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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, May 31, 2014

The role women play in the short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer

So let's take a moment to think about the role of women in Isaac Bashevis Singer's short stories because that's a troubling and perplexing issue. First, on one level, you have to give him credit in that the women in his fiction, especially the vast majority of the early stories that are set in the shtetls in Poland in the early part of the 20th century, are extremely powerful figures - often running the family farm or business operations with much great cunning, expertise, and acuity than their spouses, if they even have spouses. These are, generally, not retiring housewives or deferential helpmeets - they're the rock and the strength and the spirit of the families. And yet - all of their work and effort and energy serves essentially the purpose of letting their husbands off easy: often to pursue drinking and other dereliction, at best to pursue the life of a rabbincal scholar, a pathway entirely closed to the women of the village. So it's an ambiguous female power and authority. On a second, deeper level, almost universally in his fiction the powerful women are dangerous, evil, or possessed, or all three - they're very often unfaithful to their husbands, they may be alluring but they're also enchantresses, causing nothing but heartbreak and turmoil. The sense that Singer deeply distrusts and even hates women, or perhaps a better way to put it is that he distrusts and hates his own attraction to beautiful women, colors all of his stories and builds cumulatively as you read through any of the early collections. Granted, he writes about extremes, as many writers do - following Tolstoy's famous dictum, all happy families are alike, and so forth. But one after another, his stories involve women who are either possessed (and often but not always harmful to their spouses - a benevolent possession is the theme of Esther Kreindel the Second) or simply forces of destruction in the community. A few of his most famous stories, such as Gimpel the Fool, are to a degree warm-hearted and spiritual, but most of the stories are much darker than we expect, especially if you come to these shtetl stories anticipating the whimsy of a collection like The Wise Men of Chelm. To Singer's credit, he has a consistent if dour view of humanity and his stories articulate that vision in many guises - but, despite the surface humor in many of the stories, the vision is dark, especially regarding the women characters.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Alone: An Isaac Bashevis Singer story that represents the course of his life

Alone must be one the first if not the first Isaac Bashevis Singer story set entirely in America - written in the 1960s (he'd been living in the U.S. for about 30 years) and in his 3rd story collection, Short Friday, by which time he'd earned a national reputation in the U.S. Story set in Miami Beach, and it feels very much like a dream sequence - certainly like one of my travel-anxiety dreams! - but I think there's far more to this story that a set of near-surreal images and conditions; in fact, I think it's a subtle and to a degree subconscious allegory about Singer's life and the life of a immigrant community: story begins in a decent hotel in Miami Beach at which the first-person narrator, a New York Jew like the author (though no back story), is the only "American" present - hotel filled with South Americans. He doesn't like the crowd and imagines the pleasure of being the only guest. Suddenly, word that the hotel has gone bankrupt and everyone has to check out immediately (at this time he realizes that the other guests are Jewish as well); narrator wanders streets and finds a very cheap, dingy hotel and checks in - the woman at the desk is a hunchback from Cuba, which seems to disturb him - and he is the only guest, perversely fulfilling his wish. He takes a long bus ride, terminating at some kind of commercial fishing pier where he watches them gut the fish; then rides back, has a large dinner that he didn't really want, and finds himself caught in a tremendous downpour. Runs back to the hotel, fearing him might drown in the puddles. Back in room, finds his mss and papers drenched and the room is wet; he strips off his wet clothes and lies on the bed. The desk clerk says she's scared of the hurricane and comes into his room; she sits on his bed, but he rejects her as he finds her homely and repulsive; she puts a curse on him. The next day, he leaves. Aside from the utter strangeness of these events, which make little sense except in dream-logic, you can maybe see the way in which this story touches so many Singer themes (the bewitching and dangerous powers of women) and in fact traces the course of his life: from a crowded and vibrant community to a "new world" and life of isolation amid a crowd; exploring the new world, and repulsion at the consumption of flesh (Singer was a vegetarian); then the sudden storm for which nobody was prepared (cf the Nazi invasion of Poland and the extermination of the Jews); the danger to his manuscripts (can he continue writing in America?), the seduction and the high-minded rejection of the woman because he is faithful to his wife - when he knows he would have accepted her had he been attracted to her - what does that represent? Moral and ethical hypocrisy? The rejection of temptation and the need to focus on the work of literature? Leaving behind the dybbuks and spirits of the shtetl - his earlier life, and his earlier writing - and turning more toward America, toward realism or naturalism, toward stories about relationships rather than legends about possession? The title of the story itself is a hint: the writer is always completely alone. As WC Williams put it, roughly: I was meant to be lonely/I am best so.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Promising story from new writer in current New Yorker

Good to see the New Yorker introducing a new American writer w/ short story in current edition by writer named Thomas Pierce about whom the notes say his debut collection is coming soon. On the plus side, his story Ba Baboon show promise as a quirky and witty writer - his voice reminds me a little of TC Boyle and a little less so of George Saunders, two NYer staples, so you can see how Pierce appealed to the fiction editor whoever that may be, and good company: this story about a 40ish man and his sister, he's been seriously brain-injured in a robbery and she helps care for him - he is ambulant but his mind's not right, which leads to some interesting creative possibilities for the author - mixing time sequences and blended reality and illusion, as we see things for most of the story from the POV of the injured man. Story opens with man and sister hiding in some kind of kitchen food pantry, and she's peaking out the door wondering when and how they can leave; an unusual beginning to a story, and it takes us quite a while to figure out what's going on - I would guess most readers would think initially that these are two children playing a game. As we get our bearings we gradually learn: they have entered the house of sister's ex-boyfriend but have been surprised by a couple of guard dogs and are pinned in the closet till they can make an escape and sneak past the dogs. Later we learn (spoilers here) that the sister entered house not to feed the dogs but the steal a porno "tape" ex-boyfriend has made of her; ultimately, she grabs a stack of cassettes, when she gets home they play a cassette and realize it's just a family recording of his kids - she and brother are very moved by this, a scene from a, seemingly, happy family  - very different from theirs. It's great that the story actually has a narrative arc and that Pierce brings it to a full and meaningful conclusion - very unusual among young (I assume he's young - but what's with the references to cassettes? how long ago did this story take place, supposedly?) writer. The only drawback here for me, perhaps also typical of young writers, is the obviously forced quality to the narrative: these events are the kind of things that "characters" do but that "people" never do, or almost never - it all feels like a narrative set-up, a device, to place characters in jeopardy and hold our attention fast. W/ his talent, though, I'm hoping that Pierce has written and will write other stories that rely less on exaggerated plot elements and more on a natural flow of action and dialog - it's great to see something "happen" in a story, but it should feel organic to the characters rather than imposed by the author.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Isaac Bashevis Singer's life - and work

