Monday, January 31, 2011

The pressure of other languages

I see one of Stanley Fish's all-time favorite sentences is by Nabokov. As much as one may want to argue with Fish--just because--it's pretty hard to argue with Nabokov as a sentence god.

It's hard to say exactly what makes this and many, many other Nabokov sentences so richly beautiful. But years ago, I heard a talk by Doris Sommer on bilingualism and literature, and she suggested that the pressure of Nabokov's native Russian behind his English has something to do with it. This is also perhaps one reason why so many non-native speakers of English end up expressing themselves far more eloquently that those of us who grew up taking it for granted. In Nabokov's case, there are often masked definitions of words in Russian behind those in English, which give a subtle twist to the English meanings. Moreover, there are different sounds, rhythms, syntaxes (sin taxes?), etc., that Nabokov's ear hears, and then sort of suppresses, as he writes. You could say there's a Russian harmony, or harmonics, to the English main melody.

Interesting that the sentence Fish selected is actually about the pressure of the past welling up into the present--and all the different forms that pressure can take. It mutates, and won't be denied.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Thoughts on teaching well

I'm thinking about the interview with Brian Greene on Fresh Air, and why I believe his books are the best--by far actually--science books for non-scientists that I've ever read. Obviously being in love with your subject, and enthusiastic about explaining it from scratch, over and over, while always seeking new and better ways to explain it, are all critical.

But Greene also shows a tremendous faith in his audience. I think it's this attitude that makes the work of explaining far more enjoyable for everyone. Witness this exchange with Terry Gross, as Greene is explaining the basics of string theory as opposed to the standard (particle) model:

If we change that idea and envision that these particles are actually not little tiny dots but little tiny loops, little loops of string, a little piece of string that can vibrate at different frequencies, that change from a dot to a string is able to cure the mathematical inconsistencies between general relativity and quantum mechanics at least on paper. We haven't tested. We have not been able to test these ideas yet. That's the big issue. But at least on paper, that modest change from a dot to a loop cures the problem.

GROSS: How does it cure the problem?

Prof. GREENE: That's a very interesting and difficult question, but I'll...

GROSS: Yeah, I figured it would be difficult.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GREENE: I'm absolutely willing to give it a shot.

GROSS: Okay.

Prof. GREENE: So first let me just give you what the problem is in a touch more detail...

This little exchange, which I've bolded, says so much. How often does it happen that some sage (on a stage) is explaining some complex concept, and the non-specialist listener says or thinks something like "this will be too difficult for me." (If you listen to the audio, you can hear a note of defeat in Gross's voice, a note that's pretty familiar to any non-expert talking to a specialist--as is the laughter.)

But then Greene says "I'm absolutely willing to give it a shot." He takes that difficulty upon himself as a challenge, because his listener is obviously interested and willing to take on her part of the challenge. He reduces the listener's sense of intellectual inferiority by recognizing that he has to do something hard here, as well--explain this complex topic clearly. And he goes on to do so surprisingly well.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Brian Greene on Fresh Air

On Monday Terry Gross did a great interview with Brian Greene about parallel universes (the subject of his new book). You can listen and read an excerpt here. Apparently there's a difference between an infinite universe, and infinitely many universes. Both are possible.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Turn of the Screw: The face in the window

After a long hiatus, I'm back to channeling Henry James as our latest fiction-writing guru. Specifically I'm working my way through The Turn of the Screw and finding all manner of techniques we can borrow. I have a special interest in methods for making one's fiction more disturbing, and Turn is a real clinic. Man, it's good. It's been ages since I read it, and I didn't remember how good it is.

Now then. The "shadowy apparition" is as old as the hills in storytelling. It's the thing almost seen, but not quite; the ghost; the literal or figurative haunting by memory. In thrillers it's the killer, stalking his prey in a darkened corridor. It's death itself, which we know is out there waiting for us, and but which we will never truly know (because once we do, you know, it's too late). It's Moby-Dick. In other words, in the words of our former Secretary of Defense, it's the known unknown. And you could make a case that it's the generative force behind pretty much all art: grasping at that thing we know we can never can grasp, as a means to try to overcome it.

