My Antonia

9781593082024_p0_v3_s114x166book by Willa Cather

annotation by Christin Merwald

I chose to read this book as an example of how to utilize place as force in my work. Cather’s turn-of-the-century Nebraska prairie and its small towns affected tone, plot and characterization in My Antonia. Her vivid, panoramic descriptions of the prairie also created memorable images that stay with the reader long after finishing the book.

We’re introduced to Nebraska with this passage, “There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields…There was nothing but land:  not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” (12) This glimpse of Jim’s new home sets the tone and introduces the book’s plot. Jim’s Nebraska was raw and empty when he first arrived and throughout the story we watch not only him and the other main characters develop into adults, but also the land become inhabited and developed.

Throughout the book Cather uses the changing of seasons to create changes in tone and plot. Jim’s description of spring brings a new feeling of awakening. “When spring came…one could not get enough of the nimble air…There was only—spring itself: the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere; in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind—rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted.” (95) Upon this change in season Jim and Antonia begin feeling differently about each other, more independent and less connected. As this spring unfolds the plot unfolds into Antonia becoming a hard working daughter, helping to provide for the family as Jim enjoys the comforts of living in an established farmstead and then in town.

Cather is also able to adjust tone by contrasting prairie passages with town passages. She juxtaposes the difference between winter on the prairie and in a small town at the start of Chapter 7. “On the farm the weather was the great fact, and men’s affairs went on underneath it, as the streams creep under the ice. But in Black Hawk the scene of human life was spread out shrunken and pinched, frozen down to the bare stalk.” (142) She uses setting to develop characters; most notably the hired girls who move from doing arduous work in the country to the city to find work as maids. “The daughters of Black Hawk merchants had a confident, uninquiring belief that they were ‘refined,’ and that the country girls, who ‘worked out,’ were not…The girls I knew were always helping to pay for ploughs and reapers, brood-sows, or steers to fatten…One result of this family solidarity was that the foreign farmers in our county were the first to become prosperous.” (154)

Place not only develops characters in this novel, but becomes a character in some places. For example, “The wind shook the doors and windows impatiently, then swept on again, singing through the big spaces. Each gust, as it bore down, rattled the panes, and swelled off like the others.” (45) Here Cather uses the fierce prairie wind to illustrate the desperation to help and then the sad retreat of the characters that watch illness defeat their friend, Pavel.

Place often plays the role of antagonist in the book. When Jim takes the Shimerda girls on what is supposed to be a fun sleigh ride they quickly learn that the bitter Nebraska winter can be a force to be reckoned with. “…The east wind grew stronger and began to howl; the sun lost its heartening power and the sky became gray and somber…Antonia and I sat erect, but I held the reins clumsily, and my eyes were blinded by the wind a good deal of the time…The next day I came down with an attack of quinsy…I was convinced that man’s strongest antagonist is the cold. I admired the cheerful zest with which grandmother went about keeping us warm and comfortable and well-fed.” (54) The reader is pulled into many scenes hoping that the characters can overcome the adversity they face on the prairie and we learn quickly that they may not overcome.

My favorite scene is when Jim describes the July heat. “It seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night; under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odored cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green…The burning sun of those few weeks, with occasional rains at night, secured the corn.” (108) The image Cather creates of the cornfields in July is so imaginative yet so realistic. It is a very accurate portrayal that only one who’s experienced it can know. Her intimate knowledge of the landscape, the feeling of being in a cornfield at that time of year makes for a truly unique and memorable image, which is the case throughout the book.

What I learned from this book was to think of place as a character. How can I use the setting to develop my characters, move the story forward and create adversity? Each description of a character’s surroundings can create a mood or affect on the reader. As I work on my current piece I’m trying to go about scene descriptions very slowly, thinking carefully about what sights, sounds, smells to include and how they can move the story forward. Also, I’m considering where to juxtapose place to accomplish something in the manuscript and where to insert relevant details that establish my characters in time and place in order to place the reader more firmly in the world of my characters. And, finally, I’m trying to incorporate both tight descriptions of place with panoramic views to create sweeping scenes like Cather.

 

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

9780312429294

book by Wells Tower

annotation by Lee Stoops

“He considered for a moment the many miles that lay between him and

his own wife, and what it would take to cinch that distance up again.”

~ Wells Tower, “The Brown Coast” from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (17)

His real name is Wells Tower of Power. Like the funk group, he has a signature sound. Tower has enviable ability to deliver a reader from this world into his imagined one. The voices of his narrators are individual, well-rendered, real. The content and delivery of his stories – whether sentimental, blackly comic, or savage – left me taking notes and contriving ideas, all while having a hell of a good time reading. And maybe that’s what struck me with Tower’s book – the fun of it. He’s a remarkable writer, an instinctual storyteller, and a craftsman worthy of study. However, the most important thing to me in finishing his collection was that it was something I enjoyed and lamented ending. It seems rarer and rarer that happens, especially with the growing darkness of contemporary literary fiction. It’s not to say Tower’s collection isn’t imbued with darkness – it’s thick with anger, loss, violence, and fatalism. But, again like Tower of Power, it brought me up and started some good funk brewing in my brain. Because of this, it was easy to identify the elements of his stories that worked for me: the sentiments and perspectives of characters struggling but (in ways) winning, his vocabulary of description and imagery, and dark (in most cases, black) humor.

