) last night - and that's not one of them! More about Anderson in future posts, but thinking about what WS said: amazing how almost every novel that we consider great or serious or literary is also "dark" - not necessarily nihilistic or fatalistic, but containing at least a significant element of melancholy and despair. So what works include this despair, and then move  beyond and above? Among recent novelists, the first to come to mind is Nick Hornsby; then I wonder about some of the novels of ethnic assimilation - again, a # of British writers, such as Zadie Smith, esp White Teeth, and the author Small Island, whose name I don't remember, and of course early Rushdie. And then the British classics, Austen and some of Dickens. But why is this not an American phenomenon as well? Our great books have always and probably will always focus on outsiders, and on those trying to break away from society, not join it. Americans don't do comedy - in the classic sense, in which the work ends in marraige and unification and celeration (often with an outsider or class of outsiders omitted from the festivities) - our comedy is satiric and sardonic. But we do have comic novels - Rioh (Philip), for one, Coover for another. Toole. Maybe Boyle. And comic short story writers for sure: Twain, Lorrie Moore, G. Saunders, to name 3 very different writers. To add to the list, though, how about the under-appreciated Woody Allen (Side Effects), or maybe Thurber, or, stretching a bit from fiction but still - SJ Perelman? Laughter never hurt serious fiction. As a very doctrinaire Marxist I knew once ludicrously proclaimed: Sure, I like humor. Who doesn't?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Harmless, gentle souls locked up inside a jail ... - current New Yorker story

A very powerful and scary and all too credible story in current New Yorker,Daniel Alarcon's Collectors, set in unnamed Latin American country, follows two young men on their paths to the frightful eponymous prison where as cell mates they develop a friendship and then a sexual relationship - ultimately one gets out of prison one does not. Strength of the story is not only Alarcon's vivid depiction of the horrors of life in this prison, particularly as seen from the POV of one of the men entering for the first time and fearing for his life and suspecting he will never learn the unwritten rules. Greater strength is the subtle portrait of the two men, quite different characters - one the youngest of several sons, good with his hands, but completely illiterate, shy and quiet, ends up transporting bricks of Rx for his older brother, gets caught but won't squeal, sent off to prison - like so many "harmless, gentle souls locked up inside a jail" - the other a well-known playwright and director who is grabbed by government thugs after the performance of a play that criticizes the government, several days of interrogation and then off to Collectors - although he has strong family support and his arrest is big news, there's nothing anyone can do for him against the forces of a paranoid and tyrannical government. The crux of the story is his successful effort to get permission to stage his play, I think it's called The Idiot President, inside Collectors. Alarcon could have done a little more with this central performance - the tradition of prison performances is a strong a fruitful mode, at least in film - Titticut Follies, Grand Illusion - but here the play does not lead to a confrontation or recrimination, as I would have thought. I know nothing about Alarcon and his work, not even where he's from, though it appears this was written in English, but this is a thoughtful and promising story, certainly fulfilling two of the functions of great literature - bringing us access to the consciousness of another and news from elsewhere. Well, it could even be news from here.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Rendez-vous with death?: Tietjens heads to the frong

As volume 2 of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End nears its conclusion (or at least as I near its conclusion) we creep ever closer to the horror of war on the front, which looms over the entire first two volumes, without ever quite getting there: the concluding long scene involves Tietjens's interview with General Campion; Campion, in the British snobby everyone's connected way, is an old family friend of T., almost his godfather, so T. has had advantage of many favors during his time in the service in the outpost in Rouen; but now he's gone a league too far - in a hotel room brawl the night before, which we finally understand because T. has to give a statement to General Campion so we get a rare passage of straightforward narration, T. apparently shoved aside (horrors!) a superior officer, General O'Hara. Campion believes he has to punish T. for this action - though the military code is an incredibly complex affair, as they touch on many nuances of when someone is and is not under arrest, but the upshot is that Campion splits the hairs: he will give T. a "promotion" and in doing so will assign him to a new division, fighting on the front. T. realizes this is a death sentence most likely, and he has a real fear of the horrors of trench warfare (he's already been on the front, though the narration has not taken us there during his first tour of duty). Surprisingly, he wriggles a little to try to get out of this assignment, but then all too quickly accepts it with fatalism and equanimity - he's had a sense all along that during his service he would most likely "catch one" (i.e., a fatal shot). So he's bound for the front - and he's a very strange personality, whose shifts in behavior from idealism to self-interest are hard to follow, but maybe quite credible during wartime service and great stress. T. also realizes that General C. has a "thing" for his estranged wife, Sylvia, and therefore may have some real self-interest in sending T. off to his probable death.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Anti-Semitism in Parade's End - Have people written about this? If not why not?

Super difficult to know exactly what's going on - again - in Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, even with the advantage of having seen the HBO-BBC miniseries - but what seems to be going on - as the long chapter seen mostly from Sylvia Tietjens's POV comes to a close, with she and estranged husband, Tietjens, heading off to the hotel bedroom, chapter ends in some commotion - guns going off outside the hotel, presumably some kind of call to arms, or an alarm of some sort rather than an attack - and then we jump to a new chapter and find Tietjens walking through the camp with Col. Levin, I think en route to a confab with one of the visiting generals -Campion? the one who is suspiciously close to Sylvia? - and we learn that T. is in some kind of trouble for events in the hotel that have not been narrated. Piecing it together, I think that he was in the bedroom with S. and the door handle moved (he seems to have some obsession with this image) and the General and someone else - Perowne? the obsequious guy with whom S. once ran away for 3 weeks? - come in the room and I think T. pushed the General, and may be subject to some military discipline, We know some of this only because T., back at the camp, fell asleep at a table and was talking in his sleep - in Levin's hearing - and talked mysteriously about the moving door handle and also something about his would-be but unconsummated mistress, Miss Wannop, safely back in London, living in near squalor. Two observations: the long Sylvia chapter reminded me very much of Molly Bloom's chapter in Ulysses, and I wondered about the chain of influence; the excellent chronology included in the Everyman edition that I'm reading shows that Ford did know and publish Joyce, and that U. cameout about 4 years before Parade's End vol 1, so I'm pretty sure Ford was v. influenced by the interior narratives and the frank sexuality in U. Second observation: what's with Tietjens's obvious anti-Semitism? Have others remarked on this, or just more or less ignored this as typical either of the time or the class - repulsive in either case. T. is v. scornful of Levin, asks many nasty and probing questions about his provenance, and ultimately says that he's not really English. Is this T. being defensive because he, too, has an odd and non-English sounding name? Or is it Ford himself, born Heuffer, who adopted a v. English name - desperately trying to fit in, but let's blame it on someone else, let's call them outsiders and strivers and not really English, let's blame it all - the war, everything - on the Jews. Will continue to read carefully to understand the relationship between Tietjens (aka Ford?) and Levin, the Jewish, no make that English, officer.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The nightmare at the heart of the novel: Parade's End

