Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseBook by Jonathan Safran Foer

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE kinda blew my mind about four years ago, when I read it for the first time. While I am very well read in certain areas of literature, I have huge gaps in others.

I hadn’t read much about 9/11; it still hurt too much. New York was my city, growing up in Connecticut. In my heart, it held my ideal future life in my childhood and teenage dreams. I tried to get through Art Spiegelman’s IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS, but it was too personal and too well drawn. He took me right down that tunnel of despair I’d been avoiding for two years thus far.

When I got to Oskar Schell’s story, I was ready. The kid had that approach to the subject that I needed to have: glimpses, trying to sort out the emotions involved, that lost feeling and inarticulateness that goes with it. It was still too awful to either dive into or put away. His immature mind and the mature way he approached it proved very cathartic for me. I also enjoyed the two stories’ separation and how they wove together. I was willing to go wherever Foer took me. The big question came up often: how did he do this? How did he think of all of this?

But when I finally read SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, the idea of the backwards thing at the end gave me a “huh”. I read AS I LAY DYING and the epiphany came, “Wow, people have been messing with time and character space for longer than I realized.” TRISTRAM SHANDY did in 1759, with its blackened page thing what I thought was revolutionary in 2005.

This second reading held echoes of everything I had read since the first: heavy echoes of Vonnegut, Faulkner, Sterne, and of Foer himself. It did not strike with the same original resonance it had given me on its first read. Sigh. This is the price of studying writing, losing that wonder and becoming jaded.

I still love Oskar’s voice, his “heavy boots” and his natural acceptance of every new personality that comes along. His travels and his approaches to people are fascinating, and, as my boy approaches nine, some of his observations really slayed me. The scene where Oskar is onstage as Yorick (a nod to Tristram Shandy? ), basically melting down inside while playing an inanimate skull is amazing.

This reading brought up an irritation with Oskar’s mother that I hadn’t felt before. Sure, it’s revealed that she was aware of his travels the whole time, but I don’t think I’d let my nine year old traverse Glendale on his own, let alone the five boroughs of New York City, unless I knew he had a companion; even with a call ahead to the person meeting him.

Mr. Black from upstairs is still a lively character, as is his life, delivery and filing system; but when he abandoned Oskar atop the Empire State building, it became once again apparent that while Foer’s characters are rich in this book, not all of their motivations are clearly defined.

The story of the grandparents was problematic for me this time. There was something lacking in their motivation and questions kept arising. Thomas Sr. never really tells us how he felt about losing Anna and her baby and why it makes him behave so awfully to his wife. It is a clever device to have him stop speaking, but scene after scene, his thoughts and feelings are stunted. While there is reason for this, it leaves us in the dark as to his thought processes. The “not space” he and Grandmother created in the apartment felt more like a writer enthralled with the rhythm he has found in his own language than an insight into his character’s lives. The vagueness of motivation in Thomas Sr. only brought into relief the problems of the grandmother character. I wanted so much more of her, from her point of view. Her voice is distant and folkloric and it feels like there was an opportunity here for so much more to happen.

I never could have written something so vast and in many ways beautiful and certainly not in my early twenties. It is a good reminder not to get too caught up in one’s poetry (which I could totally see doing at that age) and never to forget that writing should really be about the characters and what they are experiencing: that rendering their thoughts, feelings and conflict are really what make a novel work. That those lyric moments need to be earned and can’t just be everywhere.

Maybe Oskar is a lesson in following the characters who are really telling the story, or listening harder to those yelling in the background.

Death with Interruptions

Death with Interruptionsbook by José Saramago

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

At first, I thought it was the lack of punctuation. I had read Saramago before, I’m not sure what the book was, I know I found it difficult to get through and it didn’t stick with me later. But reading page after page with no paragraph breaks and no dialogue punctuation is wearing. About three chapters in I realized that was not the exhausting part, the exhausting part was the novel’s complete lack of characters. I had nothing to latch onto, nowhere to grab hold. An interesting premise opened our story: people suddenly stop dying. First there is joy, then problems arrive. Those due to die just…stay.

Saramago takes a wide sweeping view of things, talking about an entire nation dealing with the crisis, we take peeks into the suspended life of people and into various cabinet meetings on the subject, but we seldom get closer. He teases us with the hope of characters when we look at the first family to transport their dying over the border of the country where they may die (and more than a few echoes of AS I LAY DYING as they complete the task), but pulls out again for that maddening wide-angle view. I had a glimmer of hope on page forty when the chapter opened, “The protagonists of these dramatic events, described in unusually detailed fashion in a story which has, so far, preferred to offer the curious reader, if we may put it, a panoramic view of the facts, were, when they unexpectedly entered the scene, given the social classification of poor country folk.” AAAARGH! Hope with the word “protagonist” at the front of the sentence, despair as the sentence proceeded.

For 149 pages, reading was drudgery, and more frustrating because the idea for the book was so great and the author was giving me no satisfaction whatever. I’d space out and have to reread (no easy task finding my lost spot when the paragraphs run on for two or three pages at a time). Skimming was impossible, because important (and sparse) dialogue would be buried deep in the middle of So. Many. Words.

