Nov 292009

I was first exposed to God’s Little Acre in a graduate seminar, and I’ve been fascinated by this novel ever since. Caldwell operates on a number of levels within his prose using a variety of techniques that I admire. Currently I’m working on a novel and find myself picking up Caldwell, dipping in here and there, thinking about how it is put together. One technique that strikes me is Caldwell’s repeated invocation of an image that’s woven into expository material, altered slightly each time, and then fully articulated at the climax of that particular narrative thread. It’s as though the author starts by piling up individual tiles for smaller mosaics while working towards an idea that will thematically dominate the end of the work.

The reader is given access to the thoughts of Will Thompson, as he fantasizes about the mill he worked for and other mills in the area. An example of one of his daydreams comes shortly after the character is introduced:

He remembered the when the mill down below was running night and day. The men who worked in the mill looked tired and worn, but the girls were in love with the looms and the spindles and the flying lint. The wild-eyed girls on the inside of the ivy-walled mill looked like potted plants in bloom (69).

Variations on this thought can be found running through the prose like a slender thread for the entirety of the book in ways that are significant but not overstated. This is a subtle technique that’s difficult to pull off successfully. In effect, Caldwell is able to present the reader with a poignant symbol for the novel’s political agenda while developing Will’s character and imbuing him with a kind of supernatural aura. One could pick apart the significance of these fantasies for symbols and/or tropes: gender, labor, class, etc; all of these things are present and relevant; however, I am much less interested in why Caldwell places it here much more eager to figure out how he pulled it off.

It could have gone horribly wrong. Each lapse into poetic language might stick out drawing attention to itself. The reason it doesn’t is that Will is established as thinking in these terms almost immediately, so it seems natural for him to do so. He is the only character to think in such a manner, and for that reason alone he stands out. The other characters operate on a much more subsidiary level: Ty Ty has no vision for his land beyond his delusions of hitting the mother lode; the family, and extended family living with him, follow the patriarch with little thought for anything besides immediate sexual urges as well as vague longings for something beyond the farm that they are unable to articulate. This is one of the reasons Will’s visions are both haunting and significant without being distracting, as they are often woven into expository material. He will often think of the mill, the working girls, or the ivy-walls in sections where the fantasy is not fully realized. Other times, he will have tiny bursts of thought that stem from seemingly unrelated topics. This technique is a kind of endless refrain that inhabits the reader’s subconscious with the symbols the author wants to get across while not doing so in a fashion that is so overt that the reader is sickened by what they may read as polemic.

I’m interested in using this in my own fiction and see Caldwell’s work as a case study of its success. I think part of the trick is to use language that’s as specific and lyrical as it is ambiguous; language that inhabits the prose in an organic and germane manner yet alludes to greater themes without beating the reader over the head. It is all so simple and straightforward in theory. Isn’t that always the case? I’ll probably blog about GLA more in the future as this is a rich text for a fledgling novelist, and I find myself turning to it quite frequently.

Oct 302009

I am fascinated by immigrant narratives. Not so much because I’m taken with the experience of migration, but because I am interested in the ways in which a writer can utilize common events, framed by cultural alienation and poverty, as points of extreme tension within a story. It is quite common for such narratives to linger in the leanest of times, and abruptly terminate once the characters begin to assimilate. In Natasha, David Bezmozgis does not make that move. Instead, the last two stories in this collection, which sparkle alongside the others, explore what is at stake for those who have relived the financial stressors and now grapple with the repercussions of what it means to have assimilated, all while attempting to locate what is left of one’s identity.

Bezmozgis loads each sentence with information, and interesting details that are performing a number of functions at once. This is the kind of prose that makes short stories hum. A lot of this book consists of expository material, and this can be a dangerous thing as the reader may become bogged down in a morass of prose that neither advances plot nor develops character. Bezmozgis is smart about writing his exposition and skillfully weaves in the details that delight and interest the reader while constantly revealing more about the characters and complicating them. Add to that a talent for knowing when to insert dry, deadpan dialogue, and the story crackles right along.

