To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Hawaiian- American writer, Hanya Yanagihara

Yanagihara’s third novel To Paradise (2022) is in three parts:

Book 1 is set in New York, in 1893

Book 2 is set in the Hawaiian Islands in 1993

Book 3 is set in Lower Manhattan in 2093

There are many things Jamesian about Book 1, and not just the style and lexicon. The Bingham family lives on Washington Square, New York; and like Henry James’s novella, Washington Square (1880), it is about a rich but ageing heir, a tenacious lover who may or may not be a fortune-hunter, and an intractable and controlling guardian who opposes the match. This may not be so remarkable if it wasn’t for two other potent features. Firstly, the America of Yanagihara’s imagination is very different. What we know as the United States of America is unrecognisable in that it is divided into five separate zones of nations : The American Union (the central north), The Western Union (comprising the nations of Washington, Oregon, and California), The Kingdom of Hawaii, The United Colonies (the south east), The Free States (the north east including New York), and The Republic Of Maine (the far-north east). The south west is still uncharted territories. Secondly, the lovers in James’s story are Catherine Sloper and Morris Townsend; those in Yanagihara’s are David Bingham and Edward Bishop. Same-sex relationships are legal and tolerated in The Free States but are quite the opposite in other parts of the continent. Fundamentally and curiously, the love stories, written by James and Yanagihara, are the same.

Book 2 is set in Manhattan and on The Islands – The Kingdom – of Hawaii and concerns members of the royal family who live under greatly reduced circumstances. The main characters share the names of the main characters in Book 1 – as well as in Book 3: David, Edward, and Charles. This technique acts as a linking device throughout the novel linking the three parts but in names only. Yanagihara’s concern here seems to be an acknowledgement of Hawaiian disenfranchisement; with a post-colonial literary edge, giving the displaced and sidelined locals a voice. Young and insecure David works as a para-legal in a law firm in Manhattan where his immediate boss, and lover, is the much older Charles. David is of mixed Hawaiian and American descent. This relationship is told in the third person but from David’s point of view. His lack of confidence, his heritage, and past all conspire to work against him. The second half of Book 2 is a long first-person narrative written to David by his father, medically and emotionally tied to his bed. It contains a yearning tone for the glories of the Hawaii of the past, pre-invasion, although there have been uprisings and counter-revolutions. It’s not clear in this section where the story is going and it is the weakest part of the whole book. However, all is forgiven once you get to Book 3.

This is set in 2093 and divided into 10 parts, opening in 2093 but incorporating the back story from fifty years earlier and following each decade until the threatening and page-turning climax in the last days of the century. It’s impossible to outline the plot here because it’s not only convoluted but I would need to create too many spoilers to do it justice. However, I will simply say it involves the story of Charlie, a pandemic survivor and therefore a greatly changed human being, and her relationship with her grandfather, David. The grandfather-grandchild relationship is an important theme of this book and is explored in many ways.

What is remarkable is that what lies at the core of the novel, and the three books it contains, are deeply personal narratives about love, loss, and empowerment even though the book’s political and social universe that house these individual stories is so totally different to our own; dystopian certainly. Yanagihara has not only imaginatively created an alternative American continent, only keeping to its geographical shape, but also has generated its own inevitable and deeply disheartening future.

This is scary.

It’s scary because given the recent three years of the history of the USA – the one we know: the threat of climate change, the global alteration to our lives due to a pandemic – with the threat of more to come, and the beginnings of the corrosion of American democracy and way of life makes Yanagihara’s novel dangerously prophetic. But all of this information the reader gleans from the asides, dialogue, and explanations of the central very personal narratives.

In Yanagihara’s 2093 pandemics are commonplace. Climate change has happened: cooling suits have been invented and are being improved to allow people to go outside; falling ill puts the individual and their families into permanent isolation (containment centres); building crematoriums is a growth industry. Good nourishment is scarce, food and water are rationed via coupons or can be won through lotteries, tea is powdered, honey is artificial, and all fruit growing on trees is owned by the state. Marriage is mandated since most of the victims of pandemics have been children and those who survive, like Charlie, are sterile. The birthrate has plummeted.

It takes a special kind of cruelty to make a baby now, knowing that the world it’ll inhabit and inherit will be dirty and diseased and unjust and difficult.

All urban areas are surveyed by drones called Flies. It is therefore unwise to show distress, anger, or alarm and if noticed the offenders are plucked from the street by troopers in passing vans. Lives are strictly controlled. Tuscany is no longer inhabitable. Bowing has become the universal form of greeting; touching is therefore avoided.

The people who worked for the State and the people who didn’t were united in their desire to never encounter each other.

Hania Yanagihara started writing this book in 2017 and when the pandemic was raging outside her window the latest pandemic in her invented world was about to override the previous one. She talks about this serendipitous aspect of her book in the video below.

Although there are some flaws, this is a truely remarkable work of creative writing. A must read. I just hope its story stays in the world of her and our imaginations.

