Author Archives: annotationnation

Noir, Dames and Real Women

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annotation by Melissa F. Olson

 

I love crime fiction. I especially love the old noir detective fiction. It’s just that I don’t always love what happens to the women who appear in it.

My troubled love affair with hardboiled detective fiction began….oh, somewhere around middle school. A voracious reader without a driver’s license, I spent my adolescence plundering my parents’ bookshelves for anything, anything I could get my hands on to read. (Obviously, this was before Kindle, or I would have sent my parents into bankruptcy.) And after I’d worked my way through all of my mother’s Mary Higgins Clark, I moved on to my dad’s stash of 90’s-era Robert B. Parker.

Unless you’ve been in this position yourself, I’m not sure you can understand just how flat-out cool Robert B. Parker’s Spenser can be to a thirteen-year-old. Here was a guy who existed on perfect confidence: he always had a quip, always knew what to do, and was always surrounded by a legion of loyal friends and acquaintances. At thirteen, I never knew what to do, I was always half-convinced my friends hated me, and if I thought of a funny comeback, it was usually about twelve hours too late to be deployed.

When I finished all the available Parker, I decided to backtrack to some of the classic hardboiled novels of the 30’s: Dashiell Hammett,* Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald (his Lew Archer became my favorite, probably because he occasionally showed signs of possessing actual human feelings). During my freshman year of college, I took a survey course on detective fiction. Then I took some gender studies courses.

And then some red flags began to spring up in my mind.

Holy crap, those guys were all a bunch of sexist assholes. Even (especially?) my man Spenser.**

As disappointing realizations go, this one was not small. Here were all these detectives that embodied the very spirit of cool, and they treated women like possessions, or china dolls, or hapless victims. The most impressive thing a woman could do in many of these classic noir books was be a femme fatale, because that at least made her interesting. But it also made her a villain – usually a slutty one, too, back when that was one of the worst things you could say about a woman.

I want to say that those hardboiled noir stories got more enlightened over time, but it certainly took awhile. Even 90’s-era Spenser, who should have been modern enough to know better, had as his best female role model Dr. Susan Silverman, who would “get out and walk home in her high heels” before pumping her own gas.

Now, however, it’s been eighty years since Phillip Marlowe sauntered into LA, and female mystery authors have long since created their own hardboiled detectives who can play on the level of Marlowe, Sam Spade, Spenser, and all the rest. Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and recent debut Ingrid Thoft are all great examples, and there are many more.

As for me, well, I never wanted to compete with the old noir stories – I wanted to answer them. So I stopped reading Parker and started working on my own detective novel, The Big Keep. I wrote this book to explore not whether a female detective could be tough, because that was established ages ago, but whether she could be tough and have feelings, a pregnancy, and a marriage, all at the same time. I hope that I pull it off, but I know that I’ll never regret trying.

*It’s worth pointing out, in the name of fairness, that because I was focused on the lone-wolf detective, I did not read The Thin Man or any of the other Nick and Nora books. If I had, Nora might have inspired me.

**Yes, I know that Parker eventually wrote a separate detective series with a female PI – but Sunny Randall was really just Lady Spenser. You can’t just throw a vagina on a lead character and expect that all is forgiven.

 

The Big Sleep

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book by Raymond Chandler

annotation by Hedwika Cox

 

In The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler provides minimal insight into the third person experience of Philip Marlowe. We are okay with this. Because despite this detail, we still receive an enlightened perspective of the world around him through his language. In fact, Chandler’s extensive use of imagery serves as the primary device that gives us substantial insight of his characters.

The author’s language is exquisite. Throughout this story, we receive no inner monologue of our main character, but if we listen close to the dialogue, it’s there. When Marlowe meets his employer, the General, for the first time, the dialogue exchange gives us our initial perception of the General’s daughters: “They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.” He doesn’t elaborate, but within these few lines, we get the picture.

The women are written complex, which toe the line of gender stereotypes in fiction, especially for that era. With antagonist Vivian Regan, he describes her “… she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain.”

Maybe the crime genre has something to do with it. This was evident to me in the characterization of Marlowe. The story focuses more on moving the story/drama forward, avoiding exposition or introspection from the main character, which in turn makes me lose a piece of him. Do we indeed lose a piece, though? When we watch a Bond movie, isn’t this what we expect or wonder about? Action always moves forward and yet still forward again. No room for backstory.