Move ahead to some of the later stories in the Library of America collection of early I B Singer stories - from the collection Short Friday - read two each yet another weird take on love, sex, obsession, marriage - in the first one a woman whose husband has deserted her receives regular visitations from the village jokester who pretends to be an impish spirit or a devil; for many months they have regular sexual encounters, and, within the logic of the story, she always believes he's a devil and never figures out that he's just a poor schlemiel from town. Not at all likely, right? But in fact we can sort of see around the edges of the story and figure that of course she knew but by accepting his self-proclamations she makes their sexual relationship a little more acceptable and less dangerous: to recognize him as a fellow villager would entail all sorts of commitments and expectations. The end is very fine and odd, as the "devil" takes ill and dies and she joins the funeral procession, thinking, or at least pretending, that she's honoring a lonely miscast from her village. Another story from this collection, Small and Big, or some such title, is about a man of very diminutive stature who marries a large woman - and she's mean to him, eventually ridiculing and humiliating him, which leads to his gradual withdrawal from their relationship, and to his death - another of the very sad and cruel Singer stories. I read quite a bit of the detailed chronology of Singer's life in the excellent LoA notes and was surprised to see how extremely literate he was even in his early years - publishing translations of a wide variety of authors, including Hamsun and Mann. He was also quite the unconventional "player," involved in numerous affairs, one of which led to a child - he wrote about this quite openly in one of his memoirs. For those who think of him as a poor, misplaced refugee, it's important to note that he came to the U.S in the '30s and became a citizen in the '40s and knew English well enough to work on his own translations with writers who did not read Yiddish. He was part of a thriving and prosperous - though now long gone - Yiddish cultural elite and diaspora. BTW, I've known that his older and revered brother I J Singer was a very successful novelist who died too young - but didn't know their sister (Hinde?) was also a novelist: material here for someone's dissertation - along the Woolfian lines, if Sh. had a sister: cf James et al. (and in the reverse, the Brontes).

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The contradictions within the work of I B Singer - curelty and sentiment

I. B. Singer's stories have such a mixture of extreme cruelty and humane sentiment- it's hard to grasp his world view except to say that, like Whitman's work, it embraces contradictions. Look at how cruel the villagers are to Gimpel in the great title story of his first translated collection, of the meanness of the imp in The Mirror, seducing and ruining the life of a vain young bride - OK, perhaps her vanity is her undoing and perhaps the message is that there are temptations and cruelty all around us, some of which we cannot understand, God is cruel for reasons known only to God, but it is our task in life to be good and just not for any reward here or hereafter but because virtue is its own reward - et cetera - though this does not sound convincing, does it? Singer seems to relish cruelty for its own sake (Nabokov does, too, I think) - and then we get a wonderful story like The Little Shoemakers, a generational story of shoemakers culminating in Abba and his six sons, all of whom learn the trade, but follow the eldest, Gimpel, to America (this story seems to move from the 18th century directly into the 20th - when the Nazis bomb the village of Frampol, we're surprised as it seems this village was in an age far before air travel, even before railroad travel). The sons become successful in a shoe empire in the U.S. and bring their then-widowed father to safety as war breaks out in Europe - he's bewildered and depressed in America until he comes across his own cobblers tools and begins to make shoes again - in the midst of suburban Jewish wealth and splendor - and in a beautiful conclusion his six sons join in and the resume making shoes together, as they did 60 years before in the shtetl, singing an old Yiddish melody in time to their work: what an image! This story, I think, could make a great film, if it hasn't been done already and if the story hasn't been ruined in the process - it should be very simple and clear and dominated by imagery. (BTW, Gimpel the Fool is such a great story because it encompasses both the cruelty and the sentimentality.)

Monday, May 26, 2014

I B Singer

Posted yesterday on some similarities between Singer and Garcia Marquez but today will note a significant difference - for Singer it's not about magic realism but actually about magic or put more accurately about spiritualism folklore mysticism and cabal actually present among the people rich and poor in his tint polish village of frampol. For ex in the story the mirror about the beautiful young bride who sees an image of the devil in her mirror seducing her then abdicating her there's nothin in the story that suggests this presence is a stylistic embellishment of the author's. Rather the events are presented as actual factual and natural - these are the kinds of things that happen in this village - just as mme bovary can take arsenic to "disappear " from an unfulfilled life the beauty finkl (w the comically un-beautiful name) can disappear thru satanic intervention. His use and infusion of the spiritual and it's universal acceptance makes his village life particularly strange and remote from the modern world so that when there's casual reference to the world beyond such as a young man leaving for america we feel a shock - we sense frampol is medieval which in a way it is.

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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Isaac bashevis singer

Read a few more stories in first vol of library of america I B Singer collected stories and trying to get a sense of the village life (of his youth?) as he portrays it. What are the elements? On the surface of course the ever present poverty as well as the social inequalities, the miserliness of the wealthy who are wealthy only in relation to the poverty around them, the constant looming of death w so many dying young either in infancy - not unusual for family of 7 w 1 surviving and many widowed and multiply remarried, the sense that everyone knows everyone else's business and that the narratives could be told in a communal first person plural (as w Garcia Marques a generation later) - the great story gimpel the fool the exception in that he is a narrator w a strong voice and distinct character not speaking for the village but for himself as an outcast from the village. Little or no reference to world beyond the village and rabbis a separate almost divine breed apart spiritual political and intellectual leaders but for all that a maybe sometimes looked down upon as too privileged remote and uninvolved perhaps like god(s).

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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Chilean short story - Zambra

The short story Emilio in the current New Yorker makes me think the author, Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, may be the next generation's Roberto Bolano. Like many of Bolano's stories, this one is about a young man in chile who has a tense and complex relationship w his father and who comes to know more about his father and half as he moves farther away from home in time and space. The title character is the godson of the narrator's father and arrives in narrator's life quite suddenly and unexpectedly at age 18 - narrator about 9 years younger - and Emilio guides narrator se times awkwardly like an older bro. Narrator is aware that he is OCD and Emilio soothes and reassures him also tries to help ease him out of shyness and teach him how to talk to girls with some tragicomic results. As w so many Latin American stories this one ends too w key characters living abroad and encountering one another - safe from the dictatorship but alien in a new land. Unlike w Bolano's fiction the narrator here does not seem to b a literary sort - his adult life in fact remains a bit of a mystery. Much of story involves Chilean soccer - tho most NA readers will not know the specific stats references to the sport we do get the idea as to how the passion for the game both playing it and following pro teams can both draw people together and drive them apart. Most amusing scene in story: Emilio not a fan goes to pro game and decides to root for the refs and on penalty calls stands and shout "good call gentlemen. Well done!"

