European Gaze

March 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

Reading Karl Knausgaard’s New York Times Magazine piece about his trek from New Brunswick from Minnesota:

One of my favorite books about the U.S. is Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” which among many other things is also a kind of road novel. It describes a journey through the small-town world of post-World War II America, where the protagonist, Humbert Humbert, is constantly on the lookout for distractions for his child mistress, and therefore stops at an endless series of attractions, which every single little town seemed to be in possession of. The world’s largest stalagmite, obelisks commemorating battles, a reconstruction of the log cabin where Lincoln was born, the world’s longest cave, the homemade sculptures of a local woman. Humbert’s gaze is European, deeply sophisticated, cultivated and ancient, but also perverted and sick, while the things he observes on the journey across America are superficial, childishly un-self-conscious, ignorant of history, but also innocent and possessed of the freshness of the new.

There’s an opportunity to read a criminally reduced book in a whole new light–one that finds echoes in real-life crimes purported perpetrated out of immigrant disaffectation. I am thinking of the Boston Marathon bombing, among other things.

One Story and a Demonstration of Narrative Range

March 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

IMG_0338 (2)My reading so far in 2015 has been scattered across the board, as I continue to catch up on New Yorkers and wander in and out of Little Women and, in January, dipped into a couple of long-put-off books by local friends. In between, I’ve been getting to know the selections from One Story.

Toward the end of last year I realized that some of my lit journal subscriptions had lapsed, so I looked around for new ones to try out, and decided I should take a look at this one. Five issues in, I’m really glad I did.

There aren’t many outlets around for long-form fiction, particularly in print, where space limitations make it a challenge. The five stories I have read from One Story show off a range of narrative structures, including:

-First-person present tense that reads like third-person, with asides for expansive ancestral backstory (Issue # 197, “North” by Aria Beth Sloss);

-Exposition and commentary from an untrustworthy first-person narrator (Issue # 201, “All Lateral” by Matt Sumell);

-Second-person history of a woman’s life measured out by her history of boyfriends and lovers (Issue # 198, “An Inventory” by Joan Wickersham);

-A helicoptering third-person-omniscient story of manners set at a party honoring a wealthy South African businessman (Issue # 200, “A Party for the Colonel” by F. T. Kola).

In Sloss’s story, the narrator is the daughter of an explorer with ambitions to reach the North Pole via hot-air balloon; she tells a story she was not around to witness, because she was in utero during the events. We learn in the first line that the voyage toward which the story builds up ended in tragedy:

My father made it as far as Little Iceland. That was the name of the iceberg they found his notebook frozen into, interred like a fossil.

So what we get is a tale regaled in second-hand fashion, with its ending spilled from the start, but that deftly wields the present tense to create intimate scenes of domestic tension:

My mother sits across the table from him, smoothing the napkin across her knees. She pretends not to notice how quickly he eats, moving his fork mechanically back and forth until his plate is clean. When dinner is done, he gets up immediately and goes to the little desk by the window and sits down. Opens his notebook to a new page.

Supplies needed for the construction of a balloon, he writes.

(I love the elision of the subject in the final line of the first paragraph. It is typical of the pacing here, which is one of the story’s strengths.)

Sumell’s story is right up my alley, its narrative pushed forward by a voice out to cause damage with a number of acidic lines:

He lit a cigarette. “Hate to lose you,” he said, exhaling smoke out of only one nostril. “Everybody likes your dog.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Let me know when you get back and I’ll see what I can do.”

“I appreciate that too,” I said.

It should have ended there but didn’t, because Tommy spent the next few minutes telling me about a chili cook-off he went to before we finally shook hands and I rushed off to pack the truck with whatever and the dog bed and headed north.

Like Jim Gavin’s Costello, Sumell’s factotum narrator is resigned to a life passing him by and has his character informed by wry observations of others. He gets off on being unapproachable and unapologetic:

But then she asked what I did for work, and I told her.

“I pump fuel at the marina fuel dock for eight dollars an hour, but mostly I read magazines and eat sandwiches, or watch my dog laze in the sun and lick pelican shit off the cement.”

The look changed, got scrunchier.