It is rare for me to come across a collection that I feel is strong across the board. Natasha is a book of stories that is fully unified: thematically, stylistically, and structurally. In fact, one of the reasons this book works so well is that while Bezmozgis calls this a collection of stories, it is effectively structured as a novel. The stories are always told in first person, by the character of Mark Berman, and the narrative follows him through different periods of his life in a linear fashion. So, in the first three chapters, we follow along, as the Berman family struggles to survive and is assimilated into their newly adopted culture. In the final two chapters, we see them financially established in a middle class life, and the focus shifts to the agony and awkwardness that comes with growing up. It is in these middle passages that the protagonist is struggling with the immigrant paradox. He wants to retain some of his religious and cultural heritage but is simultaneously trying to fit in. One of my favorite passages illustrating this point occurs when the protagonist brings Natasha, his newly arrived fourteen-year-old cousin, over to meet his drug dealer, and intellectual mentor, Rufus:

I noticed Rufus looking at her.

– Did I mention she was fourteen?
– My interest, I assure you, is purely anthropological.
– The anthropology of jailbait.
– She’s an intense little chick.
– She’s Russian. We’re born intense.
– With all due respect, Bermen, you and her aren’t even the same species (90).

As a young man trying to fit in, Mark wants to mask or obliterate his Jewish and Russian identity. Later, as he matures, Mark comes to understand that they are things which he will have to fight to keep alive if he is to maintain any kind of comprehension of where he came from. Natasha is a strange symbol of his homeland, and the stark contrast between Russian and Canadian reality, as well as that of the working and middle class. As soon as they meet, Natasha initiates sexual interest and activity with Mark. He is woefully ill equipped to understand the implications of such a relationship. Mark is sixteen, chronologically older, but Natasha has been involved with prostitution, and pornography since the age of twelve; subsequently, she possesses the jaded maturity of a woman in her late thirties. All of this comes to a head when Natasha runs away from home and finds herself on the street. She becomes angered when the Mark does not react in a decisive or mature fashion to her plight. Of course, the character of Mark Bermen is hardly capable of grasping what she has been through or what it has done to mature her. For her part, Natasha can only see Mark’s inability to act as a kind of betrayal, and neither character can grasp the others mental or emotional state.

Of course, by naming Natasha a collection of stories, the author is free from the burden of unifying the piece in a seamless fashion. But I feel as though this book approximately accomplishes this in its dealing with complex themes that evolve and mature with the protagonist. For example, Bezmozgis utilizes the “Natasha” chapter to mature the protagonist in such an alarming and organic way that the reader does not feel as though there are large gaps when the stories move from the mid eighties, to the nineties, and beyond. After Natasha, it seems that Mark realizes his identity as a Russian is something that he has little hope of ever really sustaining in a meaningful fashion; the text is ambiguous about what kind of cultural connections he will maintain going forward. However, the character clearly falls back on religious tradition, and the Jewish tradition is one that is long accustomed to being in a state of diaspora. In the end, it is interesting that the author gestures towards a return to religion as a means of maintaining identity; though Bezmozgis complicates this return by demonstrating religion will have similar concerns as it grapples with cultural shifts in what is morally acceptable.

Sep 052009

When talking about my favorite science fiction, Philip K. Dick’s, Do Androids Dream of Electric sheep? always enters the conversation. But before now, I never gave much thought as to what makes this novel work or looked carefully at how it is constructed. All things being equal, it’s an awkward piece of fiction: the plot contains at least one major hole, and the prose is replete with the kind of adverb abuse that sends me right up a wall. But, when a reader basks in the glow of P.K.D’s brilliant conceit(s), one realizes all things are not equal, and these complaints become trivial missteps.

That said, there are moments in this story that have always bothered me. The central problem I have with this novel occurs when Dekard goes to retire Luba Luft, and is arrested by a beat cop as a murderer. Approximately one third of the way into the story, the protagonist discovers an alternate police department that is not only crawling with androids but is run by an android who employs a human bounty hunter. The idea itself is clever and may cause the reader to doubt Dekard’s sanity. This could have been a nice turn in the plot but soon reveals itself to be a flaw. Once Dekard and Resch escape to retire Luft, a few sentences could have wrapped up the prior events in short order: the stations existence explained, Dekard’s boss saying something about an investigation, anything really; anything would be better than moving forward as if it had never happened. Instead, the alternate department is never brought up again even in passing. When the entire novel is predicated upon Dekard hunting a few escaped androids, and a police station full of them is not worthy of a few moments, I tend to get irritated. With a lesser author it would be unforgivable as would the sentences that get pushed along: relentlessly, jarringly, clumsily, awkwardly, and…well you get the picture.