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Singer - the gentleman from Cracow

Not as great a story as gimpel the fool because you can pretty much see where it's headed from the outset but the gentleman from Cracow by I b singer is a classic of the genre: a stranger comes to town. In this case a wealthy widowed doctor arrives in the tiny polish village that is suffering through drought and poverty and brings or seems to offer a kind of salvation - first by spending an extraordinary amount of money and thereby getting the whole economy rolling again - a federal stimulus program! - and then by arranging a dress ball that will pair off all of the eligible young men and women, including himself, in some weird random fashion. As the event ends in a debauchery it becomes evident that he's a devil incarnate - and I guess the message is beware of false messiahs including secular ones - tho i still think his economic program was a good one.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

The wisdom of Gimpel the Fool - one of the world's great short stories

Started reading Isaac Bashevis Singer stories in the first of three volumes of his collected stories in the Library of America edition - last night read Gimpel the Fool, thought I'd read a few stories but stopped right there. Sometimes a story is so great and so moving and so original that you just want to hold off and leave it alone, let it stand by itself in your memory for a while and not crowd the space with other thoughts and images (similarly, when I finish reading a novel I never start another one on the same day or night). So Gimpel stood alone (spent rest of night watching dreadful Red Sox game). This short story, about 10 pages tops, encompasses not only a whole life but in a sense a whole view of the world and the afterlife; readers will note that it begins with an image of birth (the first teasing trick the villagers play in Gimpel is telling him the rabbi's wife delivered a baby) and ends in death (and beyond), with Gimpel now an old man living near a graveyard and pondering, almost welcoming, his death and an afterlife - with some striking images - "the worms are hungry." The story on the surface level is just so incredibly sad, with the poor narrator the object of lifelong teasing (at best) by the many of mean spirit in his village - really, it's bullying on the highest order, extreme cruelty - everyone in the village, with the exception of the rabbi, telling Gimpel lies ranging from the incidental (it's customary to kiss the wall after visiting the rabbi - he does so - everyone laughs) to the heartbreaking (the dead have risen and your parents are calling for you - he runs out of his bakery, to howls of laughter). This simple man does not have the strength or intelligence or even the desire to fight back - if all in the village insist something is so, who is he to dispute that? Eventually, the villagers arrange a marriage to a real harridan who rebuffs G throughout their marriage - he catches he with other men twice, but is willing to believe her insistence that he must have been dreaming or hallucinating. It's easier for him to just go along. What's really heartbreaking is how much he loves the children she bears - convinced because she says so that they're his. On some level of course he knows their not - but his love for them overpowers his reason. At last, widowed, he leaves the village, but without shame or bitterness - he travels around living hand to mouth as an old man and realizes, true or illusion, what's the difference? Almost anything you can imagine has happened somewhere, sometime. It's all true, or potentially true. In this sense, he is much like a storyteller or an artist - the illusions that they imagine become a part of reality - and even like a god: in the end, he surmises that our whole life is an illusion and that the reality lies somewhere beyond death and those hungry worms.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Two endings to Return of the Native - which would you choose?

I've read back a little and am reconsidering from yesterday's post - perhaps the death of Eustacia Vye is a suicide, it's hard to determine - Hardy, in his fashion, keeps everything dark and murky. She's crossing the heath with her former lover, Damon Wildeve, and he's supposedly altruistically helping her on the first leg of her journey to Paris and to a new life - but of course she's aware or ought to be aware of how guilty this makes her, and him, look - and of course he may be planning to leave his wife and leave for Paris with Eustacia, we never really know - but we do know that one of the villagers has put a voodoo like curse on Eustacia, and the curse proves to be effective. It's also very possible that in the darkness of night she fell into the weir and the rushing water. And it's also possible that she's in despair - perhpas fearful that she'll never make it to Paris, not at least with some of Wildeve's money, and maybe she hurls herself into the water. I just can't say; maybe others who've read this novel more often or more carefully have other clues. What's of more interest is the last section, which picks up the lives of the survivors, and we see, to nobody's surprise, that the reddleman Venn has literally cleaned up his act and he and the widow Thomasin become a couple. Perhaps more surprising is the fate of Clym Yeobright, the widower: it was obvious that there was nobody in town right for him - it would have been disastrous had he taken up with his first cousin, Thomasin, and he almost blunders into declaring his love for her before she cuts him off by telling him of her passion for Venn - so he becomes an itinerant preacher - probably the right course for this luckless, moralist, studious young man - I almost think he might turn up in another Hardy novel, or maybe in a Flannery O'Connor novel, in another guise. Too bad we don't get to hear him preach. The biggest surprise of all was a single author's footnote from Hardy, in which he says point blank that his plan was to leave all of the surviving characters as solitary loners - Venn in particular he notes that he was going to have him continue in his strange and isolate behavior and just disappear from Egdon heath forever - but the pressures of "serial publishing" demanded a happy ending (same happened in re Great Expectations) - and he leaves it to us, the readers, to choose the ending we prefer. Isn't it obvious that the lonely ending is more strange and moving and in keeping with the feeling of the rest of the novel and the rest of Hardy - these peculiar, insular people leading lives of few opportunities, the surrounding darkness, the strange appearances and disappearances of characters?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The surprising death of two characters in The Return of the Native

Another thing about Thomas Hardy: He's not afraid of death. In fact, he's not afraid to kill off not only his characters but his best characters - even before the great dramatic conclusion. I have to say I was quite surprised (been 100 years since I last read it) that in The Return of the Native not only the evil, philandering Damon Wildeve but the character who's truly driving this novel, the enigmatic and alluring if ill-starred Eustacia Vye both die after falling into the rushing waters of some kind of mill pond while crossing the heath on a stormy night. Of course he set up the death, at least Eustacia's, pretty well - with the weird person who tried to extract a drop of her blood now putting a curse on her through some form of Druidic voodoo magic, and apparently it worked - but what does this do for the novel? As we move into the 6th and final section, the scene already feels a little barren, devoid of character and possibilities. Without Eustacia and without ClymYeobright's great rival - what's left to happen? It's obvious that Damon Wildeve's widow, Thomasin, is destined to become a couple with the reddleman, Diggory Venn, and to bring out in him the true noble spirit that he's suppressed as he lives a life of self-imposed social isolation (in his profession, he's essentially dyed red by the materials he sells for sheep-marking, so he looks strange, even frightening, and is generally shunned). But what about Eustacia's widower, Clym? He's had nothing but horrible luck since returning to his native soil. Does he go back to the hated Paris; or can he move forward with his plan to establish a boys' school? It seems to me unfortunate that the conclusion of the novel will not determine the fate of the character that I'm sure every reader most cares about. To make a comparison, while it's true that Madame Bovary the novel continues for a chapter or two after the death of the eponymous MB, the course of the novel is about her life and death, and her death was the result of her action, not of chance or mischance. Return is different - and it feels as if Eustacia has been disposed of carelessly, deprived of her fate and of her due.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A good writer who could become much better - if somebody pushed him a little

