The Fantastic

The Fantasticbook by Tzvetan Todorov

annotation by Kate Maruyama

This is a book which looks at the genre of the fantastic. It is a more academic approach to writing than I usually read, but I was turned on to it by Dodie Bellamy, a teacher I admire as a big thinker who is always able to rise above literature to see its patterns and sociological impact. I found the book incredibly useful and appropriate to what I am working on. It was a solid reminder that our fiction can be informed by everything we read.

This book rang true on a lot of levels with me and, while it went further into Freudianism than I needed to venture for my purposes, it celebrated, examined and cross-examined a genre in which I am completely entrenched with my novel.
The fantastic is defined in many ways throughout the book, but it is essentially that point at which a character and/or the reader can apply two definitions to what is happening: “There is an uncanny phenomenon which we can explain in two fashions, by types of natural causes and supernatural causes. The possibility of a hesitation between the two creates the fantastic effect.”( 26)

Todorov speculates that the moment a story is defined as one or another, i.e. a) it was really the landlord disguised as a ghost, or b.) it was really a ghost– we have left the realm of the fantastic. But if the majority of the story takes place in the realm of the fantastic, it cannot be disqualified. Whether or not my novel qualifies for this academically dreamed up genre is not really the point, but an examination of how the story can be read is well worth musing over.

Todorov not only explores this space of belief/disbelief, but states plainly that this state of the fantastic serves the mechanical function of the story by providing tension, suspense and the general action of the story. He talks a great deal about allegories and how the metaphor can become physical, elevating the story from commonplace to whimsical. He missed out on recognizing magical realism, but defines it in various examples of the supernatural becoming reality in Spanish literature.

As I go through the book again, I hope to play a bit more with the physicality of my hero’s universe. I’m certain things exist which I have defined only physically that can be elevated or played with without ruining the story. The physical can, in turn, become metaphor. This cold analysis of techniques was helpful in making me mindful that the machinations found in genre, while frequently organic, can be exploited a little. Just for fun.

The entire concept came together for me, through Todorov’s eyes, in his speculation that Kafka has, over and again, achieved the impossible in creating this “fantastic” by changing the rules so that they become normal. In Metamorphosis, it is not that Gregor has supernaturally become a bug, it is that he continues his life embarrassed by this change in himself, trying to carry on in as ordinary a way as possible. Kafka brought the insidiousness and dysfunction of Gregor’s family into relief against Gregor’s astonished, but workaday approach to being a bug, but he also managed to create the perfect fantastical world: how Gregor got that way, what occurred to make it happen does not matter, it is his environment’s reaction to the normal abnormality of his being a bug that makes the story so brilliant.

Todorov writes,”what in the first world was an exception, here becomes the rule.” (174). He then quotes Jean Paul Sartre, who wrote, “…if we have been able to give the reader the impression that we are speaking to him of a world in which these preposterous manifestations figure as normal behavior, then he will find himself plunged at one fell swoop into the heart of the fantastic.” Which is a fancy way of saying, make the world real, make the rules consistent, trust the reader and you can tell your story.

What to do with this information is the question. It will probably give a sharper eye for this revision and allow a bit more play. It is a reminder that literary criticism is something that happens after something has been written and revised. A reminder that genre is something that is frequently found out after the fact (the term Noir only came along years after its inception as a literary genre…and it was applied to film and literature was termed retroactively). I do think it’s important to be aware of the genre in which we write, its rules, precedents and cliches. I hope to make the world of my book real, make the rules consistent and trust the reader.

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Choke

Chokeannotation by Melissa Chadburn

book by Chuck Palahniuk

The narrative is episodic, and is presented out of chronological order which at times was jolting… as well as his shifts in POV. He also had a strange way of addressing his reader by saying ______ isn’t the right word but it’s the first word that comes to mind… a lot. He also says _____ is what would jesus Not do frequently. There was a point in the novel where it seemed like Palahniuk intentionally used poor grammar… to help his character appear immature.