Half-way through Ford Madox Ford's four-volume Parade's End we are just now getting our first very tentative and shielded glimpse of the horrors of WWI at the front - in a sense the heroism and survival on the battle lines is what the whole book is about - how that changed Tietjens, the central character forever, and in the broader sense how the war change the character of the nation forever as well - England no longer felt an invulnerable "sceptr'd isle," no longer retained the rigid class structure (still there, but less rigid) and the sharp demarcation between England and "the colonies," emerged with a national pride at winning the war but also severely damaged and in a way understanding for the first time the dependence on other nations - in other words, the beginning of th end of the empire. But up to this time, as the novel jumps back and forth in its chronology, we see very little or none of the actual fighting; in one section in vol. 1 Tietjens is home recovering from shell shock, but he barely remembers his experience on the front. He elects to go back to fight, but so far in vol. 2 he's consigned to an outpost where he organizes troops and when they're ready sends them off to the front - he does this work extremely well. But partway through the extremely long chapter in which wife Sylvia visits the dour Tietjens in a hotel in Rouen, where he is stationed, and elicits information from others who served with T., while T. reads a bunch of letters she's brought - including some correspondence from Mrs. Wannop, mother of his (would-be) mistress, Sylvia begins to draw out another officer about what T. saw, and what he did, at the front - we get only a glimpse of it, and it's actually very difficult to parse, but it appears that he was caught for a time between the limbs of two frozen, mud-bound German corpses, and he witnessed some horrible stuff, notably one British soldier deliberately shooting another in the arm so as to disable the guy, getting him out of service - either one could be court-martialed for that. I expect this chapter, and this volume, will go far more deeply into the battle - the nightmare that lies at the heart of this long novel and that we are very slowly, fearsomely, approaching.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

An incredibly long chapter about one dinner conversation

In the midst of an incredibly long chapter in volume two of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, during which Sylvia Tietjens, arrived unexpectedly and against army protocol at the post in Rouen from which men are sent off to the front, at least meets her estranged husband, Tietjens, when he shows up at the hotel at which she's staying; a few surprising elements - first, before T. turns up, Sylvia becomes extremely jealous and possessive and worries that T. has stashed away his "mistress," Valentine Wannop, somewhere in the town. S. decides to "investigate," and does so by interrogating a rather idiotic officer - who tells her the truth, that Tietjens is a terrific military officer (clearly something we could not have foreseen from his blustery behavior in volume 1), and that he is a super-straight-arrow, almost never leaving the base. Perhaps armed with this assurance, Sylvia finds, when T. at last turns up at her dinner table, though barely speaks to her, that she's overwhelmingly sexually attracted to him - this is a first! (FMF seems I think to ID with T., a rumpled genius with a difficult life and a difficult name - bit of a male fantasy here?); she also reflects, Molly Bloom-like, on her many affairs and realizes the men she ran off with for weekends or longer were all dull and appeared like boys against the manliness and intelligence of T. OK, so is she in love with him? Does she even have the capacity to be kind to him? It appears not - she is destined to torment those who she loves; she's a troubled soul who destroys all that she touches. The dinner scene in this long chapter, moving in and out of her consciousness, sometimes narrated in open conversation among S., T., and the foolish fellow officer who understands nothing of what S. and T. are obliquely saying to each other - often speaking to each other through him - and sometimes into S.'s interior thoughts, reveals Sylvia's cruelty and Tietjens's stubborn and almost suicidal idealism. No doubt he, like the insipid Perowne or like his foppish friend McMaster, who barely appears so far in volume 2, could get out of military service or at the least could be assigned to headquarters to a general's staff, but he's obviously bound for the front. Just as he won't divorce his wife, S., he won't take any action to advance his own self-interest - and yet he's far from a heroic or militarist or even patriotic sort. He's rigid and unwavering, and, like Sylvia, emotionally distant.  (Note re yesterday's post: I don't think there is actually a direct quote through which Perowne asks Sylvia to leave her door unlocked, and I guess she doesn't respond with the words: whatever for? - but that's the essence of that Sylvia-Perowne chapter, and maybe that's how it was played in the miniseries? - in the novel, it's all by indirect quotation.)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The crazy pick-up lines in Parade's End

