Friday, October 4, 2013

Novelist Housewives: Reflections on Shirley Jackson

Nobody can personify a house like Shirley Jackson.

“There was a door to an attic that preferred to stay latched, and would latch itself no matter who was inside; another door hung by custom slightly ajar, although it would close good-humoredly for a time when some special reason required it.”

“One bedroom chose the children. It was large and light and showed height marks on one wall, and seemed to mind not at all when crayon marks appeared on the wallpaper and paint got spilled on the floor.”

“Eleanor wandered along the veranda, thinking that she had never before known a house so completely surrounded. Like a very tight belt; she thought; would the house fly apart if the veranda came off?”

If you’re familiar with Shirley Jackson’s work, you will recognize Eleanor in that last quotation as the protagonist of Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and is considered one of the best horror novels of the twentieth century. More on Hill House in a minute, but where, you might ask, did those first two delightful quotations come from?

From Jackson’s short story “The House,” which I discovered in so interesting a way that it ultimately gave depth and interest to my reading of Hill House that I wouldn’t have otherwise reached.

Now, if you know me, you know that I’ve become a knitting enthusiast in the last couple years. I had heard that older knitting patterns tend not to be clear, technical guidelines like patterns are today, but more like suggestions. I’d been hankering to see one of these old patterns for myself, and so when my mother-in-law invited me to the Oberlin community garage sale over Labor Day weekend, I went with a goal of finding old knitting patterns. Sure enough, I found a Needlecraft magazine from 1967, but it was bundled with other old magazines, so I had to buy the stack. Not only was I rewarded with Woman’s Day issues from 1952 and 1954, which themselves include knitting patterns along with a slew of entertaining ads that made my $2 money well spent, but I had inadvertently purchased a “first edition” of Shirley Jackson’s “The House,” which was printed in the 1952 Woman’s Day.
At that point, I knew Shirley Jackson only from her much-anthologized “The Lottery.” But she was always an author I intended to read someday, and so it was a treat to sit out on the porch one warm September afternoon and enjoy the first-person story of a woman who rents an old house with her husband and young children. The titular house seems to have a mind of its own, the furniture settling just so and certain objects disappearing, sometimes to surface again later. Jackson even manages to have her first-person protagonist describe drying spoons and the spoons somehow disappearing in the midst of the act. You would think so obvious a thing would be dealt with in an overly-dramatic or unconvincing, too-detailed way—but you would only think that if you hadn’t read Shirley Jackson. She has a sort of nonchalance about supernatural phenomena that allows her to integrate these elements seamlessly and artfully into work that still manages to be fit for a woman’s magazine of its day. The end of the story is an encounter with a little old woman who the reader knows must be a ghost, although one gets the feeling its not really the ghost behind these household oddities, but the house itself.
First page spread of "The House"

“The House” was published in 1952; The Haunting of Hill House came out in 1959. Was the short story a warm up of sorts to Hill House? Would I learn something about the writing process in reading the two back to back?

There’s more material behind those questions than can fit in this blog post, so suffice it to say that despite some obvious echoes and surface parallels between the two—the cryptic, distant landlord in “The House” and housekeepers in Hill House; the strong personification of a house to the point that it has some form of consciousness and a will of its own—I wouldn’t base a dissertation on proving “The House” as a source for Hill House. What was more fascinating to me was my new appreciation for the novelist housewife that seeing “The House” in its original context inspired. If you take the time to go through 1950s issues of Woman’s Day as I did, you’ll see that the word homemaker once meant exactly that—that a woman made her home in the most literal sense. An entire section of the magazine was categorized as “Needlework” and featured articles like (in the Shirley Jackson 1952 issue) “Make an Heirloom Bedspread,” “Three Embroidered Tablecloths,” and my favorite, “Modern Tatting Is in Color.” Modern tatting? An oxymoron today!
One of the entertaining ads in the 1952 issue

And it’s not just needlework. There’s the “Home Workshop” category that includes how to make headboards and luggage covers and how to press things to preserve them. There’s the monthly menu, a typical weekday of which reads (and this is from 1966) “Ham Biscuit Roll with Cheese Sauce; Orange-glazed Sweet Potatoes; Jellied Vegetable Salad; Boston Cream Pie,” or another day, “Chicken Livers (wrap in bacon; broil); Rice Pilaf; Dandelion Greens with Hard-cooked Egg; Radishes, Ripe Olives; Baked Custard.”

I’m not so na├»ve as to think these magazines perfectly represent what life was like in those decades. This is no history lesson, and it would be awfully gullible to ignore that magazines show ideal versions of the lives of their readers think they want. Still, these magazines show we shouldn’t discount just how much housewives of these decades made their home. And Shirley Jackson was a housewife. That much is clear from reading her essay on how she had the idea for “The Lottery” while pushing her children home in the stroller with the groceries.

This ad is opposite a page of Jackson's "The
House." Gotta love the title "Skirts Ahoy"
Suddenly a house with consciousness and will seems both more understandable and, somehow, more subversive. Of course a home has personality, if only from the invested time and talent projected by its inmates—and yet, how terrifying when a person does not make the home but the home, of its own accord, insists on impressing itself upon the person. Is Eleanor—who daydreams of a little house with lace curtains and stone lions, and who can’t bear to clear the table after a meal—susceptible to Hill House’s lure precisely because she is a homemaker, while the less conventional Theodora is not and does not suffer the house in the same way?

