30 October 2008

Murder Madness Mayhem

I'm teaching a section of a course next semester called "Murder, Madness, and Mayhem" at Plymouth State, and since a passionate minority of the readership here seems interested in my syllabi and the (so-called) thinking behind them, here are the texts I've settled on using:I don't entirely know what I'm doing with all these texts yet (the order was due at the bookstore last week, but the class won't begin till the end of January), but I chose them because I think they will illuminate different things about each other.

The only text that I've been settled on using since the moment I learned I'd be teaching a section of the class is The Dark Descent, an anthology I admire enormously for its generous selection of stories from all sorts of different traditions (contents listed here), and getting to explore it with students will be great fun.

The other books I chose bit by bit as I developed some focus for the course -- the course description I was given is pretty general, and the course goals are mostly just that the students will learn to write and read better, will develop some critical thinking skills, and will have some sort of interdisciplinary experience (the class is, like my current Outsider course, mostly for first-year students).

As with any class, my first step was to decide what to give up. For a while, I was thinking of including both Titus Andronicus and King Lear, but then I realized that, much as I might find the comparison scintillating, it was likely to be quite difficult to drag the students through two Shakespeare plays in one term -- I taught Shakespeare every year for 10 years in high school, sometimes with success and sometimes not, but it seemed like too much of a risk for this particular class, partly because I just don't know how to teach Shakespeare when the class doesn't meet every day, and the time and effort it would eat up could be used more productively, I thought, with other texts.

Next, I gave up on trying to represent the world. For a while, I kept things like Bolaño's By Night in Chile, Tanizaki's Seven Japanese Tales, and Zoe Wicomb's Playing in the Light on the possibles list, but they came off one by one for different reasons (Tanizaki because I wanted novels rather than more stories, Wicomb because I find the shifting viewpoints of the novel annoying and didn't really look forward to rereading it [and though I adore her You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, I once included it in a class and it was just too subtle for the students to appreciate], the Bolaño because it requires a certain kind of readerly sophistication that I just don't know how to teach to kids who've just come from high school and, more often than not, don't like reading). I also wanted to include some plays by Euripedes and maybe John Webster, but then had to remind myself that it's not a course in dramatic lit.

Finally, I decided to let the course be about the intersections of murder, madness, and mayhem, and to take a particularly socio-political approach, one that might make it a bit less of a struggle for students who aren't English majors (few, if any of them, will be). Thus, a certain focus on war -- all of the texts other than The Dark Descent explore some aspect of war or combat.

Sarah Kane's Blasted, which is currently playing in New York (I'll be seeing it with Rick Bowes in a couple days, in fact), presents a brutal and hallucinatory version of war and its effects on people, while Chris Shinn's play Dying City offers a rich and subtle exploration of the Iraq war and the homefront. I thought that Blasted would make a bit more sense to students if they read a realistic account of the Bosnian war, and I thought about including a book of nonfiction (even Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde or The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo), but settled on Drakulic's S. because though it has a certain documentary feel, it will still allow us to continue thinking and talking about how people respond to real horrors through fictional writing. Mother Night is a favorite of mine, a wonderful book to teach because its accessible surface lures students into thinking it is less complex than it is, and when they discover its complexities they tend to get excited by and passionate about the book. Daughters of the North and Liberation will be the final books, ones that get us talking about, I expect, how and why writers extrapolate from present trends, and if murder, madness, and mayhem must always be aligned during times of political crisis.

In amidst all this, I'll toss some essays and, I hope, a bunch of poems. We'll see. It's a tight schedule just with these books, and I could change my mind about a lot of things between now and the end of January...

29 October 2008

Morality, Irony, and Fiction

I shouldn't use such a vast and portentous title for a post that is essentially just saying, "Go read this," but I will anyway, because I think Wyatt Mason's latest post at Harper's hints toward some ideas that are worth considering:

The animating idea of such a book, whether for children or adults, is morally objectionable. To account with the death of 6,000,000 innocents, the author invents a fictional “innocent” whose ironic fate is meant to offer a poignant window onto actual mass murder. Why morally objectionable? It is not that I object to fictionalization of the factual. Rather, I object to the notion that the fake death of a fake German child–through a series of contrivances that guarantee his irony-drenched death–is put forward as a representative means for readers to empathize anew with real children and real adults who really died. How else, such a narrative strategy suggests, could one empathize with the gruesome abstraction 6,000,000 innocents but by the creation of an ironical “innocent”?

Here we see the limits of irony as a narrative strategy.
I've held various views about fiction and morality over the years, sometimes rejecting any relationship between the two terms, sometimes even rejecting the idea of morality itself as a too-convenient catch-all to just mean "stuff I don't like". Over the past few years, though, I've inched closer and closer to seeing that fiction writers need to have some sort of (for lack of a term I'm more comfortable with) moral awareness. I still hate the sound of those two words together, I still remain deeply skeptical of any use of the word "morality", and yet I haven't come up with something better to describe my discomfort and sometimes flat-out anger at the ways many writers create fiction about, for instance, atrocities. Child abuse and sexual abuse are other subjects I more often than not find exploitative in fiction -- the ways writers write about them frequently make me think they are taking shortcuts to emotion, and using such things as relatively easy ways to make their readers feel things. In most cases, fiction (in the broad sense, including movies) that doesn't complicate its own desire to make an audience feel things is fiction that I am, generally speaking, annoyed by. (I was once going to write about this tendency in Amanda Eyre Ward's Forgive Me and Christian Jungersen's The Exception, but I had such vehement disagreement with the moral equations of the novels' narratives that I was incapable of writing about either book: I gaped at their awfulness and could only emit sputters and gasps.)