Setting aside the glut of adverbs, on a sentence level Philip K. Dick is a competent writer. He writes with straight ahead prose and little flourish; this almost gives Androids Dream a hardboiled feel. The violence is delivered in a matter of fact manner that echo the mean streets evoked by Daly and Hammet. Considering the amount of alien concepts that the reader will be forced to process over the course of the novel, a narrative style that spares the reader both sentimentality and melodrama is one of the keys to success.

In the end, it is of course the ideas that drive this story. In the introduction to the Del Rey Edition of Androids Dream, Roger Zelanzy ponders a comparison of P.K.D to Pirandello, but then chucks the idea because Pirandello’s “triumph [was] of technique over convention, possessed of but one basic message no matter what was fed into the chopper” (vii). In contrast, P.K.D’S triumph exists as a series of brilliant metaphors that, while individually sound, are brought together to articulate a unified, original concept and theme. Greater minds than mine have written at length about the genius of Androids Dream, and his other work, so I will not trouble you with my feeble musings. However, I would say that anyone interested in writing SF would do well to study the way in which P.K.D delivers the information in his stories.

To have ideas, even great ones, drive fiction, it is imperative that one find a way to have them do two things: occur organically to the world the writer has created, and then feed the new information to the reader in such a way that the description does not disrupt the narrative. It is called “info dumping,” and not many writers can use expository tactics to weave information into a story with skill of P.K.D. A good example of the author’s genius in this department comes in the form of “kipple.” The Earth has been abandoned by most of its inhabitants, but they left behind empty buildings overflowing with the stuff they have left behind. In the beginning of Androids Dream, we are told that silence of the buildings drives Dekard’s wife Iran into deep depressions; not long after, the “special” Isadore is introduced along with the ruinous cacophony of silence:

He lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabited apartments, which like all of its counterparts, fell, day by day, into greater entropic ruin. Eventually everything within the building would merge, would be faceless and identical, mere pudding-like kipple piled to the ceiling of each apartment. And after that, the uncared-for building itself would settle into shapelessness, buried under the ubiquity of dust (20).

What works here is that kipple is both invented, introduced, and explained with an economy of language, allowing the story to continue to move along at a nice clip. The concept of kipple is as brilliant as it is subtle. For the rest of the novel, P.K.D. is able to weave in the imaginary byproduct of dead/offworld consumers, causing the reader to be viscerally aware of their absence. So, It works to amplify one of the themes of the story while providing a unique tone for the hopeless and abandoned setting. By properly explaining kipple, the author can move ahead with a story that is packed with action, meaning, and stark tragedy.

In the end, the sum of Philip K. Dick’s ideas are greater than all the hiccups and wild gesticulations that occur in their delivery. Going forward, there are not many SF writers that remain on my must-read list. But for raw, speculative genius, and generally good storytelling that make reading the genre enjoyable, P.K.D certainly abides as a master.

Aug 272009

I read Miranda July’s collection of short stories entitled No One Belongs Here More Than You with a growing sense of excitement at having discovered a writer who presents things in a startlingly unexpected and fresh manner. This collection is a series of stories that are both touching and strange, related in a stripped down style, and an almost ethereal voice. To be honest, I think the term “almost ethereal” is the probably exactly the wrong one to describe her voice. OK it verges on a copout – but it shall stand for lack of a better one. July is very good at finding the weirdest angles to look at ordinary things. In this work, the majority of the stories seem to come from different female identities that share some twisted quirks. Perhaps the book might have been more effective had it been unified by one reoccurring character, but that is not the case. In fact, one of the stories is told from the PoV of a middle-aged man. But, all of the female narrators relate the story from the first person, and most of them seem to be quite lonely and sad for similar reasons. However, this lack of unity to a reoccurring theme was only a minor distraction. Instead, what really got my attention was the way which July’s stories took rather strange turns and how she made them work.

Of course, it is important (to me anyway) that fiction go in weird and unexpected directions. After all, in the span of their life almost everyone has or will break up with someone, be lonely, feel alienated, etc. The trick to great fiction is its ability to look at these mundane occurrences in a different way. In July’s case, she succeeds with this tactic by allowing the reader to inhabit the PoV of a narrator who is completely fearless in her honesty yet often paralyzed by the thought of taking action within the story. Commonly, the state of limbo that July’s characters relate provides some of the strongest moments of tension. This strategy is neither earth shattering or original. What is original is July’s ability to weave in details of a character’s odd habits or socially taboo urges, while carrying on without taking the time to comment as if it were completely natural – which of course it is.