Overall I thought this was a hilarious novel that at times got me to laugh out loud.. not easy for a novel to get me to do that. I miss humor sometimes. I don’t think we have enough of it, possibly because it is difficult to write or very particular and people do not want to limit themselves. Either way there were passages that were distinctly Palahnuik and memorably hilarious.

Although I’ve read that much of Palahniuk’s research on Choke was conducted with total strangers at the gym and sexual addiction groups, I feel he could have done more. He made some mistakes that distracted me from the story… he had people introduce themselves by their full names, first and last in anonymous 12 step meetings, and he said the fourth step was a “complete and relentless story of your life” when it is actually “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of your life. While this might be nitpicky it was definitely distracting. I learned to succumb to research in my writing, but the message I got from reading this novel is if I’m entertaining enough they may make a film.

Bird by Bird

bird by birdannotation by Aaron Gansky

book by Anne Lamott

When sitting down to write this, I thought, “Why not just put down all the memorable advice she gives and what it meant to me as a writer?” Then, the cold reality: not enough space. Above all, Bird by Bird is a practical book filled with great advice and subtle (often not-so-subtle) humor. Anne Lamott’s voice is clear, and she pulls no punches. She’s as frank as I’ve ever heard anyone on the subject of writing. One thing I like is that she is affirming and reassuring, while still being pointed and direct. Writing is work. It will be difficult. It will suck at times and you’ll hate your life. But you keep going and, eventually, it works out for you.

The name of the book comes from an example she tells about her brother. He was ten years old and working on a report about birds. He’d had three months to do the assignment and, in true ten-year-old student fashion, waited until the night before to begin the project. As Lamott put it, he was “immobilized by hugeness of the task ahead.” Then, her father gave him some great advice. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” She uses this anecdote to express the importance of short assignments. In fact, she keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk to remind her that all she needs to write is what she can see through that frame.

For me, this was encouraging, but I have to doubt the effectiveness of the advice for a commercial writer, one who is trying to support him or herself with their craft. I love the example and the idea, and am reassured by it on days when I don’t get much more than a paragraph written. Still, if my father, who supports himself entirely on his contracts, wrote an inch a day, he’d never make a deadline and never get the advances that he needs to pay his bills. His contracts and advances, however, are likely nowhere near what Lamott makes for each of her books. So perhaps the key is being a successful author first, saving up your money, and then writing an inch a day. That, of course, would be ideal.

The second piece of advice she gives, and in her estimation, equally as paramount to writing, is the idea of shitty first drafts. This was not a new idea to me, but she couples it with the idea of perfectionism. Uh oh. Now she’s talking directly to me. As a perfectionist, I find myself revising and revising, but seldom moving on. That’s one reason I wanted to complete my novel. I wanted to get it done and then revise the completed project. And always, always, is that little voice of the perfectionist who sits on my shoulder and says, “Seriously? You’re going to write that? Really?”

An example: While working as a youth pastor for a church, the senior pastor asked me to produce and Easter Drama for the congregation. He handed me the script he wanted to use. I read it and told him it was miserably bad, that we couldn’t use it. It was theologically inaccurate and bordered or heresy in places. Additionally, the dialogue was stiff and forced etc. etc. etc. (I’m also overly critical). He say to me, “Too bad. You’re doing it.” I politely told him, “Nuh uh.” He gave me the look that says, “If you like your job, you’ll do it.” So I said, “Can I rewrite the stupid thing?” He agrees. I complain to my wife about the amount of work I have to do and she says, “Deal with it. You brought it on yourself.” I love her dearly, which was a particularly good thing at the time. She was right. And that’s how I am with all my work. I still look at my first novel and think, “It could be good, if I rewrote it from the ground up.”

She mentions that writing is like hypnotizing yourself into thinking you’re good long enough for you to write. Then unhypnotizing yourself and revising what you’ve done. I found this to be incredibly helpful in terms of coping with my perfectionism.