Another question: Can we 21st-century readers who tend to inhabit our homes in evenings and on weekends understand the intense relationship between a home and its “maker”? Leave me a comment with your thoughts. As for me, I’m off to knit an heirloom bedspread. I am a novelist housewife, after all. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Reflections from the Tuba....

Update: My McSweeney's column is now up! Check it out here.

Can you identify this picture? 

If you said, "Oh, sure, that's Elizabeth taking a picture of herself and her brother reflected in her tuba at a Tubachristmas performance," leave me a comment. I'll be impressed. I just might send you a prize.

They say you don't really know what you think about something until you write about it. Well, I seem to have discovered that one of the major reasons I play the tuba is because I love watching reflections in the tubing. I realized this while writing a sample column for McSweeney's annual column contest. I titled my proposed column "I Like Big Brass and I Cannot Lie: Confessions from the Tuba World," and the first installment was a brief, lighthearted look at the why and the who: Why play the tuba? and Who is crazy enough to do it?

My inner critic decided to give me a last minute lecture on all the reasons why my column wouldn't get picked. I almost didn't submit it. My husband told me to submit it anyway. And guess what?

I got an honorable mention! And more, I get to write the column regularly for the next year for McSweeney's Internet Tendency! The first installment, which is that sample column, comes out this Friday, September 27. Be sure to swing by McSweeney's on Friday and check it out. And, if you have some time now, surf on over to see the winners and other honorable mentions that have already started to appear. You'll find columns demystifying Apple stores, analyzing pop culture with Christianity and humorreviewing athlete self-help books, and rewriting Russian classics, to name just a few. Soon there will be tubas involved...See you Friday! 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Theme and Variations: Reflections on Margot Livesey's The House on Fortune Street

This summer, a friend of mine attended the Kenyon Review Novel Workshop. She told me that The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey was on the list of prep reading and was an interesting study in structure. With such a recommendation, I couldn’t wait to read it.

And, indeed, the structure is “interesting.” The book consists of four sections, each one focusing on a different character—first, Sean, a Keats scholar who quits his marriage in order to be with Abigail (stay tuned) and then his dissertation work in favor of writing a book on euthanasia; next, Cameron, a man with pedophiliac urges he doesn’t act on; then on to Dara (Cameron’s daughter), a sensitive psychologist and would-be Jane Eyre who falls in love with an already married father-figure; and finally Abigail, Dara’s fiercely independent best friend. The book is ultimately about Abigail and Dara and the way that their father-figures, or lack thereof, shape the course of their adult relationship patterns.

The idea of dividing a book into sections and allowing each section to follow a different character is itself not a unique or especially interesting structure. Where the structure gains interest is in how indirectly the sections interlock, but as a reader, I walked away feeling ambivalent. There were moments, especially when it was clear how a father-figure had impacted one or the other of our intelligent heroines, that the indirect links provided delicious space to ruminate on why one person’s actions had resulted in another’s motives. But at other times, I didn’t feel attached enough to any character to care enough to sit down and parse it out.

I think the New York Times reviewer Liesl Schillinger felt the same way but put it less bluntly:

It’s strange that this novel, essentially an exploration of how and why two grown women have remained single, begins with the stories of two men. …The book’s last two sections, in which Dara and Abigail get their turns, coordinate and cohere better as linked narratives, for obvious reasons. This raises the question: why leave them for last? Did [Livesey] want to show Abigail and Dara in the context of their menfolk so readers wouldn’t find them uninteresting, wouldn’t make the mistake of regarding these unmarried women as women entirely without men? Was she trying to place the blame for their solo status outside the female realm? Did she think they couldn’t carry the story on their own?

Schillinger leaves these questions unanswered, but you get the sense from them—as indeed from the novel itself—that this narrative offers pleasures more cerebral than passionate. The structure makes demands on you to put the puzzle together, but it does so at the expense of immersing the reader in really feeling any one character. This is a problem in a book that has love relationships at its core. For example, we are to understand that Dara gives herself wholly to her romances, but this information is delivered via conscious and explicitly acknowledged parallels between Dara and Jane Eyre. Perhaps my own passionate devotion to Jane Eyre made me judge this move more harshly than other readers might, but to me, the parallel only illuminated how little experience I was getting of what it was like for Dara to be in love. Jane Eyre (in which, as Harold Bloom has argued, the genius is the exceeding passion driving the narrative) so expertly and abundantly records the dialogues and little moments that make up Jane and Rochester’s love for each other that calling upon it in House on Fortune Street only makes the latter novel seem chilly by comparison.

Still, there was one character whose experiences made me feel moved on his behalf, and that was Sean, the character of the first section. There are some lovely lyrical moments in which Sean is drawn deeper into his research of euthanasia and surviving family members—moments in which compassion and yearning surprise him—but this thread proves a red herring. As Schillinger puts it, “In spite of his kickoff position, Sean is somewhat irrelevant to the story, a pale moon in Abigail’s solipsistic universe, slipping into ever remoter orbit.”

