Space, Time, and Love

May 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

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It is a routine now: every Friday, near the end of the afternoon, I go to the Guardian web site to see the latest episode in Chris Ware’s graphic novel, The Last Saturday.

The series began last September, and as its opening panel wryly indicates, is meant to hearken back to the days of patiently waiting for serial comics (especially one “as inscrutable and patience-testing as this”) to come out in print on the weekends. In this age of binge-watching cable dramas, that investment in the unfolding of characters and events over time, the room to wander and wonder, is lost.

Ware’s work looks into the complicated shadows of modern households, the lonely, blank-faced folks who inhabit them. Even if you haven’t read any of his novels, look at his New Yorker covers. Even one of his happiest covers, the 2013 Mother’s Day edition: you get the day-to-day depth of that entire family in that one image, from the jackets hung on the rack to the coffee mugs matching the couple’s robes to the memos on the bulletin board.

Then there’s the October 11, 2010 cover, which folded out in a multi-panel comic.Set right in the middle of the recession: a couple with a young daughter sit at a counter, trying to work out which bills they are able to pay. (Unfortunately, there’s no good, readable image of the foldout online anywhere.) The daughter’s choice of toy—a cash register, with play money—hints at a wish to understand the source of the adults’ frustration, a need to simplify their entanglements in order to connect. As often happens, fear and pessimism breed rotten luck, distraction and carelessness (leaving the gas burner on, the quiet blue flame in the corner). The mother trips and falls. A doctor bill to come.

In The Last Saturday, we get to know six characters living in a neighborhood in Sandy Port, Michigan, in the 1970s. First, take in the details of the era: the suburban tract housing, the old brand designs (Kellogg’s Corn Pops, Prell shampoo), the cigarette smoking in public spaces. Putnam Gray is an only child. His father is in school, studying psychology; his mother works during the day. There is stress in the relationship, sourness: they are receiving financial support from her parents. At the corners lie clues to a darker cloud of discontent. Putman is supposed to be nine or so, but notice, in week 10, the high chair in the kitchen, where mail now piles up. A sibling recently lost?

The color palette changes as the seasons change. As arguments are heard over his head, through walls and floors, Putnam comforts himself with deep, imaginative questions about the space-time continuum and philosophical cause and effect (Weeks 1, 25, and 36 in particular). He befriends a new girl, Sandy Grains, who makes an effort to speak his odd language. But he is so comfortable with his invented scenarios that he struggles to treat her as a friend in the real world. He would rather remain convinced that he is in love with pretty snob Rosie Gentry, who ignores him. When Rosie insults Sandy, Putnam defends the wrong girl.

Ware is incredibly subtle with delivering outside-the-panel information. The adult conversations that take place over Putnam’s and Sandy’s heads, ominous like stratus clouds, literally fall off the panel’s edge. Week 7: Sandy and her mother meet Putnam and his father at the beach. (Where is Putnam’s mom?) Mrs. Grains is recently widowed. Mr. Gray is nicer to her than he is at any point to Putnam’s mother. Ware teases at misbehavior that wouldn’t be picked up by Putnam. Week 21: they flirt as he refills her wine glass. Week 34: a magazine in a doctor’s office with the headline “The Swingers Next Door.”

For how long will the story go on? I didn’t pick up The Last Saturday until about Week 22. Now I don’t want it to end. Snow comes down in Sandy Port. School is canceled. Putnam is seeing a psychologist. There is a sense, as in a Rick Moody novel, that some kind of crisis point lies on the horizon, or that Putnam, forever hamstrung by his passivity, will be tested with a chance to redeem himself, and realize that Rosie Gentry is not worth his time.

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.)

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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?)

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.)

The Value of Hurting Feelings

January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

It has been encouraging, in the week following a slaughter of people who utilize the pen to express ideas, to see the many ways in which people of the same tribe have taken up the pen as a means of healing. Among them, Lucille Clerc  (an image erroneously attributed to Banksy at one point) below:

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A very thoughtful piece about the responsibility of the artist comes from Joe Sacco at The Guardian.

