Monday, May 31, 2010

"Spontaneous" Not Quite What I Expected At All

Of novels dealing with really very perverse perversity, Diana Wagman's is right up there with "Lolita" in terms of being extremely graphic and uncomfortably titillating. I explain what precisely is meant by "uncomfortably titillating" in my "Lolita" review from last December (if you're at all curious about that, which of course who wouldn't be?). There's also some big to-do about spontaneous combustion, and so partially explains the title. You might say this book gets hot, Hot, HOT -- in a sense. Because in a sense it does, several senses even.

I don't especially want to reveal which specific sort of perversity makes "Spontaneous" such an unusual novel, one that drew me in more than I would expect, too. And I would go so far as to put said perversity up there with Humbert Humbert's pedophilia. I think it's the same potent taboo that can cause one to cringe. Yes, Wagman pushes the envelope somewhat, but it works. It works surprisingly well.

And it begins with a bang -- Auntie Ned's. Culminating with the pronunciation, "Her hands clawed and scratched for the past. Remembering. Remembering. She was not sorry. Not sorry. Her heart detonated, a final shuddering explosion of surrender." Auntie Ned's demise sets a number of tones right from the start. Take for example that spontaneous combustion is a useful phenomenon for expressing the urgency of passion -- and it's passion, then, that informs the reader of all he or she needs to be aware of if he or she is to appreciate and find plausible the perversity to follow.

Two sisters, Amy and Gwendolyn Clark, take up residence in Auntie Ned's home immediately following her death, which is for a variety reasons is not verified as a case of spontaneous combustion. It is Amy's belief that this is what has happened, but Gwendolyn is skeptical. The pair of sisters are not blood relatives of Auntie Ned but instead the daughters of her close friend. They subsequently grew close to Ned and, accordingly, she bequeathed her home to them upon her death.

The sisters are described as opposites in obvious physical ways (both are beautiful but oppositely beautiful) and less obvious ways like temperament. Perversity, meanwhile, is only partly sexual in "Spontaneous." The other component of perversity is shown to be how people are willing to abuse and be abused, perhaps because sweet dreams are made of these eventualities.

Amy brings into the sisters' lives a well-meaning -- if not particularly intelligent -- carpenter with a dark past named Roosevelt. She does so ostensibly with the intention that he will correct the structural damage done to Auntie Ned's home after the accident, but she has another ulterior motivation that reveals itself later. Amy possesses a dominating, overbearing personality -- going so far as being the quintessence of Nietzsche's Will to Power. She imposes herself on her sister and others both actively and passively, manipulating circumstances with the ease of an omnipotent. But her ego is also her downfall. She is convinced she's the only one who knows the score, and this proves to be a fatal error.

As the pieces began to fall into place I felt myself tearing right along with the narrative at what felt like a breakneck pace. I just felt myself wanting answers, some of which were given and some of which were left to inference -- Wagman striking a nice balance in between. There were numerous auxiliary characters, though none more important than Dr. Gustave Minor.

He is Professor of Pyrophenomena at the Pittsburgh Center for the Study of the Paranormal, stating his name with the highfalutin and overwrought title attached, in introduction. A literal little person, Dr. Minor is also highly manipulative and likewise eager to advance his career with a teleological ethic, which in turn manifests itself in the unscrupulous tack he's willing to use to prove the existence of spontaneous combustion. Spontaneous combustion is his white whale, to be sure. It is a phenomenon he is certain exists but has never been able to prove because for whatever reason it has never been witnessed. Amy, he believes, may provide a solution to that problem with the horrifying conclusion he reveals to her, a conclusion that puts lives at stake. Sweet and decent lives.

It's awesome and good, as I see it. It's an ending you'll find you want to arrive at, for what it may prove or disprove but also for catharsis, because I believe ultimately that's a big part of what spontaneous combustion is, for both its victims and their next of kin. A great big fiery relief.

Other Literary Items:

I've read a few enjoyable short stories, which struck a chord with me, recently from various random online lit zines and that I thought I'd share them with the rest of the world via Internet. Here they are:

At Prick of the Spindle it's "Enough" by Rebecca Cross

At NANO Fiction it's "Self Starter" by Sophie Rosenblum

At DOGZPLOT it's "The Pig" by Ben Loory (whom I'm becoming a very big fan of, especially after really enjoying his recent New Yorker short story, "The TV")

And lastly, at Jersey Devil Press it's "The Old Man and the Shark" by Tara King

READ THEM ALL . . . IF YOU DARE!!!! (or read whichever strike your fancy, if any do (which they should))

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Getting to Tom Robbins Finally at Long Last

Tom Robbins is one of those authors whose name floats around. It's just suspended there in the lit-sphere, waiting for someone to pluck it with follow up reading of the work behind the name. I'm betting you other avid readers of earth can name many authors who fit the Robbins mold I've described. For instance others whose names in my anecdotal experience float are Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, Jack Kerouac, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, and David Sedaris. Basically, the essential formula for determining this (the first and last equation I've put forth to date here at the B-1stein) is, how famous or up-and-coming is the writer? + how many conversations do I have with other people about authors? Which is probably how anyone learns about the great talents in this or that esoteric genre of interest. So congrats to me for bringing to light nothing new! You'll find nary a floating name in most casual conversations. You might learn something you didn't know about Lee DeWyze, on the plus side. (He's from Mt. Prospect -- a little town adjacent to my own, Des Plaines.)

Tom Robbins, himself, has long been in my periphery, if not quite in my line of sight. I've had several acquaintances speak of his great storytelling, so I recently followed up on the recommendation of one of them. I was told to read, "Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates." And I read it! With a title like that how could I not be interested? It's a line taken from the Arthur Rimbaud poem, "A Season in Hell." And listen, irrespective of what you might have heard, I'm not John Lithgow's character in "Footloose," so Rimbaud's Satanic impetus to Robbins' title did nothing to dissuade my interest.

