Archive for June, 2011

Reading over a Lifetime

June 30, 2011

(as a regular feature, I break from whatever else I’m reading to read the fiction and poetry in The New Yorker, and write something–sometimes a brief tangent, sometimes something more full and formal–here).

Reading The New Yorker, July 4th, 2011 issue.  Fiction: “Homage to Hemingway” by Julian Barnes.  Poetry: “No Ideas but in Things” by Jessica Greenbaum and “The Circus Watcher” by Mary Jo Bang

In the delightful “Homage to Hemingway,” Julian Barnes writes an elegant story, exploring the art/life dialectic and what it means for readers and writers.  The homage to Hemingway is deep: explicit in content, structure, and theme (it is a better homage in that it doesn’t try to follow Hemingway’s prose style, which would come off as cheap parody).

Ernest Hemingway was The Big Writer for me at a formative time.  I was deeply immersed in his works, imbibing his style and themes.  As a younger man, I read his ouevre deeply and widely: as a young man, there may have been no writer I was more familiar with.  I connected to Hemingway in a meaningful way (through his works first and primarily rather than the personal mythology).

The last time I remember reading Hemingway was almost seven years ago.  This wasn’t a conscious abandonment: I had read most of what I wanted to read (For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, In Our Time, To Have and Have Not, The Garden of Eden, A Moveable Feast, many short stories), much of it more than once, and much of it with very distinct memory.  There were a lot of other things for me to read (personally and professionally), and I didn’t find myself compelled to return to this particular writer that I knew so well.  But years gone by without encountering the writer that I once thought the master?  That seems strange.

I don’t think, though, that Hemingway will be somebody that I only look back on as an important writer for Joe, 1997-2004, another particular cultural t0uchstone that marks a time but doesn’t imprint deeply.  I suspect I’ll return to Hemingway, maybe not now, maybe not soon, but someday.  I think Barnes’ protagonist is right when he says “People thought [Hemingway] was obsessed with male courage, with machismo and conjones.  They didn’t see that often his real subject was failure and weakness.”  That’s the sort of writer that I’m going to need to come back to, again and again.



Fear and Reading

June 28, 2011

(I’m starting a regular feature–I break from whatever else I’m reading to read the fiction and poetry in The New Yorker, and write something–sometimes a brief tangent, sometimes something more full and formal–here).

Reading The New Yorker, June 27, 2011 issue.  Fiction: Gravel” by Alice Munro.  Poetry: “Weather Report” by David Huddle and “From ‘The Split'” by Susan Wheeler.

I almost stopped reading Alice Munro’s “Gravel” partway through, but not for the reasons I suppose most people stop reading something partway through.  I can’t bear reading about children dying.  I avoid reading anything where that is the subject, and when I start reading something where that seems to be the subject I frequently just stop.  It’s not death itself that I cannot read about (my lit students might complain that we dwell a bit too much on the subject), and I don’t avoid thinking about my own death: it’s only the death of children that I can’t take reading about or thinking too much on.  I did finish this story, however, as I was deep into it before the subject became obvious, and because the style of the telling made it tolerable to read.

Is there some reason I should force myself to confront these realities through literature?  I can’t see how.  I know what I fear, I know what almost undoes me to think on too much, and I know what sorts of things exist in this world–I don’t see why reading about this subject is any sort of necessity for me.  It can do nothing but hurt to read about this subject, and while I’m not unwilling to hurt myself through reading, and can see reasons for the effort of hurting oneself through reading, on this one subject, I just don’t believe it’s worth it for me.

Innovation and its Limits

June 25, 2011

One of my favorite novels is John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  There was a time that what turned me on in this book was the metafictional flourishes: the 20th century narrator’s intrusions into a 19th century novel, the author writing himself into the book, the fireworks at the end.  But metafiction today is a bit played out: everything is meta.  Metafiction is mainstreamed in sitcoms, practically its own sitcom convention.  The metafiction of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is still spectacular, original and sharp.  But metafiction itself isn’t quite enough reason to get up in the morning.  I’m a bit tired of having to notice it.

So have I shifted away from my love of Fowles’ novel, treating that love as an artifact of my earlier self?  Heavens no!  The last two times I read the novel, it was other things that captivated me: the perfect pitch of the narrative voice, the humor, the perspicacity of Victorian England, the full command of the novel’s conventions, the beauty of the prose, the challenge of the philosophical explorations.  The metafiction, while quite bold when it appears, is actually a smallish part of the novel: whole long parts go on where a reader can become enraptured with the characters, plot, and setting, forgetting that Fowles is giving the game away.

