Tag Archives: literature

Post #128: Some Thoughts on Ann Patchett

9780062049810_custom-7ad2bd2af04c0ac867ab2c601a045a0fd85fd7b2-s99-c85            In Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder, she demonstrates how a writer can, and should, manipulate time to inform a reader’s experience and focus her attention. In a rudimentary sense, time = importance. By skipping briskly through time, for instance, a reader subconsciously infers that the story’s most urgent action is not currently happening, but coming, perhaps concealed just around the next corner/chapter. Conversely, such as in a long scene in the first chapter of State of Wonder, Patchett slows the story clock down to a crawl in order to draw the reader’s attention to the story weight the moment carries. In part, she does this in unsurprising ways, using description, conflict, and dialogue. What is surprising, though, and worthy of a closer examination, is how Patchett also uses repetition to quietly deepen our sense of who the characters are and how they will behave later in the story.

The scene opens in a suburban neighborhood where Marina Singh, the novel’s protagonist, along with her boss and (secret) lover, the aptly named Mr. Fox (think perhaps he’s devious?), have arrived at the home of Karen Eckman to deliver the awful news that Karen’s husband, Anders, is dead. And not only dead, but dead through suspicious circumstances in a remote section of the Amazon. Though the scene is quite early in the novel, for the seven pages Marina and Mr. Fox are in the Eckman’s household, time slows to a crawl. As they drive up, we get a long description of the Eckman’s neighborhood, as well as Marina’s internal wonderings about the finances involved in living there and how different her own life as a single woman is from her married colleague, a father of two. Then, after Karen Eckman opens the door and sees her husband’s colleagues standing there, clearly unnerved when she says “now this is a surprise,” Patchett withholds the reveal, building tension. We meet the family dog Pickles, who becomes a metaphor for the dead husband by scene’s end, and are treated to long descriptions of both the house itself, as well as the weather outside (it’s winter). We also glimpse a jungle gym through the window, a reminder that not only has Karen lost a husband, but two boys have lost a father. They just don’t know it yet.

When Karen asks if they’d like coffee, “Marina turned to put the question to Mr. Fox and found that he was standing directly behind her.” Meaning, of course, that Mr. Fox wants Marina to do the talking. At first we don’t make too much of this. But later down the page, Patchett repeats this character detail. “She {Marina} glanced back at Mr. Fox again…but Mr. Fox had turned towards the refrigerator now.” The repetition of the notion that Mr. Fox, who is not only the dead Anders’s boss, but the replacement male in this scene, shrinking back, thereby making Marina do the tougher, braver work, does two things. It tells us that Mr. Fox is perhaps cowardly, or at least deferential to a fault. It also tells us that Marina is, or will have to be, strong. It’s this latter character detail that Patchett gets the most use out of, for as State of Wonder progresses, Marina will over and over again have to dip into reservoirs of strength, bravery, and resilience she didn’t even know were there. Often, too, she has to do because Mr. Fox is (symbolically) hiding behind her.

Patchett continues to mine this tension through repetition as the scene develops. When Karen finally stops rambling and tending to the dog and says, “this isn’t good news, right?” Marina thinks to herself, “this was the moment for Mr. Fox to tell the story, to explain it in a way that Marina herself did not fully understand, but nothing came…Mr. Fox had his back to the two women.” A page, though perhaps only moments, later, Marina thinks “surely it was Mr. Fox’s part to give Karen the letter {in which she and Mr. Fox had learned of Anders’s death}…but then with a fresh wave of grief, Marina remembered that the letter was in her pocket.” Patchett is shrewd here. The main character is thinking one thing, that she’s doing what Mr. Fox should be doing, but Patchett’s goal is to both transfer power and responsibility, but also to prove Marina as a strong person who will rise to an occasion, demonstrated through this letter, an object Patchett uses to great effect here by placing it in Marina’s path.

Once Karen Eckman has absorbed the horrible news and read the aforementioned letter, again we are reminded of Mr. Fox’s lack of ability to engage in this most urgent moment. “The two of them were alone in this,” Marina thinks regarding she and Karen. The reason? “Mr. Fox had been driven from the room by the sound, the keening of Karen Eckman’s despair.” The repetition has built towards his very removal, enforcing the twin notions of female strength/companionship and absent men, which will both play central roles in State of Wonder.

