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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Keeping House

In all my years of reading stories, I had yet to find an author who encompasses all aspects of my interests in style, landscape as character, memory and time, philosophical speculation, point of view, themes of impermanence, family relationships, history, and metaphoric language into one loosely bound "story."  So, discovering Housekeeping was like receiving a gift from the universe.  I wouldn't have appreciated it had I not read Ethan Canin's stories, as he often talked about Robinson as being one his favorite contemporary writers (they teach together at the University of Iowa), and had I not been interested in style, figurative language through the likes of Nabakov and Woolf, I would not have been drawn to what Robinson accomplishes in this novel.  I can honestly say that her writing, more than any other writer changed my thinking as a writer,  about how to balance all the aforementioned elements and combine them into a story that is (although not riveting, eschewing plot for language and imagery) so much more than the sum of its constituent parts).

What I find appealing in this novel may not be what others appreciate.  Since I read for the discovery of new sentence forms, gorgeous sentences that surprise, that astonish, that have the same precision and power as poetry, others may want more, namely plot.  But when I read a sentence like the following I am left speechless: "A narrow pond would form in the orchard, water clear as air covering grass and black leaves and fallen branches, all around it black leaves and drenched grass and fallen branches, and on it, slight as an image in an eye, sky, clouds, trees, our hovering faces and our cold hands."

Her novel reminded me that a novel need not be a chain of cause and effect relationships, with rising action leading to a climax and then a falling action or denouement; that a novel could be fluid, building laterally, layer upon layer, letting images do the heavy work of plot.  A writer who exploits the novel medium's strengths by manipulating time and memory, by going deep into character psychology, by making imagery and language the focus, yields pleasures that no traditional (by that I mean plot driven) narrative can accomplish.  A novel could be lyrical, and by being lyrical, stunning.

It is the one novel I have read more than any of the others, and the one novel that I will continue to read more than any other.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Fragile Thing...


I remember I was driving home to Orange County from my parents' house in Palos Verdes one year in late October.  I had not written any stories in a few years, and the ones I had tried to write felt disingenuous, inauthentic, nonsensical.  Switching on NPR on a forty minute drive home, during their story hour (not sure what the program was called), I listened to the radio host speaking in glowing terms about Ethan Canin.  I had never heard of him.  The host stated Canin had received an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop and gone on to pursue a doctorate in medicine at Harvard.  Canin worked as a doctor in an ER while composing his first collection of short stories in his free time, which was little considering the extreme pressures of residency. But he fought through exhaustion and feelings of ennui regarding his own talent and finished his first collection, Emperor of The Air. He was only twenty-seven.

It's not a collection that should have appealed to an early thirties East Indian man.  Filled with stories of white middle class families engaged in white middle class activities (Golf), elderly narrators, and moral digressions (infidelity, perils of brotherhood, cheating), it appealed to me for two reasons: voice (tone), and theme.  Besides that his stories were about families.

It was one story in particular, "We Are Nighttime Travelers," which had me gripped.  Although I can't remember the name of the narrator who read it (somehow my mind tells me it was the actor Donald Sutherland, but this may or may not be true), there was something so haunting and wise and sublime in the story that I had to pull over and listen.  What captivated me was how ordinary, everyday actions could be the subject of great literature.  His stories were not The Hobbit styled fantasies, or Wrinkle in Time styled fictions.  No Heart of Darkness mini-epics, no Tolstoyan tales of War and Peace, no Dostoevskyean grand spiritual inquests.  There was nothing fantastical or mythical or allegorical in his stories.  They were simple stories (by simple I don't mean easy), direct, and told in a style that reflected the complexity of human emotions.  They revealed to me a new world, one right before my eyes, making that world a place as equally mysterious as any mystery.  His stories, loaded with refinements of expression and gesture, revealed the moral foundations or lack of them, of what made families tick.  It was the minute, the small, as opposed to the grand sweeping tale that made his stories breathtaking to me.

Human frailty.  It is something I hadn't seen written about before in such convincing terms.  The progression of love through time.  This was a new theme for me. Family as a microcosm of the universe. Ethan Canin had the ability to reveal it with such conviction when I finally bought his book and read it cover to cover, then again, cover to cover, I was unable to reconcile the youthful appearance of the man's picture on the back, with the lines, "Life takes its toll, and soon the body gives up completely.  But it gives up the parts first." Equally adept at landscape description, at setting up a scene, as he was (and is) at psychology and character development, in Canin's book, I found the seeds to tell the stories I wanted to tell.  He wrote about families, sure middle class white families, but there was something universal about his stories: the fragility of family.  And that tone.  It was like a shot of electricity through my heart.  So wise.  So sensitive.  So utterly powerful.