So I was the main "debby downer" at book group last night, unabashedly expressing my frustration with, my disappointment in Dinaw Mengestu's All Our Names: so many opportunities to develop an engaging plot and intriguing characters but in the end the two lead characters were entirely opaque, the story of the African coup was in my view completely generic (except of the pretty engaging scenes of the "paper revolution" on the college campus - I thought muich more would come out of that, but it ended up being a plot element that was left by the wayside), the Helen chapters in the U.S. dull and unexamined. Others liked the novel somewhat more, though there were no great enthusiasts or defenders; best we could come up with was that the characters are meant to be exiles and misfits - OK, well and good, but that doesn't mean they have to be complete blanks to us. These are first-person narratives, and the characters should certainly examine and express their feelings, tell us more about their history, etc. - I compared All Our Names with a great novel about, as it happens, an African-American who is an outside: Ellison's Invisible Man - yes, to others he's invisible, but not to us! He tells us so much about his childhood, his college years, his arrival in NYC, his struggles to make a living and to fit in, his eventual radicalism, the exploitation, his disillusionment and disappearance - a whole life, in other words. The Isaac character especially - he's supposed to be a writer, but he shares no thoughts or significant observations w/ us; he's an avid reader, memorizing dozens of pages, supposedly, by Dickens, but he offers no reflection as to why he read Dickens, what he sees in him. One group member expressed amazement that DM was able to capture so well the tone and gestures of a Midwestern, conservative, middle-aged woman, to which I say, so what? DM came to the U.S., to Peoria, apparently, at the age of 2 - he would have known hundreds of midwestern moms. No, I don't quite get it, why this book was greeted so enthusiastically: in part I guess because of the great interest - which I share - in news from the 3rd world and in the immigrant communities in the U.S., in part because DM seems from all I can see and can fathom from his reading like an absolutely good guy and a writer w/ huge potential (though not delivered yet, in my view), in part because critics in general are afraid of missing the boat, of being unkind to a young writer, especially a writer of color, are afraid of being the lone voice in opposition (god bless the few who aren't afraid; it's not easy) so the review have been unduly accommodating. When you get right down to it, why would an editor or agent want to push DM to make this novel any different - they knew it would be successful even in its half-baked form. I wish DM the best, but I think - if an editor or a friend were to push him - his best could be much better.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Missed connection: Failed communication in Return of the Native

Tragedy in literature (and life?) is very often about communication, or mis-communication. Today, our problem is often too much communication - people get into deep trouble for what they text, e-mail, post, or tweet. But the much of the scope of literature, and civilization,  (written) communication for the most part meant: letters! Would Romeo & Juliet have come to their tragic demise if the letter from the priest hadn't been waylaid? In Luhrmann's re-imagining of R&J he shrewdly made a pretty big deal of the botched communication, which if I remember was sent or not sent via Fedex. Today, even that looks quaint. Now, reading The Return of the Native, there's another classic missed connection: Eustacia is making plans to leave Egdon (?) heath and embark for Paris; she decides to leave at midnight, date uncertain, and makes plans to notify her former lover, Damon, by lighting a flare signal (how quaint that is, by the way). Meanwhile, her estranged husband, Clym, is having second thoughts about banishing her from his life and wants to reconcile. He decides to waiting another two days to hear from her and determines to send a letter at that time. Another stupid mistake! Send it now! But, no, not in literature, or at least not in Hardy. So the ever-hapless Clem waits, then hires someone to hand-deliver the letter, and Eustacia's grandfather, with whom she's staying, puts the letter aside and she never gets it - as she heads off for the coast with the absolute wrong man. Why she would agree to sneak off at night with Damon of all people is impossible to figure out (she could easily have hired someone to bring her to the coastal town of Budmouth), except that she has a strong streak of self-destruction and maybe leaving with Damon is what she truly wants - both on a romantic/sexual level, also to bid a bitter and in-your-face farewell to the constricting society in which she was raised, and also perhaps to exact some revenge on Clym as well.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Tragic figures in Hardy

Returning to The Return of the Native, it's a pleasure to get back to a novel that's over-written (as so many 19th-century novels were) rather than under-written (as so many contemporary novels are). As I pick it up again, the hapless Clym is in a deep depression on the death of his mother - and the report from the young boy that her dying words were that she had been abandoned by her son. He is mortified that he never reconciled with her - and puzzled as to why she would think that he had turned her away. It takes a few chapters but, eventually, with some interrogation, he learns from the young boy that his mother did try to visit him and that Eustacia refused to let her in and - what's worse - that there was another man in the house. This leads to an extremely violent (verbally) encounter with Eustacia - she confesses more or less to the truth, even that Damon, her former lover, had stopped by to visit; we as readers know the encounter was (on her part anyway) innocent - but she made some very bad judgments, obviously. Clym cannot see this and will never see it - he will leave E. for sure. She is no doubt a tragic figure - confined in a world too small for her dreams and ambitions, and bringing her sorrowful fate upon herself by her own actions, some grand some foolish and petty. As noted in an earlier post, early on this novel looked as if it were heading toward a classic "comic" ending, with all of the characters paired with the one for whom they were destined, despite flaws and misperceptions (cf. Much Ado About Nothing, or Midsummer Night's Dream) - but anyone who's read Hardy know that this will not and is not the direction of the novel - as it's moved from potential comedy to tragic action: Hardy, along with Racine I guess, is one of the master's in post-classic literature of female tragic figures.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Coover's fiction then - and now

