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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, October 31, 2015

Trying to understand whether Dorfman's NYer fiction is a story - or an excerpt

Ariel Dorfman fiction in the current New Yorker, The Gospel According to Garcia, seems like a great start to a longer piece and leaves me wanting more - which leads to a question about how we judge short fiction. In a way, it's good that it "leaves me wanting more" - all great fiction should do that, in a way, opening the door to our thinking further about the characters and their world and of course ours as well. Don't we want more when we get to the end of The Dead? Lady with a Lapdog? Big Two-Hearted River? But we also get the sense that these stories gave us just enough, that the rest was on us, so to speak. Whereas other stories leave us wanting more because we simply don't have enough information to make sense of the story - either the author never figured it out himself or herself, or the author just stopped short before completing the piece, or the author tried for one of those vague open-ended conclusions and just didn't get it right. So as to Dorfman's story - an account of a classroom in an unnamed, unlocated school, apparently of kids in some sort of remedial class that all or most must pass in order to graduate that year from high school, in which their beloved teacher, Garcia, no longer presides, and it's the first day for a new teacher, whom the students meet w/ silent contempt, in particular because he has no knowledge of or respect for the Gospel of Garcia, which includes such principles as respecting silence - if it's a total standalone short story I feel I don't know enough about why Garcia is no longer teaching - it's hinted that there may have been some sort of scandal or violation of rules, but perhaps not - nor about who these students are - and how the class will proceed under the tutelage of the new teacher. Yet if this piece is the first section of an anticipated novel - good, these are questions and mysteries well established that will keep me going, at least for a while. Context is never "all," but sometimes context does effect our judgement.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Guesses about the end of Mankell's first Wallander novel

Many have encouraged me over many years to read Henning Mankell's Wallander detective novels - because I've lived in Sweden and written about Sweden - but I've been reluctant in that I rarely read crime fiction and I was disappointed to say the least in the last Swedish crime novel people said I just had to read - Dragon Tattoo - but anyway I felt as if I needed a break after a lot of reading of great short stories mostly from the early 20th century so picked up Mankell's first Wallander novel, Faceless Killers, and so far find it pretty good - not high literature by any means, but it has the crisp and skeleton narrative style of good crime fiction, sets up a very puzzling murder at the outset - breaking from convention a bit by beginning the novel from the viewpoint of the elderly couple who discover the murder victim, a friend and neighbor killed in the night in his farmhouse. By and large these novels live and die not only on their technical skill w/ plot but mostly on ability to evoke a setting and on the development of the protagonist's character. The southern Sweden setting (Skane) is exotic only to a degree; I've only passed through but by and large its flat farmland, pretty well populated, pretty homogeneous Swedish population although, as this novel hints, there are some tensions w/ recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. The setting doesn't seem to be a dominant characteristic here. Mankell's Wallander is a pretty interesting guy, and fairly typical of the genre: alone (recently divorced or separated), mid 40s, taciturn, smart, opinionated; they always have a peculiar tic or passion and in W's case it's a love of opera - although I'm not sure if that defines him in any particular way, and his taste w/in opera seems pretty standard - in the first few chapters he doesn't venture beyond Verdi classics. I have my guesses about the plot, which I'll share for the record: the non-whinnying horse has to be a big clue (echo of Hound of the Baskervilles), so I suspect whoever killed the farmer was known to the horse - and therefore guessing it must have been one of his children (or the one of the children of the neighbor who discovered the murder): Mankell went to the trouble of referencing the children who used to play together, and he has set up a sub-plot with Wallander's wayward daughter. Why a child would brutally murder a parent or neighbor, that's the mystery - maybe something to do w/ the influx of Rx as a new wave of immigrants enters the once isolate and placid country (immigration a big issue in the southern part of Sweden - something Knausgaard has written about as well).

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The writer who gets more out of minimal dialog that anyone other than Carver

Dorothy Parker's story Big Blonde is in some ways truly a 1930s period piece -  speakeasies like "Jimmy's," men taking the train to Utica, mailing postcards home from the road, a time of "booze" and tiny mid-town apartments and nights out "on the town" - and in other ways it could sadly be contemporary, marriages soaked in alcohol, the loneliness of a woman who makes a terrible choice in a husband, who's always expected by the men show knows to be a "good sport" and to stop "crabbing" (the language seems antique but the sensibilities, not). The big blonde of the title is Hazel Morse, marries I guy who drinks a lot a makes her laugh, a marriage doomed from the start, ending in her descent into alcohol in a misguided attempt to keep her mood up for him, he leaves her in a poignant scene in which she asks him to have one more drink w/ her - mud in your eye, they toast - and then she has a series of men friends, none of whom she especially cares for, most of whom have a wife back in Utica or wherever, and as she gets deeper into depression she takes the train to Jersey - a very dismal little portrait of Newark - where she can legally sleeping pills and she tries to kill herself. She's an American Bovary, in some ways - though she's more the victim that Emma is - and altogether it's just a very sorrowful if completely credible portrait of a life heading nowhere, without hope. Parker gets more effect out of minimal dialogue that any writer I can think of other than Carver. The last line of the story, I think, is something like, "yeah, sure," and in the context - Hazel rousing from a near-fatal dose of tablets and coddled by her cleaning lady (paid for by one of her men friends) - is an eloquent conclusion as yes I will yes.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Ameican Grain: William Carlos Williams's great short story

William Carlos Williams's justly famous very short story The Use of Force just barely qualifies as fiction - if written and published today it would probably be considered an essay or a chapter or section in a memoir - though it's remotely possible that WCW took great liberties (aside from naming the patients - I assume that even in the 1930s medical ethics would not have allowed him to write about his patients by name) in crafting this piece. If so, that's further testament to his excellence as a writer because everything in this story feels likely and true: WCW as a middle-aged pediatrician pays a house call on a family, new patients to him, whose daughter has been feverish for 3 days. Fearful of a diphtheria outbreak in the area, WCW tries to get a throat culture from the young (8 years old?) girl, but she refuses to open her mouth - in fact reaches out and claws his eyeglasses to the floor. Over the course of the story WCW becomes increasingly aggressive and very conscious and honest (to the readers) about the anger he felt toward the girl and her parents - he's in a strange predicament, though maybe part of a pediatrician's daily life: forcing a child to endure a test but for their own health and safety (and that of others as well). If he truly loathed the child, he would just walk away from the situation - but his professional responsibilities compel him to stay and do his job. He saves the child - but leaves w/ some shame and some insight into the inflammability of his own temper. One oddity is it's not clear to me - maybe not to him either - why he begins to despise the parents - surely not for their minor blunder in saying that the doctor was a "nice man" and wouldn't "hurt" the child. Maybe it's because he believes they should have better control over their child? Or something meaner and darker? On another level, this story endures as a fine document about medical care nearly a century ago: the doc making house calls, with limited wares in his black bag, the provision of care to the poor and the working class, the fee of $3!, his thought that maybe he should have left for a while and let the situation cool down and return in an hour (today, the md's schedule is sacrosanct - the idea of coming back in an hour is almost incomprehensible). Also the story standing alongside WCW's great imagist poetry in "the American grain," as he called it gives a more complete picture of the simplicity, clarity, and beauty of his work w/ language. Story stands well alongside of other great medical short stories, from Chekhov obviously - also thinking of Hemingway's Indian Camp and even Kafka's weird story about an itinerant physician.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

