The Strange Pilgrim

April 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

Tributes to Gabriel García Márquez will flow in for a while, but the loudest ones may already reside in the innumerable writers he influenced. He gave Latin American writers the courage and guile to take on the tyrants and dark epochs of their homelands, the hot caverns of the past, and perhaps most crucially, the yearning for a stable sense of identity amid backdrops of upheaval, migration, and disunity.

Michiko Kakutani writes in her appreciation:

In the end, it’s not politics, but time and memory and love that stand at the heart of Mr. García Márquez’s work. How the histories of continents and nations and families often loop back on themselves; how time past shapes time present; how passion can alter the trajectory of a life — these are the melodies that thread their way persistently through his fiction, reverberating in novel after novel, story after story. In later works, like the stories in “Strange Pilgrims” and the novella “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” Mr. García Márquez wrote about older characters, falling under the shadow of mortality, but then, death had long been a focal point in his work, going back to his early novella “Leaf Storm,” and on through novels like “The Autumn of the Patriarch.”

García Márquez’s dreamscapes offer a grasp at controllable logic in a universe of institutional unfairness. On the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, Edwidge Danticat defends García Márquez’s method, nowadays applied with the neat, approachable label “magical realism”:

I am often surprised when people talk about the total implausibility of the events in García Márquez’s fiction. Having been born and lived in a deeply spiritual and extraordinarily resourceful part of the Caribbean, a lot of what might seem magical to others often seems quite plausible to me.

Of course a woman can live inside her cat, as the character Eva does, in García Márquez’s 1948 short story “Eva Is Inside Her Cat.” Doesn’t everyone have an aunt who’s done that? And remember that neighbor who died but kept growing in his coffin, as in the 1947 story “The Third Resignation”? What seems implausible to me is a lifetime of absolute normalcy, a world in which there are no invasions, occupations, or wars, no poverty or dictators, no earthquakes or cholera.

Money Problems

April 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

In this week’s New York Times Book Review, an issue devoted to the theme of money, Pankaj Mishra and Rivka Galchen offer contrapuntal looks at how money is treated in fiction. Mishra, aptly, starts off with a quote by William Dean Howells: “Business is the only human solidarity.” He finds money as a topic too often glossed over in fiction due to the writer’s discomfort with what he calls “a compromising and humiliating relationship with his aggressively commercial society.” The writer, kept afloat by grants and patrons, is too insulated to understand money’s cruel realities:

One result of the steady professionalization of the imaginative life is that the working classes, let alone the poor and the destitute, have largely disappeared from contemporary fiction. The dominant tone of irony, part of a characteristically bourgeois project of self-concealment and euphemism, has merely enhanced money’s amazing ability, in Saul Bellow’s words, “to survive identification” as a great evil and “go on forever.”

This is not to say that many works — from John Updike’s Rabbit quartet to Dave Eggers’s “A Hologram for the King” — haven’t registered the main events in the recent history of money: oil shocks, the proliferation of technologies, the migration of low-wage jobs to the newly industrializing countries, shifts in consumer habits, hubristic technicism and reckless financialization. “Without money he was hardly a man,” Jonathan Franzen writes in “The Corrections,” which dramatizes the fantasies of neoliberalism (“The more patently satirical the promises, the lustier the influx of American capital”). … But only a few contemporary fictions have bracingly exposed the writer’s own furtive participation in the vulgar pursuits of wealth and fame.

This view seems too ahead of itself in the age of the MFA student struggling to make ends meet on a teaching stipend. Galchen takes the view that money finds its way into narrative most effectively at the periphery, a cold dousing of our obsessions, offering the example of Don Quixote never considering the need to pay his squire until it is requested of him, or Ishmael only entering the whaling industry in the first place because he needs a living.

Yes, these summaries are off, but are they really so off? Part of what makes those fictions literature, instead of just varieties of chivalric fantasies, is that they do not participate in the appealing fiction that money is inconsequential and can be blithely ignored — an exceptionally popular fiction in real life, especially among the more moneyed, the original and abiding reading population.