One of the most difficult things a writer can do is to find honest responses that will resonate viscerally with the reader. If July is anything, she is brutally honest regarding some of her character’s most basic urges, and the fact that she refuses to dwell upon the very thing that makes the reader take pause makes odd moments all the more effective. For example, one protagonist shares a patio with her neighbors. She keeps a calendar as to when she or her neighbors use it, going so far as to mark down the times she uses it and times she sees it being used in an attempt to use her perceived share of the space. This is something anyone might do, yet few people would admit to it or even admit to fantasizing about doing it. The reoccurring female protagonist with different names is constantly coveting other people’s lives and living a bizarre alternate reality that the other characters seem to be blissfully unaware of.

Other times, July sets up scenarios that seem impossible at first blush, and then imbues them with so much concrete detail that one starts to believe they could occur. For example, one character teaches her octogenarian neighbors to swim on her kitchen floor. Yes, the idea is ridiculous, but soon you are chuckling, and then out of nowhere it all makes you terribly sad. She will make you sad too, and if you say you are not sad then you are lying or have not lived enough to know you should be sad. The sadness is not sentimental, or romantic. It is a kind of cultural sadness that seems to be in the air in the 21st century. The kind you laugh off all the time, only to have it come back to haunt you at odd moments. To be honest, I am not sure I want to read anymore of July’s work. The book that now resides on my shelf will remain a constant source of interest and inspiration for quite a while. I fear if I move on to some other work, she will let me down. Frankly, I am content right here.

Jul 292009

Though someone with a limited view of the world might call it procrastination, I have elected to begin the long process of organizing my library. This is kind of a weird project to take on right now seeing as I have a complete manuscript on my hard drive, give or take a few chapters. This manuscript needs to be completely revised: front to back. However, I see the inventory of my book collection as part of the writing process.

Approximately ten years ago, I went back to school with some vague notion of trying things on for size. I enjoyed playing MMOs and had the idea of becoming a programmer. A business project I was involved in started to wind down, and I found that school was fun. Long story short, I did not have the math skills to be a programmer but did reasonably well in English courses. Soon, I discovered that the process of reading books and then writing about them was not only fun but an academic discipline. While excited about becoming an English major, I felt embarrassed by the gaps in my reading. Right away, I set about reading things that other people thought were important along with things that were fun.

This has evolved into my current strategy of setting aside three books to be read: fiction, theory, and nonfiction. Out of the fiction books, I try to throw a classic in the mix every now and then. Like, I am reading Delillo’s Underworld right now and have a copy of Paradise Lost on the way. The whole theory/nonfiction thing is really a blurry line – The Federalist Papers is my next theory read, and some kind of historical account will be consumed in the name of ‘nonfiction.’ Anyway, the point is that I read things besides fiction to help provide significant details in my own work: philosophy, essays, etc.

The strategy itself, as well as my expanding library, grew directly out of my experience of going back to school. While pursuing a degree, I was required to read for courses but made it a goal to be sure to read outside of class in order to catch up. Now, I am not reading to please anyone else besides myself. I like the feeling of getting through something really difficult or understanding someone’s argument. School provided me with some of the tools to become a more engaged reader, and I continue to learn how to read slower and more carefully. In addition, the more I learn about syntax and constructing stories, the more I learn from the books I now read and reread. On that point, I would say that is one of the things I am looking forward to in the indexing process. Cutting back on purchases would be smart as there are a number of things that warrant rereading and a whole slew of titles I have not yet glanced at.

So yes, I have novels to write and literature  to read, but not knowing what’s in my collection, or where it’s at, is really getting on my nerves. Cataloging what I have, and where it entered my life, will both allow me to chart my current progress as well as expose the massive gaps that remain. After all, there are a lot of books to read.

Jul 222009

Recently, I reread Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin because I’m interested in dismantling some of her work to see what makes it tick. While Atwood clearly addresses political issues, she’s never done so at the expense of the story. For the record, I’ve read three of her novels: The Blind Assassin, The Handmaids Tale, and Oryx and Crake. So, anything and everything I talk about is based upon knowing only these books.

Regarding structure, I’ve noticed that Atwood is quite consistent with two strategies: she withholds critical information about the plot, stringing the reader along for the payoff; and most chapters operate like a pseudo short story where there’s a set up, detailed exposition, finishing with an emotional punch. I hasten to say that Atwood’s writing is not formulaic, but it’s clear she often follows a similar pattern when moving the story from point A to B.