When I read, I’m on the lookout for characters I can admire. While I might admire the character for who he/she is, what I admire most when I find one is the way the author has given life to someone invented. It’s easy to come up with caricatures or stereotypes or tropes, but it shows real craftsmanship on the writer’s part when a character is familiar enough that I can plug in, yet de-familiar enough that I can’t stop thinking about him/her. Tower, despite sometimes overwriting or explaining his metaphors, loves (and loves to challenge) his characters. Their lives, their mind machinations, their experiences, fights, arguments, emotions fill the pages to the point where the stories themselves don’t matter as much as how the reader comes to know Tower’s people by the end of a story. I’m glad not all short story collections are like this, but if some end up this way, Tower is the guy to do it. Here are some examples of character reality:

Already, I was regretting doing Jane this favor. My mind was wandering. You can’t sit in a little Datsun car with your wife’s new lover without recollecting all the nice old junk about her that you’d do better not to haul up. her belly slumping against the small of you back on a cold morning. The slippery marvel of her soaped up in the shower. A night long ago when you moved on each other so sincerely that you sheared off two quarter-inch lag bolts that held your bed together. But start playing back all the old footage, and pretty soon Mendocino Barry steals into the frame, his bare dark-brindled haunches in your bed, candles and an incense stencher fuming on the nightstand. You can see him tucking a yellow thumbnail under the scalloped elastic of her bikini underpants and shucking them down slow, maybe with a word or two about lotus blossoms. You don’t want to picture how she lifts her hips off the bed, the openmouthed anticipatory shivers, or Barry rearing up in a sun salute between her splayed knees, his tongue lolling like a tiki god in ugly throes (97-98, “Down Through the Valley”).

If you say no to your stepfather when he asks you to drop everything to do some chore, this is known as “lip.” “I’m sick of your lip,” he says, or “I’ve had it with your fucking lip.” He is a thin, delicate man with wire-frame glasses, but neither his slightness nor his way of talking like a corny Hollywood thug makes you any less afraid of him. He has slapped you a few times. Not long ago, you father stopped by to pick you up and your stepfather argued with him. He pushed your father down, and then he picked up a stone the size of a football and made like he was going to throw it at your father’s head. But he just tossed it away and laughed. For many years to come, whenever you think of your father, the image of him cowering on the lawn, his hands clutching his skull in forlorn defense against the crushing stone, will be part of the picture. You are counting the days until you turn sixteen, which you’ve arbitrarily chosen as the age at which you’ll be able to take you stepfather in a fight (117, “Leopard”).

In the above examples, the characters come to life, but there are other ways Tower paints pictures. His images burned into my head and still won’t leave. As a writer, I value that ability above most others. The work a writer does with language to let readers see what the writer values as needing to be seen is one of the great challenges of the craft. It’s also one of the most necessary. Our imaginations rely on memory, and our memories tend to rely on our imaginations, and the emotive responses the writer is counting on from the reader can only become fully realized when the writer does his or her job of empowering the reader to see, remember, and extrapolate meaning by unearthing the roots of the meaning in memory. So, the writer has at his or her disposal words, countless words and combinations, that charge the imagination. Blend them well, and he’s got imagery that brings a story into experience-mode.

Bold as an athlete, she shrugged off her top and pushed her skirt down. Across her breasts and oval hips, her skin looked soft and new and pale as paraffin (17, “The Brown Coast”).

The men stepped back to give Djarf room to work. He placed the point of his sword to one side of Naddod’s spine. He leaned into it and worked the steel in gingerly, delicately crunching through one rib at a time until he’d made an incision about a foot long. He paused to wipe sweat from his brow, and made a parallel cut on the other side of the backbone. Then he knelt and put his hands into the cuts. He fumbled around in there a second, and then drew Naddod’s lungs out through the slits. As Naddod huffed and gasped, the lungs flapped, looking sort of like a pair of wings (229, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”).

I spotted my stepmother by the dry fountain, where she was watching some young people make a film. I left my cistern at my father’s feet and jogged to her. Since I’d seen her last, Lucy had reached a new status of tiredness and age. Looking at her, “lady” is what I thought, a word that summed up her sparse, dry hair, her mottled cheeks, her many clattering bracelets and her lipstick, an alarming coral shade leaking into fresh hairline rills around her mouth. Her right eye was bloodshot and brimming with brine. We embraced. All she wore against the chill was a lame’ shawl over a flimsy black top, so thin I could feel the gooseflesh on her hard arms (73, “Executors of Important Energies”).

While Tower’s work is full of other solid linguistic displays and craft examples, I’d rather spend a little bit of time addressing his use of (dark) humor. The stories in the collection are all tragic – death, grief, adultery, violence, grunge and grit and hate. And, I love that stuff, but it also tends to get so heavy in short story collections that the stories usually end up depressing the reader rather than giving the reader perspective for his or her own life/writing. Tower’s stories don’t drag the reader down, even though the fatalism he employs is some of the best contemporary fatalism I can call to mind. It’s the humor, subtle (and often not subtle) that does it – the funny moments or lines or even the delivery of an entire train of thought bring a twisted levity to the stories. And they satisfy.

Derrick came back from the kitchen, talking into a cordless phone, his voice loud with expertise. “Say what? Did you take a look? Can you see the head? Uh-huh. Red or whitish? Yeah, that’s natural. Sounds like she’s getting ready to domino. I’ll be over.”

Derrick came back into the living room. “Gotta take a ride over the bridge,” he said. “Need to go pull something out of a horse’s pussy.”

“What kind of thing?” Bob asked.

“A baby horse, I hope” (11, “The Brown Coast”).

My daughter, the very first night I was in her house, she wanted right off to put me in a state of fear (133, “Door in Your Eye”).

“Hoo,” he said, shaking water from his hair. He jogged in place for a minute, shivered, and then straightened up. “Mercy, that was a spree. Not so much loot to speak of, but a hell of a god-damn spree.” He massaged his thighs and spat a few times. Then he said, “So, you do much killing?”

“Nah,” I said. “Haakon killed that little what’s-his-name lying over there, but no, we’ve just been sort of taking it easy.”

“Hm. What about in there?” he asked, indicated Bruce’s cottage. “Who lives there? You kill them?”

“No, we didn’t,” Orl said. “They helped put Haakon back together and everything. Seem like good folks.”