Here is a very candid and fascinating interview with Yanagihara primarily about the writing of this novel.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Short Cuts by Raymond Carver

American short story writer, Raymond Carver,
1938 – 1988

One of the enemies of sleep is an overactive brain, which is why there are many pieces of advice that all aspire to getting a light-sleeper ready for sleep: listening to your own breathing, concentrating on a mantra, counting sheep, or reading a book; give the brain one thing to do, and not let it buzz around thirty eight.

I’m reading Hanya Yanagihara’s latest, and third novel, To Paradise, but I’m reading an ebook edition on my tablet and since modern medical advice is that reading on an electronic device before sleep is not a good idea – it tends to inhibit sleep, not encourage it – I usually have a paper book by my bed for those many minutes of bedtime reading.

Note! I’m not at all advocating choosing a dull read for bed-time reading; not a book to put you to sleep but one to prepare you for sleep.

Short stories are good. Raymond Carver’s short story collection, Short Cuts (1993), has been my recent and decent bedtime read.

The famed American filmmaker, Robert Altman, praised Carver for capturing “the wonderful idiosyncrasies of human behaviour … that exist amid the randomness of life’s experiences.” That paints a very general picture of what Carver wrote about; what he mainly wrote about was far more specific.

Carver was born and lived in the American North West and as a young married man – he was married and the father of two while still in his teens – he worked odd jobs, from picking tulips to sweeping floors to managing an apartment building. He knew all about unplanned responsibilities, the threat of unsatisfying work and unemployment and the mysterious chicanery of personal relationships. This is the stuff of Carver’s characters. They are lorry drivers, traveling salesmen, waitresses, the badly educated, disillusioned, the down-and-almost-out, alcoholics, quickly bored, easily distracted, and equally likely to be the betrayed as the betrayer. Their lives are beyond their control and since God has everything to do with it they don’t blame him since he doesn’t seem to care, but anyway, that’s okay because they aren’t that far away from believing they deserve everything they get.

Carver’s stories are usually cautionary tales, highlighting casual moments as the causes of distrust, treachery, and the erosion of tenuous human standards. His characters and situations may be dark and seemingly mundane but they contain a wealth of understanding and insight into the human condition and are told in bold and sparse prose.

Most fiction is told through an omnipotent unnamed third-person narrator who knows everyone’s, and the world’s, past, present and future; they know what everyone is thinking, needing, and planning and tells the reader what they say and do and what they think and want. Carver’s third-person narrators aren’t that powerful. His third person narrators have the same power as everyone else: they just report what is said and done, like his first person narrators. What the characters may be thinking at any one moment is either of no consequence or completely incomprehensible.

His writing is reader-focused: you fill in the gaps, the spaces for psychological insight that each reader brings to such texts which makes these stories so personal and endearing.

Short stories are not the most popular form of fiction but writers who do them well, Anton Chekov, Alice Munro, Katherine Mansfield, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, W Somerset Maugham, James Joyce, Nam Lee, and Raymond Carver do them very well indeed.

These nine stories and one poem that make up this volume were the inspiration for Robert Altman’s multi-award winning film Short Cuts released in 1993.

Here is a feature-length documentary on Altman, the making of Short Cuts, the movie, and his reverence of the work of Raymond Carver.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

American writer Wallace Stegner 1909 – 1993

In this semi-autobiographical novel, a classic of American Modern Literature and set during the Depression at the University of Wisconsin, it isn’t surprising that the first person narrator, Larry Morgan, is a writer and so there are many references to the art, misuse, difficulties, and frustrations of such a profession.

Are writers reporters, prophets, crazies, entertainers, preachers, judges, what?

Is the gift, the talent, its own justification?

The process of writing fiction is an expression of  self-discovery: being free and relaxed enough to let the sub-conscious out. And when it comes out you grab it and write it down. All the experiences of the world, the good, the bad, the insignificant, and the inferred make up one’s past life and the sub-conscious arranges them into memories which may or may not be accurate and can sometimes be perverse.

From these memories, the talent springs – the activity of imagining – but most of us, when the ‘talent springs’, do nothing about it. Scenes, conversations, ideas, rehearsed retorts, and wishful decisions occur to everyone all the time but only the writers write them down. But to write it down, you need to be practiced at writing things down, putting the products of your senses into words, and knowing the difference between a gerund and the infinitive.

Writing takes talent but it also takes practice. You can teach the practice but you can’t teach the talent.

Crossing to Safety (1987) tells the story of the remarkable friendship between Larry (the narrator) and Sally Morgan, young, poor, intelligent, and curious and a slightly older couple, Sid and Charity Lang, already ensconced in the English Department, and to the Morgans, a wonderfully urbane, astute, fascinating, devoted, and wealthy couple who take the newbies under their luxurious wings.

