29 August 2008

Working Title: Auto-da-fe

Next up: Auto-da-fe (with apologies to Elias Canetti)

When Cameron Stancil, a naive but ambitious pastor of a suburban evangelical megachurch, decides to get his congregation involved in a national political race, he has to find the courage to defy his security consultant—who entices Cam to get involved in politics and then seduces his wife—and the powerful political interests he represents in order to save his marriage, his prodigal son, his church, and even his own soul.

Though it has the outward form of a thriller, the plot here is less formulaic than that of The Lobby. It involves Cam's own personal struggle. Cam Stancil has built his megachurch from nothing. His beautiful second wife is sexually frustrated because Cam is so dedicated to growing his church. His son, a Christian rock musician who leads the worship services and is the heir apparent to the family business, is just out of college and is beginning to have doubts about his faith and his own sexuality. Carlsen, whose firm provides security for the church, is also a political operative for 'the governor' who persuades Cam to enlist his church in the current presidential campaign. Things get out of hand: Cam's son walks away from the church, his family, and his music; Cam's wife allows herself to be seduced by Carlsen; Carlsen becomes increasingly involved in the management and message of Cam's church—much to Cam's chagrin. As Cam senses his family, his church, and his life slipping out of his control, he realizes he must do something to reclaim them—and that something might very well have to be radical and even violent. Of course, the underlying plot borrows somewhat from Canetti's brilliant mid-twentieth century masterpiece.

The most sympathetic character is Cam's son, Kendall, who is just coming of age emotionally and spiritually. (As it stands, his own dilemma is threatening to take over the book. The authorial question is how long of a lead to give him.) Though it is his ultimately his story, Cam is less sympathetic, less likable. Evangelicals won't like the characterization because Cam is somewhat craven and corrupt; secularists won't like it because Cam isn't a one-dimensional stereotypical hypocrite. He is a complex American type: his entrepreneurialism and religion converge, conflicting with his familial role. His politics, too. His wife, Addie, has an interesting story as well: she is much younger than Cam—in fact, she is closer in age to Kendall than Cam. Because of this, she brings an element of sexual tension to the mix that repulses Kendall and ignites something in Carlsen. Carlsen, of course, is the serpent in this Eden, the straw that stirs the drink.

I've drafted approximately eighty or so pages of this book. My outline, however, is not nearly as complete as for The Lobby. In fact, a number of decisions (both plot-wise and character-wise) still need to be made and some need to be re-thought. Completing this book will be more of an exercise than, say, The Lobby because character depths need to be plumbed; but, by the same token, this sort of exploration is what the writing process is all about. The only question is the degree of conscious control I, as the author, should exercise over the creative process in shaping its direction. Also, I believe this book will require more re-writing, revision, and editing than The Lobby, simply due to its greater complexities. There is a certain amount of artistry this book allows for that The Lobby, hobbled by its genre constraints, doesn't. The message, to the extent there is one, also needs to be more subtle so that the final product does not seem either didactic or partisan in its views concerning the intermingling of church and state. Themes need to be hammered out and actualized in the action. Relationships clarified. Destinies determined. I do, however, believe I have the proper bang-up ending, the goal toward which all this struggle aims. And that is extremely important. I also feel it has some timeliness, relevance, and probably some commercial viability (though less than The Lobby).

So: do I keep at it, chuck it, or pick another of the candidates and hold off for now?

28 August 2008

Werther's Law

Here' a longish quote from this site. Not sure I agree with everything the writer says, but s/he sounds like an insider—and a wise one at that. Not least because this article echoes some points we've made previously. [Don't worry, we'll be getting back to our creative writing quandary soon. But remember: this is an eclectic blog—check out the title.]
To explain why the American political class invades the wrong countries, indemnifies criminals, picks people like Joe Biden for responsible positions, and engages in so many other destructive acts, we modestly propose Werther's Law, or the Iron Law of Adverse Political Selection: in decadent political systems the most damaging policy option tends to be the one chosen.