Towards the end of the scene, after Marina has left Karen briefly to try to figure out what to do, who to call to support her and how to tell the Eckman boys, she returns to the kitchen to find Mr. Fox has finally stepped in and is “petting Karen’s head with a slow and rhythmical assurance” trying to put her at ease. He’s too late, though. The damage is done. And as Marina and Mr. Fox are driving away from the house, Marina thinks about how “she certainly blamed him {Mr. Fox} for leaving her alone to tell Karen.” She then wonders a heavier, more damning thing: “Did she blame him for sending Anders to his death in Brazil?”

By the time you’ve read State of Wonder in its entirety, this long, held moment early in the novel only grows in importance. Patchett slows down time and uses a range of craft elements, repetition most dynamically, to build character and introduce conflicts that will surface through the book, making this early moment a microcosm of who these characters are and how they will respond to difficult situations. Finally, it’s worth noting that Patchett’s use of repetition also achieves a great sense of contrast, for the focusing on Mr. Fox, important as it seems about him as a character, actually reveals even more about Marina, the novel’s heroine and most sympathetic and deeply developed character. In fact, the closer you look at this scene, the more you’ll wonder: how does Patchett do so many things so well at the same time? Writers of all stripes would be wise to study Patchett’s use of slowed time and repetition and try to borrow a bit of her craft mojo in their own work.

 

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Post #114: On the Brain

Screen-shot-2013-09-11-at-8.41.48-AMAs you well know, I’ve had J.D. Salinger on the brain lately, as has the publishing world, what with the release of Shale Salerno and David Sheild’s biography, Salinger, soon to accompanied by a documentary film of the same name. Both, I should add, have absolutely gotten their asses kicked in the media, showered with bad reviews, skepticism, and mucho doubt. Metacritic shows an average score of 40 (out of 100) for the film and among 40 plus reviews on Amazon, the book is averaging three stars (out of five). Okay, maybe not a total ass kicking, but a good tongue lashing anyway. I’m nearly done with the book, by the way, and will chime in on my perception of its merits shortly. After that, I promise to let go of this subject matter for at least a few posts.

But I digress. I’m actually here because Stephen Colbert (pictured above wearing Holden Caulfield hunting cap) recently dedicated his entire show to doing his second book club (the first was on Gatsby) on J.D. Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye. It’s hilarious. And insightful. You should watch it. The best part of it is when Colbert is interviewing Tobias Woolf about Catcher and they start disputing what’s better, the short stories or Catcher, and Colbert, defending the stories as Salinger’s best work and seemingly unable to help himself, starts quoting Buddy Glass from memory. It’s awesome. It can be watched here. You should do so.
Toodles.

Post #107: Saying Goodbye to God

Clouds-in-the-sky-and-god-rays-wallpaper_4428Dear Charles,

Sorry I haven’t been in touch in quite some time, but it was great to hear from you recently. Funny you should ask about Returning, my novel in progress, because after a very busy teaching year this past year, during which my brain was simply stretched in too many directions to focus properly on the novel, I’m buckled down (locked in? plug cliche in here) and revising, editing, and re-writing the novel at a furious rate. Well, work on a novel is rarely fast moving, let alone furious, even when it is graced with occasional wind sprints, but I’m fully immersed in the book at this point. That’s plenty.

Two days ago, I was, once again, at loggerheads with the themes of God and Atheism in the book. As you know, one of the main characters, aging tennis icon Chick Myers, is an atheist, and the extended section in which we spend a lot of time with his character for the first time, centers around this fact, via a “Rally to Save Chick” that a religious organization has sponsored for him, even in spite of his atheist standing. The rally was a buffet of cultural dissection.

For two years, I’ve loved and been attached to many parts of this section, the third “Set” in the five set novel. But in re-reading it a few days ago, in preparation for what I assumed was some minor tweaking, the God stuff just wasn’t feeling right. It was reading well. Reading great, in fact. Energetic writing and some nice scenes and dialogue, but I couldn’t escape  a nagging feeling that I’ve had in the back of my mind for quite some time, which is that the presence of God, atheism, and a debate about these topics, just wasn’t earning its keep in the novel as a whole.