We are eventually clued in that the narrator is not immune to emotional challenge—there is something he does care about and it is almost taken away from him.

Wichersham’s story is about the decisions of youth, tinged with reflective wisdom and not a small amount of ruefulness. Which means that while the second-person ostensibly puts the reader in the position of the decision-maker, the story reads more as a series of received actions, in the manner of a This Is Your Life-style reminiscence:

By now you had begun to gaze at Boy 18, who was in your English class in the spring of junior year. You liked his quiet, sprightly, manly dignity. He had a way in class of reading poetry aloud that conferred on each poem the tone it required. “Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving”—you don’t remember anymore who wrote the poem, but you can still summon up the mournful bell-toll of his voice reading it. He had delicate yellow hair, pale blue eyes; every day he wore a tweed sport coat and a white shirt, while the other boys were all dressing like lumberjacks and stevedores. He had an air of sadness, you thought, but it was somehow a pragmatic sadness, as if he were saying, “Yes, life is pointless, but then why not just get on with it?”

Strangely, the one story out of these five that I didn’t care for was by the far-best-known author, Ann Beattie (# 199, “And Then Someone Came From So Very Far Away”). It is about small-town New Englanders of late middle age, and pie recipes and farmers’ markets and the antagonisms that arise when the narrator’s sister visits from Pennsylvania. Although the story touches upon heavier themes such as drug addiction, I feel that its heft is supplied by too many internal thoughts and suppressed slights:

“When did chicken and fish become ‘protein’?” Prue said. “At the same time hair conditioner and gels became ‘product’?”

Her sister could be amusing. Her complaints were often bemused observations. What did Prue complain about, really? Prue, in spite of her childhood tendency to just give up difficult things if she didn’t see the end in sight, was funnier and a better observer than Nona. It had always been true.

Recently Enjoyed

February 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

It’s the evening of July 4th and the fireworks are blooming in sawtooth spirals, but the math is off, the spirals are uneven. We are mixing drinks in the living room. There are a whole pyramid of options, three of them spiked with MDMA—come play the American Roulette, we yell. God Save the Queen is the response from the balcony and we all laugh. We laugh until we bend and the corners of our ribcages are almost touching like a tunnel that’s caving in on itself. Soon we’ll be a complete circle of pale, snapped bones. Stonehenge of the body.

-Joy Clark, “Smoke Left Behind,” at Juked

“This can’t go on,” she said. “We need to sit down with the children,” she said. “We need to tell them something.”

Jenny wanted him to give some variation of the speech everyone else was apparently giving their children. She recited a version of it to him. She said, “We need to tell them something like ‘Mommy and Daddy aren’t living together because they don’t love each other anymore. But we both love you, very, very much. And we will always be here for you. That will never change.’”

He was silent. She’d asked him to leave, yes, she’d told him she was in love with someone else, yes, but she’d never come right out and said she didn’t love him anymore.

We’ll say something like that,” she said. “The children need to hear something like that.”

-Stephany Aulenback, “The Lot,” at Hobart

I was searching for something in every photo, in every update, in every public message someone had written him. I wanted a reason why he didn’t love me or want to be with me regularly. I needed a story to tell myself, to answer the why. I blamed my body. I was so much curvier than his previous girlfriends. I blamed my lack of experience. I’d only been with two other people prior to him and one of those people had been my husband. I blamed my lack of career aspirations. He owned his own furniture-building business too, although he spent most of the time working on his mother’s house down the road. This should have told me something about his lack of ambition, but I misconstrued it to mean he really cared about his mother, which was a good quality in a man, one that would supposedly predict how he would treat me.

