Thursday, October 28, 2010

On not not editing

Finally, finally, someone in a position to know these things is backing me up. Nathan Bransford says you can't just barf out a whole first draft of a novel, then edit it later. Yes, you need to free yourself from the "inner editor" enough to get something down. Enough to write a novel as opposed to, say, flash fiction. BUT you can't build a house on a shaky foundation, as Bransford says. And that's what all these "just do it" people (e.g. NaNoWriMo) don't mention: if there's a termite of a bad idea when you start, by the time you're done, that termite will have devoured your novel. If there's a twist on the track at the outset, it can throw your train off the rails and it might never get back on. And so on. Analogize at will.

So it seems to me the process of beginning must be process of writing, stopping, thinking, rewriting, rethinking. You can't rush this process, nor should you despair if you aren't just plowing ahead, vowing you will fix everything later. Some stuff, if you get it wrong, isn't fixable. The key is to recognize what is fixable later, and what isn't. Before you've had time to make these distinctions, I'd argue that a NaNoWriMo-style sprint isn't worth it--unless you are so blocked that you won't write at all unless you do this. There is too much advice to writers that advocates powering through at all costs, and dismisses all noodling and hemming and hawing as procrastination. Not so, or not always. Again, you have to learn to tell the difference, and that takes some practice. In the early stages, the bottom line is not if your novel is getting bigger, but only if it's getting better. Once you're satisfied with the foundation, then, yes, write like crazy.

There's a Paris Review interview to back this up, too. See Peter Carey.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Donald Barthelme vs. sentimentality

So, as you've probably read, the Paris Review has made all its author interviews available online. This means some of us can stop beating ourselves up about not getting any writing done, and instead tell ourselves that we are not procrastinating but learning useful stuff about the craft. So far I've read Jonathan Lethem's and Donald Barthelme's interviews. Both are great, in that both made me feel that I'm groping toward some worthwhile aesthetic in my own work. But today I'll talk about a few things Barthelme said, back in 1981, my god, so long ago...

I'm especially interested in his points about a certain fuzziness in our perception. Barthelme suggests it's fuzziness, rather than clarity, that gives us the sensation of reality. I don't mean reality in the sense of some objective world we may (or may not) all see around us; rather the sense that a character's emotional response is true to life.


Apparently the Yiddish theater, to which Kafka was very addicted, includes as a typical bit of comedy two clowns, more or less identical, who appear even in sad scenes—the parting of two lovers, for instance—and behave comically as the audience is weeping. This shows up especially in The Castle.


The assistants.


And the audience doesn’t know what to do.


The confusing signals, the impurity of the signal, gives you verisimilitude. As when you attend a funeral and notice, against your will, that it’s being poorly done.

We've all been at this funeral, right? We may be saying goodbye to someone we love deeply, yet we sit there thinking: couldn't the minister have at least combed his hair? We're inappropriate creatures; we can't help it. Of course, the way to ensure sympathy for this critical funeral-goer is to have him or her notice her own "wrong" reaction and fret about it. And it's totally fine, as Barthelme almost always is, to be funny.

In the same vein:

If I didn’t have roaches big as ironing boards in the story I couldn’t show Cortes and Montezuma holding hands, it would be merely sentimental. You look around for offsetting material, things that tell the reader that although X is happening, X is to be regarded in the light of Y.

I think this notion of X in light of Y is crucial to fiction. It's a variant of Norman Mailer's "noble shit" theory, which I subscribe to, but never like having to describe (so follow the link, if you must). The idea is that if you're going to aim for lofty abstractions or emotions, you need to tarnish them by putting them right next to ugly, stupid, obscene, or silly stuff. Noble must be close to shit; giant roaches must march by as two enemies hold hands. There must be offsetting material. Otherwise you end up with pomposity, sentimentality, and so on.

The real strength of certain authors is in the choice of that offsetting material. The brilliance of Art Spiegelman's Maus books is his decision to portray the Holocaust--a subject that seemed untouchable, except with pure reverence--as a cartoon involving mice and cats. He brought the topic down to earth, where it could hurt us.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Two possibly related questions about dreaming

1. Do animals wake up from dreams and think, "Oh, phew, that was just a dream?" Or what?

2. Is our love for stories related, on an evolutionary level, to dreaming? John Gardner famously said fiction should produce "a vivid and continuous dream." If dreams help us organize and interpret our daily experiences, does fiction do the same thing?