And yet at the same time, the subject matter that causes writers and artists to create imaginative structures that feel, yes, morally objectionable to me is also the subject matter I most want writers to tackle -- the atrocities, the horrors, the ghastly things that we humans commit against each other, the stuff that often makes me cynical and even misanthropic, the evidence that exhausts my better nature, the material of our worst tendencies. Perhaps that passion, that desire is what makes my disappointment so strong and often leads me, when trying to critique such things, to be inarticulate.

In any case, I hope Wyatt Mason continues to write about this subject.

27 October 2008

One Story: Respect for Tradition

One Story is a marvelous magazine (and not just because they published me -- that should, perhaps, be held against them...) and I can testify that it makes a great gift for people who like to read but generally feel too busy to do so, because receiving a nicely-produced story every three weeks or so in the mail is great fun.

One Story now and then asks for donations, because the magazine is a non-profit and doesn't run ads. Clifford Garstang pointed out that a recent solicitation included this description of the "Editor" donation level:
Editor: $100 – I’ll pay one author for their story
Mr. Garstang notes that there is, according to certain interpretations of English usage, a problem with agreement between the one author and the plural pronoun their.

What he doesn't say, though, is that One Story is simply showing their respect for the history of English literature and the language itself. According to the indispensible Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, here are some of the writers who have used this construction:
Chaucer: "And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,/They wol come up..." ("The Pardoner's Prologue")

Shakespeare: "And every one to rest themselves betake" ("The Rape of Lucrece")

The King James Bible: "...if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses"

Jane Austen: "I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly" (Mansfield Park)

Thackeray: "A person can't help their birth" (Vanity Fair)

W.H. Auden: "...it is too hideous for anyone in their senses to buy" (Encounter, Feb. 1955)
For further exploration of this fine tradition, click here.

Free Spaceman!

One of my favorite novels of recent years, Brian Francis Slattery's Spaceman Blues, is available as a free download this month from Tor.com. Go now!

25 October 2008

24 October 2008

Bookstore Economics

Andrew Wheeler is my favorite writer when it comes to the practical minutiae of everyday publishing and bookselling. He explains things clearly, thoroughly, and often with a good sense of humor. His perspective is that of someone who does marketing for a living (he's a science fiction fan who markets business books these days), and he is more practical in his approach than many of us who just wish every corner had an independent bookstore stocked with all the sorts of books we like.

His recent post on why some books get stocked by chain stores and some don't is one of his best yet, and it moves through all sorts of different subjects having to do with publishing. Idealists will be annoyed, but before changing the world, it's important to know what the state of the actual world is.

I considered excerpting a paragraph and posting it, but that might prevent people from reading the whole thing.

The New New World

The many people who thought the 135-minute theatrical cut of The New World was already too long are probably not lining up to get the new extended cut DVD, but for the passionate minority of us who think The New World is not just a good film, but one of the greatest American films -- for us, the new DVD provides overwhelming bliss.

The movies I care about most are the movies that so capture my imagination that I rarely think about anything else while watching them -- they expand beyond entertainment into a kind of meditation. It's an entirely individual thing, and though I expect most compulsive filmgoers have a list of such films, I doubt any of our lists are too similar.*

When I first wrote about The New World, I began by saying, "I, too, thought The New World suffered because of its length, but unlike the various reviewers who thought it was too long, I felt like most of the problems came from it being far too short for all that director-writer Terrence Malick tried to do with it."

The extended cut is the version I was dreaming of, aching for. It adds only a few new scenes, each of them brief, but instead the additional 37 minutes are scattered into what already existed in the previous DVD version, but with such subtlety and care that it feels like a new film. The effect is powerful because it changes many emphases, and the lengthening makes the story encompass much more than it previously did -- the 135-minute cut basically tells the story of John Smith and Pocahontas's doomed romance; the 172-minute cut tells the story of characters encountering new worlds.

My initial reaction to the earlier version of The New World was that I thought it was unfinished. Subsequent viewings, though, made me think that that first reaction came partly from being annoyed by the people sitting around me in the theatre who were so obviously bored. When I watched the movie again (and again and again...), I got comfortable with its length and editing.

Having seen the extended version now, though, I wonder if I'll be able to return to the first DVD with much pleasure. I'll return to it for intellectual reasons -- interest in thinking about the different choices Malick made -- but the extended cut provided the entrancing and overwhelming experience I had glimpsed when I first saw the film in the theatre.

In TimeOut New York, Matt Zoller Seitz writes insightfully about the new cut (he has been among the movie's most eloquent defenders):
This version foregrounds Smith, Pocahontas, Pocahontas’s second husband, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and a half dozen subsidiary characters as they are shocked into reconsidering who they are and why they exist. The result is its own splendid thing -- a fresh take on the story drawn from the film’s numerous shots of rivers feeding into oceans, reshaping the land and nourishing the landscape. It is a historical epic that illustrates Ralph Waldo Emerson’s belief that humankind’s collective past, present and future are encoded in each individual life.
This is true, but what I felt on watching the film again is that part of its genius is its richness of meaning, particularly in the new version, because now it is, yes, about individual versus collective identity, but it is also more vividly about cultures that are alien to each other trying to figure out what to make of the strangers, and it is about communication and intention, and it is about destruction and creation, and it is about travel and home, and it is about grasses and water and insects and clouds and windows -- yes, windows, or at least holes, because a motif that is strengthened in the new version is the motif of walls (sometimes ceilings) and the holes in them that people look through, adding another layer of meaning to the movie, a theme of sight and perception.

Malick is not the sort of writer-director who generally creates great roles for actors, and this is, I think, one of his strengths -- the performances become no more (or less) important than many other elements of the film. Some critics have seen this as coming from his apparent indifference to psychology (for all the internal monologues, most of what is given to us by the words is metaphysical rather than psychological: characters attempting to understand their worlds and their place in them, rather than their own personal, individual motivations), but I think it's as likely to result from his extraordinary sense of balance. In any case, The New World does provide at least one brilliant performance, that of Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas -- even if you forget the extraordinary fact that she was in her mid-teens when she filmed The New World, hers is a performance of powerful depth and subtlety, one of the greatest I've seen (I don't think it's hyperbolic to compare her to Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc).