Another point I found encouraging was the fact that even “famous” writers struggle with self-doubt. I loved her story of her manuscript that went through four drafts, and after each draft she thought it was done, perfect, until her editor told her otherwise. And when he did, she sank into great despair, which she quickly tried to remedy with alcohol and “the merest bit of cocaine.” So maybe it’s all writers, not just me.

Lastly, I liked the idea of a story developing slowly. She gives two examples for this. The first is a Polaroid picture. She says we’re not supposed to know what a Polaroid is of until the final moments when the image emerges from the greenish-gray murk. I like that. I like that it’s okay to have a murky story. I often want to script out the whole book, but I like to leave it open and be flexible. But even then, I find myself forcing events in the plot to get the people where I want them. I’ve not been comfortable up to this point with the uncertainty of where my characters are going. Lamott suggests just having the characters is enough. Watch what they do. Plot will stem from the seed of the characters. It’s a lot like driving at night, she says. You can’t see your destination, but you can see what’s in your headlights, and you can drive the whole way like that. I need to give myself the license to have uncertainty in my novels and stories. If I don’t know where they’re going, the readers definitely won’t, and that should add some nice tension, so long as I don’t resort to Deus ex Machina (ahem, Dean Koontz).

Overall, a great read that lived up to the hype. Much of the book stimulated a plethora of writing assignments for myself and for my Creative Writing students. They may not be too fond of Ms. Lamott, but I sure am!

Animal Dreams

Animal Dreamsbook by Barbara Kingsolver

annotation by Tisha Reichle

Returning to her home town of Grace, Arizona, Cosima Noline (Codi) reunites with her friend Emelina but remains estranged from her ailing father. She takes a job as a biology teacher and discovers the town is ailing too. She also discovers secrets about her own family. Much of Kingsolver’s created family will guide me as I revise my own novel. My hope is to create that bond between people and place the way she has with the characters and Grace.

Codi’s sister, Halimeda (Hallie) has abandonded her in Arizona and is helping restore Nicaragua. This forces Codi to confront her father and unpleasant childhood memories alone. She also has to confront her sexual past and the man who eventually helps her see her own strengths and learn how to love herself.

Kingsolver artfully alternates point of view from Codi in first person to her father, Homero (Doc Homer), in 3rd person. For him, Kingsolver creates a disconnected perspective allowing readers to empathize with his deteriorating mind. Ironically, Codi as she narrates her own life she should be more in control of her own destiny, but readers soon see that is NOT the case.

The conflicts, though numerous, are believable. Codi struggles with her father’s illness, being back in Grace, her own professional apathy, her own sexuality, her sister in Nicaragua, and the memories of her mother’s death. When I list them like this it seems overwhelming, but Kingsolver has connected each person to his/her obstacle and then released him/her to resolution. I strive to have all the nuances in my own fiction evolve in this manner.

Kingsolver also weaves the Arizona desert landscape and isolated rural life eloquently into Codi’s educated consciousness. Assisted by Loyd, her Native American lover, Codi begins to see the beauty in what has always surrounded her. In this setting, she finally accepts her physical and professional insecurities. She is inspired to work for social change in her own community which finally enables her to gain self-confidence and become a permanent part of her cultural and familial history.

As a reader, I finish this novel inspired to change some injustice in my own community. This is what I want to achieve in my own writing. I want readers to be moved to action by my words.

Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Roadbook by Richard Yates

annotation by Devin Galaudet

Several years ago I started reading a book by Michael Chabon named, the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Within a few pages, I found myself reading the book slower and slower. I loved the book and within a hundred pages I decided to limit the amount of pages I was reading it at one time. I settled upon three. It would eventually take several months to finish it, but glad I took the time I did. I wanted to savour it and appreciate it as a great piece of writing and story telling. Turns out I was not alone. Kavalier and Clay became the Pulitzer Prize winner for 2001.

This was my big problem with Revolutionary Road. Within ten pages or so, I wanted the same time to slowly read Revolutionary Road. Normally I would just drag it around with me reading it in the bathroom, waiting to pick up my kid and later kicking around what I had just read. No such luck.

