30 March 2008

SWEEEEEEET! The Best Weekend of the Year?

For certain sports fans it is, here in the good old U. S. of A. Why? The NCAA Regional Championship basketball games—the sweet sixteen and eight elimination rounds—to determine which teams go to the Final Four. Each team has already won two tournament games to get to this point. These are amateur athletes representing their colleges. Traditional powers and Cinderellas. If you lose one game, you go home. If you win, you move on to the next round. There're scant few tournaments that boast this sort of built-in drama. And it's especially SWEET when your own college team (in my case my alma mater, the Tarheels of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) advances. All the match-ups at this level are exciting.

But that's not all! It's also Opening Day for major league baseball. And tonight, our Atlanta Braves travel to D.C. to inaugurate the new stadium for the Washington Nationals. Here, baseball means spring has officially arrived and the promise of summer being just around the corner.

The culmination of one season, the beginning of another. This weekend, annually, gets my vote for best sports weekend of the year.

29 March 2008

True History of the Kelly Gang

I've been reading True History of the Kelly Gang, the Booker prize-winning novel by the Aussie Peter Carey. I enjoyed it much more than his Jack Maggs. History is told in the delightful Ozzie brogue of the famed outlaw. It falls into that category of fictional account of a historical personage (see Coover, The Public Burning; DeLillo, Libra). Of course we know it's fiction and not history, but we suspend our disbelief, immerse ourselves, and imagine we are seeing events through the spongeworthy eyes of a barely literate, biased observer/flaneur.

I am put in mind of a group of contemporary novels in the tradition of Crime and Punishment: Vladimir Nabokov's classic and controversial Lolita (1955), John Fowles's The Collector (1963), Evan S. Connell's The Diary of a Rapist (1966), John Banville's Booker-nominated The Book of Evidence (1989), and James Lasdun's The Horned Man (2002). All are told in first person—though The Collector has a middle section told from a POV other than the protagonist. If you need a cubby to put them in, you could call them "psychological realism X" (for X-treme), but I don't read books because they fit into some convenient category. I read them because they're well-written. And this group is superb.

Everyone knows Humbert Humbert's melancholy confessional of the stalking, gaining, and eventual losing of Lolita. The Collector, Fowles's first novel, is the story of a methodical, lottery-winning butterfly collector who connives to upgrade his quarry to include a beautiful young art student and possibly others. Diary follows an obscure civil servant's descent into the depths of resentment, self-loathing, misanthropy, and ultimately criminality. The Book of Evidence is written as a mocking confessional by the murderous and notoriously unreliable art thief Freddy Montgomery. The Horned Man, in my opinion the best of a superior lot, drops us behind enemy lines and right smack in the mind of a paranoid, radically alienated professor of gender studies.

None of the protagonists in these five books is likable; you wouldn't want to have a beer with any of these murderers, kidnappers, rapists, thieves, or madmen. You can't identify with them—unless you are prepared to delve into your own dark places (and that, after all, is the point, the challenge of such books). They are complex characters with strange motivations and bizarre rationalizations; none is quite forgettable. The books are profound. Each in its own way is concerned—and here is where we escape the pigeon holes and easy labels—with beauty and the possibility of transformation. Excerpts:

"You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power." (19)

"Seeing her always made me feel like I was catching a rarity, going up to it very careful, heart-in-mouth as they say. A Pale Clouded Yellow, for instance. I always thought of her like that, I mean words like elusive and sporadic, and very refined—not like the other ones, even the pretty ones. More for the real connoisseur." (3)

Connell (if you don't know him, you should):
"To the mirror once again. Why can't I break this habit? I look for my face so often, think that my significance ought to be reflected but there's not much change. I note only that secrecy goes well with my appearance. Rigid pose. I can't say that I'm graceful, but my eyes are black & full of interesting lights. Also I do think that as I've matured my features have acquired—umm, what? Am I more impressive? I've noticed that others stop talking when I approach. And yet few learn from a face what's happening in the deeps of the soul. My perception must be singular, not much escapes me. However as I think about that it's not surprising—no, not at all. Why, compared to me most men are as simple as cattle. All that troubles me, in fact, is that I'm not able to feel certain emotions, ordinary states that others enjoy. Familiar feelings I used to know. Happiness & sorrow. I've lost the power to absorb them.

... "So ends the month & leaves a taste of copper on my tongue." (239-40)

"What did I feel? Remorse, grief, a terrible—no no no, I won't lie. I can't remember feeling anything, except that sense of strangeness, of being in a place I knew but did not recognise. When I got out of the car I was giddy, and had to lean on the door for a moment with my eyes shut tight. My jacket was bloodstained, I wriggled out of it and flung it into the stunted bushes—they never found it, I can't think why. I remembered the pullover in the boot, and put it on. It smelled of fish and sweat an axle-grease. I picked up the hangman's hank of rope and threw that away too. Then I lifted out the picture and walked with it to where there was a sagging barbed-wire fence and a ditch with a trickle of water at the bottom, and there I dumped it. What was I thinking of, I don't know. Perhaps it was a gesture of renunciation or something. Renunciation! How do I dare use such words. The woman with the gloves [the subject of the stolen portrait] gave me a last, dismissive stare. She had expected no better of me. I went back to the car, trying not to look at it, the smeared windows. Something was falling on me: a delicate, silent fall of rain. I looked upwards in the glistening sunlight and saw a cloud directly overhead, the merest smear of grey against the summer blue. I thought: I am not human. Then I turned and walked away." (119)

Lasdun (seriously, get this book; treasure it):
"I was unaware of any nocturnal visitation, human or otherwise, but when I emerged at dawn, bleary and unclean, I realized even before I caught sight of myself in one of Trumilcik's strategically placed mirrors that something truly catastrophic had come to pass.

"Forcing myself to stand still and confront my reflected head, I had the sensation of fainting rapidly through successive layers of consciousness, but without the luxury of passing out.

"A thick, white, hornlike protrusion had grown out of my forehead.

"I knew, of course, that this could not be so; that I was either still asleep and dreaming it, or that the mounting pressure of these past few days had made me suggeistible to the point of hallucination. But this knowledge didn't remotely lessen the terror I felt as I stared at my image in the mirror. Gingerly, I raised my hand to the protrusion, praying that the sense of touch—less given to hysteria, perhaps, than that of sight—would prove the monstrosity an apparition and make it vanish. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect. The thing felt appallingly real: hard, rock-smooth, and icy cold.

"Though I was no longer in pain, I felt as though I had become extremely ill. Something had shifted in my relationship to my surroundings. Physically, materially, they were unchanged, but in some essential way they seemed to be receding from me, or I from them. It was as though I had switched sides in a train, and what once rushed to meet me had started slipping away. I looked at the furnishings with an odd feeling that I recognized after a moment as yearning. I wasn't so much seeing these ordinary things—the black-stained chairs, the sunflower clock, the pottery mugs, the five- to seven-cup Hot Pot coffeemaker—as yearning for them. I was filled with nostalgia for them as if my world and theirs had already parted company." (182-83)

True History of the Kelly Gang has no such pretensions. It is a well-told, fairly straightforward tale. The protagonist is made sympathetic, unlike those above, by his honest motives (his love of his mother, his wife, and his daughter) and his lack of guile. Though he is a criminal, his side of why he did the notorious things he did has some plausibility given the authenticity and sincerity of his voice—this, of course, is a tribute to Carey's skill. Ned Kelly is not portrayed as mad, but is driven by circumstances further and further into exile from an unjust and corrupt colonial society. True History has none of the psychological complexity nor transformational beauty—and, indeed, horror—of the other novels. It is, by all mean, a great romp. A ripping good yarn. Epic even. Fully-realized, as they say. A good read; I can highly recommend it. But I will not go back to it again and again. The style is wonderful: there are quite good turns of phrase and the voice is winning. The protagonist is charming and the action is riveting—it keeps you reading. Never fails to entertain. Yet, despite all its skillfully-executed, writerly craft, it is not art.

