Beautiful Ruins

51cwEmecIgL._AA160_book by Jess Walter

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have recently finished revising—for a fifth time– a Hollywood book, where one woman’s life decisions made in 1930s and 40s Hollywood have repercussions through three generations of her family. I was casting about for comparisons to my book and when I read the description of Beautiful Ruins, I got a twinge of fear familiar to most writers–that somehow my exact idea had been written before mine and was coming out from someone else in the world. And when I read the life of Claire Silver, young development exec, the twinge deepened, but once I got involved in Pasquale Tursi’s life and the young actress who comes to his remote hotel in an Italian Cove, all of this left me and the book carried me away so completely from any narcissistic thoughts of my own work, of marketplace, of competition that it took until I sat down to write this annotation to remember why I’d picked up the book in the first place.

And there’s a lot to learn from a book that transports the reader so completely. And a lot to learn from the complicated multiple Point of View multi-time structure Walter is able to create while maintaining an emotional tremolo that holds the book together.  Some chapters, particularly toward the end, hold a POV sleight of hand so clever it may take a second read to sort them out.

Pasquale’s point of view is very close and when we meet him, in his late twenties working his father’s hotel in a forgotten cove in Italy, we are given his frenetic energy and helplessness over his own life, but at the same time a curiosity and that frantic yearning we so often feel in our twenties. Pasquale’s English isn’t so great at this point and he has so many characters speaking very rapid complicated English at  him, it took me a while to figure Walter’s use of the thick dialogue. But cleverly, Walter gives us the English dialogue that we might get background and Pasquale’s frequent interpretations of what’s being told to him. Thus, we the readers are able to see the entire scene with all of its details while Pasquale doesn’t leave character. It is a theatrical trick—in a way the English speakers speak in asides to the audience while the other players on stage don’t know fully what’s being communicated.

Once I got over the fearful twinge on comparison, I adored Walter’s portrayal of Hollywood–from the long suffering D-girl, Claire to Michael Deane, a Robert Evans type mogul whose plastic surgery and various youth treatments have rendered him an aging man with a plasticky babyface. Walter gives us Michael through so many eyes, Claire’s, Pasquale’s, Dee’s and Michael’s himself—among others that we have a full portrait of this guy who will do anything for a deal. This makes the scenes through which he navigates terrifying as Michael bulldozes through people’s lives. When he plows into an extremely fragile grouping of characters in the end it evokes a bull in a china shop terror that would be hilarious if it weren’t so horrifying. Michael has segued into movies from reality shows and is very close to selling the biggest idea ever—Hookbook—but I’ll leave the details on that pitch for your read.

What Walter manages to illustrate is the devastating affect people can have on each other’s lives through even brief contact. Richard Burton and Michael Deane plow a wide swathe through a large handful of people and the ripple effect through lives across generations—from Pasquale, his son and family to Dee and her subsequent family, to Claire, a development girl in Hollywood who can’t find her direction in life and Shane, a dude with a dream, it all ripples out and Walter pulls it in in the end.

Walter tells the story in painterly strokes, giving us one POV after another. Pasquale in the 1960s, Dee in the 1960s, Debra in the 70s and in the present, Claire in the present, Michael Deane in the 60s and then the present, Dee’s son, Pat in the present and the unlikely interpreter—Shane who has traveled to LA to pitch a movie about the Donner party only to find himself a witness and a pawn in a much larger game. Each stroke gives us insight into not only the story, but each of these characters, as everyone views each other differently. It is Dee’s view, Claire’s view, Shane’s view, Michael Deane’s view, Pat’s view and Pasquale’s view of himself that create this rich, many layered person. And still Walter is able to keep the crucial details to himself so that Pasquale is able to reveal something truly beautiful to us about his life in the end.

When all of our characters are assembled in the end and information is coming thick and fast, Walter manages to go in and out of various characters’ POV within one scene. This usually provides a complicated whiplash, but Walter managed me to keep close enough in each character’s POV that it all worked. This is definitely something to study as it so often goes wrong and Faulkner’s the only other guy I can think of who gets away with it so easily.

Walter reminds us that POV is not just a way to take us into different characters’ lives, it is a way to reveal character, plot, and that ineffable way in which we all affect each other. And it is a truly useful tool in portraying the great messiness that makes up human existence, how we all bump up against each other on this planet, sometimes having a deeper affect than we realize. He pulls this off without being overtly manipulative, without telling us what to feel. The result is a deeply affecting story and a really lovely flourish at the end.

I have three points of view in my novel—three people whose lives are inextricably entangled. But Walter makes me want to explore more tertiary characters in future books. To jump outside the central story and take some chance encounters for a drive. See what they might reveal. I suspect all of them may not stay in the final draft, but without trying, I may never know what those characters can reveal.