The first Malick film I saw was The Thin Red Line, and it was one of those moments where I said to myself, "I had no idea I so desperately wanted something like this to exist..." I watched it again and again. Then, a few years later, I saw Badlands, then Days of Heaven. My feelings then were that Thin Red Line was Malick's supreme achievement, and that Days of Heaven was relatively superficial. A little while later, I decided Badlands was as good as Thin Red Line. Then came The New World and it was almost as great as Badlands and Thin Red Line. Then Criterion released their remastered Days of Heaven, and I watched it more carefully than before and thought it was even better than Badlands and Thin Red Line. So I watched Thin Red Line again and found it less satisfying than before -- still entrancing, but not to the level of The New World or Days of Heaven. And now, with the extended New World, that, for the moment, seems to me to be Malick's greatest masterpiece.

*My list includes: The Rules of the Game, Touch of Evil, many of Francois Truffaut's movies (especially The 400 Blows), Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Ran, Unfinished Piece for Player Piano, just about everything by Tarkovsky, Blade Runner, Paris, Texas, most of Werner Herzog's films, Brazil, John Sayles's Matewan and Men with Guns, Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo and Short Cuts, Mulholland Drive, everything by Hirokazu Koreeda, Breakfast on Pluto, everything by Miyazaki, Julie Taymor's Frida and Across the Universe, a few of Wong Kar-Wai's movies, I'm Not There, Reprise, and everything by Terrence Malick, with The New World at the top of the list. (A longer list than I expected when I started it!) There are plenty of other movies and directors I love and admire (e.g. Stanley Kubrick), but these are the films that, for me, provide a particular sort of experience.

22 October 2008

Filter House Review

My review of Nisi Shawl's collection of stories, Filter House, has been posted at Strange Horizons.

It's the sort of review I mostly refrain from writing -- a negative review of a well-intentioned book from a small press. It took me ages to write, partly because usually I don't continue reading books that fail to hold my interest after a while, but mostly because my brain rebelled against the idea of writing such a review. I have an easier time writing negative things about nonfiction, because ideas are put out there to be challenged and analyzed, but a short story collection from a small press is more an offering than an argument.

So why? Selfish reasons, mostly. I had wanted to begin to clarify some ideas of what differentiates (for me, at least) competent/mediocre fiction from fiction that is either obviously bad or that has elements of greatness (or maybe not greatness, but something more than competence). Filter House was the book at hand, and I was struggling with it in the same way I have struggled with countless stories I've read for Best American Fantasy, countless novels I've looked at for reviewing, countless writings that have made me wonder, since they lack obvious flaws, exactly what it is that causes them to fall flat. I don't know if I succeeded at getting at much of that in the review, or if it justifies the review, but it was the motivation. And the final paragraph is sincere: Nisi Shawl has all the skills to become a powerful writer, and I would not at all be surprised if her future work achieved far more than Filter House does.

I should also offer thanks, as I always do when I review for SH, to Niall Harrison, who once again offered sharp, thoughtful editing and encouraged me to exorcise my dithers.

17 October 2008

Scattered Thoughts on Michael K. and Others

Early this week, I thought I'd write a little post about J.M. Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K, since I just got finished teaching it in my Outsider course and wanted to preserve a few of the things I'd thought about -- each reading experience of the novel has been, for me, quite different. But then I got to thinking about futurist fiction in South Africa before the end of apartheid, since I had started doing some research on the subject recently (mostly spurred on by a footnote in David Attwell's J.M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing), digging up out-of-the-way articles and out-of-print books, and I thought, Well, I can put some of that into the post, since it's interesting, but I wanted to do more research before saying anything in public, but I didn't have time, and, well ... here we are. No post all week. But lemme tell ya, the one in my head, WOW! It's a doozy, you betcha!

I do plan on writing an essay about such futurist South African fiction as Karel Schoeman's Promised Land, Nadine Gordimer's July's People and A Sport of Nature, Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, and Mongane Serote's To Every Birth Its Blood ... but I need to read them all first.

Until then, some humble and probably obvious notes on Michael K....

When Coetzee is at his best as a novelist -- Barbarians, Michael K., Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello -- there is simply no other living writer I would rather read. All of his other books at the very least reward the time spent reading them (I'm quite fond, too, of his memoirs, Boyhood and Youth). As I read Michael K. this time, I tried to think about what it is in Coetzee's work that so appeals to me. It's no individual quality, really, because there are people who have particular skills that exceed Coetzee's. There are many writers who are more eloquent, writers with more complex and evocative structures, writers of greater imagination.

And then I realized that I was marking up my teaching copy of Michael K. as if I were marking up a poem. I looked, then, at my teaching copy of Disgrace, from when I used it in a class a few years ago. The same thing. Lots of circled words, lots of "cf."s referring me to words and phrases in other parts of the book. Lots of sounds building on sounds, rhythms on rhythms in a way that isn't particularly meaningful in itself, but that contributes to an overall tone-structure, a scaffold of utterance to hold up the shifting meanings of the story and characters.