[For context on this point I refer you to the ongoing discussion raised by our post re: Jill Lepore's comparison of history to fiction in last week's New Yorker here and over at Dan Green's outstanding blog The Reading Experience.]

27 March 2008

In Cold Hell

by Charles Olson (1953)

In cold hell, in thicket, how
abstract (as high mind is, as not lust, as love is) how
strong (as strut or wing, as polytope, as things are
constellated) how
strung, how cold
can a man stay (can men) confronted

All things are made bitter, words even
are made to taste like paper wars, get tossed up
like lead soldiers used to be
(in a child's attic) lined up
to be knocked down, as I am,
by firings from a spit-hardened fort, fronted
as we are, here, from where we must go

God, that man, as his acts must, as there is always
a thing he can do, he can raise himself, he raises
on a reed he raises his

Or, if it is me, what
he has to say

Not Another One?

"It is one of the biggest in Antarctica and, for the past century, the massive Wilkins ice shelf appeared to have escaped the ravages of global warming. But now, enormous cracks have appeared in this floating ice platform the size of Northern Ireland. Scientists say it is breaking apart at an unprecedented rate after warmer temperatures weakened it.

"A thin strip of ice is all that now prevents the Wilkins shelf from disintegrating and breaking away from the landmass of the Antarctic peninsula, scientists said yesterday."

26 March 2008

The Senses of Metafiction: The Spray of Phenomena

"Warmth, gloom, smells of my bed, such is the effect they sometimes have on me. I get up, go out, and everything is changed. The blood drains from my head, the noise of things bursting, merging, avoiding one another, assails me on all sides, my eyes search in vain for two things alike, each pinpoint of skin screams a different message, I drown in the spray of phenomena. It is at the mercy of these sensations, which happily I know to be illusory, that I have to live and work. It is thanks to them I find myself a meaning."
[Beckett, Molloy, p. 111 (1st Black Cat ed. of Three Novels)]
"There is a stew simmering on a gas ring and occasionally Toby stirs it, listening to the chimes from the Salvation Army mission across the street playing 'Silent Night.' He remembers other Christmases, the smell of pine and plum pudding and the oil smell of his steam engine. ...

"He tastes the stew. It is flat and the meat is tough and stringy. He adds two bouillon cubes. Another fifteen or twenty minutes. Meanwhile, he will take a shower. Naked, waiting for the water to heat up, he is examining the graffiti in the toilet cubicle, running his hands over phallic drawings with the impersonal interest of an antiquarian. He is a plant, an intrusion. ..."
[Wm. Burroughs, Cities of the Red Night, pp 244-45]
"Often, when I was young, last year, I walked out to the water. It spoke to me of myself. Images came to me, from the water. Pictures. Large green lawns. A great house with pillars, but the lawns so vast that the house can be seen only dimly, from where we are standing. I am wearing a long skirt to the ground, in the company of others. I am witty. They laugh. I am also wise. They ponder. Gestures of infinite grace. They appreciate. For the finale, I save a life. Leap into the water all clothed and grasping the drowner by the hair, or using the cross-chest carry, get the silly bastard to shore. Have to bash him once in the mush to end his wild panicked struggles. Drag him to the old weathered dock and there, he supine, I rampant, manage the resuscitation. Stand back, I say to the crowd, stand back. The dazed creature's eyes open—no, they close again—no, they open again. Someone throws a blanket over my damp, glistening white, incredibly beautiful shoulders. I whip out my harmonica and give them two fast choruses of 'Red Devel Rag.' Standing ovation. The triumph is complete."
[D. Barthelme, The Dead Father, Ch. 12 pp. 105-06]
"So we get near the end of the book, and nothing resolved. But then, only segments have been given you of these few people. They are in no way representative of anything, necessarily. Such the perfections of fiction, as well as that honed cruelty it possesses which makes it useless. Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can't prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness. Can you see some shattered man trying to heal his life reading Tender Is the Night? In the back files of the Ladies' Home Journal there may, at least, be found the names of various physicians who will get you to the grave with a minimum of anguish—so they say. There is more profit in an hour's talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said "Help me," he'd hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry. Why is it that this should be? It is because fiction is real. When you writhe for Christopher Tietjens or the Consul, you writhe for real things that do not live, that do not represent anything anywhere, that have no counterparts in life. It is unsupportable to be so enslaved by the writer. Many people hate it, so they will read only 'nonfiction'; they'll not be tricked! If I say that Dick Detective is a man with the qualities of the green tissue on which I am now typing, and only those qualities, what then? I make him up. What a pleasure, my pleasure, it is true. He will teach you utter failure if you try to use his chapter as a handbook for living.

"It is this fact, that fiction is an invention of the voice, that tends to make writers' lives a shambles. [pp. 215-16] ...

"That evening, the fantastic silence, branches cracking in the cold. The sunset, frigid and subtle, essence of winter. The dark trees stretch down the slope toward the shining black ice of the river in shadow. The colors of the sky are rose, blue, pale yellow, and violet—almost amethyst. Let me say that it is amethyst. A small perfection. Dick and April stand outside the house, happy in the quiet. Civilized. April stokes her husband's thigh, Dick holds April about the waist. Delicate amethyst in the sky, growing slowly indigo. They stand again, after supper, the brilliant ice-cream moon of North America comes up luminous. A portrait of the poet and his wife: you and I and moonlight in Vermont. Dick thinks this, then he sings the line and laughs. April laughs. They are in Vermont! Vermont! They are in the moonlight in Vermont!"
[Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. Last culminating para., pp. 242-3]
"I made my way to the edge of the old city easily enough. From the street din of motorcycles and buses to the voices of the long bazaar. The thoroughfare narrowed as I passed through the Lohari Gate, a brickwork structure with a broad towerlike fortification on either side.

"Once inside I began to receive impressions, which is not the same as seeing things. I realized I was walking too fast, the pace of the traffic-filled streets I'd just left behind. I received impressions of narrowness and shadow, of brownness, the wood and brick, the hard earth of the streets. The air was centuries old, dead, heavy, rank. I received impressions of rawness and crowding, people in narrow spaces, men in a dozen kinds of dress, women gliding, women in full-length embroidered white veils, a mesh aperture at the eyes, hexagonal, to give them a view of the latticed world, the six-sided cage that adjusted itself to every step they took, every shift of the eyes. Donkeys carrying bricks, children squatting over open sewers. I glanced at my directions, made an uncertain turn. Copper and brassware. A cobbler working in the shadows. This was the lineal function of old cities, to maintain an unchanged form, let time hang with the leather goods and skeins of wool. Hand-skilled labor, rank smells and disease, the four-hundred-year-old faces. There were horses, sheep, donkeys, cows and oxen. I received impressions that I was being followed."
[D. DeLillo, The Names, ch. 12]
"When something real is about to happen to you, you go toward it with a transparent surface parallel to you own front that hums and bisects both your ears, making eyes very alert. The light bends toward chalky blue. You skin aches. At last: something real.

