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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Reinventing the Dead

Allow me to vent!

Famous people don't die.  Their bodies do, but their spirits enter this alternate sphere of existence where we get to make of them what we want. Some become icons, one word brands that refer only to them, Gandhi, Roosevelt, Guggenheim, King (not Don or Rodney but Martin Luther), Marilyn, Dean, Shakespeare, Jobs, the list goes on.  In life they are theirs, in possession of their identity and mind and heart and soul.  Post death, they become ours.

This remaking, this reinvention of the dead, over and over, generation through generation, not only immortalizes the dead, but makes them into character.  This reinvention allows us to manipulate them, change them, attribute to them qualities and attributes they may never have had in real life.  So, Mark Twain continues to make appearances on stage, smoking his pipes, throwing out witticisms.  He becomes interpreted by each generation that confronts his being, or absence of being.

I am writing this because I am thinking of a story. I am thinking of a story to write because I am fascinated by how memory works to reinvent the people we have lost.  I am interested in memory because resurrection is not possible in any other way other than through the imagination.  Even though the people who we have lost that are important to us we rarely know.  So imagination supplies the tools where facts are missing.  The story I am writing is called "Reinventing the Dead." It'll be up here soon.  Hopefully someone will read it.

Sorry, I just needed to vent.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Prose Music of Tinkers


Awesome!  Awe inspiring!  I rarely use these terms when describing a novel, especially a first novel; but they're the only apt words to describe Paul Harding's literary, Pulitzer prize winner, Tinkers. What makes this novel so brilliant is its language. Written in a style that hearkens back to the early 19th century, taking his literary cues from Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Harding embraces the Transcendentalist ethos (nature as transcendental spiritual experience) in a time when brevity and minimalism seem the preferred stylistic choice amongst most authors.  His prose, bold, unabashedly musical, filled with alliteration that would make a poet blush with envy, thumbs its nose at contemporary influences.  And for that he deserves his plaudits.    

What makes his style so captivating is both its richness and its precision.  With lush and specific detail he allows entry into this strange world of a clock repairman and his father, a tinker, or door to door salesman.  Harding isn't shy of employing long sentences, parentheticals, using dialogue as dramatic effect.  He uses frequent time jumps, enmeshing present time and past and distant past, employing POV shifts, and on a sentence level, uses just about every literary trope ever created (synechdoche, metonymy, metaphor, allusion), but keeps his manufactured world from slipping into obscurantism by favoring concrete nouns and specific verbs over adjectives and adverbs (largely).

The book has been described as "a little miracle." And that it is.  It is a miracle of experience.  By keeping us rooted in the sensual experience of a man lying on his deathbed, his mind spinning back into memory, a man making sense of his life when all certainties besides death have passed, he makes us ponder the meanings behind objects--a desk, a painting, a swatch of fabric, a necklace, a pipe tree. 

What I also love about his writing is his characters' forays into speculation.  It is a wonderful technique enabling us to expand the story into realms of imagination.  Take the following passage:  "What if the wagon, instead of a house on wheels, contained a kingdom of bees? There would be a panel on one side, fixed at the top with brass hinges, which would open and be propped up with poles at the corners.  There would be windows looking into the hives.  People could stand and watch the bees work while I gave lectures on the insects' habits, their industry and their loyalty.  I could charge two cents a person.  Young children could see the hives for free  Schools could send entire classes, or, even better, I could go to the schools and set up right in the yards. I could plant a bed of flowers on top of the wagon for the pollen and put the entrances to the hives on the side opposite the windows, so that the spectators would not bother the bees." It is wonderful writing, detailed without being overwrought, favoring clarity over obtuseness for the sake of moving speculation forward.

