Friday, January 29, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The Brothers Karamazov: What we write about when we write about money

This week's lesson from The Brothers Karamazov is to dare to write about a taboo subject: money. In the first 150 pages, BK has already tackled sadomasochism, religious doubt, religious excess, rape (of a mentally retarded woman by, who else, Fyodor), familial loathing, generalized shame, and prostitution. But this week, reading Dmitri's confession of his own shameful escapades to Alyosha, I kept noticing how focused the narrative is on money.

Dmitri is involved in, not just a love triangle, but a love pentagon, encompassing himself, the beautiful and virtuous Katerina Ivanovna, the earthy and unvirtuous Grushenka, his brother Ivan, and his ubiquitous father Fyodor. Pretty much all of the issues listed above factor into the pentagon. But the thread that sews it together is money. The three chapters titled "Confessions of a Passionate Heart" are, in some ways, a story of following the money, to wit, 4500 roubles. Katerina Ivanovna's father, a colonel, has apparently embezzled that sum from the government. Dmitri, who loathes Katerina for being beautiful and virtuous and ignoring him, offers to cover all but 500 of that sum, if Katerina will, you know, submit to him. She decides to do so, but, appalled by the extreme self-sacrifice of her offer, Dmitri knocks the payment down to 200 just to make her feel worse. Then he repents and gives her 5000. She later sends him the change, minus some transaction fee, when she comes into a large amount of money of her own. This indicates she's fallen in love with him, because she wants to save his soul and is now in the financial position to do so. He gets engaged to her, but meanwhile he's fallen in love with Grushenka, who has her own moneylending schemes going, and Fyodor wants Grushenka also, and Dmitri owes Fyodor money, and Ivan loves Katerina, and... Well, I followed it when I read it, but really don't want to untangle it all again right now.

The point is, I was really struck by all this accounting amid Dmitri's wailings and teeth-gnashings. And it occurred to me that I was struck because I really don't talk about money this directly in my own writing. Why not? I suppose I think it is too pedestrian, or too indecent, or both. They're grubby, aren't they, all those figures? And isn't money really just a proxy for other, more serious matters, namely power? Clearly money is a vector for power--sexual, personal, and political--in BK. But the money itself also matters to these characters because they are living on the edge. For various reasons, they all need cash, and they are well aware of exactly how much they (and others) need. They do not have the luxury of not crunching numbers. This is a different world than the one I usually portray.

So a challenge I would pose to myself, and writers like me, is to put money front and center in a story. Don't start out having the money represent anything else. It will come to do that on its own, by acting as a vector to stir up buried elements of the character's relationships. A lends B $4500. Go.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Between King and Keyes

Shortly after writing this post on the complete ridiculousness of attempting to emulate Stephen King's literary output, I read, in rapid succession, two books by Ralph Keyes: The Courage to Write and The Writer's Book of Hope. I received these books for Christmas and was a tad put off by the self-helpy titles. It's true that Keyes is something of a phrase-maker in this vein. (Do you suffer from AFD, or Authorial Fear Disorder? Here are ten WHPs, or Writer's Hope Patches, that you can apply today, so that you can proceed with CCC--Courage, Confidence, and Conviction!*) However, I managed to get past these occasional gestures toward uplift-by-numbers (or letters), and ended up finding the books extremely helpful.

First, they answered the interesting question of why I, and apparently zillions of others, consume books on writing craft like so many Ruffles with onion dip. According to Keyes, we're less interested in specific information on technique than in finding reasons to keep going. Surely there's a way, we think, to make the writing life more pleasant. These books reassure us that even famous, successful writers wrestle with doubt and anxiety every day. Of course, we may also be disappointed to find out that these struggles never go away. I, for one, would like to think that once one reaches a certain plateau--say, having one's first novel published and therefore one's cred established on all fronts for all times--that writing becomes pure bliss and ease. Yes, we may become annoyed by our temporary inability to find just the right mot for something or other; but our annoyance is quelled by remembering that we are officially wonderful at this (and also rich), and we type on, barely able to suppress our delighted giggles. Not so, apparently.