I originally was inspired to make atheism and God an aspect of Chick’s character by the the life of the late Christopher Hitchens, who famously debated about God even while dying of cancer. Hitchens was a highly spirited atheist. Many people wondered whether an avowed atheist would have second thoughts about God while dying, whether he would change his song and slowly acquiesce to piety. Hitchens, famously, did not. I found this very interesting indeed, and used it in part as a way to help understand the character of Chick Myers. The theme came early in the drafting and has been there all along, for some two years now.

But, like I said, the other day, some quietly lingering doubts came roaring up from the surface and started screaming at me, urging me to re-consider. Asking me: is God and atheism earning its keep? Meaning, are the themes, heavy ones not to be deployed casually, explored with enough care and thought to justify their presence? Though it was painful, I had to say no. So, for them to earn their keep, so to speak, it would entail deepening their place in the book and in the characters’ lives.

This decision had major implications. If I opted to keep the section as is, and to keep atheism and God as major themes in the novel, then the novel had to shift its weight further in that direction. If I abandoned the themes and re-cast Chick’s character minus these big themes, well, then I’d have a shit ton of re-writing to do. Essentially, I’d have to scrap the entire 100 page Third Set and pretty much start that section over. What to do?

So, to clear my head, I took a walk. Walks are great. They have a clarifying, reductive power that’s marvelous. I walked for almost an hour, and about half way through the walk it hit me. God had to go.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t finding the theme, and its effect on the characters, worth pursuing further. It was the realization that deepening that conversation would push the book into terrain where I simply didn’t want it to spend quite as much of its time. The book is primarily about tennis, reality TV, and the trappings of fame. God and atheism had always felt like a natural fit, but I had to admit that I didn’t feel committed to it. Not only that, I wasn’t sure it’s what I wanted my book to be about. I was justifying because I didn’t want to scrap what I’d written. I liked it, even if it wasn’t serving the whole novel well.

But sometimes you have to kill your darlings, right?

So I did. I started over.

Of course, now that I’m halfway through re-writing the Third Set, which I think will still fill out at about 100 pages, there’s always the risk that I’ll screw it up and have to re-write it again someday after a similarly hard won realization.

But, like you’re always saying, Charles, one thing at a time.

So, that’s the update for now. I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks for being such a good friend. I’ll try to be in better touch.

Love to Martha and the girls,

Benjamin

 

Post #100: Steinbeck Saw All

east-of-edenI’m reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden for the first time. It’s really great, by the way. And though he’s not normally a writer, like, say, Ray Bradbury, that makes you think he had the power to predict the future, or whose writing was even meant to evoke or imagine the future, a passage I read earlier felt so modern, so of our time, that I went back and read it several times, then decided I had to share it with you.

Keep in mind this a guy writing in the mid 20th century about events that take place in the early 20th century.

The scene in question transpires at a train station, mid day, where Adam Trask, along with his son Cal and his house man Lee, await the return of Cal’s twin brother Aron home from college.

“Train schedules are a matter of pride and of apprehension to nearly everyone. When, far up the track, the block signal snapped from red to green and the long, stabbing probe of the headlight sheered the bend and blared on the station, men looked at their watches and said, ‘on time.’

“There was pride in it, and relief too. The split second has been growing more and more important to us. And as human activities become more and more intermeshed and integrated, the split tenth of a second will emerge, and then a new name must be made for the split one hundredth, until one day, although I don’t believe it, we’ll say, ‘oh, the hell with it. What’s wrong with an hour?’ But isn’t it silly, this preoccupation with small time units. One thing late or early can disrupt everything around it, and the disturbance runs outward in bands like the waves from a dropped stone in a quiet pool.”

In addition to being a writer of uncommon grace and insight into the human experience, it seems that Steinbeck also knew that someday we’d be annoyed at our smartphones for taking three seconds instead of two seconds to load information we used to wait half a day for without blinking an eye.

By the way, if you haven’t read East of Eden, do so. Like me you’ll wonder what the hell took you so long.

PS…I have to add a totally random aside. Today I was getting my oil changed and a woman in the waiting room who was big time squirrely because her car was taking so long saw me reading this book and told me that she’d written a memoir about her time living in Indonesia and one of the rejected titles was Least of Eden. Ha. Another was The Bali Jar. Double ha.

Post #97: Who Has Time for Stars?

I have a new short story that’s part of the May/June issue of Fogged Clarity. FC is great and I’m thrilled to be included. They publish fiction, poetry, reviews, and music! I’m listening to “Mountain Sounds,” the album in the new issue, right now and it’s fantastic. I want to also give some love to my dear friends Kara, Stephanie, and Angela who looked at early drafts of this story and helped nudge it along.