I also love his wordplay.  For instance, "Crepsucle Borealis: 1. The bark of birches glows silver and white at dusk.  The bark of birches peels like parchment. 2. Fireflies blink in the thick grass and form halos around hedges. 3. The spaces between the trees look like glowing coals, 4. Foxes keep to the shadows.  Owls look down from branches.  mice make brisk conversations." Here Harding manages to infuse poetic diction into his prose, metaphor, barches compared to light, simile, bark likened to parchment, alliteration (bark, birches, peels parchment, halos, hedges), more simile, spaces compared to coals, etc.  His writing surprises, excites, communicates its ideas playfully; it's a refreshing change from writing handed down to us from the staccato of Hemingway.

You would never find this, "Saw grass and wildflowers grew high along the spines of the dirt roads and brushed the belly of Howard's wagon.  Bears pawed fruit in the bushes along the ruts" in Hemingway, or in most contemporary authors.  Instead you get prose that moves the story along, plot given primacy over style, style being the aftereffect of the plot.  For me, style and plot and character and theme and tone and diction are all part of a book's DNA, each like a chromosome in a double helix that spirals to form the book's identity.

Harding, it seems, can do it all.  He can convey the deepest feelings of character, his most intimate thoughts, describe the minute details of repairing a clock in an antiquated language, describe how to make a birdhouse, wax poetic, dive into stream of consciousness prose, interior monologue, write son convincingly about landscape that it would make Melville or Thoreau envious, and then turn around and give us something heartbreakingly beautiful through lush description, and then, just when you think you've seen it all, he gives you this: "Thought that he was a clock was like a clock like a spring in a clock when it breaks and explodes when he had his fits.  But he was not like a clock or at least was only like a clock to me.  But to himself? Who knows?  And so it is not he who was like a clock but me." Awesome!

How many times have I read this book?  Five now and counting.  It sits sandwiched between Madame Bovary and (ironically) Hemingway's short stories as one of my all time favorite novels.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Using Influences: Housekeeping "At the Fishhouses" in "Ketchikan"


If ever there was a story that wears its influences on its sleeve, David Vann's "Ketchikan" is it.  The story steals its influences from two sources: largely Elizabeth Bishop's poem At The Fishhouses and to a lesser degree Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping.  In various interviews Vann unabashedly speaks of Bishop and Robinson being two of his primary influences (Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx being his other two), and their spirits, especially Bishop's, seem to coalesce in this story.

Let's back up.  I know David Vann, or at least I knew him, before the Prix Medicis Etranger award, before the movie rights,  before the celebrity set in (sort of).  In 2009, my first year as an MFA student, Vann was my first workshop instructor and my MFA adviser.  He would bring to class examples from his influences and we would talk about them.  He was talkative, opinionated, intellectually bright. On my first meeting with him he proceeded to recite a story from Canterbury Tales in Old English, then recited a Gaelic poem from memory.  I thought he was trying too hard to impress, to show that he deserved his tenure position at USF, which, putting pedagogy aside, he deserved on the strength of his writing. 

In workshop, he spoke glowingly of Bishop and McCarthy, Robinson and Grace Paley, as if they were the best thing since a fresh cut of grilled halibut cheek.   He didn't just talk about them, he celebrated their prose, citing what they did to achieve the effects he believed they produced without actually revealing how they did it.  In short, I didn't learn why he loved those passages and writers, aside from the general statements about landscape as metaphor for character and prose rhythm.  

Vann's teaching style--that year at least--was instruction by indirection.  He presented paragraphs and chapters from writer's he liked and asked us to ask the same questions of the text as he perhaps had asked himself.  His pedagogical technique was more Socratic in spirit than in example, because rather than engage us to talk, he offered his own opinions, leaving us to sit and stare ate him with blank expressions on our faces.  Leaving his class, I thought he failed me as a teacher.

But where I thought he failed as a teacher, he excelled as a writer.  Using his example of deconstructing text, I learned to re-examine my own prose by looking at his.  I also took a closer look at his influences, including McCarthy and Proulx.  But while I was in his class, I resisted him.  I swore I wouldn't read his work.  He was too young looking, too arrogant, too vain, too distant, too unhelpful, too sanctimonious, and too opportunistic for my tastes, teaching us in his Life After MFA seminar that to get what we wanted out of the writing life we had to be surreptitious at best and at worst a flat out liar.