I'm Afraid: Virginia Woolf's short fiction eludes me, and here's why

I have to say I'm completely puzzled by Virginia Woolf's short fiction - read the title story in her posthumous collection, Haunted House (I think the story originally appeared in an earlier collection from about 1920) and frankly could barely understand it. It's only about 3 pps long and though it seems to begin in a conventional manner  - someone hears ghostly sounds in their dwelling place, a house I guess - but then this very short narrative almost capriciously changes point of view - sometimes we're seeing things as the ghostly couple who seem to be returning to a house that they once enjoyed living in - sometimes we're with a "she" - present dweller of the house? Tense shifts almost randomly - but I'm sure it's not random, there's a principle at work, but the principle eludes me. I found a little enlightenment in Leonard Woolf's intro to this collection, in which he notes that his late wife would sometimes take breaks from novels and make a few jottings and then stash that away as a short story, which she would extricate later - and sometimes work over - when she had the opportunity to publish stories in magazines of collections. So her stories aren't really something she would set out to write because the short-fiction form was the best way for her to present particular material. I sense that the stories were compressed novels, notes for a later fiction (one story is cleverly called An Unwritten Novel) - and we do see the Woolf mentality at work in these pieces, as we see in her best fiction - a complete world made from various perspectives and angles, much in the same style as Cubist painting, which was in vogue in or close to her lifetime. As noted in earlier post on Kew Gardens, it may be that the stories can be appreciated only by those who know her longer fiction - we can look at the stories and understand how they're a seed that could germinate into a full-scale novel, if time would allow.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Why WS Maugham's Rain won't shock readers today

W. Somerset Maugham's story Rain, considered by some to be his best or most famous, is truly a great read, a fairly long story by today's standards, will hold your interest top to bottom - it's tempting to say some bromide such as They don't write stories like they used to, and there's some truth in that - stories of a century ago were published in popular magazines and were meant to entertain and not to befuddle, and WSM seems clearly in the tradition of the well-made narrative: a character faces a crisis and resolves it, or doesn't. Essentially, there are 5 characters in the story: Dr. and Mrs. Macphail Scottish, en route to a remote posting on an island near Borneo, and Mr. and Mrs. Davidson, missionaries, heading out to the same area. They land in Pago Pago, American Samoa, and are stuck there unexpectedly for 2 weeks (the 1920s equivalent of an airport layover) and they rent rooms in a small house in town. Dr M is truly the main viewpoint for the story, and he clearly loathes the Davidsons, prim and narrow-minded in their faith and convictions: Mr. D tells proudly of how he got the "natives" to give up their sinful ways by fining them and threatening them. The story gets under way as a young woman, Miss Thompson, rents a room in the same house, and Rev. D is perturbed by her rowdy ways: she plays ragtime music, has men come over to her apartment to drink and party, she's bold and brash - a second-class traveler no less. He threatens her, a real prig and bully, and, as he realizes that she is a prostitute, takes several steps to get her deported from the island. She pleads with for mercy, and he begins to spend a lot of time trying to convert her. Modern readers of course will see what's happening much faster than Maugham's original readers did - we're far more used to frank even blatant sexual aggression in fiction and popular culture - but the ending is still pretty powerful and odd, even if predictable. Maugham does a great job sketching in the characters, a few excellent topical details, and then we get to know them by their actions and their speech: Dr. Macphail an acerbic and trenchant observer, trying to do the right thing but a little befuddled by Davidson's obstinacy; Davidson a Malvolio or a Dimmesdale, so resolute in his faith and so self-absorbed. The wives are sketched lightly and play only a supporting (if not supportive - more like enabling) role.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Who's afraid? Why Kew Gardens is not a good introduction to the workks of Virginia Woolf

In some ways Virginia Woolf's short story Kew Gardens is a good intro to her work for those who haven't read her major fiction - in that it is a miniature version of the kind of scene she establishes through odd detail interior monologue, shift in point of view - in To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway and others - but in other ways it's not a good intro at all, in that someone coming across this story without having read any of the novels might just shake his or her head in perplexity and ask: What's this all about? Nothing happens. I think it's the latter - you need to appreciate her work on the grander scale and then come upon this story - not sure when it was written but I think its book-form publication was posthumous, in the mid-1940s - and know what to expect and how to "read" her work. Yes, nothing happens - but we see a quick flash of the entire society of England during the war yeas (i.e, the World War, 1914 - 1918 or so) as seen from the point of view of an invisible and static observer picking out shards of the conversations of passing couples - even shards of their thoughts and memories: A man and wife and children start the procession and he thinks of a previous visit in the garden when he proposed, and then Woolf slyly let's us see that the woman he proposed to was not his wife but a previous love who rejected him; then we have the wife's thoughts  - her remembering her first kiss, and it turns out to be not a man but an elderly matron or teacher. Later a old man walks the path with, I think, his son, and only gradually do we realize that he is mentally disturbed and there's a hint that came about through the shock and disruption of living through the war years - something VW experienced personally and, finally, tragically. Then, snobbishly, there are some women from the "lower middle class," whose conversation is a garble of words - as if these women have no thoughts or sensitivities or memories? Nonsense. We also, for amusement, get the POV of a snail inching across the flower bed. So, yes, not much actually happens but the idea is world collide in even a small sector of society, on a patch of ground, the mind of a person passing us by in the street or on a walkway.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Fertility and fetishes in current New Yorker story

Story in current New Yorker, Who Will Greet You at Home?, by young Nigerian writer Lesley Nneka Arimah, didn't appeal to me especially but will appeal to others based on your appreciation of this kind of speculative fantasy: She conjures a world/culture/future state in which women bear or carry not actual babies but little baby replicas that they handcraft and nurture through some sort of gestation period until - what? - delivery? - I'm not sure that ever happens. The young woman a center of story, Adechi (?), seems to have a very estranged relationship w/ her own mother and a relationship of indentured servitude w/ her boss, a woman called "Mama," who runs a beauty salon and other outfits under the rubric "Mama Said" (I think, or something like that). So it's a story about the demise of motherhood. Adechi makes a baby out of yarn but the strand catches on a loose nail and unravels; she then crafts a sturdier model out of hair from the salon, and nourishes the baby secretly on other gobbets of hair. There seems to be a hierarchy of value regarding the babies - she looks enviously at one point at a woman with a high-quality porcelain model. At its best this story reminds me a little of some of the best work of George Saunders: let's imagine a world where something very odd and disturbing were the case, e.g., wealthy people bought strands of 3rd-world women to decorate their lawns - with all the implications about class and racial oppression, diminished meaning of life, cruelty, abasement of art and design. This story touches on those themes but I don't draw much from it beyond the given condition and proposition: we're in a very disturbing world/future in which fertility is replaced by fetish. There may be more to come from this writer on this topic - lots of potential for growth and further exploration of these touched-upon themes.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The strangeness of Willa Cather's The OId Beauty and what it may represent