To explain how Werther's Law works, we need reference to another political rule of thumb, the Iron Law of Oligarchy, which states that all organizations tend to develop into hierarchies with oligarchs at the top. We submit that those oligarchies over time tend to become inbred, either literally (think Bush family), or because they select members based on obedience to hierarchy, a groupthink mentality, and ability to self-censor. The rewards for correct behavior are lucrative: not only the thrill of wielding power when in office but a virtual ironclad guarantee of well-remunerated lifetime employment as a lobbyist, a board member of a defense contractor, or a holder of an endowed chair at a foundation.

Making serious mistakes, or even pursuing disastrous policies, are no impediment to one's career moving onward and upward. "Failing upward" (known cynically in Washington as "f*ck up and move up") is an occurrence as frequent in Washington as the common cold. How else to explain Paul Wolfowitz's horrific tenure at the Department of Defense being rewarded with a plum job as president of the World Bank, where he could make further business contacts that would keep him well-paid even after he failed in that job? It is no sin to be incompetent; it is a sin to be competent and diligent in one's job if it involves blowing the whistle on malfeasance in one's organization. The fate of whistleblowers in the Bush administration is abundant evidence of this. No one with a mortgage likes to be demoted, fired, or blackballed from future employment.

As the oligarchy metastasizes, it penetrates and transforms other governmental and non-governmental organizations, including those intended to serve as watchdogs. Congress ceases to oversee military spending, because every weapon system is built in somebody's district. The media hires "news analysts" straight out of the White House and "military analysts" whose explicit understanding of their jobs is to present wars in the best possible light.

The public becomes less and less able to affect the issues. The American people are not noted for their driving intellectual curiosity in the first place, but should public indignation lead to protest it is quickly channeled into electoral politics, where the protest is drained of life. Elections themselves are characterized by personality contests, horse-race trivia, and strenuous efforts to avoid real issues. The opposing candidates, chosen by political hierarchies, afford the voter the choice between Coke and Diet Coke even if he desperately wants Bordeaux.

The oligarchy, and the political system that radiates outward from it, becomes an interlocking and self-reinforcing web of interests. Success becomes what serves the interest of the oligarchy (including the financial interest of individual members thereof); failure is whatever does not serve its interest. The system is inwardly focused, self-referential, and hostile to new ideas. The illusion of free debate is maintained by allowing marginal, process-oriented criticism ("not enough troops"). Those who reject the rules of the game and fundamentally critique the system, like Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich, are simply quarantined, ridiculed by the bought media, and often face primary challenges organized by the party hierarchy.

Such a system is either notably incurious about the world outside its own power structure or else it seeks to interpret that world in ways that complement its own flattering self-image. Left to mature long enough the system becomes delusional. Hence all the crowing in the past 20 years about indispensable nations, hyperpowers, and so forth. Given that war is incredibly remunerative to the oligarchy (hundreds of thousands of people within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol make a really, really good living off it) even as it drains the resources of the public at large, it is no wonder that Washington habitually resorts to the sword. The fact that it provides an overseas scapegoat doesn't hurt, either, in terms of keeping the home folks in line.

27 August 2008

Working Title: The Lobby

The first novel I would like to vet (see previous post on this topic here) is a political thriller and, for that reason, probably has the most commercial potential—and that in itself weighs heavily in favor of committing to its writing (for obvious reasons to anyone who is attempting to publish a first novel). It will likely be the easiest of the four to write as well, because I have done a fairly detailed outline.

Working title: The Lobby.

When Rick Frazier, freshly-minted, go-it-alone biotech mogul investigating the death of his estranged brother in a freakish wild fire, stumbles upon what appears to be a terrorist plot to destroy an American city, he must team up with a beautiful business journalist to uncover and confront the perpetrators, a powerful cabal of businessmen and politicians and their mercenary security unit.