The hysterical pickup lines in Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, beginning with Tietjens's come-on to the probably virginal Valentine Wannop on the eve of his departure for the front: Will you be my mistress tonight? Hey, it worked for him (sort of), so how could you top that? How about with the foppish Perowne, coming on to Tietjen's estranged wife, the insufferable Sylvia, with this: Please leave your door unlocked tonight. (I may have the phrasing wrong.) That's a good one, made even better by Sylvia's retort: Whatever for? No other word for it - she's a bitch. She pretends not to understand so as to taunt Perowne, yet she's with Perowne just to taunt estranged husband, and she's wrangled her way to the Rouen outpost where he husband is stationed so as to be with him, against regulations, and taunt pretty much everyone in the British and Canadian armies with her beauty and accessibility. She was perfectly willing to use Perowne - twice, actually - first running off with him for three weeks, then returning to a miserable life with T., each of them unwilling to divorce, he on principle she on relgious grounds. Now in vol. 2 she uses Perowne to sort of smuggle her to the French outpost - he has some cushy, safe, debonair job as a courier, bringing crap like boxes of chocolates back and forth to high-ranking officers. He brings her along on his arm - he gets waived through customs, and she it turns out has no papers (he never asked). Now, she waits to see her husband, but when her arrives at the one classy hotel in town she's there flirting with Perowne - she knows her husband sees them together, they look at one another through "the glass" (there are mirrors everywhere, probably an Edwardian decor detail long gone, and picked up well in the art design of the great BBC-HBO miniseries); instead of walking 20 feet to her and giving her a piece of his mind, T. sends her a note, via a servant, which she ignores. So there they go again, these crazy people - she's travled a great distance at some risk to see her husband and they stand 20 feet apart and ignore each other, the two most stubborn people in the world. She does take advantage of the situation, though - taunting Perowne about his manlihood, about how T., no brute as far as we can see, will beat him to a pulp, that T. has a real military assignment (true) while Perowne has a cushy job, that she hated her three weeks running off with P., in short making him feel useless and emasculated in every way. But he's still nuts about her, and even T. is trying in some way to hang on to her, or at least to their marriage. Whatever for?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Great premise, but NYer "story" stops short - Guess what, it's not really a story!

Current New Yorker "story" by David Gilbert is quite fascinating as far as it goes, which is not far enough  unfortunately. It's one of those "premise" stories: everything's going along like a perfectly normal narrative in the realist/naturalist tradition - a guy goes out for dinner and drinks with an old friend, while wife's away with the kids visiting in-laws, drinks way too much, comes home, remorseful, feels ill, vomits in the night, wakes up hung over, vows to run or put himself back together in some way - and then story takes its turn toward the supernatural: alongside the bed (where he'd vomited) is a slug like half-human creature, something like a baby or fetus - and that's where the story goes: over the weekend, he begins to care for this "infant," buying it baby formula and stuff, and he's not sure how he'll explain all this to his wife. OK, so the story such as it is works in this sense: because of the the effective conventional narrative at the outset we are primed to accept a supernatural event as within the natural parameters of the story. In other words, we're ready to believe in this possibility - maybe even more so than if we were reading a story that from the outset seemed like fantasy or horror. In those, we suspend disbelief and dive in; in this kind of story, the author earns our belief. My only problem is that - Gilbert does nothing with the premise, it just stops short. I'm guessing here - based on the NYer track record of serving as a shill for publisher spinning forthcoming novels - that this is a novel excerpt and that Gilbert works this premise much deeper in a longer form - recalling such natural/supernatural works as Rachel Ingalls's Mrs. Caliban, to one of the best. I don't mind excerpts from longer works appearing as the fiction selection in the NYer, but at least be sure they stand on their own. This one, and others such as Lahiri's excerpt in the summer fiction issue, come off more like samplers - some of the publishers used to issue groups of samplers in bound pb editions to booksellers and critics. The NYer is now doing it for them.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Do people - even English people - actually behave like this?: Parade's End

Noting again the weirdness of the narration of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, as chapter two of volume two ends with Tietjens learning that his estranged wife, Sylvia, has arrived at his outpost to visit him - highly controversial and unusual, no women allowed anywhere near the huts - but we know that she has connived and charmed her way past many barriers - but does he go see her? or does he dispatch her? No, he goes on with his business of managing the many Canadian troops that are now his charge - he turns out to be a very efficient and effective military officer, somewhat surprising given his blundering and self-righteous personality, but part of the maturation of a man, and of the nation, that FMF is trying to convey. One plus is that Tietjens spends a few moments/pages pondering his marital state, which allows for a good summary for puzzled or forgetful readers - basically he goes through his wife's infidelities, her return to him, their mutual refusal to divorce even though they have no love for each other and no physical contact; then the weird night before T. returned to the front, in which she gives him permission to go to the young woman, Valentine, whom he's been yearning for - and she, Sylvia, goes off to a convent; T. goes to V. but for various reasons they never consummate anything - so here he is now in France, near the front, has no idea where he stands with either woman, a complete confusion and mess. Do people - even English people in 1914 - actually behave like this? In his obsession with maintaining his marriage (because of the son, who may not actually be his, and whom he barely sees?) and his crude approach to the young Valentine - "will you be my mistress tonight?" - not caring that this offers her nothing good in her life unless he in fact is willing to divorce - I think T. is a unique and strange case, although maybe an example of how the war disrupted and distorted every aspect of private and domestic life. Part of his role as an officer is to grant leave (or not) to various men who try to make the case that they have to go home to straighten out a marriage, to see their dying mother, etc. - this queer little narratives that T. listens to and then, godlike, acts upon, are a counterpoint to the domestic, psychological drama that upturns his own (and his nation's) life.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Like Woolf, but not as good - Ford Madox Ford

Just to give you an idea of what a crazy difficult writer Ford Madox Ford can be, take the 2nd chapter of volume two (No More Parades) of Parade's End: like all chapters in PE it is long with few breaks. Now I know, Philistine that I am, from having watched the HBO miniseries, that this episode, in which the main character Tietjens conducts a dizzying array of army business in his outpost in France, that the upshot will be that, against his wishes, his estranged wife, Sylvia, shows up at the outpost - the only woman for miles around. Nevertheless, even armed with that information, it is almost impossible to follow or make sense of every element in this chapter. I get the drift that some sort of elderly colonel shows up and escorts T. outside of his tent/office - and in doing so drops a hint that someone - a woman in fact - is nearby to see him. T. immediately goes off in a revery, thinking his visitor is his "mistress" (though they've never had sex) the much younger pacifist-activist Valentine Wannop (you have to love those names - only a guy named Ford, real name Heuffner, would come up with such non-English oddities). At teh very end of the chapter, the colonel tells T. that it's his wife who's shown up. So why can't he just plain deliver the message? Why does he wait agonizingly long for T. to intuit what he's trying to or planning to tell him? I skimmed back through the chapter and honestly could not even find the point where the colonel made his initial appearance, much less how he introduced himself to T. or explained the cause of his visit. This is great writing in a way - but also maddening - so demanding of the reader, almost willfully perverse. As noted in earlier posts, FMF is like Virginia Woolf only not as good - at least not on the interior life - yet perhaps better on the depicting the breadth of society and capturing the sense of a changing world. He embraced the frightful horrors of the war, whereas Woolf took shelter from them (the differences in their lives and genders playing a role of course).