First a note on yesterday's post: Gorky's The Hermit was published in the 1920s, not the 1940s - still a little surprising to see a story about a religious hermit published in the Soviet era, but maybe not a fatal act as it would have been under Stalin. Evidently there was an element in the Soviet culture in the 1920s that glorified and romanticized the independent spirit of the peasants - this kind of story would no doubt have been sharply critiqued in later years as decadent, the hermit as a degradation of the working classes. A second point - I'm reading these and a few other stories in an old edition of the Norton Anthology of Short Stories, edited by RV Casill, whom a knew a little bit when I covered the book scene in Rhode Island. His selections I must say seem a little perverse - as if he's intentionally avoiding most of the most-anthologized pieces. Would anyone say that The Tree of Knowledge represents the best of Henry James? Or that The Old Beauty represents the best of Willa Cather (though I admit I'm not familiar w/ all of her short fiction)? The Old Beauty is a pretty straightforward - for the most part - account of the life and demise of a woman considered a great society beauty in her youth who was divorced and undone by some obscure scandal - I can't remember if Cather specifies, but she does describe one scene in which the woman was caught by surprise while a man was almost molesting her - who went on to marry a Frenchman (who died in the World War) - we find her in this story when one those men who admired her in her youth (and who by chance broke up the scene of molestation) comes across her in a French ocean resort and they reminisce - she's lost her looks and leads a very diminished life, with a younger, less attractive but far more effervescent female companion. What give the story its edge is the strangeness of the attitude toward sexuality - as with much of Cather's fiction (and her life) there both an interest in and horror regarding cross-dressing. Though there does not appear to be a sexual relationship between the two older women, the younger of the two was famous as a music-hall performer who imitated men. And in the oddest moment in the story the two women and the elderly man are in a collision while being driven along a coastal range - the car that side swipes them is driven by two women, one known as Jim. the abhorrence with which former beauty treats this young evidently gay couple is uncalled for, surprising, and unexplained - except that literally crashing into this couple that represents the sexual forces and desires she has or may have suppressed unleashes something in her, opens a wound, and very shortly leads to her death. There's much of the usual snobbery and bigotry at various points in this story - typical of the class and of the time (not typical of Cather - of her characters' lives and eras), but the reaction to masculinity in a young woman is I think the oxygen on which this story runs.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Was Gorky's The Hermit an intentional stick in the ey to Soviet authorities?

I guess the most remarkable thing about Gorky's short story The Hermit is that it was written at all, or at least written where and when it was - apparently first published in 1947 (though it's possible that this was its first pub in English?), so atypical of Soviet literature that it's pretty much sui generis. A great story or even a good story? Not even close: there's no narrative to speak of, there's only one character and he's full of contradictions, he doesn't do much but opine. and he's done some pretty despicable things in his life, and the story does not represent a turning point in his life or any great confession or realization or conflict. It's written almost like a magazine profile: the unnamed narrator comes across a 60-ish man living a hermit's life at the edge of a forest; he's badly scarred and weather-worn, but has over the years constructed a cozy little shelter where he lives alone with his thoughts. The narrator asks him a series of questions about his life, and we learn of his hard life as a sawyer, about his relentless womanizing, about his abuse of women including his wife, and most disturbingly about his sexual abuse of his daughter - he was charged but acquitted at trial - even though now looking back he says something really callous like: Of course I fooled around with her a little, who wouldn't? Pretty despicable guy, so why is the narrator so interested? In the 2nd half of the story we see that he's something like a guru or wise man or even an unfrocked priest - as on Sundays he abstains from drinking and people from near-by come to him for counsel and advice. In between these confessional sessions - none especially interesting - the hermit tells the narrator about his arrival at faith, the nuances of his belies (he believes in God but not in hell), about his bonding with a monk. Not sure totally what Gorky was getting at in this story, but the act of writing in the Soviet era about a man who'd absconded from society and from the world of work and who espoused an extreme version of Xtian values and piety, I imagine that would be a real stick in the eye to the authorities, ad that was probably Gorky's intention, even though he could always fall back on his portrayal of holy hermit's bad faith - posing as a wise man and indifferent to the harm and damage he has done to many women, including his daughter.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The many layers of secrets in a James short story: The Tree of Knowledge

The Tree of Knowledge is by no means Henry James's best, or best-known, story but it's a really good, almost-great story never the less and shows why for many readers, me included, James's late style with its convolutions and hesitations works best in shorter forms. This one is about a threesome - Mr. and Mrs. Mallow - he a sculptor working in marble and she his devoted wife, their son Launcelot (Lance - ironic that the novel I just put down had a same-name character known as Lotto) - and their friend, the lifelong bachelor outsider observer aesthete, Peter Brench. Now whom does he remind you of? Brench is a man of secrets, the biggest being his lifelong crush on Mrs. Mallow, the 2nd being his utter contempt for the banal and unskilled artworks that Mallow produces. He of course has never been able to tell his opinion to his friend or his spouse. He's Lance's godfather, and when Lance turns 20 and sets off for Paris to learn about art, Brench is deeply concerned that once he gets to Paris he will "know." There's much hemming and hawing and jawing about what he will "know" - but at the end of the story we learn (giving it away here, but you've probably guessed it) that Marrow's art is terrible (he is able to continue with essentially no patronage through his family fortune - or maybe it's hers), and then a deeper secret, that Frau Mallow has known all along that her husband's art is terrible. But as with James there are further, or rather deeper, layers to this secret: is the secret really that Brench loves Mrs. M? Modern readers will have to also suspect that there's a sexual secret - that Brench is homosexual, and maybe Lance's going to Paris will be an initiation into sexuality and he will surmise Brench's secret or realize the he himself is homosexual. This story is typically Jamesian in approaching all its major points by indirection - there are certain truths or beliefs that it seems James can only allude to and never state or stare at directly, homosexuality being one of them. Think, too, about the title - and the suggestion that understanding, whether of sexuality, love, or art, can leads to expulsion from the "garden," which may be a good or bad thing, depending on the flora.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A seldom-read writer and a top-shelf short story: Maugham's The Outstation