The novelist Michel Houellebecq, depicted on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the week of the slaughters, is hiding in rural France. (My familiarity with his writing begins and ends with Les Particules Élémentaires; I didn’t love it enough to check out the rest of his stuff.) His publisher’s offices in Paris are under police protection. His new novel Soumission, out this week in France, “imagines France being ruled by a radical Muslim president after France and Europe ‘submit’ to Islam.” Houellebecq has made a living out of taking down sacred cows, and has not always done so with delicacy.

Love or hate the author, it can’t help but cut closer to the bone when the specific victims of a sick attack are those who make their livings through words and images. As one who has attempted to seek truth in art, I can attest that there can be value in going after the feelings of others—of the religious faithful, of the rich, of the poor, of parents and children, of artists and poets, of those in power, of the peasantry, of the good and the wicked, and those who protect us and those who serve us. I believe in the power of irony, mockery, and exaggeration, deployed at the right moments, as a means of directing our attention to our flawed human natures. We feel art by how we ache in response to it, by how it humiliates us, in all facets of the word. In that pursuit, however, everything that one says has a consequence, and it is the mutual acceptance of that which weights speech with a useful currency.

I think we are being harmfully reductive when we think of the act of depicting the prophet Mohammed as merely as slight or offense against the religion of Islam. It is, according to the Quran, a blasphemy; it is an attempt to distance the figure from the holiness attributed to the figure, and in this country I think it is fair to call such acts hate speech. Hate speech is still speech, but there is a responsibility to know whom you are targeting—in this case, an entire segment of the world—and what you expect from them.

I speak as one who is not religious, does not believe in God, but sees in others the fulfillment and sense of purpose religion can bring, and I feel those virtues are harmed when one attempts to stretch religion beyond the personal and into the political sphere. Religion ceases being about faith when it is used as a template for policing society—whether it’s about a Muslim’s disgust at infidels from the West or a Catholic protesting outside a Planned Parenthood. As others have pointed out, the actions of the terrorists were perhaps the swiftest way to get the rest of the world to see the images that enraged them, images they were otherwise unlikely to see. In that ironic way, it was demonstrated that a free society polices itself better than any zealot could.

On Networking, the Etiquette of Submitting, and Being a Good Literary Citizen

December 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

For writers, December runs hot and cold—a lot of rejection notices come in as the semester winds up, and a few acceptances, too. Everyone shares their end-of-year lists and nominations for prizes, like the Pushcart. I wasn’t nominated for anything this year, and I wasn’t expecting to be, but one editor did take the time to tell me that I was “a smidgen” away from making the cut for a Pushcart nod. Since it’s been a slow year otherwise, in terms of writing and publishing, it made me feel good for a few days, and I appreciated it.

A couple months ago, Roxane Gay, one of the most generous writers out there in terms of sharing advice to fellow writers, published a piece called “The Eight Questions Writers Should Ask Themselves” for the AWP site. The whole article is worth a read, but the first question, in particular, has stayed with me:

1.  Are you a good literary citizen?

I don’t want to be overly prescriptive but while writing matters most, how we move through the literary world also matters. Literary citizenship is certainly not being disingenuous, uncritical, or falsely affirming about everything you read and every writer you encounter.

Instead, literary citizenship can involve being a consumer as well as a producer of the written word. Subscribe to a literary magazine or two. Attend readings once in a while. Volunteer at a literary magazine. Do what you want, so long as you are doing something to contribute to the literary community, beyond simply offering your writing.

Don’t burn bridges you may want to cross in the future. The writing world is as small as it is big; most everyone is connected in some way. Again, this is not to suggest you should be disingenuous but you never know when seemingly casual connections will end up leading to professional opportunities to participate in a reading series, or read at a university, or teach at a writing workshop.

Good literary citizenship can also extend to how you comport yourself when participating in social networks. Are you relentless in promoting your own writing, sharing the same link more than two or three times? Do you send direct messages or private Facebook messages to strangers, promoting your latest project? Of course you should promote your work but take care in how you promote your work and consider sharing the good news about the writing of others, if you are so moved.

Mostly, literary citizenship is the importance of remembering that no one is alone in the writing world. Conduct yourself as such.