So what then to make of House on Fortune Street? I didn’t feel attached, and yet it would be a mistake to too easily dismiss it. In the end, its concerns are primarily and unapologetically thematic, which is not only a quality to admire for the demands it places on the intellect—too many books hit upon an engaging voice and think that’s enough—but one necessary to spark discourse. If you take the time to visit Schillinger’s review, you’ll see that she starts with a long rumination on unmarried women, their place in literature, and the reactions they spur. But, as I’ve said, I read the book as being about how paternal relationships impact romantic ones. These are just two of the several themes Livesey manages in a spectrum from which, no doubt, your own angle will determine a new refraction.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

In the Valley of the Shadow of Books: Reflections on George Gissing's New Grub Street

“Just understand the difference between a man like Reardon and a man like me,” says Jasper Milvain of his novelist friend in George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street. “He is the old type of unpractical artist; I am the literary man of 1882. He won’t make concessions, or rather, he can’t make them; he can’t supply the market. I—well, you may say that at present I do nothing; but that’s a great mistake, I am learning my business. Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skillful tradesmen. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetizing.”

For all of us trying to “make it” as writers today, diligently building our “platforms,” accruing followers on Twitter and on our blogs, carefully networking at summer workshops and writers conferences, weighing whether to self-publish and make money directly or go the traditional route and gain more credibility with the establishment—for us, the “literary man of 1882” does not sound so different from the “literary person of 2013.” And I have to tell you, it’s both a consolation and a frightful thing, because as much as novelists today might try to go about their work without thinking about the marketplace (and this is especially true of MFA writers; at least in the program I went through we were encouraged to focus on the manuscript and worry about selling it later), in the end, a manuscript sells or it doesn’t. A book does well sales-wise or becomes a black mark on the author’s record. And, as New Grub Street poignantly illustrates, even a novelist of the highest ideals is ultimately human and under the same need of money and of career success as anyone else in modern society. The consolation, I suppose, is that where the contemporary literary world tends to see itself as uniquely hard-pressed by economic forces, New Grub Street serves as a reminder that, though the details may have changed, the overall picture has long been the same.


In terms of the prose itself, the structure, and even much of the characterization, New Grub Street is not a brilliant novel. But if you’re a writer or somehow involved in the publishing world, New Grub Street is a must-read, guilty pleasure kind of book. Who among us will not sympathize with Reardon suffering a series of bad writing days and lamenting, “I am at the mercy of my brain; it is dry and powerless. How I envy those clerks who go by to their offices in the morning! There’s the day’s work cut out for them; no question of mood and feeling; they have just to work at something, and when the evening comes, they have earned their wages, they are free to rest and enjoy themselves”? Even when the most melodramatic scene arrives—in which the novelist Biffen plunges into a burning building to save the novel manuscript he has just that day finished—even if it’s eye-rollingly sensational, if you have written a novel, I guarantee you will nevertheless feel an awful suspense and desire for the hapless Biffen to be successful in his ridiculous rescue attempt.

The fun doesn’t stop there; the brilliance of New Grub Street lies in how many views of both literature itself and the business of literature it presents. There’s Milvain, the enterprising writer of the markets; Reardon, the “midlist” (if I may borrow a contemporary term) novelist; Yule, the man whose unfulfilled literary ambitions embitter his life; Marian, the woman of substance with a look about her as if she hails from “the valley of the shadow of books”; Amy, the beautiful, materialistic woman who ultimately likes authors because of their shot at reputation and fame; Biffen, the Realist writer whose work will never sell but who nonetheless gives his all to his masterwork; Quarmby and Fadge, the warring critics with sharp tongues; and—get ready to laugh—Whelpdale, perhaps the very first literary agent. Aside from his Dickensian name (whelp=carnivorous mammal), Whelpdale is described as “a man who can’t get anyone to publish his own books [but] makes a living by telling other people how to write!” Hm, sounds like Gissing had some beef.
George Gissing

In fact, Gissing has a beef that’s not strikingly original but one that always takes courage to represent: the sobering truth that those who pursue an ideal with honest effort aren’t always rewarded and that more likely than not, considerations of money and influence will win out over the purer of heart. New Grub Street ultimately succeeds because although its message is relatively transparent at the end, the key to it—Jasper Milvain—is ambiguous throughout the story. I couldn’t decide for much of the book whether he was “likable” or not; whether to sympathize him or, as he outright claimed anyone should, to abhor his shallow principles. Without giving too much of a plot spoiler, let me just say that the final image of him unequivocally answers the question in a way you won’t soon forget.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Unsettling Contrasts: Reflections on Tolstoy's Family Happiness

“A truly great book,” wrote Robertson Davies, “should be read in youth, again in maturity
and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.” I’m sure I could pull countless other quotations from writers on the joys—and sometimes disappointments—of returning to novels one has read at a previous point in life. But I recently had such an interesting experience re-reading Tolstoy’s novella Family Happiness that I couldn’t resist analyzing what made it so.

Family Happiness is written from the first-person point of view of a teenaged country girl whose parents have both died. The estate’s guardian, an old family friend and a man in his late thirties, comes to manage the household’s affairs and gradually he and the teenaged girl fall in love. At first, much is made of their age difference and difference of experience—that life is just opening to her, while he has had plenty of worldly experience. In fact, he tries to hide his love for her because he believes he’s not the right match for her, but their love prevails and they marry.