Furthermore, the metafiction isn’t really for its own sake.  In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles uses metafiction to actually explore the literary form itself.  He is explicitly playing with the role of omnipotent narrator.  He confronts the reader and demands the reader confront his/her own assumptions, habits, and beliefs about reading and writing. The metafiction also works thematically into the existentialism of the novel.  It functions.

I’m not high on smashing conventions for the smashing’s sake.  I rather prefer to see a writer take command of conventions, then twist and shift and alter and innovate them in creative and interesting ways.  I find more pleasure in seeing literary forms pushed and pulled and stretched and squeezed and creatively altered than in seeing them smashed.  But whatever a work does against the conventions, there has to be something greater for a reader or critic to say about it than “It breaks conventions.”  If that’s it–if the primary praise for a work is the breaking–the work probably doesn’t have lasting power.  Come back to it, and it may feel as empty as a work that does little but follow conventions.  If the innovation is influential, it may even seem rather familiar: Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is really, really good, but read it after reading some Pinter or Stoppard, and it’s two more boobs on stage confusedly doing silly things while silliness happens around them.  The quality of Beckett’s work stands out, but for more than just smashing dramatic convention.

I’m not opposed to experimentation, of course, but the very nature of an experiment is that sometimes (quite often, actually), it fails.  Sometimes experimentalism reads as gimmick.  I noted previously that (though I liked his collection as a whole) I didn’t care for Matt Bell’s “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed,” a story told through the alphabetical form of an index.  The story is a gimmick story, and however artfully done, struggles to escape feeling gimmicky.  An experimental work needs to move me in some deeper way than to say “Hey, look at this experiment!”  But of course the failure rate of experimental literature is no argument against experimenting: things need to be tried.  Evolution works as a bunch of random mutations, many of which are worthless or worse, yet some of those mutations end up serving a species very, very well.  It is on the whole good that writers are willing to take risks–I just don’t want to be expected to admire the risk for its own sake.

When they were found at all, it was in tatters.

June 19, 2011

Reading Matt Bell’s How They Were Found

What do you want from a short story collection?  Moreso than a novel, a collection requires you to start and stop, to approach endings, reset yourself, and then again orient yourself into something new.  So do you want variety, shifts in style and subject?  Or do you think a collection should be something like a novel, with a unified aesthetic and consistency of vision?

Matt Bell’s How They Were Found is the latter type of collection.  The narrative voice doesn’t really change from story to story, and even as the subject matter changes, it really doesn’t.  It’s something like the bread and wine of communion: there are a lot of types of bread and different kinds of wine, but through communion these varieties bring the same body and blood of Christ.  That’s what How They Were Found is like: the stories differ, but don’t really vary. But don’t take that as a criticism: it is actually an impressive aesthetic achievement.  Immersing yourself into How They Were Found is something like immersing yourself into a novel: you are entirely taken into a unified vision, and aren’t really allowed to leave that vision until you are through (maybe not even then).

These are stories about something missing or lost, of characters not only searching for something, but trying to create the means by which to search for something (often but not always what is lost is family, or family member(s)).  And they are stories told by somebody who appears steeped in the plots, imagery, and themes of the horror genre, but also unwilling to follow easy conventions.  Many of these stories are quite horrifying, in a way that words like “scary” or “disturbing” aren’t quite enough (“Hold On To Your Vaccuum,” “Dredge,” and “Mantodea” certainly linger in their horror).  I found the early stories to be intentionally abstract: they seem grounded in a concretely imagined world, yet conveyed to the reader distantly, in foggy, hazy description.  As the book moves along, the stories really start to ground themselves in physical detail, particularly of filth and decay, of bodies destroyed and coming undone.  It is a collection consistent in its aesthetic and thematic worldview (“bleak,” I guess, if I’m going to diminish it with a word), stories that compliment each other and build together well.   Many of the stories on their own are quite good, but taken together How They Were Found is a well-planned work of art in itself (it ends sourly, though: “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed” is a tedious way to end an otherwise fine collection.  If I were editor, I’d be tempted to cut it entirely and finish with the very good “The Collectors,” which would be in many ways just the right way to end this book).

This is a book for adults who have outgrown the horror genre (as I feel I have.  I have kids: I have real shit to be terrified about, without needing reminders), but can still appreciate a writer that can work in shock and blood, that are still willing occasionally to follow somebody into the darkness, but also insist on bothering only with writers who bring seriousness and skill to their work.  But it’s not only for that type of reader, and I don’t think Bell is a writer for only that type of reader.

How did I come to be reading this book?

It was given to me by a friend, the writer Rob Kloss.  Rob’s book recommendations have never disappointed me (unlike his film recommendations *wink*).