Nobody reads W Somerset Maugham any more do they? - seems everyone but me read The Razor's Edge once upon a time - but poking around in a story collection I read his piece The Outstation and was very impressed. It's easy to dismiss the genre - colonial literature strictly from the POV of the colonists - but just because he writes from what he knows doesn't mean he likes those about whom he writes. In this piece there are only two significant characters - the only two white men at a colonial outpost in Borneo - and the complete focus on these two men, with the others all treated as and perceived as some subhuman species bred to serve and to slave, is the essence of the colonial mentality. But the two men, Warburton and Cooper show two opposite sides of the same coin. W is the elder and the man in charge of the station, a complete snob by every account - washed up in Borneo after gambling away his fortune, his only interest, his obsession, is with rank, title, the proper schools - and he's mocked behind his back (by other colonists) for his repeated re-telling of his brief friendship w/ King Edward in youth. He seems to have a true affection for the land and even the people, and absolutely no conception of his exploitation of the people. He dresses for dinner even in the tropical heat, even when dining alone, and he religiously reads the Times, esp the society announcements. In one of the most poignant moments in the story, he recalls telling one of the "noble" members of his London club that he was off to Borneo because he had no money, and the man just brushes him off w/out a shred of care or sympathy. Cooper, on the other hand, the 2nd in command whose arrival at the post sets the story in motion, is of a lower "class," raised in the Barbados, ordinary schools, served in the ranks the World War, and he's contemptuous of the natives, bullies and bosses his servants - but isn't this just a more naked and honest mistreatment that Warburton's condescension? The story pits the two of them as antagonists in this tiny community and Maugham, an architect of plot, ends the story with a surprisingly dramatic climax and a bitter twist (I won't give it away).

Monday, October 19, 2015

Closing the book on a "literary Gone Girl"

Ok I really wanted to like Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies - who wouldn't want to read a "literary version of Gone Girl?, as some have described it - even came back to it after setting it aside for a week in case it was just me, but to no avail, the book, despite some glimmering passages and some trenchant observations about the Gen X children as they move from privileged childhood to indulgent young-adulthood and on into, what? I got 150 pages in and haven't a clue; the main character (in the 1st part; I understand from some reviews and comments that the 2nd half is about his wife), Lotto, preciously short for Launcelot, leads a dissolute and uninteresting life through college and post-college years in NYC as an aspiring actor. Although we are often told how brilliant and charming he is, the evidence is lacking. Failing at acting, he has a sudden convergence and becomes a playwright and not just any but world-renowned. OK fiction is fiction and the author can go w/ her characters where she will, but there is nothing in these 150 pp that convince me that this character has the insight, drive, or creativity to become a great playwright (and btw it's rather astonishing that he writes his first play in 1 night of despair and his wife, Mathilde, gushes and says he's a genius and in fact he is - I guarantee that Groff knows that this is not the way one "becomes" a writer). All right, enough banging on this book that can certainly withstand my displeasure and doesn't really need my praise either. Who am I to say? Maybe I should hang in there and it will all come clear in Mathilde's episodes - though LG asks her readers to hang on for a long ride before the destination comes into sight. Maybe I'm just in the wrong generation [I am] or maybe I expected the book to be more literary and less Gone [I did] or maybe others feel the same way I do about this much-publicized and initially appealing novel.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Evil Seed - Powerful Ben Marcus story in current New Yorker

I've read a few Ben Marcus stories along the way and tho I don't have a clear, specific recollection of any particular story - blame me for that, not him - I do recall thinking that his early stories were formally experimental - not especially appealing to me - but his new story in the current New Yorker, Cold Little Bird, is a terrific story that shows a real maturation of his style - sometimes really talented writers get pushed to publication too early (if that's possible) when they don't have substantial life experience on which to draw, perhaps, so they revert to formalism and experimentation (as I did when a young and aspiring writer). This story shows that early faith in Marcus's talent was well placed. this story is about a young couple and their older (10 years old) son, Jonah, who quite suddenly and unexpectedly asks them not to touch him and become cold, analytic, and isolated - at least at home, though there is no evidence of aberrant behavior at school or among his peers. (He also asks his parents not to call him by friendly nicknames, e.g., pal, buddy, champ...) The story is spooky and strange, almost on the verge of the supernatural - you wonder if the child is possessed in some way - though you also wonder what exactly is wrong with this child. We hear stories of children who suddenly become autistic or withdrawn and strange following vaccination, but those stories have always seemed to me unsubstantiated and polemical - but there's no evident explanation, within the boundaries of this story, for the sudden change in personality. Among other things, creepily, Johan unexpectedly begins to take care of his younger brother (to whom he had previously been indifferent) and develops a fascination with anti-Semitic right-wing writings (he uses a gift card to buy a book arguing that Jews orchestrated the 9-11 attack; Jonah and his parents, as you might surmise, are Jewish). The story is primarily about the effect of this transformation on the parents, the father in particular - especially when at one point Jonah threatens to tell the school psychologist/counselor that his father is touching him even though he's asked him not to do so. That lays another penumbra across the story - is the father/narrator being straightforward with us? Maybe there is some abuse going on here? - and then we as readers are torn: Are we guilty of leaping to conclusions? Or is the dad manipulating us, telling us a part of the story only? Like many stories, this one is "open" at the end, without an obvious conclusion or resolution, but unlike many "open" stories this one leaves us in shock and suspense - and one can't help but wonder, if in the same situation, what would I do, how would I cope - what would it be like to have your child turn against you for no evident reason?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Several possible contrasts and oppositions in Faulkner's The Old People

Re-read Williams Faulkner's story The Old People (pretty sure I read and maybe posted on it just a year or two ago) - very unusual and impressive story of course, and a good example of Faulkner's later style, which became increasingly baroque - or maybe rococo - and willfully difficult and sometimes almost a self-parody in his final years but was in top form in this story: about a young boy - 10 years old? - and his initiation to big-game hunting - w/ his father and various men in the upper reaches of the social scale in Yaknapatoawpha County and under the tutelage of Sam Fathers, a Native American, perhaps descended from a chief, bu in the white-dominated culture of the time - early 20th century - an outsider and treated on a par with the blacks - although he seems possessed of a princely aura or power - acknowledged as the premier hunter and woodsman, and granted tolerance and independence never enjoyed by any of the blacks. It seems that in return for his initiating the boys into the world of hunting he can do just about whatever he wants with his time, including doing nothing - he runs some kind of small shop, but nobody gives him orders and he's never seen doing much of anything, can spend a whole day gazing into space, eventually given "permission" to live in a remote cabin in the woods (which formerly housed another native American, whom Sam would sometimes visit to speak with in their own language about the old times), his only obligation seeming to be to meet the hunters each fall and guide them through the woods. The story is one of contrasts: between the woods and the settled farmland (the woods, the hunting grounds, are dark and mysterious - would make a great contrast w/ the fishing/hunting grounds of the writer most often contrasted w/ Faulkner, i.e., Hemingway), between white (privileged, dominant, masculine) and "colored" culture, including in colored both black and native (another Hemingway comparison possible there, see Indian Camp?), between known reality and the mystical and visionary world that the "old people" of the title perceived, represented at the end of the story by the enormous buck that Sam leads the boy to, but that they don't shoot - and that none of the adult men ever sees (though one remembers Sam leading him to the same buck when he was a boy). What's with the boy, by the way? WF makes clear his place in a lineage - his father and grandfather had similar initiations, and he will live a long life - but there seems to be complete indifference regarding his schooling, other than his initiation into manhood. And as to the hunt, though presumably the men and their families (and neighbors?) consume all the game, there's also a blood lust to the sport and a frightening effort to ensure dominion through assault and weaponry.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The possible significance of Faulkner's Shingles for the Lord