It took me a long time to finally buy his prize winning collection A Legend of a Suicide (still in its first edition hard cover), took me longer still to accept that he was a good writer, and even longer to understand he is perhaps, despite all his personal shortcomings, a great one. 

What the three texts he cites as his literary influences share are a love for language, images of transfiguration/transmutation, and loss.   Vann's narrator, Roy, like David himself, has lost his father to suicide, and the five stories that make up his fictional memoir/collection, address this bitter fact.  So the hero's journey begins with a single step, and so the price of knowledge gained at the end is nothing short of reclamation of your past, of your memory weighed against fact, of your identity mutated as a result of it.  The choice for his narrator at the end is always "Fitzgeraldian" in tone: Do I give up the grand and bitter illusions of my past, or hold on to them and wallow, since there is pleasure in wallowing at some primal, reptilian level.  These are a few issues David Vann's narrator struggles with as he seeks to define himself in the wake of his father's suicide.  But he seeks more than closure; he seeks a new sense of self, unburdened by loss.  

By retracing his father's  steps, the narrator's journey takes him to Ketchikan, an Alaskan fishing town, where he hopes to befriend his father's ex-girlfriend, the woman who led to the dissolution of his father's marriage.  In Ketchikan he hopes to lay his memories to rest.  In Ketchikan he hopes to find reasons. But what costs him little now, ends up costing him a lot later.

Bishop's influence arises immediately in the story. Not only does Vann, like Bishop, explore the art of the long sentence, Vann's opening coming in at 113 words, both love to write about fishing.  In Ketchikan, Vann talks of the fishing village, like Bishop talks of the fishhouses.  Vann writes, "I walked the purse seiners and trawlers, gillnetters and great tugs, floating planks iridescent with fish scales and waved to the two or three fishermen in their lighted cabins who heard or otherwise sensed me and looked up from their odd hours, their strange, solitary lives, to nod and look down again."

Compare this to Bishop's images and language in At The Fishhouses: "The big fish tubs are completely lined with layers of beautiful herring scales and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered with creamy iridescent coats of mail, with small iridescent flies crawling on them." What jumps out at me are the words "iridescent," used in the context of describing the fish scales. What also jumps out at me is the fact that Vann could have used any number of modifiers without having to resort to this one.  He could have, for instance, used "variegated," or "polychromatic, " but by choosing "iridescence, he creates an intertextuality to Bishop's poem.

He goes a step further and uses several lines of her poem in his story.  Upon his arrival (I am assuming, for it isn't clear), when the narrator reflects upon the water at night, he thinks, "Cold, dark deep and absolutely clear, element bearable to no mortal, etc..." which is a direct line from Bishop's poem.  He even cites the poem's originator, Bishop herself, without making it sound heavy-handed.  So many times we read writers who cite texts and the result sounds clumsy, equivalent to self-congratulation for knowing and understanding (we assume) a text.  I have never been a fan of this technique, creating a false sense of intertextuality, although, I must admit, I have used it in my own work, then quickly discarded it for the very reasons I cite above.  But Vann does it effectively.  Because he links it to character interiority.  These would be the thoughts a man who loves Bishop's poems would say when staring into water out of loss, because it is his character/nature to do so.

Where Bishop's diction fuses with Vann's is in the very last paragraph at the bottom of page 149.  When Roy steals a rowboat to go for a night time joysail (joy ride?) around the harbor, he writes: "I rowed unnoticed beneath masts and sonar, bells and spotlights, rowed, I fancied, with the seamless propulsion of jellyfish in the one element, rowed past jagged rocks onto a sea nostalgic and opaque, swelling slowly as if considering spilling over, etc." (italics mine)

Compare to Bishop: "All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea, swelling slowly as if considering spilling over, is opaque, but the silver of the benches, the lobster pots, and masts, scattered among the wild jagged rocks, is of an apparent translucence, etc." (italics mine).