As you can see, the plot of this potential novel follows a generic political thriller form: "The basic plot is an ordinary man pulling an innocent thread which leads to a mess of corruption." Rick's personal story confronts his own grief at the sudden death of his estranged brother—an ex-hippie-type, down at the heels, ne'er do well—to whom he is trying to reconnect by purchasing a large tract of wilderness where they camped as boys. He is motivated as well by his guilt at having abandoned his brother and the rest of his family and past associates in the first place on his way to a hugely successful entrepreneurial career. Rick is an American success story (in the Horatio Alger, up-from-the-bootstraps mode). He is a likable geeky sort who has made a phenomenal fortune at an early age. He is intense and focused, smart and outdoorsy though hardly athletic. He is somewhat shy and his social skills are only average. As the novel opens, he is pursuing several deals at once: 1) to cash out of his proprietary business; 2) to join an important social club for entrepreneurs; and 3) to purchase a tract of wilderness where he hopes to build a compound for himself and his brother and recapture some of the happiness of their youth. At the end of his search for an explanation of his brother's killing he uncovers a powerful conspiracy that, because of Rick's own wealth and status, may actually draw him in and corrupt him.

I believe if I set my mind to it I could knock a draft of this book out in a couple or three months. It is so different from EULOGY, my first novel (unpublished), I have half a mind to do it and market it under a nom de plume much like John Banville has done with his two recent genre pieces. The problem is I'm afraid I'll get bored or lose interest. EULOGY wound up being an intense exploration, both stylistically and psychologically. I allowed myself to slip the bonds of realism and explore some serious philosophical and even religious themes, as well as the nature of love. Even revisions proved to be arduous because of the absolute honesty they demanded. THE LOBBY, I'm afraid, won't allow me such leeway. It feels more mercenary, less artistic.

26 August 2008

Have We Ceased to Care?

View movie: Here. (Tip of the hat to Stephen Schenkenberg.)

One reads this story: 60 Children Among Afghan Dead, U.N. Finds. And weeps. And wonders where is the Picasso who will tell their story?

Who will remember the dead children to the account of this American Commander-in-Chief and his henchmen? To this day, every December 28 the Roman church commemorates the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem by Herod over 2000 years ago. And it is believed he only massacred around twenty children.

Mein Kleine Geistkampf

I don't usually post about my own personal struggles on this blog but I thought some of my readers might find this particular issue of some interest. As I've mentioned before, I write fiction. My first story will be published later this year or early next—more on that later. Others are circulating. My first novel, EULOGY, is currently under submission at an agency and a publisher, and I have high hopes for it. The work, now, is to come up with another novel so that as soon as EULOGY comes out I'll have another in the pipeline.

Here, then, is my struggle: I have no less than four novels underway. Each is at a point from where I can take it to completion. The trick is to decide which will be most worthwhile to pursue. To which to commit my energies. Over the course of the next few posts I hope to lay out the arguments for each project: including a brief logline, or synopsis, and cursory outline and character sketches; current status; foreseeable roadblocks to completion; etc.

It may turn out that all these projects are hopeless and should be abandoned. It may turn out that all of them have potential and should be developed without delay. It may turn out that one is obviously superior to the others and should be knocked out forthwith. It may turn out that, say, two of them should be cranked out simultaneously—for whatever reason—and the others chucked. Whatevs.

I hope to make this an entertaining discussion, drawing on the lessons of our careful reading of James Wood's How Fiction Works and our investigation of what we've been calling the Ur-story. We shall be turning to sources of inspiration and to critical quotes from writers on writing, exploring along the way the creative process and the nature of fiction among other things.

Come along for the ride!

20 August 2008

Soda Pop: Refresher for a Dog Day

You never know what you're going to discover on the internet.

Here in ATL we say 'Coke' for obvious reasons. Check out the interactive flash map here for a breakdown.

18 August 2008

Ur-story: Isn't it good, Norwegian Wood?

It is late 1999—the turn of the Millennium—and not much happens in Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses (trans. by Anne Born): an old guy, a widower named Trond Sander, moves into a remote Norwegian house with his dog to get away from it all; meets his neighbor, another old hermit-type guy named Lars Haug, and helps him find his dog; they share a meal or two; a giant spruce falls in Trond's yard, barely missing his cabin and his car and his tool shed; he and his new neighbor work together, chop it up and clear it away just in time for a surprise visit from Trond's daughter who has spent the last few weeks trying to locate him. If you are a reader for whom plot is the most important element of a novel, this just might not be the book for you. Most of the "action" takes place between 1944, when Norway was occupied by the Nazis, and 1948, and is told with the distance of memory. Yet, you can rest assured those actions have consequences that resonate all the way down to the present time of the novel—even its very last line—and not just in the minds and memories of the characters.