Always good to see something by Robert Coover in the New Yorker; current story, The Waitress, seems to be part of a series, which, if memory serves, the NYer is publishing as one-page pieces with illustrations on facing page by the same artist - maybe they'll be published in similar format in book form? Each seems to be a take on a fairy tale or folk tale - this one about the paradox of being granted three wishes, none of which turns out exactly as one had hoped or expected. Each of the tales is in a contemporary setting and, as one would expect from Coover, each is more overtly sexual that the ur-model. Each is also pretty funny and would play well if read aloud. I don't know if these represent Coover at his best - it's hard to even try to compare them to the greatly imaginative pieces of his youth, the pieces in Pricksongs & Descants or the really innovative The Cat in the Hat for President. But Coover's always been up to something in his long, fine career. As noted in a previous post, I have been looking forward to the sequel to Origin of the Brunists for many years, and now it's out - The Brunist Day of Wrath - but I have to say: 1,000 pages? It may be a long time before I delve into that - and I wonder why Coover, or a smart editor, didn't encourage making this book into a series of three or four more manageable, readable, and sale-able publication.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Rewriting someone else's fiction

As the Helen story line in Dinaw Mengestu's All Our Names (sorry to have the title wrong in earlier posts; now corrected) kind of meanders the Isaac story line gets more engaging - as Isaac witnesses a revolutionary uprising in Uganda, eventually things become far to dangerous for him and, with the tacit permission of the leader of the uprising he leaves for a remote village in the countryside. The scenes of fighting and the atmospheric scenes of the soldiers gathering and preparing for their attack on the government are pretty well drawn, but what's missing, as throughout this somewhat frustrating novel, is any sense of engagement. Yes, Isaac witnesses the uprising, he brings us an insider's perspective, to a degree - but he's not in the innermost circle so the descriptions he gives us are not hugely revelatory - compare for example with Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah and you'll see the difference between a description of a revolution from the inside and one such as this which seems sadly generic. More important, Isaac doesn't actually do anything other than live to tell the tale - he doesn't particularly seem like a writer, though that's his aspiration. Can you imagine how this novel would be a hundred times more powerful if, say, Isaac was forced to take some violent action, or did so by choice, or even by accident - and then really had to escape, and carried with guilt or shame with him? How this could affect his settlement in America - always looking over his shoulder, perhaps? Or doubting his ability to be an attentive lover and partner with Helen? This is a novel of missed opportunities. We might say the same about the Helen chapters: as we build toward the end of the novel, she persuades Isaac to go away with her to Chicago - but what's the big deal, it's just a weekend jaunt. The stakes would be so much higher if she and Isaac had to leave the small town for good, for some reason. Similarly, she brings Isaac at last to her home, the house she shares with her mother; she has indicated many times that her mother is quite intolerant and would be shocked that she is dating an African man. Isaac at last comes into the house - and everything is nice and polite and friendly. It's not that I necessarily wanted to see a melodramatic shouting match - but the very fact that Helen underestimated her mother's tolerance is significant, but is left totally unexamined, unexplored. Once again, much plot and character potential here, but the story feels as if it's not fully imagined and rendered.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why I have a problem with All Our Names

I've been posting on the opaque nature of the two main characters, Isaac and Helen, in Dinaw Mengestu's All Our Names, and let me give two examples. First, Isaac: In the Isaac-narrated chapters the young man, then known mostly as Langston but by and large nameless, is drawn to a house where a group of revolutionaries plan a coup to overthrown the government of Uganda - men keep arriving a limousines, armed guard spring up all over, a cache of weapons and ammunition arrives hidden beneath crates of bananas, all very good, but we learn little about the coup of the men involved with it because the narrator himself knows nothing - he's in the dark, and therefore we are too. This could be OK except that there is no significant tension throughout this whole section because we know - as the novel is narrated in two strands separated by maybe about a year's time - that the character, later to be known as Isaac, escapes Uganda unscathed and begins a new life in a U.S. college town, where he becomes a couple with the other narrator, Helen. As to the Helen chapters, she observes Isaac, knows that he has a secret past life - but that doesn't matter much to us as readers because we know about his background already. What maybe could matter to us would be if Isaac (and Helen, too) were in any danger because of his past political associations. There are opportunities for Mengestu to turn up the volume on this plot: Helen, for example, late in the novel meets Isaac's U.S. mentor and confidant, a man named Henry. How much stronger this novel would be if Henry gave Helen a warning - be careful of this guy, or be careful around him - and Helen had to make a difficult decision. But, no, he tells her she's the best thing that's happened to Isaac - and her only worry is that his student visa will soon expire. Mengestu is a very kind writer; he really seems to care for his characters - but as a result he's reluctant to put them into any jeopardy or to let them make bad or dangerous decisions. He does a great job at setting up a plot and characters - the first Isaac chapters in particular were very promising - but he doesn't seem able to sustain the dramatic tensions that we expect, need, in a plot.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Great material but wishing Mengestu would open up his characters a little more

The second section of Dinaw Mengestu's All Our Names continues with the braided double-plot: the Isaac chapters narrated by a young student radical in 1960s Uganda and the Helen chapters narrated by a social-services worker in conservative university town in the South or Midwest; the Helen chapters take place several months or so after the Isaac chapters, so if you put the two together you'll see that a young man (his nom de guerre is Langston, after the writer) gets involved in radical politics on campus through influence of a fellow-activist and outsider, Isaac; Langston gets beaten by police and hospitalized; essentially rescued from the hospital by Isaac and taken to a safe house, fairly luxurious, where he meets the head of a political movement - and we realize that Isaac is much more connected than we'd thought. At some later period, Langston - now appropriating the name "Isaac," arrives in the university town and Helen is assigned to his case - and quickly becomes his lover. So far so good, but I still hold to the concerns I expressed in yesterday's post: the Helen chapters seem very flat and generic and I'm beginning to worry about the Isaac chapters as well: after an initial burst of activity - the campus riots and the feeling of an outsider among the wealthy university swells is very well depicted - not much advances (so far at least) in the 2nd part of the novel. Isaac is meant to be a it of a mystery man, all right, and Helen knows very little about him - doesn't know his real name, or his background. But somehow Isaac should be revealing more of himself to us, his readers; for example, he arrived at the university in hopes of becoming a writer, fascinated by the writers who'd recently attended a conference on campus (he has a brochure from the event) - but there's not a word through the first half of the novel about what he's writing or thinks about writing, what he's reading, anything literary. We know nothing, from him, about his struggles to adjust to life in a new and sometimes hostile country- his hopes, aspirations, fears. I hope this will pick up but it's getting a little late in the game. Mengestu is a very clear and readable writer, but I wish he pushed his story a little harder - he doesn't trust his readers enough at times. In the 2nd section, Isaac makes a big "surprise" announcement to Helen that a good friend back in Africa has died and that his name was also Isaac - does DM think that we're surprised? Any careful reader has figured out some time ago that the young African in America has appropriated the name Isaac, that he's the unnamed narrator of the Isaac chapters.