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The battle outside is raging: Parade's End volume 2

It will be impossible to post about Ford Madox Ford's quartet of short novels, Parade's End, without reference to the BBC-HBO 5-part miniseries of same. Usually, I think it's anathema to see the movie/series first - the visual and visceral impact of a movie or series comes to totally dominate our image of the book, forcing us to see the work through the director's eyes and not through the novelist's, or through our own. PE is one of the exceptions - it's such a complex, difficult, yet rewarding book - so easy to get lost and confused - yet there's plenty of great material within, including a hugely powerful plot about the development of a man's sensibility and personality seen in parallel to and in some ways as an avatar of the development of the personality of a nation - England, maturing from a class-bound, quaint, stuffy, colonial island into a modern nation with a sense of pride and of the future - as the hero (Tietjens) and the country get drawn into WWI and survive. Have to say that Tom Stoppard, who wrote the teleplay for the miniseries, is an F-ing genius - it is possibly the best adaptation of a literary work, ever - not that BBC hasn't done some great ones, such as Dorrit and Bleak House, but this work is so much more challenging I'd have thought it almost impossible. But Stoppard got at the essence of the plot without diminishing or greatly reducing the significance of the work - in fact, enhancing it in some ways. Had I started volume 2, No More Parades, without seeing the series I would have been, as I so often was in vol. 1, completely lost and confused for many pps - it's Ford's peculiar style not to id character, to just place us in the midst of a scene, so we see a bunch of soldiers huddled in some kind of barracks room or tent, as bombs whistle above, and an officer in charge debating whether he should have let one of the men home on leave to work out a marital issue, another soldier jabbering oddly out of either nerves or insanity, and so on - but I did know that the officer in charge was Tietjens, the main character of the work, that the babbling officer is someone who will be important to the story line, and so forth - much easier, that is, to step into this complex scene and understand its context (another way would be to read the whole quartet twice, I guess, but first reading would be v. daunting - and it's about 1,000 pp.). After many, many scenes of domestic strife, this scene of huddled soldiers trying to be cool and to look brave when each in his own way is terrified - is a terrific introduction to the war - which is raging outside but seemingly - not till the startling end of this chapter anyway - not really touching the men.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The real and the "ersatz": who's the phony in Harvard Square?

A few last remarks on Andre Aciman's up-and-down novel Harvard Square - as we near the end we learn that Kalaj has some kind of homo-erotic attraction to the narrator (sorta reciprocated) - this not really such a surprise, as you have to suspect all along that his priapic obsession linked with his inability to sustain any sort of relationship with a woman (narrator has same issue) is a screen or cover for other feelings he's trying to suppress - or maybe his just pure id, pansexual, will take any form of physical-sexual comfort that's available. Second, far more shocking and disturbing, Kalaj is a brute and a woman-beater - he pretty seriously knocks around a woman he's been involved with when he catches her with another guy (he beats the guy, too) - so tough guy so ready to criticize everything American as "ersatz" is a phony himself, not a lover of women but a cruel bully. The woman debates whether to go to the police, seeks narrator's advice, hesitates because it could mean Kalaj's deportation - to which I say the hell with him. By this point, sad to say, I'm not particularly interested in K's fate - the narrator's maybe a little more so, but because of the framing of the story I do know that he came out OK. I don't know, it's an OK novel but not nearly as beautifully written and evocative as Aciman's memoir Out of Egypt, on which his reputation was built and justly rests. It may be that he just doesn't have a sharp enough sense of the arc of a novel or of the creation of character - he's stronger letting his memory, and his experience, speak directly to us, unmediated. It also may be that he's vamping for cover here - I don't know if in fact he did go to Harvard; he certainly knows some of the landmarks of H. Square and has a sense of the college life in that era, but for a novel narrated by a one-time Harvard English grad student there is very little about literature - the narrator's studies are always in the background, an interruption it seems to his amorous pursuits and his coffee-drinking. He prepares for his exams (orals?) concerned that the doesn't really have any thoughts about Chaucer, and then does v. well in the exams - wouldn't it be good to share those thoughts with us, and use these observations to help build character and plot? I was knocked around a bit re Exiles because like who would want to read a novel in which one of the key plot points is a Strindberg drama? - but I was kind of proud of that, veering away from the obvious and predictable and using a (relatively) obscure drama to illustrate points in contemporary life. Your novel can't be arcane or it won't work - no one should have to read another book to understand yours - but I think Aciman, a professor of writing, could have enlightened us more about literature - along with his observations about Persian cooking, the construction of Checker cabs, and world heavyweight champions.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Reality, or male fantasy? - Sex in the novel

Tricky thing for a novelist - sex scenes - how to depict, what to depict, how to use sex as part of plot and of character development as opposed to cheap thrills or a a force that overwhelms other elements of the novel. I have joked a few times, when reading from Exiles, that the main character and his experiences are based closely on mine, except that he had a lot more sex. True - so why did I have "add" sex to the raw ingredients of memory and experience? I tried as best I could to have the sexual relationships the protagonist engaged in be relevant to the plot, to his development of personality, his movement from innocence to experience. Also tried to have them be credible as much as possible - not the sudden passion random encounters that occur in literature (and film) and rarely if ever in life. Still, I know that some readers (my co-workers) noted exactly at what page the first sex scene began; others raised the issue of too much sex (I accept that criticism and welcome it - with flaws like that...). Reading Andre Aciman's memoir-like novel, Harvard Square, I go over these thoughts and issues again: the main character may or may not be based on his experience, and his experience may or may not have included attractive young women more or less flinging themselves upon him, but whatever his experience may or may not have been his use of and depiction of sex in HSq makes me raise my eyebrows - really? - these sexual episodes seem a lot more like a male fantasy of youthful abandon, or, more accurately, of female submission, than of anything approaching real depiction of how young people act, feel, behave. Granted, the novel is very much about the awakening of the unnamed narrator, guided by his Id-driver alter ego Virgil, Kalaj, but the novel is in danger of devolving into a catalog of scores. As noted in earlier posts, Aciman much stronger on description and, to a degree, on character than on plot - more than half-way through and there's no obvious plot element to keep me engaged. But there are occasional wonderful passages, such as his brief description (p. 131) of why he sometimes thinks in French (his native tongue).