Some findings -- the plot, oh geesus g-damn the plot! It's fairly sprawling (spanning four continents, maybe five). And though it's not beyond wrapping your mind around and certainly not fragmented in the way I'm told "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" is, it's still sprawling and deep. But so are a lot of books. That's not what makes it interesting. What does is the philosophizing of the main character, Switters; his frenetic charms and enthusiasm, and the various situations he finds himself in and the various circumstances that make these situations all the more challenging -- his being relegated to a wheelchair for most of the story is not the least of them.

Now I was less sold / impressed by a number of Robbins' metaphorical images -- although my suspicion is these are intentionally hit or miss. Robbins is aware they sink or swim, and it's part of the risk. Take them or leave them, but there they are, Robbins seems to say, indifferently.

Here they are:

"The sun dropped into the horizon line like a coin dropping into a slot. The ocean bit it to make sure it wasn't counterfeit."

"Now, however, with the river as sleepy and sullen as pupils in ninth-grade algebra . . ."

"Stop whining, Potney. Whining's unattractive, even when your whine sounds like Kenneth Branagh eating frozen strawberries with a silver fork."

". . . belted white worms that resembled the severed fingers of the Michelin tire man . . ."

"Bobby's face was changing expressions faster than Clark Kent changed underwear."

". . . laying down enough burnt rubber to blackface the cast of the Amos 'n' Andy show for most of a season."

"The land spread out before him like a pizza. Its topography was flat, its texture rough, its temperature hot, its hue reddish yellow, studded with pepperoni-colored rocks; and, at the moment, it glistened as if drizzled with olive oil."

and so on

To be fair, I found most of his metaphorical images to be effective and many of those to be quite good. The bad above, as I see it, are in the minority. But they do seem bad to me, which I've decided is worth sharing. That should not discourage you from reading "Fierce Invalids" -- OH NO! On the contrary, read it. It's ribald. It's thought provoking. It's a bible for all of us who think books like The Bible are way, way too serious and doctrinaire.

Actually my favorite element of its plot was the paradoxical synthesis of that which is considered antithetical -- this a trope that appears throughout. It's a romantic's argument, when boiled down. But I've decided that shouldn't diminish something necessarily. I mean, romantic or no, our lives are about compromise. You make compromises every day, no doubt. You might say something you don't entirely believe for some purpose in a great range of possibilities. And while that's a lie at the same time it isn't. You're wise enough to see the difference, that there are mitigating circumstances that have caused you to alter what you say.

Or admitting to oneself one's fallibility, and being open and honest with it (which I've observed others do and seen how it can paradoxically be a strength, if used in moderation) -- my own demonstrated just now as I attempted to spell fallibility thus, "failiblity" and then, even worse, "failability." This is likewise how you fight dogma, or so the book suggests. There can most definitely be things you believe in with all your heart and soul but then do not at all, simultaneously.

At the story's end, which I'll submit this part because I know it doesn't give very much away and because it's relevant to what I am saying!, Switters imagines an organization devoted to the ideals that he has spent the story promulgating to most everyone he meets. He imagines its members to be those with whom he has felt the greatest shared understanding of these ideals, helping him to disseminate the ideals of tempering.

They probably wouldn't name it, this new organization of theirs. Cult of the Great Snake would be presumptuous and far-fetched; and he was pretty tired of angels, as Hollywood, gullible Christers, and New Age loopy-doodles had combined to give them a trite, fairy-godfather image. Most definitely, the group would not have a creed. Unless it was something modest and non-doctrinaire, such as, "The house is on fire, but you can't beat our view."

They wouldn't even believe, especially, in their mission; not in any fervent way. If they believed too adamantly, then sooner or later they would be tempted to lie to protect those beliefs. It was a small step from lying to defend one's beliefs to killing to defend them.

Switters is told at one point that he is attracted to purity of a kind. His fellow CIA compatriot, Bobby Case, puts it like this: "I get the feeling you're attracted to . . . well, I reckon I'd have to call it innocence." Switters falls desperately in love with a nun and a sixteen-year-old girl, so I would say Case has a point, even if a touch on the nose.

Switters is a strange guy and it's a strange tale, and that's why the whole thing works just so well. Swell, even!

Friday, May 21, 2010

In Defense of Sort of Being a Luddite in the Age of The Kindle & iPad, et al

I know I'm destined to end up like Harry R. Truman, the 83-year-old cur who lived by the side of Mount St. Helens for some-odd 54 years and refused to move despite vehement warnings of its imminent eruption. And maybe that's what's about to happen -- some pyroclastic cloud of detritus will come and forever encase me in rock, a monument to stubborn old fools. Which sounds horrible to me, so I hope that does not happen -- even if only metaphorically. But it probably will, and though I'm hardly old -- 25, so far -- at the present time I am a fool. And being a fool is truly more than half the battle.

I don't really have some grand argument to support my lukewarm aversion to the slow conversion of all printed materials to a tech-based option. It's been debated well enough already by the debaters, the arguers, the deft, well-spoken industry movers and shakers. This guy makes some good points, too. But if I may, I'll just say I think it comes down to tactility. The book as a thing in and of itself. I like having a relationship with the book in and of itself, even if it does little to maximize my effective apportioning of storage space. I like my uneven book stacks. I like libraries, too. I like the sprawling quality of information meeting the eye. I fear its being reduced to compact abstraction.