I sat listening to "We are Nighttime Travelers" by the side of the road, a tear forming in my eye as the last sentence was read, "My hand finds her fingers and grips them, bone and tendon, fragile things." Then I went to the bookstore and I bought his book.  I have read it again and again over the years without the pleasure it gives ever dulling.  It sits on a shelf beside my writing desk under favorite books and authors.  It is tattered--words on paper, a fragile thing.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Lolita, light of my life, fire in my loins

It is one of those books I am not sure how I discovered, or why?  But when I fist read it as a twenty-something, what struck me was its style and musicality, largely achieved through alliteration, metaphor, personification and simile.  Nabokov was one of those writers I had heard about spoken of in reverential terms by several college professors, and by them talking of him (and Updike, the American Nabokov),  he peaked my curiosity.  His characters were eccentrics, highly educated and opinionated and brash, but hardly possessing the psychological and spiritual collapse of the modern era.  In Nabokov's characters you find little in the way of existentialism, stream of consciousness, time as character, digressions relating to God and spirit.  What you find is underachievers whose brash flourish towards living life on their own terms created havoc.  You find taboo subjects, pedophilia, lust, the agony of people having to suppress their greatest desires to conform with society's expectations and norms.  Nowhere in my previous reading had style merged so fully with content.  He presented the objects of the world and defamiliarized them, making them new, in a style and language that singed the hairs on your head.  His was an Aristotlean attention to detail--matter as spirit.

The anti-Hemingway, he wrote in an intricate, decorative style, employing the rare (often obscure) word to achieve a stratified density.   You don't just read his novels, you fall into their depths, layer by layer, swim in their currents, deeper and deeper, until just the glimmer of the sun like a coin shimmering above remains your only link to the outside world.   This way of telling a story had more to do with his fascination with figurative and metaphorical language, than it had to do with an intricate plot.  Words are what mattered to Nabokov.  Words, like Flaubert's prose, put in the right spot and in the right order: just the perfect word.  The pay off is on every page: every sentence soars. 

What Lolita taught me, more than any other novel, was about the 1st person POV, its strengths and limitations, which affected the particular words a writer must use to develop character arc and story arc.  But what it also taught me was the importance of punctuation.  Nabokov achieved deep character interiority through asides, dashes, parentheses; linked long sentences (like Woolf) with semi-colons and set off lists with colons, end dashes.  His books are, and continue to be a great resource in terms of how to construct not just simple and compound, and complex-compound sentences, but beautiful ones, musical ones.
His prose comes with a warning: Do not try this at home!  He takes bold risks because of the sheer magnitude of his intelligence, which allows him complete mastery over his stories.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

What do Madame Bovary, Cat's Eye, Another Country, Jane Smiley, and a Parker pen have in common?

