Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ian McEwan and the Art of Suspense

I’ve always thought of Ian McEwan as a sort of modern day Graham Greene. It’s not about their subject matter or their style, but the discipline, the concise and unwasteful approach they take to their narratives.

All of Greene’s novels seem to be more or less the same length, as do McEwan’s. Likewise, Greene and McEwan share an appreciation for a straightforward story, carefully plotted, with a keen sense of suspense.

Suspense. It’s an enviable narrative skill, no matter if you’re writing genre fiction or experimental fiction. McEwan, like Greene, is able to write challenging, thought-provoking novels while keeping you on the edge of your seat—just enough so.

The February 23, 2009 New Yorker published a nice profile of McEwan, focusing largely on his evolution as a novelist of scientific reasoning, but also capturing his thoughts on craft. One of his goals is to “incite a naked hunger in readers,” he said. To create this hunger, he gives a great definition of suspense: “Narrative tension is primarily about withholding information.”

This approach stands in contrast to the more expositional “background” approach to characterization that is so often proselytized. Know your characters’ eye color. Know the way they soap themselves in the shower. Know if they had pets as children, etc., etc.

But this sort of background knowledge can not only bog down the story, but weigh heavily on the writer, killing the notion of suspense.

The profile calls McEwan a “connoisseur of dread.” “At moments of peak intensity, McEwan slows time down—a form of torture that readers enjoy despite themselves.”
McEwan can slow down and create tension in such a way because he’s Nabokovian in his ability to “fondle details.”

McEwan explained, “Writing is a bottom-up process, to borrow a term from the cognitive world. One thing that’s missing from the discussion of literature in the academy is the pleasure principle. Not only the pleasure of the reader but also of the writer. Writing is a self-pleasuring act.”

Gosh, how interesting. In other words, don’t think of your reader in Peoria, think of yourself.

I envy McEwan for his ability to strike this chord of narrative leisure while attenuating the action to such a degree. “McEwan believes that something stirring should happen in a novel. Though he is animated by ideas, he would never plop two characters on a sofa and have them expound rival philosophies.”

In fact, he keeps a plot book full of scenarios two or three sentences long. “Here’s one,” he said. “’A comedy of beliefs set in a laboratory. Into this realm comes a young Islamic scientist who is technically brilliant. The head of the laboratory is a secular humanist, and the two become entangled. Something short and vicious, like Nathanael West.”

I can’t say that I’d want to read that novel, but then perhaps McEwan could make it interesting.

For more on McEwan, read

Monday, August 31, 2009

How to Write? The Definition of an Author

I'm reading James Wood's How Fiction Works. It's a somewhat masochistic task. No fault to James Wood, who, after 25 mildly interesting pages, provides a perfectly adept and writerly dissection of the free indirect style--the kind of analysis I literally ate up in my 20s, when I was trying to figure out how to write.

Except that I can't imagine that anyone can truly learn to write while reading such stuff. It's good undergraduate fare for understanding exactly what his title posits--How Fiction Works--but to write the damn stuff, I don't think any author thinks of sentences the way Wood thinks about them.

Wood gets out his scalpel and shaves the words out of sentences to show which words are authorial, omniscient, and which close in on a character's lingo or point of view. He's a good surgeon, but, to get just a bit mystical, I think writers feel their way through a story more than they diagram it in a blueprint (to mix metaphors, of course, because the world is a bunch of mixed metaphors--I've never understood why a mixed metaphor is a bad thing).

In other words, I think James Joyce or Jane Austen could write the sentences he deconstructs without giving a second thought to the labels of style he's obsessed with. Free indirect? Even Joyce, our author of all, is primarily absorbed in just telling the story, like a hunter pulling the trigger, largely by sight and reflex and experience. He just has more mechanisms at hand than some authors do.

I think of Richard Poirier, who was recently profiled in the Times, who said that the most powerful works of literature (to revere the word "literature") become "rather strange and imponderable" over time. The best authors elude readers, take them away from the roads of a story than can be easily charted, rather than mastering something like the free indirect style.

