Thursday, August 21, 2008

American Fiction: The Suicide of Detail

Okay, so I've read several scathing reviews of James Wood's new book, How Fiction Works. It seems that Wood's views aren't working for many reviewers--to the point that I wonder whether he's just pissed them off at cocktail parties or slept with their partners, but that's speculation.

Several reviews have been so bad, especially the entertaining and illuminating one by the ever entertaining and illuminating Walter Kirn in The New York Times, A Not So Common Reader, that I just have to dash out and buy the book. Kirn rips Wood to the point that the book seems indispensable.

And Wood does make observations that intrigue me: “Nabokov and Updike at times freeze detail into a cult of itself.” The contemporary emphasis and glorification of gorgeous detail has always eluded me. I've always read for character, which flows into dialogue and action, choice and meaning--but rarely into detail, at least in my mind, or only as a tertiary element. I've been miffed by the number of writers who are so highly revered for their dissecting eye rather than their ability to tell a story, draw compelling characters, write startling dialouge.

Is the ability to describe in such detail truly the trait we want to honor in a writer--a storyteller? Do we really want to know so much about the dust motes in a room, to read the adjectives that describe a person's lips or brow, or how he or she walks or stands or drinks. Telling details, sure, but I'm not sure if God is in the details, at least as they've been defined recently.

I'm not dismissing Nabokov or Updike in any way. I'm just parsing Wood's keen observation.

Now I'm off to buy Wood's book, even though Kirn says it will induce a nap. If so, I know my dreams will be dramatic, but lacking in detail.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Emily Dickinson: Truth at a Slant

“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” This was Emily Dickinson’s credo.

Walker Evans applied a similar aesthetic approach to photography—a preference to take photos when the sun’s light was slanting, toward evening or in the early morning.

The approach begs the question of whether life should be represented in full illumination. What does it mean to represent something or someone in full light?

Perhaps truth—not to mention mystery and wonder—can only be found in the “slants,” the corners, the shadows.

I’m not sure if an artist needs to know much more than this, but of course these simple words require such keen interpretation and creative judgment.

What is truth at a slant, after all? It goes beyond sunrise and sunset.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

I wanted to like the Piano Tuner.

Okay, I kind of liked the Piano Tuner. I liked it like I might like a blind date who’s nice, kind of pretty, sort of intelligent, dresses well—nothing wrong with her—but I know I’m not going to call her. No offense.

Here’s the skinny of the plot, cribbed from Powell’s Books. In October 1886, Edgar Drake receives a strange request from the British War Office: he must leave his wife and his quiet life in London to travel to the jungles of Burma, where a rare Erard grand piano is in need of repair. The piano belongs to an army surgeon-major whose unorthodox peacemaking methods — poetry, medicine, and now music — have brought a tentative quiet to the southern Shan States but have elicited questions from his superiors.

I bet you can’t guess what will happen. Will Edgar Drake become entranced with Burma, feel his blood burble with adventures, and possibly fall in love? I’m not telling.

I don’t mean to get into name calling, but the novel relies on two cheap premises. The character of the sugeon-major Carroll, strange and peculiar and heroic, is derivative of Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness—too derivative because such a unique and compelling character shouldn’t be duplicated. Or if he is duplicated, the character should be damn interesting, an original, not as flat and watered down as Carroll is.

Secondly, the novel relies on a gimmick, the piano tuner traveling through Southeast Asia to tune Caroll’s piano, which affords plenty of opportunities, planted rather than organic, for long expositions on the history of the region, descriptions of the landscape, or details of tuning a piano—often gorgeous, interesting, but contrived in the end. In other words, the frame of the book is established for such writerly moments rather than for a more pure and organic storytelling. The novel reads like one that has been assiduously and gleefully researched.

In short, the novel doesn’t feel like a story so much as an exercise in selling a story. Daniel Mason, the author, is not only a doctor (at the time of publication, he was a med student at the University of California San Francisco), but a good businessman. And an adequate and sometimes flowery writer. And a somewhat adept storyteller. But not yet one who is a specialist in the human condition.

That is all to say that I felt only faint heartbeats in this novel, even though it pretends to be a novel of the heart.

Take the protagonist, Edgar Drake. Granted, it’s difficult to center a novel around such resigned, delicate character, but Edgar seems to always be pushing up his glasses rather than truly being in moments of life. He’s a stiff, erudite Englishman—okay we get it!—whose tie gets ruffled when he gets a crush on a local girl. He’s in love with his wife—as if he’s reciting the alphabet, the Lord’s prayer—but there’s a passion within his breast.

Will he risk it all?

Of course he will. He’ll push up his glasses, flex the nubs of his muscles, and say, “Damn it, I’m Edgar Drake, and I’ve had enough. I want to live!” But even when Edgar gets bold—Heavens!—his words, not to mention his emotions, feel scripted. His dreamy attraction to the jungle of Burma is assigned to him by the author, just as his love has been assigned to him. What does Edgar really want in the depths of his soul and loins? Perhaps those areas are off limits to a proper Englishman, but an author should have access to his characters’ nether regions.