“Nobody’s killing them,” Gnut said.

“So everybody’s back at the monastery, then?” I asked.

“Well, most of them. Those young men had a disagreement over some damn thing and fell to cutting each other. Gonna make for a tough row out of here. Pray for wind I guess.”

Brown smoke was heavy in the sky, and I could hear dim sounds of people screaming (234-235, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”).

As far as contemporary (and young) short story writers go, Tower is a strong talent, and I think we’re only seeing the beginning of a huge body of work. I hope as he continues to write and publish that he doesn’t lose the fun he’s written into these stories. And, while I don’t like to cut any slack for overwriting or explaining or ruining metaphors with explicitness, I had to in this book for the sheer enjoyment of believable characters, strong imagery, and humor that won’t let the reader forget that life is really one big, dark joke.

The Tortilla Curtain

book by T.C. Boyle

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

The publication date on this book is 1995 but this novel is still as relevant and as controversial today as it was 17 years ago. Tortilla Curtain is the story of two couples—the undocumented workers América and Cándido, and the well-to-do Californians real-estate agent Kyra and environmental writer Delaney.

Boyle has structured this novel as a satirical and brutal mirror. For every action on each couple’s part, the other couple experiences a less-than or greater-than reaction, in a strange and violent  balancing act between the two cultures. The opening event is Delaney hitting Cándido (accidently) with his car on his way home on the winding canyon road to his soon-to-be walled and gated community. This sets off a chain of tragedy that neither party can foresee.   Cándido refuses to go to the hospital and Delaney throws Cándido $20 to salve his guilty conscious.  Boyle then sets up an intricate chessboard of a story where each couple continues to lose things and every loss is diluted in the white upper class couple and magnified in the ill-fated and Job-like América and Cándido.

Cándido is sick and broken from the accident and Delaney’s car is broken. Very soon after the accident, one of Kyra’s pampered dogs is captured in their backyard and eaten by a coyote. América ventures up from the canyon where the immigrants are “camping” and tries to get a job at the job exchange. She is pregnant and a teenager. Bad-luck has dogged Cándido and América throughout their journey north—their coyote (the man helping them cross into the United States) was corrupt and they were beaten and robbed at the border. América gets a job working with toxic chemicals scrubbing kitschy Buddhas for some un-named man, who also tries to grope her. A few days later, her boss forgets to give her gloves and América can barely stand the chemical burn of scrubbing the Buddhas.

Also in Boyle’s balancing act are two teens from Kyra and Delaney’s neighborhood causing trouble for the undocumented workers staying in the canyon. They tear apart Cándido and América’s camp, ruin América’s only good dress and paint “gang sign” graffiti on the new gate to whip up fear and mistrust of Mexicans. Two other undocumented workers scrawl graffiti on Kyra’s favorite for-sale house. These two characters rape América on her way home from work and give her gonorrhea which causes her girl-child, when she is born, to be blind.

Another fascinating mirror in the book is that a white-collar criminal is under house arrest in one of the huge houses in Kyra and Delaney’s neighborhood. As they raise the gate and the seven-foot stucco fence in the neighborhood to keep the Mexicans, coyotes, snakes and scorpions out, they seem to not care at all that they are walling this criminal in. No one seems to be concerned about what he has done to warrant house arrest for three years because he has maids and catering and tasteful decorating.  Another bit of worthy, though somewhat heavy-handed irony, is that there is little doubt from Boyle’s prose, that undocumented workers help build the wall that ends up surrounding the neighborhood.

As the story arches to its conclusion, Delaney and Kyra lose their other dog to a coyote, their cat, Dame Edith (another humorous tongue in cheek reference to the haves and the pretentious in this book is that Kyra has named all of her pets after the famous literary Sitwell family–Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverel) is eaten by Cándido and América in their desperate hunger. Kyra is oblivious to the suffering of the immigrants, but is incensed when she sees a dog left in a car in the heat.

Cándido receives a free Thanksgiving turkey from a shopper at a grocery store and is so excited to roast it that he accidentally starts a fire in the dry season which obliterates Kyra’s favorite house she is selling, her dream house, and ruins the Thanksgiving of everyone in the neighborhood. In the chaos, the white-collar criminal escapes, with potentially millions of dollars squirreled away, while Cándido steals supplies from backyards to help the in-labor América. He even steals dog dishes to use as pots and pans. Cándido’s theft, which is personal, is more outrageous then what the white-collar criminal has done, because that crime was done organizationally and systemically. This literary observation is also just as pertinent today as it was 17 years ago.

Boyle’s book draws fire for its characters being stereotypes. I am not sure if this accusation is leveled at Kyra and Delaney (who recycle and are mostly vegetarian) or América and Cándido, who have an impossible litany of horrible things happen to them.  These characters all feel real to me—not as in I might meet them on the street, but I recognize their complexity, hypocrisy and humanness. Perhaps in some people’s vision of liberals, they aren’t quite so hypocritical. Or perhaps some readers don’t like that Cándido and América are uneducated and that Cándido occasionally hits América. It is a well-documented fact that as unemployment rates increase, domestic violence also increases. Cándido and América’s story of the corrupt coyote rings true with much nonfiction I have read as well.  Perhaps some readers also don’t realize Boyle’s mirroring technique and instead see a heavy-handed portrayal of have and have nots—where I saw a satirical layering of the bitter struggle for survival versus the first-world problems in the United States which cause us “stress.”

I also realized that every time Delaney wrote about the coyote for his nature column, what he was really writing about was immigration. This veiled column (pp. 211-215) is a masterpiece of showing and not telling but its complexity reverberated for me because character Delaney was “telling,” letting author Boyle show us so much about this character and the world and culture he lives in…which happens to closely resemble early 21st century America. The mere fact that Boyle names the young, pregnant, beaten, besieged teen in the book América is a constant reminder to the reader of what our country used to be, and contrasts it to what our country is now, without the author ever having to say a word on that subject.