Poirier's definition of "great writers" is those who are tormented and thrilled by "what words were doing to them and what they might do in return." It's a game, a love affair, a war, a religion, a pilgrimage. And then something more.

He said that the act of writing is an assertion of individual power. What an interesting take on this troubling, often debilitating obsession some of us have. To think of it in such a way is such a fresh, and, well, empowering way to think of what is so often marginalized, trivialized, disdained.

Gosh, writing as an assertion of power. Take that. My truth. Like a sword.

I guess this is all to say that one might learn a bit from a book like Wood's, but writers might learn more by thinking about their assertiveness, the keen angles of their perception. That crazy intuitive sense of truth that's so difficult to trust in the din of voices that always militate against a writer's wishes: to write, always, with delusions within arm's reach, hopes in the cupboard.

Think of this sentence. "Struggling for his identity within the materials at hand," they "show us, in the mere turning of a sentence this way or that, how to keep from being smothered by the inherited structure of things."

Who needs the free indirect style? Or rather, who needs to be so conscious of how it works when there's something so much more urgent to wrestle with? (Yes, I sometimes like to see this all as a mythological battle of sorts. Why not?)

Life, after all, is about contradiction, messiness, far more than it is about technique.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

King Dork vs. Catcher in the Rye

Beware high school English teachers: If Catcher in the Rye is a standby of yours, King Dork challenges what’s become the sacred text of teen angst in the past—let’s say it—60 years (ouch!).

Part social satire, part mystery, and part tribute to ye olde Catcher, King Dork starts like any good adolescent taunt—or outright defacement, rather—sporting a dust jacket with the cover of Catcher scratched up and chiseled with a ball point pen.

It’s as if a bored high school kid had nothing else to do in class and resented the crazy adult teachers who assign teen angst literature from their youth for him to read.

That bored kid would be Tom, who stands in as our modern-day Holden. Not quite as eloquent or dark, and maybe not as insightful, but he's game to tear down the world around him with similar snarls of wit set to a drum beat of dweebish desires.

''I don't command a nerd army, or preside over a realm of the socially ill-equipped,'' Tom, aka King Dork, says. ''I'm small for my age, young for my grade, uncomfortable in most situations, nearsighted, skinny, awkward, and nervous. And no good at sports. So Dork is accurate. The King part is pure sarcasm, though: there's nothing special or ultimate about me. I'm generic.''

Alienation and its kissing cousin humiliation are the themes here—surprise!—all wrapped up in scratchy blankets of cynicism. And there's superiority, of course—because how to survive teen alienation and its depredations unless you believe you’re kick-ass superior (the King moniker isn’t pure sarcasm; it never is). High school is the one bonafide time in life when arrogance comes in handy.

Above all, though, King Dork is a pleasant read, a bit like an extended sit-com (say, a two-hour episode of Freaks and Geeks). In fact, the first 80 pages are essentially repeated four times and could easily spin through a few more times, like a rerun, except not quite.

The novel so conspicuously lacks a narrative arc or any true character change that Tom, who tells the story with a banter similar to Holden’s, even comments on the story’s lapses toward the end of the book—a sort of last-minute metafictional recompense that lets us know that the author’s editor and agent had qualms about the story’s loose episodic tendrils.

But the story is otherwise conventional, traveling through the usual high school pranks and pitfalls in a playful and nostalgically pleasant way for those of us who survived the unpleasantness of those glory years (or think we survived). Fast Times at Ridgemont High meets Juno meets Superbad.

Among the scariest pranks are “Make-out/Fake-outs,'' in which a cute girl decides ''it would be fun to put her arm around you and pretend to be hitting on you to see what you would do, with everyone laughing at you the whole time.''

Sound familiar? (If not, you’re blessed.)