"Here in the tail section of the 00000, Gottfried has found this clear surface before him in fact, literal: the Imipolex shroud. Flotsam from his childhood are rising through his attention. He's remembering the skin of an apple, bursting with nebulae, a look into curved reddening space. His eyes taken on and on, and further. ... The plastic surface flutters minutely: gray-white, mocking, an enemy of color.

"The day outside is raw and the victim lightly dressed, but he feels warm in here. His white stockings stretch nicely from his suspender-tabs. He has found a shallow bend in a pipe where he can rest his cheek as he gazes into the shroud. He feels his hair tickling his back, his bared shoulders. It's a dim, whited room. A room for lying in, bridal and open to the pallid spaces of the evening, waiting for whatever will fall on him.

"Phone traffic drones into his wired ear. The voices are metal and drastically filtered. They buzz like the voices of surgeons, heard as you're going under ether. Though they now only speak the ritual words, he can still tell them apart.

"The soft smell of Imipolex, wrapping him absolutely, is a smell he knows. It doesn't frighten him. It was in the room when he fell asleep so long ago, so deep in sweet paralyzed childhood ... it was there as he began to dream. Now it is time to wake, into the breath of what was always real. Come, wake. All is well."
[T. Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, p. 754]
"Rough dogs, barking, splashed into the river chasing sticks. Coats and ties had been hung in the trees and men were hurling stones at soda bottles or skimming pieces of slate and loudly counting the skips. He picked out squealing children and the laughter of the women. If there hadn't been a wall he would have seen them scuffling on the edge of the water. The land fell and the trees parted so that seated where he was the Ohio might have made his eyes blink, but the wall was eight feet high and wound in its vines like a bottle of claret. The bench was damp and cold, shadowed all morning by the elms, and he slid his bible under him. It was a poor garden, given over to ground ivy and plants that preferred deep shade, for the sun reached it only at the top of the day when it found an opening between the crowns of the trees and the head and body of the church. Absently, he felt the pores of the cement. The shadows of the elm leaves passed gently over the vines and grasses. In winter one could see quite easily through the gate at the end of the garden to the river lying placidly in its ice—leaden, grave, immortal. He had never learned when the key had been lost but the lock was rusted now and the double gates were bound. By spring, when the ivy leafed and thickly curtained the pickets, his blindfold was complete. Nevertheless he could see the sand rising in little puffs and the brilliant water striking the shore. It wasn't true, but Jethro Furber felt he had spent his life here. Certainly he had brought to the garden the little order it had, laying the walk with his own hands and clearing the graves of weeds and creepers, carefully scrubbing the markers. The rough cold bench was as familiar to him as his skin, and the garden, with its secret design and its holy significance, was like himself. He smiled as he considered it (he had considered it often)..."
[Wm. Gass, Omensetter's Luck, pp. 75-76]

25 March 2008

"Let the War on Easter Begin!"

Anybody seen Harvey?

Ever wonder how the Christian feast day of the Resurrection turned into Easter? How the scriptural story of one man's being raised from the dead came to be celebrated with bunnies bringing colored eggs and candy in grassy baskets? [When I was a kid, we also received live baby chicks on Easter.] On its face it makes absolutely no sense. So, what gives?

A little research turned up the following: Plain and simple—the bunny, the basket, the eggs, and the chicks are all pagan symbols that have precisely nothing to do with Jesus and the resurrection. Fertility mostly. Wikipedia's got the lowdown. Others, here and here.

Btw: If you haven't seen it, the Southpark episode "Fantastic Easter Special" is a killer.

24 March 2008

Notable Quotables: Freedom

"[He has] no more pressing need than the one to find somebody to whom he can surrender, as quickly as possible, that gift of freedom which he, the unfortunate creature, was born with." Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

"There is only one possible, productive solution for the relationship of individualized man with the world: his active solidarity with all men and his spontaneous activity, love and work, which unite him again with the world, not by primary ties but as a free and independent individual . . . . However, if the economic, social and political conditions . . . do not offer a basis for the realization of individuality in the sense just mentioned, while at the same time people have lost those ties which gave them security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden. It then becomes identical with doubt, with a kind of life which lacks meaning and direction. Powerful tendencies arise to escape from this kind of freedom into submission or some kind of relationship to man and the world which promises relief from uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of his freedom." (Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom [N.Y.: Rinehart, 1941], pp. 36-7.

"For Christians there is no other law than the law of freedom, as the New Testament paradoxically puts it. There is no generally valid law which could be expounded to them by others, or even by themselves. Those who surrender freedom surrender their very nature as Christians. Christians stand free, without any protection, before God and before the world, and they alone are wholly responsible for what they do with the gift of freedom." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "What is a Christian Ethic?"

"They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security." Benjamin Franklin

"When liberty is taken away by force it can be restored by force. When it is relinquished voluntarily by default it can never be recovered." Dorothy Thompson

"We must not believe the many, who say that only free people ought to be educated, but we should rather believe the philosophers who say that only the educated are free." Epictetus

"Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." Henry David Thoreau

"So long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannize will do so; for tyrants are active and ardent, and will devote themselves in the name of any number of gods, religious and otherwise, to put shackles upon sleeping men." Voltaire

The Reading Experience

I commend an excellent post entitled 'No Ideas But in Things' at an excellent blog—Daniel Green's "The Reading Experience". There certainly seems to be a confluence of interests—see our post here, for example.

23 March 2008

Easter. Thought.

Today is Easter Sunday in the Western Christian tradition, celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. It is a celebration of the physical resurrection from the dead of the crucified Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. It sets into motion a period of celebration, forty days until the Feast of the Ascension and fifty until Pentecost (a/k/a Whitsunday). At the Ascension, Jesus ascended bodily to Heaven. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles.

This entry concerns the Ascension. Christian theology asserts that Jesus ascended bodily into Heaven. Now, he is not the only one. According to Catholic theology (from Vatican II in 1950), Mary, Jesus's mother, also ascended bodily into Heaven (a/k/a the Assumption). In the Jewish scriptures (a/k/a the Old Testament), two others purportedly ascended to Heaven: Enoch and Elijah. Enoch apparently just disappeared, whereas Elijah was witnessed ascending in a chariot of fire: "As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind." II KINGS 2:11.

Now, the key word here is 'bodily'. It is essential to Biblical and Christian faith. Sine qua non.

Now the thought: We denizens of the 20th and 21st centuries have learned several important physical laws they weren't aware of when the scriptures were written, one of them being that matter can not travel faster than the speed of light—and certainly not a human body. So, on a generous reading of Holy Scripture and physical law assuming Jesus's and Mary's bodies to be traveling at the speed of light, they are currently some "2,000 light years from home" (apologies to Mick and the boys). Elijah and Enoch are, presumably, somewhat further out.

Thus endeth the lesson.

21 March 2008

"Bueller? Bueller?"

P.Z. Myers, a biologist, gives an account of his being excluded from the opening of a creationist film entitled Expelled here. But, what's funnier is who his guest was. Here's a hint. Somehow, they missed him.

That, I suppose, is of a piece with the recent "news" of the excavation of a saddle purportedly used for domesticating dinosaurs. And, of course, this.

Actual Photo

(btw: The big debate seems to be whether Noah took the dinosaurs on the ark or they were killed in the Flood.)

And you know what gets me? The blog for this film gets, as of this writing, 599 comments and I get maybe one or two once in awhile. Such is Wisdom's plight.

"Stein? Stein?"