But before I go any further, let me share with you my very favorite "shadowy apparition" tale of all time, from my very favorite show of all time. Those of you who've read my novel (hello, you five!) will see this as a direct antecedent for my work.

But suppose you don't have a video camera, a raccoon mask, or a brother willing to make an ass of himself on television? Suppose you just want to render a face in the window in prose? Well, you could do worse than study James.

The narrator first sees the apparition when she's strolling the grounds of the mansion at dusk:

It was plump, one afternoon, in the middle of my very hour: the children were tucked away, and I had come out for my stroll. One of the thoughts that, as I don't in the least shrink now from noting, used to be with me in these wanderings was that it would be as charming as a charming story suddenly to meet someone. Someone would appear there at the turn of a path and would stand before me and smile and approve. I didn't ask more than that—I only asked that he should KNOW; and the only way to be sure he knew would be to see it, and the kind light of it, in his handsome face. That was exactly present to me—by which I mean the face was—when, on the first of these occasions, at the end of a long June day, I stopped short on emerging from one of the plantations and coming into view of the house. What arrested me on the spot—and with a shock much greater than any vision had allowed for—was the sense that my imagination had, in a flash, turned real. He did stand there!—but high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower to which, on that first morning, little Flora had conducted me. This tower was one of a pair—square, incongruous, crenelated structures—that were distinguished, for some reason, though I could see little difference, as the new and the old. They flanked opposite ends of the house and were probably architectural absurdities, redeemed in a measure indeed by not being wholly disengaged nor of a height too pretentious, dating, in their gingerbread antiquity, from a romantic revival that was already a respectable past. I admired them, had fancies about them, for we could all profit in a degree, especially when they loomed through the dusk, by the grandeur of their actual battlements; yet it was not at such an elevation that the figure I had so often invoked seemed most in place.

It produced in me, this figure, in the clear twilight, I remember, two distinct gasps of emotion, which were, sharply, the shock of my first and that of my second surprise. My second was a violent perception of the mistake of my first: the man who met my eyes was not the person I had precipitately supposed. There came to me thus a bewilderment of vision of which, after these years, there is no living view that I can hope to give. An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred; and the figure that faced me was—a few more seconds assured me—as little anyone else I knew as it was the image that had been in my mind. I had not seen it in Harley Street—I had not seen it anywhere. The place, moreover, in the strangest way in the world, had, on the instant, and by the very fact of its appearance, become a solitude. To me at least, making my statement here with a deliberation with which I have never made it, the whole feeling of the moment returns. It was as if, while I took in—what I did take in—all the rest of the scene had been stricken with death. I can hear again, as I write, the intense hush in which the sounds of evening dropped. The rooks stopped cawing in the golden sky, and the friendly hour lost, for the minute, all its voice. But there was no other change in nature, unless indeed it were a change that I saw with a stranger sharpness. The gold was still in the sky, the clearness in the air, and the man who looked at me over the battlements was as definite as a picture in a frame. That's how I thought, with extraordinary quickness, of each person that he might have been and that he was not. We were confronted across our distance quite long enough for me to ask myself with intensity who then he was and to feel, as an effect of my inability to say, a wonder that in a few instants more became intense.

There are a couple of techniques that make this passage extremely spooky. First, I think, is the fact that the apparition seems to arise from the governess's own imagination. Evidently a fan of romance novels, she is secretly wishing to encounter a charming stranger on the path. And then he does appear--although we know that in this story, "charm" is a double-edged quality. Through this sudden transformation of fantasy to reality, James ties the apparition strongly to the governess herself. She has an immediate stake in--and a kind of responsibility for--his identity. He's not just a guy who shows up, surprising as that would be; he's connected with the governess's own imagination somehow, but also separate from it.

Second there's the explicit connection of the presence with death, along with the governess's sudden sense of extreme solitude, which is probably the most frightening thing about death.