Atwood often favors telling a story by utilizing the first person PoV of a character that’s obtuse and complicit, and or, passive up to the very end. For example, in Blind Assassin: Iris allows herself to be married off without any kind of protest, doesn’t work to subvert the marriage, states she’s unaware her sister’s being molested, is unaware her sister ‘s having an affair, etc. The story’s a retrospective of all the things Iris is blind to, pun intended. This is an interesting move because all of Atwood’s stories represent the world as a bleak and oppressive patriarchy where females lack agency. Of course, Iris does take actions, but they are vengeful, spiteful, and all of her victories are Pyrrhic. In fact, the very act of writing the book may be futile, as Iris reveals all kinds of family secrets, and it’s not clear if she makes it out of the garden alive to stash the manuscript before Myrna gets to a burn it.

For the most part, I think that if I told “Joe/Jane Reader” about the kind of character Atwood uses as the protagonist up front, they’d most likely tell decline to hear the story. And who could blame them? But her method works. It works because the world Atwood’s characters operate in is as strange, and detailed as it is fascinatingly dark: she delivers descriptions of beautiful train wrecks in slow motion while withholding the worst of the wreckage and injuries until the last few chapters. By the time you realize the protagonist isn’t the hero, you’ll have been seduced into reading a relentless and intricate tragedy of a story.

For me, this works every time.

Jul 182009

Once, in a graduate seminar, I made a comment about authors who had a political agenda but told the story first while avoiding being preachy or didactic. When pressed for the name of such an author I responded with Margaret Atwood. The professor laughed at me, rolled his eyes, and moved to another point of discussion. I have always defended Atwood as someone with a stated agenda that writes complex work until I read The Year of the Flood. The novel beat me about the head with environmental issues from the first page to the last. No, while this is a very good story that I devoured in the course of a day, it shamelessly pushes a rather one note agenda that I found tedious.

Well then, why the hell is this such a compelling story? This book is well built and built for speed, and the story itself is action packed. However, as a writer the two things that I really noticed were Atwood’s ability to maintain tension when the reader effectively knows the outcome of the novel and her switching both the point of view as well as the tense between the novel’s two main characters.

Maintaining the tension with The Flood was a neat trick because the story’s time line runs parallel to Oryx and Crake. Presuming the reader has read the author’s prior book, the standard tactic of withholding information can only work so long. At the beginning of the novel, the reader knows two of God’s Gardeners are alive, each one in a different sort of trouble: Ren is stuck inside of a quarantine area of a sex club while Toby is holed up in a day spa. Each character has their own survival concerns, neither knows the other is alive or the whereabouts of the rest of the cult. So, by flashing backwards and forwards through time, the reader grows to care about the dangerous limbo states while simultaneously wondering what happened to all the secondary characters. Atwood is brilliant in the way she feeds the reader just enough information to maintain suspense while holding out on answers until near the conclusion. The shifts in time were also handled quite well; by the time one reaches the last section of the novel, they are well informed of why these two characters are in their present states and what is at stake for them to survive and find the rest of the community.

The choices Atwood made in terms of point of view worked quite well. The novel is told from two different female characters perspectives: Toby, perseverant and tough, is presented in third person limited, present tense while Brenda, passive and immature, relates her story through first person, past tense. Presenting Toby in the present tense works well because she is a no-nonsense, live-in-the-present, character. Therefore the narrative coming from Toby in this way seems organic and her perspective on things is reliable. In contrast, Ren’s story works from that particular PoV because she is rather self involved and comes across as weak when placed next to Toby. In fact, Ren is a pretty tough cookie, and to be fair almost any character will look weak next to Toby.

The point of view shifts were not jarring. They occur closer and closer together as the novel reaches its climax. The shifts themselves form a kind of structure where the novel’s sections often start with a fragment of ‘present’ post apocalyptic tension, Brenda is running out of food and Toby is being terrorized by the Pigoons, and then look backward in time to give you the story of God’s Gardener’s and the corporate wasteland they survive in.

While I enjoyed The Flood, I would call it a post apocalyptic page turner. Like, I get it. I understand the worldview: human beings suck, we are destroying the planet, and we live in a patriarchy where every woman is mere seconds from being raped/and or oppressed in some way shape or form. Atwood sees a future so bleak that the reader is cheering on a mega plague. There is not much else to say about this narrative besides it’s a war cry for the environment and rails against the evils of corporate capitalism. The world evoked is a kind of high technology dark ages where the last best of hope of humans is that they eradicate themselves before they destroy the planet. Margaret Atwood has amazing talent with the written word. Aside from the awful hymns (I thought they were written poorly with intent until I saw one could purchase a CD of them) the book is well written throughout. Also, there are shifts in language that occur that are really quite remarkable. Atwood has an enviable understanding of when to linger on a description, when to move on, and what kind of sentence will accomplish each task best.