FINALLY on page 149, we are properly introduced to a character who has a name, death (lower case, the author warns us). And, as we get to know her character in more detail, the lack of paragraph separation or punctuation marks, the dearth of periods, all of that no longer mattered because a beautiful and engaging story was being told. Sadly, the book is only 238 pages long.

The resulting story of death’s having a death-warning letter returned, her investigation and following love affair with a poor cellist, this could have been pulled out and kept as a perfect short story, or opened up a little into a beautiful novella.

Saramago’s descriptions are concrete and yet vague enough to keep death a mystery, “…If it’s true that she doesn’t smile, this is only because she has no lips, and this anatomical lesson tells us that, contrary to what the living may believe, a smile is not a matter of teeth.” We get to know death, the little room she dwells in, her vague hold on life, her unspoken relationship with her scythe (this I will hold onto to steal some day I am certain). We also get to know the cellist as she observes him…this is the only death-letter marked “return to sender” and frustration over this leads her to consider the interloper.

Here, death, in a time honored fashion, feels human, “death fell to her knees, for she had a body now, which is why she had legs and feet and arms and hands, and a face which she covered with her hands and shoulders, which, for some reason, were shaking, she can’t be crying…” After observing the cellist, she goes home, puts the scythe in charge for a week, takes on the form of a beautiful woman and goes back to meet the cellist in person. Of course they fall in love, and Saramego captures all of the awkwardness of a non-human who knows she has a terrible assignment–to make sure the cellist gets his letter—falling in love with her victim. And here is a perfect story.

There were no new ideas to take away (although death’s relationship with the scythe and the cellist’s with his dog will stay with me until I can steal them). But I can see how the awful first TWO THIRDS of this book were overlooked when Saramago came to his point at the end. Perhaps he is too honored or too old for his editor to have said, “Uh, José? This part at the beginning? I’m not feeling it.” So I’ll join the masses and overlook it and keep the story of death and the cellist with me. But I will stick with my belief that a story needs characters to hold onto, otherwise it ends up being just a lot of words.

Jesus’ Son

Jesus SonBook by Denis Johnson

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

Denis Johnson is a raw nerve exposed to the world, hyperaware of the little things that make up the scattershot of life. He is deeply involved in every person who stumbles into his main character’s life or who he watches from afar (and sometimes uncomfortably close). While his every observation is a reflection of himself, it is deeply insightful. He moves in different paces and approaches in his observation. Some characters he can sum up in two lines of acute perception (the various and sundry in “Happy Hour”), others he shows us through dialogue (Georgie), others take up residence and worm their ways into our consciousness (“Two Men”). His descriptions of the world around our characters ebb and flow, surrounding us (descriptions of Seattle, the Puget Sound) or remaining shadowy to bring the people he is describing into relief.

“Emergency” creates a very cool tension by starting in the intensely claustrophobic world of the emergency room with that horrible hilarious description of the guy with the knife in his eye. How Georgie and our hero react tells us a lot about them (their dialogue is beyond great). When they hit the road and start to wander, the uncertainty of their journey as well as their lack of a grasp on their surroundings gains more tension from their time spent in the close and very identifiable ER. Time slowed to a crawl in there, once they are outside there is this lost, haphazard feel to things. Totally different genre, but my main character is about to leave his building for the first time in my novel and I hope to somehow bring that tension to his venture back into the ordinary world. This gives me an idea of the disjointedness that time will take on once he leaves, and I want the reader to feel the urgency of time passing while he is away. Funerals are all day events, which become their own world, much like weddings and usually have receptions after. I do want to make it all kinds of awful but “Emergency” gives me some guidelines for how to make the space feel broad and hard to get a handle on.

The stories move in an artfully random fashion, Johnson gives off the goofy air of someone just sharing snippets with you, but in reality, he is really in control not only of each line of prose, but the reader’s passage through it. Phenomenal.

He is a genius of juxtaposition. He can put together two different ideas with two sentences next to each other so that they become something entirely new. “Happy Hour”, (such an amazing story with as many layers as a Basquiat painting) has a lot of this from paragraph to paragraph, and from scene to scene, but my favorite two sentences put together are about Angelique, “There was a part of her she hadn’t yet allowed to be born because it was too beautiful for this place, that was true. But she was mostly a torn-up trollop.” Moving, clever and funny. I don’t know if this is something that can be created artificially, but it is a reminder to entertain those random thoughts that come in while writing from one point of view. Sometimes the absurd makes the ordinary more tangible.

“Beverly Home” is a wonderful mix-up of the various styles of observation Johnson has exercised in the book thus far. His contact with the gorgeous dysfunction of the residents of Beverly Home is staggering. He fully describes a young guy taken down by multiple sclerosis, abandoned by his wife, left to live out his days in his wheelchair “clamping his lips repeatedly around his protruding tongue while groaning.” Johnson moves on to the next line and paragraph, perkily stating, “No more pretending for him! He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.” It totally killed me. Where many look the other way or try to gloss over unpleasantness, Johnson looks more closely and finds more beauty than is remotely possible in the world of the pleasant. The story has many other such moments, but then cuts to his life outside the hospital, his perfunctory observation of his relationship with a dwarf, interspersed with his slow, languorous look into the life of an Amish woman and her husband. All three of these techniques are intercut and build like music ending in a stunning closing paragraph that brings it together, how he was getting well among the weirdos. But the story is larger than his conclusion. It stays with you.

