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.

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.

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

Nov 022008

I have been reading Flannery O’Connor, which seldom fails to please me as a reader. As a writer, I’m usually slack jawed at the amount of control she maintains throughout her work. For example, I consider both “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” to be nearly flawless short stories. They remain prime examples of the wide range of thoughts and emotions a writer can produce in a reader within a limited textual space.

One of the ways O’Connor accomplishes this is by maintaining a constant undercurrent of tension throughout each piece. Take the dynamics of the family in “Good Man,” where the reader is presented with a strange yet familiar narrative of a road trip with grandma in tow. The family is of course awful, which makes their familiarity all that much more uncomfortable. If the reader is not somewhat sickened and intrigued by seemingly mundane journey to Florida, they will not be ready for the final encounter with The Misfit. The final encounter would seem contrived if you read it as the ending to most stories. Instead, the reader grits their teeth as each member of that annoying tribe is led away. When I read “Good Man” as a writer, it is the “mundane tension” that I marvel at, the masterful way O’Connor manages to get me from the living room to the wrong road without losing my attention.

This same tension is present and used to effect in “Good Country People.” The reader, once again, is presented with a straightforward setting, which is inhabited what could be written as rather boring characters. However, there is something strange and compelling about the relationship between the three women, and it keeps the reader’s appetite wet until the bible salesman arrives. The resulting tryst with Hulga, and her betrayal is effective because of the tension which builds up to her abandonment. As a reader, I find myself relieved that she is abandoned. If you know this writer’s work, you probably feel relieved for Hulga as well. She comes away faring much better than most of O’Connor’s characters who are usually killed off on the last page or die muttering to themselves in some kind of destitute state. The fellow she is with could have done much worse than run off with her leg and her dignity. OK, that’s arguable, but that’s exactly why the story works. Joy/Hulga, the superior know-it-all, is left blind and temporarily helpless in a hay loft. What’s worse, she’s been left there to meditate upon sure knowledge that she’s been blind all along. The reader has no idea what Hulga will do with the rest of her life or how she will deal with the questions of Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell.

When I finish an O’Connor story, I often feel relief to have a second chance at life. Often, she holds the reader gently for the first 2/3rds of the story before beginning to apply pressure that grows excruciating near the end. The dénouement seldom grants the reader anything more than a few moments to gather their bearings in regards to their own reaction to the dark irony that has just occurred on the page before the story ends. In other words, I often feel the end of her narratives have an abruptness to them but it is not awkward or unwarranted.