The other writers I think of as doing this sort of thing -- Gaddis, DeLillo, and Pynchon come to mind, though more as 2nd-cousins than twin brothers -- do so on a larger, more baroque scale. Coetzee is closer to Beckett, but more concrete (less dense than early Beckett, less ethereal than later). The biggest influences on Coetzee, it seems from some of his interviews and essays, have been Kafka and Beckett, and if forced to say which writers of the last 100 years matter the most to me right now, I'd say, myself, Kafka and Beckett, with Coetzee somewhere close behind them, hand-in-hand with Paul Bowles, Virginia Woolf, and maybe a couple of others, depending on my mood. This says less about literature than it does about me, about what it is I look for in fiction -- there is a bleakness of vision to most of these writers, often a fierce anti-sentimentality (which, in their best works, does not preclude humanity or descend to the converse of sentimentality, macho frigidity), and a great depth of language within relatively compressed fictional forms. My love for this sort of writing is also my limitation as a reader; I am, I think, capable of appreciating the DeLillos, Gaddises, and Pynchons of the world, but I am not someone who can truly love their work. (Instead, I end up loving them for certain sentences and paragraphs. There are passages in Mason & Dixon, Underworld, and The Recognitions that reach toward the height of human accomplishment with language -- perhaps these are simply feasts too rich for my metabolism.) Similarly, many more lush or emotive writers are capable of effects I can notice and see as skillful, but ultimately they ... well, they make me gag.

Once I got past obsessing over why a book like Michael K. appeals to me so deeply, I was able to focus on other things. My students struggled with matching their expectations for what a novel should be and do to what this novel is and does, and much of our time in class was spent on finding patterns -- patterns create meaning, I told them, and so when you get stuck, look for patterns. I had them find passages in the novel having to do with time, fertility, authority, children, communication (speech, words), and places where characters talked about the meaning of things, or where they assigned meaning to things. I made them search through the book as if on a scavenger hunt (which proved difficult for most because they had read quickly and hadn't written anything in their texts, but working in groups they stumbled along). As they talked amongst each other, sharing discoveries, they found that the novel was not the amorphous, "pointless" thing they had perceived it as, but rather a web of repetitions and reiterations. If I'd truly been prepared, I would have then given them some words of Barry Lopez from the introduction to About This Life:
Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives.
Among other things, what we find in the patterns floating around the character of Michael K. are questions about what it even means to say "the character of Michael K.", because the story we are told (or, more accurately, stories) is one in which people impose meanings onto him and he resists them. As readers, our instincts encourage us to find meanings and apply them just as much as the other characters in the book do -- we want to sum him up in the mostly simplistically Freudian ways we can, which is how we read most narratives these days -- what motivates the characters, what secrets need to be revealed for them to overcome the obstacles in their lives, how can they come to peace with their childhoods, etc. We've been fed this predictable sort of psychodrama for at least a century now, and it fuels not just morning soap operas on tv, but most of the bourgeois literature of our era and many earlier eras (more often than not, good books are good in spite of their psychologizing).

Some critics have faulted Michael K. for the second section, which, two-thirds of the way into the novel, stops everything and shifts the viewpoint. Suddenly we are outside K's point of view, looking at him through the notes of a doctor. When I first read the novel (ten years ago now), I, too, was thrown off by the second section, mostly because the first had so overwhelmed me with the vivid, visceral imagery created by perfectly ordinary words. The shift seemed like a cheat to me, as if Coetzee couldn't admit how powerful and evocative the first section was, or was afraid of it. Cynthia Ozick made a good case against it:
If ''Life & Times of Michael K'' has a flaw, it is in the last-minute imposition of an interior choral interpretation. In the final quarter we are removed, temporarily, from the plain seeing of Michael K to the self-indulgent diary of the prison doctor who struggles with the entanglements of an increasingly abusive regime. But the doctor's commentary is superfluous; he thickens the clear tongue of the novel by naming its ''message'' and thumping out ironies. For one thing, he spells out what we have long ago taken in with the immediacy of intuition and possession. He construes, he translates: Michael K is ''an original soul . . . untouched by doctrine, untouched by history . . . evading the peace and the war . . . drifting through time, observing the seasons, no more trying to change the course of history than a grain of sand does.'' All this is redundant. The sister- melons and the brother-pumpkins have already had their eloquent say. And the lip of the child kept from its mother's milk has had its say. And the man who grows strong and intelligent when he is at peace in his motherland has had his say.
Where I differ with Ozick now is that I don't think the doctor does understand K, and I don't think the explanation he offers is persuasive (it would be were K a relative of Forrest Gump, perhaps). The doctor ascribes a meaning to K based on his own desires and disappointments, and it is the process of meaning-making that we follow in the second section, and it is revelatory and chastening, because who among us has resisted the same urges while reading the first section? It's important that people have misnamed K by this point, calling him "Michaels". He cannot be bound up in a meaning anymore than he can be bound up in an internment camp, and they mistake his meaning as they mistake his name. We'll get no sustenance by cannibalizing him for our metaphysics; he's just skin and bones.

The last fifteen pages of the book return us to K's point of view and his peregrinations. Now we as readers are more prepared. We should know by now to be suspicious of our impulses, to know that what we want to do says more about us and our world than about K and his.

The movement of the novel is, broadly speaking, from city to countryside to city to countryside -- except the last movement to countryside is imagined. K lies on a pile of flattened cardboard boxes in the little closet room where his mother had lived in the city, and he's probably dying, and he thinks back to what has happened to him and where he has been, and he begins ascribing more meaning to himself than he ever has before, a meaning built from references to a life lived in cages and to gardening and staying close to the ground (shades of Being There, but with more complexity, sophistication, and depth). A motif of things underground fills the book -- sometimes from urges and ideas that are paranoid and crazy, sometimes from ones eminently practical -- and every reader sees all the attention given to seeds and growing things, to life that sprouts out of the ground. The symbolism is obvious, and I think Coetzee knows this, because it's not for us that he has created these particular symbols, but for the characters in the book (Michael K. particularly) who need something to grasp in their search for meaning.