I had to read this one quickly, plowing through it in airports and, in fact, skimming chunks at a time and annoyed with what I was doing, while I was doing it. What made matter worse was the same applied with the other required book for the month, The Things They Carried – I would have chosen to read this one slowly as well.

So what did I like that made me want to read it slowly? For starters, the book starts out in the third person plural – and does it well. Who the heck does that? I must say just the attempt was captivating because it is unusual and appropriate to the rise and fall of the entire company, which could be a bit of an analogy for the whole novel in its hopeful beginning and that eventually snowballs into tragedy. The initial “they” could be talking to the Wheelers in general by presenting a charming young couple that take that same nose dive in personally tragic turns.

Yates does a great job in unraveling what I thought I knew about the idyllic 50s and Happy Days by presenting a seemingly upwardly mobile couple and showing their increasing flaws before turning their lives into a tragedy with April Wheelers death from a botched abortion. I imagine a very dangerous topic in 1961. Moreover, Yates has this ability to tell this story better than the story itself might suggest. Unhappy couple find themselves above the Jones and more than their suburbanite lives suggest. In their plans to escape.

The narrative, as well as the dialogue, was serious, believable and at times pretty funny. I think at one point Frank listens to Bart become more dignified by using words like, “obviously and furthermore” instead of “fart and bully-button. And then toward the end when the faceless morass of doctors were describing the end of April by using only bits of disjointed dialogue that pulled the reader into a chaotic situation and/or listening with chaotic ears. Both were engaging and effective.
I also have there are subtler things going on so I likely missed lots of details and literary devices. So I will be rereading this one again over the next few weeks, maybe months because there is a lot here to digest and learn from. I have also picked up Yates’ collection of short stories.

Reasons to Live

reasons to liveBook by Amy Hempel

Annotation by Andrew Killmeier

Reasons to Live is a collection of fifteen very short stories. Some of these stories are literally two pages long. It is a testament to Hempel’s skill that she can create an impact in such a minimal space. If I had to describe the writing in one single word it would be breathtaking. This is not a word I often use.

The stories deal with grief and the fragility of life. Though the characters are often witty and warm, they hover above a chaotic abyss. Mudslides claim houses (“Tonight is a Favor to Holly”). A heart skips a beat giving the narrator pause to consider mortality (“The Tub”). A young man crashes his car while driving with binoculars held to his eyes (“Going”). Other stories mention earthquakes, fires, floods, cancer, and sleep apnea — uncontrollable factors that can change or more likely end a life.

This is a wonderful passage from “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried:”

What seems dangerous often is not — black snakes for example, or clear-air turbulence. While things that just lie there, like this beach, are loaded with jeopardy. A yellow dust rising from the ground, the heat that ripens melons overnight — this is earthquake weather. You can sit here braiding the fringe on your towel and the sand will all of a sudden suck down like an hourglass. The air roars. In the cheap apartments on-shore, bathtubs fill themselves and gardens roll up and over like green waves. If nothing happens, the dust will drift and the heat deepen till fear turns to desire. Nerves like that are only brought off by catastrophe.

This paragraph, more than any other, captures the essence of this collection. Thusly the title — Reasons to Live. Through the gambling uncertainty of day to day existence a person must move forward one way or another. Grief and fear are simply the wages of living and loving. In all of these stories Hempel addresses this struggle, and she does so with masterful simplicity.

“Nashville Gone to Ashes” is a story in first person perspective about a widow one year after the death of her veterinarian husband. She lives with several of the animals her husband once took care of. The narrator describes the animals’ personalities and behaviors as an extension of her now dead husband. She even receives flowers from the deceased on her anniversary — “love insurance” it’s called, her husband having paid the florist in advance to send a bouquet on the date. In the hands of a lesser writer this particular detail might come off as a maudlin ploy, but Hempel’s simple yet poetic words speak sincerity.

