Archive for July, 2011

Don’t think of a white bear.

July 27, 2011

Reading The New Yorker, August 1 2011 issue.  Fiction: “Reverting to a Wild State” by Justin Torres.  Poetry: “Black Rhinoceros” by Edward Hirsch, “The Green Duck” by Sharon Olds, and “Dothead” by Amit Majmudar”

How does a writer of poetry or fiction evoke something out of nothing (nothing, that is, but words of text)?  Many writers use animals.  Readers have strong visual impressions of animals, and also strong cultural conceptions about animals.  So we see a lot of great literature filled with whales, with bears, with panthers and crows, with alligators and snakes, cats, wolves.

Color, too, seems to be a way to stamp something into the reader’s mind: many of American literature’s most famous objects of meaning–the white whale, the green light, the scarlet letter–just wouldn’t be so strong if they didn’t include a color (a big whale?  A bright light?  A knitted letter?).

How else can a writer imprint something (an image, sure, but perhaps also an idea, an emotion, a sense, even a turn of phrase) for a reader, to evoke something so strong that it lingers with the reader?


We watch things on screens.

July 22, 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 25 2011 issue.  Fiction: “Matinee” by Robert Coover.  Poetry: “On the Nature of Understanding” by Kay Ryan and “A Black History of the English-Speaking Peoples” by Daljit Nagra

Coover’s “Matinee” is really a quite elegant story.  It is a regressive stories within stories story, as various couples come together romantically and/or sexually, the hookup often connected to watching a movie, the couples often characters in the movies being watched.  At this point, a story like this is not easy to write well: even The Simpsons takes similar storytelling structures explicitly for comic purposes.  It is easy for a writer to try inject too much wit, and leave the story too aware of its own perceived cleverness.  Yet such a story has to be somewhat self-aware.  Coover achieves this quite well with smooth transitions, and he achieves aesthetic and thematic unity through the various forms.

Many of us have been immersed in fictional narratives and constructed images for our entire lives.  There may be something of a mess of our imaginations and our expectations.  A story like “Matinee” seems to get at that.

Volcanoes! Dinosaurs!

July 13, 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 11th & 18th 2011 issue.  Fiction: “Aphrodisiac” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.  Poetry: “Before Air-Conditioning” by Frederick Seidel and “Reconstruction” by Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn’s “Reconstruction” hints, through a simple anecdote of a friend sharing with the narrator theories about volcanoes and dinosaurs and extinction, at the smallness of humankind.  The topic of dinosaurs puts in the foreground the minimal significance of humankind in geologic time: volcanoes were erupting and dinosaurs thriving long before our existence.  If merely mentioning dinosaurs isn’t enough to ensmallen* humans, then the suggestion at the end that


wasn’t even a concept yet, or a word,

still eons away from 

a certain slithering and the likes of us.

Should make it clear.  What’s being talked about is a fascinating, complex, mysterious existence that precedes human consciousness by millions of years.

But it is not just humankind’s brevity in the face of the cosmos the poem suggests.  If all this was happening before humans had developed ideas, concepts, values, morals, anything suggesting the sometimes abstract concept of “forgiveness,” well, then just how meaningful is our concept of “forgiveness”?  Or any other idea we come up with?  Isn’t any abstraction empty when considering prehistoric volcanoes and dinosaurs?  If such exists without our attempts to create meaning, then what do our attempts to create meaning really matter?  And so this brief anecdote takes down practically all human effort of intellect.

Can it end there?  The world existed for eons without us, and our minds, such a source of pride, so cherished, that which makes us feel superior to every other creature that exists or ever has existed on this earth, can create nothing of meaning.  That should teach us some humility enough, but it doesn’t end there:

and scarcity and greed.  An old story,

he calls it, as if simply affirming a fact–

the dinosaurs, when it came to food,

never knew how much was too much,

and given the size of their brains

kept doing almost forgivable 

stupid things.

Am I reaching to see the suggestions of humankind’s eventual demise?  In discussing the extinction of the dinosaurs, is there a hint here at the extinction of humankind?  I don’t think it’s hard for an environmentally conscious person to see a parallel here: how we consume and waste, how we pollute and destroy, how we, through stupidity and greed, irrevocably change our planet so much that we may wreck its ability to sustain us.  So there’s the third minimization of humankind: just as our existence does not go eternally back to the beginning, it will not continue eternally into the future.  We will go away, perhaps sooner through our own actions.

Yes, a simple anecdote of a friend sharing ideas about volcanoes, dinosaurs, and extinction.  A simple anecdote that points to a common theme of literature: human beings ought not be so full of ourselves.

*the opposite of embiggen

As a personally optimistic person prone to anxiety and despair about the future, I probably ought not read much dystopian literature.

July 12, 2011

Reading Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

As somebody who has grown up with competition (as participant and spectator), I found it easy to engage with the Hunger Games as a game, as a contest of skill, strategy, and luck, to be played out for entertainment.  It is blood sport, but as a fictional blood sport with no real participants, no human beings are actually killed.  Reading about a game where fictional people kill each other to the fictional death is not terribly different than watching a game in which real people compete to a real but nonlethal outcome.  It’s a contrived contest for our amusement that is ultimately harmless: again, nobody was actually hurt during the playing of the made up Hunger Games, so there’s nothing disturbing in engaging with the book in this way.  The first person, present tense narration doesn’t put the reader in the view of the Panem audience, so Collins is not calling on the reader to judge himself/herself for voyeuristic enjoyment of the violent, exploitative contest (as a different narration form might: though the parallels are there, Collins doesn’t require us to think about how we watch reality television, or whether we enjoy watching football players risk serious brain injury for our sometimes quite serious but often casual pleasure).

But of course the book isn’t just about a game, but about the powerful maintaining control over the powerless, about inequality and exploitation, about injustice and the means of domination.  I’ll leave those topics aside for now, as hints point to these topics as a greater focus of future books in the series.  And there is the major theme of performance: how Katniss is constantly aware of how the audience perceives her actions (and must, for that has a direct impact on her chances of survival), how this constant need to perform confuses for the performer herself what is real feeling and what is for appearances.  I suspect this is something that at a conscious or unconscious level taps into adolescence: finding one’s “true identity” is so tied up in how others perceive one and how one wishes to be perceived by others that authenticity cannot help but to be blurred and confused, one’s own feelings difficult to grasp.

The book is full of action and suspense, the kind of reading I don’t encounter so much anymore.  Most of my reading now is slow and reflective, an engaging experience in a different form than the intense, feverish engagement that The Hunger Games gives.  I may need to take a break to read another type of book before diving into Book Two.  But maybe I won’t be able to.

How did I come to be reading this book?

My wife and I don’t always read for the same reasons, or in the same ways, or with the same tastes, but I suppose I should take her recommendations more often.