As a writer, I learned much about the power of parallelism while reading this story—not just the rhetorical device of constructing sentences and paragraphs, but the power of alternating viewpoints and intertwined tragedy and the unintended domino effect of character actions on the other characters within the novel.  In addition to a stinging social commentary about immigration, poverty, violence and even healthcare in the United States, Boyle has also produced a remarkable and envy-worthy structure for this novel.

The Knockout Artist

amazon.com

book by Harry Crews

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Rob Roberge introduced me to this underrated but brilliant writer who pretty much blew me away. He passed away Wednesday at the age of 76. In his honor, we’re re-running this annotation from 2009.

Given the dark subject matter, I had thought this noir book would be a chore, but found it instead a heartbreaking delight. Crews takes us directly into the dark underbelly of society, accompanying Eugene, the eponymous knockout artist, to one of his gigs. He gives us Eugene’s simple look at the world, taking stock in his surroundings, staring at the jackets in the closet across from him. When Jake comes in with Oyster-Boy, thin, pale, shedding skin, a dog collar around his neck led by the enormous and salacious Purvis, we know that he has crept into the darkest side of town, the part most of us don’t want to see but can’t help staring at. But Eugene keeps his head, protects himself by fighting off any interaction with these people and goes and does his job, knocking himself out.

Within one chapter, Crews has given us a coherent world and a solid hero with a strong voice. There is something uncorruptable about Eugene, made more obvious by his introduction taking place in a deeply corrupt society. What is it about this guy that is so decent despite the fact that he is a kept man and knocks himself out to make money? He is deeply buried in self-loathing, but there is something solid at the core of Eugene that will never be soiled. The complexity of a character having such opposing aspects to his personality makes for a compelling protagonist. I seriously need to work toward that, but figure I’m still years away.

Things for Eugene are bound to get worse, we know this from our classic noir surroundings; his simple act of blacking out regularly is very Phillip Marlowe. Of course we are introduced to the mysterious and tragic woman (Jake), then the user trouble woman (Charity).

Pete is a beautiful best friend character. Crews does a great thing by taking us inside Eugene’s hopes for Pete. When it looks like Pete is getting his life together, Eugene buys it. We know because of the nature of the book something awful will happen, but Crews is careful about weaving Eugene’s hope in a way that makes us feel it with him; Tulip cleaning up Pete’s apartment, the fact that the two are clearly in love. Eugene has a respect for this real love, and knows more and more clearly it is not what he shares with Charity. Crews has a real eye for finding the good in people readers might otherwise not think of: Tulip who had a sex act with a teddy bear on Bourbon Street, is the woman who gives Pete something larger to live for. And Pete, porn and snuff film projectionist, who could not make peace with Eugene’s knockout living, saw the good in her, which makes him more appealing.

There is such tragic beauty in Eugene’s dealings with Blasingame. It is Eugene who takes Pete into his deal with Blasingame, and it is Blasingame’s world that ruins Pete forever. In trying to free himself from corruption and kink (the knocking himself out) he has unwittingly led Pete down the path to destruction. It is on Blasingame’s boat that the clean Tulip uses again, which plants the seeds for her downward slide, making our final image of Pete, fully immersed in Blasingame’s world, a complete and utter destruction whose responsibility rests on Eugene’s shoulders.

The tenuous, frenetic hope that Crews weaves around Eugene and Pete’s plans for a future in boxing management reminded me a lot of April’s spinning hopes about Paris in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. You can feel the exhilaration of the character, especially when Pete gets on board and starts talking Blasingame’s ear off. But their enthusiasm creates its own tension, since the reader is fully aware that things are not going to end well. It is such a careful balance and I would like to somehow steal that for the climax of my book.  (I actually did end up stealing Yates/Crews’ technique which worked quite nicely)

Charity takes the Noir female villain to the next level. She has the upper hand when we first meet her, as she is keeping Eugene and cataloging him with her sex-produced recording sessions. Crews builds a dominating woman, but once Eugene gets into her files and learns that she was kicked out of school, she becomes even more vulnerable and therefore more interesting. Charity’s drive to get inside other people’s lives and destroy them is all bluster; this fragility makes her completely fascinating and when she takes an interest in Jake, Eugene and we feel genuine worry for her. This reminds me that I need to build my villain’s motivation in a more human way. If I can get into her human need to collect souls, beyond a supernatural level, she’ll be much more interesting. I have her motivation from a stance of pure evil and, frankly, that’s not enough.

Eugene has lost everything, including the one friend who had loved him for who he was and had kept him together. But Crews is careful to leave us with a sense of hope. Jacques comes into the picture only at the end, but we get the sense that his Cajun common sense may well be a solid calming force in Eugene’s life and may help him hang onto the shred of decency at his core. This is an important reminder that if you lead your reader down a dark path, you can’t abandon them there. A sad story works better with a glimmer of hope, or at least a foothold and forward movement for its hero. Something gained.

This was a truly artful book, a pleasure to read, completely not in a genre I’ve ever written, and yet it was totally useful.

The Tiger’s Wife

book by Téa Obreht

annotation by Talya Jankovits

I am not proud to admit this, but sometimes I get writer’s envy. When I got word of Téa Obreht, I almost fell over with jealousy. Born the same year I was and she was already published in places such as The New Yorker, Harper’s and The New York Times, as well as voted in for The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” and The National Books Foundation’s “5 under 35”. Her novel, The Tiger’s Wife, is a New York Times bestseller, a 2011 National Book Award Finalist and the winner of the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. So you better believe that I, with a handful of modest online publications (thank you Annotation Nation!) and a novel still four years in the making, watched my hands grow green when I picked up her novel. I tried to put petty jealousy aside when I began her book and instead set out to learn from a peer and figure out what she did that I need to do. Surprisingly, I also figured out what she did that I don’t want to do.