I would propose that money is underutilized as an element in fiction because it is too banal a means of conflict to be a source of inspiration. For most, debt is too readily accepted as a fact of life to carry any sense of wonder. With rare exceptions (Fitzgerald), money does not take the reader on an emotional journey. It is also sloppy in its measure of human capacity. (Mitt Romney would tell you it is the only way to keep score.) It breeds complacency in a medium that is most effective when it portrays upheaval and lets character be revealed in tense moments of moral choice. If narrative fiction should ultimately be concerned with humankind’s journey toward happiness, money is too constant an element to offer any insight into why humans think and act the way they do.

What I Read in March

April 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque. Translated from the German by A. W. Wheen. A Fawcett mass-market paperback that I purchased for a history class in the summer before eleventh grade, my copy holds an authentic aged-newsprint smell. All Quiet is, I think, the first and only war novel I have ever read (as in actually depicting the brutalities of war, not set during a war), and I wonder where its distinction lies, other than the fact that Remarque was himself wounded in combat during World War I and is writing as a journalist as much as a storyteller.

The hero, Paul Bäumer, is a twenty-year-old soldier who has signed up for the German army with the rest of his classmates. From the beginning, Paul’s tone is one of cautious optimism, his happiness measured in material things like cigarette rations and who will get his dying comrade’s boots.

Morale quickly sinks as mortar shells fly, and those same classmates are killed off, one by one; more pertinently, we hear next to nothing about the progress of the war, the Kaiser, the Archduke, or any kind of missive to provide a reason why the young men are there. The novel loses awareness of its periphery; with no way to keep track of what is success, all sense of reason is lost.

Paul’s youth evaporates. His mother, back home, is dying. In a prescient acknowledgment of what would now be called PTSD, the trauma of combat follows Paul home on leave; he is “startled a couple of times in the street by the screaming of tramcars,” which sound like exploding shells. In the second half of the book, Paul’s weary voice turns philosophical:

We count the weeks no more. It was winter when I came up, and when the shells exploded the frozen clods of earth were just as dangerous as the fragments. Now the trees are green again. Our life alternates between billets and the front. We have almost grown accustomed to it; war is the cause of death like cancer and tuberculosis, like influenza and dysentery. The deaths are merely more frequent, more varied are terrible.

Our thoughts are clay, they are moulded with the changes of the days;–when we are resting they are good; under fire, they are dead. Fields of craters within and without.

From a historical standpoint, it is fair to ask what All Quiet tells us about war that The Red Badge of Courage and Catch-22 do not. The answer may be how close it lies, without flinching, to a seat of decay inside one human.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, Susan Sontag. The second volume of Sontag’s journals, covering her thirties and most of her forties, begins with the year she published her groundbreaking essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’” There are still a lot of lists (books read, movies seen or to be seen) and seeds planted for novel ideas that never sprouted, but we also get a lot of sketching-out of the thoughts that went into the books she published during this period: the essay collections Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969), and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980) and the novels The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967).

We also hear more confession about relationships—particularly her affairs with Jasper Johns, Harriet Sohmers, María Irene Fornés, and particularly the duchess Carlotta del Pezzo. These sections hardly read as the kind of experimental draft prose you expect to find in a private journal. She analyzes her relationships as she would an admired work of art, seeking meaning out of the sublime with the artist (herself) elevated as the moral center. From February 10, 1970:

The meaning of Carlotta’s “collapse” this past week: You see, I would if I could, but I can’t. For the behavior to be effective (i.e., self-exonerating) the collapse must be “total,” which excludes even the slightest gesture of consolation or reassurance to me. For it she could make such a gesture, that would mean she was capable of concern for me (of feeling a sense of responsibility) and therefore that the collapse was not total, and if not total then demands could conceivably be made on her, etc. (That, not sadism—conscious or unconscious—explains why she couldn’t give the smallest reassurance those last days.)