I am thinking of how some dreams are more absorbing and more memorable than others. Sometimes I have dreams in which I seem to be doing real work in real time, like preparing a lecture or editing a document, and wake up frustrated that I have literally nothing to show for my labors. I have dreams in which I'm utterly frightened, and some in which I'm sad but also interested in what's going on--for instance, my dad's still alive and sort of hanging around while the rest of us go about our business. I know he's not supposed to be there, and he seems to know it too, but I'm still terribly glad to see him.

Often, as when I read novels, I don't retain the plot of the dreams for very long, only an emotional impression. But this impression can be very strong.

My point is, dreams and fiction seem absorbing in similar ways, and might fulfill similarly complex purposes for our brains. We have a little more control over what we read than what we dream, though maybe not as much control as we think. But the fact that we crave stories, and the fact that all of us dream, suggests the two experiences are deeply connected.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Dracula: An E-pilogue

Having just bid a fond (and somewhat relieved) farewell to Dracula, I see Bekka Black has taken the novel's fascination with communications technology, and run with it. iDrakula retells the tale via email, text messages, and web pages. (What, no Twitter?) As Black points out, this is entirely in the spirit of the original. Also, she's given Mina more agency.

The original really does seem to cry out to be rewritten for contemporary times. While reading it, I continually had the feeling it was on the cusp of our own age, both aesthetically and culturally. It seems clear that a sense of radical change in the air inspired Stoker's story in the first place, and Dracula embodies the inchoate fears of same.

Interesting that societal change is represented, in Dracula, by a being who cannot change, i.e. age or die--though he can take different forms, which means one must constantly be on the lookout for him. The fear is: he will change us; he will make us the same as him; but he is so radically "other" that we can do nothing to bring him into "our" fold. New technologies inspire those kinds of fears. Technology makes us less human, we think; we seem less sure that we can humanize technology. Maybe racial or sexual otherness sparks the same horror in some: if we intermingle, we'll turn into them. It's a one-way street, always leading straight to hell. "They" can never be like "us."

So the vampire is the threat of change, but also the wish that things never, ever will change. Maybe it's even an acknowledgment that the fantasy of changelessness--immortality--is dangerous and monstrous. In fact, change is human. But no one wants to admit that up front.

Today's terrified Tea Party casts Obama in the vampire role. The fact that his campaign made great use of new technologies probably made him even more frightening to those on the wrong side of history. Never mind that the Palins of the world, true parasites, have also mastered these communications tools. What's really scary is the combination of implacable fear plus access to technology. Information, reason, appeals to our common humanity--nothing seems to stop this kind of fear. Maybe a better economy would help. But the fear is still there, buried, but not dead.

Anyway, I really just meant to note the Black book in this post. But now that I think about it, I'm more convinced than ever that Dracula is a book for the ages, literally.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The somewhat disappointing demise of Dracula

It is done. Dracula is finished. And what an ending it is, or isn't, for the title character.

Our heroes have been racing toward Castle Dracula, trying to intercept the cart bearing the Count's coffin before the sun sets. They've split up into various parties, and the actual death scene is narrated by Mina, who's watching from a short distance away with Van Helsing. Here's how Dracula dies:

By this time the gypsies, seeing themselves covered by the Winchesters, and at the mercy of Lord Godalming and Dr. Seward, had given in and made no further resistance. The sun was almost down on the mountain tops, and the shadows of the whole group fell upon the snow. I saw the Count lying within the box upon the earth, some of which the rude falling from the cart had scattered over him. He was deathly pale, just like a waxen image, and the red eyes glared with the horrible vindictive look which I knew so well.

As I looked, the eyes saw the sinking sun, and the look of hate in them turned to triumph.

But, on the instant, came the sweep and flash of Jonathan's great knife. I shrieked as I saw it shear through the throat. Whilst at the same moment Mr. Morris's bowie knife plunged into the heart.

It was like a miracle, but before our very eyes, and almost in the drawing of a breath, the whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight.

I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution, there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there.

