Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature

skin

book by Dorothy Allison

annotation by Sarita Sidhu

Through this collection of inspiring essays and other writing produced over the years, Allison distills the essence of her life; the hard-fought battles that helped her to forge a ‘…meaningful politics…’ (35).

Truth, lies, and identity are themes which dominate this anthology in which she gives the reader access to her interior life, so we understand the emotional and intellectual struggles she went through as she navigated a hostile and dangerous world.

With a courageous candor that grounds her work, the author tells us that: “I have known I was a lesbian since I was a teenager, and I have spent a good twenty years making peace with the effects of incest and physical abuse. But what may be the central fact of my life is that I was born in 1949 in Greensville, South Carolina, the bastard daughter of a white woman from a desperately poor family, a girl who had left the seventh grade the year before, worked as a waitress, and was just a month past fifteen when she had me” (15). She continues: “My family’s lives were not on television, not in books…There was a myth of the poor in this country, but it did not include us, no matter how hard I tried to squeeze us in. There was an idea of the good poor―hard-working, ragged but clean, and intrinsically honorable. I understood that we were the bad poor: men who drank and couldn’t keep a job; women, invariably pregnant before marriage, who quickly became worn, fat, and old from working too many hours and bearing too many children…We knew ourselves despised. My family was ashamed of being poor, of feeling hopeless…” (17, 18).

Against all odds, the author goes on to be the first person in her family to graduate from high school, and then the first to go to college. This was facilitated by the family’s move to Central Florida in the 1960s.

Allison shares the harrowing experiences of being held up twice in the chapter Never Expected to Live Forever. She begins with the story of being held up on a street, and smoothly transitions to an earlier occasion during her college years when she was robbed at a dairy store, where she worked to help cover costs. The author repeats the phrase that was whispered to her on the street “I don’t want to hurt you” (37), to dramatically bring the reader back to the first incident (42).

In the next chapter Gun Crazy Allison shares her desire to own a gun and shoot like all her uncles. Her uncle Bo tells her “Girls don’t shoot” (46). The topic of guns appears again in the subsequent chapter Shotgun Strategies, in the context of confessional dreams of shooting sexual abusers. It was at this lesbian consciousness-raising group that the author began, for the first time in her life, to talk about the beatings and rape she endured at the hands of her stepfather. It was also here that she learned for the first time that violence and abuse spanned all classes in society.

“The world told us that we were being spanked, not beaten, and that violent contempt for girl children was ordinary, nothing to complain about. The world lied, and we lied, and lying becomes a habit…What I have taught myself to do is to craft truth out of storytelling” (55).

In her quest to belong, to find validation, Allison found all available theories on class and race inadequate and self-serving. And, to her utter despair, she also found that her sexual identity which had been historically labelled as ‘deviant desire’ did not fit into the feminist theoretical construct of ‘lesbian’ either. She described herself as “…a transgressive lesbian―femme, masochistic, as sexually aggressive as the women I seek out, and as pornographic in my imagination and sexual activities as the heterosexual hegemony has ever believed” (23). In the service of truth, she had no choice then but to endeavor to create a complex identity for herself, and to write herself into the literary canon from which she was missing. She states: “If Literature was a dishonest system by which the work of mediocre men and women could be praised for how it fit into a belief system that devalued women, queers, people of color, and the poor, then how could I try to become part of it?” (171)

Her commitment to “…break the public silence that has maintained so much private terror” (119), and write about her sexuality explicitly produced a backlash within society at large, but also, shockingly, within the feminist movement. This is detailed in the chapter Public Silence, Private Terror. When I read about the Barnard Sex Scandal of 1982 (105), I did not recall reading about it on earlier pages, so I was eager to discover the details. The tension grew, until Allison finally revealed everything two pages later.

Allison tells us: “I believe in the truth. I believe in the truth in the way only a person who has been denied any use of it can believe in it. I know its power. I know the threat it represents to a world constructed on lies…I know the myths of the family that thread through our society’s literature, music, politics―and I know the reality. The reality is that for many of us family was as much the incubator of despair as the safe nurturing haven the myths promised. We are not supposed to talk about our real family lives, especially if our families do not duplicate the mythical heterosexual model” (215). Regardless of the personal cost, she implores: “…Imagine me. I was born to die. I know that. If I could have found what I needed at thirteen, I would not have lost so much of my life chasing vindication or death. Give some child, some thirteen-year-old, the hope of the remade life. Tell the truth. Write the story that you were always afraid to tell” (220). She also states: “The first rule I learned in writing was to love the people I wrote about―and loving my mama, loving myself, was not simple in any sense. We had not been raised to love ourselves, only to refuse to admit how much we might hate ourselves” (237).

I could continue to write about the author’s use of simile in the chapter Bertha Harris, a Memoir, and how she lovingly and beautifully weaves the stories of “The two most important women in [her] life― [her] mother and [her] first lover…” (225), or about the humor sprinkled throughout the pages, but then I run the risk of this annotation becoming as long as the book itself.

As a feminist with working-class roots I picked up this book hoping to find myself on its pages. Unlike Allison’s own quest to see reflections of herself in literature she read, I was not disappointed.