What I have to get over: the idea that the value of love rises as the self dwindles. What Carlotta doesn’t want—should anyone want it?—is that I’m prepared to give up (disvalue) everything for her. What she was attracted to in me was that I was a person with interests, success, strength.

A bad lesson I learned from Irene, who did want me to give up everything for her, and did measure my love by the amount I was willing to give up.

Sontag also travelled a lot ,so there are numerous datelined entries giving impressions of such places as Tangier, Paris, and Prague, along with many of the notes that went into her Vietnam essay “Trip to Hanoi” (found in Styles of Radical Will), and “Project From a Trip to China,” the first story in her collection I, Etcetera.

Who Can Make It, Mike Young. One of the first chapbooks released by Big Lucks Books, Who Can Make It includes Young’s crowdpoem “Aliens We All Know and Love.” Young invited visitors to add in their own text to the poem, Mad Lib-style, and he chose his favorite submission for each line. I don’t recognize any of the lines as mine, nor does H., who also submitted, but we’re thanked in the acknowledgements, and anyway, the poem is electric and the ending is nails:

I love telling you we should move to North Dakota

even though we never will. Televised rain


getting away with it, the animals still recovering

from bad press. I love how at a movie,


just before the credits,

you try to guess the song.

Meditations From a Movable Chair, Andre Dubus. Finishing up my journey through Dubus that I started in February. The essays in this volume take up many of the same themes as Dubus’s fiction: manhood and its beguiling limitations, religion, guilt, anger and forgiveness and the search for purity of the soul. The author, who died in 1999, experienced no shortage of the kind of real-life tragedy that puts to test one’s faith, including the rape of his sister, the aftermath of which is detailed in the first essay here, and another attack on his oldest daughter (not mentioned here but included in his son Andre Dubus III’s 2011 memoir, Townie). In 1986, while stopping to help a motorist in a disabled vehicle on Interstate 93 in Massachusetts, the elder Dubus was struck by a Honda Prelude and lost the use of his legs.

As the title implies, many of these essays radiate from that incident, which gives the impression that life as an immobile person has turned Dubus into someone more observant, reflective, and patient, but also reduced in the eyes of those among whom he had been an imposing presence. He vacillates between humility (as when he writes of needing to be carried by loved ones up a steep hill to a field) and righteousness (as when he shared the angry letter he wrote to Amtrak after being unable to use the train’s facilities). Through it all, Dubus seems to yearn for a reassured tranquility that he isn’t sure he deserves.

The Isle of Youth, Laura van den Berg. In a bit of missed opportunity, I heard van den Berg read along with three other writers in Northampton last fall, but didn’t meet her or buy her book; then, a few months later, I got it for Christmas.

There are seven long stories here, with settings ranging from Florida to Antarctica, and they all feature female narrators clinging to a distorted sense of their undertakings and operating with an inability to weigh the gravity of situations. In “Opa-Locka,” two sisters try to run a private detective business with licenses acquired from an online course. (One sister did the coursework for both of them.) Slights, held-over grudges, and personal histories (a forgotten husband, a vanished grifter father) get in the way of the task at hand, blinding the characters from the understanding that they are out of their element.

A running theme is performance, both from the point of view of the performer seeking to please and the rapt audience member looking to be taken somewhere. The narrator of “The Greatest Escape” works as the teenage assistant to her mother, a struggling illusionist with demons; in “Acrobat,” a woman is so enchanted with street performers in Paris that she ignores her husband when he announces he is leaving her. Another theme is disappearance: particularly by men—fathers, husbands—and the itch of their anticipated resurfacing. Van den Berg’s characters struggle to adjust their expectations–of others and themselves–in light of unreliable environments and bent realities:

I decided to order a big meal. I decided to eat until I felt like bursting. I started by asking for my own bottle of wine. As I sipped my first glass of wine, I felt something in the room change, like all the electrical currents had been moving in one direction and then suddenly started going in another. Or, as my husband would say, the “emotional weather” was different. He was always accusing my emotional weather of changing without warning. The forecast had predicted clear skies and then, out of nowhere, here came the rain clouds. Time after time, I tried to explain that I didn’t have much control over my emotional weather, and viewed the local weatherman with newfound empathy whenever I saw him on the evening news. I stared at my hands as I thought of these things. These moments that pass for a life.