Without sounding condescending, (and really, how could I, she’s the one with a national bestseller, I’m the one still pulling out repetitive clichéed imagery from my novel) Obreht’s writing felt beyond her years. I was enthralled with her imagery, her description, moments of writing that made me keep glancing again at her very young looking photo in the back of the book, trying to convince myself that yes, this young woman really wrote these sentences. She captured the young, the old, the foreign, the magical and she delivered lovely word by word fresh imagery, rich metaphors and breathtaking descriptions. While recently revising my own novel, I cringed with shame when a generous reader pointed out that I had used “thin lips” about a half dozen times in a dozen pages. Language is vast and supple with variety and Obreht utilizes all of it in her novel. It was a good kick in the writer’s gut to remind me that language is endless and profoundly important, you don’t want to just write a story, you want to write a story well, and write well Obreht did. But that isn’t enough to earn you the kind of acclaim that The Tiger’s Wife earned Obreht, and I’m sorry to say but the buck stopped there for me.

Obreht is a storyteller, that’s for sure. She can tell a story in a post war-torn Balkan country, she can paint you a tiger’s wife and a deathless man and she can lead you to a small village with big superstitions and she can capture the persona of the young and the old, but despite her ability to captivate me in various chapters, I was constantly left with questions, holes and confusion. Where Obreht soared in writing, she slumped in plot. Chapter chunks seemed like short stories strung along with barely a thread connecting them. The main character, Nadia, is on a quest to understand her grandfather and his death but all Obreht did was lead me down a wild goose chase of story clumps that dizzied me and left me wondering exactly what the novel was about.

As a reader and a writer, the importance of plot to me is incomparable. My own novel stretches across time, jumps point of view and countries. Something I am very aware of is being sure that everything comes together, that I am writing a story in which I am posing questions that get answers, that everything is serving a driving purpose towards the ending, in other words,  that a novel is taking form. And no matter the novel, no matter the plot, be it linear or non-linear, but it in various POVs or one, there should always be a beginning, middle and end. There should always be continuity, regardless of structure. Even if plot plays second fiddle to language, it still needs to be addressed cohesively. Obreht had too many pages of opportunity to fix her plot blunders and it made me wonder about the value of editing, revision and clarity of mind. Putting writer’s envy aside, I was disappointed with what, at the outset, felt like a promising read.

Whether or not I’ll ever make the New York Times National Bestseller list, I do hope to achieve smaller and more doable accomplishments, such as completing a novel where I can attain the same level of language as Obreht, yet remember the importance of something as basic as the purpose of plot. In writing, it all matters.

Erasure

book by Percival Everett

annotation by Stephanie Quinn Westphal

In his 2001 novel, Erasure, Percival Everett makes brilliant and sophisticated use of satire to examine questions of race, family and the vagaries of the publishing business in contemporary U.S. society. The author creates a compelling and conflicted protagonist, Thelonious Ellison (“Monk”), who functions as both the vehicle and the purveyor of the satire. The author uses his protagonist and his predicaments, the novel’s structure, and the parody Monk writes to convey different aspects of Everett’s incisive rage at the crippling nature of prejudice on individuals and society.

Everett embeds satire in the character of the protagonist himself. The novel is ostensibly the private journal of Monk, a highly intellectual professor and writer of fiction. Everett gives Monk a trenchant, mocking wit. When the professor presents his predicaments, the author simultaneously uses them to illustrate larger social problems he wants to mock in order to change. Monk does not match many of our society’s stereotypes. He lists his “failings” as follows: he’s relatively athletic, but not good at basketball; he listens to “Mahler, Aretha Franklin, Charlie Parker and Ry Cooder”; he’s good at math, but he can’t dance. As Monk puts it:

“Some people in the society in which I live, described as being black, tell me I’m not black enough. Some people whom the society calls white tell me the same thing.”

In particular, Monk is told he’s not black enough by editors, who have rejected his novels, and by reviewers, whom he has perplexed with his work. One reviewer compliments the excellence of one of Monk’s novels, but ends by saying,

“…but one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience.”

It’s both funny and pathetically off point that this brilliant man is questioned because what he wants to write about isn’t considered “appropriate,” and Everett extracts every satirical gem from Monk’s perpetual “wrong in every context experience.” The professor’s quandary also illustrates an underlying irony of prejudice.

Everett also uses the novel’s structure to heighten the satire and ensnare the reader in the experience of prejudice itself. Everett employs the frame story structure in an audacious way. In the outer frame, Monk grapples with the issues of race and stereotyping which make it difficult for him to publish the sort of academic work and fiction he writes. Simultaneously, he is caring for his mother with Alzheimer’s, who is being “erased” by the disease, just as Monk’s individual self is being erased by society.

Enraged by the three million dollar sale of a novel called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, Monk writes a parody. My Pafology, later renamed Fuck, is a hilarious, but deeply disturbing send up of what Monk calls “the shit that’s published” as authentic black writing and the public that gobbles it up. The inner frame is that story.

Everett takes the familiar device of the frame story structure, and uses it in an audaciously humorous way to expose and criticize the mostly unconscious prejudice and stereotyping most of us fall into despite our best efforts. Monk won’t sign his own name to Fuck and instead credits it to “Stagg R. Leigh.” When his agent asks if he’s serious about sending it out and it if should have an explanation, Monk replies,

“Send it straight,” I said. “If they can’t see it’s a parody, fuck them.”

