L.A. Confidential

LA Confidentialbook by James Ellroy

Annotation by Neal Bonser

First off, and I feel I have to address this, this is the first time I can remember that I’ve read a book when I had seen the movie version first. It’s been a while, but I couldn’t help seeing Kevin Spacey’s face whenever Jack Vincennes spoke, or Guy Pearce or Russell Crowe. I don’t think it detracted from the experience exactly. But it certainly transformed my visual experience of the novel. I’m left wondering what visuals would have been left in my head by Ellroy’s prose had these actors’ faces not been previously implanted. What is the importance of the visual evoked in a novel?

I think it must be very important. How many times have I seen movie versions of novels I’ve read and either been happy or disappointed (usually disappointed) by the visuals of the movie and how they compared to what was already in my head? It really is an impressive accomplishment to evoke such strong images in the reader’s head using the black and white page and a collections of letters and words and sentences. I suppose it is in, what we are so often taught, the specificity of detail. When I think about my own characters, some of them are very visually present to me and some are not. It makes me want to revisit those that I can’t picture clearly and clarify that image for myself, or how will I ever make that image sharp for the reader?

I really enjoyed the clipped sentences and straightforward prose that Ellroy employs in this novel. It was evocative of that noir mood, easy to read and it provided a momentum to the prose that made me want to keep reading. While Nicholson Baker’s prose wore me out after ten pages (sometimes two), Ellroy’s prose pulled me along for the ride. Is this a personal predilection or something inherent to this style of prose? Michael Chabon’s twirling, beautiful prose doesn’t wear me out. So it’s not as simple as sentence length. But there’s something very satisfying when reading Ellroy’s unadorned, to-the-point sentences. And maybe unadorned is the wrong word. Ellroy certainly employed unique vocabulary within his clipped sentences. The sentences themselves, even as they changed points of view, remained similar in their style, so the voice was consistent even as the point of view changed. The characters are made distinct through description and action, not the nature of the prose. This is interesting to me. As I have personally explored the nature of the narrator in third person work, I realize that the narrator in L.A. Confidential is present purely as voice. We’re pretty much directly in the head of the point of view characters at all times. No pull back. No distant perspective. But that voice is always there. That clipped sentence style of hard-boiled (sorry for the cliché) prose. It sort of pleases me that this book kind of confirms one of my hypotheses about what a narrator can be in third person work.

My favorite thing about the book though, is probably the plot itself. In spite of it seeming a little bit overcomplicated and maybe even confusing at times, it was always compelling. I remember hearing somewhere that literary fiction is character based and popular/genre fiction is plot based. I suppose that’s true to some extent in an overgeneralized sort of way. But plot is important. Make me want to turn the page. (Help me make my reader want to turn the page!) Plot evolves from character, I suppose. But plot also reveals character. I’m not sure what I’m saying here, except I enjoyed reading this book on the very simple level of the pure enjoyment of reading. Wow, what a crummy sentence. Ellroy would hate that.

What Ellroy wouldn’t hate is that I came away from this book re-inspired to keep my plots moving. I also am reminded that simple sentences are not unadorned sentences. I like straightforward prose (perhaps because I don’t have it within me to write otherwise), but when traveling in that (dare I say it?) minimalist vein, word choice is critical. Oh great gods of prose help me to not forget the sentence. Hallelujah. Amen. In a, you know, secular, desperate writer, sort of way.

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlasbook by David Mitchell

annotation by Tina Rubin

David Mitchell has succeeded in fulfilling my goal in life: to bring a new way of thinking to a society that likes to hold on to tradition. Pretty big footsteps to follow in, I realize. I can’t claim to have Mitchell’s brilliance or talent, but I’ve gained immeasurably from reading this book: from its voice(s), humor, humanistic message, playfulness, and, most of all, its remarkable structure. If Mitchell is on the leading edge of a new wave of literature, I’m right there soaking up the surge.

I haven’t read anything, that I remember, in which the structure of the book is as integral to the theme as it is in Cloud Atlas. Each of the six novellas of the book (like the character Frobisher’s six nested sonnets) stands on its own when its two separated halves are put together, but a small part of each one is absorbed by the next. Not only does the novel move forward in time until the middle and then backward in time to the end, each page contains the whole—just as every moment of what we call “reality” contains past, present, and future. The mirror images Mitchell gives us with this structure are infinite.