Use Everything

March 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Adam Begley’s new, authorized biography of John Updike goes on sale April 8, and excerpts are starting to hit the Web, including in New York Magazine (March 24 issue, reprinted at Vulture). Begley recounts the tale of a journalist named William Ecenbarger, who in 1983 scored an interview with the author after trekking to Updike’s hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania, and being fortunate enough to run into his very proud mother at the library.

Not fond of being interviewed, Updike nonetheless treated the visitor cordially, offering to chauffeur him around Shillington in Ecenbarger’s Volkswagen (“’I’ll drive so you can take notes,’ Updike suggested as they left the house, ‘but I want to drive your car.’”), pointing out local landmarks, old girlfriends’ homes, and sharing anecdotes in what turned into a day-long trip.

Begley notes that, with astonishingly quick turnaround, Updike channeled his own impressions of the exchange into his work:

It was only six weeks after their tour of Berks County that Ecenbarger realized the transaction had been mutually beneficial. The reporter filed one version of the story, and the fiction writer filed another: John Updike’s “One More Interview” appeared in The New Yorker on July 4, 1983; it’s about an unnamed actor who agrees, reluctantly, to drive around his hometown in the company of a journalist (“It would provide, you know … an angle”). Gradually the actor’s resistance (“I can’t stand interviews”) melts away as the trickle of memories swells to a flood. Even as the reporter’s interest wanes (“I think maybe I’ve seen enough. This is only for a sidebar, you know”), the actor finds he can’t let go of this opportunity to revisit his small-town boyhood, to dream of his first love and his vanished, teenage self (“he wanted to cruise forever through this half of town”).

Reading his New Yorker, Ecenbarger was astonished to find that he’d become muse to a great American writer. Updike had transcribed—verbatim—their exchanges, beginning with the helpful suggestion that the interviewee drive while the interviewer take notes, and extending to trivial back-and-forth unrelated to the matter at hand, such as the actor’s surmise that the “wiry” reporter (whose “exceptionally tight mouth” Updike lifted, as it were, straight from Ecenbarger’s face) had been a high-school athlete…

Ecenbarger was by no means an isolated target. Begley notes that the episode was indicative of the consumptive way Updike, trained as a visual artist at the Ruskin School for Drawing at Oxford, mined his own life, and the people dear to him within it, for his fiction, even the very proud mother:

When the biographer Ron Chernow, who went to see Linda Updike in Plowville in the early ’70s when he was a young journalist eager to write about Updike, asked her how it felt to pop up as a character in her son’s fiction, “she paused and said, ‘When I came upon the characterization of myself as a large, coarse country woman I was very hurt.’ She said she walked around for several days, brooding—and then she realized she was a large, coarse country woman.”

Elsewhere, Matthew Kassel at the New York Observer (for which Begley is the former books editor) on Updike’s years as a Talk of the Town reporter for the New Yorker.

The Return of Story

March 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Story Magazine was the first literary journal I ever bought, before I knew what literary journals were. I don’t have it anymore, but I remember that the cover was blue and ZZ Packer was one of the authors in it. It gave me a target to shoot for in considering what well-written modern fiction was supposed to feel like.

Story folded in 1999, which was sad, but eventually I discovered other journals and new ways to find them.

Thanks to the work of York College professors Travis Kurowski (editor of the collection Paper Dreams from Atticus Books) and Vito Grippi, the magazine underwent a wholesale re-launch at AWP last month, leading off with a double issue featuring fiction by Etgar Keret  and Nelly Reifler and an essay on brevity by David Shields, among a stellar cast of writers.