I know it's useful to have a modest-sized resource that can link you to any text you want at any time, day or night, for a nominal fee. I know book-viewing technology has its merits, but I find its rise and ostensible supplanting of the paperback unsettling. I suppose I'm just concerned about the absolutist bent of the whole enterprise. It seems like only a manner of time before printed materials of all kinds are completely and totally obsolete. Good for the environment, silver-lining-wise. But for the reasons I mention it's less good -- for the nebbish librarian in all of us who lives only and solely for the good of making use of his / her stacks and zealously exhorting others to do the same, with all those annotations in the margins relating to this author's idea or that one's. Oh, if only it were "both / and" instead of "either / or," but that's not how the stars are aligning, um, Mercutio.

It's not a fact that making all published materials of every variety available by one source reduces their value. But that is sort of my opinion. Isn't squeezing each and every book from the same tube a form of postmodern-ey entropy, whereby their discrete and individualized characteristics are lost to the broad watery sea of categorization. There is no quality left in peoples' perception making a book a thing of itself, then, judged exclusively by its own merits. Its own cover.

Lastly, I've never used a Kindle or an iPad. There is also the possibility that it's not as destined to happen the way I've described, that electronic and printed books will both remain in "both/and" harmony. All opinions I state are subject to change, if sufficient evidence moves me to do so. But I ain't never leaving this mountain no how!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lydia Millet's "Everyone's Pretty" & Are They Ever!

There are flaws in Lydia Millet's 2005 novel, "Everyone's Pretty." But that said, I thought it was worth my time / effort -- in the end. No but seriously, it has weaknesses but it has strengths. And if you'll just allow me to explain, perhaps I can shed light on what I'm talking about. Rife with despicable and / or unlikable characters, it had for me much the same charm of the Coen brothers' less-than-enthusiastically-received 2008 film, "Burn After Reading."

Similar problems inherent to the Coen brothers' effort mucked up the works in Millet's novel, although it's clear "Burn After Reading" might have benefited from a clearer understanding of who its main character was supposed to be. Conversely, there is no doubt in "Everyone's Pretty" that Dean Decetes, human refuse and megalomaniac, is the man around whom all of the story's other actors and action turn.

My main point of criticism with respect to "Everyone's Pretty" is its sometimes palpable falseness. In other words, there were many sections I found to be fun and interesting but conveyed an unmistakable feeling that the author was forcing the issue. Naturally with the absurdist-style narrative Millet employs it isn't essential to produce "believable" characteristics and circumstances, but that's not exactly the problem I'm referring to, either.

Millet seems at times to mishandle her character's separate motivations, or what at bottom is each's ethos. For example, Ginny, a middle-school-aged math prodigy. She is at times the picture of self-assurance and possessing insight and prescience beyond her years, while at other times behaves more than naive and illogical -- paradoxically so, in fact -- I mean, beyond the obvious paradox I've already described.

To a certain extent, I can get behind Millet's use of Ginny. She seems to have wanted a character who, for better or worse, would have the sardonic humor of a child advanced for her years, something akin to a "Juno" or Professor Gladney's unusual clan of children in "White Noise." Simply put, she apparently wanted a youthful character who could show up the adults she encountered, many of whom behave with about as much decorum as the reactionary adults of "South Park."

But then comes the wanting the cake, too. [Spoiler Alert] This young prodigy, this child barely old enough to drive, is basically so naive or illogical or both that she somehow convinces herself that dressing a dead man up like a mummy might then bring him back to life? She believes that? The narrator says, ostensibly to the tune of Ginny's inner-monologue, "If Mr. Alan was a mummy he could live forever." This thought described after it's said the movie that gave her the idea "wasn't scary just dumb. The special effects looked homemade." I mean, come on.

But before I continue let me offer more context. This is what happens: to escape her overbearing mother, Riva, who ambushes Ginny in front of her fellow students and teacher in class (Riva falls dangerously on the side of overplayed caricature, likewise), she drives off with her mother's car and falls into the company of Decete's erstwhile boss, Alan H, a smut magazine editor. Alan, who is either suicidal or over-enthusiastically desirous of auto-erotic asphyxiation, manages to strangle himself to death with only modest assistance from Ginny (who is unnerved by the proceedings from the outset), thus leading to her plight of what to do with his inert body, which she seems unwilling to believe is really dead (not quite so farfetched). You might opine that things like innocence and panic played their part in her unusual reaction, but I'm hard pressed to buy it. In the end, it feels forced. And it's this falseness that severely hampered my fondness for what was, over all, an amusing story chock full of worthwhile ruminative ideas and points of consideration.

Decetes, best likened to a cross between W.C. Fields and Larry Flynt, is the life breath of Millet's tale. Without his fortifying power the story falls apart, and nearly all of the characters would lose at least some of their substance without him. This then is very much to Millet's credit. And while I feel the world has seen a Decetes type in various other incarnations in other stories, his relationship with and manipulation of most every major character does much to pace the story (Decetes is also capricious and fairly manic, which adds a jolt of vigor to his excursions). The other major characters, richly variegated but mostly falling at one of two extremes, as either libertine or fundamentalist, include his hyper-religious sister, Bucella (who's particularly mistreated by Decetes); his bemused sleazy dwarf sidekick, Ken; the Christian Scientist, Philip, with whom he only ever comes in contact tangentially; Alice, an attractive blond and the most rational of the bunch; Ernest, the object of Bucella's affection, fantasy and a very gay man; and Barbara, Philip's misunderstood wife with whom Decetes' eventually copulates. He's also a neighbor to Ginny and Riva, and causes them some small duress, as well.

So, in conclusion, what is it? What's "Everyone's Pretty"? A pretty good telling, no pun intended. Lorrie Moore, however, remains my favorite female author. (Take that, Lydia Millet! (although you're definitely not bad by any stretch!))

