Feb 242013
 

“Style is the substance of the subject called unceasingly to the surface.” ~ Victor Hugo

Before picking up The Road, I’d never read any of Cormac McCarthy’s work and had no idea of what to expect. A few chapters in, I paused to orient myself to the world he evokes: set in a post-apocalyptic future, a father and his young son travel through civilization’s ruins while remaining true to a moral code. This is good stuff, but it’s McCarthy’s writing style, the sparse, fragmented prose of this novel, which made me into an ardent fan. Of course, style doesn’t matter if the story fails. So first, I’m going to touch on a few narrative nuts and bolts to see why it succeeds, and then I’ll fling some superlatives around regarding style.

The story’s success is remarkable given the plot’s limitations: it’s the day-to-day survival of a father and son adrift in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Keeping to major roads, they travel south toward an unknown destination; and because roads act a lot like like rivers, they attract desperate groups of people, many of whom enslave and eat other people.

Okay, more happens than that, but my point is the daily task of surviving in a bleak environment could’ve been oppressively tedious. But McCarthy makes it work by paying careful attention to the rate of revelation: scraps of information about the apocalypse are bundled with the father’s back story and doled out regularly in between crises. This backstory delivery system saves the novel from becoming a repetitive slog as the plot’s structure depends on simplistic conflict resolution: the characters need food, the characters find food, and the characters avoid/run away from cannibals, rinse & repeat. (Did I mention that nearly everybody else on the road seems to be a cannibal!? Seriously. Like, lots of scary cannibals.)

This plot structure is, of course, germane to a survival narrative, but McCarthy deserves credit for sticking to realistic speculation regarding day-to-day issues and not allowing the story to become something more exotic or cliché: like, a detour where the duo overthrow a cannibal kingdom or found a colony intended to be humanity’s last, best hope. Instead, the author stays focused to a much more ambitious story about a man determined to raise his son to be a principled human being in a desperate wasteland. The stakes are high as two individuals struggle to maintain their moral and ethical cores in an environment where principles are regarded as either liabilities or quaint relics of the past. That these characters struggle to do the right thing in the face of a hopeless future makes individual choice a central theme.

That The Road foregrounds individuality marks it as a distinctly American novel. Additionally, there are number of moments that have a Western-genre feel to them. Does it get any more American than the Western? You could easily place these two characters in a day-to-day struggle to survive Montana Badlands of the 19th century, replete with bushwacking outlaws and painted-Indian war parties, and gotten a similar story. Don’t get me wrong, the tone of Western-genre fiction doesn’t detract from the work; it’s just another aspect of the novel’s style.

Ah yes, style: we’ve finally arrived at the subject  causing all the chatter. Cormac McCarthy makes some brilliant choices in regards to syntax. That is to say, I found them brilliant. There are plenty of grammarians who hate this novel because he breaks so many rules. Specifically interesting to me – McCarthy declines to adhere to an important grammatical marker: the sentence boundary. Instead, the author deploys both the logic and organization of cumulative sentences while refusing to play by the rules dictating where they pause or end. This unconventional approach is used to good effect when working to evoke a broken world. Here’s an example:

“The kitchen door stood open and he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway. Cheap plywood paneling curling with damp. Collapsing into the room. A red formica table” (119).

Okay, so McCarthy ignores commas and uses periods instead? Yep. But also notice there are plenty of transitional words missing as well. Thinking things through, it becomes obvious one could revise this example to become a single cumulative sentence which delivers the same information with an entirely different effect. Like so:

“The kitchen standing open, he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway, observing the cheap-plywood paneling that curled with damp and collapsed into the room, a room with a red-formica table.”

Of course, there’s a ton of different ways one could rewrite the sentence. You might need to read a longer section to get a real feeling for the style, but the example above makes my point. And while I find McCarthy’s style effective, I can see why choices like this might put someone off; because when periods are used in place of commas, sentences no longer reliably exist as propositions. Instead, the period becomes a moment of pause – a crack to step over – while the reader is left to determine where the next clause fits in.

The novel would be a failure If this approach didn’t work. But it does.

By breaking down the cumulative form into discrete units, the author achieves a similar effect of evoking a detailed image. However, the choice of abandoning conventional syntax has a significant, secondary effect because the combination of sparse language and busted-up syntax clearly enhances this description of a world that’s bleak and broken. – That he made this choice is a big part of what makes this novel great.

In fiction, the difference between a good use of style and great use of style is as follows: a good use of style makes for enjoyable reading and marks a writer’s work as being unique. A great use of style fulfills all aforementioned requirements but also reflects, informs, and enhances a central theme of the work.