It’s easy for a first person narrator to slip into the third – they could tell a story, just like Terry Hayes does in I Am Pilgrim, – just as it is equally easy for the third person to get so close to a character that it a-l-m-o-s-t becomes the first. That’s why this more usual knack is sometimes called close writing. In more literary circles it’s called free indirect discourse. I prefer the less formal.
What is unusual here is that Larry, Stegner’s  first-person narrator, has only just met Sid and Charity and knows nothing about how their past unfolded, nor do they tell him. This is not a problem for Stegner. He imagines the meeting and early courtship of Sid and Charity;

“Who is this boy?” I can imagine her mother asking. “Do we know him? Do we know his family?” Suppose they are sitting …”

Yes, an audacious technique but one that works given that imagining is what fiction writing is all about.

It’s also audacious to let a character, Charity’s sister, keep the name Comfort. It’s likely Stegner didn’t choose it; it just happened. Things like that often occur when writing fiction. I know of a novelist who, at 83,000 words, thought he had nothing but a pile of poo until out of the mouth of a young character came, out of the blue, the title of the thing. Not only did the phrase give the thing a name, and its theme, it also turned the pile of poo into a novel and out of relief and gratitude the author burst into tears.

It’s moments like these that one could easily believe that fiction comes unbidden, from another place, from another being: fate, a muse maybe, or even a spirit or god. It’s also the reason why you might hear young writers foolishly say, “Oh, actually it wrote itself.” That’s nonsense of course, but the feeling is real.

Being a semi-autobiographical novel, the events may be part of the writer’s past but the intimate moments, the conversations, and minute-by-minute thoughts must rely on imagination; imagined and written down.

The fulcrum of this quartet of characters is Charity Lang. She is forceful, controlling, opinionated, always right, passive aggressive, and never backs down. Two major scenes stick in my mind and will for some time to come. I can’t describe them as that would give too much away but the first revolves around preparation for a camping expedition and whether a packet of tea-bags was packed, or not. Seemingly a trite scenario but in the hands of Stegner it’s a pivotal moment in the building of Charity’s character. The second, the devastating climax, is about who should or shouldn’t go on a family picnic. Here the character of Charity is at its most prickly, unbending, and cruel. However, the reader understands her point of view, and it’s a tribute to Stegner that you also understand the three other points of view. It’s a shattering scene.

This is a book of rich language with a commitment to nature, happiness, and the human foibles that shatter or uplift our lives.

Here you can view an interview with Stegner from the early 1970s.

And here is an hour long documentary “Wallace Stegner: A Writer’s Life,” narrated by Robert Redford and produced only a few years before the writer’s death in 1993.

The book in various formats can be bought here.

The Outside Boy by Jeanine Cummins

American writer Jeanine Cummins

Like a lot of readers I discovered Jeanine Cummins via the controversy over her mega-selling fourth book, American Dirt (2020), which is a flight story of a mother and child fleeing the wrath of a drug cartel – they had murdered her journalist husband and 16 members of her immediate family – in Acapulco, Mexico for the safety of the USA. You can read my blog post about that book here. Latinx writers got very upset that a ‘white’ woman should deem to write, and successfully so, a Latina story; the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ was used a lot in the ensuing brouhaha. I’m not completely sure why, but I usually tend not to read American writers; British, Irish, European, and Australian writers keep pushing the Americans down on my to-read pile. I’ll need to address this in a future post. A friend kindly sent me the book in the mail during the Melbourne lockdown – I was caught in Australia for most of 2020. I was surprised at how good it is: a cracking good read. Yes, it was a commercial success – helped along, no doubt, by Oprah Winfrey – but the writing is also good, authoritative, and compelling.

My lock-down host then gave me this, Cummin’s second book, The Outside Boy (2010). Although this too is a book set in a different culture to her own: Ireland, and a different time: 1959, no controversy erupted over this one. Cummins identifies as ‘white’, although she has a Puerto Rican grandmother; her husband is Irish which may account for the inspirational spark here.

It is a coming-of-age story of a 12 year old boy, Christy Hurley, a tinker’s son, a traveller, a pavee, told through his eyes, his words. The mashed grammar, misplaced syntax, and sometimes literal spelling all add up to the acceptable sound of a traveller’s boy, a gypsy youth who sees the world without any city notions of blame, cause & effect, and obligation.

“She’s my mother,” I said, and even though I was whispering, my words fell into the quiet room likes stones into a pond. They rippled out til I could see them on Missus Hanley’s face. She knew the weight of them words; she took them serious.

Cummins explains in an Author’s Note that she has not been entirely true to the traveller’s voice; a truly authentic pavee voice “would have rendered the book almost impenetrable to the American reader.” Her close writing and vocabulary choices are fundamentally apt and effective, although I think an unschooled gypsy boy in 1959 Ireland would not know the words ‘precarious’ or ‘choreography’, but this is a small point.

Christy is motherless. All he has of her is a mysterious photo from a partly burnt newspaper article. She died at his birth. “I killed her!” he often says. His father is frustratingly mute on the subject of the boy’s mother, but finding the truth of her becomes his, and the book’s, quest and narrative force.