But the novella doesn’t end there. Instead, it follows through the first contented year of marriage and into the slightly more discontented period to follow. Sergey (the hero) believes Masha (the heroine) has grown bored, and so he takes them to St. Petersburg where Masha comes under the thrall of society life. Sergey is afraid all along that her pure, innocent ways will be corrupted by society life, and he is proven right—or so he believes—when they have a severe falling-out over a ball Masha wishes to attend over Sergey’s desire to leave Petersburg.  Then comes the painful ruin of their love and the bitter loneliness of an estranged couple. When Masha finally confronts Sergey over their estrangement, he tells her that he does still love her but that the first phase of romantic love can never last, so they might as well settle in to this new phase of steadier though more distant love. Masha sees that he’s right, sees that the intensity of romantic love would be a plague if it continued on and on, and she and Sergey unite in love for their child.  Family happiness indeed.

The novella is a love story, and in my first reading of it four years ago, I was along for the ride, even in the portions where love causes heartache and alienation. But this time around, all I could feel, even in the first part of the novella where there is indeed abundant happiness and love, was an overwhelming sense of menace—a sense of menace that makes the reading wonderfully painful. I suppose it’s partly because I knew more or less what was in store. But to attribute this second reading experience to knowing the plot would be to miss the novella’s genius, for in fact what I picked up on this time was Tolstoy’s use of what Joyce Carol Oates identifies in Jane Eyre as a “dialectic” approach.

Oates’s introduction to the Bantam Classics edition of Jane Eyre is a pithy but meaty introduction to that novel’s greatness. She points out that the book moves by setting up conventional ideas or statements and then almost immediately subverting them. Oates uses the book’s opening as an example. Jane Eyre begins with “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day,” and goes on to describe the gloomy weather conditions. But where this seems like the usual childish lament that the rain should go away and come again some other day, we get instead Jane’s bold, straightforward statement, “I was glad of it.”

In a similar way, Tolstoy announces up front that this novella is about Family Happiness. And yet, look at the novella’s the first sentence: “We were in mourning for my mother, who had died in the autumn, and I spent all that winter alone in the country with Katya and Sonya.” Sounds a lot more like family unhappiness, especially since Masha falls into a broody adolescent depression. Granted, that unhappiness in many ways sets the stage for why Sergey’s entrance brings comparatively much happiness. But it’s hard to ignore that Masha’s initial feeling at the thought of Sergey as a potential husband is one of fear.

The trend continues throughout their courtship. Just as Masha begins to feel close to Sergey, he purposely keeps his affairs from her. “This hurt me at first,” narrator Masha says, “but I soon grew accustomed to confining our talk to my affairs, and felt this to be quite natural.” Huh. I’m not so convinced, especially given that the very next sentence is, “There was another thing which displeased me at first and then became pleasant to me. This was his complete indifference and even contempt for my personal appearance.”

So, even Masha recognizes that things are moving forward by contrasting elements—what first displeases her soon pleases her, or so she says. There are many more examples I could raise, but since this is a blog post and not a thesis paper, I’ll let you search them out for yourself when you read Family Happiness. The effect of these contrasts is to put the reader in a state of being constantly unsettled, to the point that even when Masha is declaring how happy she is, the reader is cringing at the contrast that is certainly to come. Even the title, Family Happiness, plays tricks on us—is it to be taken in good faith? Or is there a sly undertone? Family happiness. The book ends with the very picture of it, husband and wife at peace with their baby. And yet, the resolution comes quickly; the pain that preceded it is far more vivid and detailed, even simply in terms of the pages devoted to it; and we are left wondering, was the sacrifice too much? The only answer the novella seems to offer is that it is inevitable. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Successful Experiment: Reflections on Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist

It was a Saturday afternoon in April, chilly, and two of my friends from the George Mason MFA program were visiting here in Columbus. Naturally, after showing them the ridiculous corn field sculpture in Dublin (see picture), we stopped in at the Village Bookshop, a bookstore in an old church with overstock books at cheap prices. We hatched a plan: the four of us (my husband joined in) drew names and we each had to select and purchase a book for that person which he/she would then be obligated to read. We agreed not to choose a book that would waste the person’s time (hence Jimmy Buffet’s short story collection Tales from Margaritaville remained on the shelf), and after more than five years of reading one another’s writing, we knew each other’s taste enough to know what would be worthwhile.

I lucked out.  The friend who drew my name chose for me Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist.

I had not read Anne Tyler before, but I soon found myself drawn into the world of Macon Leary, the “accidental tourist,” whose life is falling apart in the wake of his son’s death and his wife’s subsequent request for divorce. Emotionally reserved, Macon copes with his new bachelorhood by devising ridiculous routines (like sloshing his clothes in the bathtub while he showers to launder them) and caring for his late son’s dog, whose emotional upset expresses itself in poor doggy behavior. Enter (against Macon’s will) Muriel, a dog trainer and a divorcee herself who loves to talk and whose life is as chaotic and full as Macon’s is regimented and detached. The conflict of whether these opposites will attract escalates as Macon becomes increasingly embroiled in having to choose his old lifestyle over a nascent new one, his lovely ex-wife Sarah over the charming mess of Muriel.

If you haven’t read Accidental Tourist, be forewarned that it is the type of book that will make you linger long over your lunchtime reading, or stay up too late turning pages. Not that it’s overly suspenseful, although you can’t help being invested in the characters and wanting to know what will happen next—it’s more that the world Tyler draws is both entertaining and real in the way that the greatest comedies of manners are. The characters are quirky, but they never veer into caricatures, just as the many emotions of the book—love, frustration, grief—are expertly managed so that the book is never maudlin or broody or despairing.