On my tenth birthday my father sent me a gift from India: A Parker ballpoint pen in a gorgeous brushed nickel finish.  The accompanying birthday card read, “May it give you inspiration.”  Perhaps, thinking it too extravagant a gift for a child, my mother kept the pen and (in those days before email) used it to write letters back to my father about our lonely life in America without him.  Like a talisman I imagined the pen held mysterious powers I was too young to understand.  Although I can’t say that pen became the catalyst for me wanting to write, I can honestly say that not having it made me anxious about being a kid: I wanted to grow up fast so I could use it to write “inspired” works, making my father proud.  But being so young, I didn’t have any idea what to write about or how?  And I didn’t much care for reading, preferring instead to tinker with my science lab.  I could spend hours making salt crystals, or mixing potions to make birds explode during flight.  But more than science, reading or writing, I loved music.  When I did read, I read for the music of sentences, not meaning, and when I wrote, I felt myself always struggling to balance euphony with sense. 
Introduced to Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel[i] this past semester, I found how little I really knew about the novel and authorship.  Then rediscovering Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary[ii], encountering James Baldwin’s Another Country[iii], and falling in love with Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye[iv], I began seeing how sense and style could be merged to create vivid stories and what Smiley calls “[the integration] of several forms of intelligence—verbal intelligence (for the style), psychological intelligence (for the characters), spatial intelligence (for the symbolic and metaphorical content as well as the setting), and even musical intelligence (for pacing and rhythm)” (TWLN 39).  By studying these novels I began to see how a novelist’s theories, character, plot, form and style could be fused to create memorable works of art.  Through the in-class discussions and writing assignments, I felt my nascent views being altered to encompass new techniques.  I also began to rethink “maximalism,” my preferred style of writing, thus opening up my writing to new ways of locating my place in the Western literary tradition, and also enhancing my understanding of what is possible in literary art. 
Prior to this class, I hadn’t any “theories of life,” no aesthetic philosophy other than, “style is the perfection of a point of view,” which was something I once read on the wall of a Mont Blanc pen store in Costa Mesa.  I had a spurious understanding of the novel’s history, innovations, and design.  Although I had my “favorite novels and had literary “influences,” I neither considered myself being “produced’ by texts nor had an interest in being produced by anything less than my own observations, less so by my experiences.  I considered myself a “maximalist” before I knew the term.  Learning by imitation I would copy whole chapters out of Melville, Nabakov, Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy without a clear understanding of how style was wedded to an author’s personality and temperament.  I would (and still do) try on a style as if putting on a coat and walk around in it, ignoring the fact it might be too big, the sleeves too long, the cut antiquated.
To paraphrase Smiley, “it is literature itself and novels themselves [that] are one of the nascent novelist’s primary inspirations for wanting to write.”  If before I felt sheepish about my place in any literary tradition, I now felt inadequate.  I needed to read more. Think harder.  Feel deeper.  I needed to, as Smiley says, develop a technique that grows out of my temperament, my intentions, and my ideas, but also one that grows out of my circumstances.  So I began to explore my circumstances, my own “theory” of life.   The ontological question “Who am I?” became just as important as the epistemological one “What do I know?”    
Smiley writes, “The second great inspiration for a novelist is language” (TWLN 32).  In the past I read mostly for style. I also loved detail and no author has rendered detail more precisely, more beautifully and I would say more inspirationally than Gustav Flaubert.  In his introduction to Madame Bovary, Francis Steegmuller says, “Nothing in this novel is left up to chance. Everything flows out of the central conception, as by natural law.”   Flaubert achieves coherence and cohesion through the selective employment of detail.  Whereas before I would construct my own work by filling up pages with detail, I began to see what Flaubert called le mot just (the right word). Flaubert’s novel taught me how to be selective, judicious, and exacting. 
For example, after Charles and Emma Bovary come to the chateau of the marquis d’Andervilliers for his ball, Flaubert writes, “Here the air was warm and fragrant; the scent of flowers and fine linen mingled with the odor of cooked meats and truffles.  Candle flames cast long gleams on rounded silver dish-covers; the clouded facets of the cut glass shone palely, etc.” (MB 56).  Flaubert invokes the five senses with a precision that borders on the neurotic.  We feel the warm fragrant air, smell the cooked meats and truffles, and see the long gleams cast by the candle flames.  The description is complete.  I cannot think of any additions or deletions that would improve its impact upon me.
Smiley writes, “[Flaubert] doesn’t cause the language to do more, [he causes] it to communicate more perfectly and efficiently,” (TWLN 33).     
If Flaubert’s style taught me to use the right words in the right order for the right effect, rooting my prose in the concrete and vivid as opposed to the abstract and numinous, James Baldwin taught me how to make language rise off the page and fly. 