The colourful world, language, and culture of the Irish travellers are major reasons that the book is such a joy to read. Like all good fiction a novel can take you out of your own world and show you how other people live, think, and carry-on regardless.

This is a highly entertaining and moving work. Highly recommended.

Here is a short video of Cummins talking about the inspiration and the writing of The Outside Boy.

You can buy various editions of the book here.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

American writer Barbara Kingsolver

On Friday, November 16, 2018 John Chau a 26 year old adventure blogger, beef-jerky marketer, and evangelical missionary walked onto the beach of the isolated North Sentinel Island, in the Andaman Sea, east of the Bay of Bengal, southern Asia. He clutched a fish and a copy of the bible. He hollered at a group of Sentinelese natives, ‘My name is John. I love you and Jesus loves you.’ The natives strung arrows in their bows and he panicked slightly and threw the fish to them. An arrow pierced his Bible. He frantically paddled in his kayak back to the boat and the fisherman he had paid to bring him to the island. He was fearful but mainly disappointed. ‘They didn’t accept me right away.’ He returned the next day with the fishing boat out of sight thinking it was the boat the natives feared. He kayaked back to the same beach and attempted again to make contact. He was killed and his body has never been recovered. His father believes his son was a victim of an extreme vision of Christianity. John Chau has been called a martyr, an innocent child, a dumb American, and a deluded idiot.

John Chau’s mistakes that led to his death were a result of cultural ignorance, arrogance, hubris, and misguided religious fervour; and these are also behind the motivation of Kingsolver’s character Nathan Price, around which her novel The Poisonwood Bible turns in ever-dangerous circles. He attempts the same contact and Christian conversion of the villagers of Kilanga in what was then, in 1959, the Belgian Congo, but unlike Chau, Price takes along his wife, Oleanna, and their four young daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May.

John Chau, according to his family, ‘“loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people”. Nathan Price had a similar belief in God that was so profound that he was embarrassed because God must be watching him even while his four daughters were conceived.

The story contained in the Poisonwood Bible is told only by the Price women. Oleanna opens every section but it is the girls who alternately tell the story of their continuing life-threatening existence; the villagers they befriend, the events that buffet their lives and the poverty they are forced into.

Each daughter has her own distinctive voice; this is Kingsolver’s greatest strength. The language is rich and revealing, defining and luscious. Rachel, the eldest, 15 at the beginning of the novel is self-centered and obsessed with her looks, her prised possession, a mirror. Adah, a twin, has a passion for palindromes, and has a congenital defect: the right side of her body ‘drags’; I was born with half my brain dried up like a prune. However she is witty and intelligent, opinionated but envious of her twin, Leah, who is the most outspoken, a tom-boy who worries about her salvation, and blames herself for Adah’s affliction. Ruth May. the baby, is inquisitive and observant, and sees the world as a baby might: innocently.

Seen through these five facets, the world of the Price women is multi-dimensional, exotic, and full of adversity: the natives, the forest, the river, the wildlife, the ants, the rain, the drought, and their ultimate adversary, the man, husband and father, who governs their bodies and minds. There’s no room for the devil here, not with Nathan Price around.

But it is not all doom and despair, there is childhood play and truthfulness and light-hearted growing up, but their inner lives, told to us by each narrator, tells of an existence separate, but true, from the one they have to present to their father, their supposed protector.

The Poisonwood Bible, her fourth novel published in 1998, is Kingsolver’s best known work. It as an ambitious and most assured novel. Nathan Price is almost a god-figure, rarely present, but his shadow hovers over and dominates the lives and thoughts of his women and their actions. Just like his God, he is tyrannical.

Strange to say, when it came I felt as if I’d been waiting for it my whole married life. Waiting for that axe to fall so I could walk away with no forgiveness in my heart. Maybe the tragedy began on the day of my wedding, then. Or even earlier, when I first laid eyes on Nathan at that tent revival. A chance meeting of strangers, and the end of the world unfolds.

The family seems doomed as long as it stays together, and out of sheer necessity, the women, but not all of them, save their own lives by putting themselves in even more danger.

However, ultimately this is not a book about daughters living with the day-to-day dangers triggered by a deluded dumb-American father; it’s more about how the daughters survived their deluded dumb-American father – and their mother who was powerless to stop him. Children are resilient, they survive, damaged perhaps, but they survive as best they can:

You can’t just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style, without expecting the jungle to change you right back.

The similarities between Kingsolver’s Nathan Price and Lucy Treloar’s Stanton Finch (Salt Creek, 2015) are pronounced: god-bothered men who put their loved-ones at great risk all for the sake of a belief system they learned, unchallenged, from their own parents.

I know many have read this book, but if you haven’t, do.

There are many free videos, short and long, on YouTube featuring Barbara Kingsolver talking about her work. Here is a short piece where she talks about the power of fiction.

You can buy the book, in various formats, here, along with her latest, Unsheltered (2018).