Tom’s technique is to deflect bullies by flashing guns-and-ammo magazines—an effective strategy for a while, kind of like screaming while walking through a shopping mall. People keep their distance.

Although the booby traps of the high school are inherently predictable, the episodes of Tom and his one friend Sam make the novel memorable, even special. Tom and Sam spend most of their time making up imaginary rock bands—“Margaret? It's God. Please Shut Up”—and devising accompanying logos and album titles.

The duo cycles through 25 different names in the course of the book—all of them delightfully silly and grandiose (similar to your favorite rock n’ roll bands, in other words—such as author Frank Portman’s successful Bay Area punk band “The Mr. T Experience”).

It’s a nervous tic that’s actually a survival mechanism. A nerdy kid’s counterpoint to low status—flippin’ the bird to the popular kids in day dreams, a “just you wait until I’m playing arena shows.”

While Tom’s tone and language aren’t as erudite as Catcher, he strives for the same ironic, humble truth: find a way to cut through these crazy layers of phoniness that life serves up like cafeteria food and come out on top.

Like Holden, Tom finds himself dodging and despairing of the adults around him. His mother is a distant self-medicator (Sam is friends with Tom in part to steal her valium), and his stepfather is a well meaning but annoyingly goofy, aging hippie, who’s kind of sweet, but tries too hard to connect, so he doesn’t. But at least he tries.

His teachers are frequently negligent or misguided or downright weird (and all too often cultishly obsessed with Catcher). How could they be otherwise? The climax of the novel has Tom and Sam bringing down the evil vice principal at the school assembly when their band Balls Deep….

Well, you’ll have to read the book. Or see the film, which is due out in 2010.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

There have been so many novels and movies about the vacuous nature of suburban life, the biting angst that dooms just about anyone who wears Dockers and lives in a subdivision or at the end of a cul-de-sac and, gosh, God forbid, works hard to earn a living for the family, that it’s perhaps the most tired and clichéd storyline of our times.

At the same time, this pernicious confrontation between the urgent need for individual expression in the vicious swarms of conventionality is a peculiarly gripping storyline that’s uniquely American.

Revolutionary Road might be the grandfather of this genre, despite the fact that Rabbit Run was published one year earlier, in 1960; it’s influenced everything from The Ice Storm to American Beauty and the television series Weeds.

But Revolutionary Road doesn’t have any freaky moms selling dope in order to keep up appearances as Weeds does. In fact, while reading it, I wondered how a novelist could pitch such a story today. Everything about it drips with the sort of ordinariness that agents and publishers shy away from. There’s not a gimmick to be had in this novel—no alchemists, time travelers, or circus freaks. Its hook is existential angst, straight up, no chaser. Who wants to read such stuff?

And yet the novel is refreshing—still, nearly 50 years later—in unexpected and stunning ways. I don’t think I’ve read any domestic drama that is quite so disturbing—not because of any extreme actions or events that take place, but simply because of many small yet tragic pivots that life and love turn on.

It’s the mundane that is the most disturbing thing of all in this life.

Yes, there’s a big whopping tragedy at the end that’s plenty disturbing, but it’s the quotidian arguments, the daily tussles with the self that truly haunt me. These people try, no matter how ineptly or awkwardly, to make it all work—and that’s the key to the tragedy, they do try—but they fail in a way that probably isn’t too far from the way most of us fail or nearly fail or could fail. Life is a horrid summation of all of their small missteps and downfalls, the small traps that they fall into—traps they unfortunately often set for themselves.

The novel begins fittingly with a wide-angle group shot, as if Yates is on a hillside describing a herd of sheep, except he’s describing the dress rehearsal of the Laurel Players, a theatre group that some of the more imaginative and perhaps more daring members of the community put together. No one is singled out for description; the director addresses “them” as if they are a team, all wearing the same jerseys and masks.

Yates gives this herd of sheep, these gutsy artists, the same hopes and fears—both of which sabotage their happiness and success. “The trouble was that from the very beginning they had been afraid they would end by making fools of themselves, and they had compounded that fear by being afraid to admit it.”