I dunno. I guess I was expecting a little more drama. The racing-against-the-sunset thing is all right, but I was sort of expecting Dracula to at least say something before crumbling into dust. Or to present a greater danger to his killers, to put up some kind of fight. Earlier we got a hint of this, during an unsuccessful attempt to do him in:

Harker evidently meant to try the matter, for he had ready his great Kukri knife and made a fierce and sudden cut at him. The blow was a powerful one; only the diabolical quickness of the Count's leap back saved him. A second less and the trenchant blade had shorn through his heart. As it was, the point just cut the cloth of his coat, making a wide gap whence a bundle of bank notes and a stream of gold fell out. The expression of the Count's face was so hellish, that for a moment I feared for Harker, though I saw him throw the terrible knife aloft again for another stroke. Instinctively I moved forward with a protective impulse, holding the Crucifix and Wafer in my left hand. I felt a mighty power fly along my arm, and it was without surprise that I saw the monster cower back before a similar movement made spontaneously by each one of us. It would be impossible to describe the expression of hate and baffled malignity, of anger and hellish rage, which came over the Count's face. His waxen hue became greenish-yellow by the contrast of his burning eyes, and the red scar on the forehead showed on the pallid skin like a palpitating wound. The next instant, with a sinuous dive he swept under Harker's arm, ere his blow could fall, and grasping a handful of the money from the floor, dashed across the room, threw himself at the window. Amid the crash and glitter of the falling glass, he tumbled into the flagged area below. Through the sound of the shivering glass I could hear the "ting" of the gold, as some of the sovereigns fell on the flagging.

We ran over and saw him spring unhurt from the ground. He, rushing up the steps, crossed the flagged yard, and pushed open the stable door. There he turned and spoke to us.

"You think to baffle me, you with your pale faces all in a row, like sheep in a butcher's. You shall be sorry yet, each one of you! You think you have left me without a place to rest, but I have more. My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side. Your girls that you all love are mine already. And through them you and others shall yet be mine, my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed. Bah!"

With a contemptuous sneer, he passed quickly through the door, and we heard the rusty bolt creak as he fastened it behind him. A door beyond opened and shut. The first of us to speak was the Professor. Realizing the difficulty of following him through the stable, we moved toward the hall.

This promises much for the ultimate showdown. But now, at his long-awaited death scene, all he gets to do is glare, and then zip! All over. He is not granted so much as a "Bah!," let alone a threat to make the lot of them his jackals when he wants to feed.

One reason for this may be the choice to show the scene through Mina's eyes. As I've repeated to the point of tedium, Stoker seems to recognize Mina as both the smartest and the bravest person on the whole team. Van Helsing certainly says as much, though he tends to do it in a patronizing tone, neutralizing the threat Mina presents. For instance, after the men have lost the trail, Mina uses logic to figure out where Dracula is going:

When I had done reading, Jonathan took me in his arms and kissed me. The others kept shaking me by both hands, and Dr. Van Helsing said, "Our dear Madam Mina is once more our teacher. Her eyes have been where we were blinded. Now we are on the track once again, and this time we may succeed."

Like one of the characters said on Mad Men when Peggy came up with her first slogan: "it was like a dog playing the piano." Mina, far more than a simple victim, comes close to rendering the whole posse of men irrelevant--she's smart and physically brave; only her weakness from the "vampire baptism" would seem to hold her back from being able to destroy her attacker herself. So I sense that in having her narrate the killing of Dracula, Stoker is somehow trying to give Mina her due, while at the same time making sure the male heroes have something important (and traditional) to contribute. Because of her social position, she can't do the actual deed, but she can at least tell the story of the deed.

But because she is an observer and not a participant in the action, she's not engaged in the life-and-death struggle with the vampire. This means the opportunity for any kind of existential struggle is lost--for example, Dracula looking into his killer's eyes and saying, "Zo. You are like me after all. I didn't think you had the guts..." Or, had it been Mina who killed him, he might have made an almost persuasive appeal to her latent desires for power and freedom: "We shall rule the night. We shall fly together through darkness, through fields of stars. These twerps here shall be our jackals. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life proofreading Jonathan's legal prose?"

Again, I realize the book is not intended to be psychologically challenging on this level, but it almost is, in so many places. Even here, as Mina sees the "peace" on the Count's face, we're reminded that this hasn't been a simple story of good and evil, that it's had to be squished a bit to fit in that box.

Also, my theory here is not airtight. Why couldn't Mina observe and narrate a more complex scenario? Maybe she could even have wanted to intervene, to help Jonathan, who always needs her help? She could try escaping from the holy circle Van Helsing has set up around her, throw herself again and again against the force field...

I don't know. Maybe Stoker just wanted the whole thing to be overwith. Or he didn't want to risk giving the Count any final statements that could lead to doubts about the rightness of his killers' actions. But I think the ultimate issue is this: like Mina herself, the novel is far more intelligent and interesting than its tradition--in this case, its genre--allows it to be.