The Controversy over American Dirt

American Dirt pics
American writer, Jeanine Cummins and her recent book American Dirt.

American Dirt (2020) is a novel about a Mexican mother and her son who are forced to join the hordes of immigrants to try to enter the USA. The controversy around it rests on not just a white woman writing about a brown woman, and a writer who doesn’t understand the plight of ‘the other’, but critics are also  questioning her writing skills.

The two sides are simply described by NBC journalist Gwen Aviles:

The novel’s defenders maintain that Jeanine Cummins’ book, released on Jan. 21, is an important narrative confronting a topical issue, U.S. migration from Mexico and Central America. The book has been championed by high-profile celebrities, like Oprah who named it her bookclub pick.

The novel’s critics, however, primarily consisting of Latinos and other people of color, have deemed the book opportunistic and racist and are questioning why Latino authors often don’t receive a similar level of support for their projects, which touch upon similar themes and are written from an insider’s perspective.

This white-privileged use of people of colour and from other cultures as ciphers in novels has been around for hundreds of years: Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) are the most famous examples and both spurned novels that ‘wrote back’ to the colonial centre with Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea respectively. The characters: Dickens’ Abel Magwitch, a convict escaped from Botany Bay, and Bronte’s creole and unnamed mad-woman in the attic were used as plot points and not as rounded characters and it took Carey and Rhys to give these characters a voice and their own power and agency. These latter books are part of a literary genre known as Post-Colonial literature.

It’s not that a white writer cannot write about a brown character, it’s that when a white writer does they must do it with an understanding that that brown character has agency, honour, a past, and future. In other words the brown character must be respected.

The publishers of the American Dirt, Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan have cancelled their planned national book tour because of the controversy.

An open letter signed by 138 writers has been sent to Oprah Winfrey asking her to rescind her support for the book. The letter succinctly explains the criticism and you can read it here.

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler pic
American writer, Anne Tyler.

Read Anne Tyler.

Have you read any Tyler yet?

You should read Anne Tyler.

These, and other inferences, came from a fellow book worm and one whose opinions as a reader I trust. So, finally, I read Anne Tyler.

Saint Maybe (1991) is typical of her work: family relationships. There seems two kinds of families in the American novel: the apple pie variety and the gun variety. Tyler’s are the former but, of course, coping with a threat, a dilemma.

Ian Bedloe, the son in an apple pie family in Baltimore did something he believes was very bad and caused two deaths. Only he knows what he did, what he said; the only other person, his older brother, who was there when he said it, and to whom he said it, is dead. He is desperate to be allowed to atone for his ‘sin’ and is drawn into a local Christian denomination called The Church of the Second Chance. After what he’s done, he so wants to be good. And forgiven.

What interested me in Saint Maybe is the subject of religion. I was brought up in a religious family but the Christianity taught by my Christian denomination (Lutheranism) always seemed to be more like an insurance policy than a belief system. My mother read the bible like a novel. I have come to understand that religion is a very important element in human existence: each group, tribe, and civilisation since the year dot has had a belief system; mainly to answer the big questions (How did we get here? What are we doing here? What’s that big ball of fire in the sky? and There’s got to be something better, doesn’t there?) so we can get on with the everyday necessities: digging for yams, inventing machines, filling in a tax return. What I object to, and what I see as a blight on humanity, is the administration, and interpretation, of these belief systems: the temple, the synagogue, the mosque, the church.

I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints …”. So begins the last line of the Apostle’s Creed I learnt as a child, yet all three, the holy spirit, church, and saints are inventions of the (all male) administrators of Christianity over millennia.

The Church of the Second Chance is exactly one of these ‘administrations’; it teachers not so much what Jesus Christ said but what its leader, Reverend Emmett, says and Ian, so looking for a path to redemption and his second chance for what he has done, joins Emmett and his small flock, waiting, as the Reverend Emmett says, for a sign that he has been forgiven.

The Bedloes aren’t religious but Ian’s commitment to The Church of the Second Chance slowly pulls them in; ritual and routine can do that to people’s lives. The family conforms to the Church more out of respect for Ian than for a commitment to its beliefs.

Stream-of-consciousness is a novelistic technique (thank you James Joyce) that recently has had a revival: Anna Burn’s The Milkman won the 2018 Booker Prize and Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker. It usually is associated with internal thoughts,  the ordinary, the minutiae of people’s lives. Here, Tyler uses the more common third-person narrator to tell the very plain story of Ian Bedloe.

Above her work-desk is the following quote.

As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,

Or a general raises his hand and is given the field glasses,

Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.

Something will come to you.

…from Walking to Sleep by Richard Wilbur.

“I see those words as about getting an idea and making a  book,” says Tyler. “I don’t get anxious. It will come to you, let it come in.”

She works in long hand, rewrites in long hand, and only when she is satisfied will she then type it onto a computer; print it out and work on another draft in long hand. And so it goes. Her style, if she has one – she says she has no style at all – is “unmistakably hers: transparent and alert to all the nuances of the seemingly ordinary,” wrote Charles McGrath in a 2018 profile in The New York Times.