On the penultimate page, K thinks in a parenthesized paragraph:
(Is that the moral of it all, he thought, the moral of the whole story: that there is time enough for everything? Is that how morals come, unbidden, in the course of events, when you least expect them?)
The tone is uncertain, and I think we should be wary of accepting the moral K thinks he has found. It may be one of the meanings available from this life, but even K's life is richer than to be summed up in a moral. We cheapen existence when we simplify it into morals and mottos and triangles. We need resonant imagery to replace our slogans, charts, and graphs -- and so Life and Times of Michael K ends with a beautiful and perplexing image: Michael imagines a companion (one that bears some similarity to the doctor's first impression of Michael himself), and he imagines the farm in the country, and he imagines a well and a teaspoon and just enough pure water to sustain life. There is meaning there, but it must be felt in the rhythms of the word and thought, it must be welcomed into the mind like a koan or a magical riddle that asks for no solution. As long as he keeps from solving the puzzle of himself, Michael K will live.

13 October 2008

Poetry and Stupidity

K. Silem Mohammed:
One thing you don't see much of in the magic business, I'm guessing, is magicians who fall for their own tricks. That wouldn't just be stupidity; it would be insanity. In poetry, however, it's fairly common. Draw your own conclusions.

(via Ron Silliman)

09 October 2008

Nobel Thoughts

I love it when the Nobel Prize for Literature goes, as this year, to a writer whose name is unfamiliar to me. I'm woefully ignorant of French literature in general, and contemporary French literature in particular, and so Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio is not a byline I'd noticed before. Given how few of his books are currently available in English translation, though, I expect I'm not alone in my ignorance.

This is one of the great values of the Nobel for American readers, and perhaps one of the only things that makes it, unlike most other awards, culturally valuable. Its profile is high enough that, in the right circumstances, it can propel writers into view who would otherwise remain at best only barely visible.

Of course, this is not mainly what it does. As often as not, the Nobel goes to writers who are already prominent. This is much less interesting, although I will admit to celebrating when it goes to writers who are or have been particularly meaningful in my reading life, which has been true of some of the recent awards (Lessing, Pinter, Coetzee). I, too, could make a list, though, of recipients whose work does not interest me or, beyond that, seems undeserving of such accolades (Toni Morrison, William Golding, John Steinbeck, Winston Churchill, Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis -- interestingly, all writers writing in English, perhaps because I am most confident of my judgment there).

But then there are writers such as Gao Xingjian and Jose Saramago whose work I discovered because of the new prominence the Nobel gave them, and those are discoveries I treasure. (Someone like Elfriede Jelinek is a more problematic case, someone whose work I sampled and found interesting, but I'm wary of the difficulties and inadequacies of the translation of her work into English.)

Before the announcement of the award, all the news in the lit'ry world was about the chair of the prize committee's comments that "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining." He also made some comments about Europe being the center of all literature or somesuch, and that seems to me to be too much of an us-versus-the-world mentality, but I don't know why there were so many knee-jerk negative reactions from U.S. critics (well responded to by The Literary Saloon) to the comment about insularity and isolation. Do we really need to further promote the insidious idea of American exceptionalism? "We're not isolated and insular, we're the best!" Come on. We don't translate nearly enough, and there are many conversations about literature going on in the world that we are utterly oblivious to. Horace Engdahl may have painted with too broad a brush, but we shouldn't deny the fact that it takes an awful lot of work and luck to get American readers interested in writers from outside our borders.

The Nobel is sometimes a good force against that insularity and isolation, because it plays well with our celebrity culture. It can cause American companies to translate and publish previously unavailable work, and cause American readers to buy the work in enough quantity to keep such efforts going. I wish the Nobel had the power to do that for dozens of writers each year, not just one.

06 October 2008

Issue 1, Take 2

When I wrote about Issue 1 yesterday, I noted it with amusement, but didn't give it much thought, because even as a piece of conceptual art it didn't really seem to me to be doing much that was particularly new in an interesting way. Steve Shaviro thinks that may be one way to find meaning in it:
...given all the questions about the status of the author that have been raised in the last half-century or so, it only makes sense that I should be credited with the authorship of something that I had nothing to do with writing. Remember, Roland Barthes proclaimed “the death of the author” more than forty years ago, in 1967. And even well before that, in 1940, Borges proposed a literary criticism that would “take two dissimilar works — the Tao Te Ching and the 1001 Nights, for instance — attribute them to a single author, and then in all good conscience determine the psychology of that most interesting homme de lettres…” (from “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”). Issue 1 is a logical outgrowth of the situation in which such ideas no longer seem new, or radical, or outrageously counterintuitive, but have instead been entirely assimilated into our “common sense.”
The entire post is very much worth reading.

05 October 2008

A Conversation with Brian Francis Slattery

Brian Francis Slattery is the author of Spaceman Blues and the upcoming Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America, two books that every intelligent and discerning reader should own. (And if you, like me, thought Spaceman Blues was fun and moving and beautiful and strange, just wait till you plunge into Liberation!)

I figured now would be a good time to talk with Brian, because the U.S. is going through some economic turmoil, and such turmoil murmurs in the background of Liberation. Perhaps he could give us some pointers of how to avoid total collapse. He is not, after all, a stranger to the field of economics...

Just for the sake of clarity, what is your relationship to the dismal science? "Engaged", "Married", "It's Complicated"?

It's complicated. I have a masters degree in international affairs, specializing in economic development, and for my day job, I edit public-policy and economics publications for a variety of places. But I'm not an economist--I don't have a PhD and I'm not smart enough to construct the models that economists construct. I know enough to do my job and to be able to tell the difference between good economics journalism and... how to put this... not as good economics journalism. I also know just enough to know that I don't know enough about the details of many fiscal policies to have an opinion about them that's worth much. So it's complicated.

Is the American economy doomed?

I don't know. I do know that some economists think that we may see a serious decline in the U.S. economy over the next few decades, and they see it arising from a number of possible different causes. I'm not sure what to do with that information, though. You can imagine the different scenarios as more or less mutually exclusive possibilities, which makes our chances of pulling through seem all right. However, you can also imagine the multiple possibilities arrayed around us like a dense minefield, in which each mine can set off the ones around it, making our chances of getting through the next century with our current quality of life intact seem pretty dim. One thing does seem clear: The current trajectory of our fiscal and monetary policies is unsustainable in the long run, and much depends on how we react to it. Hopefully, of course, it won't all hurt too much; hopefully the people who are hurting already won't be hurt even more.