Successful comedies of manners are not easy to come by today.  They belong more to the moralistic and “mannered” societies of the 18th and 19th century. But to imagine that we do not have “manners” in contemporary society is a delusion that Accidental Tourist clearly dispels, as does Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I blogged about previously. In fact, the two books share many similarities—a close, third-person point of view of a male protagonist; a tone that at once invites us to laugh at the protagonist’s limitations even as it respects that same character’s struggles; and an overall effect of perfectly managing the narrative so that it avoids unattractive extremes of satire or sentimentality. And both are books that manage, miraculously, to be that perfect blend of being fun to read while still offering substance that stays with the reader after the last page is turned.

Our afternoon at the Village Bookshop had a happy ending for all of us.  One of my writer friends went home with a collection of short stories by Peter Ho Davies, while the other ended up with Joseph Heller’s Picture This.  I happened to draw my husband’s name, and while I considered making him read Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood because I myself would like to read it and have someone to discuss it with, I ultimately selected a book I thought might be more to his taste: the Booker Prize-winning True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, about an Australian outlaw. And I think I can safely say we all went home with a sense of thankfulness at having friends who know our literary selves!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tragic Clutter: Reflections on E.L. Doctorow's Homer and Langley

Not long after I graduated from George Mason, E.L. Doctorow gave a reading on campus. Naturally, I went. 

I have to confess I’ve never quite known what to make of Doctorow.  His worth seems predetermined, as if he has a god status that allows him to float above the realm of MFAs and AWP and New Yorkers desperate to be Novelists. Perhaps this is because I first became aware of his name while memorizing facts for my high school’s academic quiz team: If they asked who wrote Ragtime, my finger was on that buzzer!  Not that I had read the book, but I had memorized his name along with a long list of old influential dead guys—Giotto, Charles Pinckney (“No! No, not a sixpence!”), Giteau—and so I suppose Doctorow, too, seemed like something from the annals of history.

So it was a bit of a surprise to find, ten years later, a vital, mild-mannered, white-haired man who spoke easily to the half-empty auditorium I did my part to fill. Of course, by then I well knew he was a living novelist, and I had read The Book of Daniel for one of my graduate writing classes (Structure of the Novel—it was a good fit for the subject). From that book and from his reputation, I knew that Doctorow was an American novelist—one who does not simply happen to be an American citizen and a novelist, but one who intentionally engages American history and thereby explores what it is to be American.

He was reading that day from his most recent novel, Homer and Langley, and the premise—along with some of his comments—was enough to stick with me until two weeks ago when I finally got around to reading it.  The book is told from Homer Collyer’s point of view—Homer of the infamous Collyer brothers, eccentric pack rats who died in their New York mansion, Langley crushed under a pile of clutter, Homer from malnutrition and dehydration because he was blind and dependent on Langley for care.  It’s a tragedy, and even more of one when you read Doctorow’s version of it—Langley broken by his service in World War I; the lyrical, quasi-lecherous Homer yearning to be loved and experiencing loss of sight in his youth and of hearing in his age.

But Doctorow does a good job of keeping things lively with recounted episodes of Homer’s taking up with the housemaid and offending the family’s most faithful servant, Langley assembling a Ford in the dining room, and Homer befriending a gangster who later ends up seeking refuge with the Collyers.  The first-person is used to good effect, lulling us into understanding how these eccentric episodes come about, though always with hint enough at Langley’s compulsive collecting and theory concocting to remind us that the Collyer brothers’ lives are indeed abnormal.

At his reading, Doctorow posited that people are intrigued by the Collyer brothers because we all have a tendency to let things—objects, clutter—accumulate.  We are haunted by the Collyers because we can see that it wouldn’t take much for our material possessions to overwhelm us.  I think he’s right, but even if you don’t agree, there is a lesson here for the novelist: the book is successful because we end up identifying with Homer.  A person who, if we had met him, would have made us shrink away because of his otherness, here, in fiction, draws us in.  And it isn’t just the commonality of our battle against material clutter—it’s the commonality of being human, limited by our own selves but desiring to be greater somehow, whether through love—as is the case for Homer—or, as for Langley, through wild, creative endeavors.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Life, Vigor, and Independence: Reflections on Steinbeck's East of Eden

Me in Monterey--Steinbeck territory

Percy Lubbock, one of my favorite critics, contends that William Thackeray (author of number 3 on my list of all-time favorite novels, Vanity Fair) was a genius at creating a sweeping impression of life in a certain place at a certain time. However, according to Lubbock, he was an inept scenemaker.  Thackeray failed to create a scene and let it carry itself, even when the opportunity for one arose.  Here’s what Lubbock says:

It is as though he never quite trusted his men and women when he had to place things entirely in their care, standing aside to let them act; he wanted to intervene continually, he hesitated to leave them alone save for a brief and belated half-hour.  It was perverse of him, because the men and women would have acquitted themselves so strikingly with a better chance; he gave them life and vigour enough for much more independence than they ever enjoyed.