It’s true that the appearance of truth in fiction is achieved through detail which is why her writing is so believable: her work is full of detail, to the brim with detail: the weather, the light on window glass, a tone of voice, a look, the type of cut and grain of wood, what people know and don’t know; but she also deliberately omits detail, for the reader to work out. This also, ironically, adds veracity to the work; creates an investment for the reader in the story and its meaning. She is a joy to read.

Saint Maybe was filmed for television in 1998 starring Blythe Danner and Tom McCarthy, directed by Michael Pressman from a teleplay by Robert W. Lenski.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

 

Falconer by John Cheever

John-Cheever-pic
American short story writer and novelist (1912 – 1982), the ‘Chekov of the suburbs.’

John  Cheever was not a very nice man; or, to be kinder, a very complicated man. His wife. Mary,  hardly spoke to him – she had good season, he disliked homosexuals but was one himself – one lover, a student, lived with the family for a while; but he also had a short affair with Hope Lange, and he was an alcoholic until 1973; his daughter describing him as a father said, “he was a nightmare”. He was a snob and feared shame; and while terrified of his sexuality he wrote “if I could express myself erotically I would come alive.” He and his wife certainly hurt each other but they didn’t see that as a reason to break up a family. He craved the safety of domestic life but it made him ‘blissfully unhappy’.

In Colm Tóibín’s essay collection New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families (2012) his chapter on Cheever is entitled, New Ways to Make Your Family’s Life  a Misery. That chapter was well-thumbed while writing this post.

He loved fame. If you are a famous musician, you can play something; if you’re a movie star, you can give them an autograph; but if you’re a writer, as Cheever’s son Federico put it, “Well, you get to say pompous things. You get to talk about aesthetics and things like that. That’s the goodies you get.”

“I would like to live in a world,” Cheever wrote, “where there are no homosexuals but I suppose Paradise is thronged with them.”

Before he died he wrote to his son “What I wanted to tell you is that your father has had his cock sucked by quite a few disreputable characters. I thought I’d tell you that, because sooner or later somebody’s going to tell you and I’d just as soon it came from me.” “I don’t mind Daddy, if you don’t mind.” In 1991 the New Yorker and Knopf paid 1.2 million dollars for the rights to publish the journals. Mary Cheever did not read them.

Cheever’s most famous story is The Swimmer (1964): a man ‘swims’ home via all the swimming pools from where he had been lounging beside one, to his. He is well regarded by his neighbours along the way but as he ‘swims’ closer to home the mood gets darker and the context more surreal. Is this really happening? When he gets there his house is empty. It was made into a film in 1968 starring Burt Lancaster. It was unsuccessful, but since has garnered a cult status. It was also the acting debut of comedienne Joan Rivers and the compositional debut of composer Marvin Hamlisch.

*

Many years ago my partner (now husband) and I had a boat: an old wooden cruiser. We took two friends motoring on Broken Bay one weekend and had a meal at Cottage Point Inn. We moored the boat rather grandly right in front of the restaurant; had a wonderful long lunch; too many bottles of wine; and returned to the boat only to find that it wouldn’t start. One of our guests, Julian, a vet, pulled up the floor hatch, climbed into the engine cavity and with a small implement borrowed from a neighbouring boat (far more grand, far more impressive) and a teaspoon from our cutlery drawer, got the engine going. What impressed me most, and has stayed with me all this time, was the feeling of Julian’s self-confidence, ease, and complete understanding of what he was doing. That same feeling returned while reading this book.

Falconer got Cheever on the cover of Newsweek with the title, A Great American Novel in 1977. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for three weeks. Cheever won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his next published work, his collected Stories.

Falconer, on the surface is a crime/punishment/redemption story: Ezekiel Farragut, an academic and drug addict kills his brother, although he admits hitting him with a fire iron, he says his brother was drunk and he fell and hit his head on the hearth; he has a “profound”  love affair with a fellow inmate and then escapes, posing as a corpse, and understands he’s a better man.

The third-person narrator self-references once …

but at the time at which I’m writing, leg irons were still used …

This is rare, as if the narrator is a character, Cheever we suspect, but it need not be. If a third-person narrator self-references too much, he becomes a first-person narrator.

His wife, Marcia, visits him in prison

Farragut stepped into this no man’s land and came on hard, as if he had been catapulted into the visit by mere circumstance. ‘Hello darling’ he exclaimed as he had exclaimed ‘Hello darling’ at trains, boats, airports, the foot of the highway, journey’s end; but in the past he would have worked out a timetable, aimed at the soonest possible sexual consummation.

and as they talk,

Out the window he could see some underwear and fatigues hung out to dry. They moved in the breeze as if this movement – like the movements of ants, bees, and geese – had some polar ordination.

The narrator relates Farragut’s anecdotes about his relationship with his wife: their back story …

… he thought that perhaps a bag of fox grapes may do the trick. He was scrupulous about the sexual magic of tools.