This is a book more about story than character. Sure, the old man is interesting; but it is his story (and the stories of the other characters) that makes this book so luminous. It is their stories that make the characters. Trond's father, it turns out, was involved with the underground resistance to the German occupiers, along with Lars's mother. Needless to say, the two men recognize each other after half a century's absence and immediately Trond's thoughts hark back to the tragic events that took place in aftermath of the war. We witness the first time Trond hears the phrase "out stealing horses" (from Lars's older brother) and then we learn the origin of that phrase—and it has nothing to do with rustling. The two men share a history and a grief, that is to say: a story. Trond's story is sad: the loss of a friend, the rejection by a father, the passing of innocence, and, much later, the (offstage) death of a spouse. The rest of his life is fairly innocuous. But Lars's story is even sadder: disillusionment and the loss of a father and the death of a twin brother. Trond's daughter's story, though not yet complete, is still being written, as she refuses to allow her father to slink off into the woods to die, refuses to lose him. There is espionage and logging, heroism and betrayal, adultery and revenge, adventure and domesticity, Scandinavian stoicism and unexpected ecstasy in this novel. Much is left unsaid, though is understood by the characters—and the readers. This is the great artistry of this book.

Structurally, the book does not read linearly. The narrative is more spatial. It jumps around. The frame story of Trond and Lars and Trond's daughter (which is conveniently tagged for the reader with the present tense) is interwoven with episodes from several different points in the past. The reader must work to keep the stories and the characters from 1944, 1948, and 1999 straight, wandering as if in a dream house from one room back into the others in no particular order. At the end the stories all come together and make sense, masterfully falling into place. Unlike most books with temporal plot lines where once you get to the end and know what happens you can discard them, this book bears re-reading to see, at a minimum, how the writer has worked all the diverse threads into a coherent strand. (On this score, the one weak element I found in the novel had to do with how Trond came by his knowledge of the personal lives of the characters from the WWII era. It is explained by a sort of wizened old neighbor, but only cursorily and unsatisfactorily. And I do wish he'd somehow managed to tie the ending—which takes place in 1948—to the present; though that would have detracted from an otherwise perfect ending. See below.)

I have not read the original Norwegian but the translation feels trustworthy. There is nothing overly complex or sophisticated about the syntax or idiom. Often, I will read a book if I'm drawn in by the first paragraph of so:
Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don't know what they want that I have. I look out the window at the forest. There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake. It is starting to blow. I can see the shape of the wind on the water.
Nothing really captured me until that last sentence, an image that alerted me that something special was about to happen here. However, it was the last couple paragraphs that, like the shape of the wind on that Norwegian forest lake, absolutely blew me away and commanded me to read this book:
I had my old clothes in a paper bag, which I rolled up and carried under one arm. When we were out on the pavement and walked on down to the station and to a cafe, perhaps, for something to eat, my mother put her arm in mine, and we went on like that, arm in arm like a real couple, light on our feet, our heights a match, and she had a click in her heels that day that echoed from the walls on either side of the street. It was as if gravity was suspended. It was like dancing, I thought, although I had never danced in my whole life.

We were never to walk like that again. When we came home to Oslo, she fell back into her own weight and remained that way for the rest of her life. But on that day in Karlstad we walked arm in arm down the street. My new suit fitted my body so lightly and moved with me every step I took. The wind still came icily down between the houses from the river, and my hand felt swollen and sore where the nails had pierced the skin when I clenched it so hard, but all the same everything felt fine at that moment; the suit was fine, and the town was fine to walk in, along the cobblestone street, and we do decide for ourselves when it will hurt.
Again, that velvet hammer in the last phrase: 'we do decide for ourselves when it will hurt.' Isn't it good? The lump in the throat. The story of Trond Sander's life.

Read, no, cherish this book!