Ironically, Fuck becomes a huge success, and Monk is embroiled in an ever more complicated scam in which he pretends to be the elusive, barely literate author, Stagg R. Leigh. The reading public can’t tell it’s a parody and gives the fictional Stagg R. Leigh the kind of fame and respect that continue to elude Monk. Readers of Erasure are put in the very uncomfortable, but edifying position of reading the inner story, Fuck. Everett holds this uncomfortable mirror up to us until we are forced to confront our own limitations and biases. We come to care for the inner story’s central character, Van Go, no matter how exaggerated a character he is. Everett employs this ancient story form, the frame story structure, to take his readers, laughing uneasily all the way, to a more profound and disturbing understanding of the pervasive and destructive nature of unconscious prejudice – and their own unwitting participation in its perpetuation.

It’s brilliant and effective satire, channeling Everett’s considerable rage into a biting and effective call for change. By employing his incisive anger as subtext, as the emotional through-line that underpins the story’s plot (and the novel within the novel), the author transmutes into a far more powerful and effective tool than if the rage had been simply stated.

The novel also stands out for the inventive, subversive way the author uses language in this story. Everett confidently claims a wide range of linguistic territory – from formal, academic diction to informal, colloquial speech. He moves in and out of these linguistic counties with elegance and savoir-faire. His approach in this novel also clearly illustrates the difference between the limited power of a polemic versus the far greater persuasive power of an experiential novel.

In fiction it is often hard to communicate raw, yet nuanced ideas about race, injustice, or persecution without offending or alienating the very audience the author wants to persuade. Erasure succeeds brilliantly because Everett embeds his sophisticated satire in a form that both amuses and challenges, enticing us to do what none of us really want to do: confront our own ignorance and unconscious prejudices. He never lets us off the hook, but he takes us on a wild, bracing ride before he catches us and kills our old, more primitive selves so that we can be reborn in a new state of greater awareness and enlightenment.

After reading Erasure, I am inspired to play with the frame story structure to see what can be achieved within that particular narrative form. Like Everett, I’d like to experiment with embedding one narrative inside another, especially if they’re told in distinctly––if not jarringly—different voices, points of view, and tones. What effects can be achieved through such juxtaposition? How would the strictures of this particular narrative form limit and torque the story? I’d like to figure out how to use this nesting structure to make my novel more potent and emotionally resonant for my readers. Finally, I’d like to steal Everett’s tactics for transmuting rage, through wit and raw intelligence, into biting satire with the capacity to take readers beyond understanding to actual change. How do you make your writing crack open someone else’s brain and heart so that they finish your novel bigger, better and more humble than they were before? Now that’s art.

 

 

Life of Pi

book by Yann Martel

Annotation by Lee Stoops

 

 

“The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity – it’s envy.”

~ Yann Martel, Life of Pi (6)

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is, as writing for life goes, brilliant. Early on, the story evokes a sense of wonder that encompasses all parts of life: physical, emotional, spiritual, rational, survival. Martel’s control of language is gripping both in its power and lyricism. At times, the story progresses in a fairy-tale manner of wonder, while at others it’s a philosophic and/or religious text, and still at others it’s a journal of tragedy and adventure. The story as a whole is an expressive, brutal, and tender account that inspires the imagination and answers unanswerable questions – all through the eyes of a teenage Indian boy adrift on a small lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with an adolescent Bengal tiger.

Within the first 10 pages, I knew I was in for a ride. The book’s first section, “Toronto and Pondicherry,” richly details the early life and development of the book’s main character and narrator, Piscine Patel. “Pi” is a self-inflicted nickname; a response to teasing and mispronunciation. Martel’s first person narrative of Pi is very smart, very direct, and often poetic. Pi is an emotionally evolved (“He had no idea how deeply those words wounded me. They were like nails being driven into my flesh” (7).), spiritually charged (“To me, religion is about our dignity, not our depravity” (71).), life-aware (“First wonder goes deepest; wonder after that fit in the impression made by the first” (50).) young boy. He struggles with people, but understands humanity on the scale of animal survival and evolution. He comes to questions of wonder on his own, in response to his unique world view. “All things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive” (41).

Reading the story through my worldview lens, I found myself rapt, as a reader/writer/human, throughout each page. In one scene while growing up in India, Pi approaches his father and makes some religious requests. His father, a busy zoo-owner/keeper and loving but at times absent figure, argues and eventually presses Pi to talk to Mother. The following is the end of their dialogue:

““But Piscene!” she said… “Father and I find your religious zeal a bit of a mystery.”

“It is a Mystery.”

“Hmmm. I don’t’ mean it that way. Listen, my darling, if you’re going to be religious, you must be either a Hindu, a Christian or a Muslim. You heard what they said on the esplanade.”

“I don’t see why I can’t be all three. Mamaji has two passports. He’s Indian and French. Why can’t I be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim?”

“That’s different. France and India are nations on earth.”

She thought for a second. “One. That’s the point. One nation, one passport.”

“One nation in the sky?”

“Yes. Or none. There’s that option too, you know. These are terribly old-fashioned things you’ve taken to.”

“If there’s only one nation in the sky, shouldn’t all passports be valid for it?”

A cloud of uncertainty came over her face” (73-74).

This exchange is indicative of Martel’s character/topic control. He uses both dialog and inner monolog to offer the reader arguments and answers. In terms of writing, it’s powerful because it’s borderline rhetoric. Something written that can at once entertain, enlighten and raise questions (or, even answer them) is something I want to be able to do with my writing. There’s more here than just the story: there’s life.

His family, because of politics and for other reasons, is forced to consider a major life change and relocation/emigration. The sell what animals they can, lose the lease on the zoo, and pack everything (lives and what animals are left) onto a Japanese cargo ship bound for Canada. It sinks (it’s never really clear how/why, but that doesn’t matter) and Pi is left alone on a small life boat with a wounded zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and an adolescent Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Of course, by the end of the first week, Pi and the tiger are the only two alive. This is where the fiction really kicks in and the story, while it crawled beautifully along in section one, starts to walk and then run. Everything Pi knows is challenged. And, fortified. Living in the head of someone living on a raft with a tiger for seven months for 189 pages that feel like a single page is remarkable story-telling. Martel’s gift throughout “The Pacific Ocean” part of the book exists within a perfectly balanced mix of humor, sorrow, adventure, wonder, invention, and contemplation. “And so, in a moment of insanity brought on by hunger – because I was more set on eating than I was on staying alive – without any means of defense, naked in every sense of the term, I looked Richard Parker dead in the eyes. Suddenly his brute strength meant only moral weakness. It was nothing compared to the strength in my mind” (222). It’s no wonder to me that this story commanded the coveted Man Booker Prize.

