The Easter Parade

Easter Paradebook by Richard Yates

annotation by Neal Bonser

One of my favorite complements a music writer ever gave my band went something like this: “All of these songs felt as if they already existed and they were just waiting for the right band to come along and discover them.”

That’s what Yates’s prose is like. The sentences already existed in a completely natural state, and Yates just came along and unearthed them, found them in some magic box buried in Iowa or Boston or wherever he was at the time. His biography clearly indicates the exact opposite. He tortured himself for these sentences and didn’t even think much of them once they were written. (I read in something online that he thought Easter Parade “too slight” or something like that to be of consequence. Why do we writers do this to ourselves? And I’m feeling undeserving to be putting myself in Yates’s category right about now.)

The cumulative result of these sentences is that the story unfolds just as naturally as the sentences. There’s no questioning a plot turn. No questioning a gap in time, why some events are dramatized and some are summarized. The storytelling quality of the novel is so right on the money. It just feels correct. Unquestionable.

I usually try to read novels with an eye out for how I can learn and improve my own writing by reading this work. Reading Yates reminds me of watching a guitar player who is so much better than me that I’m not even sure what he’s doing. Most guitar players I watch and say, “Okay, that was cool. Interesting choice. Maybe I should try that.” But some are just so innovative that I’m just baffled and learn nothing.

Yates is not innovative. He works in the milieu of realist fiction. He’s not flashy. But whatever the truth is behind its creation, his prose feels effortless. My prose is like wringing blood out of a wash cloth that I just used to staunch the blood flow from my forehead. Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic.

I think what I can learn from The Easter Parade comes from Yates’s biography. Writing was torture for him just like the rest of us. He had the doubts. But look at what he created. Not much craft analysis going on here, but I somehow come away from this rather depressing novel encouraged and wanting to make more of my own writing. Sentence by sentence.


The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Unbearable Lightness of Beingbook by Milan Kundera

annotation by Tina Rubin

Kundera’s portrayal of four characters in the years after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 piqued my interest in the metafictional style of writing, in which the author speaks directly to the reader, breaking the spell, as it were, of fiction. We are reminded throughout the novel that the two pairs of lovers, Tomas and Tereza, Sabina and Franz, are creations of the author’s imagination and are not to be believed. As their stories unfold, we are also told, in no uncertain terms, what each symbol or event signifies. In the end I found the style rather disconcerting—it caused me to remember why I enjoy “regular” fiction so much. I wanted the author to give me, the reader, more credit. To let me figure out the meaning for myself.

However, that said, Kundera writes beautifully and evocatively. He weaves his philosophy through the story with thought-provoking discussions of concepts ranging from the myth of eternal return and the longing to fall to the basic question of the book, whether lightness or heaviness is the positive trait that Parmenides referred to in the sixth century B.C. His chapters are carefully crafted so that the beginnings and the endings relate. One section of the book struck me as particularly clever, “Words Misunderstood” (eleven chapters): the concept was a brilliant vehicle for expressing the nature of the two pairs of opposite characters, their complete misunderstandings, and the futility of their choices, regardless of what they were. The theme of futility, illustrated through these opposites, came through very well.

The story underlying the novel, though, that of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, was the real truth of the book for me—because that’s where the author was present on the page. Not as much so in the contrived style with which he presented the characters. This is something I have been working to achieve as well, being present on the page. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an excellent lesson, I feel, in both how to attain that presence and how not to.

The Time Traveler’s Wife

Time Travelers Wifebook by Audrey Niffenegger

annotation by Kate Maruyama

The Time Traveler’s Wife is such a lovely read on so many levels and might take a dissertation to unravel its mysteries.  There would be lots of charts and diagrams involved. Niffeneger not only gives us two very tangible and likeable romantic heroes, she gives us the entire interweaving of their complicated lives.  Or, the complicated interweaving of their entire lives…the result being an amazing portrait of a marriage and its complications. On top of all of this is a supernatural thriller with its own rules, tension and horrors.

There are many lessons to be taken from this beautiful novel, and it could not be more appropriate to what I am working on. The author’s withholding information is artfully done.  The first reminder this book had for me is that not everything has to happen at once.   She keeps us in the dark in the beginning, and yet explains the rules of the universe: that is so important.  They are breathless and time traveling and clearly in love and Henry briefly explains what it physically feels like and that it happens.  Then, the other questions that come up, “When do they meet? Why doesn’t he know her? Is he getting younger?” These can wait because we know the basics of the universe and we know exactly the kind of book we are in and it will all come clear in time. And, better than that, these are the questions that create the tension for the story to go forward.

The different voices in the novel, Clare and Henry, work on so many great levels. First, the voices are so strong and clear and we know exactly who they are. They have a sense of humor, which is great.  Their awareness of facts are different at every different time we see them and this creates tension, and we also get that great disconnect that often goes on in marriage when feelings and knowledge are presumed, or suppressed or ignored.  There are many things Henry keeps from Clare, so it is a delight when she keeps from him their first time making love.

The secondary characters are so well written and we know exactly who they are: Clare’s family, Henry’s Dad, Charisse and Gomez (and their entanglements in our heroes’ lives).  Niffenegger brings them all together at the end for a party for Henry and the party takes on some joy for the reader as we realize we know all of these people. Their stories and how they interact create a resonance for the tension of Henry’s final departure. I have been so busy creating my main characters’ insular world, I realize we need to get to know the people about them. I have some of them, but the funeral will be a fun place to bring them out and I have to try to remember to make it a place to learn one or two surprising things about the couple, as well as taking advantage of it as a place to echo what we already know about them.