Faulkner's story Shingles for the Lord is a great example of his comic mode at its apex - three men called upon to devote one day of labor to cutting shingles from felled trees for a new roof for their tiny country church. One of the men - the story narrated by his young son who comes along to help stack the cut shingles - arrives two hours late (he had to borrow a maul and wedge from an elderly neighbor who unaccountably had been up all night involved in a fox hunt) and over the course of the morning the men negotiate how the late-arrival will make up his lost time. One of the guys tries to figure it out in "work units," a term and practice he'd learned when he applied from WPA funds (which he'd abandoned after learning he'd have to sign over his farm, or some such thing - and ever after would fight anyone who mentioned the WPA). The negotiations are long and complicated - probably no reader could possible follow them w/out a diagram - but they end up involving trading several hours of labor for a share in the ownership of a hunting dog. The narrator's dad - Grier, I think? - and dog owner comes up with an even more complex scheme, which involves he and his son coming back to the church at night to strip the old shingles, but during this process he upends a lantern, which hits the floor and ignites the entire church. The community shows up to help put out the fire but the church is destroyed and the minister tells them their task is now to build a new church on the same site. He tells Grier, however, to get lost and not to help until he can prove his worth or his faith. Aside from the broad comedy and the sketch of life among the impoverished rural white folk in Mississippi, what's the significance of this story? I can't quite grasp it, but I believe there's a deeper level of meaning involving the life and death of a church and the life and death of a man, or of mankind. Repairing a church is a community activity, bringing the men together for this shared responsibility, but the burning of the church is like a death and resurrection and the men of the village are helpless before that force. They can't extinguish the fire, they can only watch and then rebuild. There's also the sense that Grier is expelled from the faith - or from the garden - for his sin of over-reaching, scheming to deceive others while in the process of paying his "dues" to the congregation. The clash between the mercenary and the charitable instincts ignites the spark that destroys the church, or the faith of the few.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Intolerance - Conrad's and others'

Joseph Conrad's Amy Forster, the next story in the RG Davis 10 Modern Masters collection, makes a great match-up w/ the previous story, The New Villa - both stories about how a community rebuffs and rejects an outsider - but in Chekhov's story the outsider is the wealthy engineer who builds a villa outside of the small village and is resented by the serfs and peasants for his wealth and his condescension. Amy Forster is stranger - in this story, which a loquacious and introspective country doctor tells to the narrator (who is really just a pane of glass whom we see through to perceive the story itself), a young man en route from an undefined central European country to America gets shipwrecked near the coast of England and, the only survivor apparently, makes it safely to shore. As he wanders around the village seeking food and shelter, he is taunted and rebuffed by all of the inhabitants - w/ the exception of the eponymous Amy, who offers him some food. In a few days they recognize that he is not a direct threat to anyone, but - because they can't understand his language - they consider him a "lunatic" and put him up to working on jobs for one of the landowners. Over time, he learns English and shows that he's a good workers and a good man - and he marries Amy. They have a child, and the man - now called Yanko (I think), a variant on Little John - tries to teach the baby some of his native language and customs. Amy becomes afraid and turns against her husband, and he dies eventually of pneumonia - and she won't even offer him a glass of water. A strange story of xenophobia - a story that looked as if it would be in classic English "comic" mode - an man over time incorporated into society - but which becomes much darker and sinister. Why is he so repugnant to the villagers, why are they so fiercely intolerant, and why did his wife - whom Conrad portrays as of limited intelligence - turn against her husband? The doctor, who essentially narrates the story, is totally contemptuous of the woman - and by extension then of all the people whom he faithfully serves. This is a rare Conrad story that is only incidentally about the sea - although is account of the young man's journey to the coast by train and his confinement to the hold during the extremely unsafe and uncomfortable passage is very powerful - and very different from the celebration of maritime life for which C is so well known. The story also shows the unfortunate ignorance and intolerance of Conrad himself, at times, in some nasty offhand comments indicating that it was Jews who profited by unscrupulous sales of passage to America to unsuspecting and naive young Eastern Europeans (Conrad's great work is often marred by this casual intolerance, most often toward blacks and native Islanders).

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Story in current New Yorker - How would you have ended it?

Story in current New Yorker Usl At the Stadium, by Rivka Galchin, gets off to a start: Usl, yes that's his name not really explained where that name came from, falls asleep during a game at Yankee stadium and his image is picked up by the Jumbotron and he becomes the subject of much mockery and vitriol on line - he's overweight and insecure a mama's boy seems to live alone no girlfriend not many friends either in other words another instance of the outsider so often at the heart of American short stories. Over the course of the story he's prey to two impulses: a neighbor and recent law school grad tries to convince him to sue someone anyone everyone - and when word of this gets out Usl is even more reviled. His boss - he buys used gold and jewelry for a Manhattan shop - tells him to forget about it and get on w his life and waxes philosophic: it's not so puzzling that there is evil in the world he says, it's puzzling that there is benevolence. Story ends w Usl recalling what he dreamed while asleep at the stadium - a dream of being cared for. Very sad and sweet but within the scheme of this story - which begins w such a credible premise - any baseball fan know that the cameras often pick up images that could be subject to ridicule and often are (I've heard the Red Sox play by play announcers say mean things about fans) I think the story just didn't go far enough. Ending w a dream? Really? What is this MFA school? Imagine what George Saunders might have done w Usl - imagine what you could do - give him his chance to retaliate and see where it gets him - celebri or notoriety or both?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Only disconnect - the peasants in Chekhov

The editor's note (r g davis) on the Chekhov story The New Villa rightly notes that the story was a rebuke to the Tolstoyans w their belief in the nobility of the peasants their essential goodness and the obligation of the landed aristocracy to forego their privileges and uplift the peasant society or class. In this story the peasants or serfs are pretty nasty people and the wealthy man who built the eponymous villa is doomed to failure in his efforts not even to uplift the serfs but simply to live w them in neighborly harmony. But if the story were solely a rebuke to Tolstoy and his following why would we read it today? In fact in my view it's a sad and very human story that can play out and has played out in many culture and many circimstances - the ganging up on an outsider and making him or her an object of rebuke and torment - bullying in essence - made even more poignant nun this story  because one would think that the wealthy engineer and landowner would be more likely the bully than the victim. Reminds me of Shirley jacson's we have always lived in the castle and of the very violent and peckinpaugh movie straw dogs - w very dissimilar works in some ways but both about communal bullying of the outsider. We want to feel sorry nor the engineer and his frail and pretty wife ndriven from their home their illusions shattered but we also can't help but see them as blind and pathetic - her desperate attempts to appeal to their sympathies her clumsy offers of charity and his irascibility - such an easy victim of group mentality.mand of course the symbolism tho a bit heavy handed fro Chekhov is powerful - he came to the village to oversee construction of a bridge and the villagers perhaps aware of what so-called progress might bring them don't want bridges connecting them anywhere. They would rather be left alone in their ignorance and poverty and simplicity (one of the fine scenes is the village men gathering in the forest to divvy up the land and the common chores). - in that sense Tolstoy was right - the serfs may have a more advanced  set of values tha their "betters."