Monday, May 12, 2014

African and American - conflicting elements in All Their Names

Started Dinaw Mengestu's All Our Names and it immediately felt familiar: it had been a New Yorker fiction selection some months ago; actually, the New Yorker excerpt, about a young man from the country in or near Uganda goes to the capital, becomes a hanger-on at the university, links up with some fellow student radicals, in particular a charismatic young man named Isaac, and gets involved in a campus demonstration that ends violently, and then flees, is half of the first section of the novel, a section that proceeds in alternate chapters named for their narrators, Isaac and Helen. The Isaac chapters take place at the university in Uganda, and much of the focus is the extreme class divisions in the country, in the continent, then and probably now - these scenes seem to be set in the late 60s or early 70, in the era of dreams of a pan-African culture and the beginnings of independence and extreme corruption (Achebe has written well about this era as well); the Helen chapters are narrated by a social-services worker in a Southern university town who takes on the case of a newly arrived African exile, Isaac (we know that he is the narrator of the first section as well, and that he has appropriated the name of his radical and ill-fated companion). The African chapters are by far the better, really conveying the feeling of the university and the nation in its nascent state and full of turmoil and danger. The American chapters, by contrast, feel somehow generic: for example, Helen makes it clear that this is a Southern town only recently integrated, and in the best scene in these chapters the staff at diner essentially refuse to serve Isaac - whether because he's black or because he's with a white woman is not clear and doesn't need to be clear - but there are no surface or topical details that tell us anything about the town itself, we have no sense of the space or the place. In fact, we have no sense of Helen; she pretty quickly becomes sexually involved with Isaac. What does that mean to her? Obviously, she is breaking through a cultural taboo, but she hardly reflects on that - what it's like for her to be with an African man, how that separates her from family and friends. In fact, the more troubling aspect is her almost immediate involvement with one of her clients - but she has no reflections on that, either. As the entire first section of the book is set in the late 60s-early 70s, I'm guessing that later chapters will come close to the present and may follow the lives of the descendents of Isaac and Helen - people much like Mengestu himself, perhaps.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Hardy - our most operatic writer as well

Have noted in a few previous posts that Thomas Hardy is our most geographic of writers and now let me add, at least in re The Return of the Native, he also our most operatic writer (we, in this case, is English-language readers) - the end of the fourth "book" of Return is as melodramatic and over the top and just plain weird as Rigoletto or anything from Verdi - Clym's mother takes a long trek on a hot day to visit estranged son and despised daughter-in-law in hopes of some kind of reconciliation - but as she arrives Eustacia is in the house with her former lover, Damon, whom she ushers out the back door - a really bad decision, obviously. Stupidly, she hopes her sleeping husband will hear his mother knocking at the door; he doesn't - Eustacia goes back in the house, looks out the window; Mrs. Y sees her looking out and believes neither son nor d-in-law will let her in. She begins the long walk home, meets a little boy who accompanies her part of the way - a Shakespearean touch, I think, as she babbles to him about ingratitude (reminds of Lear?). Later, Clym sets off to her house - completely unaware of her attempted visit - comes upon her near death (on top of all else, she's been bitten by an "adder") - villagers go off in search of doc and others to work on a folk remedy - catching three adders, frying them in oil, rubbing the fat on the site of the puncture! - and eventually Mrs. Y dies - and then the little boy shows up and tells what she has said: She died because her own son had spurned her. This is like the great "maledicto" - the curse - in so many Italian operas. How will Clym go on living? Will he learn of his wife's role in this - and that her former lover (and now his cousin-in-law) had also come to visit and been ushered away?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A rare bit of authorial foreshadowing and allegorical game of dice

Clym Yeobright breaks with his mother and chooses to leave her forever and marry Eustacia Vye and live in a little cottage about 6 miles from the tiny village - and how do you think that's going to work out for Eustacia, who fell in love with Clym hoping and expecting that he'd take her back with him to Paris? Especially when we know that there are at least two men in the village very eager to steal Eustacia away from the stick-in-the-mud Clym - Damon (married to Clym's cousin, Tamsin) and the young man who did Eustacia a favor in return for the opportunity to hold her hand for a few minutes. Weird. As The Return of the Native moves along, Mrs. Yeobright, Clym's mother and Tamsin's aunt, becomes even more of a bitch - perhaps more than a bitch, maybe someone clinically disturbed - as she pushes Clym out of her life because she doesn't like or trust Eustacia; maybe she's right not to do so, but why alienate your only child in the process? She is a deeply troubled woman, obviously - and she makes a really stupid (and not entirely credible I think) decision: she has saved a lot of money of the years and wants to give half to Clym (even though he's estranged) and half to Tomsin; when Damon stops by to collect whatever it is she has for Tomsin (he doesn't know it's $), she wisely declines to give it to him - knowing he will keep it for himself. But she stupidly hires a young man in the village - the extremely odd and unreliable Christian - to carry to $ to Tamsin; obviously the will not work - as we see in another strange Hardy-esque chapter, as Damon wins the $ from Christian and an allegorical game of dice (Damon v. Christian - need we say more?) - and then the reddleman, Diggory Venn, deeply in love w/ Tamsin himself, emerges from the darkness and challenges Damon to keep playing and wins all the $ back - and sets off to bring it to T. himself. As Hardy notes in a rare bit of authorial foreshadowing, this will lead to problems as neither T. nor Venn knows that half of the money was meant for Clym.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Some literary context for The Return of the Native

Clym Yeobright, returning from Paris to his small hometown Wessex village in Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, is like someone who wandered in from a George Eliot novel - tired of the flashy trappings of big-city life he wants to live in a small seaside town (Budmouth - aka Bath?) and "make a difference" by running a school for working-class boys (like many in his village) and reject opportunities to make money (he'd run a diamond shop in Paris and is tired of the frivolity) - so how's it gonna work out now that he's passionately in love w/ the village beauty, Eustacia Vye, who seems to be a character just waiting for an Edith Wharton novel: small-town girl far more sophisticated and beautiful than anyone else in her environs arouses the wrath and jealousy of many (some villagers even think she's a witch - in one of the stranger scenes in this odd novel a villager stabs her with a knitting needle during a church service to extract a drop of her blood) - she immediately latches on to the returned Clym as her ticket out - but now that he's made it clear he's not going back to Paris, what prospects do they have? And, to make matters more complex, Clym is in love, so to speak, with two women - Eustacia, whom he meets in many clandestine trysts on the heath, a la a Bronte novel, and his mother - who despises Eustacia and lets Clym know it - despises her out of jealousy no doubt and also because she is a threat, not that she can take Clym away but that she can prevent him from attaining his fortune, whatever than may be - a little anticipation of Lawrence here, as Clym is torn between his passion for Eustacia and his devotion to his mother.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Russian story with a novel's worth of material by L Ulitskaya