A Few Other Things: I happened upon a few other things that might be of interest to you, dear reader. I happened upon them because of a kindly commenter at HTML Giant, who posted a link to an article that then links to George Saunders' first published story. The article linked to is at the Faster Times, readable by clicking here-ish. To skip all the Faster Times stuff and so forth, and go directly to the source, George Saunders' original story, well, then click the X. The Faster Time article also mentions David Foster Wallace's first published story was recently unearthed, printed in his undergraduate school's literary journal, The Amherst Review. You can see that story, too, in PDF format! Here it is!

I haven't gotten to either story yet, but I'll probably begin with Wallace's, because I've already printed it and that makes the difference. Maybe, if I'm up for it, I'll click some keys over here about one or the other, or both. And maybe you'll click some keys, too. And in doing so, with a little luck mixed in for good measure, we might further enrich the world. This is my hope.

Monday, May 17, 2010

And Here's My Thoughts About "So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel?"

Harold Ray was a highlight. I'll start there because before anything else I want to say something positive about Sunday night's great show at the Whistler on Milwaukee in Logan Square, Chicago, IL. At the show's conclusion, Ray [Update: a character, I've recently learned, of the Chicago-based writer, Jacob Knabb)] sang, with the musical accompaniment of authors Patrick Somerville (banjo) and Mark Rader (fiddle), a rendition of "Dead Flowers" -- The Rolling Stones' song, but ostensibly done to the tune of the Townes Van Zandt cover featured on "The Big Lebowski" soundtrack. I liked it quite a lot.

The music in general of the Somerville / Rader tandem was a nice surprise for what I had initially presumed was going to be a strictly reading affair (though I can say I would not have been disappointed if it were, just liked the change of pace). I was not disappointed with my last, more traditional trip to the Whistler, for example.

The stories of Todd Dills, editor of the2ndhand which hosted the event, were enjoyable and his stage presence, whether true to his real life form or an affected manner for performance purposes only, was definitely amusing. But some of Dills' comedic attempts left me underwhelmed. (E.g. whatever the deal was behind the repeated interruptions of his Lady Gaga "Bad Romance" ringtone, that got to be too much very quickly). And so with that said, I figure I should just get the few negative opinions I have of a very good event out of the way. Purge the bad blood quick and cleanly, so to speak.

The beginning part, the part with the woman with whom I'm not familiar and who was to her credit noticeably enthusiastic if not quite at ease, that part was not good. It was plainly not good. The audience, while not a rowdy audience, didn't seem to enjoy whatever it was she was trying to do, which I still think was humor but I'm not positive. All I know is the crescendo moment was meant to be when she got seven volunteers to join her onstage for the purpose of dancing to Wreckx-N-Effect's "Rump Shaker," which again I take it irony and humor were meant to have a role in this, but I failed to see how exactly. And do not misunderstand me -- I'm all for quirky, off-the-wall fun and audience participation / I'm not a total stiff. I just felt the underlying motivation for doing what was done in the opener was undeniably pretentious, on the cloyingly hipster-ish, ugly side of what the literary scene promulgates and perpetuates. The volunteers went with it, but not without a smallish pervading undercurrent of awkwardness.

A perfect counterpoint to what I disliked about the opener was the more softly-stated staring contest put on by Heather Palmer before her reading. The contest was epic and, as evidenced by the cries and exhortations of the crowd, one that seemed to go on longer than was humanly possible. But it was genuine, not poking holes abstractly and for no discernible at some derivation of early modern hip hop and new age, self-help methodology (the opener also featured a monologue dealing with some notion of being addicted to self-help that descended abysmally into having an exorcist for some purpose that mystified me (and to be fair, I wasn't in attendance at the last of this monthly series hosted by 2ndhand, so I may have been missing something vital -- cannot be sure of what, exactly, though)).

Heather Palmer's reading was pleasant. It was not from her work appearing presently at the 2ndhand, and readable here on their website. Still it was a good story, featuring a line that has stuck with me, and I paraphrase like so, "Anna learned to speak with her hands before her mouth." Simple but good. Maybe? What do you think, pray tell?

Patrick Somerville was, as headliners should be, the highlight of the show. The story he read was called, "The Time I Accidentally Fell in Love with the Girl Across the Bay" -- a fictitious telling of his family history, and specifically the exploits of his great-grandfather, Henry Somerville, a "self-taught" dentist. There were repeated musical interludes, as mentioned already, which nicely complimented the rustic vibe of the story. I continue to urge you to read something by Somerville.

And there might be more worth mentioning. I drank a PBR in the heavily trafficked lane between the bar and the bathrooms aloofly, which is never my intention to be but listen you, I'm not exactly world's most outgoing person of the year, so cut me some slack, will ya? You smile at me and I'll smile at you, but you first.

It was a Great show! (aside from the parts that were not)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ha Jin & the Enigmatic in "The Crazed"

To begin as if I were writing a high school book report: Ha Jin is an author from China. He writes in English, or at least he also writes in English. I know he does / did write in Chinese, as well. I loved Jin's 2005 PEN/Faulkner award winning novel, "War Trash" -- the story of a Chinese soldier interned in a UN coalition prison camp during the Korean War. Once again, a great example of the beautifully executed conflation of history and fiction.

Another I've read is his National Book Award winner, "Waiting," telling the tale of a military doctor who was forced into an arranged marriage by his parents and is unable to secure the divorce he would like because of a traditionalist law requiring the consent of both individuals for its granting, or until a term of 20 years has passed, when one party can petition without the other's consent -- hence, Waiting.