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The movie wasn't so hot/it didn't have much of a plot...: Novelists spinning their wheels

Andre Aciman's Harvard Square is really a two-person novel - narrator and his coffee-shop friend and alter-ego, Kalaj - and is that enough to sustain a novel? I guess it can be - but as noted in yesterday's post there has to e change, growth, and dynamic between the two. I'm about half-way through the novel at this point, and my fear is that it's really just a one-person novel, a character study. the narrator is a lens through which we see Kalaj, but the narrator does not do much to, with, or because of Kalaj, at least not up to this point. The writing is fine and we learn more about K's life story over the course of the many conversations - I'm now at a point where Aciman come up with a pretty clever device for telling us more about K., as the narrator rehearses him for an interview before immigration, asking him a # of questions that he will have to answer truthfully. There's potential for some plot to develop here - perhaps K.'s interview will go poorly and the narrator will have to do something to help him retain his residency, perhaps even something criminal or underhanded (like impersonating K during the interview?) - so the novel still holds promise but it also is disconcerting that little has happened halfway through. I'm getting a little sick of highly talented writers who start off with a concept, turn on the engine, and then just spin their wheels.

Friday, July 12, 2013

What makes a novel "literary fiction"?

Narrator's friend Kalaj in Andre Aciman's Harvard Square is the Id to narrator's superego, the Zorba to his (?), the hip to his Square - in other words, not exactly his opposite but his antithesis and in some ways his ideal. The narrator does, about 80 pp. in, say that the would really like to be Kalaj - and on the surface who wouldn't?, he gets all the girls while the narrator lives his monkish little scholarly life. But then the narrator gets a girl, too - girl in next apartment unit basically flings herself at his feet - this does not happen in life, only in (male) novels, but OK - and maybe he is becoming a bit like Kalaj. But to what end? He's clearly meant to be an intellectual, and we know from the framing chapter that he's a well-educated man with at least one high-achieving kid and he has strong, positive memories of his time at Harvard - so he never becomes much like Kalah, at least not for long. So the issue with the novel is and will be: what effect do these characters have on one another? Do either of them change, learn, grow? Do they influence each other, like planetary forces? Or do they just remain in stasis, opposites both attracting and repelling? The success of the novel hinges on these questions. It is one thing to establish in literature a situation, a character, a relationship. It is another thing to have these character interact and grow and change over time - that's true literary fiction, a much higher bar, and much more rarely achieved.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

"What have you been reading?"

Friend EL asks the inevitable and sometimes dreaded question, What are you reading?, and of course this blog is a daily response to that question, but I am always amazed at how difficult it is to answer that question, other than by referring to what I read today, or yesterday maybe. So it's just past halfway through the year and time to look back for a moment to answer: What am I reading but What have I been reading? So, yes, without peeking at my index, here's what sticks with me about what I'm reading, not reading, ought to be reading, and recommend for reading in first half of 2013: Once again, I find myself drawn primarily to classic literature - most contemporary books, no matter the clamor and the hype, just cannot measure up to the best of all time, always so readily available as well. Among new books, the only two that stand out for me at this point are Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds, a terrific and evocative novel about a the Iraq War (far better than the year's other highly touted war novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which I couldn't finish) and George Saunders's story collection, Tenth of December. Saunders is a unique talent, perhaps not for everyone, but I find his work both funny and eerie and perhaps strangely prophetic. Among classics I've read this year, Wharton's The Custom of the Country is definitely worth adding to anyone's list - not as great as her masterpieces House of Mirth and Age of Innocence, but another unscathing look into her vanished social order. Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End was very challenging, with its leaps in time and unmediated narration - I read only the first volume of the quartet - but it's an impressive work and I'm appreciating (and understanding) it more as I watch the excellent HBO miniseries - and I may go back for a try at the other three volumes. As for the rest of the summer and for my travel reading, I almost always try to bring along a pb edition of classic novellas - I find short stories very suitable for traveling, when I have too much else happening to maintain the extended concentration and acts of memory that a novel entails - so last summer read Mann short stories and the summer before that a small edition of Henry James. Not sure what I'll travel with this year, perhaps one of the Russians.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Novel posing as a memoir - or vice versa?: Harvard Square

Ha, Andre Aciman kind of fooled me - the highly eccentric and in fact annoying and nacissistic character, Kalaj, whom his unnamed narrator meets in the Cambridge coffee shop Cafe Algiers, as K. is engrossed in a diatribe attacking everything in America as "ersatz" isn't exactly meant to be a genius manque after all - in fact, the narrator is fully aware that K. is full of noise and bluster and that his attacks on all things American are a kind of mating ritual to attract girls - in other words, Kalaj himself is ersatz. The narrator has the sense to realize that K. fulminations are larded with cliches and, as he calls them, "superannuated" ideas. Very true - and I'm not sure his harangues would actually attract girls, maybe so, but more likely to drive people away and to embarrass others he encounters at the counters - bad for business. His real purpose in the novel (Harvard Square - is the title a pun?, is the narrator in fact the only "square" in Harvard circa 1976?) is to serve as the narrator's foil: both North African, both refugees from France, but one Jewish the other Arab, one over-educated the other under, one aspirational the other resigned, one naive the other jaded, one shy and lonely the other bombastic and a serial seducer (or so he says). Good start - though so far the novel is more about character than about action. I haven't read other fiction by Aciman (maybe a story here and there?), but his memoir, Out of Egypt,  was very beautiful and poignant, and the memoir form well suits his sensibility. HS is a novel that feels like a memoir, is in fact posing as a memoir: within the thin frame of the structure - father takes son on tour of Harvard and recalls his youth there - the novel veers directly into memoir mode, though of course we (or I) known nothing about the veracity, about the adherence, if any at all, to the facts of Aciman's life.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Eccentric geniuses in literature - why so few?