And third, there's the governess's attention to the passage of time:

The great question, or one of these, is, afterward, I know, with regard to certain matters, the question of how long they have lasted. Well, this matter of mine, think what you will of it, lasted while I caught at a dozen possibilities, none of which made a difference for the better, that I could see, in there having been in the house—and for how long, above all?—a person of whom I was in ignorance. It lasted while I just bridled a little with the sense that my office demanded that there should be no such ignorance and no such person. It lasted while this visitant, at all events—and there was a touch of the strange freedom, as I remember, in the sign of familiarity of his wearing no hat—seemed to fix me, from his position, with just the question, just the scrutiny through the fading light, that his own presence provoked. We were too far apart to call to each other, but there was a moment at which, at shorter range, some challenge between us, breaking the hush, would have been the right result of our straight mutual stare. He was in one of the angles, the one away from the house, very erect, as it struck me, and with both hands on the ledge. So I saw him as I see the letters I form on this page; then, exactly, after a minute, as if to add to the spectacle, he slowly changed his place—passed, looking at me hard all the while, to the opposite corner of the platform. Yes, I had the sharpest sense that during this transit he never took his eyes from me, and I can see at this moment the way his hand, as he went, passed from one of the crenelations to the next. He stopped at the other corner, but less long, and even as he turned away still markedly fixed me. He turned away; that was all I knew.

The governess seems to realize that accurately depicting how long this episode lasted is somehow key to making it believable--to making it real. She has no conventional way of measuring the time, and that would make the episode too pedestrian, anyway; it has to take place both inside and outside of conventional time. So--and I think this is quite amazing--she uses thoughts as a measure of time. The "visitant" (such a great word) was there for as long as it took me to think x, y, and z--and for as long as it seemed to take him to wonder about me. Once he starts moving we get an additional measure of time, which is very specific. From her careful description of the architecture, we have a very strong sense of exactly how far he's moving, and how fast--by the way he places his hand on each of the crenelations. That lets us almost calculate (t = d/s) how long the governess saw him.

Furthermore, because the sense of time is so psychologically precise here, I have the distinct impression that the time of the visitation is exactly equal to how long it takes to read these passages about it. Which connects the apparition very strongly to our own imaginations, not just the governess's.

So the lesson from James for this week is: make time palpable, especially when you are portraying something from outside the normal rhythms of life. On those occasions the reader should feel those rhythms--and the disruption of them--all the more.

Anyway, the man will later literally reappear in a window, which is what gave me the final permission I needed to post the Strange Universe video. But I will stop here for now.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Notes on illness, regression, and poetry

I am really, really, really done with the sore throat and cough thing. But it is not done with me. So here I lie, laptop on lap, my mental capacity so diminished that all that comes to mind is memories of being sick as a kid and watching television. Yet I feel strangely compelled to share those memories with you.

Ha! You thought you were getting some deep, Freud-inflected think-piece! Not when I'm this addled, hon.

So. As a little kid I was sick fairly often. I did not like school, and thus developed a repertoire of vague complaints which I was able to burnish into viable excuses for staying home whenever I needed to. (The low-grade fever was a particular specialty; I somehow managed it without holding the thermometer under the light.) My illness established, the black-and-white television was then ceremoniously hauled into my room, and I settled into a full day of viewing (highlighted by Kraft Mac and Cheese at lunchtime--which I ordered extra-runny). I got pretty familiar with reruns of Andy Griffith and I Love Lucy, although to this day I find the latter borderline unwatchable.* I can't stand shows in which the entire experience involves watching someone become more and more humiliated. Plus all the screeching. But I did not turn the show off, because Gilligan's Island, or maybe it was the Banana Splits, was on next, and you could not turn off the TV for fear that it might never come back on.

Then as now, there were talk shows. I was a big fan of Mike Douglas, because he had Sly Stone on a lot. And David Brenner. But it was not Mike who spurred me into the flight of poetic expression that really put me on the fourth-grade literary map.** That was Phil Donahue. It was one of those great class assignments the adult author always remembers as a turning point. It went like this: Write a bunch of poems. So I wrote a bunch, and then (because we had to do a total of five, or ten, or whatever) I tossed in this couplet, titled Donahue:


Every time I have the flu
Dry toast, ginger ale, and you.