Further, as the book goes on we discover that each “recorded” means of telling the story is not exactly the truth we think it is: Adam Ewing’s journal, we’re told, might not be authentic, Sixsmith’s letters are really part of a novel, the novel’s publisher is just a character in a movie, Sonmi ~ 451’s ordeal was scripted . . . until we return, far in the future, to oral tradition, perhaps the ultimate form of ghost writing. The character Isaac Sachs in the second half of the first Luisa Rey mystery is, I think, David Mitchell, literally stepping into the scene to explain himself. Sachs writes in his notebook about actual past and virtual past, symmetry, and actual and virtual future (and then gets splattered to bits as the plane he’s on explodes, which I see as a funny, self-deprecating gesture on Mitchell’s part.) My point here is that Mitchell shows us how memory is actually a figment of our imagination.

Through the different narrators and the tenses and forms of their stories, I learned to assess how much perspective each character has—something I hadn’t realized previously and can definitely use. When, for example, narrator Tim Cavendish relates his story of being trapped in an evil nursing home in past tense, even if I don’t know in the moment what’s going to happen, I do know he’ll be alive at the end, because he’s telling the story. Conversely, a story told in present tense gives less perspective; its temporality and causality are open and plot-based.

Another aspect of Cloud Atlas, Mitchell’s use of language, opened my eyes to how much fun an author can have with words while using them to convey deep meaning. In addition to his repetition of various phrases and images from one chapter to the next as emotional tags of a sort, his generonyms were cleverly done. Best of all, by naming the savior in Sloosha’s Crossing Meronym—“a word that names a part of a larger whole”—he ends the tale on an exceptionally upbeat note, speaking volumes about the civilized world ahead in just one word.

Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular


Book by Rust Hills

Annotation by Kat Kambes

Rust Hills quickly lays out his thematic impetus in Writing In General and the Short Story in Particular. On the first page he states “only two things can be said about the nature of the short story.” He quickly points out that “a short story tells of something that happened to someone” and “…will demonstrate a more harmonious relationship of all its aspects than will any other literary art form…” This philosophy drives the books content, as the individual chapters each focus upon an aspect that Hills is quick to point out as an aspect, part of the necessary “harmonious relationships of all its aspects.”

Hills attempts to pull out the threads that make the cohesive whole, beginning with the story creating a change in behavior of the character. He drives this more explicitly to note that character does not really change, but that we are revealed something new about that character or witness the character understanding something new about himself. This is brought about through moving action. He explores the ideas of fixed action, something that is “constant (or repeatable) before the story happens,” as belonging to the beginning, so that the everyday, fixed quality of the character, will allow us to witness the “changed” character.

I particularly enjoyed the concept of “fork in the road” that was formative to the point where the real story is. These are events for the short story writer to focus on. The point of no return, where the character can no longer turn back. There has historically been much discussion about this point, the climax, the crisis point, or the crux and what is really driving here is that this moment bears a dynamic weight, that some truth be revealed. It might also be considered the “turning point” or reversal, but clearly the peak moment of change.

What Hills definitely approaches that is pronounced from the many books on writerly skills that I have encountered, is not the concept of internal conflict, which we have seen specified, but the astute further rendering of this idea: “…to be effective the situation of the conflict must be developed so that the forces or weights or values on each side are more or less balanced.” Stressing that the development of these forces, which heighten the conflict create more difficulty for the character. But this only takes us to the question of tension, in which Hills uses a definition close to is Latin root – tensus, meaning “stretch.” He states “Tension in fiction has that effect: of something that is being stretched taut until it must snap.”
Hills delves into character and challenges the writer to really know the character, the way their energy works, the abstract and mechanical intelligence, the sociability, habits, lifestyle, ad infinitum. It is through really knowing the character that an understanding of the character’s motivation can be made manifest. He states “…motive seems to create a sort of potential for movement in a character, to seem almost that part of character which potentially is plot.” He talks about using stress, and understanding the way this stress is expressed or suppressed in a character. We seem to know people more fully after going through a stressful situation with them.

As regards plot Hills states that “Plot…is never there for its own sake…. Any action in a story must be justified by its contribution to the whole.” He discusses at length the importance of selectivity in the short story form, how the selection process is crucial not just to characterization, but to setting, and that each of the aspects must subordinate themselves to the whole of the piece.

He does some exploration into the unique sections of the story, beginning, middle and ending and spends a good deal of time on point-of-view where he discusses both their individual usefulness as well as their limitations.
Hill was a long-time editor for Esquire magazine and strove heartily to bring the “literary” short story back into its framework. He spends a good deal of time extolling the virtues of literary endeavor and talks at length about the changing landscape of literature in our times.