Despite its almost willfully difficult opening passages, at least difficult for American readers that is for most readers of The New Yorker, Lyudmilla Ulitskaya's story The Fugitive is a very good social document, a literary record of a time and place the compresses a novel's worth of incident and events into a relatively short story. But the beginning: why on earth introduce about 6 characters by name, and not just name but Russian names replete with patronymics, and not just that but randomly alternative between first-name and surname reference, especially when at least two and probably 3 of these characters play no role beyond the opening paragraphs and need not be identified by proper name at all? Once you get past these paragraphs and have a sense of whom the story really is about, it's much easier traveling and fine story: Soviet police circa 1970 I think show up at apartment of an activist artist who's just exhibited some anti-Soviet sketches in a foreign gallery (under a pseudonym of course - but someone ratted him out); when the police leave, he gives his wife a sheaf of his drawings and takes off and goes into several months of hiding - and the story recounts those months and gives a poignant sense of the ever-present danger, the ominous absurdity of the Soviet totalitarian state, the will of the artist to continue with his work and the difficulty in doing so while on the run, how his exile changed the nature of his artwork, and how the oppression strained and broke apart marriages and families. There are books on this topic - e.g., Aksyonov's (?) The Burn was a classic from the 1980s - but Ulitskaya's story captures this mood, much darker than the buoyant East European fiction of Kundera - very efficiently and effectively. I'd never heard of her before but apparently she's a well-established Russian writer - guessing we'll see more of her in this magazine in coming issues.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Return of the Native: Comedy? or Tragedy?

It's obvious: that no good will come of the quickly arranged marriage between Thomasin Yeobright and Damon (?), in Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native - he's already been a complete skunk to her and we know he'd throw  her over in a moment if he had a chance with Eustacia Vye - the only question is what she, an apparently intelligent young woman, can't see this - or why she wants him after his callous treatment of her. It's equally obvious: that Eustacia Vye should not end up with Damon but is meant for Thomasin's cousin Clym - she's knocked off her feet in fascination with him and has schemed to get him to notice her, which he definitely has - but how much is her passion real and how much is based on an illusion, the illusion that he an, or will, rescue her from her life of isolation in Wessex and will take her home w/ him when he returns to Paris; would she feel the same way about him if he were to decide to remain in Egdon? It's also obvious: that Diggary Venn (?), the reddleman, despite his frightening appearance, dyed with a red stain because of his trade in sheep-marking dye - is the right guy for Thomasin - sweet, intelligent, devoted - but will she ever see that? So much depends on whether Return is a comedy or a tragedy: it certainly has comic elements, such as the many long chapters in which we overhear conversations among the rustics, with their tales, legends, superstitions, and occasional shrewd observations - but then we remember novels such as Tess and think that maybe everything doesn't have to work out as it's supposed to, maybe fate and passion get in the way of the comic resolution, maybe characters to end up with the wrong mate, or with none, maybe passions drive these characters to desperate ends rather than into one another's arms: is it Midsummer Night's Dream? Or Troilus and Cressida?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The two worlds of Hardy's fiction

The "Book Second" (how pretentious) of Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native is, at least at the outset, far more conventional and tame than the weirdly dramatic first book, much of which takes place in darkness,with mysterious characters appearing on dark country roads or emerging from the shadows into the light of a bonfire. In the second book, we meet the returning native - Tomasin's cousin, coming home for a visit from Paris - and most of the focus is on the alluring Eustacia Vye, who has scorned a number of suitors and seems extremely independent but is blown away by the idea of a visitor, a returning native no less, from afar: the arrival of a man from Paris and the ensuing excitement emphasizes the complete isolation of the village on the heath. The novel takes a Shakespearean comic turn as Eustacia, not invited to the xmas ball where the Paris visitor will be feted, works out a plan to join a group of villagers putting on a masked mummer show as entertainment between dances. To do this, she has to disguise herself as a guy - this fools nobody - and recite some doggerel. The mood throughout the section is much lighter and more conventional - woman in love with a mysterious stranger schemes to draw his attention - but there is some depth as well: Eustacia does in fact seem like prisoner of her fate, trapped in a village and society too confining for her imagination, or at least for her self-image. Although Hardy's drama, and his populace, are rustic, his prose is not: he self-consciously, often clumsily, works in allusions to literature, mythology, classic and relatively recent history - and his doing so creates a dual consciousness for his novel: the superficial learnedness of Hardy's prose removes him from his characters, who are largely unread - they tell tales, rumors, legends. Hardy is not at all condescending, but he is intentionally not writing from his characters as from within, but rather as from a removed distance: they're curious specimens - except for his lead characters (women, often) who stand out all the more as three-dimensional because they inhabit both worlds, or, in Eustacia's case, yearn to do so.

Monday, May 5, 2014

It just so happens that: The plot absurdities of Thomas Hardy

Yes Thomas Hardy is absolutely nuts - makes Dickens look like a realist - as we look at the absurdities of his plot structure: Return of the Native - for ex., in which it just so happens that as the young woman Thomasin is returning home to her village where she lives with her elderly aunt, after her intended wedding fell apart through some "technical" paperwork difficulty, she just so happens to run into the man who'd loved her years ago and who has lived in obscurity for the past several years - and she doesn't recognize him - and he gives her a ride in his cart back to her village - where - it just so happens - that, while he's camping out in his cart - he overhears a conversation between two people - who just so happen to be the intended husband of Thomasin and the woman whom he truly loves, Eustacia Vye - and it just so happens that - ... Enough! But you know what?, despite these absurdities of plot there's such rich atmosphere, such vivid characters, and such a high pitch of emotion that we, or at least I, don't care - it's a lot of fun to read and to try to figure out, and despite the lunacy Hardy's a really serious author, perhaps under-appreciated because he was quaint and antique even in his day and much more so today. He is deeply sympathetic to the working class and the agrarian class, he writes openly and frankly about sexuality and illicit passion, and he is constantly exploring the effect of the landscape on emotions, behavior, work, and culture - as noted previously he is the most geographic of all writers. Perhaps he's not for everyone - some would quickly lose patience with the eccentricities of his style and the confinement of his sense of place - but when give in to his style and forgive him his trespasses he's a truly engaging, entertaining writer.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