Then, of course, there's always the snark. Enjoy.

20 March 2008

Perception, Emotion, Consciousness

[Insert Emotion Here]
We have, then, the following levels and types of emotions:

1. Emotions toward characters: (a) sharing the emotion of a character by identification, (b) reacting to the emotion of a character.

2. Emotions toward the 'implied author,' the sense of life embodied in the text as a whole: (a) sharing that sense of life and its emotions through empathy, (b) reacting to it, either sympathetically or criticially. These emotions operate at multiple levels of specificity and generality.

3. Emotions toward one's own possibilities. These, too, are multiple and operate at multiple levels of specificity and generality.

All of these emotional responses (with the exception of those that involve a rejection of the work) are built into the work itself, into its literary structures. Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions p. 242.

The creation of a fictional character is not simple. As noted in our previous post, it involves inhabiting and portraying the consciousness of a fictive being through the use of empathy and imagination. But the portrayal of simple perception is insufficient: human consciousness has an emotional content drawing from, among other things, memory, aspiration, and attitudes. The written depiction of perception must also bring this emotional content into play—whether through metaphor or simile or other form of figurative language or outright assertion. Fictional characters must be portrayed as inhabiting their bodies (as perceptual mechanisms) and as having a passably human range of emotional responses to their world (which Nussbaum does not address).

Failure to bring perceptual content into play—a flaw we've noted in the analyses of both James Wood and Jill Lepore—renders fiction a mechanical thing, an intellectual exercise; no different in form than history. Distant. Imprecise.

Failure, at the next level, to imbue perception with emotional content is a prescription for sterile fiction.

Fiction: The Art of Consciousness

A contribution to the ongoing blogland discussion concerning the nature of fiction appears in this week's The New Yorker here. Jill Lepore uses fiction and memoir (faked and real) as the sounding board for understanding "what makes a book a history?"

Lepore, I believe, misunderstands fiction. She says: "Fiction, in other words, can do what history doesn’t but should: it can tell the story of ordinary people." As she acknowledges, this view is a bit outdated because much current history is precisely the study of private life. But, her equation is at the level of story: history and fiction tell stories about people, great and small. This is a shallow view of fiction. Sure, history can tell stories about events—how they happened, why they happened, what their consequences were, etc. And fiction can tell similar stories, the only difference being that the fictional stories are putatively made up.

However, as a historian, the writer cannot enter into the consciousness of his subject. The historian cannot say how richly succulent the juice from the veal loin Henry IV ate the night he learned of Richard II's death tasted as it dribbled down his chin. The historian cannot say how delicious Cleopatra's wet sex smelled to Marc Antony as their boat sailed down the gentle Nile on a warm summer evening. The historian cannot say how the point of the ice axe felt as it entered Trotsky's head. Nor can the historian say what Shakespeare's voice sounded like as he intoned his lines on the stage of the Globe theater. And, lastly, the historian cannot tell us what Marie Antoinette last saw in the vulgar crowd as the guillotine lopped her head into the waiting basket. The historian can tell us that these things happened and give us some background facts, but she cannot imagine us into the consciousness of historical persons, great or small. That is the sole province of the writer of fiction, the artist of consciousness.

19 March 2008

What do we want? Uh. When do we want it? Er. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

On Strike!

Then, again, there's this:
LOS ANGELES—The Novelists Guild of America strike, now entering its fourth month, has had no impact on the nation at all, sources reported Tuesday. ...

The strike kicked off last fall when the NGA announced it had hit a roadblock in negotiations with the Alliance of Printed Fiction and Literature Producers, failing to resolve certain key issues concerning online distribution, digital media rights, and readers just not getting what writers were trying to do with a number of important allegorical devices. ...

While the strike has been joined by an estimated 250,000 novelists—225,000 of whom have reportedly stopped in the middle of their first novel—it has done no damage to any measurable sector of the economy, including bookstore chains, newspapers, magazines, all major media, overseas markets, independent film studios, major film studios, actors, editors, animators, carpenters, those in finance or banking, the day-to-day lives of average Americans, or anything else anyone can think of as of press time.

Again, Fiction

We've been around today: here, here, and here. If you haven't been there already, go there and join the discussion about the nature of fiction. The gist of our own comments are as follows:

First, I would say that two of my previous posts took shots at this issue, quoting Stevens and Williams (Poetry Break: Ding-an-Sich) on the one hand and Wm. Gass (Credo) on the other. Pay especial attention to the latter.

The answer to the 'why' of fiction must be multiform. Stories about exploits in hunting, adventuring, exploring, and war grew up with the language. Tales were told. Lessons were learned. They not only informed, but entertained. These traditions are as alive today as ever—and we're still fighting about how much truth counts in non-fiction and fiction. But this merely speaks to the demand-side of the equation (something I've blogged about with respect to the current spat over memoir—see my posts "Cheap Thrills" and "Confess!" at (Autobiography).

Yes, there is a market—a demand—for stories. But there is also a supply-side argument. Persons with the gifts of imagination and gab seek to use those tools to "grasp the world". And, through fictional forms, to perfect that vision.

Fiction lets us stray from the pedestrian and the mundane. It allows us to create and potentially resolve problems and conflicts that we believe "might" arise: pose hypotheticals, if you will. Sure, it's an institutionalized form of lying and its purposes and aims can be small and mean or grand, but fiction is an art form and, as such, its "why" is the same as any other art form's—merely its means are different and, some would argue, more exact and exacting.

Why is there art, you ask. You might as well ask why we lie, why we dream, why we aspire, why we connive, why we cheat, why we plan. The answers may be as many as there are writers—or even more (since there are more stories than writers). Or the answer could be as simple as it's simply what we, as languaged beings, do with our minds.

18 March 2008

10-Q: The Form of a Problem

Okay, here's how we got in trouble—

Every three months, all publicly-held companies are required to file with the Securities and Exchange Commission and make available to the public certain information about their financial performance. On the whole, this is a good thing. The price of shares on the stock markets is, theoretically and ideally, based on everyone having access to the same information when they make the decision either to purchase or sell. Trading on inside information, or 'insider trading', is what Martha Stewart was charged with (though she went to jail for lying to government investigators looking into those charges). Every year, companies must file what's known as a Form 10-K which details the companies' performance for the year. The idea is to provide transparency into the financial well-being of a company to prevent fraud in the trading of its securities.

As I said, that's all well and good, but with this admirable regulation has arisen a perverse set of incentives: the managers of the companies subject to regulation must provide positive short-run performance or the price of their shares will take a hit—as will their bonuses and, eventually, their job-security. Thus, they do things like selling off company assets or diluting equity or borrowing heavily or skimping on planning and Research & Development to fund current operating costs or, in other cases, relying on PR and misleading marketing to exaggerate their poor performance, or, in still others, using accounting tricks like taking certain charges off-budget so they don't appear in the main text of the financial forms.#

Do you see where this is going?

There are the same sort of incentives in U.S. politics. The Congressional cycle is two years, the Presidential cycle is four. There are annual budgets—though the oversight is, one suspects, hardly so comprehensive. After all, the Iraq invasion and occupation have been off-budget items since the inception, in effect concealing their true costs.
[T]he real scandal is Mr. Bush's own preference for financing much of the cost of the Iraq war outside the normal budget process. That is convenient for the administration, which does not have to count the money when it is pretending to balance the budget. But Iraq is not some kind of unexpected emergency, like Hurricane Katrina. It is a highly predictable cost... .