14 August 2008

Ur-story: Going Native

When I was a kid (and before the empire of sports became ubiquitous), the local television station used to run four seasons of movies on Sunday afternoon: Comedies (Abbott & Costello, Ma & Pa Kettle, The Three Stooges, Bowery Boys, etc.), dubbed-in-English Gladiator films (Hercules, the Mighty Sons of Hercules, etc.), Westerns, and Tarzan (Jane, Boy, & Cheetah). My favorites were the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies—black-and-white tales of imperialism and lost civilizations and wild jungle beasts tamed by the yodeling of the feral prince. Henderson the Rain King, published in 1959, is Saul Bellow's Tarzan book. Reading this mid-twentieth century satirical romp about a larger than life, trust-fund ne'er-do-well embroiled in a paralyzing middle-aged crisis who decides to 'go native' in deepest, darkest Africa in our own pluralist, relativistic, post-colonial twenty-first century is reminiscent of those Sunday afternoon black-and-white Tarzan movies. Of course, without the Tarzan, et al.

Pretty much everything you need to know is packed into the first few paragraphs of the book:
What made me take this trip to Africa? There is no quick explanation. Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated.

When I think of my condition at the age of fifty-five when I bought the ticket, all is grief. The facts begin to crowd me and soon I get a pressure in the chest. A disorderly rush begins—my parents, my wives, my girls, my children, my farm, my animals, my habits, my money, my music lessons, my drunkenness, my prejudices, my brutality, my teeth, my face, my soul! I have to cry, "No, no, get back, curse you, let me alone!" But how can they let me alone? They belong to me. They are mine. And they pile into me from all sides. It turns into chaos.

However, the world which I thought so mighty an oppressor has removed its wrath from me.
Full stop. There's your thesis statement, and the rest of the book is a working out of the details of the protagonist's 'condition'.

The world, it seems, is too much with Eugene Henderson. So, to work it all out, he embarks on a trip to Africa, horning in on a friend's honeymoon trek. After getting the idea some weeks later that it's not really a good thing to crash someone else's honeymoon, EH hires a local guide to take him deep. They visit a couple of remote village tribes. At the first, EH meets a somewhat stereotypical African queen then commits an act of inexcusable sacrilege and has to flee for his life. At the second, it's nearly the same—except here he, through a test of strength, gets appointed Rain King and successor to the tribal king, who has studied medicine in the West. In EH's eyes, this king is a great man, wise and wonderful, who will show EH why he is so put out with the desirousness/covetousness/acquisitiveness/restlessness of the Western World (and, of course, himself). Essentially (spoiler alert, here), this involves communing with and 'becoming' a lion. The Rousseauistic sage King, it turns out, is indeed a bit of a clever trickster, and has his own agenda for EH. In the nick of time, EH and his man Friday flee under cover of darkness back to civilization. EH flies back home to the New World and, presumably, freedom from this soul disease.

The book is a romping good read of one man's 'going native', though in its attitudes it is as dated as that phrase. The dialogue feels instructional, in some ways. Take this bit from EH, for instance:
"Well, that's all right. I'm a pretty good judge of men and you are a fine one. And from you I can take it. Besides, truth is truth. Confidentially, I have envied flies, too. All the more reason to crash out of prison. Right? If I had the mental constitution to live inside the nutshell and think myself the king of infinite space, that would be just fine. But that's not how I am. King, I am a Becomer. Now you see your situation is different. You are a Be-er. I've just got to stop Becoming. Jesus Christ, when am I going to Be? I have waited a hell of a long time. I suppose I should be more patient, but for God's sake, Your Highness, you've got to understand what it's like with me. So I am asking you. You've got to let me out there. Why it is, I can't say, but I feel called upon to do it, and this may be my main chance. ... King, I'm going to give you the straight poop about myself, as straight as I can make it. Every man born has to carry his life to a certain depth—or else! Well, King, I'm beginning to see my depth. You wouldn't expect me to back away now, would you?"

