Friday, April 27, 2012

Speaking of large, sprawling novels...

While we're on the subject of large, sprawling novels, why can't I think of any by women? Is there a female DFW, Dostoevsky, Melville, Tolstoy, or Bolaño? There is, right? Am I just drawing a blank, or is this really some kind of guy thing?

Middlemarch, maybe? Anne Rice doesn't count. I'm not talking about unedited novels.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Must the Great Novel be large, sprawling, frantic, and a bit of a mess?

No, I didn't disappear under a pile of fennel, but of work...which is like fennel, in that it is tough and large and sometimes hard to cut through, but very good roasted.

In addition, I have been racing to finish Roberto Bolaño's 2666, because I took it out of the library, and although I can renew it for another three weeks, there's a certain shame in that, a certain failure, and so I read and read most of last weekend, instead of working on my own stuff. OK, so I'm still not quite done. And I don't want to be done. This is a book that I'm going to miss when it's over, even though a great deal of it is concerned with war and murder, especially the mass murders of women in Ciudad Juárez, but also of Jews in World War II. In fact there is, at one point, an almost relentless cataloging of murders, a kind of theme with variations, that goes on for hundreds of pages, while various police officers, politicians, and reporters weave in and out, trying and failing to understand, and sometimes disappearing themselves. Yet, these depictions of atrocities never feel exploitative or sentimentalized; as a reader I felt a tremendous weight of confusion and sorrow, which, oddly, made me unable to put the book down.

The preface and afterword explain that 2666 was Bolaño's last work; he wrote it while becoming increasingly ill, and he knew he was dying as he was finishing it. This no doubt added a certain urgency to the prose, perhaps a certain wildness and willingness to plunge into depths that the rest of us either fear too much, or don't know. In addition there is a raggedness and repetitiveness to some sections, which Bolaño might have edited out, had he been given more time. Then again, his other work suggests polish and brevity were not his concerns. And in 2666, hearing of a friend's preference for "short, neatly shaped novels,"* one of the characters muses:

Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

I do think this novel is that other kind, imperfect and torrential. In my opinion, it's right up there with The Brothers Karamazov and Moby-Dick. It has the same vast scope, the same existential cri de coeur at its center, the same rage to comprehend--to encompass and understand--the entire range of human experience. Interestingly, the novel is not much concerned with God or religion, at least not overtly. Literature seems to replace God as a transcendent, unifying principle. Now, normally I don't approve of novels whose theme is writing (and whose main characters are writers), because they suggest that the author simply can't imagine people with professions unlike his own--which is a blatant failure of the writer's task. However, in this case, writing is the ultimate human quest for answers. The writer, as Bolaño has made clear in any number of works, is a detective. He is not, if he's doing it right, some kind of cloistered, disengaged commentator, but a seeker of truth, a religious pilgrim, outlaw, and professional wrestler rolled into one.

But is it true that an authentically great novel must be of this type--big, messy, overtly trying and ultimately failing to embrace everything? My own preference is, in fact, for such novels, though I have never attempted one myself (as yet). Still, this might just be a personal preference. Or is there a reason that the beautifully crafted, smaller "gem" of a book really does fall short of greatness? Does the perfection of craft represent a failure of intellectual or emotional ambition? Should the writer always bite off more than she can chew, or do battle with monsters she can never hope to catch or tame?

*I am quoting from the Note to the First Edition by Ignacio Echevarría.

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Instead of fiction, fennel

Not really feeling the literary life today; not sure why, but allow me to compensate by talking about fennel! It's awesome! Yeah, that stuff that grows in huge clumps along the freeway here in Northern California is just the best thing ever, roasted or sauteed. Nor does one need to park precariously on the shoulder and start hacking away at those bushes. Turns out they sell it at the grocery store, minus the coating of car exhaust (one hopes).

My fennel feeling started with this recipe from Bryant Terry's The Inspired Vegan* for Savory Grits with Sauteed Broad Beans, Roasted Fennel, and Thyme. It's vegan, and it's easy, and you should definitely make it either before or after you buy the book.**

So I used the bulbs for that, but hung onto the stalks and fronds, not sure what I was going to do with them, until just now. I just chopped up the stalks and fronds, and sauteed them with some garlic, walnuts, salt, and pepper, and served over penne pasta for a quick and delicious lunch.