Fear debilitates the best of efforts of the characters in this story. Their fear causes them to mangle their lines, and the performance turns embarrassing, perhaps most noticeably for April Wheeler, who plays the lead role and pins the most hopes on the theatre group.

Afterward, Frank Wheeler goes backstage to console his wife. “It simply wasn’t worth feeling bad about,” Frank thinks. “Intelligent, thinking people could take things like this in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were.”

Remembering who you are turns out to be a difficult and ghastly thing.

Frank and April are smart, perceptive people—and therein lies the tragedy: Their sensibilities don’t guide them out the traps they find themselves in, yet they’re smart enough to realize that life should hold more. How…how…how?

When April and Frank first met, the unencumbered possibilities of youthful dreams made them look and feel brave and smart. Frank could spout his caustic, spirited, grand theories of life like a college undergraduate, and April admired his wit and intelligence because there was no reason to think that they wouldn’t lead exotic, heroic lives, that they would become bohemians, artists, even if they didn’t have an art to practice. They didn’t know that living such a life goes far beyond words and theories and requires a genuine and undeniable passion—the recklessness of fervid pursuit.

April becomes pregnant before their fanciful conceptions are put to the test, and their life quickly shifts into the deep furrows of conventionality, even though they don’t desire such a life. Frank takes a job with Knox Business Machines and becomes a “man in a grey suit,” even if he conceives of himself above it all.

Frank later thinks: “Wasn’t it true, then, that everything in his life from that point on had been a succession of things he hadn’t really wanted to do? Taking a hopelessly dull job to prove he could be as responsible as any other family man, moving to an overpriced, genteel apartment to prove his mature belief in the fundamentals of orderliness and good health, having another child to prove that the first one hadn’t been a mistake, buying a house in the country because that was the next logical step and he had to prove himself capable of taking it.”

Still, Frank hides from the reality of his life by propping up what turns out to be a chimera: that he is saving himself for an invisible “creative” life. What will make it creative, no one, especially Frank, knows.

Frank is anything but frank, after all. He moves through life trying to pull its strings like a novelist, in the hope that nothing will get ruffled, least of all his self-conception.

Frank and April’s marriage follows a pattern of connection and disconnection, as most relationships do, but the whipsaws of their arguments become increasingly familiar territory. They’re adversaries who need each other. Adversaries, who can, but seldom, comfort each other. Adversaries who love each other, except they don’t know what love is, and they wonder if they ever did. Everything, it seems, is a fateful, disturbing contradiction.

Frank’s lost and found manhood and his misplaced attempts to stave off the emasculating forces of the world—and in himself—form a dangerous undercurrent to their lives. Life in the suburbs, it seems, inherently strips a man of some fundamental and necessary aspect of manhood.

He returns to his truer nature only when swilling martinis and having an affair, or in the glimmers of moments while doing something mundane and unheroic like yard work.

“Even so, once the first puffing and dizziness was over, he began to like the muscular pull and the sea of it, and the smell of the earth. At least it was a man’s work. At least, squatting to rest on the wooded slope, he could look down and see his house the way a house ought to look on a fine spring day, safe of its carpet of green, the frail white sanctuary of a man’s love, a man’s wife and children.”

The repetition of “at least” is like a drum beat in the novel. Life is a series of rationalizations that begin with “at least.”

But then a moment emerges to break free from the “at leasts” of their lives. April proposes that they move to Paris--the last moment of springtime renewal she offers in a life devoid of more Aprils. “You’ll be doing what you should’ve been allowed to do seven years ago. You’ll be finding yourself. You’ll be reading and studying and taking long walks and thinking. You’ll have time.”

Nothing terrifies Frank more; he senses that there’s no self to find, no creativity to express. And he’d have to accept April as a breadwinner to his lethargic, empty self.