Martel’s story as a writer is wrought with short-comings, floundering, and attention lost. His success came from perseverance through what most would label failure. Part of what makes this story so powerful is that it comes from the imagination of someone that really believes in the power of fiction to grow and change lives. A hopeless optimistic telling the story of a hopeless optimistic – as a reader I was inspired, but as a writer I am affirmed. The story wins in the end: not because it actually wins, but because it’s told as truth. Beautiful.

The Road

book by Cormac McCarthy

annotation by Lee Stoops

“As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.”

~ Cormac McCarthy, The Road (57)

Chilling. Dark. Cold. Hopeless. And yet, The Road is full of love, regardless; both McCarthy’s love of a real story told well and the love a father and son share, even in the face of nothingness. The landscape is America, though the time is epitomic post-apocalyptic. Nothing remains but ash, broken, Spartan roads, and a few, hungry, desperate, withered people. Winter – and it’s not clear if it’s seasonal or nuclear – sets in and color long ago left the world. McCarthy paints a bleak, grim environment and ravages his characters with it. Yet, they never give up. They sustain each other entirely. And that sustenance is the point. Days without food or water, weeks on the road, sleepless and cold and knowing that the only other people alive are eating each other, and moving toward a goal simply for the sake of having a goal – none of these keep the story moving or give it its poignancy. Its strength, its very meaning, exists in the bond of love the father and his son share.

McCarthy’s intentions with the story are clear. He so much as eliminates visual, typeset elements of the page so that everything makes way for the truth of the prose. None of the dialogue is quoted, and only some the time is it tagged. The characters (the boy and his father) remain nameless for the entire story. No states are labeled, no nomenclature of town or geographic shows. Titles and places, even extra ink on the page for apostrophes or quotations, are unnecessary distractions in McCarthy’s vision.

“At the top of the hill he turned and studied the town. Darkness coming fast. Darkness and cold. He put two of the coats over the boy’s shoulders, swallowing him up parka and all.

I’m really hungry, Papa.

I know.

Will we be able to find our stuff?

Yes. I know where it is.

What if somebody finds it?

They wont find it.

I hope they dont.

They wont. Come on.

What was that?

I didnt hear anything.

Listen.

I dont hear anything.

They listened. Then in the distance he heard a dog bark. He turned and looked toward the darkening town. It’s a dog, he said.

A dog?

Yes.

Where did it come from?

I dont know.

We’re not going to kill it, are we Papa?

No. We’re not going to kill it.

He looked down at the boy. Shivering in his coats. He bent over and kissed him on his gritty brow. We wont hurt the dog, he said. I promise” (81-82).

McCarthy’s characters engage is continual dialogue, and the speech patterns and choices are masterful. Part of the story’s brilliance lies in the boy’s true form; he is a young boy, witness to a world devastated and lonely, but remaining a young boy. The father recognizes and pities his son’s innocence and forced loss, and he struggles to balance survivalism, reality, and compassion in a world that doesn’t care whether they live or die. McCarthy’s approach to developing the boy’s character through reflection and interaction with his “Papa” is one of the indicators that not a single element of The Road is accidental.

Devoid of chapter breaks, or even long scenes, the story reads like a close observer’s journal accounting of the pair’s journey. Most scenes, sequences, or flashbacks are only pieces on the pages, some spanning two or even several. The technique, if described, sounds choppy, like a series of false starts or gapped prose. However, in the case of The Road, it might not work any other way. The reader is trusted to intuit time, place, emotion, and pace. The story may jump from the man holding his son, protecting him while he sleeps, to a flashback to a time when the boy’s mother was still alive, to the next morning or even several days later. Despite the technique and things left unsaid, the disjointed style, rather than create a disjunct narrative, gives even more truth the story, to their lives, and to the experience as a whole.

“He was a long time going to sleep. After a while he turned and looked at the man. His face in the small light streaked with black from the rain like some old world thespian. Can I ask you something? he said.

Yes. Of course.

Are we going to die?

Sometime. Not now.

And we’re still going south.

Yes.

So we’ll be warm.

Yes.

Okay.

Okay what?

Nothing. Just okay.

Go to sleep.

Okay.

I’m going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay?

Yes. That’s okay.

And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?

Yes. Of course you can.

What would you do if I died?

If you died I would want to die too.

So you could be with me?

Yes. So I could be with you.

Okay” (10-11).

And, that’s what The Road is – an experience in life at its most uncertain, most hopeless, most true. As a reader, I read rapt. As a writer, I couldn’t put the book down, even though I needed a hand free to make notes – recording everything he was doing right, when and how he was doing it, and why it worked everywhere it did. The story is spare, made rich by authentic characters and some of the strongest contemporary prose available. I closed the book, inspired and terrified, thinking, “This is what a story can do? This is what I can do with a story?” If Cormac ever reads this: Thank you.

The Time Machine

book by H.G. Wells

annotation by Philip Barragán

In his first novella, Wells introduces the reader to a time machine capable of carrying the passenger to the distant past or future. The Time Machine: An Invention is a premier speculative fiction novella that examines human nature and evolution of the human species through the unnamed protagonist, the Time Traveler.

In the story, the Time Traveler travels to the future in the year 798,000 where he encounters two species of human beings; the Eloi and the Morlocks. One species, a simple minded childlike people live above ground playing in the sun while their counterparts, the Morlocks, live underground while making the clothes and providing food for them by leaving it on the tables of the Eloi in the middle of the night. Additionally, the Morlocks use the Eloi as their cattle and their food source.