Monday, October 12, 2015

Two teachable Chekhov stories

No surprise that Chekhov is part of the ten modern classics story anthology I reading but I was surprised to see his work represented by two very short pieces that I had never read or at least don't remember. I think part of anthologist r g Davis's thinking was teachability and no doubt shorter pieces such as these that make one clear point are a better entry point for students than say ward 6 or the kiss or lady w a lap dog. One is a trifle from real life - piece in which a man is visiting the house of a divorcee w whom he is having an affair. She's not home and practically from the first time he engages in conversation w her young son. The son blurts out that the nurse or nanny has been taking him and his sister to secretly meet w their estranged father. The boy gets the man to promise "honor bright" that he will not tell but as soon as the mother comes home he asks what the hell this is all about. The boy is in tears, betrayed. The surprise and beauty of this piece is that it turns out and we realize this only at the end to be a story about the boy not the man - his first glimpse into the cruelty and narcissism of the adult world. The other story, The Student,mis of a clerical student walking home from a day of shooting very cold and miserable and down on the world. He stops to warm himself by a fire tended by two woman mother and daughter both widows and hentellsnthem of peters and his three denials of Christ. The older woman bursts into tears. And he realizes and believes that St. Peter is very meaningful to her life and that gives him comfort and confidence as he continues on his passage home. Obviously this is an analog for his journey thru life toward death and marks a moment in which he finds his life and calling potentially have value but only to the extent that he can find that value in service to people even those much less fortunate less educated - he must bring them the word. We don't know what his future will be but we see this possibility for warmth and deliverance. Actually if I had come across this story without knowing the author I would have guessed Tolstoy as it doesn't have the concluding note of sorrow and elusiveness and missed opportunity that we associate w Chekhov.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why Borges refuses "to argue or to judge"

By any measure Borges was a great writer of short stories - innovative, influential, and original w a style immediately recognizable and a world view intellectual and austere - and yet and yet ... There is a coldness and unapproachability about his writing and even beneath the playfulness of some of his conceits an off-putting cruelty. I'm thinking in particular of the third Borges story that r g davis included in his shoe story anthology - The Intruder. If you read the story through just its plot and circumstances it may appear to be just a legend of the argentine pampas - much like a story of the west in North American lit or like a tale of the sea in British lit. He begins by framing the story - it's something he's heard from a few sources says the narrator and we are left to discern truth from legend   But as tomthenstory - it is of two roughneck brothers one of whom comes home one day w a woman (are they married? I can't remember) and the younger bro falls in love w her. For a time they share the woman but this becomes unmanageable and they talented to another village and sell her into prostituition. The brothers each sneak off at separately over time to buy her services so to speak but over time they realize this subterfuge is driving the two of them apart so they kill her and crudely dispose of her body end of story. You tell me- what does it mean that we hear not a word from her that she is just chattel that there is no approbation nor is there a jot of sympathy that the narrator or anyone else expresses throughout this story. At best we can say that perhaps in a subtle way the unspoken horror is a great condemnation of this way of life but I can't help but think the misogyny is inherent in the story, that Borges himself is unwilling to argue or to judge not because he know too much but because he feels too little.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

What does it mean to read - or to write?

Been a long time since I read any Borges but started reading thru an old short story anthology (as readers of these posts may have noted I love to read story collections while traveling) edited by Robert Gorman davis now maybe best known as Lydia davis pere and the first three are Borges. Very oddly while reading the first - the garden of forked paths - I came across a quote that seemed weirdly familiar : in the riddle about the game of chess what word cannot be said.  Where had I read that recently? And it occurred : just two nights before in fates and furies. It struck me as odd at the time. I looked it up and saw that the next line was so you remember our Borges seminar. Anyway story itself quite esoteric and austere and unapproachable like most Borges but the next story is one of great cosmic literary jokes on a par with only one or two others maybe go goals wife and pale fire - Pierre Menard - the author of don Quixote.  Borges's conceit is that this obscure literary figure - the story begins w. A catalogue of his literary output mostly monographs and brief translations of Baudelaire Valery and the like but then the narrator describes menard's most important work - writing DQ not copying translating or updatin but thru laborious effort trying to actually writes the novel. (Something like the monkeys w infinite typewriters composing Shakespeare?). It becomes really funny and provocative when the narrator compares some of menard's Quixote w Cervantes Quixote the quoted passages identical but he finds entirely different meaning in each. So what does that say about how we read and interpret literature? Our judgment is highly determined by what we know about authors and by our preconceived ideas but should it be? Or should we approach everything as a "text"? Should we bring something to every text (how can we not?) or approach every work in an open manner? And ultimately is any text superior to another - and does context matter? Does the same text have different value in differing context? What does it mean to read - or in fact to write?

Friday, October 9, 2015

Must characters be "likable"?

What's so appealing to so many reviewers about Lauren groff's fates and furies? Honesty n3 chapters in I have never met a band of less appealing characters - to a person (and it's hard to distinguish one person from another) they are a crowd of sybaritic spelt-centered narcissists - privileged vassar grads (most of them) wealthy (most of them) maybe a little talented and aspiring to careers in the arts but do any of them have an idea in their heads? Do they ever have an intelligent conversation ? Do they think for two seconds about the world we live in and how they might use their wealth and supposed talents to benefit others? In some ways this is a period piece. Groff's sets it in the early 90s - I would guess that seems a long time ago to her - but in any event she appears to examining another era almost another species. No doubt about it she writes well and there are quite a few passages and paragraphs that I have flagged as especially beautiful or trenchant. These for the most part are passages in which she lists the foibles and shortcomings of the members of the caste (sic). I am perfectly fine w an author's adopting a superior attitude to her characters but I do want to see some characters w spirit spunk ideas convictions relationships - other than partying hookups and complaints. Compare this with two obvious counterparts - Donna tartt's great the secret history in which we learn a lot about a complex group of college students and their ideas and desires and fates and foibles (tragic and criminal) or w the movie about similar wealthy Manhattan character a bit younger and in tha 70s I think - 'metropolitan not a great movie but one that won our sympathies thru its thuoughtful portrayal of a character who was an outsider yearning for acceptance in the little band but also a bit contemptuous of its values - as are we - but there was sweetness and innocence entirely missing in this novel

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Invention of the 4th-person narrator - Fates and Furies