If politicians were really to put aside political posturing and try to solve some of the problems with our economy, what would they do?

I have no idea. This may sound overly naive, but from what I understand, right now (September 30) I think that many of the people in Congress and at the Fed and Treasury are actually working in what they perceive as the public interest. They're looking a complex problem from a variety of angles, through the lenses of a variety of concerns, and it looks different to each one of them. Certainly there's a lot of posturing going on, but I'm not sure that's ultimately what's making this difficult.

I'm not saying that everyone involved is a saint, either. But we're facing a big problem with grave consequences for failure, and coming up with a solution is hard. If I were suddenly to find myself an official at the Fed or a member of Congress, I wouldn't know what to do. I simply don't know enough. All I have is my half-knowledge of the subject and my social-democratic inclinations, and the policy direction that emerges from extrapolating from those is is too half-baked to put in print.

This morning I got one of those emails that one gets, not the kind for clitoral enhancements, but rather the same species as the ones saying that if you investigate the numerological implications of John McCain's houses you'll discover that Obama is a genetically modified zebra posing as Mae West. In any case, this email suggested that instead of bailing out the banks, the government should just cut every adult in the U.S. a check, because splitting $700 billion by the number of adults in the country (the email roughly estimates 200 million) leads to very big checks for everybody. So why won't the government do this? We could all become rich!

OK, I'll bite on this one. Writing everyone a check as an economic stimulus package strikes me as kind of a shotgun approach to fiscal policy. You're making an awful lot of assumptions about the way people are going to use the money you give them.

That said, $700 billion divided by 200 million comes out to $3,500 per adult. You can buy a really nice TV with that kind of money. But you can also imagine that money being spoken for, maybe several times over, before the ink is even dry.

Would you describe Liberation as a pessimistic novel? An optimistic novel? A picaresque novel of realistic inclinations and satiric leanings with a slight bouquet of wormwood?

I love that third sentence. I don't know how optimistic or pessimistic the book is; I just have no perspective on it. I do know that much of it comes out of the love-hate relationship I have with my own country. Definitely there are some things I hate about it, which fuels some of the passion in the book; anger is an energy, like John Lydon says. But really, there's way more love than hate. Which perhaps accounts for the ending. And the parties.

Let's talk music, since you're also a musician. Do you listen to music while writing?

No. I do listen to music a lot when I'm editing my own stuff, though. This is about to go off on a tangent that you probably weren't expecting, but here goes. About a year and a half ago, I was the beneficiary of a vast collection of recordings of 78s (I have them as MP3s), and I tend to listen to them when I'm sitting in front of my computer. I really love all of it, and I'm so grateful to be able to listen to it, this music that was recorded more than eighty years ago and survived at least five changes in the format of recorded music to become digital. I love the idea that, having made it this far, it just might stand a good chance of surviving the next eighty, too. Which always gets me to thinking about what recordings from our time are going to be listened to a hundred years from now. I like to think that it'll be totally random, the product not of popular consensus, but of the work of a few enthusiasts who just refuse to let the thing they love go. Which suggests to me that the popular and the unknown will be put together side by side without judgment, just like Carlos Gardel and Carlisle and Ball sit next to each other on my hard drive now.

What's a good soundtrack for the collapse of the United States of America?

Anything you can play without electricity.

Our leaders tell us that reinvigorating the economy requires spending. So if I want to go out and spend some money on, say, books, what books should I spend money on (aside from your own, of course)?

Books about farming and animal husbandry might not be a bad idea.

If you could resurrect 3 people, with their brains intact, and foist them off on the world, whom would you resurrect?

Sun Ra, Geoffrey Chaucer, and John Maynard Keynes.

Finally, zombie movies. What's your position with regard to them?

Love them. All of them.

In Which I Become More Prolific Than I Ever Imagined

So, as I do every few days, I was reading Ron Silliman's blog, and his latest post was about an intriguing online book of nearly 4,000 pages of poetry by nearly 4,000 poets. Wow, I thought, what a huge undertaking -- what a massive organizational nightmare! It must have been put together by somebody with a lot of connections!

And then in the list of names, I noticed various people I knew. But I hadn't heard anything about this project. Why do my friends hide things from me? I thought. Are they ashamed that they have started writing and publishing poetry?

And then I got to the bottom of Ron Silliman's post:
No, the quirkiest thing about Issue 1 is going to be that, if it includes your name – and, hey, it probably does – you have no memory of having written that text, nor of submitting it to Issue 1. Or, as Ed Baker put it so elegantly in the comments stream to For Godot,

And then I took another look. And lo, there was my name. Huh. I had been included after all! And I hadn't done anything!

I downloaded the giant file, searched for my name, and found the poem I hadn't written:

Like golden dews

Matthew Cheney
Now, it's entirely possible that another Matthew Cheney wrote this. I know that my name is not unique. (In fact, my Big Uncle Dick, hiding out in his undisclosed location, named his 13th clone "Matthew". Perhaps that's the author.) It's just that, given some of the other names on the list, I'd be really surprised if another Matthew Cheney were associated with such a group. I'd be happy to know that he was. I could blame all the various things I wish I hadn't written on him.

The comments at the site
(scroll down) are pretty amusing -- some are outraged, some are perplexed, some are playing along.

The whole thing strikes me as a stunt pulled by someone who desperately wants attention. (And now I'm giving it to 'em. So it goes.) I'm still amazed that anyone would put the time into creating something like this, but the amazement now is the sort of amazement one has when watching the totally insane rather than watching the harmlessly obsessive.