-Amanda Miska, “The Online Stories We Tell,” a Saturday essay at The Rumpus

A Form That Accommodates the Mess

February 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

Samuel Beckett, dead some twenty-five years, is nonetheless giving inspiration from the grave in some of the unlikeliest places. First, there is MBecketTA, playwright John J. King’s Tumblr juxtaposing aptly chosen Beckett quotes with bleak photos of snow-crushed Boston. (Hat tip: Jenn Monroe.)

tumblr_njxix6Upu51uo6pr5o1_1280

If that isn’t enough, playwright Danny Thompson has put together a seamless and very believable film showing Beckett in the opening credits of a fictitious 70s-era cop show. (Hat tip: Clay Ventre.) As Ayun Halliday notes:

The title sequence hits all the right period notes, from the jazzy graphics to the presentation of its supporting cast: Andre the Giant, Jean Paul Sartre, and Jean “Huggy Bear” Cocteau. (Did you know that Beckett drove a young Andre the Giant to school in real life?)

To Resurrect a Mockingbird

February 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

What are we to make of the sudden news that Harper Lee will publish a pre-sequel, for lack of a better term, of To Kill a Mockingbird? The literary community appears to be responding to the news that Go Set a Watchman, a novel set in Maycomb, Alabama twenty years after the events of Mockingbird with Scout Finch as its protagonist, is due to be published this summer with a mixture of hopeful enthusiasm and understandable apprehension.

At Jezebel, Madeleine Davies offers fair warning that we should be suspicious:

Sadly, this news is not without controversy or complications. Harper Lee’s sister Alice Lee, who ferociously protected Harper Lee’s estate (and person) from unwanted outside attention as a lawyer and advocate for decades, passed away late last year, leaving the intensely private author (who herself is reportedly in ill health) vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart.

Harper Lee is 88 years old. When I saw her name pop up on my phone via a New York Times Breaking News alert, I feared that she had died. Her vision and hearing were both severely impaired by a stroke eight years ago, and Davies writes that Lee “often doesn’t understand the contracts that she signs.”

Mockingbird was supposedly written at the suggestion of an editor who read Go Set a Watchman and wanted to know what Scout and Jem Finch were like as children. Did Alice Lee know something about the contents of Watchman that made her wish to shelter it (but not Mockingbird) from the light of day? Did she fear it would harm the universality of the first book, or did she think that the second book just wasn’t any good? And can we trust that all aspects of authorial intent will continue to be respected if the book’s author is no longer of sound mind?

My hope is that, if Watchman is ultimately published, its editors leave the text alone. Let its assumed flaws as a young writer’s first novel remain in place, if only for the historical value. We might be surprised: the fact that Watchman was written before Mockingbird could suggest that there won’t be much of an emotional “distance” from the first book (Scout, you’ll recall, is already an adult when she narrates Mockingbird); the characters had not taken hold in the public consciousness as they have over the past six decades, and since Lee did not write the book with any kind of pressure, perhaps she would not have had the impulse to do anything contrived, loud, or forced to the narrative. At best, the two books could be part of a larger, more expansive twentieth-century portrait of a young woman growing up in the Deep South during the civil rights era. It will be strange to behold these characters sprung from the frame through which we have long regarded them, but I suspect that, even if Go Set a Watchman turns out to be awful, Atticus and Scout and Jem and Boo Radley will retain their cultural import, as humans seeking to live moral lives free of prejudice and pressure and fear.

Ray and Groucho

February 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

A young Ray Bradbury, already an established author (including of Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953), appears as one half of a contestant duo on You Bet Your Life, matching wits with Groucho Marx. (Link via Atticus Books.)

Make Model Airplanes

January 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

INTERVIEWER
You just laughed about something.

VONNEGUT
It was something dumb I remembered about high school. It doesn’t have anything to do with writing.

INTERVIEWER
You care to share it with us anyway?

VONNEGUT
Oh—I just remembered something that happened in a high-school course on civics, on how our government worked. The teacher asked each of us to stand up in turn and tell what we did after school. I was sitting in the back of the room, sitting next to a guy named J. T. Alburger. He later became an insurance man in Los Angeles. He died fairly recently. Anyway—he kept nudging me, urging me, daring me to tell the truth about what I did after school. He offered me five dollars to tell the truth. He wanted me to stand up and say, I make model airplanes and jerk off.

INTERVIEWER
I see.

-From “The Art of Fiction No. 64″ in The Paris Review
Kurt Vonnegut interviewed by David Hayman, David Michaelis, George Plimpton, Richard Rhodes
Issue 69, Spring 1977

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.