Most recently, I finished Jin's novel "The Crazed." It's the story of Jian Wan, a graduate student at a Chinese university, charged with the task of attending to his ailing professor, who has recently suffered a devastating stroke. From his hospital bed, professor Shenmin Yang begins to utter ludicrous speeches, declares his love for communism and the party effusively, recites poems, and begins to recall various recent life happenings aloud in his dreams, much to the confusion of Jian. No matter the professor's state of mind, his words begin to have a visible effect on Jian's opinions and actions, and dramatically change his world view and jeopardize his future plans, one of which being his engagement to the professor's daughter, Meimei. The time period is the late 1980s, amid the chaos of the unfolding Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent massacre.

One thing I've always liked about Jin's style is his cadence, a kind of natural staccato rhythm that brings to mind the speech patterns of various east Asian non-native English speakers. Not surprisingly, it works very well in describing and depicting the elements of cultural life in China, in a weird way making the traditionalist norms of the Far East seem oddly accessible, if not entirely easy to empathize with. I definitely get the impression Jin is in part putting on display some of the backwards tendencies of a country in flux, be they normative behaviors that don't seem to add up or normative behaviors artificially put in place by the wrongheaded party government. He nicely renders the odd dichotomy of abject poverty in the lives of the peasantry and the -- in effect -- gentrified powers of the communist party elite, living in the more affluent and tech-savvy urban environs.

Jin also does a good job of conveying the stultifying effects of power and the lust for it, which seems to define China's officials in each of his stories I've read, in one form or another. The corrupt behaviors of Secretary Ying Peng showcase this in "The Crazed." Jin in rendering the power of such unscrupulous individuals in "The Crazed," demonstrates at the same time how such power can be confused with pursuit of the good. Jian starts to feel, as a result of his professor's ramblings, that the job of an academic is pointless in Chinese society, merely a pusher of paper with no real ability to ruminate and discourse with absolute freedom. Instead, it is a life no different from any other in the swollen bureaucracy but with the added kick-in-the-teeth of producing nothing of worth, for all its meaningless hoops and games.

As Professor Wang rambles in his stupor, "I tell you, it's no use studying books. Nothing is serious in the academic game, just a play of words and sophistries. There are no original ideas, only platitudes. All depends on how cleverly you can toss out the jargon." Of course this is coming from the standpoint of a Chinese academic, but it just as surely can be applied to every culture, more or less. There must be at all times a fear of saying what's said ad nauseam and to no real effect. I realize I'm modifying the idea slightly by saying this, but what Wang appears to be hitting on, if he's hitting on anything -- a question his deranged state post-stroke requires you to ask -- is there is a party line to be found in any pursuit, in any discipline, and so often we march over those who fail to toe it.

Clannishness abounds, everywhere, a presumable effect of our primitive needs, but to revert to it with out awareness is to reduce thought to merely another kind of instinctual behavior, reactive and reductive, like the base needs of food and water consumption. In other words, it's probably for the greater good that we not be automatons. To Jian, there is no avoiding this fate in academia -- at least as goes the Chinese model. And he rejects it, accordingly. Which, for someone who might want a certain kind of comfortable life, not to get all Matrix-ey, his decision would compromise that desire greatly. So is revealed the coming conflict between Jian and Meimei, who only aspires to live as a doctor and raise a family in Beijing.

In his crazed state, Professor Wang in some ways becomes his most lucid, and implores Jian -- like the ghost of Jacob Marley -- not to make the same mistakes that he did. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, Jian is in effect scared straight.

Still, for all its positive qualities, and its dramatic and engaging conclusion, I found myself a little more annoyed by Jian than I felt was probably intentional on the part of Ha Jin. His constant internal monologue debating the nature of the professor's various expletives and their meaning or whether they had any relevance whatsoever became grating after a while. Certainly incertitude was central to Jian's character but I felt beaten over the head by his over-analysis and his almost naive tendency of missing-the-forest-for-the-trees. It did make his finally seeing the big picture much more epiphanic at the story's finale, but still I didn't think he needed to have belabored the issue of the meaning behind the professor's speaking lines from Dante or in a dream recalling the physical act of an affair, even though in the latter case it ultimately proved relevant to the narrative, leading in turn to another structural problem which was a bit of foreshadowing overkill.

I did not enjoy "The Crazed" with the same enthusiasm I felt for "War Trash." It did not seem to have the same emotional pull of "Waiting," either. It was a far more than competent novel, yes, and succeeded to the extent that you wanted Jian to find his meaning, whatever it be. And there was a synthesis of its ideas and motifs that felt good and logical. But this was far more a meat and potatoes, workman effort by Jin -- good but not great, enjoyable but not especially memorable or interesting. Yes, we want to have original thoughts and a life of meaning, but if we are thinking that thought, don't we already know that? Just come of age, already, Jian, for cry-eye; you're a graduate student / no spring chicken.

OTHER NOTES: I found a really awesomely funny short story by Patrick Somerville at Knee-Jerk, readable by clicking all these words that are not like the others.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Patrick Somerville Kills the Short Story (in a Good Way, in a Good Way)

I'm happy to say I've recently gotten around to reading Patrick Somerville's "Trouble," a collection of shorts released way back in 2006. Somerville himself has been on my radar for quite a while, given my enthusiasm and great interest in Chicago-area writers. The whole "reading his work" just made sense, then.

I also realize I've been on something of a short story kick of late, much to my surprise. I love short stories, don't misunderstand me. It's just, I dunno, I've always felt something about them, call it length, hampered their ability to be of real heft. The word "tome" could never, for example, be ascribed to something so un-tome like as the collected short stories of Ernest Hemingway (I've of course excluded Papa's tomes, such as "For Whom The Bell Tolls" -- which c'mon, even sounds like a tome). Tome itself sounds like itself, onomatopoeic and suchlike, right? Right. Tomes are about white whales and wars and peace and wakes for the Irish and the rainbows belonging to gravity.