No photos, because I'm a lousy food stylist.

*a much-loved holiday gift from Amy and Doug!
**the only part that might slow you down is that to make the creamy grits properly, you have to soak raw cashews overnight before pureeing them. But they're actually delicious in their own right, for smoothies and other uses, and well worth making. And if you don't remember to make these ahead of time, heck, just make polenta with some vegan margarine, even though Terry seems to frown on this...

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

An adverb of note

From time to time I like to say something nice about adverbs. Stephen King has said the road to hell is paved with them, and no one knows the way to perdition better than King. And it's true that writers often employ adverbs for the sole purpose of shoring up weak adjectives or verbs--at which task they are destined to fail every time. However, the rare, weird, unexpected and yet perfectly fitting adverb is cause for celebration.

Today's example comes from Roberto Bolaño's 2666:

Then came an assembly of Germanists in Berlin, a twentieth-century German literature congress in Stuttgart, a symposium on German literature in Hamburg, and a conference on the future of German literature in Mainz. Norton, Morini, Pelletier, and Espinoza attended the Berlin assembly, but for one reason or another all four of them were able to meet only once, at breakfast, where they were surrounded by other Germanists fighting doggedly over the butter and jam.

I absolutely love the "doggedly" there. Of course, I don't know what word was used in the original Spanish, or even if the sentence was constructed in the same way: credit for the adverb must be shared between Bolaño and his translator, Natasha Wimmer. The word just gives the sentence an additional little twist, like fine-tuning a guitar string, that nudges the whole scene into sublimity.

The test of an adverb's necessity is whether the sentence would be the same or stronger without it, and/or if you can find a verb (or, sometimes, adjective) that incorporates the adverb, and becomes more powerful for having consumed it. The image of Germanists "fighting over butter and jam" would still be kind of funny and recognizable. Perhaps "squabbling" or "skirmishing" could be substituted for "fighting," which is not an especially vivid word in itself. But I can't think of a better way to convey the ritualized, determined, petty, hilarious, and hopeless nature of the fight depicted here than with "doggedly." The word gets a boost from the previous sentence, which reflects the relentless march of conferences at which the fight is played out over and over.

But adverbs are the Bigfoot (Bigfeet?) of grammar. They should appear rarely, and be rare and weird themselves. Spotting one should be memorable, and something to tell your friends or blog about.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

A toned-down rant on education, with bonus crackpot theory

So this is very cool.

It's TED Curator Chris Anderson's animated talk, "Questions No One Knows the Answers To." Are kids everywhere watching this? And adults as well? I hope so.

As I have mentioned, I went to an excellent public school and had a presumably excellent science education therein. Yet never, not once, did it dawn on me that the purpose of this education was to be able to answer questions that were as yet unanswered. In doing countless experiments that turned out either right (yay, you got the blue foam!) or wrong (you idiot, you made black sludge!), and taking lots of multiple-choice tests, I was given to understand that science was about confirming what was already known. The black sludge was simply an error, not a result of processes that were just as real, and just as interesting in their own way, as those that made the foam. Science was proving you could follow the directions.

I can think of a number of reasons I got this message. One is that I was an extraordinarily rule-oriented child (I am only a little less so as an adult). After all, I also didn't get that art was about "expressing yourself," so much as properly rendering what you saw in front of you. So I may have simply missed the part about how we were learning scientific techniques through these repetitive experiments, so that we could later use them to make new discoveries. It may also be that my own teachers either didn't know or didn't think it important that science was about discovery. Their emphasis on mastery of the known might have reflected their own experiences and philosophies.

Or there may have been an even larger purpose behind this kind of teaching. The system cannot function if everyone in it is constantly innovating. Nothing would get done. In truth, we need people--lots of people--to implement known processes and principles. Maybe that's what this education was about: because most people will (by choice? by necessity? whose choice? whose necessity?) be implementers rather than visionaries, they must be trained as such.

Was there such a governing philosophy behind education? Is there one now? All the standardized testing going on now suggests that the answer to the second question is yes. Even if that is not the stated purpose of the testing, it will assuredly be a pronounced effect. Is that intentional on some deep, unacknowledged level? Or am I just being paranoid, or unrealistic? Should I just be grateful for the conscientious training of drones? I'm one, also, most of the time.