Moving the war's financing off budget is no mere technical distinction. For one thing, it subjects the military's spending requests to less careful Congressional committee scrutiny than they would receive during the usual budget process. More important, this fiscal sleight of hand makes it that much easier for the Pentagon to duck the hard choices it desperately needs to be making between optional and costly futuristic weapons and pressing real-world needs. NY Times, May 8, 2006

This is an old trick, but it still works. The President* managed to make his fiscal performance, dismal enough to begin with, look better than it truly was by an accounting sleight-of-hand. Taxes were cut: this was a political trick to fool us into believing the illusion. The fact is, though some were paying less in taxes (which go to fund measures for the public good such as infrastructure, security, government oversight and regulation), we are paying more for commodities (gold, oil, etc.) which are, for the most part, privately held. Profits in these sectors have been obscene. Crude oil prices are five times as expensive as they were when GWB took office. Do you think it's a coincidence that GWB was an oilman and that his VP was in the oil-services business? But that's off-topic. The larger point is the incentives in the system to make the government managers look good in the short term, with no thought for the long-term good of the country or its people. The CEO mindset.

Think back to the first invasion of Iraq. Pres. GHW Bush refused to pursue Saddam Hussein into Baghdad and ended the action early and before a prolonged occupation. Thus, when the presidential cycle rolled around again, he could no longer claim to be a 'war president' and rally the support of the American people. And, guess what, domestic issues took over and he lost. His second son, as dumb as many think he is, clearly learned his lesson. He extended his own invasion all the way to Baghdad and claimed to be a 'war president' at election time which, you can be sure, was just enough to eke out a highly-contested election against a fairly inept opponent (we won't go into the splitting of the opposition caused by Ralph Nader). He needed our troops to remain in Iraq just long enough to get him (re-)elected. It worked, but created the current quagmire. The short-term incentives outweighed the long-term consequences in the political calculus. And now we have to pay for it.

Fraud, expedience, short-term manipulation of information (e.g., labor and unemployment statistics, war costs and casualties, M3), asset foreclosures, privatizing the public weal, lack of long-term planning, heavy borrowing, currency devaluation: these all appear to be structural problems, perverse incentives in our system of governance which this particular administration has managed to exploit for the cynical purpose of gaining and remaining in power maugre the consequences.

# Rather, they are buried in footnotes at the end of the document.

17 March 2008


"Freud's oft-quoted wisecrack, that men write for money, glory, and the love of women, might bestir a banker to his business but will not suffice to account for the composing of poetry and the writing of fiction—fundamentally unfunded, unwanted, and unappreciated enterprises. ...

"What is critical to the artist is not the fact that he has many motives (let us hope so), or that their presence should never be felt in his canvases, or found in the narrative nature of his novels, or heard amid the tumult of his dissonances. In the first place, our other aims won't lend their assistance without reward, and they will want, as we say, a piece of the action. No; the question is which of our intentions will be allowed to rule and regulate and direct the others: that is what is critical. It is a matter of the politics of desire, or, as Plato put it when he asked this question of the moral agent: what faculty of the soul is in control of the will?

"I believe the artist's fundamental loyalty must be to form, and his energy employed in the activity of making. Every other diddly desire can find expression; every crackpot idea or local obsession, every bias and graciousness and mark of malice, may have an hour; but it must never be allowed to carry the day. If, of course, one wants to be a publicist for something; if you believe you are a philosopher first and Nietzsche second; if you think the gift of prophecy has been given you; then, by all means, write your bad poems, your insufferable fictions, enjoy the fame that easy ideas often offer, ride the flatulent winds of change, fly like the latest fad to the nearest dead tree; but do not try to count the seasons of your oblivion.

"The poet, every artist, is a maker, a maker whose aim is to make something supremely worthwhile, to make something inherently valuable in itself. I am happy this is an old-fashioned view. I am happy it is Greek. One decent ideal can turn a rabble of small-minded and narrowly self-interested needs into an army. I cannot help adding that, in my opinion, one of the most petty of human desires is the desire to be believed, on the one hand, and the will to belief, on the other. Disbelief is healthier, is a better exercise for the mind, and I admire it even when I see someone's disbelief busy disbelieving me.

"To see the world through words means more than merely grasping it through gossipacious talk or amiable description. Language, unlike any other medium, I think, is the very instrument and organ of the mind. It is not the representation of thought, as Plato believed, and hence only an inadequate copy; but it is thought itself. ...Literature is mostly made of mind; and unless that is understood about it, little is understood about it." William Gass, "Finding a Form" pp. 34-36 in Finding A Form.

Poetry Break: Ding-an-sich

Not Ideas about the Thing
but the Thing Itself

by Wallace Stevens

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow. . . .
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mâché. . . .
the sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry--it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

A Sort of Song

by William Carlos Williams

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
--through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

Spent Some Quality Basement Time This Weekend

14 March 2008

Gone Ghoti-ing* (Stanley Fish, that is)

What he said:
For the most part, it is not my purpose in this space to urge positions, or come down on one side or the other of a controversial question. Of course, I do those things occasionally and sometimes inadvertently, but more often than not I am analyzing arguments rather than making them; or, to be more precise, I am making arguments about arguments, especially ones I find incoherent or insufficiently examined.
I'll buy that.

* For more on GHOTI go here

13 March 2008

Dream Time

Vishnu sleeps in the cosmic ocean, and the lotus of the universe grows from his navel. On the lotus sits Brahma, the creator. Brahma opens his eyes, and a world comes into being, governed by an Indra. Brahma closes his eyes, and a world goes out of being. . ~Joseph Campbell

Oprah's Book Club Takes Its Tolle

Okay. It's about time this blog attempted to live up to its name. The latest thing passing for wisdom in the west is a book entitled A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. Probably millions of people are reading or have read this book by this "spiritual teacher", not least because Oprah Winfrey has chosen to sponsor it in her Book Club. Let's take a look at it, shall we?

First some quotes:

"Wanting is structural, so no amount of content can provide lasting fulfillment as long as that mental structure remains in place." (p. 47) Can anyone explain to me what precisely a 'mental structure' is? It's vague, but, darn it, it sure sounds important. I think he's trying to say our desires are limitless and can never truly be satisfied. But that doesn't really sound new or profound.

"All egoic motivations are self-enhancement and self-interest, sometimes cleverly disguised, even from the person in whom the ego operates." (p. 98) This is opaque, at best. On its face, it has the structure of a logical argument: "All egoic motivations are self-enhancement... etc." but then when you read what it's saying it falls apart. The best I can get from it is something like: "Sometimes we don't even understand why we do the things we do." Okay. I'll buy that. But if that's what he's saying, why wrap it in all those hyphenated and psychological-sounding words.

"There is the dream, and there is the dreamer of the dream. The dream is a short-lived play of forms. It is the world – relatively real but not absolutely real. Then there is the dreamer, the absolute reality in which the forms come and go. The dreamer is not the person. The person is part of the dream. The dreamer is the substratum in which the dream appears, that which makes the dream possible. It is the absolute behind the relative, the timeless behind time, the consciousness in and behind form. The dreamer is consciousness itself – who you are." - (p. 209) Okay, now we seem to be getting down to the nub. This sounds like the doctrine of Maya: all is dream and illusion. But when you start throwing around terms like 'relatively real' and 'absolutely real' you totally lose me. I can venture a guess at what it might mean to be real in either an absolute or a relative way, but there's simply no way that your or his conceptions—or anyone's for that matter—are going to coincide. At best, it's pretentious jargon. Then he throws around terms like 'short-lived play of forms' and 'substratum' and 'consciousness itself' that simply make no sense. I mean, we can pretend or imagine they have some sort of 'metaphysical' (and I use that word advisedly) significance, but when we try to close in on some sort of meaning we can all agree on we become lost in a haze of imprecision. Ask yourself: "assuming I can make some sense of what this quote is saying, what would it mean for it to be false? How could I prove it either right or wrong?" The fact is: you can't.