According to Keyes, fear is a necessary part of writing. If you're not afraid, basically, you're doing it wrong--because fear means something is at stake. It's also the flip side of excitement, knowing that you're on to something. The point is to find ways to work in the presence of that fear, by managing and / or harnessing it. The "harnessing" part remains a little hazy to me; but managing comes through various coping strategies--rituals, for instance. The one I've found most helpful so far is tricking myself into believing that "this time" I'm not writing seriously. In other words, I say to myself, I don't feel that good today, I'm tired and my writing's going to suck, so I'll just write "anything." This isn't the real stuff; I'll save that for another time when I feel better. And then, lo and behold, I've reached my 1000-word goal for the day, and some percentage of it doesn't suck.

The daily word count is another strategy Keyes suggests, and I've been ambivalent about it in the past. Better 10 good words than 1000 lousy ones, right? But combining the count with this method for taking the pressure off seems to work for me. Now, King's 2000 words per day still seems a bit beyond me--but within the realm of possibility. I seem to have realized that fighting the fear is a losing battle, so instead of doing that, I'm writing.

*I exaggerate, but not without some basis.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The Brothers Karamazov: The uses of shame

Are you looking for a new emotion to explore in your fiction? Are you tired of middle-aged suburban ennui, unrequited love, and anger? Consider shame. Shame can jump-start your plot and enliven your characters by generating layers of morbid self-consciousness, leading to unpredictable, exciting, and cringe-making behavior. Or so we see in The Brothers Karamazov, in the character of Fyodor Pavlovitch, the brothers' father. Dostoevsky, the bard of shame, shows us what a truly literary emotion it can be.

Last time we watched with mounting queasiness as Fyodor embarrassed himself in front of Father Zossima, his son Alyosha's hero and elder at the monastery. Suffice it to say that things get worse, as his other son Dmitri arrives and Fyodor lets loose with the tale of Dmitri's sexual escapades--which implicate Fyodor's own rather gruesome libido, as well as tee up further elements of the plot. Dmitri is enraged, which will have consequences down the line (spoiler alert: Fyodor is not all that long for this world). At last Fyodor seems to get hold of himself and, to everyone's relief (including the reader's), he declines an invitation to dine with the Father Superior. But wait...

It was at this moment that Fyodor Pavlovitch played his last prank. It must be noted that he really had meant to go home, and really had felt the impossibility of going to dine with the Father Superior as though nothing had happened, after his disgraceful behavior in the elder's cell. Not that he was so very much ashamed of himself—quite the contrary perhaps. But still he felt it would be unseemly to go to dinner. Yet his creaking carriage had hardly been brought to the steps of the hotel, and he had hardly got into it, when he suddenly stopped short. He remembered his own words at the elder's: “I always feel when I meet people that I am lower than all, and that they all take me for a buffoon; so I say let me play the buffoon, for you are, every one of you, stupider and lower than I.” He longed to revenge himself on every one for his own unseemliness. He suddenly recalled how he had once in the past been asked, “Why do you hate so and so, so much?” And he had answered them, with his shameless impudence, “I'll tell you. He has done me no harm. But I played him a dirty trick, and ever since I have hated him.”

Remembering that now, he smiled quietly and malignantly, hesitating for a moment. His eyes gleamed, and his lips positively quivered. “Well, since I have begun, I may as well go on,” he decided. His predominant sensation at that moment might be expressed in the following words, “Well, there is no rehabilitating myself now. So let me shame them for all I am worth. I will show them I don't care what they think—that's all!”

He told the coachman to wait, while with rapid steps he returned to the monastery and straight to the Father Superior's. He had no clear idea what he would do, but he knew that he could not control himself, and that a touch might drive him to the utmost limits of obscenity, but only to obscenity, to nothing criminal, nothing for which he could be legally punished. In the last resort, he could always restrain himself, and had marveled indeed at himself, on that score, sometimes. He appeared in the Father Superior's dining-room, at the moment when the prayer was over, and all were moving to the table. Standing in the doorway, he scanned the company, and laughing his prolonged, impudent, malicious chuckle, looked them all boldly in the face. “They thought I had gone, and here I am again,” he cried to the whole room.