03 October 2008

The Problem of "African" Symbolism

I have sometimes criticized stories for how they use a thing the author calls "Africa" or "African", and I have as often held my tongue about other stories or movies or such, because sometimes I think I'm just a bit too sensitive about this particular topic. For me, anyone who hasn't spent a significant amount of time on the continent is immediately suspect when they use "African" settings and topics, and though some writers are able to overcome my immediate suspicion, most aren't, and I'm probably sometimes less than fair in my judgment. I've struggled at times to be able to articulate why such representations and appropriations fill me with blind rage, but I don't think I've ever done so in a way that's very helpful to anybody who wonders, "Huh? What's the big deal?"

I was pleased, then, to discover this post at Feministing about American Apparel's "Afrika" line of clothes, because the comment that was published there is a pretty helpful one for people who don't understand what the fuss might be about.

I'd need to quote the entire (short) post, and I don't want to do that -- just go read it.

After that, if the subject interests you, check out Binyavanga Wainaina's "How to Write about Africa", Exploring Africa's page on Africa's diversity, Caryl Philips on Achebe & Conrad, "Madonna's Not Our Savior" (an interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), "Stop Trying to 'Save' Africa" by Uzodinma Iweala, "Saving Africa in Blackface" by Jennifer Brea ... and probably tons of other things I didn't notice on a hasty Google search...

Redefining Marriage

Last night's debate between the nominees for vice president was disappointing in that it didn't quite rise to being the best comedy on TV the way that Katie Couric's interview with Sarah Palin did, making it kind of like watching a NASCAR race without any crashes -- interesting for the cognoscenti, dull for the rest. I was most interested in the two candidates' responses to the question of gay marriage, which The Advocate has now nicely analyzed.

Both candidates were stuck by the question, because they were trying to play to multiple audiences, though Palin had it the hardest because her main purpose in the campaign is to shore up McCain's support among the fire & brimstone social conservatives, yet she knows that coming out and saying, "Well, I don't support gay marriage because I think gay people should burn in hell for eternity," would win her points with the crazies and lose her just about everybody else. She knows that the topic has become one of language: "gay marriage" is a negative for most voters, but "civil unions" are increasingly popular, because we have, thankfully, gotten to a point in our general culture where the majority of people seem to agree that actively discriminating against same-sex couples is obnoxious and heartless. Civil union laws remain controversial with conservative activists, but most everybody else seems to recognize that there are more important things to worry about.

Palin might have scared some of her most socially reactionary supporters (the ones whose beliefs walked with the dinosaurs), but I bet the majority of her supporters understood what she was saying: When it comes to civil rights for not-exclusively-heterosexual people, we'll be utterly and completely passive, and if there's any way we can claim they're injuring one of our favorite abstractions (e.g. "the institution of marriage"), we'll attack with pitchforks a-blazin'.

Biden played the other side of the fence, and in some ways made an opening for a radical idea. He, too, stayed away from the unpopular "gay marriage" term, specifically saying he and Obama do not support it (which is true, if I remember correctly, for all the candidates except Kucinich -- who, by the way, gave a fun speech at the Democratic convention), and this shouldn't have surprised anybody -- it was, remember, a Democratic president who signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. Biden, though, made a strong statement in support of fully equal civil rights:
Do I support granting same-sex benefits? Absolutely, positively. Look, in an Obama-Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction from a constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple.
Match this with what he said a few moments later, though, when he denied that he supported gay marriage (this is taken from the AP's transcript):
No. Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that. That is basically the decision to be able to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths, the determination, what you call it.
I don't know if Biden knows the direction his statement is moving toward, but it's a direction I hope we're able to keep -- it would, taken to its logical conclusion, make marriage something that is left to churches and other other groups to define as they desire for their members, and make the government's job simply to offer civil unions to everyone. It would get the government out of the business of marriage, leaving it the simple and appropriate role of certifying a couple's legal standing.

Of course, this would be a difficult concept to sell to the sectors of the public that want government to regulate marriage, and those sectors would, I expect, claim the government was trying to destroy all marriage, etc. The conservative argument for such a change, though, could be made from two standpoints: maximizing freedom and minimizing government. (The challenge is that social conservatives only like to maximize freedom for themselves and have no desire to minimize the power of government to regulate the social sphere.) The liberal argument would be one of equality under the law and getting rid of the separate-but-equal marriage system that the you-can't-get-married-but-you-can-get-civilly-unified system creates.

Biden's syntax and phrasing got tortuous when he tried to say that marriage is between people and their faiths, and I think he struggled not just because he was speaking extemporaneously, but because somewhere in his mind he realizes the various tensions in his logic. I expect he's too much of a cautious politician to make the leap, but his statement gave me hope that in the next decades we may be able to move closer to real equality.

02 October 2008

A Conversation with Diana Spechler

Diana Spechler's first novel, Who By Fire, has just been released to strong reviews from all over. It's a compelling story of three members of a family: a sister (Bits) whose life is a mess in all sorts of different ways, a brother (Ash) who has fled to Israel to study at an Orthodox yeshiva, and a mother (Ellie) who thinks Orthodox Judaism may be a cult from which her son must be saved at any cost. But that's just the beginning -- as the present-time events of the novel unfold, a complex past, full of guilt and blame and miscommunication, reveals itself.

Diana Spechler’s fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, Moment, Lilith, and elsewhere. She received her MFA degree from the University of Montana and was a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University. She lives in New York City, where she is at work on her second novel.

Diana's about to begin a busy book tour, and I was pleased to grab some moments of her time for a few questions about the book and her writing process.

How did you decide on building the novel from three first-person points of view? Why three? Why first?

The novel started as a short story, "Close to Lebanon," which the Greensboro Review published some years ago. It's told from the first-person point of view of 23-year-old Bits Kellerman, who lives in Boston, uses sex as a vice, and is worried about her younger brother, Ash, a college dropout who became an Orthodox Jew and moved to Israel to learn in a yeshiva. In the beginning of that story, Bits hears about a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Throughout the rest of the story, she's waiting to hear from her brother.