Let's look a little closer at this last quote. It's an important one in Tolle's scheme of things. He seems to be saying that our true identity is a timeless consciousness. It's a dreamer. Consciousness, by definition, means being conscious of something; being aware of the world around you. Awareness is a function of our senses: I see a thatched hut in the middle of a field of cooled lava, I hear a chorus of voices singing an unfamiliar hymn in an unknown language coming the hut, I catch a faint sweet whiff of corn that has been allowed to rot on the stalk against the background sulfur scent of the sky, I taste the last stale hints of the palm wine I drank (and vomited) last night in the village as it sloshes around in my fetid saliva, and the heat of the noon sun burns the exposed skin on the back of my neck as I cut my bare foot on the sharp, black rocks beneath my feet. I put all that information from my five senses together and that is consciousness. It includes memory and concerns for the future (how am I going to hike up this volcano with a cut foot?). It is a particular experience—one I recall vividly from my trip to Africa. Tolle and I disagree about what consciousness is. As bad as I felt, as hazy and hungover as my brain was, I was still conscious of being in that particular place at that particular time. And I was not dreaming my experience; there was no evil genie tricking each and every one of my senses. Dreaming is, by definition, a state of not being conscious of the world around us, of unconsciousness. Tolle is saying, then, "consciousness is really unconsciousness." Now, that paradox may make sense in some za-Zen sort of way (like the sound of one hand clapping), but I don't believe that's what he's driving at.

Tolle's big point in his book is that humanity needs to be awakened to a new heaven and a new earth. The seat of this awakening lies in the individual—opening the real you to the true essence of reality. It lies in what he calls in an earlier book "The Power of Now." Eschew the past, forego aspiration for the future. Accept what is—a very static vision. [A friend of mine summarized Tolle's "philosophy" quite succinctly thus: "Sit down, shut up, take a 'chill pill', and get over yourself."] In fact, Tolle's is an ethos of disengagement and self-satisfaction (only when you discover who you really are can you be truly happy)—which is all well and good if the world around you is a nice, sweet, comfortable place like Oprah's or her strongly middle- and upper-class congregation. But if the world around you is ugly, nasty, mean, and brutish, no amount of meditation will change it. No mental state (call it awakening, or positive thinking, or complacency, or contentment, or mindlessness, or a happy attitude) is going to get you out of it. One must engage the world, understand its dynamics, work for change—hopefully to make it better. Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle disagree. They advocate passivity, inward-looking; in effect, going to sleep. 'Being' not 'doing'. Don't believe me? Here's Tolle: "Enlightenment means choosing to dwell in the state of presence rather than in time. It means saying yes to what is:" Abu Ghraib, Iraq occupation, Afghanistan, Somalia, environmental crisis, political corruption, financial meltdown, ignorance, delusion, poverty, madness, etc. "Yes. Yes," Tolle says. "Accept those things. Turn off your mind. Don't form opinions about good and bad, right and wrong; simply accept things as they are."

Sorry to say, this is what passes for wisdom in the west these days. And you know what? It pays well!

12 March 2008

GHOTI*: Or, Why English Is So Hard

Hints on pronunciation for foreigners
By T.S.W.

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough
Others may stumble but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead -
For goodness’ sake don’t call it “deed”!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.)

A moth is not a moth in mother
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose -
Just look them up - and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart
Come, come, I’ve barely made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!

*Ghoti, in English, can be pronounced to sound like "fish". 'gh' as in enough, 'o' as in women, 'ti' as in motion.

Hey, What about us?

The Guardian has listed the world's fifty most powerful blogs here and we're not on it. What gives?

11 March 2008

Spoiler Alert

If you plan to read James Salter's novel A Sport and a Pastime and do not wish to know how it ends, then read no further. However, before I get to the spoilers, I will say this book is not linear. Knowing its ending before reading it detracts not one whit from its full enjoyment. In fact, it is on one's second reading that the book achieves a new depth.

Sport is filled with longing and sadness. Tristesse. It is the story of a privileged, Ivy League ne-er do well slumming through small-town France. It is the story of a simple shopgirl's giving of herself totally to a charismatic cad. It is the story of one man's failed attempt to plumb the sensuous and sensual truth of France (and, by extension, life) through the static lens of photography. It is the story of an ordinary man confronting his own fears and inadequacies and failures when he encounters an extraordinary one. It is a story of Eros and the failure of love. It is a story of facing one's own mortality. It is a story of the play of memory and imagination in fashioning reality and understanding another human being. It is a story of one person becoming conscious of the mind of another, slowly, incrementally, painfully. But what's more, it is a story that teaches the reader how to understand it.

The ending of the book is a text-book for novel endings, much the way Chekhov's endings are for the short story:
The sunlight of that icy morning falls on my face through enormous windows, through flats of glass with tiny flaws, purified by bitter, Sunday silence. The smoke floats blue in the cheap bars at dawn. The veterans cough. Nancy, where she was born, where she learned to write in that young, undistinguished hand:
...there is nothing that is not yours, all I think, all I am able to feel. I am embarrassed only that I do not know enough. But I don't care if you never belong to me, I only want to belong to you, just be hard with me, strict, but don't leave, just do like if you were with another girl—Please. I will die otherwise. I understand now that we can die of love.
I receive a letter from his [Dean's] father, sent on to me in Paris, asking me to forward the personal effects. Cristina will take care of that, she says. I assure her there isn't much. As for the car, it's a curious thing—it's registered in the name of Pritchard, 16 bis rue Jan, and they know him. He's off in Greece for the summer, they think, but they'll handle that, too. Perhaps. It's parked under the trees near the house and locked, but like a very old man fading, it has already begun to crumble before one's eyes. The tires seem smooth. There are leaves fallen on the hood, the whitened roof. Around the wheels one can detect the first, faint discoloring of chrome. The leather inside, seen through windows which are themselves streaked blue, is dry and cracked. There it sits, this stilled machine, the electric clock on the dash ticking unheard, slowly draining the last of life. And one day the clock is wrong. The hands are frozen. It is ended.

Silence. A silence which comes over my life as well, I am not unwilling to express it. It is not the great squares of Europe that seem desolate to me, but the myriad small towns closed tight against the traveler, towns as still as the countryside itself. The shutters of the houses are all drawn. Only occasionally can one see the slimmest leak of light. The fields are becoming dark, the swallows shooting across them. I drive through these towns quickly. I am out of them before evening, before the neon of the cinemas comes on, before the lonely meals. I never spend the night.

But of course, in one sense, Dean never died—his existence is superior to such accidents. One must have heroes, which is to say, one must create them. And they become real through our envy, our devotion. It is we who give them their majesty, their power, which we ourselves could never possess. And in turn, they give some back. But they are mortal, these heroes, just as we are. They do not last forever. They fade. They vanish. They are surpassed, forgotten—one hears of them no more.

As for Anne-Marie, she lives in Troyes now, or did. She is married. I suppose there are children. They walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling upon them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evening, deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired.

And that's it: "deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired." Wow. Just WOW.