By using Bishop's diction (element, jagged rocks, opaque, etc), Vann fuses Roy's mind with Bishop's so that we hear her words recombined through Roy's consciousness.  It is an effect that works, falling just short of plagiarism.  This "technique" if you can call it that, if taking stylistic cues is a technique, seemed a novel way of creating prose that admired the author's influences. I liked what he was doing. 

What he borrows from Robinson's Housekeeping is less blatant.  He takes certain stylistic cues, but also steals Ruth's (Robinson's narrator) need to speculate.  Given that Ruth engages in speculation, which, like Emerson's "transparent eye," a narrative style that is seemingly everywhere and nowhere (a sort of first person omniscient narration), Roy propounds similar speculation, similar lyricism.  Compare Roy's speculating on his father's consciousness to Ruth's speculating on her grandfather's.  Both were never in a position to know the intimate thoughts of their forebearers, yet each seems to imagine that they do.  First Roy.  On page 150 he says, "My father loved something about Alaska.  Though frustrated himself he had many friends who lived the kinds of lives he imagined."  And I am right to ask, how does he know this?  How does he know what his father imagined?

And Ruth: "Edmund was like that, a little.  The rising of the spring stirred a serious mystical excitement in him, and made him forgetful of her.  He would pick up eggshells, a bird's wing, a jawbone, the ashy fragment of a wasp's nest.  He would peer at each of them with the most absolute attention, and then put them in his pockets, where he kept his jacknife and his loose change...This is death in my hand, this is ruin in my breast pocket, where I keep my reading glasses" (HKPG 17). And I am right to ask, how does she know this?  She was never and could never be in a position to observe this, let alone to use free indirect discourse to convey what Edmund actually said in those ending lines. 

Both Robinson and Vann also employ the use of the modal verb "would," indicating the conditional mood.  Vann: "The night would grow colder, the light would almost fade, and my father would go inside, see the cabinets Healy had built, even the walls of his small cabin, etc" (LGOF 150).  And Robinson, as per the sentences above, "He would pick up eggshells...He would peer at each of them..." (17).

As I said, I had never seen intertextuality, the use of influences and texts referring to other texts, used in this way to enliven and raise prose to a level that sang.  Vann did it and taught me how.  By looking deep into the heart of his text, I found certain keys to my own writing, keys that unlocked doors I never even knew existed, let alone was searching for.  But having found them and opened them, I feel I am a better writer because of it.  

There are other influences in Vann's book as well.  In Vann's novella "Sukkwan Island," he channels Cormac McCarthy and Hemingway.  In his story, "A Higher Blue," he evokes (at times) Annie Proulx.   This "technique" is something I embrace in my own novel Somerset.  I use it to enlarge the novel's sense, to engage the reader with my own influences and to pay homage to them, because, as someone once said, sometimes imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, sometimes it is cheating, and sometimes it is just plain glorious.

I never did learn to recite poems in old English or Gaelic or Sanskrit.  I'll leave that one to David Vann alone.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reports of My Death...

"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." 

How does one measure loss? When the absence is so staggering we turn to statistics: six million without employment, one million dead, a hundred thousand homeless, sixty thousand orphaned, and so on. We turn to numbers when we cannot wrap our minds around the implications of that loss.  To regain our humanity we turn to what survives, using quantifiable means to measure our hopes.

"There is no reason not to follow your heart."

When we lose a man like Steve Jobs, a man who pioneered not just a company, a man whose influence has improved not just our lives, but changed the way we relate to one another and our world, we turn to what survives: his company, his patents, his objects.  Here was a man who rescued the inert object, and made it (a computer, a phone, a tablet, etc) into a living thing.  Imbued with character, his products seem as necessary to our lives as water to drink and air to breathe.  So, numbers, though important,  fail to measure our loss.  Because why should popularity be the litmus for value? Who really cares how many of such and such widget were sold?  No, we turn to what those objects did for us.      

"Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, so the only way to feel truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.  And the only way to do great work is to love what you do."