How setting influences plot in Hardy

Thomas Hardy does know how to build a scene and a story - as I move along in Return of the Native - which near the beginning has the very long scene of the village dwellers gathered around a bonfire on the hilltop at night, scaring one another with talk of the supernatural and the dangers of living alone or crossing the heath at night alone - one man in particular, an effeminate guy who laments that nobody will marry him (and is treated very kindly and sympathetically by the other villagers, btw - great to see a 19th-century novelist have such an advanced sensibility and not to be condescending toward the working class and the farm laborers) is particularly nervous. Out of the darkness the "reddleman" - peddler of sheep dye who is himself died to a reddish hue and looks in the firelight like the devil incarnate - emerges and asks for directions; as we see him a chapter or so later, he turns out to be not so frightening but a kind soul who's given refuge to a young woman, Tasmin, who had left the village that day to get married - she has returned to her aunt, with whom she lives, in the back of his cart: something went wrong with the marriage and we're not sure what, but it appears she was about to marry the "wrong guy" because we also learn from the villagers' conversation that someone who'd been in love with her was also en route back to the little village - he will be, we suspect, the native who is returning - and Hardy is building us toward a classic love-triangle plot, perhaps influenced to an extent by Wuthering Heights? His accomplishment in these opening chapters is building the potentially romantic-melodramatic plot within an atmosphere that is highly charged and well-suited to these intense emotions: the darkness, the bonfires on the hilltops, the meeting of mysterious strangers, the dangers and mysteries of the heath with its narrow trails and steep descents, the sense of loneliness and isolation of each farmhouse and dwelling. As noted yesterday, Hardy is the most geographic of writers; this story line, if told in another setting - as it has been, of course - say in London or in a thriving, sunlit village - would be completely different not only in tone but also in substance: part of the intensity of the emotions has to do with the isolation of each family and each life - there are few opportunities for life-decisions, so every choice, every relationship, has it seems much more profound and potentially more dreadful consequences.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The most geographical of all novelists: Thomas Hardy

Started (re)reading Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native last night - he was kind of considered college reading when I was in high school and then high-school reading when I was in college, so I didn't get to him until later in my life - and I'm reminded why he's considered (by me, anyway) as the most geographic of all novelists. Most novels esp with a giveaway title like this one would begin with the familiar opening trope - a stranger comes to town - with in this case the twist that he's not really a stranger, but no, Hardy won't do it that way - he begins with a long (and honestly almost impenetrable, though still kind of fascinating) chapter about the landscape - the moors, the heath, the heather - and how it's both expansive and confining, beautiful and frightening, because everything's pretty much the same hue and it's hard to gain any perspective. After a second chapter in which two stranger meet on the road and we think the plot is beginning to engage - TH steps back again and we get a long view of the landscape, the hills, the vales, the "barrow" (worth looking it up, as he'll use the word about a thousand times) on which people are beginning to gather for some kind of festival of celebration, most of the people carrying "faggots" (look that up, too) and talking about "furzes" - I know this sounds kind of ridiculously comic, and it is to a degree, but it's also the essence of what makes his novels so powerful and unusual, then and today - entree into a world that is foreign to most of us, certainly foreign to most literary fiction, and presented from the point of view of those within that world, so, although it at times can be difficult to access exactly what they (or Hardy) are thinking we see this world with absolutely no condescension, but we are right within the consciousness and way of life of the people of his imagined Wessex - we are, for the moment, transformed. Despite all the flaws and eccentricities of Hardy's style, that's a pretty great accomplishment and no doubt it's something we hope for (though rarely expect from) fiction.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The pursuit of quippiness: A problem endemic in much new fiction

Sam Lipsyte's story, The Naturals, in the current New Yorker, while obviously very well written and even very amusing doesn't amount to much in the end in my view and here's why: he's very adept at creating quirky characters (an Internet professional wrestler) with odd obsessions and behavior (won't let anyone approach her refrigerator) who speak in quippy dialogue, and it's all funny as you're reading it and when you've finished, if you look back at all, you have to say: There's not a single real or even slightly credible character in this story. Nobody speaks like that - except maybe a writer, who doesn't actually speak like that, either, but who crafts speech like that so that his character trade both witticisms and malaprops (koisk for kiosk, omelet for Hamlet) but they all sound the same - like him. So in a story like this one you could pretty much trade one character's "lines" for any of the others, it wouldn't matter that much, as they all sound the same - and it's very hard for us to navigate among them (I have to constantly be looking at the proper nouns: Who's Larry? Who's Stell?). Dialogue in my view should define character and not dance off following a musical line of its own. I don't mean to be hard on this one particular story, but it's a very high-quality representative of an endemic problem in a lot of new fiction - the influence of "the golden age of television" (a term in this story, and also in another recent NYer story btw) including quip-com. Not always a good influence; it's not all about surface wit or even surface beauty, but about depth of feeling and ideas, about people and their lives: read any single Alice Munro or William Trevor story against this one and you'll see what I mean.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


Sorry to say I'm getting a little frustrated with Oblomov (Ivan Goncharov) as how much can we take of a protagonist who is entirely listless and narrow minded? He makes a point of noting that he doesn't read he has no apparent social awareness no love life or sex life he's indifferent at best to the friends who call on him he is obsessed with the two problems before him - the need to find a new apartment and the declining revenues from the estate that supports him at the expense of others we might add and for every issue that comes up his first instinct is to blame his servant. Toward the end of book one Goncharov gives us some of the back story on Oblomov (and on servant zakhar as well) and we begin to feel some pity for both - victims of a way of life that assumed one class of people should benefit at the expense of others, a way that's changing and leaving Oblomov abandoned in his dark and dusty rooms. Yes we see esp in his long dream chapter, which is really more of an extended memory of his childhood, that his early years were a paradisal time that is now lost to him, and we see that he has never been happy or fulfilled in life, and we pity him to an extent - he is no doubt clinically depressed and well as seriously OCD - but this isn't pity such as we feel for a tragic hero - hamlet or young werther, say- because he takes no action he is the passive recipient of our sympathy or interest. Yes Oblomov is an extended character study and the character represents his time and his class - but it's also a slog and not sure I will know more by page 500 than I know now by page 150 or so.

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