Good book. Preachy as hell but good.

Jun 242009

I tend to gravitate towards all topics gritty and weird. I’m quite comfortable if that causes you to judge me; for the record, I’m not sure your tastes can be trusted either. Anyway, my idea was to read James Frey’s, A Million Little Pieces, and Denis Johnson’s, Jesus’ Son, back-to-back, and then compare the two. I had some vague notion it would be interesting to compare nonfiction to fiction and all that. Well, the concept turned out to be a drag for a number of reasons not worthy of mention. Suffice to say, others have flayed, crucified, and incinerated Mr. Frey with much more skill and insight than my humble efforts would ever yield.

However cliché Little Pieces might be, I found it entertaining. I started to write some thoughts down and pecked out a few hundred words. Only then, I found John Dolan’s articulate evisceration and thought “why bother.” My reaction to Frey was not nearly as rabid as Dolan’s, but his extended rant on what’s wrong with the book is much funnier than mine could ever be.

In the twenty-first century, books about addiction and substance abuse hardly howl from the margins of society. After Burroughs, Selby, Bukowski, Thompson, and…And…realizing just how long this list could go, I’ll end with Dr. Thompson. But yes, after all that, it is hard to not squint one eye when surveying yet another book, or even a short story, about drug use.

That said, you’d be hard pressed to find an anthology of contemporary short fiction that did not contain Denis Johnson’s “Emergency.” By the way, I have no statistical proof to back up this claim; if some clever jerk decides to go out and actually do the math, my position is clear. Regardless, the story is ubiquitous, yet somehow I managed to not read the entire collection it came from, Jesus’ Son, until this year. Johnson’s collection is all about getting high, being high and all the nutso things one does while high that seems to make good sense at the time. The book has gritty weirdness in spades. One of the central forces of style in play is that insane actions are reported in a deadpan tone as though they were perfectly normal. Of course they are not normal, but the protagonist is nearly always blasted on some kind of chemical, or recovering from one. So, because all the stories are told in first person, the ongoing psychic reality is going to be one that is insane. For example, at the end of the first story, the protagonist hallucinates a box of cotton balls screaming in pain just before a nurse administers an injection that will knock him out. With this move, Johnson lets the reader know that the protagonist is quite aware of just how sick he is. Once that self awareness has been established, the reader should understand the protagonist as someone who will deliver a story as truthfully as a substance abuser is able.

Johnson’s perspective and style of narrating the insanity of addiction is unique. Quirky. He manages to find interesting images and situations that cause me to laugh while cringing. One of many challenges that writing presents me is finding fresh ways of approaching events, images, and dialogue. My early drafts, and many of my later ones, are full of interesting moments that are riddled with clichés. For me, the clichés are often clumsy placeholders. The trick is to then go back and look for a fresh(er) way to relate that moment. So, a specific reason I see Johnson as successful is that he finds new angles to look ugliness of addiction without being didactic, preachy, or cliché. Nor does he romanticize use or users. On the other hand, there really are some remarkably interesting and beautiful images evoked in this collection that are related through a prose style that has a raw, elegant quality to it. While reading this collection, I felt as though Johnson was relating his truth through fiction in a way that made the idea of a memoir irrelevant.

Of course, as someone who writes fiction, I am biased. I freely admit that I think the whole idea of nonfictional narratives is one that is fatally flawed. Like, if a writer is working with their memory as some kind of Oulipo restriction that involves intent, then I can dig it. But if they take themselves seriously as someone who is writing a ‘truer’ version of things, well, I can’t see that as anything besides wishful thinking.

I’ve yet to read Johnson’s novel, Tree of Smoke. But, after finishing Jesus’ Son, I’d be willing to drop a couple of bucks on it.