“Alas! When passion is both meek and wild!” Yates quotes John Keats to begin the novel. Such a battle ensues in the passions of Revolutionary Road, but Frank and April fail to pick up the figurative musket of their revolution to take a single shot at the enemy.

What a definition of the tragic—Keats’s meek and wild passions dueling. Does the person who complains about not having enough time for his or her true self have the courage to seize the time when it becomes available? It’s easier to complain—and therefore imagine that that better self, that better life exists—than put it all to the test.

Ah, what I could be if I only lived in Paris…

Frank can’t express his fear, for that would make him a failure, in April’s eyes and his. He goes along with things, tries to learn French, tells his co-workers and his friends that they’re leaving, and is even energized by the timidity of their reactions—finally, he can live in contrast. But when April accidently becomes pregnant, he’s saved. He doesn’t want the baby, but at least it shields him from any attempt to find—and confront—himself.

“The pressure was off; life had come mercifully back to normal,” Yates writes.

A life of fear—and security—is preferable to a life of bravery—and insecurity. What a nettlesome and devastating existential situation.

James Wood accurately described Yates’s prose as “richly restrained” and “luxuriously lined but plain to the touch” in his essay in the New Yorker. Yates’s talent was such that he easily could have succeeded in the over-the-top lyricism that commands such attention these days, but he chooses to restrain himself for mimetic reasons, it seems—to convey the simple, devastating truth that runs through his story. He’s the definition of an honest writer.

He’s so honest that he can appear cruel at times, especially because he doesn’t shy away from piercing displays of life’s cruelties. Take the scene when Frank breaks up with Norma, the secretary he’s been having an affair with, just when she surprises him with a nude dance, the wafts of a carefully cooked dinner coming from the kitchen, her naïve love about to be shattered forever. But her love wasn’t a part of his “level” breakup plans.

And nothing ends up being “level” in this novel. The suburbs, it turns out, are again full of singeing drama. Why would we ever think such a place was safe?

For more, Emily Gumport wrote a thought provoking essay on Richard Yates in Bookslut.

Read more reviews at Lit Matters.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

My, what a lot of fanfare this novel received. After I read the reviews, I expected a stunning classic. A daring style. Wisdom. Maybe more.

The Emperor’s Children didn’t meet my expectations, which isn’t to say that it isn’t a good read (navigating a double negative might sum it up). It’s competent and well constructed—in the way an aristocrat ties his cravat—and surprisingly fun at times. In fact, it’s the kind of book I can feel smart reading, yet it’s no more demanding than watching TV—the perfect book to take on vacation.

Above all, it’s a writer’s novel, chock full of all sorts of descriptions, piquant and promiscuous and sometimes gorgeous, as if writing descriptions were the point of it all. Yes, Claire Messud is an active, perhaps hyperactive, describer. The narrative moves at times as if each dust mote in the air might just cry out for an adjective or two of investigation.

In fact, Emperor’s made me wonder if description is the new narrative these days, the new beginning, middle, and end. It seems to have usurped characterization, bulldozed metaphor off to the side of the road, slapped dialogue into a whimper. I read so many reviewers gush over authors who write sentences that spill over with description.

Every one of Messud’s sentences lets us know that a writer has written it, as if she’s in a writerly competition, obsessively injecting adverbs and adjectives and the odd odd word in a sentence. I came to peculiarly enjoy the way she might construct a scene—say a restaurant scene—and end up describing the salt and pepper shakers, the ice cubes in the water glass, the crinkles of the white table cloth, the part of the waiter’s hair, the fabric of the carpet, the smell of the wine, the shape of the potatoes in the soup….and then touch base with the characters and their drama. She catalogues the world, and she does it gorgeously, masterfully, even enviably, but somehow she misses the telling detail, neglecting the guts of her story in service of the wordy words in her head.

The critic James Wood wrote that “Nabokov and Updike at times freeze detail into a cult of itself.” Messud is likewise cultish with detail (interestingly, she’s married to James Wood.)