I marveled at the complete story of their relationship as it is told from beginning to end, and yet it could jump around into the future and the past and the different feelings one has in a marriage were bumped up against each other. Particularly after Henry sleeps with the 18 year old Clare and goes home to the 35 year old Clare who has had so much sorrow. I am mindful to hold my hero and heroine’s entire relationship in my head and while I will not be able to share it all in the time structure of this story, being conscious of how a relationship changes will be foremost in my mind.

The ending of the novel was touching, but I found that the part that moved me most was September 11, 2001.  Clare gets up to find Henry sitting in front of the television with their hard-won baby Alba in his lap.  She asks if it has happened yet and we realize that Henry has already told her about the twin towers.  He answers, no, he is just enjoying the last few hours of the world before it changes forever.  I do not often cry in books, but this moment set me off.  I was pregnant with my daughter on that day and my son was eighteen months and if I had known then what I know now…  It was such a small scene, and yet it yielded the horrors of time travel, of knowing; the problems with not knowing when something large hits, the inability to protect your children from history and the extraordinary ability Henry had to take a moment in his unpredictable traveling to relish innocence.  I don’t intend to throw that date willy-nilly into things I am writing, but it is a great reminder that a communal happening can really bring your characters home for your reader. They come alive as part of your shared experience.

This 500 plus page book was read in one weekend. I could say it was out of a ticking deadline for my annotation, but the truth was, I was completely absorbed, in love and couldn’t go very long without finding out what happened next.  Bottling that would be amazing, but how does one ensure that every turn for each character will make the reader become completely absorbed, care about the characters and want to know what happens next?  It’s not a practical approach to my writing, so for now, I will just hold it in my mind as I forge forward in my draft.

A Good Man is Hard to Find

A Good Man is Hard To Findbook by Flannery O’Connor

annotation by  Aaron Gansky

O’Connor has long been one of my favorite writers. Just about everything of hers I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed. This collection of stories is no different, though I noticed a couple of things that I’d not noticed before—things that have altered my perception of her writing, and perhaps, lends credibility to some of my students’ complaints when we read her. In the process of writing this critique, I went back over the titles of her stories, all of which are brilliantly subtle (with the exception of “The River” and “A Circle in the Fire”). The rest work by distraction, but also serve to lend credence or importance to certain aspects of the story that might have been otherwise missed by a quick read-through. It points the reader to important details in the story, and allows them to conclude WHY the things are important without being hit over the head with her “theme baseball bat.” No one likes that. So she’s more subtle. She paints a picture and says, “here it is, make of it what you will.” And her stories all sound real. Her characters are deep, thanks in large part to the seamless narrative (juggling) movement between action and thought (can you tell I’ve been reading Stern?). Her characters walk, chew, spit, breath, and speak like real people, and we’re left with the sense that these are stories, not that we’ve heard, but that we’ve experienced. It’s like hearing a news story and saying, “I know that guy,” like the people we knew in Katrina and we hear their story on the news. Like the Southern California fires and we had the displaced families living in our homes, sleeping on our couches. By God, we KNOW these people.

But, and I hate to pull out criticism, but isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? I feel awkward saying anything negative about her work because she’s a literary hero of mine, someone I aspire to be like someday (except that I don’t plan on becoming a woman, not physically at least). Anyhow, looking over the titles of these stories made me realize something else. I’m glad I’ve read them, but I’m in no way eager to jump back into them. Why? The impression I’m left with at the end of each of her stories was, “That was great,” and “I’m so glad that’s over!” This has nothing to do with the tension of the stories (which she does an excellent job of building), but rather, the LENGTH of her stories. Maybe it’s because we live in an ADD society and our commercials are all 30 seconds long because that’s all the time and attention we want to give to any one thing. Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Sudden Fiction and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. These collections are quick reads. With O’Connor, I found myself counting pages (okay, I do that with almost all stories, but there was a LOT of counting and not many stories). I guess, in short, I want to get down to it. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find” we get a family traveling for pages and pages. There’s tension in the family, yes, but not much. Then, the build up is paid off in the final few pages. The stakes are raised to life-and-death. A beautiful ending, masterfully crafted, and I realized all those pages were necessary to set everything up. But then, inevitably, I ask, “Really?” Many of the stories didn’t need such a big build up. The pay offs (endings) were always spectacular, but I wondered if they’d have been better received by me if she’d gotten to them quicker. I’m thinking especially of “The Artificial Nigger” here, where she goes on for about six pages getting her two characters into the city where they get lost. Can’t we just start with them lost and flash back a bit?

Lastly, I wondered about the characters. There were no less than three stories in here where I never got a sense of who was whom until FAR too late in the story. “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” I’m still confused about. “The Artificial Nigger” took me three or four pages to get the characters and their relations right in my mind. “The River,” had something similar, especially since the protagonist goes by two names. Then, for whatever reason, some random guy shows up at the end and it gets pretty unclear who’s doing the action because of her use of pronouns (which “he?”—Bevel or Mr. Paradise?) And, lastly, she’s a tendency to use titles for names or character traits, etc. Mr. Head, Mr. Paradise, Mrs. Hopewell, Joy, etc. Not bad, per se, but maybe a little annoying at times.

Yes, I’m nit-picky. Yes, I feel bad for speaking ill of O’Connor. Yes, I know I’d be lucky to be half the writer she is. Still—this is what I noticed.