His company is a testament to his life.  His legacy, his very soul, lives in the objects he invented.  We can all celebrate in the knowledge that his company survives our losing him.  Although it will never be what it once was (for he was its spirit), we can honor his memory by taking his words and deeds and making of them a banquet of hope, so that we may derive sustenance to live a life on our own terms.

"Design is not just how a thing looks, but how it works." 

To me Steve Jobs represented Prometheus.  Unwilling to bend to the whims and caprices of the populace, he sought to change the status quo by bringing what was reserved for the gods to man. He gave us things as vital to our existence as fire.  He gave us tools to better cope with loneliness, helping assuage our fears, shortening time and improving the quality of the time spent with ourselves and one another.  He empowered us. 

"The only way to do great work is to love what you do."

Here was a man whose absolute conviction that he was right helped shape our world.  His products seem more than objects; they seem like  extensions of our personalities, making each of us into little gods.  Able to command the resources of the world at the touch or swipe of a screen, his products have made for us a brighter world.   

"Being the richest man in the cemetery means nothing to me."

He embodied what is best in us, the creative leader, the innovator, the optimist, the stubborn, unyielding, unbending visionary.  And now that he has gone, he has transcended his own stature as CEO of a company, a title that greatly undervalues his contributions, he has joined Edison, Bell, Ford, and achieved the status of immortality.  He has become in his own way a god. 

The world seems a darker place without him in it, but we can be thankful that our way forward will continue to be lit by the lighted path he left for us.

"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

He will live on.


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Roots of a Novel in Progress

It took me one year to finish the first draft of Somerset, my novel-in-progress.  Prior to starting this novel, I had been working diligently for a year on another novel, one about Congolese miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Prior to starting it, I had read Blood Meridian.  Something about its depictions of violence and the Omniscient Objective point of view appealed to me.  But it was missing something. Character interiority. 

Novels have a way of leading to other novels.  So, about that same time I re-read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  It led me to research on the Congo.  Accounts of using rape as a weapon of war, genocide, exploitation of the mineral rich lands, the Western world's complicity in the war torn region through its consumption of products utilizing conflict minerals--cassiterite (tin ore), gold, tungsten, etc. churned in my mind.  And churned.  Watching an interview on Youtube with a sixteen year old boy named Prince, made my blood boil.  He worked as an ore bearer for the mining companies (Chinese and Russian and German owned, militarily backed by Interhamwe rebels).  He was forced by circumstance to carry ninety pound sacks of rocks fifty miles through the forest.  He faced the perils of starvation, dehydration, robbers, wild animals, and cannibalistic rebels.  He was a modern day Sysiphus, the Greek character doomed for all eternity to push an immense rock up hill, only to see it roll down once he reached the top.  To work without hope was not just an ancient plight, but a modern evil. 

My compassion for Prince's situation and the plight of the hundreds and thousands of innocent people being exploited in the D.R. Congo, forced me to write about it.  That novel, called Red Equinox at the time, was a lesson in failure.  In it I attempted to mimic McCarthy's searing prose, with all its gore and violence and depictions of landscape.  I failed and failed miserably. 

It seems obvious to me now why that novel was doomed from the start.  I had never been to Congo, never personally spoken to a miner, didn't know what it was like to live under the constant threat of violence.  I was trying to occupy the space of the novel through imagination alone.  My prose looked heavy-handed, my dialogue false, my characterizations flat, and situations seemed either trite or imbued with that movie violence that makes one shudder.  I got away from writing from personal experience.  I was trying to write things I thought would make a book sell, rather than write what I knew and felt. So I abandoned it.