The book is peppered though with similar sorts of stilted outbursts. They are simply Bellow's style of exposition of the protagonist's character, and, as a reader, you have to adapt to the character's actually speaking this way—though no one speaks like this in 'real life.' EH, the character, is not very likable, a bit of an ugly American. He's blustery and boisterous, impetuous and imperious. And it always gets him in trouble. That's how Bellow created him and we take him as he is, following him down the spiral of himself. The question is whether he can be redeemed, and the answer is not at all obvious.

Bellow's wit is biting, and at places brilliant. My favorite line in the book caught me by surprise in this the fiftieth anniversary year of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (which, as we all know now, was written on a long roll of toilet paper): "I've done a hell of a lot of things, too, both as a soldier and a civilian. I'll say it straight out, I don't even deserve to be chronicled on toilet paper..." Ha! Ha! Then, to make sure we get it, Bellow continues: "But when I saw them start to beat [the idol gods of the tribe] and all the others, I fell to the ground. It got to be pretty dark out there and I don't know whether you saw that or not." Bellow actually throws the word 'beat' in there for good measure to make sure we 'get it' and it feels like he's talking directly to us, the readers, explaining the let's call it 'symbolism' of the pagan ritual. Wicked. A double shot: there's some speculation that Henderson is Bellow's shot at another EH: Hemingway, who was well known for 'going native.' That, as we say down South, is irregardless. That line about t.p. is priceless however you parse it.

There's much to commend in Henderson and much to glean from its treatment of inchoate loss and grief at the human condition and one man's rather wild attempt to escape the existential facts of his privileged life. Give it a read.

13 August 2008

The (Light-)Heart of Darkness?

"We were yelling and jumping and whirling through terrified lanes, feet pounding, drums and skulls keeping pace. And meanwhile the sky was filling with hot, gray, long shadows, rain clouds, but to my eyes of an abnormal form, pressed together like organ pipes or like the ocean ammonites of Paleozoic times. With swollen throats the amazons cried and howled, and I, lumbering with them, tried to remember who I was. Me. With the slime-plastered leaves drying on my skin. The king of the rain. It came to me that still and all there must be some distinction in this, but of what kind I couldn't say.

Under the thickened rain clouds, a heated, darkened breeze sprang up. It had a smoky odor. This was something oppressive, insinuating, choky, sultry, icky. Desirous, the air was, and it felt tumescent, heavy. It was very heavy. It yearned for discharge, like a living thing. Covered with sweat, the generaless with her arm urged me, rolling great eyes and panting. The mud dried stiffly and made a kind of earth costume for me. Inside it I felt like Vesuvius, all the upper part flame and the blood banging upward like the pitch or magma. The whips were hissing and gave a dry, mean sound, and I wondered what in hell are they doing. After the gust of breeze came deeper darkness, like the pungent heat of the trains when they pass into Grand Central tunnel on a devastated day of August, which is like darkness eternal. At that moment I have always closed my eyes.

But I couldn't close them now." Saul Bellow, Henderson The Rain King, pp. 199-200.

12 August 2008

Go West, Young Man

You're reading along, trying to get a feel for the novel you've just started, when you run across a paragraph like the following:
"Booth stood, then reeled as he flipped up his visor only to blind himself as he saw the salt. With sunglasses on, he felt less hammered at by light, less as if he were standing on a chunk of the sun, but his skin crawled as his body tried to cool itself. He shook his head, his arms, to dislodge the envelope of sweat. No sound reached that silently stoked morning, in which not a bird cried, not an animal scampered. He heard the salt creak beneath him and inhaled an aroma similar to that of swampwater, only more acrid. He had always thought rock salt was brown, but this was white-silver, mottled with a pale copper-sulfate blue and in patches even glossy, the entire surface for as far as he could see split up into irregular slabs like a disintegrated mosaic. He thought of ice floes, but the mosaic came closer, and the dazzle through Polaroid lenses was as nothing against the capsule's eye-wounding giant tear next to the untidy bundle of orange laundry that was the parachute, its fabric still as the salt in that breezeless oven." Paul West Terrestrials pp. 23-24.

