Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Garden in Which I Walk by Karen Brennan


On to a collection of short stories.

Karen Brennan wrote several books before this one, notably Wild Desire back in 1990 which was positively reviewed in the NYT Review of Books. Now she's a professor at the University of Utah. She's written five books, total, and she teaches the graduate level poetry workshop at U of U. I'm 100 pages into this book and there's not much left, about half as much again, I'd say. It's what they used to call a slim volume, back when they said that sort of thing. There are a few things I have to say, at this point...

1. This writing is very controlled, very lovely, very fine. There isn't a lot of warbling excess -- it's carefully honed. It reads like poetry, lots of it, and I'm not surprised to find that she's also a poet. Reading these very short short stories, where often what's central is an image, or a situation, or an idea, and not a plot exactly, I'm thinking of this analogy: Handling good writing, like this, good images and interesting phrases and bright language, is like handling a lap full of sparkly jewels. It's pleasurable. Maybe poems are like the loose jewels, unset, just rolling around. Maybe short stories are like the jewels strung onto a wire, that you can wear, but with no interstitial weave or anything, just a sequencing. Maybe novels (I could be wrong, maybe they are nothing like this) are like a beaded garment, where you not only have the pretty gems, but you have to arrange them over a space, and it can't be too crowded or too sparse, and you have to also create the fabric between them, and make sure that fits, and that the seams are hidden. These stories, while all beautiful in themselves, are not connecting together to make anything wearable. I carry them off in my memory as separate things. It's really hard to write a novel. This writing, here in this book, is gifted and at times genius, but I don't think it was *hard* to write this. That's not a criticism, it's just the way the book feels.

2. It's not a good idea, in my opinion, to have a lot of first person stories in a row, all sounding alike. They started to bleed together in my mind, and I felt when I started the next story that I was still reading about the last character. I liked the third person stories best, I think, because the narrators of the others failed to differentiate themselves. I think my favorite was the one in three sections about the wreckage, the face, and the... sleeping. That was very well woven. My least favorite were the most fragmentary ones in first person. I also very much liked the one about the beautiful woman who maims her hand with a chainsaw accidentally. That one I will remember.

3. I was already struck with an example of why I don't usually read contemporary fiction. After reading this book, so rich in the image department, I was outside watering flowers with my little daughter. She had the hose in her hand, looking very picturesque with the little cotton dress and the flowers and her wavy hair. I was just loving watching her and I kept smelling something awful and rotten, and eventually I looked around carefully and there were two dead baby birds under the tree. Baby birds that fell out of the nest and died and there was nothing anyone could do. And my first thought, all seeped in this kind of literary brainjuice was, 'I should write a short story and use that.' Which, of course, wouldn't be altogether BAD. But the right thing to do, if I do use it, would be to work it into my novel... or just think about it and let it filter in. Or blog it. When I was in grad school I used to keep running lists of these "things" you know, what I would call jewels using my analogy above, and when the list got long enough I'd write a story using all of them, forcing them all in together like a salad.

4. Everyone in this book is miserable. Some extremely miserable. It's funny because from the first three pages I thought it was going to be kind of sweet and nice and boring. I think that's why that story is first.

So, on I go to finish and release it. I'm trying to decide whether to email these authors. Seems kind of pushy, like hey, I'm reading your BOOOK pay attention to MEEEE. Heh heh.

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