The Ramsey Hill Experience

June 17, 2011

Much of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom takes place in the Ramsey Hill neighborhood of St. Paul, MN.  The Ramsey Hill neighborhood also holds many of the landmarks of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in St. Paul.  This makes for a nice efficient literary field trip: with great help from this website, we took an afternoon stroll to see where one great American novelist lived and roamed, and where another great American novelist’s made up characters lived and roamed.  Lets’ call it the Great American Novel By Which All Other Great American Novels Are Judged Plus The Newest The Great American Novel Tour.  We wanted to see where F. Scott Fitzgerald set his feet, where he might have looked out his window and said “It’s snowing: I’d better bring my hat.”  And we wanted to get a feel for the atmosphere of the world Walter and Patty Berglund inhabited.  If I had a well-read literature blog, I would have taken pictures of the places without people in them for the general interest.  But I have a little-read literature blog, so knowing people can see pictures of these places elsewhere, we do a tourist thing and put ourselves in the pictures, to solidify our memories of the places we’ve been and the good times we’ve had.

Here is our whole crew at the birthplace of F. Scott Fitzgerald at 481 Laurel.  A nice gentleman who lives there came out to chat with us about Fitzgerald, the house, and the neighborhood.

Here is The F. Scott Fitzgerald house at 599 Summit, where Fitzgerald lived as an adult and wrote his first novel.

Here is the Commodore Hotel, where Fitzgerald and Zelda lived.

This is W.A. Frost (on the corner of Selby and Western), the restaurant where Connie Monaghan worked in Freedom.  I ate there once: I had the broccoli raab and a very expensive martini.  Across the street is Garrison Keiller’s bookstore.

Here is the house at 516 Summit where novelist Sinclair Lewis lived for a bit.  Members of our walking tour have a pretty strong association with the author of Main Street through Sauk Centre, MN, the town most associated with Lewis.

And here’s a statue of young F. Scott Fitzgerald at 25 North Dale, a building that was once a school that F. Scott Fitzgerald attended.  The statue is on the right.

Among other things, we drove past Taste of Thailand on Selby (in Freedom, Walter and Lalitha have dinner with the Paulsens there: there are three locations for Taste of Thailand, though this seems the most likely one these made up characters dined at).  We ate food from this location once, when my wife accidentally called here for an order, went to the Taste of Thailand in our neighborhood, was told no, the order was at the Selby location, and you’ll have to go there to get your food.  We started making our own delicious stir fry at home, so we haven’t gotten Thai food in quite a while, but this is neither here nor there.   And after exploring Ramsey Hill, we drove through downtown St. Paul just to get a glance at the F. Scott Fitzgerald statue in Rice Park.

A pretty wonderful day of gaining a sense of concrete place in our lives of loving literature.

The New Yorker Fiction Issue

June 12, 2011

Not long ago, while talking to my wife and brother about The New Yorker, I said “I never read the fiction.”  They gave me identical looks of surprise, confusion, and horror, almost like Jack Torrence’s wife stumbling upon her husband’s typewriter.  This look inspired me to pick up some back issues (starting with the previous two fiction issues) and read the fiction.  Shockingly, I discovered that the fiction in The New Yorker is excellent (who knew?).  The fiction issues are particularly great, featuring prominent, superb writers.  I now believe that if you want to follow contemporary literature, at least enough to understand the conversations people have about it, you really just need to do two things: keep up with the reviews in The New York Times and read the fiction in The New Yorker.

It would be hard for this year’s fiction issue to live up to the last couple: the 2009 issue featured stories by Tea Obreht, Edna O’Brien, and Jonathan Franzen, and last year’s “20 under 40” issue featured a lot of great writing.

George Saunders’ “Home” immediately puts the reader into discomfort.  The narrator enters a familiar but terribly messy room, and he gets surprised by an eccentric stranger whose conversation is difficult.  The prose itself doesn’t allow the reader to relax: it is dialogue, back and forth, including the “__ said,” so that the reader can’t get comfortable in long stretches of prose, but rather tries to follow the sense of what people are saying.  Slowly the situation the narrator finds himself in is revealed to the reader, in ways both very funny and very sad.

You may think it a bit much to say that I read literature for the salvation of my immortal soul (and it probably is).  Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Asleep in the Lord” is a concretely grounded story about the complexities and real world difficulties of a religious search and a religious desire to do good and live well.  It has an almost dialogical, polyphonic feel, as a breadth of characters, some appearing very briefly, embody or express different angles of human and religious efforts and failings.