Many literary critics have viewed the two species as a representation of English society; the lower class and the upper class. Others have viewed the story as a commentary on technology from a Victorian frame of reference. And yet others view the novel as one of the premier Steampunk novels, a genre that embraces the concept and value of steam-powered machinery versus electronic machinery.

Wells has described the novel as an “undergraduate” level work in his commentary on his younger writing. However, the novel stands on its own merit. The language is smart and inviting while the dialogue is realistic and engaging. The descriptions are lush yet not overdone providing the reader with a vivid picture of his futuristic world. And the plot is interesting and surprising without being trite or preachy.

As a writer, I felt inspired by The Time Machine. As an example of the truth in fiction, it can be read on many levels. In the middle of the story, I looked-up from the pages and realized Wells was telling me things about his thoughts about humanity, whispering in my ear about his hopes, fears and hope (or lack thereof) for humanity.

Speculative fiction often portrays the worst case scenario that an author can possibly imagine. It makes the point, even for those who need to be pounded on the head a few times. Do you get it? Don’t you get it yet? And whether it’s subtle or on the nose, Spec Fic takes us down that path of asking “what if.” And maybe all fiction asks that question from a storyteller’s point of view. But in the worlds of Spec Fic, the canvas allows the writer to stretch his imagination and use broad, deep strokes; sometimes out of this world and out of this time, but the genre can handle it.

The Time Machine: An Invention is a worthwhile read that borders on the boundary of science fiction and speculative fiction. It is a brief read that packs a lot of story into a mere one hundred pages while giving the reader a lot to think about. Even after one hundred years, The Time Machine: An Invention holds its own among many stories that have tried to capture the essence of H.G. Wells first novella.

A Visit From the Goon Squad

Book by Jennifer Egan

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

In my recent exploration books with different points of view which take place over different periods of time, Jennifer Egan’s latest, A Visit from the Goon Squad was a natural pick. I try not to decide what’s going on in a book before an author tells me, but Jennifer Egan’s style and the disjointedness of time and place of this particular book had me guessing, constantly, what she was up to with the structure.  In the end, I decided to let the book work for me, listen to it as it played along, as one would with an anthology, or a music mix from a dear friend. I was not disappointed.

Where Middlesex told one large sweeping story over generations in chronological order, it lost focus in places. Goon Squad never loses focus on its individual scenes and in the end, it becomes apparent that the entire piece holds together. Each of the characters, isolated in their own short stories, have their lives carefully threaded together here and there throughout the book and by the end Goon Squad comes together as a portrait of a musical, moving web of humanity. We don’t really get a larger picture of a beginning/middle/end story, such as we get in Middlesex, but Egan was careful to make sure we got inside each of the players involved at one point or another so that by the end, the book has created its own sense of nostalgia. We feel the buoyed excitement of seeing an old friend on the street years and years later, “Hey, that guy. I know that guy!” And the old days come flooding back. Pretty amazing for 288 pages.

The first chapter/story is of Sasha in her early twenties, on an awkward date. Egan’s gaze is so close that we learn a lot about Sasha, that she’s a shoplifter and a thief, but that she does this to fill an inner need rather than to make a living. We then meet Bennie, trying like hell to connect with his son, Chris. Egan goes on to bounce around through time, taking us with one (sometimes vaguely) recognizable character into a completely different world. On an adolescent romp through grunge band era San Francisco, on a very well-moneyed but disastrous safari to Africa, to student life in NYC which ends in an X-induced unfortunate trip into the East River, into a not-too distant future where the music industry is run by its huge sales to children. We meet Bennie as a teenager, in his prime, then as an aging producer. We meet Sasha again in her teenage runaway years, as a young corporate assistant, then married with children through the eyes of her daughter.

The point of view shifts, mostly in third, sometimes in first, one time in second person. I have little patience with second person for long patches, but Egan makes it work in the pages leading up to Sasha’s imbalanced buddy Rob’s dizzying drug-hazed night in Manhattan. It is a night that will have repercussions through Sasha and Drew (her later husband)’s life toward the end of the book.

Egan adopts the Latin-American magic realism trick of omniscient projection, which is fun. Especially in “Safari”, where, having introduced us to a cluster of characters in close third, and in close circumstances, Egan leads us through their adventure and then projects: “The members of Ramsey’s safari have gained a story they’ll tell the rest of their lives…Dean, whose success will elude him until middle age, when he’ll land the role of a paunchy outspoken plumber…”  She uses this technique in specific sections throughout the book, which gives us a sense of the larger fabric of interwoven lives, and helps hold the larger narrative together.

Egan messes with form in “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” the second-to-last chapter, by telling the story from the point of view of Sasha’s daughter with a hi-tech journal. The result is a series of charts that manage to tell a poignant and difficult story despite their complicated format of bubble maps, flow charts and other illustrations. This section resonated with me, as my children are learning to write with bubble maps and various charts, all of which give me the giggles while creating a sense of despair over the loss of the written form. But Egan is able to effectively create a portrait of a waning marriage, a view into dysfunctional parenthood and a nostalgia for Sasha’s prior life as a snarky assistant, or further back as a headstrong world-traveling runaway–all with charts.

Egan has created something new, in an age of e-readers and people ranting about the death of print. I read my version on the e-reader, which, ironically, made the abovementioned charts hard to read (they wouldn’t enlarge). While I don’t think I’ll be incorporating bubble maps into my work anytime soon, I feel a bit stronger introducing a few more points of view into my story and knowing that even if it doesn’t follow beginning/middle/end, even if it doesn’t provide all of the details through a span of years, a larger story can be told in smaller brushstrokes, as long as the web which holds it together is very carefully woven.