This work of exploration on technique in writing the short story has at its core the perception of someone who has seen how the best of stories work. By this I mean, how all the moving parts fit together. For this reason, the book’s approach is different. Since Hills was an editor, he has a detached distance from the work. I previously read another book on craft written by editors Renni Browne and Dave King entitled Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which was much more nuts and bolts, dealing with specific issues of tense, beats, mechanics, proportion. These were all issues of practicality.

What Hills strives for is a deep level of “understanding” in the overall cohesiveness of the moving parts, which he explicitly sees as being in motion, action being a key concept to the unfolding nature of the whole.

Bastard out of Carolina


book by Dorothy Allison

Annotation by Heather Luby

Greenville, South Carolina is the setting for this novel and it is also the “heart” of the novel. Dorothy Allison creates a rich and wild background for her characters that not only grounds the reader in the atmosphere of the book, but it also tells us something about the people that populate her novel. Setting is a key element in fiction and in terms of my own writing; I wanted to explore Allison’s technique. To do so, I asked myself how does Allison use concrete details to convey setting and atmosphere—and, simultaneously, to characterize the narrator?

Allison begins chapter two with this: “Greenville, South Carolina, in 1955 was the most beautiful place in the world. Black walnut trees… where their knotty roots rose up out of the ground like elbows and knees of dirty children suntanned dark and covered in scars (17). This line accomplishes two things. It gives the reader a visual landscape to place its characters in, but it also tells us something about the narrator, Bone. It tells us that she is used to seeing kids dirty from hours playing outside, tanned by the sun and scarred and “beat up” by playing rough and probably without supervision. These kinds of children, in 1955, were often the children of working mothers (i.e. lower social economic status). But this line is also delivered without an undercurrent of judgment; therefore we can assume that it is a natural sight to Bone and probably her own circumstance. We learn all of this from just two sentences.

In chapter six, Allison dedicates several pages to the apartment of her Aunt Alma and her children. Below their apartment lived another family with several children, but as Allison remarks “I had never seen colored people up close, and I was curious about these. They did look scared (84). Bone’s interest in this family and their “outsider” status mimics the way in which she believes others feel about her and her own “white trash” family. And the description of the dry and splintered wood of the staircase and the hot dirt of the yard again speaks to the poverty of the area. Interesting in this case, you have a “colored family” of the 1950’s and a “white trash” family, living in the same location under the same conditions, yet it is alluded that they both believed themselves to simultaneously be outsiders to the world, yet better than their close living counterparts.

There are many examples of Allison’s technique throughout the novel. What I learned form reading the book and searching for these specific examples is that setting, to work well, must be a combination of environment and character. How a character or narrator describes the surroundings is an integral part of how the reader will view the character. In this case, Bone’s stark descriptions lend both to the creation of a bleak atmosphere and to the dark outlook Bone has for her own circumstances in life. In a novel about such heavy themes (sexual abuse, poverty, betrayal, etc) Allison’s plainspoken and unsentimental descriptions of setting characterize both the world that Bone lives in and Bone herself.

The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five

Marriage between zones three four and fivebook by Doris Lessing

annotation by Janine Coveny

This was my first experience reading Doris Lessing and I feared that I would not enjoy it, as I am not a big fan of fantasy or speculative fiction. But soon enough I was swept away by the story of a forced marriage between the leaders of two mythical kingdoms, or Zones, a union that has the power to affect the lives of everyone in that world.

The novel is, in part, a detailed study of the emotional nature of male and female relationships. The path from being strangers to adversaries to impassioned lovers taken by Zone Three’s Queen Al-Ith and Zone Four’s general Ben Ata is really the story of all love relationships undertaken by the prototypical female and the prototypical male. It is also about the transformative power that female wisdom and strength can have over a dominant, aggressive male culture, but also how the protective strength and decisiveness of the male supports the female. The story also demonstrated how the very different gender perspectives inform the political climate. In the development of this unique relationship we see how much love requires compromise and how much love truly can change a person far beyond even the end of that relationship. Al-Ith, by order of the Providers, sacrifices herself – her body, her position, her child – for the betterment of the Zones, much the way women sacrifice themselves for those they love.

In a bigger way, the book exalts the human to desire to attain a higher level of existence, an elevated consciousness or spiritual state. Each Zone represents a different state of being and must assist the other in adapting to a more humane and just way of life. Each zone must experience change in order to prosper and thrive.

It was an interesting framing device to have the story told by Lusik, one of the Chroniclers of Zone Three. The fact that the story has become part of the Zone’s historical archive lifts it up into the realm of legend and gives it an epic scope. It also begs the question of Queen Al-Ith’s position in the story; we see her as the heroine, the martyr, the magical all-seeing She. But that is the cultural perspective of her own homeland; would the Chroniclers of Ben Ata’s Zone Five not cast him as the hero and savior in their own history?

