Monday, January 27, 2014

An author I will keep reading till I decide if I like his writing

Because of my now almost year-long obsession with Iris Murdoch, whenever I go into a bookstore, I head straight for the M's. A few months ago, at my favorite used bookstore, while staring disappointedly at the space that should have contained several Murdoch novels, but didn't, I discovered a novel called Hopeful Monsters by Nicholas Mosely. I knew nothing about him, including that he is the son of renowned British fascist Oswald Mosley ... but of course I am going to pick up any book called "Hopeful Monsters" that promises to be a "pyrotechnically accomplished novel of ideas, in which communism, psychoanalytic theory, uncertainty, and relativity obtain visceral emotional force," according to the book jacket.

I liked it. I think.  It contained extraordinary, stunning images, including an unforgettable extended scene of a small child being rolled down a hill in a tire. But overall, the book managed to be both fascinating and oddly distancing. Perhaps it suffered from that common criticism aimed at all "novels of ideas," whatever those are: that they are bloodless, that readers really want novels "about character" (as if that's somehow opposed to "ideas"). Yet what if your characters themselves live lives of the mind? What if their greatest passion in life is ideas, the search for the truth about the universe?

Anyway, I couldn't decide if I liked the book or not, so I got another one, The Hesperides Tree, which I'm reading now. Here's a sample passage:

This section contains a couple of the distinctive, sometimes baffling quirks of Mosley's style. That "I thought -- " appears at least once on nearly every page of both novels, and it has the effect, for me, of kicking me out of the narrative. A cardinal sin, as any writing workshop will gleefully inform you. But that effect has to be intentional. These characters, themselves, have the habit of stepping back, even in the middle of very intense experiences, and reflecting on what the events mean. They, like us, are in and out of their own stories at the same time.  Mosley also likes repetition, as here, with the vaguely hypnotic recurrence of "wildlife station." Again, you end up paying attention to the language as much as to what the language conveys--which lends the whole story an edge of unreality.

It's not that the story becomes less compelling because of these techniques; what's compelling is the telling of the story. Which is why we don't get to pretend that we're seeing straight through the words into some alternate but completely believable world, populated by people just like us. The story is the story. And that makes for a different but still deeply intriguing reading experience.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On the fictional continuum

Now that "having my hair done" is an hours-long process, entailing extended periods of sitting, enfoiled and baked-potato-like, I have occasion to catch up on various celebrities' lives. Last week, I learned (from I forget which magazine) that Drew Barrymore has made peace with her tumultuous past, formed the family she's always wanted, and embarked on an array of successful business ventures. In other words, she has finally found redemption. And I felt good for her, and hopeful that maybe I, too, can redeem myself, though I've had a much less tumultuous past, still there's stuff I should probably overcome in order to be more at peace, more successful, more ... I dunno. Better. If Drew can do it, why not me?

Then I got to thinking about the redemption narrative in general, and how central it seems to be in fiction. Even in the tiniest doses, we still somehow demand it from the stories we read and tell. Is there really no way out for this character? Can you possibly just let a little light in? Otherwise, why are we reading? Why, indeed? Do stories exist to give us hope? Do we stop reading if there's no hope, just as we might want to stop living for that same reason? Is living like reading? Is life a story we tell ourselves?

Drew Barrymore, like all celebrities, is a story for the rest of us. The Drew I read about, while steeping my hair in (natural, organic) chemicals, is a creation, a collaboration shaped by Drew herself, her "handlers," the writer, the editor, me, and probably other people as well. But, on some level, aren't we all? Creations, I mean--intentional and otherwise, shaped by ourselves and others. The fact that we really can't know what goes on in anyone else's mind means that we have to make fictions of others to a certain extent. And we fictionalize ourselves every day, these days more than ever (hello, Facebook).

If all that's true, maybe there's no clear division between fiction and real life, but more of a continuum, on which novels (or movies) occupy one end, non-famous people the other, and celebrities some middle ground. The effort and intention that go into creating the fictions make the difference.