Well, short stories don't sound weighty and hefty like tomes / aren't about the various things listed -- in the same sprawling detail, but what does that mean? Nothing. They're great. Short stories do it with pith. I mean, not a perfect analogy, but who would you rather watch, a blazing Usain Bolt dashing faster than you thought kinesthetically possible, or some other guy, whoever, distance running for what feels like forever, boringly? I believe I've made my point. Or no I haven't. (I already admitted the analogy was imperfect.) But regardless, a point was made and if that point is anything then it's this: I enjoyed Somerville's collection, was rapt with interest even.

His stories run the evocative gamut of the pathos spectrum: emotionally charged, at times hilarious (see "English Cousin" & "Trouble and the Shadowy Death Blow"), and most of all, earnestly contemplative. It's the keen eye Somerville shows for escalation, which drives his stories (in that way not dissimilar from how Usain Bolt builds momentum) and compelled me to continue reading. Gripped pretty steadily throughout, most of his stories I went through in one sitting. There were only a couple times that I needed to return later to some and not for a lack of interest. It might be akin to the feeling one gets when one is editor of a literary magazine and comes across a piece of fiction with which he or she really connects and thus wants to publish.

The stories of adolescence and young adulthood rang true (for whatever that matters -- I suppose when I use the cliche "rang true" what I'm really saying is they seem to have accomplished the thing the author (Somerville) was going for, which I won't presume to know), and equally successful were his stories depicting the melancholy of old age, a DeLillo-esque spirit to life's winter, particularly well evidenced by "The Cold War." If I were to compare Somerville to two authors with whom I'm familiar, one is Don DeLillo, showcased especially in the aforesaid and "The Future, the Future, the Future," which had a delightfully "Americana" feel about it.

The other would be, yes, sorry, George Saunders -- especially well showcased in "English Cousin" -- which was my favorite of the bunch -- and "Puberty." Concerning "Puberty," I get the feeling Saunders would definitely appreciate the inclination of Brandon, the awkward, early adolescent main character, to imagine himself a member of a group he dubs: "STRONG POTENTIAL" (caps Somerville's).

All in all, the sad stuff is adequately sad and effective; the funny stuff is as funny as the best stories I've read all year. Honest. Check Somerville out. He teaches creative writing at Northwestern University, which makes me want to attend their workshop all the more now.

A FEW OTHER ITEMS: I was kindly lent a copy of the McSweeney's Quarterly Concern Issue 18 featuring stories by another Chicago creative writing prof, Adam Levin, whom I've been chatting about quite a bit of late, also, I know. I read his short "Hot Pink," and, listen, I'm on my short story kick and all, so cut me some slack if you feel I'm a bit prone to hyperbole as a result, but honest, it blew me away. It started a little slowly. I wasn't sure why I should be interested in the seemingly meatheaded narrator, a Chicago Polish kid, Jack Krakow, but by the end I felt I understood. It's a surprising tale, and uses the Chicago approximate west side backdrop nicely.

I mention Levin also because he and other young writers like Somerville will likely, should they stay in these parts, become very relevant within the next couple years. I suspect they could be a part of a new literary guard. I'm keeping my eye on some others. I also enjoyed a short story by the very good Chicago-area writer Lindsay Hunter, which you can read here at Everyday Genius. And in the same issue of McSweeney's (issue 18, January 15, 2005) YET ANOTHER Chicago writer, Joe Meno, (who according to his wiki is currently teaching at Columbia College with Levin) has a nice entry called "People are Becoming Clouds."

Also, FYI, on Sunday I plan to attend this:

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hey Awesome! An Email Exchange with Author Jim Shepard

I'm betting I've probably said I really enjoy the work of Jim Shepard. Why so much a fan? Let me tell you.

My 1st reason is he's got a better handle on the idea of melding fact with fiction than any contemporary author I've heretofore encountered. That's for true. But whenever you're talking about fiction and history you're entering a potentially scary realm, so says I. Because what's the point of bringing history into a story if you're not going to go to some pains to represent it adequately accurately? Tell it sans history, or go the other way and write alternative history fiction such as Steampunk, or whatever, I don't care. That's beside the point in the case of Jim Shepard because he goes for as much stick-to- the-record as is possible.

He also 2ndly tells wildly imaginative stories, very well evidenced by the collection "Like You'd Understand, Anyway." And the best news of all is he has a new collection being published by Knopf and coming out next January. It's called, "You Think That's Bad" -- which I doubt I will think that's bad.

As someone who writes & someone who likes history in fiction & thus struggles to find the best way to balance the two, I turned to Jim Shepard, who is as I've said kind of THE authority on this subject. I emailed him this specific question, "How do you comfortably blur the line between fact and fiction? That is, when do you give up verisimilitude and go ahead and tell the story, history be damned?" He replied as follows:

I try to stay as close to the historical record as I can. And I also choose situations that usually leave me room to maneuver: what went on inside the superstructure of the Hindenburg right before it blew? Nobody knows. Usually the way I operate, I've noticed, is to stick pretty faithfully to the historical narrative as I come to believe it, after all of my investigations (and it also helps to remember that historians themselves often disagree) but to invent freely when it comes to inner lives. So that, going back to Love and Hydrogen, I want to be absolutely accurate about what my two crew members' responsibilities onboard were, but I'm inventing their love affair.

