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.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Gone by Elisabeth Sheffield

I'm about 50 pages into it.

It's making me ask myself things like... why are books written? Why are books read? For years I have tried not to read anything written in this century, with very few exceptions including material I am critiquing for friends. I have read a few things but in general I haven't, especially I have tried to avoid other "experimental" writers because I'm afraid of being influenced, etc. I know that is not in the spirit of postmodern piracy and we're all very collectively conscious and text cannot be owned or authored or whatever, but this is just me. I read 19th century fiction, or else I read like... Jan Brett books to my kids.

So this is the first experimental fiction I've really read in a while. I have a few thoughts.

I think that readers naturally try to romanticize things. We try to imagine the settings as beautiful (or at least sublimely ugly) the characters as deep and true, and beautiful, and we want to believe there is significance. We're on the author's team, automatically, because we bought the book (or at least we're spending time to read it). It seems to me, and I could be completely wrong, that this author is trying to undercut my subconscious but earnest attempts to romanticize things in this book. I'm not allowed to believe the main character is beautiful or nice or even wise. Smart, she is. The smartness is packed into every crack of every sentence, with extra smartness crammed in around the edges. And a big fat dollop of smartness on top. Maybe it's droll of me to want there to be some romance here, and I mean, gauziness, not like... true love or anything. I want something to drag me back to the book after I eat dinner, make me consider staying up all night to finish it.

This book has a hook -- it's not lacking in a plot question. But I think the questiony lesbiany relationship burgeoning in old letters is maybe supposed to be the hook. There is also the question of whether the main character will find the painting she wants to find. The thing is... she's kind of rough. She puts on sweaty shirts. I *realize* okay? I realize that I'm not being very pomo and whatnot abotu this. But... I feel differently about reading a book where not only does the main character judge how sweaty her shirts are before putting them on, and sit down naked on the bathroom floor in grit, but that the narrative tells me that pointedly, as if... this is the kind of book you are reading, where the women's shirts are sweaty. Like... in your face, reader.

I am going to finish reading this book -- it's a challenge. There is quite a bit of great, great writing in this book, and I will have more to say later.


I finished it.

Right about page 100, my interest began to pick up significantly. I started having that urgent feeling like I had to know what was going on and finish the book. That feeling is the reason I read books (the reason most of us read books, I bet) and it was a relief when that kicked in. In my exalted opinion, page 100 is a bit late, and if I hadn't been committed to reading this, I would have put it down.

Having got to the end now, I think I do understand what Sheffield was doing. The book is about how women (as represented by the main character Stella), and also readers of fiction that's been written by a woman, assume that men are the villains, that the central female character (Stella's mother), especially if she is artistic, beautiful and from a disadvantaged background, must be the noble victim. This novel takes that expectation and turns it on its ear.

The novel is a mystery, and the reader has to reconstruct what has happened in this strange, exotic family, and figure out, as Stella puts it at one point, "who hurt who." While Stella herself is trying to figure it all out, from old letters and from talking to key players, the reader is always two steps behind her. One step behind, because we have to figure out what Stella already knows, which she does not openly tell us, and two steps because the style of the Stella sections is so difficult to unravel, almost purposefully obscuring what is already pretty murky. It takes a lot of work to get to the bottom of this mystery, and some of it I still don't quite understand... I just didn't pay close enough attention, maybe, to tie up all the loose ends.

The Stella sections are in present tense, and are my very least favorite type of stream of consciousness, where the character seems to think about each step she is taking, literally, where every motion or breath triggers a song lyric association, where there is just a swirling flood of thoughts surrounding the slightest action. Nobody thinks that much, that coherently (even thoug it reads as incoherent) and it makes for a very disembodied, difficult to picture narrative. The book's strongest sections, however, are letters from Stella's aunt, Judith. Those sections are great, at times excrutiatingly emotional, in spite of the fact that they *seem* to be written in a more detached, less immediate and personal style. I connected more with the letters in their stiffness and formality than I did with the rushed breathiness of the present time sequences.

For those who are willing to work this book has rich rewards. There is a very unpretentious and ungauzy portrayal of an artist who comes off as brilliant and believable at the same time. There are lots of motifs that pervade the book, affecting you on that almost subconscious level where you connect ideas as you read. The idea of the missing eye, for example, resurfaces throughout, connecting with many parts of the book and anchoring the theme of absense, invisibility, and what is unseen but still there. I really liked that. Also the idea of value, of copying, of replication, centered around the Winslow Homer that the main character is seeking and played out in her mother's art as well. I liked the idea on page 135 about how two photographic prints of a nonexistent original could hardly be said to be copies of each other. There were lots of smart, interesting ideas in the book, buried under the 'cuz' and 'gotta' and 'gonna' and 'yeah' language that Stella flooded us with.

Once the book takes a hold of you, its grip is firm. I did not love the present tense sections, but I loved the contrast of the letters from Aunt Judith. They were like islands of great writing in a sea of Joycey crazyland sometimes. I didn't like some of the things that Stella did, that seemed completely irrational and weird (like trying to seduce Uncle Buck or reading her own letter last -- I thought she might read her own letter first, and try to *kill* Uncle Buck) but I appreciated how omplicated the puzzle really was, after all the mud had swirled away. The underlying message, too, I think, is a treasure worth unburying.

Monday, June 5, 2006

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

It took me a long time to read this. It wasn't a book where one thing leads to the next in a single plot that you follow from page to page. The plot is more like a spiral that circles through five main characters in various states of poverty in a small Southern town. The owner of an all night diner, slave to nickles and daily routine. The black doctor, powerless to inspire his neighbors to follow his ideas about birth control or politics. The teenage girl whose family runs a boarding house, dirt poor, ignorant, and an unnoticed musical prodigy. The deaf/mute jeweler who has no one to speak sign language with. The labor agitator, frustrated to violence by the circumstances of those he sees around him. The book goes around and around through the lives of these, people, following them for one year. For all of them, in this year, bad goes to worse. There is uniform decay, devastation, disappointment... it is a bleak bleak landscape that only gets more grim as the book goes on.

It's written brilliantly. There are lines in the description of the people specifically, of the milieu in general, of the zeitgeist, that are just exquisite perfection. Descriptions I will remember and take away with me, into other books, into my understanding of the South during the depression. Her handling of the point of view shifts, around the town, and how the different characters' worldviews are reflected in the quality and nature of the narrative... it's nothing short of genius. I can't even think of a crack to make about this book, because it was so completely shatteringly good.

Nothing I ever want to read again. I could get the same sensation of hopelessness, ignorance, waste, and want by... wait... WHY would I want that sensation? Why don't I just go put my head against the sidewalk and flatten it with a sledge hammer?

It's a book that I should have read, and I'm glad I did, and I'm glad it was written, but now I want to eat strawberry ice cream, and read P.G. Wodehouse, and kiss my kids.