Smiley writes, “As every novelist has a style, so every novelist has a conviction, which is a type of emotion, not an act of reason” (TWLN 48).  Nowhere is authorial conviction more evident than in James Baldwin’s Another Country.  I had a passing familiarity with his novel Go Tell it on the Mountain, something I was supposed to read as an undergraduate, but never did.  I pictured him a chain-smoking profligate, a second rate political writer, perhaps a sexual deviant, perhaps a hack.  But I had no clear justification to think so.  So when I read the first line of Another Country, I immediately knew I was conversing with a great mind.  First lines tell you a lot about a writer’s ethos and style, so reading “He was facing Seventh Avenue, at Times Square,” (AC 3), in my mind ranks up there with “Call me Ishmael” in terms of brevity, weight, mystery, and power. 
Taking his literary cues from Henry James--the long, convoluted sentences, ample uses of metaphor and simile, sickeningly beautiful oxymoronic phrases, and neurotic punctuation (lots of commas, semi-colons, dashes and parentheticals)—Baldwin made you work for meaning.   By employing the rhythms and cadences of music, he amazed me.  By utilizing biblical language born from his child preacher past, throwing in alliteration, asyndeton, polysendeton, he seduced me.  He mixed high and low language to distinguish between classes.  He employed a variety of literary tropes to make his prose soar off the page (can anyone read Vivaldo’s interior monologues without feeling breathless?).  His writing convinced me.  An example: “”The beat: hands, feet, tambourines, drums, pianos, laughter, curses, razor blades; the man stiffening with a laugh and a growl and a purr and the woman moistening and softening with a whisper and a sigh and cry” (AC 7).  If this isn’t mimetic of music, then nothing is.  I still felt proud to call myself a “maximalist.”    
But Baldwin wasn’t just about style.  He balanced style and form, creating a fearless, unapologetic novel that burned into one’s consciousness like a firebrand.  And he didn’t just comment on sex and race, he boomed them from a mountaintop in a voice as stentorian as any Roman orator. He embeds character with philosophical ideas to serve up a larger thematic point without being didactic.  By using an ensemble cast, he “triangulates” his characters’ relationships to add layers of meaning--Rufus, Vivaldo, and Leona, or Richard, Cass and Eric, or Vivaldo, Ida and Eric--in a way I had never thought possible.  And he certainly doesn’t suffer from Smiley’s criticism of Zadie Smith of whom she says, “A major source of discomfort for some of Smith’s characters is the difficulty of fixing on an authentic language that communicates the inner life as well as it does the communal life” (TWLN 37).
And neither does Margaret Atwood.  A speculative fiction writer from Canada was about all I knew of her.  So, journeying with Elaine Risley, her central character from Cat’s Eye, as she comes of age as a painter, I fell in love with her imagery and metaphoric language, her keen observations no less stunning than Baldwin’s or Flaubert’s, and most of all by her prose architecture, viz. how she puts the story together.
Nothing about Atwood’s prose seems out of place.  Nothing.  Each image seems carefully selected.  Each character delicately nuanced.  Each situation deftly exploited for its maximum psychological and emotional impact.  She takes an abstract concept like time being a dimension and manages to artfully construct a bildungsroman novel.  Like a music composer, Atwood creates motifs, counterpoints out of images, returns to them as reminders of her principal theme--the construction of identity—and her minor themes, time, art, femininity, inter alia, power.  She does this through imagery: the brain in formaldehyde young Elaine Risley finds in her father’s science lab becomes symbolic of science and knowledge; the hole in the backyard behind Elaine’s house, the cemetery and the ravine tie in the concepts of death; the bridge, where Elaine has a religious experience upon seeing the Virgin Mary, connects to fear and salvation; the twin-sets, doubles, relates to ideas of fracture; and the cat’s eye marble links to ideas of seeing, being seen and judged, and holds “all of her past complete.”   To use another metaphor, the novel isn’t so much as constructed as weaved, each fiber a different strand that twists around other fibers to create an emotional picture revealing Elaine, and, I would like to say, Atwood herself.  It is, according Atwood herself, her most autobiographical novel.  It is no less than the construction of beauty.      
In her essay “Who is a Novelist?” Smiley writes, “ A novelist has two lives—a reading and writing life, and a lived life.  He or she cannot be understood at all apart from this” (TWLN 32).  Cat’s Eye seems to perfectly encompass this idea: the private inner self vs. the public persona.  It’s also something I struggle to understand in myself.  By reading these three great works my picture of who I am as a writer has become a little less muddy.  They have inspired me to continue the search for my own meaning and identity in a style that needn’t be verbose to be effective.  Will I remain “maximalist?” It is doubtful.  I think I can appropriate the best aspects of these writers’ styles and theories, combine them with my own views of literature, and create for myself a style that “fits” me, that is borne of my experiences, my temperament, and my concerns.  It is a quest for authenticity I am after.       
 My mother never returned that Parker pen to me, and, surprisingly, I never asked her for it.  Perhaps I felt that because she had used the pen any magic it had was hers and hers alone.  After all, it was because of her letters to my father that he eventually came back to us.  Perhaps she was writing “inspirational” words in a style rooted in her own emotional suffering that finally convinced my father to abandon his business in India and return to us.  Perhaps, sitting on the porch of his unfinished house in India, beside an unfinished pool, with my mother’s letter written in her neat, open hand that my father heard a familiar voice and tone in her words--a voice he recognized as his own yearning for love and peace and family.  Perhaps.

