Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Here Comes Another Review . . .

The New Yorker fiction has not been "doing it" for me in quite some time (I blame full immersion in their Top 20 Under 40 writers for my palpable awareness of this fact). I like Jim Shepard's latest, but mostly I'm off of New Yorker fiction. I feel as though I keep saying this, but much as I keep saying it it doesn't become any less true. I also haven't defined what precisely I mean by "New Yorker" fiction, which is fiction mostly concerned with the interpersonal dynamics of individuals and their family and / or friends, delivered in a very straightforward, often exceedingly literal way (with the usual symbolism and tropes interspersed) . It might also be referred to as "realism," although I'm not bothered by what of it that's "real" but the tired and banal, the used up, i.e. the crumbling ruins of writer's reactions to life and living which bore me.

Occasionally, though, and why I'll always keep checking up on them, the New Yorker'll publish an anomalously strange, good writer like George Saunders, Karen Russell, Chris Adrian or Ben Loory (I've about given up on Joshua Ferris, whose New Yorker fiction has only served to prove the point of his being ho-hum as invention goes). But another one who's legit, so far as I can tell (i.e. "legit" -- what an arbitrary term in this sense, meaning only that I approve of him), is Stephen O'Connor, whose New Yorker short story "Ziggurat" first introduced my eyes to his fiction and creative writing prowess. I might also add, before I go on, that O'Connor is legit but with a few caveats I shall put forth in the proceeding.

So O'Connor's "Here Comes Another Lesson" then presented an opportunity to really acquaint myself with what he does, oeuvre wise. Point blank: "Ziggurat" is more or less my favorite story of this collection. "Man in the Moon" is also very good. The series of stories featuring the professor of atheism were all good, if I felt at times he missed some kind of creative opportunity with them. Like, there was more there to them, and if he were willing to take still greater risks (an aspect of his authorial character for which he has received much praise from his peers, with superlatives like being one among the "bravest and most inventive" writers and a tendency to take, as said, "serious risks" in his fictions), I believe the stories would have been, well, more exciting. Serious Lee.

I am possibly speaking from only my own lived experience with writing, but I tend to think the psychology of this creative discipline is much the same as all other forms of creative expression, and that as with how evidence has shown nearly all (something around 98%) children start off with genius level ability at divergent thinking (my own anecdotal experience here reinforces this notion in my mind) and it is only with time and normative anesthetization of literal and non-literal varieties that we begin to lose it, so too is the case with writers who become creatively anesthetized. This is where the incestuous character of doing as others do is manifest to problematic, even noxious, degrees. O'Connor is a creative writer, but I'm bothered by what I perceive is an unwillingness to take the risks his talents afford him. So now let me cite specific examples of what I'm talking about and expositions of what I think don't hardly work near as well as it could (then you come in and disagree with me profoundly):

[SPOILERS ALERT] I'd put O'Connor somewhere on the same plane as that of my affection for the work of Gary Shteyngart, at least presently. (I'm hoping time will elevate both.) Gary Shteyngart errors differently in my esteem than O'Connor, though. Shteyngart to his credit takes risks with his penchant for "quasi-malapropisms" -- a term used if not coined by Andrew Seal over at Blographia Literaria, in a great post from last summer less-than-praising of Shteyngart's writing and general insights -- and various other narrative turns, which while not always effective, are often understandable (i.e. I feel I know why he attempted them). I'm less certain of O'Connor's risk-taking, in part because I don't think that's his inclination. Which is why he'll get praise of his writing for being not as "consistently arch" (Mark Athitakis -- a post which is over all very merited and good) as a George Saunders' collection. But arch is embedded in Saunders' writerly DNA, just as like it or not, Gary Shteyngart possesses stylistic quirks that clearly separate him from other writers. So too does O'Connor but he frustrates me as he falls back on monotonously ordinary plot lines, like, say, with "White Fire," a story of the war vet who wishes not to be called a hero, who can't speak about (except in a flash revelation expressed to his two young daughters) or forget the evil things that happened and in which he participated during his tour of duty; it's a nice character study but, I dunno, curious and uninteresting territory for a writer like O'Connor. Not that he shouldn't go there, but for what purpose? What was creatively inspiring about it? "White Fire" is a fine story, written with unusual and character-laden syntax, but there's not much more I can say that would excite you to read it.

O'Connor does fancy some kind of cliche or trope, as I see it, in that several of his stories either end or feature at some point a character slowly fading into the distance as an indefinable speck. I mean that literally, as in the ending of "Ziggurat": "Until at last -- there he was: A tiny figure moving up the shore. A minute silhouette against the mirror sand. A wavering speck. Then smaller. Even smaller." And then again with "The Professor of Atheism: Here Comes Another Lesson": "And gradually, to anyone looking up from the ground, he grows smaller and ever smaller, until finally he is such a tiny dot of light that he could just as well not exist." And finally, for a third time, with the cormorant in "Disappearance and": "Then the cormorant was only a bird in the blue. A tiny, horizontal wiggling. A trembling dot. Nothing." I mention this tendency in part because it is a good one, and he can use it as much or as little as he likes certainly, but I can't shed the feeling that its overuse says something of creative limitation, stuntedness. It's not as though the symbolism changes noticeably, in all its manifold possibilities, and is further developed / made new use of within the context of the three stories in which it appears. So I say, anyway.

I suppose I might go even further with various criticisms tending toward the negative, but I genuinely enjoyed O'Connor's collection. It's one of those things where I felt I must be forthcoming with all my misgivings, though. I suppose this problem is bigger than O'Connor, too, and he's not one of my top offenders in the realm of stymieing creativity via establishment-oriented writing. I guess I just hate to see good writers absorb some of these traits I don't like so very much.

AND . . .

I've been worrying over whether ruminating about something's being adequately creative is objective enough (if anything I write on this here blog is objective enough), then I decided that's kind of beside the point. What I take issue with I take issue with, and by that I mean: it bothers me in others' writing just as much as it bothers me in my own (and it bothers me when I spot it in my own. And I spot it in my own, often, bothersomely.). It's what I deem is taking the easy way out, the short cut home. Leaning on what you know because, hey, that's recognizable. People will identify with that. You could rightly argue that that's just my opinion, man, but then so is that yours, man or man-ette.

(P.S. - Put in less convivial, different terms, you can write anything you like as a writer, and you can like anything you read as a reader, but I don't have to be impressed by either of those things. I think I've made an adequate case for why that is.)

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