The Times calls Messud an “unnerving talent” in its review of the novel, “a crafter of artful books praised more for their ‘literary intelligence’ and ‘near-miraculous perfection’ than for their sweeping social relevance” until The Emperor’s Children, which is “a comedy of manners — an astute and poignant evocation of hobnobbing glitterati in the months before and immediately following Sept. 11.”

The novel is a comedy of manners, promising hefty themes in the milieu of New York intellectuals and sophisticates, but each character is somewhat hackneyed, a cardboard cutout, the construct of an author adept at writing and researching the backgrounds of her characters, but unable to put the necessary flesh on the bones.

Marina is the typical spoiled rich girl—smart but flip and undisciplined, searching for meaning and a purposeful life, if not a husband, as she approaches 30. We’re told that she’s exquisitely beautiful and charming, but we have to take the author’s word for it. She tends to seem simply spoiled and inert on the page.

Julius is the typical gay cultural critic, caustic and callow and capricious and coked-out, exhausted by his decadent escapades and looking to settle down while also fighting the urge to skylark about town just a bit more (and you just know he’s going to be punished for his skylarking ways—the scene of his punishment is one of the most crazy, riveting scenes of the novel).

Danielle is the smart hard-working gal who can’t land a guy. She is a television producer who longs to create stories on weighty topics but instead covers liposuction—career situations like this are the definitions of tragedies in this novel; everyone deserves to be important and famous, it seems, and a story on liposuction doesn’t cut it.

Danielle has an affair with Marina’s dad, Murray, the emperor of all these children, who’s the stereotypical ‘60s activist, a truth teller who lost the truth somewhere in the ‘70s but still attempts to spout it between scotches and lurching leers. He’s writing a book about how to live, although he and we know he’s lost the necessary vision or self-respect to be able to tell that tale.

Ludovic Seely steps in as one of the two characters who aim to shake things up, especially when he begins to court Marina; he’s smarmy and arrogant, supposedly brilliant, and ready to usurp Murray’s regal role with his post-ironic sensibility, but on the novel’s pages he has about as much insight, wit, or intellect as a drunken, self-satisfied bore at a cocktail party. That’s fine except that all of the characters revere him, or at least reckon with him in ways that he doesn’t earn for the reader.

The counterpoint to all of these characters is Bootie, Murray’s lost, fervid nephew, who hews to an uncompromising truth to which even he doesn’t measure up, if only because no one can measure up to an uncompromising truth, right?

Bootie’s the character who most truly comes to life and challenges and threatens the reader, just as a young, avid thinker does to us all. Bootie might be Messud’s best character, or the only one who can carry a novel by himself; we’re never quite sure what he’s capable of, which makes him dangerous. And he is dangerous. He aims to bring down the Emperor’s house by exposing Murray’s derelict intellect, strangely thinking that he’s performing a service and naively carrying a torch for Marina at the same time.

The novel is oddly a September 11 novel, although I strain to figure why Messud literally dropped this bomb on the novel. Everything was much more interesting before September 11, and the novel didn’t do much with the event. When things were supposed to be serious, the gravity felt forced and unfulfilled; when the characters turned back into their selfish selves, the story felt diverted, neglected, hurried.

Still, despite these misgivings, Messud is a florid, adept writer. Her sentences flow, despite her infatuation with the comma. And she crafts a pretty good story—perhaps short of the “near-miraculous perfection” the Times credits her with, but one that kept me turning the pages.

I talked to several people who read this book, and they all liked it kinda, sorta, but none of them could remember much about it. One friend was able to name nearly all of the characters from a movie he saw in the ‘70s (the “Bad News Bears”), but couldn’t remember one of the character’s names from Emperor’s.

I suppose this is the risk an author takes when description is placed on such a pillar. Many readers forget the words that describe the characters they’re supposed to remember.

Perhaps that’s the telling detail.