The novel left me curious to read more in the Canopus In Argos series because many things were unexplained when they book began, and other threads were left when the novel ended. I was profoundly moved by sections of the story and was engrossed in the fictive dream woven by Lessing.

Reading this a writer, Lessing demonstrated to me the importance of theme in a work of fiction, which begs the question, what comes first: the theme or the story? Does one craft a story with the theme in mind, or does the theme arise organically from the writer’s exection of the story? For this work, it was likely both. The lesson in Lessing is how a skilled author can make the broadly political very personal in a novel. I was also impressed with how this author was able to sketch out the internal life of the characters so that the reader is one with their emotions, and her ability to plot out this imaginary world in such fantastical detail.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich


book by Leo Tolstoy

annotation by Stephanie Quinn Westphal

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich is considered a classic for its brilliant structure. By opening with a protagonist who is already dead, Tolstoy gives himself a difficult technical challenge. By putting the “end” at the beginning, Tolstoy removes the possibility for normal suspense. The novel’s tension no longer resides in the outcome, but rather in what led to this particular ending. The central question shifts from “Will Ilyich die?” to “What kind of a man ends up dying so un-mourned?”

Tolstoy replaces traditional suspense over the outcome of the plot with psychological suspense about the nature of the dead man’s life. We are propelled to read his story by our questions (Why is Ilyich so alone?), our emotional prurience in the real feelings of the man’s so-called friends and family (Why did they despise him or think of him as merely useful?) and a morbid interest in the details of his death. After dispensing with the classical means of engaging the reader – a compelling plot and/or a likeable protagonist—Tolstoy lures the reader in by his sheer technical genius. And in a central way, death isn’t the focus of the story, despite its title, but rather a lens Tolstoy uses to examine life and how it is lived well or poorly.

What stood out for me most was Tolstoy’s brilliant use of characterization in the novel (which is deftly interwoven with his use of structure). He begins with three colleagues outwardly responding to news of Ilyich’s death and inwardly revealing their rather shockingly self-centered reactions. Tolstoy skillfully manipulates his characterization of Ilyich’s three colleagues to build the personality of the dead man, to create the social world of the story, and to evoke the common frailties of being human. The narrator doesn’t comment much, but instead reveals the gaps between what the characters say and what they actually think and feel. In fact, their reactions contain more irritation or glee than sorrow or regret; this not only makes them seem shallow, self-absorbed and duplicitous, but also raises essential questions about the personality of the dead protagonist. What sort of man makes so little a mark on the people who share his life?

Tolstoy took this approach to create a negative impression of Ilyich, to paint him as mercenary and selfish by virtue of the company he keeps and what little they think of him. We quickly conclude that Ilyich seems to be a man whose relationships are not emotionally close or genuine, but rather built on propinquity or mutual benefit. After Tolstoy quickly and effectively sketches these characters, he extends his critique outward in a larger ring to show the hypocritical society in which Ilyich worked and lived.

The coldness and detachment of the three lawyers is echoed in another friend that Pyotor encounters at the funeral, an event that he goes to more out of duty than love: “His closest acquaintances, Ivan Ilyich’s so-called friends, couldn’t help thinking that they would now have to fulfill some tedious social obligation such as attending the funeral and calling on the widow to express their condolences.”

After setting up the dead man’s personality and milieu, Tolstoy directs our attention to the man’s life. We read Ilyich’s story as a cautionary tale.
With some disgust, we learn how Ilyich abused his power as a judge. We recoil as we see how he dismissed people’s real suffering and “granted” them mercy only as a way to increase his feelings of self-importance. And we critique him for how he barely cared for his family, but instead saw them as props in his stage show of “The Unique and Important Story of the Caesar-Like Ilyich.” We also, it must be said, stand back as if we are completely free of such small-minded, selfish tendencies, an effect that Tolstoy surely intended as well.

As Ilyich stumbles from being a self-satisfied, successful judge to a mortally ill, essentially friendless man, he is forced to question his own life. Ilyich rails against the unwelcome necessity that presses itself on him, almost as unwelcome as his fatal illness and impending death.

Self-examination was a task he avoided until he became sick. When he dismisses some of the conclusions that visit him like unwelcome guests, he reveals the depth of his self-delusion, his smugness and his lack of insight.

Through this rather detestable, but very human character, Tolstoy creates a masterful portrayal of a common human flaw, a bug in our mental software: we are often so consumed with our own needs, desires and self-centered concerns that we fail to live in real relationship to others, discarding the biggest joy of life –the chance to love and be loved.