And yet another ugly scene ensues. That "Here I am again" is directed at the reader as well as the diners, of course. Fyodor is a train wreck of a character; we don't want to see him do his thing, but we can't (or aren't allowed to) look away. We're dragged into Fyodor's shaming rituals, and as witnesses we become part of them.

In Dostoevsky's hands, shame is a contradictory emotion, driving powerful urges to conceal and reveal, deny and expose itself. It creates, in Fyodor, a fascinating kind of self-consciousness, through which he observes himself as an actor playing a part. He believes he can't control himself; yet on another level he's aware that he can. He's aware that he desires shame. He acts out to punish others, but by doing so, he punishes himself by making people despise him even more. Masochism is one of Dostoevsky's specialties, and in Fyodor it has a special bite, for religion is among its many layers. He gains a special pleasure by degrading himself in front of church authorities, which, for a tormented believer like Dostoevsky, raises the stakes pretty high.

In short, shame can be a very high-mileage engine for fiction. It's a great way to do exposition (get it? exposure, exposition), and to let your characters engage in impulsive, outsized actions--which they themselves observe with a mixture of horror and pleasure.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

From the "umm, okay" file

Stephen King, from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:
I like to [write] ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That's 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book--something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh. On some days those ten pages come easily; I'm up and out and doing errands by eleven-thirty in the morning, perky as a rat in liverwurst. More frequently, as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day's work around one-thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes, when the words come hard, I'm still fiddling around at teatime. Either way is fine with me, but only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The Brothers Karamazov: Quite a scene at the monastery (possibly part one of two)

I have not quite finished Book Two of The Brothers Karamozov, which is drolly titled "An Unfortunate Gathering." But it's getting late, and it feels like today's the day to get the (more or less) weekly BF post done. So, we (or at least I) must wait to find out what happens at the end of this gathering--which unfolds rather like an episode of The Simpsons with Karen Armstrong, the Dalai Lama, and Richard Dawkins guest starring. But that set-up does inspire some thoughts on how a writer might delineate the stakes in her Great Big Novel of Ideas, without having that segment become a dry dialog among proponents of various philosophical positions.

First off, you can have that dialog occur in a confined space which, for logistical as well as social reasons, is difficult to get out of. Dostoevsky uses the cell of Father Zossima, Alyosha's elder at the monastery. You can have your well-meaning young protagonist bring his embarrassing family to meet the person he reveres most in the world; and you can have that family include the drunken buffoon of a father who immediately freaks out in a verbal paroxysm of shame before this representative of God. You also have the snide family friend who provokes Fyodor further; the Impressive Atheist brother (Ivan) who has published an article on the separation of church and state--he's against it, as it turns out; and the mysteriously absent brother, Dmitri, on whose behalf this meeting was actually called in the first place. Oh, and throw in a passel of women who've come to seek Zossima's blessing, and a girl in a wheelchair who has mischievous eyes and a thing for Alyosha. Also, make Zossima ill, practically on death's doorstep, so that Alyosha's worried he's going to collapse at any second.

All of these people articulate some theological position or conundrum; in the women's and Fyodor's cases, their dilemmas cause them the most excruciating suffering. For instance, one woman is in agony because the last of her children has died, and she cannot stop mourning for him; worse, she feels it's wrong to keep mourning the way she does, because she knows the baby's in heaven with God, and yet that doesn't console her. Zossima gives her some rather good advice, all in all:

Consolation is not what you need. Weep and be not consoled, but weep. Only every time that you weep be sure to remember that your little son is one of the angels of God, that he looks down from there at you and sees you, and rejoices at your tears, and points at them to the Lord God; and a long while yet will you keep that great mother's grief. But it will turn in the end into quiet joy, and your bitter tears will be only tears of tender sorrow that purifies the heart and delivers it from sin. And I shall pray for the peace of your child's soul.

The whole episode, however, is anything but peaceful; as soon as he's calmed this poor soul (and I believe we are supposed to wonder for how long), there's another one begging for his help. And that's before he returns to his cell and starts a lengthy discussion with Ivan on his article, while Fyodor threatens to melt down again at any minute, and Dmitri, who loathes Fyodor, could still show up.

