Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mysteries of mystery writing

All right, real mystery writers: how do you do it?

By "it," I mean figuring out the plot--all the details of who did it, why, who knows what, and who believes what. Most of all, I'm wondering when you figure all that out. Do you map it all out at the beginning or do you figure it out in the course of the writing? Or does it vary from writer to writer (as do pretty much all aspects of writing)?

I ask because I think the culprit in my literary murder mystery is about to change for the third time. In this case it really seems like the story itself is pointing to this person, whom I, like my protagonist, had dismissed out of hand. It's been an interesting experience to observe this happening, as I had certain characters arguing for this person's guilt, and it's as if they finally convinced me. The change, should I choose to implement it, also allows my protagonist to be productively wrong, rather than just sadly misunderstood (fortunately he's not a heroic detective, just a sort of hapless bystander who decides to get involved).

However, questions remain: If the story itself is insisting on this particular culprit, maybe the culprit is too obvious. Maybe the reader will grow fed up with the protagonist's seemingly willful blindness early on. OR will the case the protagonist is building against someone else be enough to raise doubts in the reader's mind? Also, does the culprit always have to be a mystery until the end, or, in the manner of the old Columbo mysteries, can the interest lie less in who the person is than in how he or she is discovered? (The fact that Columbo is my touchstone for such questions should tell you that I know relatively little about the mystery genre, which is part of my problem.) And, also, in a novel that aims for literary interest, is the whodunnit aspect even that important?

I find that even in my "purely" literary writing I suffer from plot anxiety. I worry that the story is simply too boring, that nothing is happening, and so if anything I over-plot. In an actual mystery story, a convoluted plot can, I think, be satisfying, as long as it doesn't seem contrived. But there's a fine line between convoluted and contrived. And then there's the kind of story, which I'm ultimately working toward, in which we don't get a final answer. In the end, different characters are still going to believe different things, and there won't be enough evidence to convict the apparent killer. However, I still think I need to have a firm notion of the culprit in my mind in order to write this kind of story, and then think of ways he could be overlooked by others.

In a way, I suppose, all fiction writing is mystery writing of a sort: What's going to happen? What will be revealed? Who is this character, really?

So I guess the answer, as always, is to keep writing and then get someone honest to read it and tear it apart. Still, I would love to know how people who think up mystery stories for a living really do it.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

In praise of unlikable characters: Pete Campbell

So I blew through the fourth season of Mad Men on Netflix, and made a surprising discovery: Pete Campbell is my favorite character.

This discovery interests me because I have been harping off and on about the issue of likable characters in fiction. In fact I created a class around the topic at Stanford a few years ago. To recap, it always bugged me in fiction workshops when people would say something to the effect of, "I just don't like this character," meaning...well, I wasn't sure, exactly. The story wasn't working for these people, but was it because they felt the character was immoral? Or they couldn't "relate" to the character, meaning he/she didn't evoke sympathy in the reader? Do all characters have to be someone we would want to be friends with in real life? I thought not. But characters to have to engage us, and I have been at pains over the years to figure out how.

In the first few seasons of Mad Men, Pete was the character I loved to hate. I hated his pinched expression, his sense of entitlement, and his peevishness when that sense ran up against some real-world obstacle. (Also he was a jerk to Peggy, and his wife, and all women, but that of course doesn't make him anything special in the MM world.) He was like a little boy entering the grown-up world a little too soon, and finding out that it was not at all what he'd expected.

But who can't relate to that? Who hasn't felt, after a long day at some office, that "I was led to believe there would be cake" feeling, and wanting to whine about it? Where is the damn cake? And the freedom, and the knowledge, and the power that all adults were supposed to have, all of which I was supposed to have, too, once I grew up? It's all a big ruse, this adult thing? Now what am I supposed to do?

Also in this past season, I've noticed another quality in Pete that I admire: his commitment. Even as he sees (and complains about) the Don Drapers of the world trampling on the less handsome and less lucky and (so far) getting away with it, he still puts on his suit and shows up at work and does his god-damnedest to haul in new clients. We may not think much of the value of the work he does, but he does it extremely well. Despite all the problems he sees, Pete is not yet ready to give up on his dream. He signed up to be an ad man, and that's what he's going to do.

Lots of credit, of course, must go to the actor, Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Pete without a trace of vanity. He never winks at the audience, inviting us to mock Pete or to remind us that he isn't "really" this guy. The commitment we sense in Pete is the actor's commitment.