I believe the same critique could be applied to Steinbeck’s East of Eden.  I finished reading the book recently, and I’m still finishing his Journal of a Novel, the notes he kept while writing East of Eden. In these notes, he anticipates that people will criticize East of Eden for lacking form or intentional construction.  In fact, the novel is very carefully formed—Steinbeck limits himself to 1,000 words a day because he wants the novel to have a leisurely tone.  More than that, the diversions to the main plot of the Trask family—side stories of the Hamilton family and its members—are part of Steinbeck’s plan of allowing the book to represent life in the Salinas Valley.  He even considers titling the book My Valley to show that the book is bigger than just the Trask family.

None of these considerations, in my opinion, is the reason East of Eden ends up being a bit of a let-down. I appreciated the simple tone of a family history, or even, almost, of a Bible story; I liked the colorful episodes of Olive Steinbeck’s airplane ride or Tom and Dessie’s time together.  Novels are allowed to sprawl a little—or at least, should be allowed to, as long as the characters and episodes hold interest and contribute to the overall gestalt, as is the case here.  These little tangents do indeed help build a sense of the place and the people. 

East of Eden is a response to the Cain and Abel story, and not just a response—by which I mean, it takes the themes and emphasizes certain points, such as Steinbeck’s emphasis of “Thou mayest triumph over sin” as mankind’s ultimate hope and goal—but a re-enactment.  What I’m about to say could count as a plot spoiler, except that Steinbeck himself is so blatant about paralleling the Cain and Abel story, the main events were already spoiled for you back when Genesis was written. So, we know that the novel is going to boil down to the conflict between Adam (Adam!) Trask’s sons, Cal/Cain and Aron/Abel.  We’ve already been through this Cain and Abel conflict in the previous generation when Charles, Adam’s brother, tried to kill Adam because their father loved Adam but not Charles. 

It would be wrong not to acknowledge Steinbeck’s genius here.  He takes an old story, yes, but he particularizes the characters and the circumstances so well that within the novel we have a clear and vivid sense of not only the conflict and its causes but also how that conflict and its causes repeat themselves through generations.  That’s no small thing to capture, and Steinbeck certainly succeeds here.

But, because we already know the outcome of the Cain and Abel story, particularizing it is everything to the novel’s success.  However, when we get down to what should be the scene in which Cal reveals to Aron the truth of who their mother is, a truth that Cal knows will kill a part of Aron, we never get that scene!  We end up piecing that scene together, and even an image or two from it, but the scene is not presented as scene and allowed to stand on its own.  

As a writer, I know that intentional choice lies behind much of the work (I say much because there’s still that mysterious part when you over-write yourself and achieve more than you in your conscious efforts could ever have managed).  I also know that I should trust Steinbeck in East of Eden.  But where he has been successful in drawing nuanced and complex characters, especially in Cal and Aron, it is a let down of the sort Lubbock articulates when he says that the author gave them life and vigor enough for much more independence than they ever enjoyed.

Now, Steinbeck is not Thackeray.  Thackeray does indeed have a way of letting the narrator speak over his characters, and for them, quite blatantly.  In fact, that narratorial voice is his charm.  But Steinbeck has a similar tendency, if subtler, to speak for his characters in East of Eden.  I’m thinking of where he introduces Cathy, the Eve character, and prefaces it by a long section which begins “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.” He even goes one farther than Thackeray by acknowledging the narrator is John Steinbeck’s own persona.  And so it seems to me that he, like Thackeray, falls into a trap of keeping his hand too carefully on his characters.  Steinbeck was out to reflect on the Cain and Abel story; even if he doesn’t intervene as continually as does Thackeray, he still fails to trust his characters enough—fails to leave things in their care and stand aside to let them act.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Insight, Not Information: Reflections on Sands Hall's Catching Heaven

Last August, in one of my follow-up posts to the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, I talked about Sands Hall, the novelist who led workshop the day my chapter was up for discussion.  She is one of those people that when you see her, you know instantly you’ve found someone intelligent and capable—and the more you get to know her, the more the impression proves true.  At Squaw Valley, she runs an “open workshop,” an afternoon session in which writers read a page or two of their prose out loud, and then Sands leads discussion of it.  I never got to attend one of these sessions, since I was busy with another workshop in that time slot, but I heard they were great.  What made Sands so good a workshop leader in the normal workshop format (where writing is distributed and read in advance) was her wisdom in trusting the writer’s intent and guiding the discussion towards how to improve upon that intent, rather than letting the workshop group dither on about how to change things in ways the author might not want.  My case in point: Sands trusted that my use of a third-person narrator outside of the characters was intentional, and she asked for the workshop to discuss where it was working and where it needed a tune-up, rather than let people talk on about how I should get rid of it.

So, when you find an intelligent, capable novelist, you naturally want to read her work.  Which is what I did some months ago when I treated myself to Catching Heaven by Sands Hall.

It is the story of two sisters, both artists in their way, but Maud is the truly artistic spirit.  She is a searcher and sojourner whose heart has been broken by the crass selling-out Hollywood requires but who remains steadfast in her love of Shakespeare and the life-changing transport she believes acting can be.  Lizzie, a painter, expresses her creativity not simply through her paintings but also through her family life.  She has three children, and while her difficulty in committing to a husband provides much of the book’s conflict, her life is yet the more stayed version of family and job that Maud lacks.  The chapters rotate among the third-person limited perspectives of Maud, Lizzie, and Jake, the father of Lizzie’s most recent child, and while all three characters are intertwined and important, Maud comes through, in my opinion, as the real interest of the story.  Her presence is so clearly rendered, not just through her own sections but in other sections where Lizzie’s children look to her as the cool aunt or where Jake encounters her in a restaurant and feels drawn to her free-spirited, but sad, aura.