This collection crept up on me, I didn’t know where I was, then I started just enjoying it, but by the end, I had become an avid follower. It’ll probably take a few more years of writing and a few more reads to sort out what this first read accomplished.

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 gorgeous novel.

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. This will be enormously helpful for my bloated first chapter of my novel when I go back in for revision. 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. This book gave me courage to welcome my heroine’s voice into the book. Her awareness, her lost feelings and her completely different take on the situation.

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 to try to remember to make my heroes’ close friends 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. But this book is like a painting, I will have to go back in for a lot of shadowing and highlights: I am still trying to see what the whole picture is.

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 heroes’ 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.

This 500 plus page book was read in one weekend. I could say it was out of a ticking deadline for my packet, 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, so for now, I will just hold it in my mind as I forge forward in my draft.

Hotel World

Hotel WorldBook by Ali Smith

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

Wooo-hooo! from the opening lines of this book, the ghost voice of Sara is mesmerizing.  There is a very good balance in this chapter of withheld information and revealed information, so that while we are unsure of where we are, we’re pretty certain of the rules and each new piece of revealed information is so fun to uncover.  Smith gives such a beautifully free-floating flying sensation (again from the first line, as the fall of her death was fun going down) so that we feel like a ghost trying to get a grasp.

I wanted my heroine to lose her grip as I give her a voice, and she has done a little already, but I intend a little thievery from Smith when it comes to us seeing her lose her grasp from her consciousness. This story was a great inspiration to go back through my novel and have her forget, tastes, smells, those things that keep us anchored in life, so that we can see more why she so completely loses track of her husband when he goes…and of time and her surroundings.

As the book moved on, I became involved in each character fully, from the homeless Elspeth with her painful cough to the slightly wacky hotel manager Lise who gives her a room. It was nice how each character wove back into the other so that by the time that Penny sees the teenaged girl trying to open the panel in the wall we know exactly what that panel is and we have an inkling what the girl is after.

Where Smith lost me was in the sister’s monologue in the second to last chapter.  It reminded me of Foer’s artful use of no punctuation and stream of consciousness in Everything is Illuminated.  But that sequence, delivered by Alex, had complete structure and we knew from the beginning that we were being told something awful.  The lack of punctuation helped build the emotion and added a hopeless franticness to the piece as it rushed breathlessly forward to its certain horrible end.  But in the sister’s voice, Smith rambles.  Teenagers ramble, but about halfway through the chapter, it was apparent her ramblings weren’t going to get anywhere…perhaps because the chapter started with the realization of how exactly her sister died.  While it’s interesting how elements of Sara lingered in her life, Sara’s sister does not seem to have much of a story to tell and it reminded me a great deal of Rob’s constant repetition of, “The point is to have your reader wondering, ‘what’s going to happen next?’ not, ‘what’s going on?'”   But this chapter was a very useful reminder as I do explore the imagined and lost space  to keep my heroine anchored in some sort of identifiable world with its own recognizable rules.

Smith had such a knack for detail of physical environment and physical sensations.  The hotel became a very tangible imagined space from its carpets sconces, odors and textures.  Just Penny’s need to look at what was on the bedspread reminded us of where we were.

Aside from the ghost section, for its relevance to what I’m writing, Penny’s section was my favorite. She was such an amazing character.  When a writer can give you someone you most likely wouldn’t get along with in real life and yet make you understand her thought processes and have some sympathy for her, she’s done a very difficult and clever thing.  Penny is so clueless about what she sees and despite the strife of Sara’s sister finding the hole in the hotel down which Sara fell to her death, it is only relevant to Penny inasmuch as it relates to her.  It’s totally brilliant, how she’s there helping until things get too strange: she is elated by the “new” until her handle on the situation loosens and it seems to be just miserable. And then she leaves. What kind of a person gets emotionally involved with a teenaged girl crying but once she realizes that the girl is truly troubled, walks away?  Penny.  And we get it.  Penny’s following Elspeth is brilliant as well, she’s found a whiff of adrenaline and now she has to pursue it, that realization that Else is homeless and that she has made a fool of herself by following her is so lovely and lost.  Smith did such a great job of describing those lost bits of urban England, it reminded me of wandering in Norwich in my year abroad after dark to borrow a bicycle. Totally alienating and strange and I didn’t feel safe at all, but still I got glimpses through windows into people’s lives, so safe and warm compared to where I was walking.   This sequence was good reminder that it’s those esoteric moments of life, which, captured fully, can resonate more than the most recognizable ones.

Again, this book was totally right for what I’m doing at this exact moment on my novel. Penny’s section has also inspired some thoughts toward short stories; distant simmerings, but I hope they will emerge on their own.