The fact remains that despite being written in the first person, we have yet to glimpse into Marlowe’s thoughts. Specifically, we can trace this even to the end where he loads the bullets into Carmen’s pistol. We are surprised to learn that he has figured out Regan’s disappearance a while ago, and we are never really in his head after all. We can surmise though that even though this is Marlowe’s point of view, it is really a sort of omniscient one, if that is at all possible.

Despite all of this, I like Marlowe just the way he is. Smart-assed and intelligent, Marlowe is like the gadget-less James Bond. He gives us accurate images and envelops us into the story, but we are still missing something. Him. And the fact that two women throw themselves at him, and he does nothing about it, makes us wonder on what is really going on with this man. Is it fair to the reader to divulge everything to the reader? As writers, we must make a choice. In The Big Sleep, the author makes his own choice to not lay all of Marlowe’s thoughts on the table. By doing this, he makes Marlowe’s own character and motivation a detective story in itself.

 

A Life in Men

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book by Gina Frangello

annotation by Kate Maruyama

The structure of A Life in Men is as carefully wrought as it is difficult to unravel. Gina Frangello keeps us moving, ostensibly through the stories attributed to specific men in her heroine Mary’s life – but there is a larger structure and rhythm that goes on, moving from location to location, back and forth through time. I can only imagine she wrote and wrote – as each scene is fully realized, each of its characters fully honored – and then saw how the scenes balanced against each other. Perhaps she moved certain scenes up, others later, as the life and revelations and observances of Mary and the other characters in the story unfolded. So much of the beauty of the story is in the rhythm of its unfolding as each element of the story reveals itself. “Rich tapestry” would be the cliché compliment here and is insufficient. Frangello has woven what feels like the actual fabric of an actual life with all of its complexities and offshoots. This book is a dynamic example of how writers can pull things apart, out of chronological order, put scenes up against each other and see how they play, creating their own tension. I advise so many writers I know to index card their scenes and try shuffling things a little. Characters are best revealed in layers, and not always chronologically. Sometimes we can use a slice of their past or future to inform events going on currently, and while flashback is sometimes employed, a cross-cutting and shuffling often serves a story better.

Frangello employs other tools in giving us the multilayered lives of her characters. In the midst of an already climactic scene in which Mary visits her birth father, bringing a married man with whom she’s having an affair, only to be introduced to her father’s mistress, Frangello throws in a magical realism omniscient glimpse forward, all the while enriching the scene we’re in:

Two months later, when Daniel tells this story to his artist friends in San Miguel, He will transpose the facts so that it was Eli who called Esther Daniel’s concubine and Esther, standing by, flushed with wine, will not contradict him as everyone laughs. Six years later, when Mary tells the story to Sandor over an Indonesian rijsttafel, she will say that it occurred to her only later that maybe Daniel was lying and Gabriella was completely in the dark–there was no way, after all, that either she or Eli would go up to her and ask or ever mention Esther’s name. Thirty years later, when Diane is at last succumbing to an epic, two decade battle with cancer and Eli is unburdening his soul…(153)

You get the idea. The combination of these different tangents of the story in unison at once, within several stories already working in unison, creates a symphony that frankly, I can only tip my hat to—amazing work. It is a good lesson in remembering that novels take years and layers, and that this level of craft doesn’t come from simply trotting off a story, shoving scenes together and hoping they stick. This level of craft comes from bringing characters to life, seeing how they interact and affect each other’s lives, breathing into the scenes and imagining the ways in which those characters’ lives continue, having spun off from the central story being told.

Frangello keeps us anchored in her deft manipulations of space and time and characters through Mary’s body – its limitations, desires, discomfort and pleasures, and the very way in which she experiences each place she visits, each person she meets. Our heroine has Cystic Fibrosis, which serves not only as a ticking clock, but her changing relationship to the condition and to her body, unfolds with each aspect of the story. It goes from the hilarious, with her keeping it secret with great tension and fear on a visit to Daniel’s only to have her cover blown in an unexpected way; to oddly sexy when her alarming symptoms make her instantly desirable to someone who hadn’t considered her before; to terrifying as she struggles for air far from any help; to devastating. There is something about Mary’s ticking clock, her need to gasp for air, which emphasizes her drive to eat up life; her illness also brings together people who would not have otherwise have met in fascinating and random and life-like ways. So often we forget that our living, breathing complex characters are in our strange, varied, pained, twingy, hungry, sexual bodies. A Life in Men is a study in how a body can keep your reader anchored, can propel a story and can add an underlying thrum to each scene it’s in.