It’s that simple. The choice to ‘break’ the prose when evoking a broken world is ambitious: successfully pulling it off is fucking genius. So after reading The Road, I developed high expectations for McCarthy’s work, and, so far, he’s yet to disappoint. That said, I get why many readers dislike this novel. Many who attack it have ample ammunition that’s well-reasoned. But the bottom line for me is the author took a gamble, and it paid off big time. This book has a lot of popular appeal, and it’s easy to see why. Despite radical linguistic choices, The Road manages to hold a reader’s attention with an adventure while putting some heavy topics in play. That is to say, McCarthy treads the fine line between writing gratuitous fiction and writing great fiction. That he pulls it off makes this novel worth a read.

Mar 242012
 

Khushwant Singh is a renowned journalist, historian, novelist, and translator; he is a savvy writer who weaves the historic past and a fictional present together with wit, intelligence, and authority. That is, Singh is renowned in India and to literary minded people the world over who are not doomed to be as parochial as I am. I should know because I almost tossed his novel Delhi aside after growing bored with it. This would have been a great error in judgment. Whether you chalk it up to a lack of patience, my ignorance, or the novel’s flaws, I was  unimpressed with the first forty-nine pages of the book; happily, I made it to page fifty because, after that, I became unwilling to put it down for food or nature.

My own discovery of the author’s work was a lucky accident. I ran across a Wikipedia entry on Khushwant Singh while looking up information about Sikhs. I can’t remember why the hell I was looking any of this up, but I recall doing a search for Sikh intellectuals and finding the article. The entry sparked enough interest that I took a two-dollar chance on a worn copy of Delhi. A few weeks later, I found myself plodding through the beginning of a raunchy – seemingly gratuitous – novel that had a few literary gestures thrown in as asides. Written in first person, the literary character Khushwant Singh seems to have constructed inhabits Delhi, with the protagonist clearly a stand-in for the author à la Bukowski. The novel opens with Singh’s arrival from afar, and then follows him as he putters about Delhi: he describes the city, his haunts, and his position as man of letters with powerful government connections; a lonely lecher in the late summer of his life, the protagonist is primarily concerned with wringing out the last of his hedonistic juices one bitter drop at a time.

Looking back, the reason I was bored by the early chapters was the apparent story is of a jaded playboy’s declining years. There were fart jokes, and some cultural color was described while I fought to stay awake. In the second chapter, Singh has an awkward and unpleasant sexual encounter with a middle-aged English aristocrat, and then goes on to describe his relationship with a hermaphrodite prostitute named Bhagmati. But – the stakes seem low. Yes, the prose is well written, and the setting is interesting; however, I was uncertain the story was going anywhere significant. Of course, had I known more about this author, I would have been reassured that I was in good hands: all of this was leading up to something remarkable.

In the third chapter, the novel jumps backward to significant periods in Delhi’s History. Here Singh takes full command of the narrative as he evokes the rich, bawdy, and brutal history of the city.  And while the contemporary sections weren’t nearly as interesting as the historical bits, they do become more resonant as history characterizes the modern setting and contextualizes Singh’s position within Indian culture. Of course, I have to consider the fact that I was reading as someone who is effectively ignorant of this historical context the author gestures to from page one. Hunter S. Thompson quips about the futility of showing card tricks to a dog: my lack of knowledge regarding Indian history when beginning to read Delhi is a good example of this metaphor.

But getting back to the topic of historical novels, this jumping back and forth between past and present is a fairly conventional structure for books of this kind. One cannot help but notice many novels utilize this structure which utilize history as a kind of ornate crutch to propel an otherwise anemic narrative forward; in other cases, it works the other way around, where historical yarns seems tacked on with the more contemporary sections holding reader interest. While I maintain the trips to Delhi’s distant past were more interesting than the novel’s present, ultimately, Singh succeeds in articulating a complex and unified novel that doesn’t spare any religious, political, or cultural group from scrutiny including his own.

In a country with such a long and complicated history, the author does a remarkable job of utilizing significant events to skewer Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs alike with ruthless, measured thrusts. To this ill-informed American reader, the novel seems as fair to all sides as it is rich with specifics of just how awful these groups have treated one another when they were in power; however, the reality is that I know very little about India’s history or culture. I have no illusions that I could ever surpass the most facile understanding of the repeated conquests and colonialism that Singh evokes in this remarkably slim novel with such skill. But as someone who’s invested in using historical contexts to complicate and enrich fiction, I learned a lot from this book. I look forward to returning to it for future lessons. If you know nothing of Khushwant Singh, I recommend looking at a couple of articles to whet your appetite for his writing; he’s quite a character and unapologetically so.

Finding the fiction of Khushwant Singh was indeed a happy accident, and I look forward to reading more of his work.

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.

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.