Have a peek at the story. Think you’ll like it. http://foggedclarity.com/2013/05/who-has-time-for-stars/

That’s all for today friends.

 

Post #96: I Notice You, Tom

200px-Gatsby_1925_jacketFew books live in my nervous system the way The Great Gatsby does. Having loved and taught the book for many years, it occupies a hallowed space, an untouchable cloud of perfection in my soul. Though I re-read it every year, along with my students, it’s the only book I can think of (another one that comes close is Of Mice and Men; perhaps Invisible Man as well) whose freshness only grows, as if your experience with the novel is happening in reverse. Somehow the more I read Gatsby, the more I haven’t read it. The newer it feels.  

If you’re wondering, I’m not really here to write about the new film. Not broadly, anyway. A lot of ink is being spilled about it at the moment (on places like…The Internet) and I just don’t trust myself to add anything that would seem fresh, except to say it’s excellent and worth two and a half hours in the dark wearing a weird pair of glasses. It’s visually sumptuous, acted with immense care and skill, and with the exception of an added frame story for why Nick is telling the story (he’s cracked up and telling it first to a shrink in an asylum and then as “novel” therapy), quite true to the book, both the final draft and earlier iterations of the same story that F. Scott Fitzgerald worked on for years before the final manuscript was accepted. Next time I see Baz Lurhmann, I’ll slap him on the book for trying to do justice to Fitzgerald’s characters. 

movies-great-gatsby-joel-edgerton-tom-buchananI’d like to focus at the moment on The Great Gatsby‘s most misunderstood and under appreciated character, that great galoot Tom Buchanan. A couple of things got me thinking about Tom. One was Joel Edgerton’s fantastic portrayal of Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s just released 3D triumph. Edgerton’s performance is a marvel, though in the shadows of Leo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire’s quiet and dopey Nick Carraway, not to mention Lurhmann’s star power as a director and the natural hype that stems from adapting the great American novel, Edgerton’s performance is one you’re pretty much guaranteed not to hear much about. But that’s too bad. Because though DiCaprio is stunning and probably worthy of the Oscar nod he’ll likely earn for his work as Gatsby, Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan is the performance that’s still on mind the next day. The other thing that put TB on my brain (sorry…I can see that abbreviation is not going to work) was an article in The Daily Beast that discusses the nearly century long discussion about Tom’s far more famous and thought about wife, Daisy Buchanan. I highly recommend Katie Baker’s article, which you can read here, that takes on the deep and consistent maligning Daisy has experienced by the critical establishment over the years. It tries to contextualize Daisy’s behavior/character and the accompanying commentary and does so rather brilliantly. 

One can’t really defend Tom Buchanan all that well. You’ve got to hand it to Fitzgerald for writing a basically indefensible human. But what I’ve always felt compelled to defend is not Tom himself, but to defend him against both Nick’s, and most readers, defense of and love affair with one James Gatz, turned Jay Gatsby,who is often read as Tom’s foil and masculine opposite. The softer side of man. The soft treatment Gatsby gets in the novel, and from many readers, has always bothered me a little. Partially because it’s different from how I see Gatsby (otherwise known as the right way), and partially because I think it’s different from how Fitzgerald saw Gatsby. In a novel so brisk, it’s easy to miss how complex and nuanced Fitzgerald’s characters really are.

Given what we know, at best, Jay Gatsby is a liar and a criminal. Though we never know the exact source of his riches, they almost certainly come from a host of illegal activity that everyone except Tom ignores and, in keeping with the loose morals of the age, seem entirely unconcerned with. But Gatsby’s character has such a strong pull on our romantic tendencies that we are endlessly drawn back to his inherit gorgeousness, as experienced by Nick Caraway. Gatsby’s got love in his heart and we love him for that. It seems that if a man is doing it for love, it doesn’t really matter what he does.

Ironically, it’s Nick’s fault that we idolize Gatsby at Tom’s expense. Because our story teller is so enamored by one and so repulsed by the other, we feel dirty feeling sympathy for Tom and are, in some ways, denied the chance. Mostly (no coincidence in a novel about class) it’s because Nick’s upbringing is closer to Gatsby’s than to Tom’s that Nick is so taken with Gatsby. (And because Nick may want to sleep with Gatsby but never says so.) Tom represents an honest expression of what Gatsby so badly and nakedly wants but will never have, that for many the only way to deal with Tom is to hate him and cast him aside. 