He means ‘tools’ in the sense of ‘gifts’, but uses the word ‘tools’; it darkly colours the image with cynicism and says more about Cheever than about Farragut.

Contradictions are scattered through the text like peppercorns in a stew; light and shade, good and bad, right and wrong, innocence and guilt, ‘superficial and fortuitous’, masculine and feminine …

He had been called a bitch by a woman he deeply loved and he had always kept this possibility in mind. 

Most of the text is a stream of consciousness, a re-emerging writing style, as noted in the Booker Prize 2018 winner, Milkman by Anna Burns;  but I’ll leave the last word to Tóibín.

“If you ignore the upbeat, cheesy ending, Falconer is the best Russian novel in the English language.”                                                                                                                         Colm Tóibín.

You can read Joan Didion’s review of Falconer in the New York Times, March 6, 1977, here.

You can buy the Kindle edition here.

 

 

 

 

On Writing. A memoir of the craft by Stephen King

Stephan King pic
American writer Stephan King. “Nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare.”

Outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria in the centre of old Florence is the statue of David by Michelangelo. Actually it’s a statue of David by someone else. It’s a copy. The original is in the Galleria dell’Accademia not far away. Michelangelo’s David is truely remarkable but what is more revealing are the accompanying statues of slaves; unfinished statues. The figures seem to be emerging out of the stone; or to put it another way, they were always in the stone; Michelangelo just had to remove the marble from around them to reveal them in all their glory. Music is like that. The Clarinet Concerto always existed; Mozart just wrote it down so now it’s called Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Stories are like that too.

I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves … Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.

or, in other words; stories have always existed, writers just have to write them down as accurately as they can.

If you hear a writer say “…Oh, it just wrote itself, really,” this is what they are talking about without really understanding anything about it.

Plotting is way down on King’s list of what’s important. For him it’s narration – to move the story along; description – to create a sensory reality; and dialogue – to bring characters to life.

I’ve never plotted any more than I ‘d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible …. plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible … It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored. 

I’ve heard, and read, many times that Stephan King is a writer’s writer. It’s a good line, although I’m not sure what it means. I took it to mean that I should read him. I’ve been planning to but as his work is not my preferred type (hate the word ‘genre’) other books kept preempting my plan. And then this one came along: a Christmas gift from my sister.

King calls it a memoir, and it certainly is. His chapter on his early struggles – menial jobs – many rejections, a family to support – is particularly honest and heart-warming. Yet, his chapter on being an alcoholic is electric. Talk about ‘being honest.’ It’s an insider’s view, the view of an alcoholic looking out with all the denials, justifications, and excuses that are virtually the ‘brand’ of all alcoholics but while he’s being one, seem particularly applicable to him and him alone.

But the life story doesn’t take long and soon he’s into the advice: the reason for reading it. I was heartened to read that his first piece of wisdom is, if you want to write, you must read. Phew! Good. I do that. His next piece of advice was to wage war on adverbs, especially attributive adverbs in dialogue: he said dismissively, she blithely said. His argument against adverbs like these was particularly convincing. I got up and opened my computer to the writing I had done that day and erased all my attributive adverbs, well, most of them. I had to make a few other adjustments to follow his advice: it should be perfectly clear how a line of dialogue should be said from the words themselves and, of course, the accumulated tension, tone, and information. Don’t be scared of oft repeating, he said, she said.

All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.

And vocabulary? “As the whore said to the bashful sailor, ‘It ain’t how much you’ve got it’s how you use it.” And if you have to run to the thesaurus to find the right word, it’s probably not the right word. He quotes Earnest Hemingway to seal the point.

“He came to the river. The river was there.”

He’s equally honest and up-front about narrative, description, dialogue and a myriad of other implements from his literary toolbox. I am very happy to now know that I share his belief in dialogue as one of the best ways to built character. There are some writers who avoid dialogue. What a missed opportunity!

However, I was, at times, at a disadvantage reading this book because he often makes his point by referring, in detail, to his own work and decisions he had to make, and why. I have never read anything by King so I found these passages redundant. Not his fault, but mine.

For a new writer like me (I can’t use the adjective ‘young’ any more), who’s grappling with the second draft of a major work that at the moment is a broad, messy, and a wooly thing, reading King’s On Writing now is the most serendipitous and useful coincidence.

All writers, especially new ones, and most readers would get a lot out of his insights into the writing process, the hazards and joys of writing for a living, and the more profound elements of imagination, fiction making, and self-fulfilment.  Highly recommended.

-oOo-

I have a gripe with Mr King. He’s down on adverbs, but he’s also down on pronouns. And so he should be; he uses them so clumsily (Yes, I now its an adverb but its necessary here.)

Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing him/her out.

The phrase ‘him or her’ is bad enough, but ‘him/her’? Unforgivable! He uses ‘he and she’ and even ‘he/she’ – but thank god, not ‘s/he’!