As always happens in artistic endeavors, the teacher was completely unimpressed with the poems I had actually worked on. But he went nuts for this one. He wrote "Wonderful!!" in huge letters next to it, and I believe he put it on the board.

What is the point of this little tale? Is it that effort is worthless in art, and that true art can only occur serendipitously? That my teacher was a cynic of some sort, who was having his own private joke on all of us*** kids, after which he repaired to his Gremlin to smoke and drink from a flask? That rhymed poetry is amazingly memorable? Is it time for another Ricola?

*Actually the former is now totally unwatchable.

**May have been fifth grade, or sixth. Actually, as I think about this even more, I may have written the poem in college. But the point is, I was--and am--recalling a formative childhood experience. I'm sick, OK? I don't remember.

***Possibly college-age

Monday, January 24, 2011

Macho minimalism

From Adam Haslett's review of Stanley Fish's new book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One:

Though never explicitly political, The Elements of Style is unmistakably a product of its time. Its calls for "vigour" and "toughness" in language, its analogy of sentences to smoothly functioning machines, its distrust of vernacular and foreign language phrases all conform to that disciplined, buttoned-down and most self-assured stretch of the American century from the armistice through the height of the Cold War. [....]

The terse, declarative sentence in all its masculine hardness routed the passive involutions of a higher, denser style. (James, from "The Altar of the Dead": "He had a mortal dislike, poor Stransom, to lean anniversaries, and loved them still less when they made a pretence of a figure"; Hemingway, from "A Way You'll Never Be": "These were the new dead and no one had bothered with anything but their pockets.") As a result, pared-down prose of the sort editor Gordon Lish would later encourage in Raymond Carver became our default "realism." This is a real loss, not because we necessarily need more Jamesian novels but because too often the instruction to "omit needless words" (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull; minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem. [Bold type mine.]

Speak it, brother. The imperative to cut, or pare (a more precise evocation, somehow), too often means shaving away the great weirdnesses of thought and emotion that make literary fiction what it is. Cutting as an aesthetic practice can mean hacking through the jungle rather than exploring, or even getting lost--which takes just as much fortitude, if not more. (Ask Werner Herzog, not a minimalist.)

Style and content are not separate. Style and content and process and structure are all of a piece. Some stories will bring about their own cutting, in due time; but others won't even come into being if we cling to minimalism as a principle. It feeds the dreaded editor-in-your-head, who won't let you say what you want to say in the first place, and is no doubt a product of Cold War-era psychology anyway.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Don Kirshner: Rock Power!

Don Kirshner passed away a few days ago. Funny thing: I was just thinking about him. I'd decided awhile back to give a shout-out to David Essex's "Rock On" in my novel, which led me to attempt to introduce the song to Trev, who had somehow never heard of it. (We all have our cultural gaps.) And that made me think of this incredibly amazing album I had, when I was very, very young.

Don Kirshner Presents Rock Power

Go look at the album cover. Look at that electric guitar flying through the air! From The Power of Rock! And then read the list of artists represented thereon. I mean, nowadays the kids can mix up any jarring batch of songs they like on those little iPod thingies. But this guy, this Don Kirshner, a professional music producer, deliberately put the following all on the same record: Seals and Crofts, Alice Cooper, Dr. John, Black Sabbath, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Procol Harum, Aretha Franklin, BTO, Steppenwolf, the aforementioned David Essex... And somehow it all worked. I played this record constantly. When I was very, very, very young.

So thank you for that, Don.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Oscar and Lucinda and me

A few years ago I had a chapter from my novel critiqued in a writing workshop. At the time, I was trying to do something that I now realize is impossible for me, which is writing from multiple points of view at the same time. Edward P. Jones does it beautifully in The Known World, and yet I am not Edward P. Jones, and perhaps a book about shopping and Bigfoot doesn't call for that kind of magisterial omniscience.