And, to be fair with those who will likely disagree with my assessment, Tom Buchanan doesn’t deserve much better. He’s an entitled jock douche bag who cheats on his wife, beats his mistress, hates blacks, is snide and crass, and in a round about sort of way, has Gatsby killed to get him out Daisy’s way. So why defend him? Because Gatsby isn’t much better. In fact, I’d argue that Gatsby’s capacity for self-delusion and manipulation of virtually everyone around him are perhaps the novel’s most grotesque, and most enduringly sad, characteristics. It’s only because Tom is the one who’s there to call Gatsby on his bull shit that we hate him so much. The confrontation scene at The Plaza on the hottest day of summer, by the way, is Edgerton’s best moment in Luhmann’s film. Gatsby and Daisy truly love each other and we want love to happen and so when Tom shits on it, then plays the class card to humiliate and enrage Gatsby and direct his wife back home, his tactics are so brazen, so practiced and predictably classist that we can’t get over it. It’s deeply ironic that in a book full of liars, Tom is perhaps the most honest of the bunch, and it’s his capacity for truth telling that wins him Daisy back. 

Fitzgerald wanted to make it hard on us, but I think, at least for most people, he failed. I’ve taught the book for years and class after class of junior readers loathes and despises Tom so much it’s become an annual Buchanan hate fest. Fitzgerald didn’t want us to like him, but I’m sure he wanted us to feel conflicted about out hate. To question its fairness. To wonder about Tom’s worth as a man compared to Gatsby’s, not solely at the expense of it. That’s why he makes Gatsby so cold and uncaring about Myrtle’s death. That’s why, you see, he gives Tom the scene in Wilson’s garage. Tom sees Myrtle’s body lying upon the table and he’s genuinely heartbroken by her loss. He begins to shake. To lose control. And a man who we’d never believe even knew how to cry fights back tears and seeds of rage sprout from his pain that eventually lead to Gatsby’s death and Wilson’s suicide. I don’t know if Gatsby has a scene that unguarded in the whole novel. 

 

 

 

Post #75: C’mon!!

If you didn’t know, it’s Potentially Irrational Rant Day here at The Almost Right  Words in which I bitch about the following:

Earlier this year, I read, demolished is more like it, Cheryl Strayed’s wildly celebrated and wildly wonderful memoir Wild, about her solo trek up the Pacific Crest Trail. If you haven’t, read it. Immediately. If Oprah’s recommendation scared you away, take mine instead. It’s wow-tastic. But I’m not here to talk about Wild, the book, but Wild the book cover. It looks like this.

28book-articleInline

Stark and memorable, isn’t it? Love that close up of the mud caked boot. The clean all white background so the writing fires and pops. Today’s rant begins with a trip to Phoenix, my local book store here in Burlington, where, while browsing the new hardcover books, I saw Wild featured. I thought, golly gee, that’s weird, Wild came out months ago, what’s it doing among the new books? Except that further review proved it wasn’t Wild at all. It was Goldberg Variations, a new book by Susan Isaacs, whose cover looks like this.

4101ZB8hstL._SL500_AA300_

Now, you’ll just have to take my expert word for it that the similarity, while certainly striking here, is only a pale imitation of how much of a knock-off cover this actually is and feels like when you hold the books side by side. This is mainly because in the Goldberg pic above you can’t see the book’s spine, which is the EXACT SAME lipstick red with white writing that you see on the profile view of Cheryl’s book above. So incensed was I that the other night, I made my wife, who’s also read Wild, go into the bookstore with me to see the evidence, at which point I corralled both books, held them up for her perusal and intoned, “disgusting, isn’t it? I mean, can you believe those corporate pricks would stoop so low as to try to create a subconscious link between an established bestseller (Wild) and a brand new book so as to inflate sales? I mean, this has got to be some kind of copyright violation, right?” I was loud. People were looking at me.

My wife noticed what I noticed, but her disgust, while apparent in the raise of her eyebrows and the slight curl of her lip, did not reach the fever pitch of my own. Okay, she barely seemed to care, and continued looking at something else.

But, c’mon! You’re with me, aren’t you. That’s bullshit! Am I right?