Wracking my brain, trying to think of truly genius and eccentric characters in fiction - narrators don't count - as it's (relatively) easy to have a genius narrator, in that the n's observations, quips, queries are actually the writer's and they can take place in abstract time - in other words, the narrator's observations can be far removed from the events of the plot - whereas a character has to live within the timeframe of the plot. To create an eccentric-genius character, the writer has to "equip" the character with brilliant observations and strange behavior that feels, within the borders of the story, natural and credible. Some of the v. few examples that come to mind could be: Mann's Setembrini, Joyce's Dedalus, Roth's Zuckerman maybe?, McPhee's dominant father in Beautiful Lies maybe?, the lead character in Confederacy of Dunces maybe? These, however, either push the needle too far toward eccentric and away from genius - or else are clearly authorial standins (Setembrini being the exception). In other words - to create a genius character the author must be a genius as well, or at least must have observed a lot of geniuses. This issue comes up now as I've started Andre Aciman's novel Harvard Square - which begins with a dad taking son on college tour of Harvard, son, feeling pressured by alum Dad besotted with his own memories of the place, wants to leave - and then Dad/narrator/Aciman? (narrator is unnamed) reflects back on his grad-school days at Harvard, during which he felt lonely and somewhat like an outsider, as a foreign student from Alexandria (Egypt), Jewish of French parentage, thus twice removed from his native language and culture. He recalls studying for his qualifying exams, spending many hours and as little $ as possible in coffee shops, at one of which (Cafe Algiers - Aciman is very true to the place names and so forth of Cambridge - though he seems to have invented names of Harvard faculty members) he meets a fellow North African/French refugee, Kalaj (pronounced College?) - in the midst of a bitter intellectual debate about the plasticity of American culture, to which K. attaches his favorite descriptor, "ersatz." Aciman's success, if the relation between K. and narrator will remain central, will depend upon how credible he can make K. - he's memorable in the first scene, the coffee shop encounter, but not nearly so brilliant as he thinks himself to be - nor as the narrator, at least at this point, thinks - his rant really a pastiche of undergraduate cynicism, but maybe he will evolve as A. reveals - or learns - more about him and his background. He's eccentric for sure - but not, based on what A. has him saying in the coffee shop, a genius exactly - not even an original thinker.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Arrivederci, Flamethrowers. Can anyone explain why we have to finish every book we start reading?

There are some things I will never know: the feeling of zero-gravity, the constellations as seen from Antarctica, what happens to the narrator of Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers. As readers of these posts know, I am no averse to giving up on reading a book - I see no earthly reason to finish a book just because you started it. If someone does see a reason, please explain. But I would say I rarely get 80 percent through a book and then abandon it. Yet there was nothing further drawing me to this novel; I read through many wonderful, trenchant, idiosyncratic passages that captured the feel and mood and ambiance of a few different scenes - avant-garde art in downtown NYC in the 1970, Italian leftist radicals in a street fight against capitalism and authority, motorcycle racers on the Bonneville flats - and I kept waiting for a plot to take shape - and it never really happened. Things looked to get interesting during the Italian section of the novel, when the narrator was faced with some real conflicts and choices and when she truly appeared to be at some risk. But then we move back to NYC and more jabbering at art openings about a whole slew of minor characters whom I cannot keep straight nor do I need to. So I abandon this books with some reluctance because I do see so much potential in Kushner and hope she will write more and mature as a novelist, that is, as a story teller, and not rely solely on her great strength as a stylist. Proust can do this - I high measure to be sure - but none other. I realize that the plot may click together at the end, and I'm slightly curious as to whether the unnamed narrator is now looking back on her youth - from where? a position of authority in the art world? from a prison cell? - but not curious enough to plow onward. Arrivederci.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Flamethrowers gets ignited - but will Kushner douse the flames?

Rachel Kushner does a terrific job in her account of a street demonstration turned riot and police attack - the working classes, the students, a grab-bag of leftist and anarchist groups of activists and artists, taking to the streets of Rome in a wild, rainy, frenetic day - all seen from the viewpoint of her naive and somewhat terrified narrator. It's extremely difficult to create such a complex scene and to convey so much action - the greatest writers, Tolstoy, Dickens, e.g., are masters at this but few contemporaries can manage and few have even tried (I have tried, and I tip my hat to Kushner, as she's outdone me I think). Her imagination, memory, or research is exceptional, as she has so many odd touches and strange appearances in this day long event - the group of protestors in torn and ragged clothes, the middle-aged filmmakers havering around a pregnant runaway and coaxing her into saying quotable things for their project, so many more - just a terrific passage in this desultory novel. The section ends on a promising, menacing note - as the narrator is shunned by the other women in the crashpad, squat, or collective - she's not even sure - where she's staying because they assume she's interested in Gianni - narrator seems very blase about the incredible danger she's in as she's clearly at the epicenter of a radical sect that is directly challenging the government and industry - through acts or violence and mayhem (including extensive looting) - she could certainly end up in prison, unless her waning connection to the Valera family can save her. Section ends with Gianni noting that Sandro Valera, her boyfriend who's betrayed her, will "get his." Nice - but then - what? - Kushner swings us back to NYC, where I'm afraid we're due for another long passage of art-world gossip and politics. The contrast is extreme, and that may be Kushner's point after all, but just as she's finally ignited a plot, does she have to douse it? I hope not - but I wonder where she'll bring this, how she will conclude, will there be any long-term perspective as the narrator looks back on this distant period of her life. What has become of her? From what vantage does she tell this tale?