I'm only 2 chapters into Lauren Groff's much-lauded Fates and Furies so not ready to judge yet but I want to tip my figurative hat to her for her narrative innovation. Maybe others have done things like this before - obviously, writers such as Nabokov are known for writing "commentary" on their own narratives, but Groff seems to have invented a narrative technique that I'll call the 4th-person narrator: the narrator (traditional omniscient 3rd person) tells the story - which in these first two chapters is the back story, back a whole generation in fact, of the 20-something newlywed husband we meet on the first page having sex with his new bride on a rocky beach on the coast of Maine - but at various moments she has a higher-level narrator - something like the author verifying or clarifying points in her own narration, but not quite the author, either, it's just another layer of narrator, even more omniscient. Sometimes these interruptions are for a few words, sometimes a paragraph or longer - and they all have the purpose I think of making the fiction seem to be (though it's not) real, factual - it's told by a narrator and verified or clarified by a super-narrator. I admire this because in the very first writing class I ever took - sophomore year and JHU many years back - the prof challenged us all, in passing, to invent a 4th-person narration. I tried to rise to the challenge, wrote a story in which, at the end, the narrator reflects back on the story and its significance. The story is long lost but to my memory it was a pretty good story but the authorial reflection, while a good concept, was handled in a juvenile manner (what the hell, I was 18 years old). I wish I'd been as smart as Groff and incorporated that narrative voice into the story, braided it in, rather than stamping it on as an appendage. Anyway, a promising start, at least in some ways - the narrator, both of them perhaps (we may learn that the husband and wife are commenting on each other's stories?), seems to have us in good hands.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Trying to figure out The Summer Book

Read thru the foreword to Tove Jansson's The Summer Book but didn't find much illumination there, either. Realized belatedly that in fact these scenes do comprise a single summer - the first scenes reference April (hard to believe that the young Sophia would go for a swim in the Baltic in April but so be it) and ends in August, as they prepare their summer house for the long, hard winter - in fact, stocking it rather handsomely as a refuge for any mariners who take shelter on the island - a beautiful Scandinavian tradition. In fact, the last chapter, with all the details of house arrangement, is one of the best in the collection. I'm struck though by how few of these chapters stay in my mind a day after completing the reading - is that just me or is there something elusive about these pieces? I keep trying to get my mind around the characters and their relationships. The intro correctly notes that a key sentence is one of the first stories is that Sophia has a bed to herself for the first time this summer bcz her mother died - what a fact to just slip in there and, much worse, never return to! It's of course like a shadow looming over the novel, and the failure to confront this sorrow is also very Scandinavian I think - being tough, stoic, reserved, and orderly are the key virtues - and then, usually, everything comes pouring out at once - like a ketchup bottle, someone once said - in a night of drinking. That doesn't happen in this "novel" - though there is some drinking. I have to say Jansson has no conception of how to establish Sophia's character; the intro says she's supposed to be 6 years old, and that how she seems at the start, but at other times she seems to be a teenager - or a ridiculously precocious 6-year-old. I don't know someone will have to explain this one to me.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What I'm missing about The Summer Book

Maybe it's me, well, it is me, but I still don't get it - am finding nothing of great interest in Tova Jansson's The Summer Book - a get it that these are series of sketches (some illustrated by her own pencil sketches), of varying degrees of interest about life on one of the small islands in the Gulf of Finland around what appears to be the first half of the 19th century - hard to know, in that life there is probably primitive and isolated to this day. One of the better sketches is one in which the grandmother and the child (10 years old maybe?), Sophia, motor out to the farthest-out island where a rich owner is building a large vacation house - grandmother in particular is very critical of everything about the place - she has that old snobbish mentality that change should stop at the time of her arrival (47 years back, I think she said) on the islands. Quite astonishingly, she and Sophia break the locks and enter the house - and then, surprise!, the owner pulls up in his motorboat. He invites them in for a drink - makes some disparaging remarks about the vandals who must have broken in - is very neighborly - but of course he knew they broke and and that they're completely contemptuous of him - but he never lets on - and Jansson never does either, in any direct way, neither S. nor the grandmother reflect on their visit or wonder if her knew they'd broken in - she only drops one sly hint, noting that the never returned the visit. Good sketch. Others, though, are good in a slight way: an account of a storm on this islands, for example. Others have just passed through my mind like water through a sieve. The whole book would be better, in my opinion, if there were some arc or shape to the narrative - Sophia's growing up over the course of a summer; over the course of many summers. An evolving relationship between her and her grandmother. Some kind of exploration of the distance of her father and the absence of her mother? Any sense of who she is as a person, what she does year-round, who her friends are? Sketches - yes, that's exactly what this feels like - not a finished work.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Puzzled by the first half of Jansson's The Summer Book

In one day's reading I'm halfway through Tove Jansson's The Summer Book and I know it's short but maybe I should be reading more slowly and carefully because I think I'm missing the point. The novel consists or short chapters, each something like an essay or observations, about a young girl of very indeterminate age - sometimes she acts like she's 5 and sometimes like 15 - and her feisty and independent grandmother, living on an island in the Gulf of Finland (time uncertain, maybe mid 20th century?). The girl's father is with them but plays almost no role in this; we learn almost in passing that her mother recently died. There's so much that's unclear, starting w/ why are they on the island, is it a summer home or do they live there year-round? At first it seemed like it was a tiny island with maybe only a few families, or maybe only 1, but gradually we learn that there's a village on the island and a number of year-round settlers. A few neighbors make appearances - but the heart of this novel, if that's what it is, remains opaque and there seems to be no arc to the story: the chapters don't necessarily proceed in succession, the girl doesn't seem to be growing or maturing or overcoming any crisis or sense of loss. Does it take place over the course of one summer? Many? What is the grandmother so harsh? The the young girl have any relations w/ anyone but the grandmother over the course of this summer? In some ways The Summer Book reminds me of Strindberg's Natives of Hemso, an obvious point of departure from any Swedish writer, but his novel was so much more finely developed and attuned to the entire culture and the changing ways of the lives of those on an island in the Stockholm archipelago. The Summer Book is to me just confusing, so far - a series of starts, with no direction home.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