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Aspects of the Novel

51mISa18yOL._AA160_book by E.M. Forster

annotation by Wendy Dutwin
Originally a series of lectures that E.M. Forster gave at Trinity College, Cambridge, Aspects of the Novel opens and concludes with a central theme that Forster asserts: all novels and novelists transcend history and time because all writing is done in accordance to certain aspects of creativity. Forster uses the image of all novelists from all points of time in history, gathered together in a room, writing side by side as his central analogy that opens and concludes his series of lectures. And while the tone is very conversational and informal, given that these were originally presented as public talks, the structure of the conversations are very organized. Every aspect supports Forster’s argument that historical or cultural context are not relevant in the discussion of the novel, an assertion Francine Prose would echo many years later in her book Reading Like A Writer. Forster uses many examples of literary works that span historical periods in order to ultimately claim that it is the universal qualities of humanity that matter most in the novel. He breaks seven of these down: story, characters, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern and rhythm.

Forster believes that the novel’s basic definition is to tell a story, answering the question “what happens next?” and that story is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence, but that a sense of value must also be attached.

During the discussion of characters, Forster introduces his now famous “round” and “flat” characters, claiming each has their function in the novel but that “round” characters are more complicated and nuanced. He also addresses point of view in this section and surprised me with his belief abut shifting POV.

“A novelist can shift his view-point if it comes off…Indeed this power to expand and contract perception (of which the shifting view-point is a symptom), this right to intermittent knowledge:- I find it one of the great advantages of the novel-form, and it has a parallel in our perception of life.”(81)

That said, he uses incredible authors like Dickens and Tolstoy to illustrate a shifting POV in Bleak House and War and Peace, respectively, to reinforce that it must be done right. Reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works on my own at the same time as I read Aspects of the Novel provided an interesting contrast for me, since Wood disagrees with a lot of what Forster claims about “round” and “flat” characters. Wood asserts that Forster has no respect for “flat” characters, preferring “round” characters. Wood defends “flat” characters, stating that their function is to illuminate specific human traits. He says the problem in modern literature is the constant quest to develop “round characters, which is impossible since they are not real people.” He prefers “transparencies” and “opacities” to “roundness” and “flatness.” While I appreciate what Wood is saying, I didn’t agree with his claim that Forster dismisses “flat” characters. Forster discusses Dickens as an example of a writer whose characters are almost all “flat” but still manage to create a human identification with the reader.

Moving onto plot, Forster takes the narrative of events over time from his story section and adds the element of causality. As story asks “What next?” the plot asks “Why?” New learning occurred for me during his discussion of what the reader must have in order to understand plot- intelligence and memory. I was able to distinguish once and for all the difference between story and plot, especially when Forster discussed the problems with plot, that many novels struggle at the end because plot requires a resolution and this is often done through death or marriage and at the expense of the characters because they are forced to fit the plot.

Forster then moves into Fantasy and Prophecy, two sections of his discussion he says are important aspects of the novel and both of which contain elements of mythology. Having just read Haruki Murakami’s collection of stories The Elephant Vanishes, I saw many of these supernatural forces that Forster talks about at work. Forster then talks about Prophecy in a way I wasn’t expecting, calling it the “tone of voice” of the novel and a “song” of the author where his or her “theme is the universe.” As in plot, the reader is required to possess two things when appreciating the aspect of prophecy- humility and a suspension of one’s sense of humor. Humility is so that the reader can hear the prophetic elements and suspending sense of humor is that the reader won’t be tempted to mock it. He then contrasts George Eliot and Fyodor Dostoevsky to illustrate the difference between preaching and prophecy, even though both writers have the universal at play in both their works. In this section, Forster is really bringing his argument of the universal to the surface as the most fundamental aspect of the novel.

Moving into Pattern and Rhythm, Forster seems to prefer Rhythm, pointing out problems with pattern in novels. He uses two examples in literary fiction, Anatole France’s Thais and Percy Lubbock’s Roman Pictures to show different patterns emerging, an hourglass for France and a chain for Lubbock. He feels pattern ultimate constrains the novel, “shutting the door on life” and that rhythm is better suited for the novel because its more open narrative structure won’t suffocate the characters.

Forster concludes his argument with the claim that “history develops, art stands still.” After using side by side analysis of different works of fiction from different periods of time to support his central analogy, he says we must continue to view future writers in the same manner, all side by side, writing in the same room. What Forster is really saying in a profound, well supported and solidly structured series of talks is this- history doesn’t dictate art, humanity does. By focusing on the universal qualities of all writers, we are identifying with our common humanity. Forster transcended the discussion of the novel by claiming the human nature doesn’t change and therefore the novel won’t change. Developing the novel stems from the development of humanity in Forster’s eyes and that as critics of literature, we ultimately must judge a novel by our hearts.