This has been on my mind lately as I make more friends and connections in the literary world. Social media tends to have a snowball effect when it comes to these things. I am connected to people—writers, editors, program directors—who don’t really know who I am, and I don’t really know them, but, as with any other field of interest, it is useful and rewarding to stay in touch with other practitioners, share ideas and frustrations about our choice of craft, and spread news about achievements and opportunities.

But it is not lost on me that many of the people with whom I interact can also give me something I want. I want to be read by them, be published by them, be promoted by them and invited to read with them. I want to be mentioned in the same conversations as them. There is a fine line that must be trod in how I interact with them. When I submit a story to a journal, and then share a link to another story published in that journal while my submission is being considered, or like news of an editor’s book deal, am I greasing the skids? Am I complicit in a fraud if that action is interpreted as such?

And if an acceptance or other opportunity were to come about from a journal I have promoted, or an editor whose work I have shared or liked, is it somehow less of an achievement if those interactions helped the editor or publisher to remember my name?

I haven’t been submitting much lately, mainly because I have only a handful of pieces that are ready to see the light of day. But I have been sharing links, reading up on other writers’ career milestones and new projects, liking and encouraging as a way of staying abreast of what others are doing. In one way it feels like a way to participate in the conversation of writing, for lack of anything of my own to contribute. And it is always great to know talented and creative people. Having them close at hand, and paying attention to how they conduct themselves, can be a bit of a tacit, poor-man’s mentorship. But there are also times when it feels as though I am exposing myself, because for all the energy I spend fostering  relationships with other writers I know I should be spending more on improving  my craft.

Earlier this week, one accomplished writer I follow and respect posted his list of favorite books of the year for The Millions’ Year in Reading, and the first commenter—anonymous, naturally—accused him of shilling for his friends. It was true, the writer admitted—a lot of the authors he mentioned were his friends. Some of them he had known for a while and others he had gotten to know only after enjoying their books. A few other commenters piled on, rather cruelly, accusing the writer of abusing his position as part of a circle-jerking enclave, which seemed to suggest a disdain not for the promotion of friends’ books but for the seeming impenetrability of that circle, a smugness among those who belonged to it, and the perception from outsiders that membership in that circle made it impossible to treat each other’s work with the same critical honesty expected in the writing community at large.

On the one hand, this kind of accusation doesn’t say much; in any business, even one purportedly transacting in merit, one establishes a coterie of people one trusts, and those are the people one is naturally eager to work with.

But I think there is also a responsibility to consider how things look from afar. The Internet gives writers a streaming, 24-hour opportunity to get their names in front of the people they seek to impress, and unlike the work of drafting, revising, critiquing and polishing, a lot of electronic networking takes place out in the open. We retweet, share, and like with no lack of awareness that we might be seen doing it and get paid back for it down the road. That’s only human nature. But it is also human nature to be cynical, and a writer who trumpets the work of another writer who has done that person a favor is going to appear disingenuous to some.

Community is a valuable thing. I am very grateful for the many friendships I have made in such a short time since I started sending my work out. But true friendship needs distance and honesty at times, and I wonder if the Internet has made the writing community too snug for its own good.

R.I.P. Doris Lessing

November 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

INTERVIEWER

Were you around a lot of storytelling as a child?

LESSING

No . . . the Africans told stories, but we weren’t allowed to mix with them. It was the worst part about being there. I mean I could have had the most marvelously rich experiences as a child. But it would have been inconceivable for a white child. Now I belong to something called a “Storytellers’ College” in England. About three years ago a group of people tried to revive storytelling as an art. It’s doing rather well. The hurdles were—I’m just a patron, I’ve been to some meetings—first that people turn up thinking that storytelling is telling jokes. So they have to be discouraged! Then others think that storytelling is like an encounter group. There’s always somebody who wants to tell about their personal experience, you know. But enormous numbers of real storytellers have been attracted. Some from Africa—from all over the place—people who are still traditional hereditary storytellers or people who are trying to revive it. And so, it’s going on. It’s alive and well. When you have storytelling sessions in London or anywhere, you get a pretty good audience. Which is quite astonishing when you think of what they could be doing instead—watching Dallas or something.

From The Art of Fiction #102, in The Paris Review 106, Spring 1988

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