Anyway, one of the workshop participants suggested I read Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, because it seemed to her like an example of what I was trying (and failing) to do. Approximately three years later, I have finally taken that suggestion. And yes, Carey does shift point of view, or "head hop," within a single section of the narrative, which would otherwise be a simple close third. It occurs relatively rarely, and it's not confusing when it happens. You just have the sense of a camera suddenly swinging around and then back again.

But as I was reading all I could think was: "He broke the rule, and he's only getting away with it because he's Peter Carey." Probably if I didn't know the rule in the first place, I wouldn't even have noticed these shifts. They're obviously deliberate, and I think they mainly exist to remind us of the presence of the narrator--which gives the novel a somewhat nineteenth-century feel. Back in the day, a sort of chatty "I" who stuck his head in every so often was expected, and nothing to kick up a po-mo fuss about. In this case the "I" gives himself a bit more dimension, since he tells us that Oscar was his great-grandfather; and yet that fact has almost no bearing, as far as I can tell, on the shape or outcome of the story. It's just an interesting sidelight, in the end. Should there have been more of a motivation for the p.o.v. shifts? As a workshop participant, I would probably have said "yes." But why would I have said that? Maybe just to have something to say?

Reading the book was an interesting experience for another reason. I quite liked the early parts of the story, especially because it concerns religious fanaticism, which is just about my favorite subject in the world. But after a certain point I started getting a little bored. There was too much quotidian detail for my taste, especially about gambling and glass manufacturing. Maybe too much talking in general. And there seemed to be an inordinate number of new sections introducing new characters with a brief summary of their life histories followed by a brief scene with said new character. What was this all adding up to? I wasn't sure. I almost set the book aside, but said to myself: "This is Peter Carey. And this book won a big prize and was made into a movie with Ralph Fiennes. So keep reading."

Sure enough, the last pages were stunning, drawing all the many seemingly loose threads together--not in a neat little knot, mind you, but one of those interesting, flawed tapestry-thingies that allows real art to shine through the roughness. But I still wonder--would I have stuck with it had I not heard of the author, and known that the book had won the Booker Prize? I tend to think not.

In short: established authors get away with stuff that new authors can't. Life's not fair, but the sun is out, and my mom's on the mend, and I have a new slow-cooker that I can't wait to try. Things could be worse.

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Saturday, January 08, 2011

A shout-out to Nature's Bin in Lakewood, Ohio

Still in Ohio, still waiting for mom's test results. It is snowing, and I can't concentrate for more than five minutes at a time. Which means most topics of a literary nature are out the window for the time being.

I do still think about food a lot, and wanted to mention this little gem of a natural-foods store in Lakewood Ohio called Nature's Bin. It has been in business for 35 years, though I only started going there a couple of years ago while visiting my mom. If you live, or ever find yourself, in the western suburbs of Cleveland, and are asking yourself, Where, for the love of God, can I buy seitan? Where are my quinoa shells, my organic brussels sprouts, my fair-trade coffee, and my carbon-neutral wine? Why, they are all here, my elitist and fussy friend. Minus the Whole-Foods moral quandaries, and plus a very cool longstanding program of hiring the mentally and physically disabled.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

One way to salvage a wrecked novel

Well, if you're Michael Chabon, you can do this. But it seems like a cool idea.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Bona Fide Books Call for Submissions: Microstories about Lake Tahoe

Submit your short-shorts about Lake Tahoe to Bona Fide Books here.

The year thus far

In Cleveland...helping mom recover from surgery...waiting for pathology report...torpor.

In Cleveland in winter, the sun does not always equal warmth, but it is still welcome. In fact it is craved.

Apparently some kind of rare bird appeared in a flock on Lake Erie this morning. I saw a bunch of birders out at the park with scopes. I think I saw the birds, too--like gulls, only smaller and whiter. By the time I decided to go down and ask the birders what they were, they--the birders--were gone. Note: They were not arctic terns. I checked on the Internet. They were something else.

In Cleveland it is possible to find organic shitake mushrooms for $8/pound.

Skype is awesome. My friends are awesome. My husband is awesome. I miss my cats, who are awesome.

That is my year thus far.