Not long ago, I came across the very simple but very true observation that, when it comes to character, information does not equal insight.  Lesser novelists have a tendency to heap on information, thinking it makes their character interesting and quirky if they tell that the character eats ketchup on her scrambled eggs or likes the color blue.  But these things alone don’t add up to any sense of vision.  Consider instead how Flaubert, say, in Madame Bovary makes Emma’s love of Paris not just part of her likes and dislikes, but a key to her psyche.  She takes this city that she has never visited and builds it up into something grand and beautiful, romanticizing it to the point that it becomes another vehicle through which her own provincial life becomes intolerable to her—dull, boring, mundane.  Thus, it’s not information that she orders magazines about Paris life; it’s insight, down to the very frivolity and desire for novelty implied by a light periodical.    

As I mentioned, I read Catching Heaven a few months ago.  The piece of it that stuck with me the most and that will continue to stay with me is Maud’s love of Shakespeare.  This isn’t just the cheap laying on of information; instead, Hall uses Shakespeare to shape Maud’s very being. Shakespeare provides the key to Maud’s depth of feeling and the lens through which she views the world, thereby becoming an animating feature of both the character and the novel itself.  To my mind, this is the real achievement of Catching Heaven, and one with a lovely side effect: it will make you want to revisit Shakespeare for yourself.

Speaking of the line between information and insight, perhaps the best information I could give to offer a sense of Sands Hall herself is this—when introducing herself, Sands said, “Sands, like sands of time.”  Of course.  Not “shifting sands” or “sands like the beach,” but “sands of time,” with all its ring of sagacity.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Art of Being Brief

At long last, I've taken the plunge into the world of Twitter.  While I was at it, I added a few handy dandy features to this blog.  On your right, you'll see "FOLLOW BY EMAIL," which will allow you to get my new posts straight to your inbox so you'll never miss another one.  You'll also see "FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER."  Self-explanatory.  And if you scroll down a bit on the right-hand side, you'll see a button you can hit to share my blog on Facebook. 

Thanks for reading! 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Prosaic Poetry, Poetic Prose: Reflections on James Wood's "Becoming Them"

In my last post, I highlighted a few phrases from Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem that failed to achieve anything fresh or original.  Those phrases included “equations to solve,” “history to question,” and “the impossible vocabulary of sorrow.”  Then, this past week while reading James Wood’s article “Becoming Them” in The New Yorker, I came upon the phrase, “the plagiarism of inheritance.”

Wow!  It was one of those gong moments where an initial crash subsequently opens out into something larger and more beautiful in its resonance.  I immediately stopped in my reading to let my mind open up all the possibilities of that new and fresh idea.  The plagiarism of inheritance.

So why was Wood’s phrase so effective while those of Blanco’s poem weren’t?  As I said in that earlier post, Blanco’s phrases rely on literal or tired ideas: it’s no secret that we solve equations and question history, while “the impossible vocabulary of sorrow” is just another way of saying “unspeakable tragedy” or reiterating how words so often fail us when trying to console the bereaved or express grief.  None of that is new. 

But Wood’s phrase, the plagiarism of inheritance, pairs two ideas that don’t usually get paired, and what’s even more delicious is that the pairing includes a paradox of sorts. An inheritance is something received by right—someone has dictated that you should have something, and so it is yours.  Plagiarism, on the other hand, means wrongfully taking, or as Merriam Webster defines it, “to steal and pass off as one’s own.”  Inheritance=something given.  Plagiarism=something stolen.  Inheritance involves something one has a legal right to.  Plagiarism originates with something that does not belong to the plagiarizer. There’s also a nice contrast of passivity and activity (to inherit, one does little else except be the one named as receiver; to plagiarize, one actively commits wrong).

So the phrase itself is rich in the texture of its meaning.  But if you read the essay from which it comes, you’ll see that it’s even more brilliant in how it captures the entire point and spirit of the essay in just four words.  As the title “Becoming Them” implies, Wood’s article is about the pain of losing one’s parents paired with the pain and joy of finding oneself, as one ages, to be nothing more than an unoriginal copy of the parent.  Here’s the passage in which the phrase appears:

Sometimes I catch myself and think, self-consciously, You are now listening to a Beethoven string quartet, just as your father did.  And, at that moment, I feel a mixture of satisfaction and rebellion.  Rebellion, for all the obvious reasons.  Satisfaction, because it is natural to resemble one’s parents, and there is a resigned pleasure to be had from the realization.  I like that my voice is exactly the same pitch as my father’s, and can be mistaken for it.  But then I hear myself speaking to my children just as he spoke to me, in exactly the same tone and with the same fatherly melody, and I am dismayed by the plagiarism of inheritance.  How unoriginal can one be?  I sneeze the way he does, with a slightly theatrical whooshing sound….

That one phrase, the plagiarism of inheritance, captures the complex feelings Wood’s article gives voice to of being caught, both happily and mournfully, in the great system of loss and gain, the conflict we all feel of clinging to the familiar while longing to do or say or be something new, original, and entirely our own.  To embed that complexity in a phrase of four words is to achieve the economy of poetry. 