This is one of the English language’s greatest failings: there is no gender-neutral singular pronoun. For centuries it has been common practice to use the masculine ‘he, him, and his’ to refer to both genders. Today, this is not acceptable. But, there is a solution. What’s wrong with using the gender-neutral plural pronoun? Nothing. This has been around for a few hundred years, from the 16th century in fact* (It’s also been a solution for Jane Austin, Bernard Shaw, and Barak Obama). Yes, it’s breaking a fundamental rule of subject-pronoun agreement which maybe a small problem for some but it fixes a much bigger problem. Hence King could’ve and should’ve written,

Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing them out.

Much simpler, easier, cleaner, and no confusion, despite the broken rule.

He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.

– J Fisher Wayes to Perfect Religion (before 1535)

You can find the Kindle edition, as well as other formats, here.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

American-Iranian writer, Ottessa Moshfegh (O te zar  MOSH feg) 

I love page 1. This is what I learned from page 1. The female unnamed first person narrator sleeps. When she is not sleeping she slips out of her apartment whenever it might be, day or night, and picks up coffee (stimulant), trazadone (anti-depressant), Amdien (sleeping pills), and Nembutal (more sleeping pills) from a 24-hour bodega. She takes them all, along with animal crackers, while watching movies until she falls asleep. When she thinks of it she orders Thai take-away. Sometimes she hears her phone messages which are, mostly, confirmations of  appointments for spas or salons she has made in her sleep. She cancels them. She hates talking to people.

This all sounds like she’s on a slow slip to depression and eventual suicide. But no. I find out on page 7 that her attempt at hibernation is quite the opposite: self-preservational. She hopes that while sleeping all her cells will re-new themselves, re-align themselves – every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant foggy memories –  so that after a year she will wake up a whole new person with none of the hang-ups, fears, denials, hatreds, annoyances, incapabilities, sensitivities, regrets, and pain of the old one. 

There are other characters too, her best friend Riva, her on-off-on-off boyfriend, Trevor, and her psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle. All, like the protagonist, are bonkers. Or are they just typical Manhattanites in the 21st Century?

By the end of chapter 1 everything is set, and set up. 

At the beginning of chapter 2 we’re back to the beginning of the project. She feels excited, hopeful, and fully prepared for her great transformation

Of course, this being a narrative our first person protagonist often wakes up and the narrative consists of her methods of getting back to sleep again, all drug fuelled. Exercise? Caffeine was my exercise. It catalyzed my anxiety so that I could get back to sleep again. She also wakes to visit her psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle, who’s also mad as a cut-snake and writes down our narrator’s nightmares, which are all a pack of lies and mainly cobbled-together-fragments of bad movie plots, all intended to get more, and stronger, prescription drugs. Actually all her answers to Dr Tuttle’s questions are lies. 

“I was wondering if you could prescribe something a little stronger for bedtime. When I’m tossing and turning at night, I get so frustrated. It’s like I’m in hell.” She lied. 

“Hell? I can give you something for that.”

Her growing armoury or medication, prescriptions and samples from Dr Tuttle, have names like the siblings in second-rate Greek tragedies: Solfoton, Infermiterol, and Zyprexa. 

Not only do we find out what she does when she wakes up, but we also find out what she’s been doing when she’s been asleep: going out for coffee and drugs; ordering Chinese takeaway; rearranging her furniture; buying multiple tubs and multiple flavours of Häagen-Dazs ice cream which she forgets to eat or put in the freezer; booking Brazilians and fake tans; and chatting to guys on dating websites and getting, in return, closeups of their genitals. Thankfully, she too thinks this is going too far and gets her ditzy friend Riva to change her AOL password to something random and confusing so she won’t remember it. She hates Riva, especially when she talks. No, that’s not true, she really loves Riva. Well, actually, she hates her. Erm …

She’s obsessed with Whoopie Goldberg and old movies with predicable plots.

With all these pages of finding numerous ways to fall asleep they are surprisingly entertaining. It’s a hoot! But if you want your fiction characters to be nice and normal, don’t read this book. I wouldn’t want any of them at my lunch table. Nor would you. Trust me!

In fact, one of the attractions that kept me interested was what gross and/or outrageous thing was I going to read next? One day she wakes up in a new fur coat, the smell of which gives her the odd suspicion that she’s had sex with someone; and with a bunch of roses … on a train. 

Of course, the narrative of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is actually what she does between bouts of sleep, she even goes to Riva’s mother’s funeral. A book about sleep would be very thin, this one isn’t.

Moshfegh came to the attention of the literary world with her 2015 novel, Eileen, which won the Hemingway Foundation / PEN Award and was shortlisted for the Man-Booker Prize; however, The Irish Times reviewer hated it. Erin Cressida Wilson, who adapted Paula Hawkins’, Girl on a Train, for the screen will tackle Eileen for film producer, Scot Rubin. 

Here’s a short interview with Moshfegh talking about My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

You can buy the book in various formats, including the kindle version, here