[i] Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2005

[ii] Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, translated by Francis Steegmuller, New York: Random House, 1985

[iii] James Baldwin, Another Country, New York: Random House, 1960

[iv] Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye, New York: Random House, 1988

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Figurative Language in Nabokov and Fitzgerald.

The Effect of Tropes in Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta” and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Both Vladimir Nabokov’s and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories are troves of figurative language.  In the opening paragraphs of “Spring in Fialta,” Nabokov writes, “The sea, its salt drowned in a solution of rain, is less glaucous than gray with waves too sluggish to break into foam” (SIF 413).  In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald writes, “Inside, the crimson room bloomed with light” (GG 22).  These are not inert descriptions; they leap off the page as alive and vivid as character.  By personifying the sea, or employing a flower metaphor to describe the room, both writers create images that are vital to the mood, tone, and sense of their narratives.  Their images, far from passive, employ active verbs, specious adjectives, alliteration and metaphor, inter alia, simile, hyperbole, synecdoche to enliven the prose. 
    One technique they use to animate the inanimate is personification.  Defined as “investing inanimate objects or an abstraction with human qualities” (SYL 16), personification achieves the literary goal of making landscape and setting active participant in the story.  In Nabokov’s short story “Spring in Fialta,” he uses this technique not just to enliven setting, but to imbue objects with personality.  “I had come on the Capparballa express,” the narrator says, “which, with that reckless gusto peculiar to trains in mountainous country, had done its thunderous best to collect throughout the night as many tunnels as possible” (SIF 413-414).  The train his narrator arrives on, doesn’t just move through space, it possesses “that reckless gusto, peculiar to trains in mountainous country (SIF 413).  His train doesn’t merely enter and exit tunnels, it does “it’s thunderous best to many tunnels as possible.”  Nabokov personifies the train, giving it an agency usually reserved for humans.  He defamiliarizes the action of trains to make the image both startling and reflective of the narrator’s personality as well.  Who else but a self-obsessed, detail drunk narrator would notice such a thing?    The effect surprises and engages readers, making us delight in imaginative leaps we take on behalf of the writer, making us participate in the narrative as opposed to being impersonal spectators. 
    Like Nabokov, Fitzgerald employs figurative language to awaken readers to his narrative, conflating setting and character.  Possessed with a talent to convey not just the beautiful but the sublimely beautiful (the difference a matter of degree and not kind), Fitzgerald’s sentences astonish us by the sheer ability to reveal multiple ideas, sense impressions, and feelings at once. He writes, “The wind had blown off, leaving a loud bright night with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life” (GG 25).  Using the past perfect tense to set up the base clause, then a past participle phrase to set into motion the wind’s effects on the night sky, Fitzgerald sidesteps direct description, leaving the world just slightly askew.  Whereas he could have written, “The wind blew away clouds, leaving a clear night full of stars, where birds fluttered in the trees and frogs made noises,” his lyricism dances around, meanders around the object of the sentence, thus defamiliarizing the world, and he does it by doubling up his adjectives and metaphor: the night is “loud bright” like a voice, which also provides the effect of agency where there should be none.  Furthermore, it isn’t the frogs that croak and call, it is the earth which “bellows,” animating the frogs.   
    Like the example of Nabokov’s sea, with its alliteration, fluid sibilant “S’s,” i.e. “sea,” “salt,” “solution,” “sluggish,” and Germanic sounding consonance, with its hard “G’s,” i.e. “glaucous,” “gray,” Fitzgerald’s sentence, quoted above, doesn’t sacrifice euphony for sense.  It works in collaboration with sound to make the sentence musical.  Thus we have alliteration, “leaving,” “loud.”  He gives us assonance, “bright,” “night,” “with,” “wings,” “beat-ing,” “trees.”  He gives us consonance “bellows,” “blew,” and “frogs,” “full,” “life.”  If I were to refashion Nabokov’s sentence I would have to eliminate every trope, casting it in a realist style.  Although the meaning of the sentence would perhaps be conveyed much clearer, all of its playful, musical pleasure would be lost--the result would be prosaic, artless and dull.                 
    Along with left-branching sentences to delay meaning, to alter the emotional resonance, Nabokov employs mid-branching sentences. On page 414, he writes, “Thumb-filling his pipe from a rubber pouch as he walked, a plus-foured Englishman of the solid exportable sort came from under an arch and entered a pharmacy, where large pale sponges in a blue vase were dying a thirsty death behind their glass.”  The structure of this sentence surprises us, because it allows the tropes to unravel piece by piece.  We receive description of action first, an introductory clause at the beginning with an implied agent with the subject, “a plus-foured Englishman of the solid exportable sort,” coming after the action of “thumb-filling his pipe from a rubber pouch.”  By placing the base clause in the middle, Nabokov anchors this long, unwieldy sentence.  This allows him to branch off into new territory with a verb “came,” then a prepositional phrase “under an arch, followed by a linking verb, “entered,” making for a compound-verb, thus letting his agent/subject enter a pharmacy.  Nabokov abandons our view of him there.  Rather than focus on the specifics of the narrator’s actions, showing what he does, he focuses our attention on what the man notices, i.e. sponges in a blue vase. The technique works because of the implication.  The man sees things and Nabokov doesn’t need to point out that he sees it: he shows it.