Anyway, what can we learn from this, as writers of contemporary literary fiction? A genre frame--like the Gothic novel, the detective novel, the romance, etc.--can give you some wonderful creative constraints. But if you're going to challenge those constraints, you really have to break all the way through. Don't just mosey up to them and poke at them, or your readers might not realize what you're doing.

Friday, October 08, 2010

30th Anniversary (+ 1 week) of Cosmos

OK, so apparently the official 30th anniversary of Cosmos was last week. But think of it...thirty years! I am re-watching the whole series to celebrate.

To my mind there has never been another series like this, weaving all branches of science together with history, culture, beautiful scenery, and great writing, all orchestrated by an intellectual/charismatic/goofball host in a red turtleneck. To think that back then, Sagan was already warning us about global warming (more often called "the greenhouse effect")--in fact, his studies of the atmosphere of Venus helped lay the groundwork for understanding the whole concept. Of course the more immediate worry was nuclear war and the possibly resulting nuclear winter, another idea drawn from studies of Venus. The series's ultimate purpose really was to SAVE THE WORLD by showing us everything we had to lose.

For me, the show continues to inspire a form of secular awe that I imagine other people get when attending church or reading sacred texts. Who are the scientists, artists, and intellectuals who can inspire us this way today? Will pseudo-intellectual religious demagogues continue to fill this vacuum?

Yes, I know Sagan was a jerk in his off-hours. I know the set of Cosmos was an unpleasant place to be much of the time (sparkling ocean/Mediterranean Sea notwithstanding). The book below tells some of those stories. Such are the contradictions we must often hold in our minds in the presence of masterpieces.

Anyway, you can watch it on Hulu.

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Monday, October 04, 2010

The perfect vs. the alive

Jeanette Winterson, author of one of my favorite books on earth, The Stone Gods, says in yesterday's NYT Book Review:

[Michael] Cunningham writes so well, and with such an economy of language, that he can call up the poet’s exact match. His dialogue is deft and fast. The pace of the writing is skilled — stretched or contracted at just the right time. And if some of the interventions on art are too long — well, too long for whom? For what? Good novels are novels that provoke us to argue with the writer, not just novels that make us feel magically, mysteriously at home. A novel in which everything is perfect is a waxwork. A novel that is alive is never perfect.

I completely agree. I haven't yet read the new Cunningham book, but I just had this exact experience reading Adam Ross's Mr. Peanut. This book's received a lot of attention, and much of the criticism has been a kind of lament: the Sam Sheppard section is so good, so moving, so real...if only Ross hadn't felt the need to frame it inside a gimmicky, video-game-inspired meta-narrative.

Leaving aside the issue that I myself wanted to write about Sam Sheppard, and am now feeling rather kneecapped, I too had misgivings about the larger framework, at first. One problem is that the Sheppard story is, in and of itself, so powerful that virtually any fiction could seem wobbly next to it. There is a reason why people continue to get sucked down the Sheppard rabbit hole. It's a genuine American tragedy, which also delivers the disheartening news that information is not the same thing as knowledge. There is a ton of information about the crime, some of it horrifically lurid--but none of it adds up to knowing for certain who did it. The event demands answers and thwarts them with equal energy. So Ross's inclusion of a long narrative section that straightforwardly recounts the crime, from various individuals' points of view (including the victim's), is already daring in the extreme.

As for the framing meta-narratives of Mr. Peanut: yeah, probably we do have enough Mobius-strip-shaped books about writing books about writing books...but why not have one more? And why not end the book with two academic lectures on women's roles in Hitchcock films, and in 1950s suburbia, which dovetail into essentially the same thing? Hitchcock himself glued pedantic psychological disquisitions onto his films, notably Psycho, and we all agree this was a mistake, right? So why does Ross, who's specifically writing about Hitchcock, do it too--is it just a parody, or does he believe there's something important about the clunkiness itself? I have begun to think the latter. This is an aesthetic decision, to destroy the "waxwork" illusion of a transparent world and knock readers upside the head: this stuff's important! This stuff kills! Understand this! Such urgency in getting the point across is, in its own way, as moving as a deeply absorbing scene.

True, as I read along, I did keep thinking...I don't know about this Mobius figure. I don't quite like the video-game analogy. I don't see why we're spending so much time in Hawaii. Yet I kept reading, and while I thought I could come up with better solutions at first (No Mobius? Less Hawaii?) they kind of fizzled by the time I got to the end. Yes, the book's imperfect, and the imperfections got me riled. I wanted to argue, and, as Winterson says, this is good. In the strange and fascinating case of Mr. Peanut, much is attempted--and the attempt itself is the accomplishment.

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