Nalo Hopkinson gave a lecture at Antioch University Los Angeles in December of 2013 talking about how readers are “hungry ghosts,” yearning for the experiences of life. They want to be put inside a story that makes them feel as if they are in a real person, walking around inside a real experience. With Mary’s illness, her deeply felt experiences with sex, food and the richness of different locations as our characters travel from Greece to London to Mexico to Amsterdam to Morocco, and through the broad spectrum of life shown through each narrator’s point of view, including those little jumps into the future, Frangello leaves her reader well fed indeed. And the whirl around Mary, who is a catalyst in so many lives, becomes something bigger, illustrating way in which we bump up against people on this planet, and the very fiber of reality changes and morphs and grows richer as we do so.

 

 

My Brilliant Friend

9781609450786_p0_v1_s260x420book by Elena Ferrante

annotation by Lorinda Toledo

Elena Ferrante is an Italian author whose latest novel, My Brilliant Friend, is a character-driven story with a plot that is relatively quiet yet rich. The novel, the first in a trilogy, is set in motion by a mysterious disappearance. Motivated by this mystery, the narrator, Elena Grecco—called Lenú—sits down to write the entire story of her life-long friendship with her vanished friend, Lila. Imbued with the gift of perspective, the narrator reflects on the 1950s childhood and adolescence of the two friends. While Ferrante does many things well in this book, I believe one of the main ways she creates a successful novel is through precise characterization of the protagonists, as well as the minor characters.

While Lenú is the narrator, Lila is arguably the more fascinating protagonist in the story. Because we have only a first person narrator, and therefore do not know what is going on in Lila’s mind, the eccentrically intelligent friend becomes a marvelous mystery to the reader in the same way she is to Lenú. Ferrante establishes the singular bond between these two protagonists at the outset when Lenú introduces the reader to Lila, who’s real name is “…Rafaella Cerullo, but everyone has always called her Lina. Not me, I’ve never used either her first name or her last. To me, for more than sixty years, she’s been Lila. If I were to call her Lina or Raffaella, suddenly, like that, she would think our friendship was over (loc. 103).

Ferrante illustrates the life-long nature of the girls’ friendship beautifully, as in this scene early in the book when as children they bravely approach the house of Don Achille, a man with a reputation as the town ogre, to retrieve the dolls Lila has purposely dropped into his basement through a window: “She thought that what we were doing was just and necessary; I had forgotten every good reason, and certainly was there only because she was…She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand” (loc. 171). Lila is simultaneously a solitary outcast and the most beloved in the town. She consistently acts according to her own, highly intelligent mind, which is frequently in opposition to the status quo. As a result, she regularly pushes Lenú outside her comfort zone and on to success. Lila’s character grows and changes quite a bit throughout the book, but what always remains is the intrigue, or brilliance, of her persona.

Lenú and Lila grew up in a small, impoverished town in Naples, which is where most of the story takes place. Even Lenú’s characterization is largely dictated by that of Lila, as in this scene where, as an excellent student, she has received the honor of an island vacation where she can think and rest. It’s something that is unheard of in the poor town she’s from, and is also her first time outside Naples: “I missed only Lila, Lila who didn’t answer my letters. I was afraid of what was happening to her, good or bad, in my absence. It was an old fear, a fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance” (loc. 2694). Throughout the wave-like ups and downs of the novel’s plot, Lenú consistently describes this type of conflicted love, frustration, and doubt about herself. Lila, in effect, has determined who Lenú is.

There are many other characters in this novel, as well. So many in fact, that there is an “Index of Characters” at the beginning of the book (loc. 16) that the reader can easily refer back to. However, I found that it was rarely necessary because of Ferrante’s skill with creating memorable characterization of each of these relatively minor but recurring personas. There’s Marcello Solara, who falls in love with Lila after she holds a shoemaker’s knife to his neck (loc. 1626). The intelligent Nino Sarratore is the railroad worker/poet’s son and also Lenú’s main love interest (loc. 601). There’s Gigliola Spagnuolo, the smart, pretty baker’s daughter who in many ways becomes Lenú’s main rival (loc. 2501). One of the most memorable characters is Melina Cappuccio, the crazed widow and town outcast who everyone shuns except for Lila (loc. 295). These minor characters and their relationships with Lenú and Lila often say as much about the protagonists as their own actions do of themselves.