Jun 182009

Upon finishing the novel Platform, I felt as though Michel Houellebecq could have written a great book. Instead, he wrote a mediocre book containing flashes of brilliance. To be sure, he was getting at all the right issues when exploring the novel’s central theme of sexual tourism: the economic reality of the phenomenon; the culture of global capitalism; the impotence of service economies; the cultural fallout/repercussions of global, western corporatism; and the melancholic irony of failed communist states that now tacitly commodify its citizens. Yes – I could add more to that list; and to my mind, almost any serious attempt at exploring those issues would at least make a novel worth the effort to read and evaluate. If I were a postmodernist scholar, Platform would provide fertile soil for quite a few conference papers. However, I am a merely a fiction writer; one who toils at becoming better at my craft. That is the lens I read through. Therefore, I want to talk about where/why this book succeeds and fails.

For me, one of the most irritating things that can occur in a novel, is for it to start out resoundingly good then take a dramatically wrong turn. In contrast, if my expectations are low then I will take such turns in stride. It is when I know that the author can do better that I get pissed off. Sadly, the first five chapters of this novel are seared into my memory as being good. In fact, they are bone jarringly good, which makes later disappointments that much harder to swallow. Houellebecq starts out delivering a first person narrative that is as honest as it is relentless; shoving the reader’s face right into ugly, contemporary issues without being didactic. The beginning of this narrative is both fearless and insightful. The reader looks at the world through the eyes of the protagonist Michel: an unapologetic sexual tourist. Houellebecq does not squander the opportunity of utilizing a self-aware, intelligent character who reflects upon issues in a disinterested fashion even as he moves through life as a kind of sexual zombie. The first three chapters gave me a lot to think about. Early on, Houellebecq has a number of voices sounding off in the debate, as he mercilessly lampoons bourgeois, European, tourists and tour-culture. The first section is darkly comic, and beautifully written. Then, out of the blue, Houellebecq begins the sixth chapter with unexplained exposition that reads as a sort of half assed third person omniscient PoV coming from Michel’s future girlfriend Valerié. The reader is given intimate details about Valerié’s early sexual experiences in a clumsy and gratuitous fashion that completely undermines the credibility the author has worked so hard to earn. This is not a minor disruption. Houellebecq switches perspective without telling the reader how or why it occurs. The author could have done any of a number of things to provide a transition for the reader: he might have created a pseudo-meta-moment where he alludes to the fact this is a book being written in retrospect before his suicide; or simply say that he later discovered the details of his future girlfriend’s childhood from her; or he could have indicated that he does not know all the facts allowing for a much more interesting and nuanced story. He does not make any of these moves. Instead, the reader is merely given the information in a herky-jerky fashion, and the first person narrative resumes.

That minor hiccup would be forgivable. What is unforgivable is second part of the novel, which takes place in Paris. The forty-year-old human sinkhole that was introduced in the beginning of the story proceeds to have an inexplicable love affair with a twenty-seven-year-old woman whose primary motivations seem ripped directly from a Penthouse letter. Michel asks the exact question that the reader wants answered: “What do you see in me? I’m not particularly handsome, I’m not funny; I find it difficult to understand why anyone would find me attractive” (99). In lieu of articulating a plausible verbal response, Valerié provides fellatio with raspberry jam. Fear not. It gets worse. Valerié is conveniently a tireless sex machine: morning, noon, night; she is perpetually ready to service or be serviced by Michel. Valerié has a career, makes a great salary, and lives in a palatial apartment. After she has worked an eighteen hour day, Valerié is portrayed as always grateful for either Michel’s penetration, or the opportunity to provide him with oral sex. I’m sure that middle-aged civil servants the world over salute the author’s imagination. To add insult to an already damaged narrative, the novel also begins to follow the career of her boss Jean-Yves. The reader is forced to endure chapter after chapter of tedious exposition regarding the life of corporate executives, as they give reports, and go to business meetings. Of course, in between there are details if Michel and Valerié having sex, or the miserable minutia of Jean-Yves perfunctory marriage.–Yawn.

Midway through the story, I remembered a very funny moment that had occurred early on; when Michel, sickened by clichéd, formulaic American novels, ends up burying several books on a beach in Thailand. I have to wonder if this middle passage is not some sort of parody gone terribly wrong. Is Houellebecq’s intent to be ironic, and I am just not in on the joke? Maybe there is something I am missing out on by not reading it in French. Regardless, the book never leaves first person, but the reader is expected to accept that Michel somehow has access to details of other character’s actions he could not possibly know. This book would not have worked third person, but Houellebecq could have found a more skillful way of dealing with the issue of 1st person.