Lauren Groff’s “Above and Below” starts out with unpromising cliche, but that doesn’t last.  In cold, direct prose, Groff tells the story of a former graduate student/college professor who becomes homeless.  The detached narration makes the story all the more devastating: the unemotional prose puts the detailed focus on the concrete, physical, material life of a destitute woman.  That she roams around a college town, remembering her previous life with books and grammar (her few abstract thoughts focus on the new meaninglessness of those past concerns) is inspired: the grim life of the homeless, focused on food, shelter, and little else, contrasts against the complacent comforts of university life, a life the protagonist knows well.  It’s hard to read the story and not realize that this very act of reading a short story in The New Yorker is, in fact, pointless, a luxurious comfort that has nothing to do with hunger and cold.

The New Yorker fiction issue always makes it worth your while to put down whatever else you’ve been currently reading for a short bit.

The Corrections, Part Two: I can do this again and again!

June 6, 2011

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

I greatly admired and enjoyed The Corrections.  In that book, Franzen fully brings a reader into his characters: their personal and social histories, their internal lives, and the day-to-day material conditions of their external lives.  It is a funny work and a maximalist work: structured, but full and overflowing and darting in unexpected directions.  But it is very much personal, about the individuals of the Lambert family.

While reading Freedom, I found myself reading another drama of the personal and interpersonal, finding the references to politics and social ideas subordinate to that: as context, as the things people talk about, as background for this drama of individuals.  As the book goes on, however, it becomes impossible to see it that way: the book is too much about politics (politicians, political events, political maneuvering, political ideas), so it comes to seem that Freedom is the sort of book Jonathan Franzen writes when he sets out to write about 21st century American democracy.  It is not a political statement (if it were it would be a poor one, for there isn’t much terribly original in it as political observation), so much as exploration of the political through the personal (and vice versa).  How people live, what people believe, what motivates people: these are questions that are personal and political.  Indeed, what the book shows is how much the personal and political are meshed and get meshed up in individuals, how it is from the personal that the political springs from.  Ideas about personal motives that are not new–children developing selves as reactions against their parents (yet also becoming like their parents, repeating them, often unwittingly), competition in personal relationships–in Freedom are the source of one’s politics.

But it is a novel about people, and a moving, engaging one at that.  And here lies Franzen’s greatest skill as a novelist.  There are certainly better writers of sentences.  But Franzen’s ability to draw fully developed characters, to emerge them into relationships with each other, and to develop their shared history with depth and nuance and detail, is masterful.  Patty, Walter, and Richard have a rich and well-drawn history together: the novel’s structure allows the reader to follow this history, and the narrative voice allows the reader to experience the different characters’ perspectives on it (in hindsight, the sections of the book focused on Patty and Walter’s son Joey, while necessary thematically, don’t quite fit well into the structure of the book).  By the end of the novel, little moments between these characters are full with context and theme.

There is something that touched me deeply and personally in this book as well.  I read for a wide variety of reasons, not least among these reasons my own edification, inspiration, and education how to to live a better life and be a better human being.  When Walter works for the Cerulean Mountain Trust, he feels morally compromised even in his sincere efforts to do good.  He feels hemmed in by the structural limitations.  And yet, ultimately, he doesn’t quietly acquiesce.  He doesn’t settle for doing little bits of good within a corrupted system.  He ultimately doesn’t even try to preserve his ideal within this compromised structure.  He breaks down, lashes out, and takes a stand.  He risks (and loses) his personal position in order to express his anger, to try and return to his ideal and shuck off the damaging compromises he’s had to make (again, the personal and the political mesh: he only does this after personal turmoil shakes his world).  Like Walter, I have strong ideals, and I share Walter’s anger and (moreso) his despair.  But I, too, have made compromises.  There is a great deal I’ve passively accepted, actions I’ve ducked for all sorts of reasons.  Can I have the courage to risk, or to knowingly sacrifice, for integrity, for righteousness?  Would I be willing to do what Walter did?  Will I be able to someday?  There’s something in my religion that demands I be able to do so, and makes me guilty when I am unable to do so.  Reading literature is, for me, a spiritual experience.  There’s something in Freedom that calls to me, telling me to live better.

How did I come to be reading this book?

I had read The Corrections, and I read Franzen’s short story “Good Neighbors” in The New Yorker (afterward learning it was the excerpted first chapter of Freedom, a book I knew I’d read eventually anyway).  But I wouldn’t have read the book now if my brother Jerod did anything other than read Franzen and rave about Franzen (he gave me the book for my birthday).

Reading Franzen, I’ve realized how much I’m drawn to literature about parent-child relationships (my own lit syllabus is drenched in the theme: Shakespeare’s King Lear, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Lahiri’s The Namesake, and it goes on).  I suppose it is the closest thing to a universal theme as is possible to explore in literature (other than death, another subject filling my syllabus).

And I’m kidding about the title of this post.