Tuesday, June 27, 2006

In Persuasion Nation

The title story of George Saunder's latest collection is as close to a true horror story as I've ever read. Horrifying because it makes you participate in the cruelty that's being dished out to hapless players in commercial "vignettes," human, animal, and other. You laugh as they get their heads bashed in for stealing someone's Doritos or Cheetos, but because Saunders has created so much sympathy for them--as victims of insane acts of cruelty, including yours--you feel terrible.

Here's Saunders reading the story:

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Fiction that breaks the mold

Starting next week I'm taking a 5-day intensive writing workshop with Eric Puchner, a former Stegner Fellow and author of the collection Music Through the Floor. The class is called "Fiction that Breaks the Mold" and meets for four hours each day in the afternoons. We are not workshopping each other's stories, thank GOD, just talking about published stories and doing exercises. I'm really looking forward to it, because I won't be able to go to Tin House this summer and I really need the summer writing-camp experience. Writing is going OK but I need an infusion.

I'm hoping to learn about stories with non-traditional shapes. For instance, Charles D'Ambrosio (who says this in his Powells.com interview) talks about stories that are linear as opposed to circular. You start out, say, in a dime store, but you never go back there, never tie it back into the ending as a metaphor. It's simply over and the characters go on with their lives. Or the Alice Munro story, "White Dump," which we are reading for class. I am not a huge Munro fan thus far, but this story starts out from a point of view, or two points actually, from characters who turn out to be quite minor. The major character, whose viewpoint we're firmly ensconced in by the end, is not even mentioned right away, and when she is, she's described as living far away. She does not seem like she's going to be in the picture. But it's all about her in the end. How do you meander like that while not confusing the reader? How do you make a story more like a poem instead of like a polished billiard ball?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Learning from The Corrections

In an interview on Powells.com, Jonathan Franzen says of The Corrections, "The real pleasure in writing this, for me, was discovering how little you need." His previous books had been very heavily plotted, and even some sections of The Corrections are plotted, as he says, like a short novel, "a single situation and the screws tightened maximally on the characters in question." But through writing most of the novel he learned to take all the plot directions and ramifications away and leave the "one paragraph of distress that interested me."

Friday, June 16, 2006

How great is the library?

By this I mean the San Carlos Library, or more precisely the Peninsula Library System. I don't refer to the Stanford Library, which is of course great, has everything, including the complete works of Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth and Planet Earth 2000 AD. These are housed in the Bing Wing stacks, the strange maze with the short doors and low ceilings reminiscent of the office where John Cusack gets the temp job in Being John Malkovich. The call numbers on these start with BS, which is wonderful, and I had nearly given up on finding them, weaving through the darkish warren, short on time, but there they were. And they helped me write the first chapter of my novel, which I now think I'm going to dump (the chapter, not the novel...yet).

No, I mean the San Carlos Library, because also for my novel I need to know about insurance agents. I looked in the online catalog and found a book on careers in insurance (perfect), but it wasn't at the SC library, so I poked around a little more and found a digital version which I could download to my computer! I just read the book (large print, not many pages) and it does indeed describe the jobs (perfect) and even better it has a glossary in the back! I know what an actuary is now. Well, I did and forgot again, but I can look it up.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Plot anxiety

I remember when I was in graduate school and developing inklings that all was not quite well with my career choice. I hated writing research papers. I liked doing readings, minutely close readings, and then sort of riffing off those, throwing in a few choice phrases from Foucault or whoever. But these were clearly--just--my readings, and therefore not interesting by definition. So I began thinking I should be some other sort of writer, and I remember saying to myself, well I could conceivably be a poet because I can create these sort of conceptual scenes. But I can't make things happen. I can't do plot. I decided shortly after that to try writing a novel for the precise reason that I was sure I couldn't do it. Now, this novel, as it stands, will never see the light of day, but I did find out that I can make (ridiculous) things happen. My problem is that sometimes I try to force things to happen, or I think that there's no plot unless someone gets killed, preferably by crashing into something. But now I'm trying to use Werner Herzog's filmmaking as an analogy, specifically those scenes where the camera just runs and looks at something (not someone) that's moving--grass in the wind, or rapids. Watch the movement in the scene and follow it. There's no need to have Bigfoot come stomping in--yet.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Grizzly Man

Trev and I watched Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man last night. It's a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a man who believed he had an understanding with Alaskan grizzly bears, and turned out to be wrong about that. It was not, perhaps, the best time for me to be watching such a film, since (as this blog clearly shows) I've been paranoid and surly due to work stress. In this mode, I was first struck by how much the story resembled the Blair Witch Project -- not only because "the footage was found" (in this case, audio footage) recording the protagonists' deaths, but also the constant nervous chatter, the eerieness of the wilderness landscape (which Treadwell didn't see as eerie), and the brief shot of a bundle of gore amid general restraint on that front.

The best parts of the film, though, are where Herzog comments on Treadwell's filmmaking -- specifically the moments when the film keeps running and Treadwell has left the shot. He is filming himself, usually, so he's off getting ready to run into the frame, or fixing his hair (an obsession), and in the meantime the camera is recording wind blowing through the brush, creating patterns. How often do we see extended shots of a place where there is neither a human nor an animal in the frame?

Monday, June 05, 2006

The other thing about the bomb

Oh yeah, one more thing about the atomic bomb that I never understood, and which I definitely don't remember learning in 7th grade history:

The bomb was for the Russians.

Right, the Japanese were just about defeated and trying to work out surrender talks. But we needed to show the Russians that we had the bomb, and blowing up a deserted island (say) in front of world representatives wouldn't cut it. We had to off some people, preferably non-white. I suspect the non-whiteness made it not only easier, but possible. The Japanese were already "faceless."