Saturday, July 6, 2013

As the plot thickens, must the style thin?

The plot really begins moving along in the last third of Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers as unnamed narrator (another homage to Proust?) leaves the Lake Como estate of her boyfriend's family and gets a ride with the groundskeeper - who'd been eyeing her w/ suspicion and contempt - to the family industrial complex where her boyfriend, Sandro, had gone to try to talk reason to the recalcitrant Board of Directors; narrator thinks she'll take some footage of the tire-making complex for a film she hopes to complete - she's a very desultory at best artist, despite her immersion in the hip NYC art scene of the 70s she spends very little time actually working on any of her art or even thinking about it and her plan to shoot some smokestacks is extremely amateurish - and this may be Kushner's point - in any case as she arrives at the factory she wanders around a bit and comes upon boyfriend Sandro in deep embrace with his cousin (!) Talia. A great surprise to her, but hardly to us, as we have seen (she has not) that Sandro is a player who's just more or less using the much younger, less experienced narrator for lots of quick sex (in return for what? - his wealth, which she comes to despise, as does he, and for access to higher ranks of the art world, of which she takes little advantage). She then takes off with the groundskeeper, heading on the Autostrade (built with money from boyfriend's tire-making family) for Roma. So the plot is now moving, as we wonder where she will go, how she will endure, and what vengeance if any she will take on the nasty, Fascist Valera family that would so discourteous and even hostile to her. One thing I note, however: as Kushner accelerates the plot, at last, her writing style breaks apart - a lot more breathless sentence fragments, the bane of so many first-person narratives (usually first-person present) - I continue to see a huge talent potential here in Kushner, in this her first (I think) novel, and hope as this work progresses and her next work germinates she can pull together both plot and style - like a tennis player learning to work both touch and power.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Plot Thickens - at last!

Yes, toward last third of Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers the novel becomes considerably more interesting (at least to me) as the narrator and boyfriend Sandro Valera are now in Italy, at the his mother's Lake Como estate. We go through another of the extremely long chapters consisting of much dialogue and sniping among a crew of narcissistic characters over dinners and at poolside etc. - in this case Sandro's ill-tempered widowed mother, her paramour a dissolute but possibly famous American novelist (modeled on someone?), Sandro's brother Roberto who funs the family empire, Sandro's flamboyant cousin Thalia, and a few others various counts and others of that sort, all supported by a near silent, hostile-staring class of servants and groundskeepers. So why is this more interesting than the previous extremely long dissolute dinner parties in the Soho lofts? Because for the first time in the novel, the narrator (nameless) is engaged - there's something at stake here, as she is now fighting for Sandro's affections, fighting to establish her own personality, and struggling to assert her purpose in life - or at least in this novel. In all the previous conversations she was an observer, mostly silent; now she is locking horns with Sandro's mother, who makes a # of snide comments about her, the American girlfriend, and she has to give it back, while not offending her host. For the first time in this long novel, there is a conflict, a collision of forces. Even more important, we learn of the strikes and kidnappings and assassinations going on throughout Italy, with particular attacks on the Valero industries, much hated by all workers - so we begin to see the fear in the family, as they hire armed guards to protect the estate, and we begin to despise them - not just as seen through the narrator's eyes but we can actually see a little more than she sees: the Fascist background of the late partiarch, the contemptible way they treat everyone (not just her), the assumption that their wealth brings them privilege and immunity (when in fact it may make them vulnerable) - so there is now an ominous theme, a pending doom - and the narrator is right at the heart of it: should she leave this horrible family (and if so will Sandro come with her, or is he too caught up in the web?), and what about her reason for being in Italy, to be sort of a mascot for the family motorcycle business - should she rebel against that as well, or will she be caught up in the wealth, the privilege, the glamor of these wealthy boors and pigs? At last she has decisions to make, forces are in conflict all around her, and a plot is taking shape. Perhaps the novel, plenty long enough, should begin here - though it's hard to imagine an editor cutting that ruthlessly (Kushner's writing is always great, but it doesn't always serve her purpose as a novelist. Readers do like plot.)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Shoots and leaves: a dramatic episode in The Flamethrowers

Read only a little more in Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers and...something happened. Will it matter? Will it affect the characters and their lives? That is, will it be part of a plot? Or just another incident? Narrator and boyfriend Valero walking home to his Soho loft early in the a.m. after the very long, very hip NYC downtown arts scene dinner party and drinks at club afterward - when a guy steps from the shadows and tries to rob them at knifepoint. V., ever the cool hero, reaches as if for his wallet and pulls out (from his pocket? can this be?) a gun - some old replica pistol that his Italian industrialist family used to manufacture - and he shoots the guy. Well, that stops the robbery - not clear how badly injured the thug might be. V. takes off and narrator runs into their loft and calls 911 (did they have 911 in 1976? This might be an anachronism) to report the shooting. They ask her for a report - and she realizes, shit, her boyfriend might have actually killed a guy. She hangs up, an ambulance arrives - later she goes outside and sees no one - and then she spends the rest of the night watching a predawn movie - not sure what movie it is, but some readers will be able to ID it for sure. So that's a pretty good little action scene, might stand alone as a good story, with some editing - but will it matter over the course of the novel? I have some trepidation and am afraid V. will return home in the late morning and narrator will just carry on with the course of her life - which seems to be heading toward a stint racing motorcycles in Italy. Kushner does her research really well - she make her narrator v. convincing as a moto-head, and she has an incredible fount of status details about the NYC art and political scene of the 60s and 70s - I can see why this book has gotten a lot of attention (writers - set your novels in NYC if want to find an agent/editor) and why it's holding my interest in spite of its flaws - but so far it's a long flat ride, detail after detail, and I'm hoping this dramatic episode will help Kushner give her novel a shape and provide some stakes for the characters.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