Despite my gripes, the novel is adequate. I imagine that it will be made into a fairly large budget movie starring Raph Fiennes as the piano tuner. It will be the kind of movie that doesn’t rile anyone, and the scenery will be nice, and it will suffice as a way to pass an evening. No one will be too bored or too moved. All of the chords of the world’s music will seem more or less in tune.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Persepolis: The Value of a Child's Point of View

It’s an odd thing to say that a work situated in a war-torn country with an oppressive regime is fun to read, but Persepolis is fun, among other things. Sure, it’s a fun read because it’s a well-drawn graphic novel, but it’s really the lively and mischievous point of view of its heroine, Marjane, a precocious and preternaturally rebellious child, that gives the book its singular force.

The story starts during the turbulent years surrounding the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which saw the government overthrown, theocracy introduced, and war with neighboring Iraq. But a kid wants to have fun, explore, learn, hang out, screw around, etc. whether he or she is living in an affluent suburb, a poor country, or under a suffocating regime. It’s this tension between the joys and desires of childhood, Marjane’s adolescent explorations, and the uncommon limits that she encounters that makes Persepolis such a meaningful book.

In fact, you could say that the narrative is about urges—whether it’s to dance, wear a Michael Jackson pin, have a party, not to mention an opinion—and their consequences. Marjane has to deal with the father figure of Iranian culture, which hews to a stark and draconian archetype: child wants, society (parent) denies. Even the style of the drawings reflects this sharp dichotomy. The world is strictly black and white, without any of the vivid or gaudy colors that most comic books use to paint the world.

It’s not a fun way to grow up, but Marjane’s feistiness and playfulness is such a force that the totalitarian regime sometimes doesn’t seem quite so totalitarian. This can at times be a weakness of the book. For instance, despite Marjane’s rebellious acts, she usually gets off without much more than a slap on the wrist, and one wonders how much her parents’ position and affluence protects her.

They’re portrayed as outspoken critics themselves, and other family members have fallen victim to the regime, but the main group of protagonists remains safe and prosperous for the most part, so the deadly threat of the regime and the war can seem removed at times. I wonder if the form of comic book minimizes the gravity of some of the horrendous events, if only because we've been conditioned to read comics for humor or action adventure, not for pathos.

That said, there are startling and horrific scenes (it’s not all fun, of course). One of the most disturbing was one that occurred in what should have been a quotidian affair: a cocktail party. When the culture police bust the party, everyone flees, some running across the tops of buildings, and one person falls to his death after trying to jump to another high-rise—a move that’s ironically so often successful in comic books.

It’s in these moments where the memoir particularly shines because Satrapi so viscerally illustrates the choices that any American takes for granted. Marjane’s parents smuggle Iron Maiden posters across the border for her. Marjane wears a jean jacket and make-up. She goes out in public with her boyfriend. All of these actions that we wouldn’t think twice about are severely punishable in this society, so even the faintest self-expression can carry grave risks.

A reader has to ask, “Is the Iron Maiden poster really worth the flogging and jail time?” It’s impossible for us to answer. You have to live in such a place to weigh the risks and needs of expression.

It all takes a toll, though. We watch as Satrapi moves from blissful, middle-class ignorance, to righteous indignation, to an adult ambivalence—the fun ends, at least for a while, especially as we see Marjane essentially lose a home for her identity after returning from Austria.

If this had been a conventional text memoir, then I’m sure there would be many temptations for the adult’s all-knowing point of view to intrude often, to explain things—simply because that ‘s what adults are prone to do. Seeing this world through the eyes of a child, however, puts the repressive Iranian society in a more startling relief than an adult’s point of view could have ever accomplished.

In this age of memoir, this is the kind of memoir I want to read: one that takes a period of history that I know only a smidgeon about and illuminates it in a surprising way through a unique perspective. In fact, since I’m nearly the same age as Satrapi, I experienced the events only through images on TV and with the surface understanding of a child who cared more about playing or reading than delving into Mideast politics—just like her.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Last of the Big Beards: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

There are many reasons to mourn the passing of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died today in Moscow, but I think the most important one might be that he was the last living author who could carry off the big, grizzly, ponderous, “don’t mess with me” beard.

He could go toe-to-toe with Tolstoy in this department, something no great American author can even attempt. Philip Roth donning a big ass beard? No. Jonathon Franzen? Maybe a goatee. Michael Chabon? Does he shave?

We’ve got a beard crisis in world literature, and I’m disturbed by it. I grew up with authors like Solzhenitsyn, whose beard basically meant that he wasn’t going to take any crap from anyone, least of all a totalitarian regime, no matter if they sent him to Siberia. Again, would Jonathon Franzen do this?

I’m less worried about the death of the novel or the rise of video games than I am that today’s youth will grow up without such a role model. When they think of big beards, they’ll think of reruns of ZZ Top videos on VH1, and think big beards are a niche domain of rock n’ roll.

Big beards, however, have been a vital part of literary history. Walt Whitman. William Wordsworth. George Bernhard Shaw. Ernest Hemingway.

So, today I mourn Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his beard and all that it represented. Maybe someday I’ll read him.