WOW! you think. Just wow! Now you can sit back and enjoy the ride, the pleasure of the text, 'cause the writer has put you right there: from the flinch at the glare to the shiver of clammy skin to the silence that is really absence to the putrid smell of the swamp. From the curative of polarization to the change of mindset to the disappearing hope of the dead parachute: you know you're in for a thrill. The prose is dense, worthwhile. The thought expressed by the paragraph, beautiful and complete. The creaking foundation on which Booth stands eerily foreboding.

You are in the hands of a master.

10 August 2008


toast said...
Why do you bother reading novels? Everything you say here suggests that the novel can only interfere with your imaginative "connection" with whatever scene your attention falls on at any given moment. You're much more interested in your own ludicrous notions of presence and emotional force than in the aesthetic effects that someone else (a novelist for example) can accomplish, which brings us to your Ur-story thesis. What's the point here? Do you want to reduce all fiction to one boring, narrow platitude? That's pretty much what you're doing. Either give up reading the work of others and simply indulge your own imaginative waffle, or try to be receptive to aesthetic effects that you haven't already anticipated and mapped out for yourself. The way you read this novel is like going to a football game determined in advance that unless it ends with Doug Flutey's hail-mary miracle, it can't possibly live up to expectations.
28/7/08 11:42
Great comment, Toast.  I'm elevating it to the front page so more folk can read it.  I thought a lot about it on vacation, but wanted to wait until I got back to give it the fully attentive answer it deserves.

'Why do you bother reading novels?' Nothing moves me more when done well. The novel is my favorite artform. Full stop. But beyond that, as a novelist myself, I read for instruction on form and technique.

'Everything you say here suggests that the novel can only interfere with your imaginative "connection" with whatever scene your attention falls on at any given moment. You're much more interested in your own ludicrous notions of presence and emotional force than in the aesthetic effects that someone else (a novelist for example) can accomplish...' This is legit. Guilty on all counts. The deconstructive critique of philosophy (including, if I'm not mistaken, Rorty's) chided the discipline for priveleging the fiction of presence: that language could precisely describe features of the world, that there was some point where thought and reality connected/coincided. That's simplistic, but succinct. Fiction starts from the point where we acknowledge there is nothing 'real' on the other side of its language, a truer stance, if you will. A metaphysics of absence. It proceeds to create its own world and, with varying degrees, draw us in. So, yes, I want to connect with the simulacrum of presence in the fictional world on an emotional level. But there's more: the intellectual discipline of detailing that world, of thematic unity, of figurative coherence, of linguistic beauty. These are the aesthetic effects, the experience, I seek—no crave—in fiction.

'...which brings us to your Ur-story thesis. What's the point here? Do you want to reduce all fiction to one boring, narrow platitude? That's pretty much what you're doing.' A fair reading. With the Ur-story series of posts, I have been inquiring about the nature of fiction. A previous series, that on James Wood's How Fiction Works, found his book wanting in addressing and recognizing the centrality of the matter of story. What, then, is a story (as opposed to plot—of which there are myriad)? What is its essence? These are the questions I posed to myself, unable as I was to find adequate answers elsewhere. So, is my answer the right one? Is the response to the human condition the essence of fictional art? Who's to say? Opinions, as they say, are like arseholes. Everybody's got one. I don't think, however, my view is necessarily reductionist: that's where the artistry comes in. And, as to matters of taste, why go there?

'Either give up reading the work of others and simply indulge your own imaginative waffle, or try to be receptive to aesthetic effects that you haven't already anticipated and mapped out for yourself.' I'll take your suggestion under advisement, though I don't anticipate giving up reading anytime soon. And, FYI, there are plenty of novels I love, including, the recently read Out Stealing Horses and Terrestrials. You can also check out my reviews herein of Disgrace and The True History of the Kelly Gang and The Loser. There are, of course, others.

'The way you read this novel is like going to a football game determined in advance that unless it ends with Doug Flutey's hail-mary miracle, it can't possibly live up to expectations.' Oh, but you're wrong. Set lofty standards, make demands on art, and when they're lived up to, the aesthetic rewards are deeply satisfying—think Boise State vs. Oklahoma. Don't, Toast, settle.

Jim H.

P.S. Love the site.

06 August 2008

Dr. Whom?

THIS may just be too cool for school.

[Again, blogging sporadically until the second week of August.]