I like the idea of looking for those pockets of doubt in a historical record, and playing with those to tell the story. I would imagine Shepard's advice above will help anchor anyone who struggles with how to organize these elements when writing. It will help me. I can say that much for certain. Shepard also commented on the notion of chutzpah, as my initial question above sort of illustrates and the rest of my email further emphasized, how does a writer take that next step with something as seemingly massive as a historical event, either as marginal as the coronation of this or that English royal or, as Shepard himself has written of, nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl? Shepard said:

And when it comes to that issue of authority -- that paralyzing "Where do *I* get off writing about such things?" question -- I always think: all creative writing is an act of chutzpah, after all. Where do we get off writing about someone we knew in school? Or our mother? Or even ourselves, from 20 years ago? Literature is an act of empathetic imagination. If we write about the Creature from the Black Lagoon, instead of the guy next door, we're just trying to push the envelope. Why were we given something as amazing as imagination if we're not going to use it?
To which I say, ok, I'll buy it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Kafka had a Good Writerly Name, Wrote Good Short Stories, viz. "The Village Schoolmaster"

Maybe it's because I like him a lot, but no author's short fiction seems as subtly loaded with the minutiae of the human experience as Kafka's short fiction does. (Hmm, what? That's what everyone who's ever studied Kafka has noted about his work? Its abstruse, nuanced character? Well now so too am I!)

Case in point: his story "The Village Schoolmaster [The Giant Mole]" in which there is the strange discovery of an abnormally large mole, hence the bracketed auxiliary title. But the brackets are a nice touch, suggesting the kind of compartmentalization into which the mole is relegated. So at first blush it's a story centering on a peculiar and inexplicable phenomenon not unlike some other Kafka stories that come to mind, such as "The Metamorphosis" and "Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor." Instead, though, the story is crafted to speak of issues very different, very complex and far less surreal than a giant mole. But then, would you expect any less from Kafka? What's more, what can you expect when reading Kafka? -- Not the unexpected, that's paradoxically for sure.

It's a story about the village schoolmaster who discovers the giant mole's existence. Even more awkwardly it's told through the first-person narration of "Mr. So and So," an individual referred to only as a businessman, but therefore of a rank suggesting he's held in some esteem, which it's safe to presume a lowly schoolmaster is beneath. And so the story begins to show its true nature, describing the contrivance of credibility and those possessing the means to adequately and convincingly argue their case, with all the superfluity accompanying any and every overture or public gesture.

It's conspicuous how the narrator chooses to handle the situation of the village schoolmaster. He wants to help the schoolmaster, but can find no way to adequately achieve this endeavor, which is ultimately botched despite his hyper-awareness of possible consequences. As the narrator puts it:

On the one hand my own influence was far from sufficient to effect a change in learned or even public opinion in the teacher's favor, while on the other the teacher was bound to notice that I was less concerned with his main object, which was to prove that the giant mole had actually been seen than to defend his honesty, which must naturally be self-evident to him and in need of no defense.

The narrator sums up his travails / the dilemma of attempting to represent the side of the schoolmaster. What I think is so cool about it is there is no debating where the mole fits in the narrative, i.e. tangentially. The mole is an aside, maybe even a footnote, but probably it doesn't even warrant a footnote. They could be talking about spontaneous toilet explosions and the narrative would change not at all. (Well, a little bit, if only to describe the expulsion of water and porcelain shrapnel.) It's about how we the people negotiate the human interactive landscape, how to best speak on another's behalf with the classist tools you possess. The narrator I think definitely understands the nature of human behavior, or at least as goes the finer points of custom.

This really is the kind of story you could write endlessly about, because it's so fucking layered. And it's oddly intense. And for all those reasons and more it's just plainly brilliant.

After the narrator publishes a pamphlet with the misguided belief that it will help confirm the veracity of the schoolmaster's claim he slowly but surely finds a different truth, to wit:

. . . the few opponents of his who had really occupied themselves with the subject, if superficially, had at least listened to his, the schoolmaster's, views before they had given expression to their own: while I, on the strength of unsystematically assembled and in part misunderstood evidence, had published conclusions which, even if they were correct as regarded the main point, must evoke incredulity, and among the public no less than the educated.

Because that's what people will do. It's amazing! And with that I close this review. But I still don't think I've sated the itch, scratched to the end. We'll see. May be more to come on this story. There may need to be.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Turgenev Unveils Trouble with Being a Father and Being a Son

Russian literature all day long. That's where we're at, again. Last time was Chekhov and now is Ivan Turgenev (next is Andrev Platonov, as I trek into the 20th century Russian lit milieu a bit).
(Further aside: The shrewd, discerning reader might note that I've read and reviewed Nabokov in between Chekhov and Turgenev, but I dunno, for some reason I can't help but classify Nabokov as something other than a Russian writer, something altogether different. Perhaps this is due to the nearly-his-entire-life of time he spent in places other than Russia?)

The funny thing about reading the writing of the Russian sort 19th-century-style is that you begin to get a sense of how the narrative voices seem to coalesce into one (although I suppose I might blame the blandness of the translations for it, can't be sure of that). Based on my interpretive experience, then, certain conventions of description seem to bind writers like Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and now, Turgenev -- although I don't doubt this might also be one interesting outcome of having a more or less homogeneous people with a shared history and culture, living in a given era, and all the baggage of that -- and which people of a more pluralistic society like ours here in the USofA might have a difficult time appreciating, though I do try. ( M over at Only Words to Play With has a better handle on stuff like this, I think, ethnography and s'orth; what with her seriously erudite analysis of Russian lit -- complete in one recent post with Gogol excerpts in the original Russian, which once again reminds me of how much I wish I spoke/read Russian.)

Let's begin analysis of "Fathers and Sons" with an exchange I was amused by. It's between Nikolai and Pavel, father and uncle respectively to Arkady, who is a friend of Bazarov the nihilist on whom the narrative is centered (the cold & clinical worldview of nihilism, then, at the heart of the novel's philosophical rumination).