The clumsy handling of this twilight zone exposition is exacerbated by the lack of anything significant occurring within the story. The characters are stagnant and flat, and the plot plods along. Working as travel industry executives, it is quite obvious that Valerié and Jean-Yves are going to make a foray into sexual tourism on a global scale. Once this finally occurs, Houellebecq begins to pick up steam again, as he makes a few half-hearted allusions of sending up the scheme as a metaphor for twenty-first-century imperialism. The reader is told of violent rapes and street gangs annihilating one another while our facile trio proceed to plot their sexual/financial conquest within the heights of an office building; but that is about as far as the author goes. I found myself wondering where this writer was for the last one hundred pages.

The second half of the novel partly redeems itself when Michel pitches the idea of a sexual tourism themed getaway at the town of Baracoa. Baracoa Cuba is the bay where Christopher Columbus first dropped anchor, and began to enslave, rape, and slaughter the first indigenous tribe he discovered. The significance of the launching of this fictional venture against the backdrop of that particular location, a location whose history includes both the Conquistadors and Communist Guerillas, is a brilliant postmodern moment. Finally, Houellebecq is back on track as Michel processes the ramifications of his actions even as he acts as a catalyst to bring the scheme about. At this point, the author has developed the protagonist, but to my mind he has not earned the series of events that are to follow. In short, I read the second half because the author had grabbed me by the lapels early on, and I knew what he was capable of. But, this is what I expected from cover to cover.

In an interview, Harry Crews talks about the responsibility of a writer when they know the story has taken a wrong turn. To paraphrase: Crews says that a writer has to have the courage to destroy any forward progress made the moment one realizes that the story has taken a wrong turn. If you do not have the balls to do that then you are a sham. I think the comment is dead on. Reading the first and last sections of this novel, I cannot believe that Houellebecq did not know he had completely botched the middle. For whatever reason, he forged ahead and created a book worth reading- but barely. To me that seems a damned shame. To be so close to getting at something gritty and true, and to then just chuck it for the sake of completion is a waste. Houellebecq certainly has the potential to write a brilliant novel, a great novel,and one worth recommending; Platform is not that novel.

Apr 042009
Recently, I attended a writer’s workshop where The Things They Carriedwas specifically assigned as reading material because the book’s style and structure matched its topic. The book is about many things, but of course the central topic is the Vietnam War. The instructor argued that Tim O’Brien’s repeated use of self contradiction and thematic use of “circling” was both significant and effective exactly because of the nature of that conflict.I couldn’t agree more.

Last night, I spent some time drinking and talking with two Vietnam veterans. We discussed sports, politics, and the economy. The usual things one talks about over a few beers. However, the conversation inevitably led back to the war they had both fought in. I have started to think of it as a kind of cultural black hole, containing such gravity, holding such power that it is constantly drawing all of us backwards. By “all of us” I mean all of us affected by that war: soldiers, families that lived with them, wives, husbands, daughters, and sons. (Ironically, it is my understanding that the Vietnamese have moved on whereas Americans seem unable to do so.) Speaking as child of a Vietnam combat vet, I was forced to relive episodes of my father’s experience on a nightly basis. So, I orbit this singularity of doubt with a sense of betrayal and bewilderment that is once removed from my father’s own experience; at the same time, the conflict has taken on a mythic significance for me. How could it not?

But it is not just Vietnam. There are things that we endlessly circle as a culture: war, race, class, and the ways in which these things intersect. As a writer, I find myself fascinated by the way that these subjects draw discussion and evade conclusions. They seem impenetrable. Oh there are plenty of reductive or ideological conclusions that come conveniently packaged for consumption. I am talking about significant conclusions that intelligent folks can wrap their heads and hearts around. Further complicating the issue, any attempts to approach the core truth/s of these topics in the hope of arriving at clear answers seem as frustrating and inevitably futile as getting away from them. Instead, I find myself locked in orbit, spinning off story after story, aiming for the center, watching my own creations fly by, farther out, when I happen to look up from the keyboard.

Of course, I am the one who called it a black hole, and as the one to invoke that metaphor I feel I am responsible for thinking about what would mean to get inside. In short, it would turn me inside out. My identity, structure and molecular fiber would elongate and then invert. These events, these ideas, as they are known to me, define both who I am and who I am not.

So I wonder… I wonder if I should not try harder to get to the center of things. I wonder if the most honest a productive thing for me to do is to slip into the event horizon, and let gravity take its course. I might fail miserable. Get spit right back out. After all, what will really happen in there is pure theory. No, I think I need to at least try to get to the heart of the matter. Because as far as I am concerned, we have been circling around it long enough