Bits and Pieces

March 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

1. AWP was a no-go for me this year, doubly unfortunate because I love everything about Seattle, but I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s morning-after posts. Cf. Samuel Snoek-Brown, Mira Gonzalez at Hobart, Aaron Gilbreath at Salon, and Book Fight! My hope is to make it to Conversations & Connections in Philadelphia this fall.

2. R.I.P. Sherwin B. Nuland. Author and physician best known for the book How We Die, credited for ushering in new and sensitive thinking in the consideration of end-of-life care. Dr. Nuland was more familiar to me as the author of The Wisdom of the Body (retitled for the paperback edition as How We Live), an exquisitely written primer on human physiology and its gross and gorgeous mechanisms.

3. Nick Ripatrazone continues to kick ass over at The Millions. His wistful article on postal submissions struck a chord with me. I began submitting my stories in 2007, when only a handful of journals had begun using Submittable (then Submishmash), and I have fond memories of setting aside time on Saturday mornings to make trips to the post office with a stack of clasp envelopes addressed neatly in black Sharpie. The whole process made the act of submitting feel like an important piece of business.

4. At Electric Literature, Michael J. Seidlinger (The Laughter of Strangers) has done the literary community an enormous service with his compilation of indie and small press titles due out in 2014.

5. My only fear in signing up for that Amtrak writer residency would be rejection of my work by the Secretary of Transportation, who I’m told is turned off by “loner protagonists” and “endings for the sake of endings.”

What I Read in February

March 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Fast Machine, Elizabeth Ellen. A little brick of a book picked up at the Hobart table at last year’s AWP. This collection arranges half-page microfictions alongside 30-page layered narratives, which creates a book not pinned to any decisive themes but intended more as a complete picture of this chapter of the author’s career. There are ninety-three stories in Fast Machine, many of them about young characters feeling their way through tricky relationships, adolescents pitted against untrustworthy adults, single mothers seeking to rebound from disappointment, and more than a few about older people similar to the author looking back on the decisions of their youth. It is obvious, from the disclosure of certain narrative particulars, that some of the stories are nonfiction.

Much like Bukowski, the narrative tension of Ellen’s writing resides in the immediate and shallow nature of decisions presented to protagonists more interested in surviving the moment than projecting their futures. In addition, there is a lot of name-dropping of pop culture references and attention to linear detail, both of which give the stories a legitimate down-to-earthiness and relatability:

We open a ten dollar bag of cookies from the mini bar and sit on towels in front of the TV and wash the cookies down with the rum punches we brought back from the pool. We watch half a biography of Ray Liotta and when that gets too sad we watch a game show on MTV and then we decide to watch porn. There are twenty different movies to choose from and we watch all the teasers once, trying to decide, and then it doesn’t matter anymore because your fingers are in my mouth and then they are in both our mouths and I can taste bits of rum and suntan lotion and chlorine on us and I like tasting us, our recent history and all that. (“Awesome Like Us”)

The day before we leave for Florida, I find a vial of coke in my mother’s purse. I am sitting on our porch with a bowl of shredded wheat. She’s gone in to make coffee. It’s morning and the sun is so bright I can’t look straight ahead without shutting my eyes. I take the vial across the driveway to the cornfield and watch the contents dust the soil. I return the vial to her purse and eat the rest of my cereal as though nothing has happened. (“Winter Haven, Florida, 1984”)

The flash-fictions, when placed alongside the more intense longer fictions, feel like place holders, and the more essayistic narratives can’t segregate what is important from what is not. Personally I felt the longer stories were more enjoyable reads, and I think they would have made for a more interesting and cohesive collection if left on their own.