10 March 2008


Now that Spring Training is in full swing, I thought I would read a book that's been sitting on my shelf for several years entitled A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. Boy was I in for a shock!

Seriously, Salter's Light Years is one of my favorite novels. It succeeds on so many levels I come back to it perennially for instruction in fictional, esp. narrative, technique. And Dusk and Other Stories is required reading for any serious practitioner.

Sport is like a cross between The Great Gatsby and Lady Chatterley's Lover: a sexual romp through France. It is pornographic, but it is beautiful porn. And it is not obscene, but frank and shocking in a Sixties sort of way. Once you get past the many explicitly imagined scenes of erotica—after awhile they become repetitive, and that is part of the point as the participants themselves burn out on their sexual adventures—and begin to examine the writerly technique, you can begin to appreciate Salter's mastery.

Sport is in the great tradition of Gatsby novels: a narrator (Nick Carraway and the unnamed narrator here) relates a tale of a passionate and, at the last, tragic affair of a larger-than-life figure (Gatsby and Phillip Dean here). Dean, who is a Yale drop out, hooks up (in the parlance of our times) with a beautiful, but simple, young, underclass Frenchgirl. He arrives out of the blue one day in the small, provincial town where the narrator is practicing his photography, driving a decadent old convertible. The narrator finds him highly romantic and heroic ("like the pull of a dark star"), especially because the narrator is so inept at sexual conquest. Watching Dean and Anne-Marie, or rather imagining them, is indeed a spectator sport.

However, nothing that happens in the narrative can be taken at face value and the narrator tells us that right off. He is reliably unreliable.
Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future. (Ch. 8)
I see myself as an agent provocateur or as a double agent, first on one side—that of truth—and then on the other, but between these, in the reversals, the sudden defections, one can easily forget allegiance entirely and feel only the deep, the profound joy of being beyond all codes, of being completely independent, criminal is the word. Like any agent, of course, I cannot divulge my sources. I can merely say that some things I saw myself, some I discovered, for after all, the mutilation, the delay of as little as a single word can reveal the existence of something worthy to be hidden, and I became obsessed with discovery, like the great detectives. I read every scrap of paper. I noted every detail.

Some things, as I say, I saw, some discovered, and some dreamed, and I can no longer differentiate between them. But my dreams are as important as anything I acquired by stealth. More important, because they are the intuitive in its purest state. Without them, facts are no more than a kind of debris, unstrung, like beads. The dreams are as true and manifest as the iron fences of France flashing black in the rain. More true, perhaps. They are the skeleton of all reality. (Ch. 9)

I've read no better, no more precise definition of the nature and art of fiction anywhere. This is the artist weighing in on the critical discussion (Wood, Robbe-Grillet, realism, etc) we've been engaged in for the past few weeks. It is theory. And, if the whole book were like this, it would be insufferably 'meta-'.

But, sandwiched between the two block quotes, Salter shows us just how it's done. The narrator and Dean drop off Anne-Marie at her flat: "This room—a squad of inspectors could never find it—in a narrow building. This room I am never to visit." Then, two paragraphs later, he gives the kind of description of the room and the two of them saying goodnight in the room you would expect of someone who closely observed the entire thing:
She stoops with the match, inserts it, and the heater softly explodes. A blue flame rushes across the jets, then burns with a steady sound. There's no other light in the room but this, which reflects from the floor. She stands up again. She drops the burnt match on the table and begins to arrange clothing on the grill of the heater, pajamas, spreading them out so they can be warmed. Dean helps her a bit. The silk, if it's that, is quite cold. And there, back from the Vox opposite the Citroen garage, its glass doors now closed, they stand in the roaring dark. In a fond, almost brotherly gesture, he puts his arms around her. They hardly know one another. She accepts it without a word, without a movement, and they wait in a pure silence, the faint sweetness of gas in the air. After a while she turns the pajamas over. Her back is towards him. In a single move she pulls off her sweater and then, reaching behind herself in that elbow-awkward way, unfastens her brassiere. Slowly he turns her around.

She leaves his kisses finally to stand against the wall, arms at her sides.

"Jeanne d'Arc," she says. The tremulous blue plays across her. Her features seem resigned.

He takes her by the arms. She turns her face to the light. He is her executioner, she says. The word thrills him. His knees tremble.

He puts her to bed in her warm pajamas. She is innocent, he decides. She smiles softly, the calm of a long convalescence in her face. Finally he turns to go, but at the door her voice stops him. Yes? Turn out the light, she says. He does. Like Lucifer, he creates darkness and he descends.
This is pure sensual and sensuous artistry. It does not pretend to be 'real'. We know it is imagined. Yet we are drawn wholly into the illusion because it appeals to nearly all our senses—except, oddly, taste (should there have been the salty lick of perspiration or the waxy sweetness of French lipstick? Who's to say?) The action is closely observed. The dialogue revealing in a way pedestrian conversation almost never can be. The emotion as tremulous as the reflection of the blue flame of the gas heater on the cheap shine of the wooden floorboards.

This is what fiction does that memoir cannot. It takes us closer than we might otherwise get. And it does so precisely in its direct appeal to our senses. Salter is not merely visual.

There is so much more to be said about this novel—its narrative development, its use of foreshadowing, the descent into sexual adventurism, the morality, etc.—but I will save those for other posts.

The Death of the Novel?

If you will recall, we broke into our close reading of James Wood's How Fiction Works to remark the passing of Alain Robbe-Grillet. We felt the connections were obvious—especially that crack about each generation creating its own 'realism' all the while denouncing previous 'realisms'. Another reader, Stephen Marche, comments on the puritanical connections over at Salon. Short version: R-G = too radically austere; JW = too 19th Century. Marche argues for that lively tradition drawing on such diverse sources as Defoe, Sterne, et al.

09 March 2008


In today's New York Times, Daniel Mendelsohn hits the issue we raised in our previous post regarding faux memoirs. His article, entitled "Stolen Suffering" examines the phenomenon from what I would call the "supply" side: what makes these writers do it. Our POV is, let's say, a bit more cynical.

First of all, we're characteristically agnostic about motives. I can't begin to pretend to understand why a Roman Catholic woman would want to write a memoir masquerading as a Jewish holocaust survivor. And I won't. Though, perhaps the answer can be found somewhere in the book itself—and I, frankly, have not read it.

Mr. Mendelsohn claims he can understand why. He seems to locate it in the idea of identity or authenticity:
Each of the new books commits a fraud far more reprehensible than Mr. Frey’s self-dramatizing enhancements. The first is a plagiarism of other people’s trauma. ... a kind of psychological gratification. ... [the second is] a slick "identification" that devalues the real suffering of the real people who had to endure that particular horror.
It's like Al Jolson singing the blues in blackface.

We, on the other hand, find the problem lies on the "demand" side. Why are we so offended by this fraudulence? Because we got fooled. We wanted truth. We wanted reality. And we got taken in by an illusion, a pretense.

But, more than that, in the marketplace—of "reality" shows and the culture of confession (Springer, et al.)—if a book is marketed as true, it will sell better than if it's fiction. So, there's an incentive right there. That seems to be a fact of life [sad to say for us fiction writers]. And the more adventurous or salacious the tale the better. Our native prurience, our lizard brain, rears its primitive, lusty head. Fiction just isn't good enough. We want the truth. We want confessions and we want them now: think Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, renditions, or see the front page (coincidentally?) of today's Times the lede of which states:
President Bush on Saturday further cemented his legacy of fighting for strong executive powers, using his veto to shut down a Congressional effort to limit the Central Intelligence Agency’s latitude to subject terrorism suspects to harsh interrogation techniques. Mr. Bush vetoed a bill that would have explicitly prohibited the agency from using interrogation methods like waterboarding, a technique in which restrained prisoners are threatened with drowning and that has been the subject of intense criticism at home and abroad. Many such techniques are prohibited by the military and law enforcement agencies.