In the Summer of 2010, I had the opening line for a new novel, born out of a discussion I had with Lewis Buzbee, my professor at the time.  We were sitting in Crossroads cafe (how ironic) at USF.  I was telling him about my writing woes and he started asking me several questions.
"Where were you born?"
"Where did you grow up?"
"England, India, the East Coast." 
"How old were you when you lived in the east coast and where were you?"
"A suburb of DC till the age of 11, one year in Baltimore, then three years, from the age of 12 to 15, in a town called Drums." 
"In coal mining town in North eastern, Pennsylvania."
I started talking to him about the coal region, about my experiences growing up there, about the landscape, the people, and then I said the line, "I was the only drummer in a town called Drums."  He looked at me and said, "That's the opening line of your novel.  Write about that."  But he also offered the caveat, "Be careful.  Sometimes writing from personal experience gets in the way of telling a good story."  So I tried.  So, I failed again.  But I kept trying and kept failing and although that original line appears nowhere in the novel, it led me to think about place as character, and character as something borne out of one's deepest feelings and convictions, and about how not to let personal experience get in the way of telling a good story.    

There are at least two schools of thought about this process: There are those who write what they know and those who write what they are passionate about.  I believe there is a middle ground.  You can be passionate about what you know, and yet still not know everything.  One must research to fill in the gaps of knowledge.

Writing from personal experience also changed my reading tastes.  Having read all of Cormac McCarthy's novels during the 2009-10 winter break, having read much of Faulkner's novels and short stories, I began revisiting simpler, more honest, yet still stylistically vibrant writers.  I fell in love with William Maxwell's writing, and read a number of his novels and his entire short story collection.  I re-read Andre Dubus' short stories.  I re-read Richard Yates' brilliant novel Revolutionary Road.  I read Norman Maclean's fictionalized memoir/novella about fly fishing,  A River Runs Through It and re-read Houskeeping by Ms. Robinson.  I revisited the work of Alice Munro, Ethan Canin's novels and novellas, and turned to non-fiction nature works by Emerson and Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, and Henry Beston.  About this time, I discovered Alice McDermott's novel Charming Billy, and fell in love with her prose, and I also fell in love with William Trevor's stories.  All this while keeping up with the exhaustive reading list of the MFA's second year.

What these writers did for me was help turn my thinking and feeling around.  I realized I didn't need to write sensational, ultra violent, deeply existential stories, or quirky stories, or stories that substituted clever structure for character, I just needed to write with honesty.  My writing professor Karl Sohenlein once said in workshop, that a writer must write towards "the heat," that is, to those moments that have the greatest emotional impact.  I realized that "the heat" need not be a five alarm fire.  It could be as small a flame as a match burning in a blizzard.   

But I was in a quandry.  I am an East-Indian.  Embracing the ideas of authorial authenticity, meant abandoning writing from a Caucasian POV.  I also felt I needed to write about Indian struggles.  But aside from R.K. Narayan, I didn't care much for Indian writers (not even that media darling Jhumpa Lahiri).  Growing up, even within the confines of rural, ultra conservative, Northeastern, Pennsylvania, I didn't feel all that marginalized or alienated.  My parents were and are agnostic, so I wasn't immersed in the Sikh religion.  I never had the issues of assimilation other immigrant families went through.  We all spoke perfect English, without the hard Indian accents.  We read English books and wrote in English.  I thought, spoke, ate, drank, groomed, rebelled, like an American.  My only ties to the Indian culture were language, food, and music.  So I had to do some serious soul searching before coming to the conclusion that I was and am a writer who is interested in character. My authenticity would be my ability to tell a story as convincingly as possible.

This is where my personal and professional goals overlapped.  To be a better writer I first needed to be a better dreamer, a better "feeler," a better thinker.  Because writing a novel is as much a journey of the intellect as it is of the heart.  Not to be prescriptive, but this is the best way to write stories that mean something.  After all, it is the sharing of human experience that connects people to one another, and a novel is a window into another soul.

So here I am, having finished my first draft of Somerset under the tutelage of four different professors, each with drastically different methods, philosophies, styles (some of which helped open my mind up to a new way of writing, others which acted as barriers I needed to surmount). It's been a long road to get here, an exhausting one, one that isn't quite over just yet. The second draft gets me closer, the third draft closer still.  I may need to go through ten, maybe twenty drafts (hopefully not fifty) to get this novel to where I can live with sending it out into the world.  I would love for others to appreciate it, but more than that, I hope Somerset connects them to the heart, their own, others, and mine.