Selected Stories; We Don’t Live Here Anymore; The Times Are Never So Bad, Andre Dubus. Nick Ripatrazone’s illuminating Millions essay on Dubus père made me hungry to go back and read my collection of the author’s works with a fresher perspective. (I haven’t finished Meditations From a Movable Chair.) Of these, I had already read We Don’t Live Here Anymore and The Times Are Never So Bad.

We Don’t Live Here Anymore  is a collection of three novellas: “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “Adultery,” and “Finding a Girl in America.” The first two stories were the basis for the 2004 film directed by John Curran.

The title story opens with a conversation about ale, and there is much casual opening of bottles in this series about two couples—writer Hank and his wife Edith, and professor Jack and his wife Terry—and their interlaced affairs. Hank and Jack are old friends from their days as students at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Hank is successful, but his writing receives the regularly scheduled attention that Edith does not, and at various stages, dominoes fall: Edith cheats on Hank with Jack; Edith later becomes lover and caretaker to a dying Catholic priest; Hank and Edith divorce and Hank takes up with ex-student Lori, barely older than Hank and Edith’s children.

The stories are unique in how much slack each character is given to grind apart his or her life. There is a lot of confession, or thoughts about confession, not so much out of concern for one’s reputation or purity in the eyes of God but as a double-checking of the earnestness of the soul. Dubus’s characters are seeking, in their marriages, a perpetual intensity that marriage cannot provide, but cliff-dangling risk can, or seem to.

I went  upstairs. Going up, I could hear the rifles cracking. That night I went to see Edith and Hank. They were drinking coffee at the kitchen table; the dishes were still there from dinner, and the kitchen smelled of broiled fish. From outside the screen door I said hello and walked in.

“Have some coffee,” Hank said.

I shook my head and sat at the table.

“A drink?” he said.

“Aye. Bourbon.”

Edith got up to pour it.

“I think I’ll take in a movie,” Hank said.

Edith was holding the bottle and watching me, and it was her face that told me how close I was to crying. I shook my head: “There’s no need—“

But he was up and starting for the back door, squeezing my shoulder as he passed. I followed him out.


He turned at his car.

“Listen, I ought to dedicate my novel to you.” He smiled and took my hand. “You helped get it done. It’s so much easier to live with a woman who feels loved.”

One of my favorite stories in Selected Stories, “Voices From the Moon,” surrounds another wholly inappropriate love affair, this one told from multiple perspectives, as a divorced father carries on a relationship with his older son’s ex-wife. It also shares a quality with “Bless Me, Father” and “The New Boy,” two of my favorite stories from The Times Are Never So Bad: the willing corruption of young innocents by their adult caretakers. Richie is willing to be corrupted because he wants his father to have both happiness and purity of soul.

“You don’t mind her moving in with us? After we’re married?”

“No. I like her.”

“There must be something.”



“Am I going to visit him, like I do Mom?”

His father had not thought about that, Richie saw it in his face, the way it changed as abruptly as when he had stood so still with the spatula and half-raised cigarette, but more completely, deeply: the color rushed out of it, and the lips opened, and his stood staring at Richie’s eyes, his mouth, his eyes. Then in two strides his father came to him, was hugging him, so his right cheek and eye were pressed against his father’s hard round stomach, his arms held against his ribs by the biceps squeezing his own, the forearms pulling his back toward his father.

“You poor kid,” his father said. “Jesus Christ, you poor, poor kid.”

In Selected Stories there are also parents taking extreme actions, standing up their children both in place of and in defiance of God: “Killings” (the inspiration for Todd Field’s 2001 film In the Bedroom) features a father seeking revenge and redemption for the murder of his son by his lover’s ex; “A Father’s Story” is about a man who hides the evidence when his adult daughter is involved in a DUI hit-and-run. Dubus’s stories are heavy with adjectives and inner monologue and exploration; for that reason, they feel like slow reads, but accomplishments when they are finished. I get the same feeling of fulfillment I do when I read the stories of Frederick Busch, whose style I enjoy more. A comparative Frederick Busch-vs.-Andre Dubus essay probably needs to be written at some point.


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