So don’t let form fool you.  Just because something is intended to be a poem does not make it poetic; likewise, keep awake for how poetry can sneak up on you, even in prose.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Post-Walt: Reflections on the 2013 Inaugural Poem

A couple weeks ago, my cousin mentioned he had watched the inauguration, so I asked what he thought about the inaugural poem, "One Today" by Richard Blanco.  He confessed he wasn't fond of it because it jumped around and included everything from puppies to butterflies to rainbows.  I hadn't yet read it or watched it, but I immediately suspected Blanco was going for the sort of wide-ranging cataloging pioneered by Walt Whitman.  There is something very American, after all, in the eclectic and expansive spirit behind such cataloging.

But when I read Blanco's poem, I confess that I, too, was disappointed.  I shared my reasons with several friends who do not have poetry backgrounds, and I realized that I take the skill of close reading for granted.  So in case any of you out there had a similar negative reaction to the inaugural poem but couldn't quite put your finger on why, you might enjoy taking a look at my thoughts.  And if you have a close reading or opinion of your own, please share it in the comments section below.

To articulate why Blanco's poem leaves me cold, I'd like to continue the comparison to Whitman.  You'll find listing and cataloging throughout Whitman's works; "I Hear America Singing" offers a good and manageable sample.  You can read the poem here

Now take a look at a stanza from Blanco's poem:

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches 
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

Look at that first line: "All of us as vital as the one light we move through."  There's a very prosy and prosaic quality here that falls flat, and it falls flat because it delivers its message in a direct, blatant manner.  Compare that to Whitman, who never says "All of our songs are vital to America"; instead, that message is embedded in the spirit of the poem, and he never uses the hackneyed imagery of "light" over and over as the above stanza does.  Lest you think I'm picking on this piece of Blanco's poem unfairly, check out the final stanza where you'll find even more tired ideas: stars, mapping constellations, hope.  

In the stanza above, the diction itself is unoriginal: equations to solve (check, yes, that is what one does with equations); history to question (again, nothing fresh here); the impossible vocabulary of sorrow (unspeakable tragedy, anyone?).  How prosaic; how predictable; how it fails to sing.  An advocate of Blanco's poem might argue that the mundane quality is part of the point of his vision of America, but I don't see support for such a reading.  Instead, the poem strives to create a sense of awe towards the varied world, as in the "gorgeous din of honking cabs, buses launching down avenues" in stanza  5.   Phrases like these seem to ask us to find the poetic in the everyday, but to me, a descriptive verb like "launching" or an adjective like "gorgeous" sounds more like the effort of a student completing an exercise in descriptive writing than the authentic ring of originality.  Blanco, like Whitman, writes in what we would call American plain style.  The difference is that Whitman never tries to contort a verb into imprecise description that sounds vaguely poetic, like "yawning to life" (stanza 2) or "crescendoing into our day" (ibid).  

Clearly I'm not a fan of "One Today," but I'm even less a fan of it as an inaugural poem because it is, in my opinion, unforgivably tied to the self.  Lines like "my father’s cutting sugarcane so my brother and I could have books and shoes" and "ring up groceries as my mother did for twenty years, so I could write this poem" insert the poet himself, Richard Blanco, into the poem.  The "I" in Whitman, by comparison, is a sort of universal or bardic "I," not I, Walt Whitman.  

Whitman, of course, never wrote an inaugural poem.  But Frost's "The Gift Outright," which was an inaugural poem, uses a poetic, bardic voice, not the voice of Frost the individual.  (Notice, too, how it leaves the reader with an emotion, a sense of the country's past, and a thought-provoking twist in those final lines.) Like Frost, Elizabeth Alexander, last term's inaugural poet, spoke in terms of "we", and when "I" surfaces in her "Praise Song for the Day," it is in the voice of others who have come before: 
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.
I know there’s something better down the road.

Perhaps all this talk of American poetry has left you hungry for more.  Or better yet, maybe you want to exercise your own close-reading muscles.  You might enjoy picking up a copy of The Poets Laureate Anthology, which represents America's poets laureate from 1937, when the first Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress was named, to 2009. Yes, I worked on the book as permissions coordinator; no, I don't benefit from your purchase of a copy.  I can simply vouch for it as a quality book, and one that comes to mind when thinking of poetry and American government.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Two Words: Reflections on the new Anna Karenina movie

As I said in my post of September 7, I had great hope for the new movie version of Anna Karenina.  Though I don’t ever expect a movie to replicate the experience of reading the book, that doesn’t mean good adaptations can’t be made. 

Anna Karenina with Keira Knightley gets off to a great start.  The pacing is quick, like the novel’s.  There are touches of humor, as in the bureaucrats stamping their papers in unison and Levin’s awkward lack of urban finish.  The foreshadowing is nice but not overdone; Anna’s son is shown playing with a model train, for example.  And everyone is whistling, humming, carrying the jaunty and very Russian tune of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony.  A lot of these masterful touches are facilitated by the smart and interesting choice to film the story as if it’s taking place in a theater.  This also underscores how “on stage” Russian society made people to be, a fact which becomes part of Anna’s undoing.  So here again, the movie is true to the book without representing absolutely everything exactly as Tolstoy has it.  The cast, too, is really wonderful, and they nail their characters throughout.

But, after this fantastic beginning,