There are far too many characters to mention them all, but one of my favorite characterizations is of Lenú’s mother:

The problem was my mother; with her things never took the right course. It seemed to me that, though I was barely six, she did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life. I wasn’t agreeable to her nor was she to me. Her body repulsed me, something she probably intuited. She was a dark blonde, blue-eyed, voluptuous. But you never knew where her right eye was looking. Nor did her right leg work properly—she called it the damaged leg. She limped, and her step agitated me, especially at night, when she couldn’t sleep and walked along the hall to the kitchen, returned, started again. Sometimes I heard her angrily crushing with her heel the cockroaches that came through the front door, and I imagined her with furious eyes, as when she got mad at me (loc. 387).

While it is expanded upon throughout the course of the story, this demonstrates the level of characterization in the novel well. Although Lenú’s mother is a minor character, Ferrante instills the relationship with a complexity of villainy and sympathy beginning with the choices she makes in the narrator’s description of the mother.

As a fiction writer, what I appreciate that Ferrante has achieved nearly unlimited plot potential by populating the world of her novel with well-developed characters. Furthermore, she is able to sustain consistent and ever-deepening characterization over the entire course of the novel. The characterization—particularly that of Lenú and Lila—becomes the main aspect of the plot. This is a powerful skill for me as a writer to learn, because much of my writing seeks to explore the nature of relationships through literature, without turning the story into melodrama.

In My Brilliant Friend, the external conflicts are many and the stakes are high, but they feel secondary, existing only to serve this exploration of the relationship between the two girls. In this way, Ferrante achieves a realistic and multi-faceted meditation on the nature of female friendship.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

9780062255655book by Neil Gaiman

annotation by Lee Stoops

“A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change.”

~ Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the end of the Lane (170)

The more I read, the more I want to find stories that can disregard rules (carefully or not, at least with full knowledge not only of the rules but also of their reasons) and fuse genres. These are the stories that address my needs as a writer and offer permission to really dig the story out in whatever way it insists on its own excision. The way a story is unearthed, or unearths itself, matters because each has extensive power to change the way readers see the world and the way they envision themselves in it. That power (or, potential) is not the point, though. Responsibility is the point. The writer’s responsibility is to his characters, to their world, because those things matter to the reader for more than just entertainment. Sure, I started reading the way most do: for some kind of entertaining escape. But it’s not enough, now. I still want that escape, but in doing so, I want the promise I’ll come back changed. For me, the stories that make familiar things strange make that easier. Set a story in reality and embody it with surrealism, and I start to believe almost anything is possible. The human being in me loudly claims it knows what’s real and what’s not, but the storyteller/lover in me begins to ceaselessly chant “I want to believe.” And that is where a writer like Neil Gaiman with his The Ocean at the End of the Lane both adheres to his responsibility as a storyteller and sends his characters (and readers) into an adventure of actual, possible mythic proportions.

Typically, when I write about writing, I look for specific language and craft techniques or examples at play – the things I can identify as either working or not – because identification usually leads to a better understanding of how I apply myself to my own work. In the practicing of my craft, I hope that I’m honing skills, sure, but more than that, I want to be growing in my awareness. While I could look at Gaiman’s short novel from a strict craft/construction/language perspective, I think it deserves a different lens – a bigger picture lens, and I hope to do that here.

The pond was smaller than I remembered…the pond that Lettie Hempstock had called…

It wasn’t the sea, was it?

She would be older than I am now, Lettie Hempstock. She was only a handful of years older than I was back then, for all her funny talk. She was eleven. I was…what was I? It was after the bad birthday party. I knew that. So I would have been seven.

And it wasn’t the sea. It was the ocean.

Lettie Hempstock’s ocean.

I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything (7-8).

Gaiman’s story opens with a short, intentionally ambiguous prologue, narrated by the adult version of the protagonist, arriving, serendipitously, at a small pond he knew during a short window of his boyhood that he only begins to remember while coming upon it (and will likely forget again once he leaves). His memories arrive all at once, in a wave that forces the story backward in time, the entirety of it to be told by the same narrator from his seven year old point of view. And though his narrator takes on the voice of a young boy, Gaiman’s done something significant: he’s established authority in the voice – authority for an ageless character to tell an ageless story about memory and magic and humanity. But more than that, the grown human nature of the story’s introduction give the reader permission to be swept away by a story that is full of things unbelievable: a pond that is also an ocean, a young girl and her family of women who seem to know everything and have lived forever, monsters who take various forms and remain invisible at times and to the willingly doubtful.