Bazarov has just bested and superficially wounded Pavel in a duel (Symbolism!?!?), and Nikolai is rushing up to his brother, having only just been informed of their conflict by Piotr, a servant assigned the task of verifying the assent of both parties' involved in the event that one had been slain. Nikolai says, "But good heavens, you're bleeding!" To which Pavel sarcastically replies, "Did you think I had water in my veins?" HAHAHAHA! Hmmm, well I thought it was funny. Maybe this had something to do with timing in the context of the story. In fact that most definitely is so, which I would attribute to the aristocratic nature of the two characters, representing the land-owning class of feudal lords, who by Pavel's retort make a moment when anything is taken less than seriously very funny, and especially so in the ironically dire but not absolutely calamitous circumstance the outcome of the duel presents.

The point is, as becomes fairly clear early on and which I don't think was unintentional on the part of Turgenev, the landowners are a humorless group, Nikolai deferential and eager-to-please and Pavel aloof and mercurial. Also not coincidental, I should think, is Pavel's magnanimity and newfound respect for Bazarov after he shows himself to be "honorable" with his conduct during the duel.

It's clear that in "Fathers and Sons" we're talking generational gaps, of the divides that separate one generation from another, certainly, but it no doubt concerns that revolutionary spark chipped from flint and steel intellectuals who were growing dissatisfied with the status quo. Bazarov, for all of his many flaws, represents this proto-revolutionary. As Anna Odintsova quite nicely puts Bazarov's disposition and what it arouses in others when she says to him, "You mean you're leaving? Why don't you stay now? Stay . . . it's entertaining to talk to you. It's like walking on the edge of a precipice. At first one's timid, and then one gets courage from somewhere. Stay."

Bazarov might have the right idea about the inefficacy of a society that relies solely on the mores of the past in dictating contemporary behavior, but his acerbic bent isn't exactly the best way to win friends, not that that's what he's after, much the same as a petulant child's not, though. Don't agree? Your prerogative, of course, but I think the forthcoming exchange between Arkady and Bazarov nicely illustrates the depths of the his loathing, and his inability to concede that a part of him wants what others want, too, despite its leaden traditionalism. Their exchange goes as follows, beginning with Arkady remarking about his own decision to wed Katya, Anna's younger sister, and his awareness of what Bazarov must think of his doing so:

"[B]ut why are you being crafty yourself and saying, 'It's a good thing,' as if I weren't aware of your opinion of marriage?"

"Ah, my good friend!" Bazarov said; "the things you say! You see what I'm doing: there was an empty space left in the trunk which I'm filling with hay; that's how it is in our life's baggage; no matter what we stuff it with, it's better than having an empty space."

I consider Bazarov's relationship with his parents, to which I think he plays the paradoxical role of being both a metaphorical father and a literal son, the primary impetus and emotional heart of the story. Bazarov's mother and father, Arina and Vassily, go to great pains to please him, and wish only for his approval so that he might stay near to them, as he has shown a wayward desire to globe-trot after being away from them for a full three full years upon his homecoming put forth in the story. Why anyone would want the choleric Bazarov kept so close is a mystery to me, but his parents do, nonetheless. In their eyes he represents all that is promise.

His father, even when condescended to, is described thus, "Bazarov's jeering did not disturb Vassily Ivanovich in the least; it was even a comfort to him." Vassily is enamored by every feat of Bazarov's, similar in his effusive praise as the first-time parents of a newborn. After Bazarov, a doctor by trade, had removed the aching tooth of a traveling cloth peddler, his tooth being described by the narrator as "average in every respect," Vassily takes possession of the tooth and remarks to a friend, Father Aleksei, "Look at that root! What strength Yevgeny has! The merchant shot up in the air . . . I think even an oak would have flown right out!" To which Father Aleksei responds, "Remarkable!" -- though the narrator adds, "Father Aleksei said at last, not knowing what to answer or how to get away from the ecstatic old man."

(SPOILER ALERT) Vassily and Arina's love and devotion for their son is so clearly and artfully brought to bear that it makes the tragedy of Bazarov's death about as heart-rending for me as stories get. Every scene depicting Vassily father aiming to please but being met with Bazarov's temper is difficult in its own right. What's more, Bazarov visits with his family twice in the novel. The first time he arrives with Arkady, but feels he can get no work done with his father and mother overeagerly fussing over him, and takes leave abruptly after only a short three-day stay. As you might guess, this leaves the elder Bazarovs devastated. When he returns the second time, they have resolved -- Vassily in particular -- to be no burden to him, although they find that a difficult thing to achieve, since they care so fully for him. The worst happens when Bazarov is exposed to typhus, and rapidly he deteriorates to death.

The philosophical transcendence Bazarov undergoes on his deathbed notwithstanding, which I admit I could probably write a whole new post on just that, Bazarov's parents' loss provides epitaph to "Fathers and Sons." Describing the fenced off area within which Bazarov is buried and visited by his bereaved parents the narrator says, "[T]hey go up to the fence, fall on their knees, and kneeling, cry endlessly and bitterly, and look endlessly and intensely at the mute stone under which lies their son." Which is obviously not so peachy. But the narrator offers a solace to them and their plight, saying also:

But can their prayers, their tears be fruitless? Can love, holy, dedicated love not be all-powerful? Oh no! However passionate, sinful and rebellious the heart hidden in that grave may be, the flowers growing on it look at us undisturbed with their innocent eyes; they do not speak to us of eternal peace alone, of that supreme peace of the "impassive universe"; they also speak of eternal reconciliation and eternal life.
Pure poetry.