In short, the monastery is not a place of calm reflection. At least not on this day. It's a place of chaos, where people desperate to love and obey God clamor for answers, even as others stroll in to call religion's very purpose into question. And it's this background of chaos that will, I think, keep us reading through Ivan's and Zossima's arcane debate. They're not having this discussion on some mountaintop. The consequences of even the finer points of their conversation are all around them. The discussion format is still necessary, not only to lay out all the ideas for later examination in the narrative, but to begin to reveal Ivan's character. But Dostoevsky has earned our patience with and interest in these large blocks of dense text, with the tragicomedy that has preceded them.

Friday, January 08, 2010


So I finally read Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer-winning novel, Gilead.

Let me start off by saying, because it's all about me, always, that this book made me feel, as a writer, like a total juvenile smartass poseur. As the critics have all said, this is a serious book. I thought I had gotten over that "why bother" feeling when reading published novels, even the Great Ones--it's all just material for stealing. But now I feel inadequate not only as a writer but as a person.

Still, a deep sense of inadequacy is, as we've all seen, a powerful motive to keep on talking. And so I will offer the following observations about the novel. Observations which I've made. Which are mine. And which will follow. The next thing I say will be my observations about Gilead.

Told in the voice of John Ames, a Congregational minister in Iowa in the early 1960s, the book contains many images of sparkling light and especially water. In a post on H. G. Wells, I suggested that this type of imagery is strongly suggestive of childhood. There's a kind of "light of childhood," I said, that shows the ordinary world anew--making it strange, wonderful, and (perhaps paradoxically) nostalgic. Though Ames sometimes uses such imagery in connection with children or childhood, for him they are more explicitly an aspect of divine grace. Water in particular, he explains, is used in blessings because of its clarity and beauty. In this book, the light of childhood is the light of the sacred.

Of course nostalgia for childhood is in there too, especially because Ames is dying, and also because he's writing this narrative as a letter to his young son, whom he will not see grow up. He's nostalgic for his son's childhood, much of which he will miss, as well as for his own. However, because he believes in God and in an afterlife, the beauty of light and water is also a promise that this world is not the end. It is, perhaps, a mere reflection of the heaven that awaits...well, in Ames's view, probably most all of us. He's deeply committed to his particular faith, and wants others to embrace it--but when they don't, he does not exclude them from his life, nor does he assume that God excludes them. He tries to understand what it is, within himself, that makes him want to turn away from them. And then he tries to turn back toward them--not with a veneer of false politeness, but with genuine openness. This plays out in the growing conflict between Ames and his best friend's son, named after Ames, who, by any reasonable standard, is a scoundrel. Imagine doing that--truly, honestly doing that--with someone that you really have every right to despise. It's damn hard, and it's hard for Ames, but he makes himself do it. His reading of the Bible is a humble one; the only way for him to behave is humbly.

That's the other extraordinary thing about this book: it is the self-accounting of a profoundly good man, but it is neither hectoring nor boring. It's actually inspiring and exemplary. Mind you I'm not going to run off and join the Congregationalists or any church. Ain't gonna happen. But this book provides tremendous hope in terms of what Christianity can be--and how degenerate it has become in the loudest segments of our current culture. For those of us who can't buy the whole God construct, it's helpful to think of Ames's religion as a language, which is not to trivialize it in any way. Rather, he has a beautiful language to express the world to us, a beautiful lens through which to see it.

Now back to writing my smartass poseur novel.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The Brothers Karamazov: Introducing our hero

Early on, the narrator of the Brothers Karamazov explicitly states that Alyosha (Alexey) Karamazov is the hero of the story. However, as many critics and readers have pointed out, he's the least interesting of the three brothers--probably because he is so innocent, so good, so willing to believe the best of others and of God. No one wants to read about a guy like that, really. The narrator himself seems to recognize the problem unconsciously. Alyosha's name begins the novel, but then the story immediately diverts to his awful father. We do not see Alyosha, except in passing, until the very end of Chapter Three, after the narrator has provided detailed descriptions of Dmitri and Ivan, his older, more flawed, and more compelling brothers. Finally, the narrator tells us:

It is of that brother Alexey I find it most difficult to speak in this introduction. Yet I must give some preliminary account of him, if only to explain one queer fact, which is that I have to introduce my hero to the reader wearing the cassock of a novice. Yes, he had been for the last year in our monastery, and seemed willing to be cloistered there for the rest of his life.