In addition, Tolstoy uses inversion to show how life is a series of reversals of elemental roles: baby to old person, child to parent, judge to victim, and powerful to helpless. When he switches roles, Ilyich must face his own arrogance and false belief in his uniqueness. When the judge’s body sickens, the famous doctor won’t slow down enough to treat Ilyich like an intelligent human being. Ilyich’s wife and daughter see his illness and impending death as irritating impositions on their plans. If he can’t be pater familias, he’s not welcome as dying, needy dad. His friends wish he’d just hurry up and die already. Without death gnawing on him, Ilyich would never have faced how he misspent his life. He confused his roles in life with his essence, foolishly believing outward success conferred real value. He bought the illusion that his social position and professional trappings made him good, lovable and important, and not his actions or the way he treated people.

Tolstoy does an impressive job of using the particular to convey the universal. He creates a specific man in the prime of his life who must confront his own imminent death, must bear with being humbled and terrified, and must face the ramifications of how he structured his life. If Ilyich had died of a heart attack, in his sleep, or even as an old feeble man, he might have managed to remain deluded about his specialness and his importance to others. But since Tolstoy makes Ilyich die a slow, painful death by cancer, he must at least glance at the withering away of his abilities and his abandonment by others. Ilyich’s suffering is thus made even greater. In this novella, Tolstoy shatters our perception of how significant our deaths “should be.” There is nothing momentous about Ilyich’s death.

Tolstoy does offer a small measure of hope when he has his protagonist almost awaken as he nears his death. But in the end – and, in this case, in the beginning—Ilyich does not change the way he lives in time to connect with others. The way Tolstoy played with the gap between appearance and reality inspired me to explore those elements in my own writing. I will try to use the lies my characters tell the world to reveal their inner conflicts and doubts.

How Fiction Works

How Fiction Worksbook by James Wood

annotation by Tina Rubin

In this exceptional craft book, the venerable James Wood asks important questions and argues with his favorite contemporary critics of the novel to reveal how fiction really does work, tackling topics from character, dialogue, and metaphor to a brief history of consciousness. The breadth and depth of literature Wood cites represents a complete literary education: just read all the books in the index and you’re set for life. While Wood argued with critics, I occasionally argued with him, particularly for his take on David Foster Wallace or the supercilious way he expressed certain opinions. Just enough to keep the experience lively.

Wood hooked me in the first chapter, “Narrating,” with his discussion of free indirect speech (writing freed of authorial flagging). The examples he gave literally exploded with style. This thread continued in the form of different questions, such as to whom a fictional thought belongs (author or character?) and what kinds of similes and metaphors a character might use versus those the author might; i.e., the gap between the narrator’s voice and the author’s. Wood presents a wonderful excerpt from Henry James’s novel What Maisie Knew to show us how James uses free indirect speech to bring three different perspectives into the same paragraph. Later in the chapter he uses Nabokov’s Pnin to illustrate a character who would produce the same metaphors as his creator—a great example of authorial irony, when the character’s voice has “rebelliously” taken over the narration.

Wood uses the work of Flaubert for an incredibly instructive section of the book. He discusses the details an author selects, the careful noticing of the flaneur (one who strolls through the city observing), the various time signatures that occur in a single glance. Habitual detail mixed with dynamic detail, Wood says, is essential to effect realism. Life comes at us like this—“in a tattoo of randomness” —but it is the author who creates the artifice in his or her selection of the detail. Our memories, Wood says, are aesthetically untalented.

Other intriguing ideas: A seemingly insignificant detail can actually be “studiedly irrelevant”—just enough to make the story feel like real life—and a minor detail can fast-track us into the character’s thinking or capture a central human truth. When that detail refuses to explain a character, leaving a mystery, Wood says the reader becomes a co-creator of that character’s existence. (And I’d add that that’s when readers really engage.)

The chapters toward the end of the book answered questions that relate  directly to the novel I’m writing now (and led to a proliferation of notes and underlines). They included discussions of Dostoevsky’s layers of psychology (announced motive, unconscious motivation, and somewhat religious motive, in which a character wants to reveal his baseness); the argument for moving around in time when you have a character who changes; and the importance of expanding readers’ capacity for sympathy in the world by putting them in another’s shoes through the fictional narrative. (This last was also the theme of my critical paper.)

These are concepts that I’ve wrestled with as a fiction writer, and seeing them “unwound” has been a revelation. The book begs for many more readings, as it’s too much to absorb in just one.