As Kathryn Dow
March 31, 2010
I'm going to start posting some bits from the reading notebook that I keep, as I move on from writer to reader in my ongoing exploration of fiction. These are some notes that I took after reading Ken Kalfus's A Condition Peculiar to the Country last year...
The book has a sort of shallow darkness to it, and what seemed to me to be a sort of meanness behind it, too. A sort of "cool" (as in hip) modern sensibility of irony and pessimism -- dysfunction? -- that seems to be deliberate, though no less uncomfortable and off-putting for that.
A couple -- he works in the Trade Center Towers and just barely escapes the devastation on September 11th, while she's set to fly on the plane that hit the Pentagon -- each at first thinks the other is dead and each is happy about that. They're in the middle of a divorce -- a nasty one, which plays out through the novel and by the end has been accomplished -- but each is seriously less well off because of the split, which is not liberation as much as self-imposed deprivation. The parts turn out to be much less than what they made up as a whole.
Somehow this plays into the theme of the attacked Twin Towers and the subsequent war in Iraq and so on. But the whole sensibility of the work has what I found to be an irritating cuteness, is that it? A sort of show-offy negativity. Smarty-pants nihilism. These two characters are each glad that the other might be dead in the events of September 11th, and that selfish sensibility sometimes flies off into unbelievable extremes, as when the husband makes a bomb and straps it to himself, but it doesn't work and so together the couple fiddles with it. She helps him, with the children watching nearby, and nobody but the reader seems to care about that. This is a chilling scene, but not even slightly believable, so it comes off as a show-off sort of stunt on the part of the author. A Chuck Palahniuk kind of move, with not much to do with the reader or the book, more to do with the author who is the smart cynical guy who thought it up? As if the whole point were only to make everybody else feel uncomfortable?
The scene turns out to be a preparation for the ending, too, where we win the war and capture Bin Laden and everybody celebrates. But again, this seems to have nothing at all to do with the world or with the characters -- either the fictional world OR the real world, but really is only about the clever author, and it makes me also think about the editors who published it -- their own sort of sensibility, a sort of f-you agenda, it seems, and I wonder, is this a response to the death of the author, the death of the novel, which also seems to be calling for the death of the reader?
March 22, 2010
Lately I've been finding that many of the novels I'm reading have hidden narrators -- that is, we don't know who is telling the story until we get to the end, or close to it. Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply, Richard Powers' Generosity, Phillip Dick's Valis. (Also Ian McEwan's Atonement, though I read that one a long time ago.) (And as it turns out, I've been doing the same thing with my own work -- The Great Disappointment.) Am I coming upon these by serendipity, or is it a trend? And if a trend, then what does that mean?
The latest version of the phenomenon comes in Louise Erdrich's Shadow Tag. Here we have two diaries, one blue and one red. The blue one is the real one -- Irene keeps it hidden away in a safe deposit box where her husband, Gil, can't get to it. The red one is the fake one, left where he can find it, because she understands that he's been reading it and she writes it now as a response to what she sees as an invasion of her privacy. There's more to this, of course -- she loves him and hates him; he is obsessed with her. He's a painter; she's his subject; he has stolen her soul. They struggle with this through the book -- she wants him to leave but he won't and she can't. She uses the red diary to drive him crazy. It all ends badly. This is a sad book. A dark book. Evil, in a way, but also gripping.
(Whoa. Evil? Really? Yes, maybe because the story seems to be a fictional version of a true relationship -- between Louise Erdrich and her husband Michael Dorris -- which also ended badly, in real life.)
(More on this, soon: fiction and real life -- why some of my women friends can't abide a Quentin Tarantino film because of the violence -- one walked out after 1/2 hour of Inglourious Basterds -- but think The Hurt Locker is one of the finest films they've seen in a long time. Me? I love Tarantino -- I know that violence isn't real. But The Hurt Locker -- I couldn't watch it. Too painful. Too real. Because it IS real. Yes, more on this later...)
With the Erdrich book, there isn't really a sense that we are dealing with a hidden narrator until the end, and yet, there are clues. Early on I was stopped in my tracks while reading when I came upon a grammatical error that almost had me lying the book aside. Such an error, it was so blatant, I couldn't figure out, how could this be? Erdrich didn't see it? The editor missed it? The copy editor? Seems impossible, so it must be intentional, but why? The error, if you haven't guessed already, was an especially egregious misuse of the verb "to lie." A common error, people do it all the time in speech (my sister often says, "I was laying down" or "I'm going to go lay down for a while") and often in writing (I am forever correcting it in student work)usually using the transitive conjugation when it should be intransitive, but here? Here it was the opposite, using the intransitive for the transitive: "She lay her head on the table," or something like that.
I was ready to quit reading at that point. The book seemed so dismal anyway, and then such a careless error... but I just couldn't believe it was intentional... so... why? I know that Navajo blanket weavers purposely weave a flaw in the work, in order not to offend the gods with something that claims perfection, and I wondered... is this why? Leaving in a purposeful flaw to create a beautiful thing?
A good answer, maybe, but there's more to it than that. There is a hidden narrator at work, one who would be just the sort of writer to make that mistake in her text, and it's not until the end, when that narrator is revealed, that we understand what it is we have been reading. And then, knowing what we know, we have to go back and read the whole book all over again.
Honestly, I love when that happens.
March 15, 2010
No matter what you write, whether it’s for a college class on creative writing or for a novel you’ve finally found time to get around to, having some tools to make the process a little easier is always a welcome prospect. This list brings together a wealth of just those kind of resources, all found online and all free to use, so you can concentrate on being creative and producing the best writing you can.
March 15, 2010
No matter who wins the battle between the Kindle and the iPad, it marks the return of machines as market-makers.
By Megan McArdle
March 8, 2010
I've been saying this for a while now -- when one door closes another one opens, and the one that is opening for us now is revealing a whole new world of writing, publishing, and reading. Here literary agent Nathan Bransford takes Farhad Manjoo's article about a 1995 Newsweek column that dismissed the Internet as a passing fad and applies it to the future of the e-book...
"The e-book era is going to be one of incredible innovation and unlimited opportunity, and people who don't see e-books dominating the future of the book world are ignoring the coming innovation and creativity and affordability. I refuse to believe the skeptics and pessimists. Books are about to get better."
Read more here:
March 7, 2010
In case you're with me on loving ebooks and thought we were alone in that...
March 7, 2010
I hate rules. Especially writing rules. When I see a rule I think of it as a challenge telling me: Break it! If someone says don't do this, that's a call to do it! If they say you can't, that's a challenge to show them that you can. No artist ever got anywhere by following rules. Unless they were her own.