John Updike's poetry - and my brief conversation with him

I recommend to all the excellent essay from Brad Leithauser in the New Criterion (linked via arts and letters daily) on John Updike's poetry - this essay will, I think, be the forward to a forthcoming Updike Selected Poems - it's probably the best examination of Updike's poetry, and his entire literary career, that I've ever read - truly makes you appreciate JU's greatness and makes you want to go out and read more - esp the poetry, that many readers have neglected. I may have posted on this before but I have a snippet to add to the discussion of Updike's poetry: When was the books editor at the Providence Journal, from about 1985-1990, JU gave a reading at the Rhode Island School of Design, which I covered. In fact, RISD invited me to attend and to join for a dinner afterwards. I was honored to sit at the table with - next to, in fact, if I remember correctly - JU. The dinner conversation was polite and a little formal; one of his daughters (a RISD grad, I think), with grandchildren, was at another table. At one point the then-RISD prez tapped his glass and thanked Updike and asked a few inane questions: Do you write on a computer, e.g. After dinner I asked JU if I could interview him briefly for my story, and he agreed. (I taped it, and to my regret I can't find the cassette.) One thing I asked him is why he chose to read from his poetry rather than from a recent piece of fiction. (His entire reading was selections from his poetry collection Midpoint.) He indicated that when he's reading to promote a book (i.e., when the publisher is footing the bill) he reads from that book, but he much prefers to read from his poetry. "I'm not sure why," he said. I was pretty sure he knew why, and summoned the nerve to say: "Maybe it's because when you write fiction you have a set of ideas or thoughts or memories that you have to get out of you and once you write it, you feel that it's gone. When you write poetry, you're trying to capture a moment or thought or image that's passing by you, and once you write the poem, you've caught it." He smiled and looked at me, a little surprised, and said: "Exactly!" As noted, I think he knew that all along and I was certainly not providing him with any new insight into his work, but he didn't want to say all that to me and sound pretentious in print. Not sure if I wrote that in the story - I doubt it - but there you have it. If any readers of this post can get this anecdote to Leithauser I'd appreciate that.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Tim Parks - English author?, yes. But his story could set anywhere.

For some reason I always think of Tim Parks (when I think of him at all) as a writer from the NW - I don't know if I've confused him w/ someone else or it's just some misconception that worked its way into my brain, but I'm reminded once again as i read his story Vespa in the current New Yorker that he's an English writer (with an American-sounding name, maybe?). So, yes, his story is set in England to but be honest - unlike, say, Trevor stories or Hedley stories - this story could just as well be set in the US - just change the place names (and maybe the motorcycle brand name) and it would fit in right here - which is to say the story is about relationships and personalities, which are much the same world over. Story tells of a college student who's dating ("Facebook engaged") a high-school student in his home town - he's in school in a nearby city (specifically, she's in Manchester, he in Liverpool). One day as she sneaks off from school, which she does often, and they try to find a place to smoke some dope and have sex, his Vespa stolen from the school parking lot. The story is essentially about the follow-up to this theft - and to the eventual return of the bike (technically, of the engine that the thieves had lifted from the bike) and the differing reactions of the several characters, and what their reactions reveal: his mother, a blandly indifferent woman who can't see beyond the drama of her own life, laughs off the theft; his father (parents are recently divorced). The police: totally hostile and suspicious, suspecting that the boy and girlfriend engineered the theft to report and claim from insurance. The girlfriend, similar to the mother in that she laughs it off, but she says she'll get the word out and, miraculously, the engine is returned. Is this suspicious? The father: he thinks so and warns his son to stay away from this girl, who's from a working-class, immigrant family. Parks lets us form our own conclusions, and it's kind of a litmus test: whose view do you align with? There's plenty in here to lead us to suspect that, at the least, the girl (Yasmin) knew who took the bike - but was she part of the scheme or not? It's a very smart story in that Parks gives us more info than any one of the characters have, so we can peer around the edges and make judgements about each of them - but he does not give us all the info, we we're left in doubt, at the end, about what really happened, all we know is what the characters say and do and what that reveals about the biases and limitations of each, and of us.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Car Thief and Catcher in the Rye - similaries and differences

Nearing the end of Theodore Weesner's excellent 1972 debut novel, The Car Thief - in last section, tantalizingly titled Summer Death (still don't know whose), we get some surprising developments re Alex's relationship w/ his younger brother, Howard. A writes to H and suggest a visit - they have not seen each other for several years, and Alex feels very tender toward and protective of his younger brother. Father - a kindly man troubled by serious drinking problems - tries to discourage the visit, gets very drunk when he give Alex a ride to the lakeside inn where Howard lives w/ their mother and her new husband. Alex treated very curtly by the stepfather. What's all this about? Gradually, subtly, Weesner let's us see that this "inn" is really a brothel, that their mother maybe runs the place - was probably a prostitute herself - and A comes to the conclusion, correct probably though it's never known definitively - that Howard is not his brother. He takes off and heads back home, scuffles his way through the summer, decides he will not go back to h.s. but will join the Army - Dad isn't crazy about this idea but at this point is so impaired that he can't stop him. Then, Howard comes to visit Alex in the city (Flint, Mich., probably, which is where Weesner was raised), and Alex is rude to him and dismissive - this is a strange echo or reprise of their early years when Alex would play nasty tricks on Howard when he was supposed to be meeting him after school, leading to a traumatic night when Howard was lost in the city. The Alex-Howard relationship, superficially, is one of the elements that make readers compare Alex w/ Holden Caulfield - his tender and protective feelings toward his sister, Phoebe - but the comparison doesn't hold: Alex seems to want from his brother some kind of relationship that he should have from friends and peers, he's jealous of his brother for his access to maternal love, and he acts this out through bitterness and maybe even hostility or vengeance. They don't talk about their relationship, and Alex rebuffs Howard's attempts at rapprochement and connection. He's a much "harder" character than HC - not trying to protect his sibling's innocence but to bring his brother down into the hole that he's in.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Why I was at least half-wrong in yesterday's post on The Car Thief

I'd say about half my post yesterday was wrong. Yes, Alex Hausman, the protag in Theodore Weesner's The Car Thief is a lonely and isolated hero - and I was correct yesterday in noting that it's unusual that he has no friends or even close acquaintances and that he is so socially awkward that he can't even have a simple conversation with a girl - his relationships w/ the three girls who have appeared in the novel thus far (nearly done) are nearly primitive and creepy - stalking them, blurting out to a girl he hardly knows that he loves her, for ex. I think I way overstated the case, however, regarding his lack of sensitivity. He actually is quite a "sensitive" character who feels for others, suffers because of his social exclusion, thinks plaintively about his younger brother now gone from his life, suffers shame and humiliation because of his family poverty and alcoholism, and is strangely driven toward self-destructive actions - notably car theft for no reason other than the thrill and perhaps to give a big f-you to society and to owners of vast [sic], expensive (American - this is Detroit in the 1970s) cars. What I was trying to get at, though, is the paradox of his personality - to others he looks like a cool, detached, maybe a little scary social outcast, a tough, a hood - but with our access to his consciousness - the greatest thing that novels afford us - we can see his complex and distraught personality, we know him in a way that only he knows himself. Some of the jacket copy compares Alex, superficially, with Holden Caulfield, but in fact they have little in common others than late-teen sensitivity. HC is the narrator of his own tale, and there's no way you could imagine Alex telling this tale about himself - if he had the wherewithal to narrate his story and to unfold the complex and sometimes contradictory elements of his personality - he would be an entirely different person. He is not literary, not articulate, not outspoken - and therefore a somewhat rare literary character and a character who is virtually never a credible narrator. It's the author's task, and his brilliance, to make this character, atypical for literature though plentiful in reality (and maybe more typical in movies - in fact at two key moments Alex goes to an all-night cinema and watches Western heroes) come alive, at least to us.