She often underplays the dramatic event as something that has happened in the past, the story unfolding like ripples around a long sunken stone. The stories “Celia is Back” and “Today Will Be a Quiet Day” both feature a father interacting with his young son and daughter. These stories are primarily driven by dialog. In both cases the characters never mention the absence of a mother. Instead we are left to guess about her estrangement or death. In just a few short pages, with merely a handful of dialog tags Hempel manages to convey the depth of the father-daughter-son bond, a tight triangle of reinforced love, a conspiracy to guard against grief.

“When It’s Human Instead of When It’s Dog” is a story about a house cleaner faced with a daunting task. She tries to remove a stain in the carpet where the lady of the house defecated in her death throes. Once again the reader is left with just the subtle human interactions in the wake of a catastrophic event. Hempel conveys the simplest details: the housecleaner’s attempts to remove the stain, her telephone conversations with other housecleaners to gather advice, the widower’s vacant stare, his clumsy attempt to make-up the bed, the fridge full of food sent from condolers. All of this comes together in a moving climax. The housecleaner, having failed to remove the stain, leaves five dollars of her forty dollar pay on the kitchen counter. Simple, sad and honest. The helplessness of humanity in the face of grief. But we do what we can. We find reasons to live.

Last Exit to Brooklyn

Last exit to brooklynBook by Hubert Selby, Jr.

Annotation by Jennifer Rhodes

In English class one of the first things programmed into our brains is that a good story consists of six basic parts: the introduction, the presentation of the conflict, the rising action, the climax, the falling action and the resolution. To conveniently reaffirm this message, virtually every book our teachers assigned during those formative years fit perfectly into that mold. Thank God for Hubert Selby who turned the whole notion of a neat, satisfying resolution on its head.

Last Exit to Brooklyn is a compilation of short stories detailing the seedy underbelly of Brooklyn society. Misadventures in the lives of its prostitutes, thugs, drag queens, thieves and other undesirables are relayed in prose as jarring and startling as the stories themselves. While the movie Pretty Woman presented audiences with a hooker’s happy ending, Selby takes the more realistic approach. No prostitute in his book is whisked away by a rich financier; she is gang-raped in the open and left to languish on the street. Sailors are not portrayed as valiant, untouchable heroes, but become the unfortunate victims of violent thugs. Selby’s characters often meet such fates: left battered and bruised, alone and helpless.

The reader is challenged to look at societal rejects and explore who each character is at the core of his being: Harry who embezzles from the union may be, in another story, brushed off as a run-of-the-mill crook. Here he is portrayed as a man with severe feelings of inadequacy. He feels hopeless, sexually frustrated and is trapped in a dead end job and marriage. The prostitute in most stories is a runaway who is pimped out and taken advantage of. In Selby’s work, however, Tralala is initially introduced as a woman who controls her own destiny: she does what she likes, gets paid for it and steals from her customers.

Each story begins with a bible verse that serves to describe that story’s overall theme. One of the most effective examples is the sexually charged Song of Solomon prefacing the tale of prostitute Tralala. Also effective is the reuse of Harry. Those familiar with Selby’s work will recognize Harry, a character Selby repeatedly uses to represent the Everyman portrayed in his work.

Selby’s writing blatantly ignores grammatical convention. Quotation marks are not used when a character speaks and slash marks replace apostrophes. His paragraphs are written as stream of consciousness where run-on sentences and fragments abound. Many paragraphs are written entirely in caps and slang terms while pronunciations typical of his characters’ language patterns are often used in place of real words. This coarse writing style only reinforces the brutality and roughness seen in the stories.

While no story’s conclusion ties up all loose ends, as our teachers told us a story’s resolution should, Selby achieves something greater. By leaving his endings raw, the reader is left wondering about each character and what will happen to him in the future. Selby’s ability to make the reader think about the characters’ fates after the story ends makes Last Exit to Brooklyn an effective story which provokes its readers and leaves them invested in its characters.