But through the telling of the story, Gaiman’s narrator calls on familiar tokens of human youth and frustration to lend even greater credence to the narrator’s somehow-forgotten-and-then-remembered impossible childhood story. The boy’s birthday party is a failure. He has no friends. A man his parents rent his room to runs over his cat. His parents refuse to listen to him. His sister is vile. Everything in life is unfair and pitted against him. And then the monsters show up. So, maybe it’s not just youthful themes. Gaiman, with clean prose and a personable, reasonably- (and intelligently-) voiced young narrator, has sneaked in those themes readers generally consider abandoned in adolescence but have really just relabeled as adult contentions.

“…Why do you think she’s scared of anything? She’s a grown-up, isn’t she? Grown-ups and monsters aren’t scared of things.”

“Oh, monsters are scared,” said Lettie. “That’s why they’re monsters. And as for grown-ups…” She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” She thought for a moment. Then she smiled. “Except for Granny, of course” (112).

And along the way, he injects the narrative with bits of enormous wonderings, universal truths, (often) unspoken things. Rather than bludgeon the reader with these notes on humanity and the power of story, he gives them to the narrator, the narrator’s mysterious friends, and even the monsters. At the end of the boy’s narrative, the narrator says, “A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change. But I was seven when all of these things happened, and I was the same person at the end of it that I was at the beginning, wasn’t I? So was everyone else. They must have been. People don’t change” (170). His questions and statements (taken with any tone they might elicit for a reader) force similar questions and statements, oppositional, or not, from the reader. They force, in some subtle and in other not-so-subtle ways, growing consideration.

I started writing for the same reason I started reading. And when my reading needs shifted, so did my writing needs. Daily, it becomes clearer that the process is not a series of stops and starts but a continuum of shifts in need. Stories like The Ocean at the End of the Lane affirm the continuum by illuminating the evolution of need. It’s not so much a disregarding of rules or an eschewing of genre as it is a welcoming of different tactics to the widening melting pot. I want to be a writer who makes room for anything that needs representation in my work. Neil Gaiman is a storyteller who proves there’s always room, as long as there’s consideration.

Wonderbook

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book by Jeff VanderMeer

illustrations by Jeremy Zerfoss

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have this compulsion to buy people books—books they MUST have. But long ago I learned that it’s impossible to sustain a family on that impulse, so instead, I recommend.  The recommendations frequently come with a bossy, “Seriously, you HAVE to get a copy, you MUST read this,” or run in punishingly long emails about said books filling unwitting friends’ inboxes.

But this year’s recommend,  Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer has gotten a bit out of control, as, since I first laid eyes on it, I want every writer and teacher of writing to have a copy. I would like to lay it in the hands of so many people and have written so many emails and have used giant hand gestures with my students, insisting they each get a copy that, well, it’s getting embarrassing.

It’s difficult to talk about Wonderbook without totally spazzing out about its awesomeness, but fortunately, in this space, it’s not about reviews or raving, it’s about talking about what is useful to us as writers. So I can calm down. And be in control. Right?

Because of its subtitle: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Imaginative Fiction and the writers who appear in its pages (Neal Gaiman, Ursula K LeGuin, George RR Martin and Michael Moorcock, among others,)  realistic fiction writers or writers not in the genre of science fiction and fantasy may think this book is not for them. And that’s where I start jumping up and down and ranting.

As soon as the book arrived in the mail this past October, I started using charts from its pages to help teach my students (all of whom write a variety of types of fiction at a variety of levels) plot, character, process and whatever my class was discussing in our last few lessons. I can yammer all day about plots, their varieties and patterns, but the plot lizards do so much work in gorgeous images, not to mention the Story vs. Situation dragons (pictured above,) the Storyfish (who brings on the Ass Backwards Fish in the revision section, a gorgeous illustration of exactly what was wrong with a certain element of my novel before a very skilled developmental editor got his hands on it) and the evolutionary Lifecycle of a Story.