So what does this all mean for writers trying to create interesting characters? By which I mean, characters who are complex and engaging and challenging--not simply mirrors held up to flatter readers' (and our own) moral vanity? Well, the creator of characters must understand them. I may not like or admire Pete's peevishness, but I know where it comes from; I've felt it, too. In other words, Pete feels like a creation from within. He's not a cartoon, observed and imitated from outside, but grown out of common, if embarrassing, emotions.

All of which suggests that a great character might start out as some complex twinge in the heart, rather than as an image, or a type, or a role you need played in your story. And you need to commit to that twinge, not wish it away, or wink at it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Is Pynchon overrated?

So here's that much-read Slate piece about famous books that are overrated. Or at least that these particular authors never liked. Gravity's Rainbow comes up a couple of times, and that's a book I actually love. I think I love it, that is.

I agree with Elif Batuman on this issue: a particular book has to reach you at a particular time. I read GR when my father and I were driving cross country from Ohio to Berkeley, where I was about to start grad school. I read the book in strange motels in Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming, while during the day we covered vast stretches of stark landscape and listened to Paul Simon's Graceland. I was on my way to immersing myself in an acid bath of literary theory, which at the the time I was looking forward to, in the same way I looked forward to living in a place with palm trees. Nothing seemed quite real, except being with my dad, and somehow the book brought all that real unreality together. This goes back to a thought I had awhile ago, that the context of reading really is important in making literature part of your life. Reading in a class, or a library cubicle, does not always allow for that kind of rich reading experience.

But I don't know if I'd enjoy reading GR now. And I am bogging down a bit in Against the Day, after my initial enthusiasm. It's just...very...long.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

On being decisive (in fiction)

So I'm not the world's most decisive person. (Maybe I shouldn't have said that.)

I recently received some comments from an editor on a short story, and I realized its biggest problem was my refusal to commit to...a story. I myself like stories with ambiguous endings, the did-it-really-happen or what-exactly-happened endings. Which is not to say I like endings the writer *messed up.* These things have to be done very carefully, so that the implications can be taken in two (or more) ways--but the reader has to be able to figure out what those ways are in the first place.

The mistake I made in this story was trying to keep all options open, when what I needed to do was commit myself, through my narrator, to one path. In reality, other options can and will remain open, but that openness is accomplished through the limitations of the characters, and through language. In other words, literature is a bit loose because language and characters are a bit loose. In fact literature creates a productive ambiguity if you're doing it right. But if you force ambiguity by refusing to commit, you create confusion, not art.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Review of Francisco Goldman's Say Her Name

I got assigned to write this review a few months ago, but due to a timing issue, the publication ended up not being able to use it. This is not a timely review, except that grief is in the air for me these days. And I liked the book, so here's what I had to say about it.


I am starting to believe that the greatest terror life has in store for us is not death, but grief. Death has an ending, after all; it is the ending. Grief, on the other hand, may subside, but will never truly end. And one of its most awful aspects (it’s a complicated, writhing thing) is helplessness. This is the condition of both the survivor, and—if she is aware of her circumstances—the dying. The loved one pulls away, like the tide withdrawing from the shore, and all anyone can really do is watch. Though sometimes, later, the survivor can also tell the story.

In 2007, Aura Estrada, a young writer and scholar, broke her neck while bodysurfing in Oaxaca and died the next day. Her husband, novelist and journalist Francisco Goldman, wrote Say Her Name in the aftermath of that personal disaster, which was also a loss for the world of letters. The book includes excerpts from Aura’s stories and diaries, which are funny, brightly inventive, and increasingly experimental in their language. In fact, Aura’s promise as a fiction writer is one reason Goldman wrote Say Her Name as a novel: to honor her imagination.

At first, I didn’t realize it was a novel. I found out only after finishing the book and skimming the dust jacket for a hint of how to start talking about it. This was the most brutal portrait of grief I had ever read, and to “review” it—as if there were anything more to say on the subject, especially in the form of critical judgment—seemed absurd. But instead of giving me the handhold I was looking for, the synopsis, puzzlingly, called Say Her Name “the novel of Aura.” Sure enough, the bookstore sticker on the back said it belonged in the fiction section, and so did the Grove/Atlantic Web site. The question should probably not have mattered to me, but it did. What was this terrifying, exhilarating place I’d just emerged from, shaking and desperate to call my husband?

I turned to the New Yorker’s interview with Goldman, in which he discusses the genre issue in some detail. Of course, he says, the extended sections describing Aura’s childhood are fictionalized; since he wasn’t there, how could they not be? More intriguingly, he says the account of his actions as the grieving widower are not (or not all) true. The “narrator” of Say Her Name does things in his anguish that the real Goldman did not. I was relieved to hear that, since much of the narrator’s behavior is reckless and at times cruel. And yet those sections, for me, raised the story far above the finely crafted, moderately touching expression of loss that I might have expected from a grief memoir.