    He also personifies the sponges.  They aren’t just sitting in a dry vase, they are “dying a thirsty death.”  By personifying them, he makes us feel their plight and the narrator’s own; the narrator is a sponge, dying a thirsty death, unable to be sated by the promise of love he feels for Nina.  If he had used the static description, “There were sponges in a blue vase without water,” much of the effect of surprise and delight would be lost and along with it the subtext. 
    Additionally, I enjoyed the compound construction “plus-foured” to indicate the man’s bulk.  Whereas Nabokov could have simply used the adjective, “large,” or “heavy,” he chose to focus our attention on the size of his clothing.  Such means of description float around the obvious.  These devices add variety to description, again, surprising readers, jolting us awake. 
    Meanwhile Fitzgerald’s right-branching sentence, base clause in the beginning and details added to the right, indicates mood with power and concision. On page 27, he writes:
    “There is a valley of ashes--a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into
    ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses
    and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men
    who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” 
    As an extraordinary example of a cumulative sentence, Fitzgerald places the base clause, a declarative, at the beginning, “There is a valley of ashes.”  Offset with an end-dash, he qualifies the declarative through a variety of stylistic techniques.  First of which is alliteration “fantastic farm,” then simile, “where ashes grow like wheat,” then polysendeton with the repetitive use of “and” to join the nouns “ridges,” “hills,” and alliteration again with “grotesque gardens,” then anaphora, repeating the phrase, “where ashes,” then polysendeton again with the numerous conjunctions, “and” to join additional qualifying nouns, “houses,” “chimneys,” “smoke.”  He ends the sentence with an image of men who by their very association with the setting have become ash itself.  It’s a miraculous sentence, one that fuses landscape description with the human, a sentence where man and nature coalesce. 
    Nabokov’s corollary sentence can be found on page 414:
    I assimilated everything: the whistling of a thrush in the almond trees beyond the     chapel, the peace of the crumbling houses, the pulse of the distant sea, panting     in the mist, all this together with the jealous green of bottle glass bristling along     the top of a wall and the fast colors of a circus advertisement featuring a     feathered Indian on a rearing horse in the act of lassoing a boldly endemic     zebra, while some thoroughly fooled elephants sat brooding upon their
    star-spangled thrones.”
    Although this sentence lacks Fitzgerald’s economy, a variety of interesting things occur here.  First, according to the rules of cumulative sentences, Nabokov places the base clause, also a declarative, at the beginning, “I assimilated everything.”  However, rather than use an end dash, he sets up his list of observations by a colon.  The effect is one of a shorter pause, and perhaps a tighter connection between his initial statement and his resulting observations.  (I contend that the end-dash allows for a longer pause, and thus greater dramatic effect; but this may be due to a personal feeling rather than something objectively measurable.  Either way, a pause exists, the degree of its length is debatable, and subject for another essay on punctuation). 
    Second, personification: Nabokov’s trees “whistle,” his houses feel, “peace,” his sea “pulses,” his mist “pants,” his color green is “jealous,” his glass “bristles.”  He uses active verbs to promote nature’s agency, but much more than agency, personality.  When the sentence breaks off in the middle with the predeterminer adjectival clause, “all this together,” it reminds me of Fitzgerald’s transitional prepositional phrase, “with a transcendent effort.”  Both open into new territory.  Whereas in Nabokov’s sentence, the narrator begins describing the circus poster, using copious amounts of alliteration “featuring,” “feathered,” and “star-spangled horses,” the second half of Fitzgerald’s sentence sticks closely to “ashes” as its central metaphor.  Both sentences resonate with musicality--a playful musicality in love with its own sound.
     Both writers are conscious of the external world to such a degree that their efforts to transform it from an inanimate thing of abstraction to the specific, concrete plays a dual role: first, it forces us to reconsider the object/image, and second it imbues it with an agency--an agency capable of affecting the lives of their stories’ characters and our view of the narrator.       
    Both writers’ use of figurative language is a key to enervating my own prose. For example, in attempting to incorporate nature into my own work, in the past I have relied only on nouns, adjectives and verbs, with little regard for either musicality, metaphor or personification.  I suppose I could take a sentence like the following from Elegy, my novel in progress, and offer it as an example. “Everything was quiet: the farm houses with their steeply pitched roofs, the red barns, the grass, the grain silos looking like mute rockets.”  Injecting this with Nabokovian alliteration and his peppery sense of personality, the result is:

     “Everything was still: the rugged farm houses rising rigidly from the joyful bottle
    green grass, the red barns like mute monoliths, and the grain silos erect as
    rockets ready to lift off to some delicious red planet, while a slow stodgy mist
    huffed around their bases like the steam from an idling booster.”
    Or, invoking Fitzgerald, I could imbue landscape description with a strong central metaphor and personification that both organizes the description and pushes it into new territory.  Therefore:

    “Once, in a heath surrounded by locusts, I saw a fawn, its caramel hide spotted
    with patches of white, chewing grass.  With big black eyes it stood watching me,
    waiting for me to do something, waiting perhaps for the incredulity of this moment
    to pass.”
    Would become the following:

    “Once, in a blue heath ringed along the far edges by black locusts, I came upon a
    fawn, its caramel colored hide peppered with patches of white, its jaws curling
    and eyes large and glossy and black as wet granite.  It stood bowlegged,
    bewildered, as if by watching me I would somehow become something other than
    a boy, I would become, in its incredulous dark gaze, a hedge or a bush,
    something green and unthreatening, just another emerald fixture in its familiar

    It is this their ability to evoke wonder and surprise through language, to defamiliarize the world that holds readers in a sort of suspended bliss, making setting, landscape, objects into something more than just inanimate things, things incapable of moving or affecting the reader, things that are no more than backdrop or window dressing.  Tropes help transform things from static background into vivid character, pernicious as any antagonist, helpful as any guardian, supportive as any sidekick and suspicious as any skeptic.  They also help transform the visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and kinesthetic details that make for detailed writing.  By imbuing inanimate objects with human characteristics tropes make things surrogates of theme.
        In conclusion, figurative language is the soul of imaginative writing.  Fitzgerald and Nabokov both use copious amounts of it, eschewing muscular, noun, verb, declarative sentence prose, to provide a new kind of sensory density.  By yoking sensory imagery to narration and their narratives become more than the perfection of a point of view: by using figurative language they achieve something greater--storytelling magic.


Friday, September 2, 2011

Written in Blood-"An Evening Redness in the West"

If ever there was a novel whose language itself was a character, this is it!  Cormac's prose seems cut by the wind, darkened by nightfall in the cool pale desert, rubbed raw by the wind blown bluffs, bloodied by the claws of violence.  Scene after scene builds to an agonizing pitch.  A scream.  The novel is harsh, raw, violent.  The depictions of landscape are the finest I have ever read. It is the first novel that showed me how landscape could be used to define character.

At first what shocked me about the novel wasn't so much as how dark it was, how bloody and unapologetic, but how Cormac made language itself seem alien.  He made English a point of deviation from the known world, that is, he made English sound like a foreign language.  With an old world, 19th Century diction, he employed oddly specific nouns, verbs, compound constructions, neologisms, all of which I had never read anywhere before.  With a mixture of short sentences and long, periodic sentences, compound constructions, left branching and right branching and conjunctions and connectives all chained together to form sentences whose sound itself (when read aloud) sound like hammered anvils, he takes his literary and stylistic cues from both Faulkner and Hemingway.  But with the use of those specific nouns and verbs and adjectives--scullery, boatswain, bolls, walleyed, jakes, sockingfooted, wickercovered, trundlecarts, calabozo, malandered, clackdish, tanyard, quirt, escopeta, limberteams, etc. etc.--his prose far surpasses either Faulkner or Hemingway.

His is a dark music, a requiem, an elegy, among the darkest things ever written in prose and on par with the darkest things ever written by say Mahler, Schubert, or Off.  His themes--moral depravity, Godlessness, disconnect--embody the qualities found in the proto-existentialists Nitzsche and Kierkegaard, and the full blown existentialism of Camus and Sartre.   

Often employing Spanish and English words to add a new level of depth and authenticity to the prose, Cormac's writing continues to teach me valuable lessons in how language may be used to alienate and communicate a novel's themes aesthetically: Si, he said.  Si, bufones. Todo. He turned to the boy.  Casimero! Los perros! 

Unlike Joyce's novel, or any of the novels I had previously read, Cormac's characters hardly reflect upon their human condition.  There is no interiority.  There is no sentence of the type, "Glanton thought," "The Judge felt that," or "The Kid believed."  There is just action and depictions of landscape.  If thoughts are revealed they are done explicitly, in speeches, as when The Judge communicates his ideas to the Glanton gang about God, Death and War.  "War is God," he says, continuing on for two more pages.