What stopped me – totally stopped me – in a gobsmacking way in the book was an illustration of The Middle Zones (116) of story. There on the page, completely illustrated, was something I’d tried explaining to so many writers over years of doing notes for friends or in teaching . From my screenwriting days, I’d called it the Second Act Wall. It’s when the initial steam of starting a script, or novel, poops out. You’ve introduced these characters you had so clearly in your head, the world you’ve put them in, the circumstances that got you excited to write it in the first place, but you have absolutely no idea how to proceed.  In this illustration, one of Jeremy Zerfoss’s little faceless (but totally animated) creatures walks around a chart, saying  things I’ve heard from so many writers who are stuck: “This senseless slog.” “I never should have started.” “I will never get to the end.” “My outline is stupid, method suspect. I no longer know what I’m doing.” The chart provides questions to ask of your manuscript, suggestions how to proceed (or as Diane Sherlock has been known to say, ‘poke it with a stick’), but moves in a circle, demonstrating so completely the utter hell that is the Middle Zone. When you’re in it, you feel you’ll never emerge. Along the edge of this wheel are hopeful words of encouragement and suggestions, “persevere,” “new venue,” “new energy.” And to describe it further is not going to get you any closer to having the book, which, if you are a writer and/or teacher of writing, you should probably do. (Like now.) Because a picture is worth a thousand words and I’ve used up only two-fifty in this chunk.

Useful (and beautiful) diagrams and gorgeous illustrations aside, the book is chock full of very useful and practical writing advice on every stage of writing, from inspiration, through characters, narrative design, world building, revision (progression was an revelatory for me and so useful now even in drafting) and the ecosystem of a story, which is my favorite section in regards to teaching:

 Like living creatures, stories come in a bewildering number of adaptations and mutations. Even within the constraint of written words, incredible variety occurs due to the near-infinite number of possible combinations. Anyone who tells you there are only a dozen types of stories should be viewed with as much suspicion as someone who tells you “all animals are the same.” A penguin is not a hamster; nor is a prawn a sea cucumber, an elephant a squid, an anteater, a dragon. (41)

So often I have students coming in with “rules” they have learned from various craft books, or from cranky teachers who believe that there is only one way to write. And often these rules have shut them down completely. It takes all manner of talking to open these writers up a little, to give them courage in their own process, and to give them the nerve to continue or sometimes to go back to the page at all. The greatest asset of this book is that it speaks gently and kindly to the writer. It contains volumes of information and knowledge, but isn’t bossy or didactic. It is more – like the chart of The Middle Zone – filled with gentle suggestions and useful information to help a writer proceed. Because at the end of the day, at least among the writers I know, we face enough demons, we don’t need an instructor prescribing our various processes.

But we sure could use a big, broad, colorful, but carefully laid out guide full of advice from so many writers who have been there, filled with encouragement, tools and tricks of the trade. This book has tools for novices, but also for pros and, were these words not copyrighted on another infamous Guide, DON’T PANIC (in giant font,) would be completely appropriate for its cover.

If you want to dip further into the world of Wonderbook, you can find more here.

Nadja

9780802150264

 

book by André Breton

annotation by Carrol Sun Yang

The first line of Breton’s French surrealist work written in 1928 inquires:

Who Am I?

The philosophical thrust of this book is thereby established and I am propelled into this semi-autobiographical novella that operates in the form of a drawn out fit of dreamlike passion and then a waking obsession over the title character Nadja. Breton’s rapturous and sometimes tangential ramblings, albeit linear and spanning ten chronologically ordered days, are intersected by images of Surrealist artworks, quotations by prominent figures in the Surrealist movement, Nadja’s symbolic scribbles on napkins and architectural landmarks (places he narrates in the story, such as café’s he frequents and various other pedestrian locales).  All of the imagery serves the writing by grounding it in a certain reality, a travelogue or possible nonfiction, by refusing to let the airy, phantom texts disorient the reader to the point of misunderstanding. There is a fine balance struck between the poetic language of capriciousness and the sensible speeches of lucidity.

Nadja is a woman who is met by the author, by chance or fate, walking alone on a sidewalk with no apparent destination. She promptly shows herself to be a little “mad” in the sense that her waking life and dream life are blended and this confused state is noted somewhat tenderly by the narrator. We detect her unconventionality (freedom) through her spectacularly absurd but somehow touching, in a childlike way, speeches and dialogue with Breton. The following fanciful transaction occurs between Nadja (or rather she to herself) and narrator in a cab, she invents:

Close your eyes and say something. Anything, a number, a name. Like this (she closes her eyes): Two, two what? Two women. What do they look like? Wearing black. Where are they? In a park… And then, what are they doing? Try it, it’s so easy, why don’t you want to play? You know, that’s how I talk to myself when I’m alone, I tell myself all kinds of stories. And not only silly stories: actually, I live this way altogether.