Why the difficulty? Is it Alyosha's relative blandness? Or is it his innocence and deep vulnerability, which make speaking about him seem indecent, even violent? The answer is not entirely evident. But the narrator's reluctance to speak about the man he claims to be his central character is intriguing--and helps make up for Alyosha's possible lack of inherent interest. In fact, at these early stages of the novel, the sense of drama surrounding Alyosha arises largely through the narrator's tenderness toward him, and apparent fear that by bringing him into the novel, he is putting Alyosha at risk. Perhaps readers won't understand him or accept him; we'll want gossip and dirt (which we've received in spades already about the other characters); we'll poke and prod and mock him, when all he wants is to be cloistered in the monastery. He isn't like the other characters, see--we must handle, or read, him with special care.

Alyosha's initial characterization is striking in another way, though it's not unique to him. Apart from the cassock, and the announcement of his age (twenty) at the beginning of Chapter Four, we are given no physical description of him. This is true of the father and the other brothers as well. And this flies in the face (pun sort of intended) of what we're generally expected to do when we introduce characters. I, for one, have long felt that I have to work in a physical description of a new character as soon as possible. The reader needs something to picture right off the bat. You don't want a laundry list of characteristics, but a few telling details. Oakley Hall's Art and Craft of Novel Writing suggests putting "detail in motion": the image of a man popping a candy in his mouth allows you to show his big mustache working as he chews.

But there are no such representative visual details about Alyosha. Instead, we get this:

First of all, I must explain that this young man, Alyosha, was not a fanatic, and, in my opinion at least, was not even a mystic. I may as well give my full opinion from the beginning. He was simply an early lover of humanity, and that he adopted the monastic life was simply because at that time it struck him, so to say, as the ideal escape for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness to the light of love. And the reason this life struck him in this way was that he found in it at that time, as he thought, an extraordinary being, our celebrated elder, Zossima, to whom he became attached with all the warm first love of his ardent heart. But I do not dispute that he was very strange even at that time, and had been so indeed from his cradle. I have mentioned already, by the way, that though he lost his mother in his fourth year he remembered her all his life—her face, her caresses, “as though she stood living before me.” Such memories may persist, as every one knows, from an even earlier age, even from two years old, but scarcely standing out through a whole lifetime like spots of light out of darkness, like a corner torn out of a huge picture, which has all faded and disappeared except that fragment. That is how it was with him. He remembered one still summer evening, an open window, the slanting rays of the setting sun (that he recalled most vividly of all); in a corner of the room the holy image, before it a lighted lamp, and on her knees before the image his mother, sobbing hysterically with cries and moans, snatching him up in both arms, squeezing him close till it hurt, and praying for him to the Mother of God, holding him out in both arms to the image as though to put him under the Mother's protection ... and suddenly a nurse runs in and snatches him from her in terror. That was the picture! And Alyosha remembered his mother's face at that minute. He used to say that it was frenzied but beautiful as he remembered. But he rarely cared to speak of this memory to any one.

The first vivid image we have of Alyosha is his memory of his mother. But it's not even his memory of his mother's face, which we are only told is "frenzied but beautiful." It's the light of the setting sun, and the pain of her squeezing him; her terror, and the nurse's, as the nurse snatches him away. It's an astonishing little scene.

If we have all this, do we really need to see Alyosha's mustache (if he has one, which I doubt) before we can proceed? What we've learned instead is there's something about Alyosha that inspires both the narrator and his mother to protect him fiercely. And that certainly makes an impression. Whether that impression will remain throughout the novel (or whether I as a reader am willing to take up the cause of protecting Alyosha, and what that decision might mean, either way) is not clear yet. However, this inside-out introduction of a character, either via the narrator's attitude, and / or a powerful childhood memory, seems worth trying. I would like to try something of the sort, rather than racking up physical traits, which now look pretty pedestrian in contrast. Especially hair. I am really tired of describing people's hair.