It is a high wire act! If an MFA writer tried this style (which I unfortunately did on a novel I was writing earlier in my MFA career, a novel about Congolese cassiterite miners and their exploitation at the hands of several rebel factions), you would be laughed at, ridiculed, and sent packing (which I was).  So, how does Cormac get away with literary murder?  He does so partly through the doctrine of association, whereby landscape assumes the role of the mind's inner turmoil.  He does it through a commanding vocabulary. He does it with complete confidence in his abilities as a writer.  He does it through the courage of his convictions.  It doesn't hurt that he is a brilliant writer, a true artist, a consummate genius.  Every time I read his work, and this novel in particular, I am in awe. 

Ever since reading this novel, I have paid more attention to the role of landscape in my own work, landscape that acts as a surrogate for character interiority, landscape that acts as a character itself, landscape that fulfills the promises of theme (See Digression: Evening in Hernandez by Ansel Adams).




Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Digression: Evening in Hernandez, by Ansel Adams

 I love photography.  It is a poem, as opposed to film, which is a novel.  In his "Treatise on Painting" Leonardo Da Vinci wrote that painting (also a photograph), is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.  I couldn't agree more.  So one of my tasks as a writer is to convey the emotion in a scene, by selecting the significant detail and capturing the emotion of a scene just right.   So here is my attempt at capturing the emotion of the scene as depicted by Ansel Adams in his famous photograph "Evening in Hernandez."

    We reach Hernandez from the South, through a savanna of mostly spindly sage that looks from highway 84 like a herd of buffalo lying dead on their sides. Dominated by a Spanish styled stucco church on the left, a flat roof, flat windowless walls, Hernandez is a clutch of buildings host to nothing more than a graveyard, whose white tombstones jut out of the hard land like jagged teeth.  Circumscribed by trees of a limited variety, mostly pinyons, their crowns exploding (even in the falling light of late evening) in a dazzling display of avocado green, mimicking the shades and hues of the mountains in the distance.  Between the town and the mountains lies a vast expanse of earth where nothing but the desert grows, undulating swells sloping up to reach escarpments where ascension reigns to form serrated ridges with topped peaks all swathed in white.  A double shelf of clouds rises from the horizon’s edge like the wings of a giant angel.  And above it all, above the mountains and the vast plain of nothing, above the town and its silent graves, lurks the full moon--a silver eye watchful of everything that doesn’t happen in Hernandez, mindful of things that never were.  And above the moon the dome of gaping sky, starless black and frightful, like the mouth of God.

Joycean Prose

It was my first "idea" novel, one which wrestled with notions of God and spirit, matter and purpose, art and religion in a mature, albeit, serious, way.   It was the first novel I read which felt as constructed, like a house, or a cathedral.  It had the same insistence as poetry, rhythmic, musical, metaphorical.  Each image, each phrase, each bit of dialogue seemed carefully weighed, evaluated, deliberated over, and placed in just the right place from which to build the structure.  Joycean prose is nothing short of architectural, approaching and sometimes surpassing the best lyric poetry.  It taught me a valuable lesson in compression and the use of negative space, that is those pockets of things left unsaid, allowing the reader to draw conclusions, making them participants in the work.  His prose is meticulous.      

What makes it unique as a modern novel is the way Joyce plays with point of view.  The narration begins with a child's point of view, in our case, Stephen Daedalus' 3rd Person Limited point of view.  The story begins like a fable, "Once upon a time..." and reflects all the mystery and wonder about the world that a child might have at a tender age.  The diction is simple, without being simplistic, and through imagery (birds, flight, repetition of words and phrases, "cold," "light," dark," etc), the story feels woven.  As the story evolves, and Stephen grows, the diction grows in complexity, new imagery appears, new dichotomies, reason and spirit, death and life, light and dark. 

Joyce stages his characters, placing them within doorways, on stairs, transitional spaces.  But besides imagery, and stage direction, Joyce's novel taught me (and continues to teach me) about the power of memory and about character interiority, that is, what happens inside a character's mind as he experiences the world and feels affected by his change. 
To date I have read this book ten times, and it's one I return to at least once a year.  Like all great books, it changes everytime I pick it up.  I make new connections, new associations, see in certain images things I hadn't noticed before.  By being small the book is big, filled with ideas that challenge one's notions of the purpose driven life.  The novel continues to give and give and give and I suspect by the time I have left this earth, I will have read it at least a dozen times more.