There is a sense that she is precious to Breton precisely because she is unhinged and able to access a secret world that only she is able to fully inhabit, a place where Breton wishes to gain entry but of course cannot fully, as he establishes early on in the text that his interests are stoked by absurd stimulation/ childish play. He also suggests and perhaps hopes that Nadja will “need him” indefinitely as she is bound like an invalid to her condition, her madness, the condition of the surreal:

When I am near her I am nearer things which are near her. In her condition, she is always going to need me, one way or another, and suddenly. It would be hateful to refuse whatever she asks of me, one way or another, for she is so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares so little, but so marvelously, for life.

His already questionable love for Nadja, as it is based on his perception of her as a darling-magical-cripple in some sense, falters when she progressively reveals to him, what he alone fears are too many remnants of her past. By unveiling herself as not solely his “creature” or “specter” but someone who was part of others lives, she inadvertently alienates herself from the mercurial cocoon that the narrator has spun around them. She bursts his figment of her. She bursts his figment of them. He bursts. In essence, she becomes too common to adore:

I reacted with terrible violence against the over-detailed account of she gave me of certain scenes of her past life, concerning which I decided, probably quite superficially, that her dignity could not have survived entirely intact.

 Upon cutting off ties with Nadja, the narrator promptly begins to pine for her with a fiery obsession, as one would over a newly dead lover. Nadja a ghost. Nadja his concoction. Nadja the abstraction with her “fits of abstraction” who he could not live without as much as he could not live with the flesh and blood reality of her.

When he learns that his beloved was eventually committed to a sanitarium, the platform is set for Breton to offer sociopolitical commentary, which he does quite succinctly, a departure from the more esoteric language that inhabits the preceding text:

Unless you have been inside a sanitarium you do not know that madmen are made there, just as criminals are made in our reformatories. Is there anything more detestable than these systems of so-called social conservation which, for a peccadillo, some initial and exterior rejection of respectability or common sense, hurl an individual among others whose association can only be harmful to him and, above all, systematically deprive him of relations with everyone whose moral or practical sense is more firmly established than his own?

In my reading, this opinion is what drives the book. Breton elevates Nadja, the mad one, to the level of a beautiful, genius, mystical specimen of unfortunate internment. In writing her, he releases her from certain captivity while simultaneously keeping her in bondage to his memory. He champions her flights. There is a section in the book where we see Nadja asking that Breton write her into a book. He does not fail her.

The closing sentence summarizes the structure of the book and the nature of madness and longing:

Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.

What I take away from Nadja is a way to communicate the confluence of mammalian love and human madness, both visually and textually. How love and madness are always initially conjoined. The initial convulsions of an adult “crush” are hormonal and spiritual. A crush is based in fact and fiction. Exposed to dissection. Open to portent. Joyful in it’s high frivol. Obsessive until it’s inevitable death. Precisely the way Breton manages it.

I am also noting the beginning and ending lines of books. In “Nadja” the first line seems to be answered in part by the closing line. (I think that is one possible method I may employ in my own pieces as a jumpstart/ shortcut to creating a basic framework around the “filling”).

In “Nadja” Breton never seems to be able to answer with any solidity the question of who he is except to suggest that who he is, is related to who he haunts or who haunts him. He attempts to understand himself in relation to other men/women/objects in the world. These beings by virtue of purely existing (within his view) are also not-existing (already dead) and in that they become something. They become his/ him. This model which I am able to tease out of his writing appears to be somewhat based on Surrealist engagement with the Hegelian Dialectic. Those people/objects which Breton writes about are ultimately arranged in changeable and mysterious patterns and the only way to know who he, Breton is, is by looking at the ways in which he arranges them in his own mind. Simply, I would say that he is what he writes. That what he writes of and how he writes are convulsive, he haunts with his words and his words haunt back, objects in the world haunt him and he hunts them, in that animal purity is the great beauty that insists on itself and in a way gives answer to who we all are. The haunters/ haunted and the hunters/ hunted.