In the novel the bereaved Goldman gets drunk night after night and frequents strip clubs. He hallucinates. He torments himself with accusations that he caused or even desired his wife’s death. He has affairs with Aura’s friends, including a young woman named Ana Eva, at whom he unleashes this twisted, blackly funny tirade:

So take that you fucking Sméagol, you and your Latino straw man marvelous quirkiness of love, go sodomize yourself with your fucking sock puppet, you idiot pendejo!

Ana Eva gaped at me. What had set this off? [….]

She was frightened. She’d drawn back into a corner of the bed. What’s the matter? Was it her? Why was I screaming at her about some Sméagol?

Oh Ana Eva, no, no, it has nothing to do with you. I’m sorry. Something Sméagol, a book critic wrote. He gave us the evil eye on the subway. He fucking killed Aura, not me.

Grief undoes the narrator from inside out, and watching this happen made me fully trust the experience as portrayed. Goldman rejects any redemptive, golden-light-infused “process” to lay bare the reality of his emotion: It’s monstrous. Now he tells me a good portion of the story isn’t true?

Then again, how does the griever himself know what is real? “No happy memory,” Goldman jarringly writes, having already recounted many of them, “that isn’t infected. A virus strain that has jumped from death to life, moving voraciously backward through all memories, obligating me to wish none of it, my own past, had ever happened.” Aura’s death has rewritten his life, making him wish his past—all that has made him who he is—were fiction. What can happiness mean now? What even happened? What’s one more revision of his life story, if grief is the ultimate fabulist?

In the New Yorker interview, Goldman explains how the fictionalized self-portrait reveals a different kind of truth. The man most people saw, in the months and years after Aura’s death, seemed to be doing pretty well. As he mourned he wrote; he taught; he established the Aura Estrada Prize. But all that felt like a lie, he says. In the book, the narrator’s actions reveal the raw, hidden, even shameful experience of grief. He gives it a face. Maybe Goldman also wanted, by writing the fiction, to separate the griever from the person walking the earth under the name “Francisco Goldman.” But it’s equally likely that others, and even he himself, will conflate them. The point is, it really doesn’t matter. The book is very much about Goldman, but also not.

When you get down to it, Say Her Name is about everything, where everything takes the form of Aura. We come to observe life through the lenses of her talent, ambition, astute critiques of academia, humor, Hello Kitty toaster, dresses, travels and culture shocks, and her deep and bracing loves: literature, her troubled mother, her husband. Lost in thought, she misses her subway stops. She loudly recites George Herbert, of all possible poets, when drunk. She wants to have children. She worries that her much older husband will leave her a widow too soon. She adores the beaches of Oaxaca. She wants to learn to bodysurf, but is afraid, so Goldman, who’s been doing it since childhood, shows her how.

Like everyone, and not like anyone, she’s ordinary and extraordinary. She changes Goldman, as he does her, both during her life and after; in the end, her power to transform is just as strong as grief’s. Say Her Name proves how wonderful it is to love someone so much that losing her is so completely devastating. As Goldman puts it:

One of the most common tropes and complaints in the grief books I’ve read is about the loneliness of the deep griever, because people and society seem unable, for the various reasons always listed in those books, to accommodate such pain. But what could anybody possibly do or say to help? Inconsolable does not mean that you are sometimes consolable. The way things are has seemed right to me; it’s all been as it should be, or as if it could not be any other way.

So the helplessness of grief cannot be helped. That makes sense, even if Aura’s strange and awful death does not. The rightness is a kind of consolation.

Still, we wouldn’t want to trade places with Goldman (or Aura) for even one second. Or would we?

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Thursday, August 04, 2011

Vacant lots in Cleveland

There's a very interesting piece in today's New York Times about the vacant lots in Cleveland, my hometown. (OK, my hometown was actually a suburb, but I still identify, for better or worse, with the "metropolis.") Anyway, there are enough of these lots now to constitute an actual ecosystem, and naturalists are studying it.

The article and the photographs convey the sadness of the city's long, probably permanent decay. But you can also see the charm: the brick buildings, the old broad-leaf trees, the mugginess--not always awful--of the summer air.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Werner Herzog (again)

Missed my Tuesday blog post. Swamped. Fortunately The Millions has a great post up about Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and that wild, wacky, Herzogian method of magic. Enjoy...