It does get better?: Waiting for plot to develop in The Flamethrowers

I'm going on faith now but others tell me that Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers does get better - I've hit the half-way point and just finished an extremely long account of a party of downtown NYC artists and art-types circa 1976 - this is a scene that seems to be modeled on one of Proust's 1910 Paris soirees chez Guermantes in which there are incredibly complex webs tying the characters to one another - one was married to another, one tried to shoot another, members of various rival political or cultural sects - and in this instance all seen through the lens of the provincial naif narrator (not even sure of her name - does she have a name? - much like Proust's narrator in that regard as well). To say that Proust does it better is not in any way a putdown of Kushner - nobody matches Proust for that kind of socially complex and evocative writing. But here's the difference: Search of Lost Time is a grand novel about the evolution of a society and about the "sentimental education" of the protagonist. In Flamethrowers, at least to this point, the novel is a series of events that do not seem to mold or shape the central character at all. The novel is set 35 years in the past, but there is no wise reflection to give the novel depth and perspective. The narrator faces into the wallpaper. I am not especially interested in the eccentrics that she is parading before us and would probably give up on this book at this point, but on recommendations I will keep reading - hoping that Kushner will pull these strands together into a plot or a design. The narrator has to have some goal or objective to achieve, some crisis to resolve, some conflict to face and overcome, or at the very least a distinct voice that defines her as a characters and wry observer. Otherwise, she'll lose me eventually.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Self-portrait of the artist: when literature reflects itself

It's always a challenge to write fiction about art - of any sort - music, fine arts, performance arts, literature itself. There are lots of examples of novels about artists/musicians/writers but, other than the portrait of the artist as a young man/woman genre (in which we generally don't see examples of the work other than juvenile pieces), anything successful? The best would probably be Mann's Doctor Faustus. Perhaps Doctor Zhivago, as a novel about a poet (and physician, obviously). Many, many mediocre pieces in which we're never convinced that the artist/writer/etc. is as good as the narrative wants them to be (The Stranger's Child, e.g.) or in which we smothered with tedious accounts of the art of pottery making (The Children's Book), among many possible examples. Particularly an issue for novels about writers: if the interpolated literature is better than the novel, it calls the whole novel into question; if worse, it lowers the level of the whole work - unless worse in a telling or comical manner? Now reading Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers which is a dual-themed novel as its narrator and protagonist is an aspiring artist and part of the downtown NYC arts scene in the 1970s and also a speed demon, an expert skiier as a kid and now obsessed with motorcycle racing - an odd combo to be sure. The motorcycle racing is obviously the more unusual - not many novels about that, especially female-driven novels - whereas the NYC arts scene is overly familiar ground. As it's incredibly difficult if not impossible to actually describe the artwork in a convincing or compelling way, Kushner has come up with a pretty good solution in conveying the arts scene of this time and place - her characters are concept artists - and as with all such concept artists, the idea for the art project is as important or more important than the actual execution - so this works well in fiction (I faced a similar problem in a piece I wrote, as yet unpublished, and came up with the same solution, but I tip my hat to Kushner as she handles this problem dextrously, better than I did I think). Narrator's art concept is to race her bike on the salt flats and then take photos of the trail her tires left in the salt; does sound kind of visually boring, and the narrator realizes she has been unable to pull off her concept. This novel will, I think, live or die based in part on how far Kushner can push these concepts - will the narrator and her boyfriend, Valero, heir to an Italian tire-manufacturer fortune, some up with better and more daring concepts? It's kind of a bind for a writer - if you can come up with the great concepts for concept art, might as well be an artist, right? What would be really cool is to come up with a concept that is conceptual but impossible to execute except in fiction - that would push the form as far as it could go. I had a professor way back when who had this as a specialty: the interaction of art forms, novels about artists, etc. - his field was aesthetics, in the philosophy department (Teddy Brunius, of the University of Upsala, Sweden). He, too, had a concept - maybe more interesting in the conception than the execution, but enough on which to build an entire academic career.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Flamethrowers: Beacuse, and in order to ....

About a third of the way through Rachel Kushner's intriguing but puzzling The Flamethrowers I find myself asking: what is a plot? Why does this novel, that has such vivid scenes and clearly delineated characters and so much "action" feel as if it has no plot at all? I could go on for quite a while setting out the events of this novel - see yesterday's post for a partial list - and yes plenty happens - and in the section read last night even more: we go back to see the narrator after her bike crash - contrary to the grim expectations in which we last saw her blown off her bike at 80 mph - who didn't think that perhaps this novel was being narrated by a quadriplegic or even by a ghost? - she seems fine, broken ankle, still able to try to send a female land speed record in a rocket-propelled car - and we also see her back in nyc and get the back story about how she met boyfriend and mature artist and scion of leading Italian auto company (an Italian Michelin, sorta) Valera - and also she learns that the mysterious guy she had a one-night hookup with is Valera's best friend - and the 3 from a little cohort, though the sexual history apparently kept a secret. Yes. Many events and complications - and yet - why does this novel feel formless? To me, a plot means more than many things that happen to or around a narrator or protagonist; the protagonist must have a problem or conflict that he or she must face or endure, must have a goal, must take action to achieve this goal, must succeed or fail as a result of his/her action(s). This, in other words, is the arc of a story; long ago I had a professor (Lionel Abel) who taught a course on tragedy, in which he famously and repeatedly said: In order to a be a properly motivated tragic hero, you have to have two kinds of motivation: a motivation because, and in order to. We used to laugh at this formulaic view - and even more so because of the almost comical way in which Abel delivered his proclamations - but he was right. The character in a novel has to be trying to do something (because) and to achieve something (in order to): save a marriage, win the girl, win freedom, commit suicide, save the child, beat the system, make a match, learn his origin, and so forth. I don't see any because/in order to in The Flamethrowers, at least not yet; I have to admit I have been cited for the same flaw, unjustly I thought, but there is a danger for all writers in just accumulating incident, scene, mood, peculiarity. In a great novel, even in a good novel, all this detail must serve a purpose, must move the story along, must advance our knowledge and understanding of the characters and their world.