Who woulda' thought the scandal of faked memoirs and the Bush-league penchant for torture were of a piece? We would.

07 March 2008

Cheap Thrills

We touched on this issue earlier, but recent events have once again brought it to light. Slate here, here, and here once again calls our attention to the scandal of faked memoirs. Tip of the hat to 3 Quarks Daily for pointing us to these articles.

Again. I am baffled. As "a writer, a writer of fiction" why do the labels "autobiography" and "memoir" matter? Is it that fiction doesn't sell as well?

In writing workshops, one of the most common excuses for bad writing goes something like this: "Well, that's the way it happened in real life." And, often, that's why it's bad fiction. Life isn't governed by dramatic structure and narrative tension. Fiction is. That's why we read it.

So, why do we read autobiographies and memoirs? And what does it matter if they contain falsehoods and made-up facts? These things certainly can spice up the drama and tension of an otherwise pedestrian story, I suppose. Maybe we read them for the "there but for the grace of God go I" instruction they offer; a feeling of superiority. Or, maybe—and this seems more likely—we read them for the lurid content of peeping into someone else's private life—kinda' like the reason some people watch Jerry Springer or Ricky Lake or Maury or whichever "Reality show" is the flavor-of-the-month these days: Voyeurism. And that salacious thrill is cheapened if they know we're watching and we actually catch them acting.

Listen to Two Silhouettes on the Shade

How Special!

Death Ray

Sometimes when we argue for the privileged point of view (whether it's in philosophy or fiction), we miss the REALLY big picture. It seems this particular epoch of universal history is, indeed, privileged. In a "few" years, the universe will look completely different. And humanity (or whatever) will seem even more isolated—from its origins and from everything else. I eat this stuff up!

Tip of the hat to Dennis Dutton for the link to the article, but that Death Star thing is almost unfathomably awesome.

06 March 2008

Testing. One...Two...Three

With a tip of the hat to Jenny at Light Reading for the idea, it's time for some internet fun and time-wasting. First, what kind of personality do you have? Find out here. Apparently, I'm a "rational mastermind", or INTJ. Next, check out your political compass. Me? I'm down there with Gandhi, Mandela, and the Dalai Lama. Pretty good company, no? Now we're past the preliminaries, let's take the more self-challenging Implicit Association Test. You may find you're not the person you think you are. I took the one on presidential candidates and found out I was voting for the candidate I really wanted.

04 March 2008


Forgive my lack of blogging today; I'm preparing to query 100 literary agents concerning my novel. The research is time-consuming.

03 March 2008

And now for something completely different...

A man counting the true costs of the invasion and occupation of Iraq: This interview with and article about Nobel-winner Joseph Stiglitz is an eye-opener. Also, here.

He claims the current U.S. administration has significantly 'misunderestimated' and in fact deceived the public about the costs of its adventure in Iraq. A direct result in the U.S. has been the subprime mortgage crisis and ensuing credit crunch, the slow to negligible labor growth over the past seven years, and the approaching recession in not only the U.S. but the global economies. Apparently, he has a book coming out.

War, it turns out, may not be profitable. (But don't tell that to Exxon/Mobil, Haliburton, and such beneficiaries of the privatization of warfare as Blackwater.

This quote, in particular, leaps out: "This government will be gone in nine months; subsequent administrations, and generations, will have to pay it off."

One wonders, too, if Stiglitz's analysis includes the opportunity costs as well.

Why is this not getting widely and prominently reported in the U.S.?

02 March 2008

That Little Extra

"Truth, Convention, Realism": This is the title of the last chapter of How Fiction Works by James Wood. Here, he takes on the argument that "realism" in fiction is simply another genre one of whose chief proponents, he says, is the novelist Rick Moody.

Wood, too, is impatient with what he calls "commercial realism"—"intelligent, stable, transparent story-telling," the sort of conventional writing that gives us sufficient details to convince us that what is going on in the novel is really happening. Indeed, "[c]ommercial realism has cornered the market, has become the most powerful brand in fiction. We must expect that this brand will be economically reproduced, over and over again...when a style decomposes, flattens itself down into a genre, then indeed it does become a set of mannerisms and often pretty lifeless techniques." (p. 175) It does not give us "the irreducible, the superfluous, the margin of gratuity, the element in a style which cannot be easily reproduced and reduced." The conventionally realistic novel can be translated into film with little or no loss of content. Styles are interchangeable. Voice is absent.

He wants to draw a distinction between conventional fiction and realism as he would like to see it. Certainly, conventional fiction uses the techniques of realism as derived from Flaubert, but they are flat, efficient, merely utilitarian. Dead. Something more is needed.

Wood takes a quick detour from the thread of this argument to quarrel some more with Barthes and Gass. They move from the argument against convention to the charge that "fictive convention can therefore never convey anything real" (p. 176). Wood feels this move is unwarranted. It is never a question of reference—after all, fiction, by definition, has abandoned all claim on reference. Rather, it is what Wood calls "mimetic persuasion": "it is the artist's task to convince us that this could have happened. Internal consistency and plausibility then become more important than referential rectitude And this task will of course involve much fictive artifice and not mere reportage." (p. 179) This, I presume, is a shot at Tom Wolfe's 'billion-footed beast'.
Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry. And it cannot be a genre; instead, it makes other forms of fiction seem like genres. For realism of this kind—lifeness—is the origin...the writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable ageing. (pp. 186-87)

The novelist is forever seeking after new forms to capture the substance of life. That, it seems to me, is the novel's vitality. It is also trying to capture or portray something about human life—call it meaning, truth, reality, lifeness, or whatever. My own qualm (as someone with philosophical training) with the use of such words as 'truth' (see also here) and realism in relation to fiction aside, Wood is on to something here. It is the "studiedly irrelevant" detail that works for him, such as Orwell's watching a condemned man walking toward the gallows swerving to avoid a puddle.
There was no logical reason for the condemned man to avoid the puddle. It was pure remembered habit. Life, then, will always contain an inevitable surplus, a margin of the gratuitous, a realm in which there is aways more than we need: more things, more impressions, more memories, more habits, more words, more happiness, more unhappiness. ...the margin of surplus itself feels like life, feels in some curious way like being alive. (pp. 68-69)
Again, the devil is in the details. My own impatience with Wood's effort in this thought-provoking and book has to do with his failure to show how the details, beyond providing a means to understand characters, add up in fiction to make a compelling story. Roughly, stories provide something for us. Whether it is organization, order, form, structure, meaning, closure, WISDOM, or whatever I'm not prepared to say. But neither is he. This is why we keep reading stories and why they keep moving us. Sure, the brush-strokes are nice, the details (essential or superfluous) persuading us of the lifelikeness of the illusion (of the character)—and the raging debate here is whether the critic should focus chiefly on the way in which the illusion is presented (Gass) or on the illusion itself and its congruence with reality perceived or imagined (Wood). But stories wrap up, even Chekhov's; they end. And they begin as well. From our reading of Wood, however, we have no way of understanding how they get from the latter to the former. That is to say, how fiction really works.