When I finished "Close to Lebanon," I thought I was through with those characters. But a few months later, I started wondering about Ash. Who was this guy? Why did he make such a drastic life change? So I tried writing from his point of view, also in first person. For some reason, I never even thought to use third for either of them. I liked the immediacy and intimacy of first; it seemed appropriate for the telling of such an intensely personal story.

For many, many drafts, the narratives belonged only to Bits and Ash. I worked on the novel for several years before deciding that Ellie's voice could really add something to the story. I'm glad that I finally gave her some of her own chapters. It shaped her into a flesh-and-blood character, whereas before, she felt sort of blurry and undefined to me. Including her perspective also wound up lending more shape to the novel.

Did the shape of the novel change much as you were revising?

Yes. It changed frequently and drastically. In early drafts, there was no plot. The finished product, by contrast, is quite plot-heavy. Adding Ellie's voice dramatically altered the story. Sometimes I think back to early drafts and I remember characters who once existed and no longer do.

Sorry if I'm being vague...I'm trying to avoid a spoiler!

Did you have a sense of the narrators as writers with an audience? It was interesting to me that Ash found ways to explain Hebrew terms and Jewish traditions, since he would only do that if he had a sense of writing for someone other than himself.

I suppose I was imagining the narrations as peeks into the characters' minds, or perhaps into their journals, although I don't think any of them are the journaling type.

I had a difficult time figuring out how to include all the Jewish/Hebrew references without confusing the reader. At one point, I toyed with the idea of adding a glossary, but ultimately, I decided to embrace the challenge of getting the information into the story. I hope that the information sounds natural, rather than didactic or artificial, in the context of the novel; I certainly tried to make the seams invisible!

The novel moves along quickly and is a brisk read for a book of almost 350 pages. How did you approach pacing it? How conscious were you of working to balance plotting and characterization?

I think the fast pacing happened naturally. The chapters felt best to me when they were short. The ones I wrote long, I wound up breaking up into two or three chapters, interspersing them with the voices of the two other narrators.

What inspired you to include the cult-deprogramming subplot? Was the topic an interest of yours before working on the book?

Yes! I'm very interested in cults, particularly in charismatic personalities, the controversy over the existence of brainwash, and the controversies over which groups are "cults" and which are not. I learned about Ted Patrick ("Black Lightning") while I was working on Who By Fire, and knew instantly that he belonged in my novel. He's such a fascinating figure, who eventually kind of disappeared amid an onslaught of lawsuits. Back when he was deprogramming cult members, people either loved him for fighting cults or hated him for being aggressive and meddlesome. I liked how the Ted Patrick phenomenon paralleled the question in my novel of whether Ash had joined a cult or was infusing his life with meaning.

Have you come to any conclusions for yourself about what is and isn't a cult? Is the term even a useful one?

Jon Krakauer wrote a great book about the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints called Under the Banner of Heaven. One of the things he talks about is that if Joseph Smith had lived thousands of years ago, people today might be more forgiving of the Mormon religion. By the same token, if Moses had "parted the sea" and presented the Ten Commandments in the 1800s, people would probably roll their eyes about him and call him insane. If you think about it like that, it kind of puts things in perspective.

I guess I consider a cult a religious group that sucks its members dry financially and uses force to keep its members from leaving. Admittedly, that's not a great definition; I think many groups walk a fine line between religion and cult.

When did you first travel to Israel? Were your impressions similar to Bits's?

I spent a summer in Israel right before my senior year of high school. It was one of those organized trips involving a bus and lots of other American kids. I loved it. I sobbed the first time I saw the Western Wall, even though I didn't quite understand what it was. We camped out in the Negev Desert one night, covered ourselves in limestone dust just for fun, and woke in our sleeping bags to the otherworldly sight of a pack of camels making their way across the sand, backdropped by the first blue light of the day. I lacked Bits's cynicism. I was in love with every aspect of Israel, and all I knew at the end of that summer was that I wanted to get back there as quickly as possible.

How has your perspective on Israel changed since high school?

I'm more educated about the history and politics now than I was then, but I'm still starry-eyed about it. Israel is a beautiful, magical place.

Have you gotten much feedback from readers for whom you've opened up an unfamiliar culture? And have you heard from any Orthodox readers?

I've heard from a number of non-Jews that reading Who By Fire taught them a lot about Judaism and Israel. That thrills me. I wondered while I was writing it if I was alienating a non-Jewish audience, but the editor who acquired my book isn't Jewish, and neither is my publicist, and the reviews have mostly appeared in publications that aren't geared specifically toward Jews, so it seems to be accessible to everyone.

So far I haven't heard much from the religious community, but I'm not anticipating a splash of any kind. First of all, I don't consider my portrayal of the Orthodox Jews edgy or offensive. Second, it's fiction! The characters aren't real. And third, there are some Orthodox characters in the book who aren't the greatest people, and there are others who are kind-hearted and wonderful.

An enthusiastic reader runs up to you and says, "Diana Diana Diana I LOVED your novel! I read it twelve times and memorized almost all of it! What should I read next!" After you calm yourself and the reader down, what do you suggest?

Depends on the day. No, it depends on the minute. I have a new favorite book every five seconds, but some of the ones I always recommend are The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, That Night by Alice McDermott, and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. More recently, I'm loving Rules for Saying Goodbye by Katherine Taylor and Twenty Grand by Rebecca Curtis. Also, two of my best friends have published books that I think are totally incredible: The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle and Come Together, Fall Apart by Cristina Henriquez.

01 October 2008

Mind Meld: Subgenres

SF Signal has posted another of their always-fun Mind Meld features, and I got to participate in this one. The question: What's your favorite sub-genre of science fiction and/or fantasy?

Of course, I had to mention tractor pulls.