I hope I can both emulate Allison’s courage and find the love (or at a minimum the empathy) I need to write the story I am afraid to tell. The story I wish I could have read growing up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grace

9781619027206

book by Natashia Deon

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have been itching to read GRACE ever since I heard Natashia Deon read a bit of it at David Rocklin’s ROAR SHACK a few years back. This was someone who clearly knew how to create scene, cared about language and the voice of the book had clear, strong, narrative clarity and control. I always tell my students that the key to voice is creating a voice so strong that the reader feels in good hands. From what I’d heard, I was definitely in good hands.

Once I got a hold of GRACE I was not disappointed, the book is hard to put down. From Naomi’s first line,

I am dead.

…the voice has such strength and assuredness that you have no choice but to sink into the narrative and absorb it.

Starting with your narrative character dead is nothing new, but Deon takes it one further. Because of her predicament, Naomi can observe several characters’ stories. She spends the book telling her story, and the story of her daughter, over whom she watches as things unfold. But she can also, without the glibness of an omniscient narrator, fly around and observe things happening in different environments that will affect her daughter. Through this tool, Deon manages to let Naomi tell several other people’s entangled stories herself.

I tell my students that as long as you keep the reader oriented, you can get away with a lot. And Deon is masterful at keeping us anchored in a complex array of characters in a voice that creates its own rules and sometimes bends them a little. Naomi has these “flashes” of hindsight, portions of her life that unfold more fully in narrative than they did when she was living them. It launches the reader, much like that long view in magical realism, into a broader overview than the character would be capable of observing on her own:

You may never know.

May never know about the choice somebody made for you that changed your life. Just like I didn’t know about the choice made for me that day. By the time I was standing behind Albert, watching him bang those last nails in, my life had already changed.     — Page 353

 

Naomi can then, because we feel we are in capable hands, fly over into the world of a character who, without her knowing, will change the course of not only her life, but of her daughter’s. This is not her ghost being conscious of the world as it unfolded to her during her lifetime. This is a “flash” of a more fully realized hindsight from her ghost consciousness-perhaps a broader sense of things a soul can have once freed from its body. And this is deftly handled.

The narrative devices result in a richly layered story that is laid against not only the cruelties of slavery, but that volatile difficult time after Abraham Lincoln declared the slaves free, but in the South it wasn’t to be a reality until a few years later after several bloody battles. And the repercussions of the cruel system that spawned slavery still haven’t completely passed as of today, a consciousness that is woven carefully into this period piece.

Within Naomi and Josey’s story is that of Charles, whose life is central to both of theirs as well as the stories of Cynthia and Annie, two different morally complex white women doing what they can to survive not the repercussions of the war, but trying to live life on their own terms in a time that simply wouldn’t allow for it. In that lost moment of war between old and new, they slice out a bit of life by use of their wits and their bodies. Cynthia and Annie are so wrapped up in their own problems they have no idea that their whims and often careless decisions can change, even destroy people’s lives. And their ripple affect through the delicate web of two generations of women around them creates a solid portrait of the danger of unconscious white privilege which, while shown in the past, can easily be applied to the present.

With all of these characters, and Naomi’s ability to glide in and out of their lives as they unfold, Deon can deal with issues of gender roles, slavery, race, powerlessness, love, family, power struggles, individuality, strength and of course grace, all while keeping us rapt in the language of her storytelling.

Beautiful Ruins

9780061928178_p0_v2_s260x420book by Jess Walter

annotation by Maggie Downs

Both are balmy, sun-soaked locales. Both are surrounded by hills and ridges, switchbacks and shorelines. And both are situated on tenuous earth that threatens to break off and drift into the sea. But the similarities end there for Porto Vergogna, Italy, and Los Angeles, Calif., the two main settings of Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins.”

One is a “rumor of a town,” inhabited mostly by anchovy fisherman and their families. The other is a glittering panorama of “green-and-glassed hills,” where “every table is sporting a sullen white screenwriter in glasses, every pair of glasses aimed at a MacPro laptop.” Together, the two places form the yin and yang of this novel, the opposing but complimentary forces that make this book work.

First there’s Porto Vergogna, a place where people arrive deliberately. “The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly — in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier.” (p1)

The few visitors who do come to Porto Vergogna and its one crumbling hotel are seeking more than simple rest and relaxation. They arrive for spiritual recovery and redemption. One of the characters, in describing what makes the location so special, says, “‘Here, on this coast, your walls were made by God — or volcanoes. You can’t tear them down. And you can’t build outside them. This town can never be more than a few barnacles on the rocks.’” (p63) The people here are constrained by the rules of a higher power.

On the other hand, Los Angeles, our second setting, is a place where religion has been co-opted by men. One character describes his pilgrimage to Los Angeles like this: “Weren’t movies his generation’s faith anyway — its true religion? Wasn’t the theater our temple, the one place we enter separately but emerge from two hours later with the same experience, same guided emotions, same morals? … Flickering pictures stitched in our minds that became our shared history, that taught us what to expect from life, that defined our values. What was that but a religion?” (p21)

Claire, one of the main characters, shows up for a job interview, only to be asked, “Claire, how much do you know about Scientology?” (p23)

Los Angeles is perplexing and illogical. One of the characters is perpetually confounded by the sprinklers that go off at 5 a.m. each day to water piles of rocks. “Before sunrise — before Guatemalan gardeners in dirty dinged lawn trucks, before Caribbeans come to cook, clean, and clothe, before Montessori, Pilates and Coffee Bean, before Benzes and BMWs nose onto palmed streets and the blue-toothed sharks resume their endless business — the gentrification of the American mind — there are the sprinklers: rising from the ground to spit-spray the northwest corner of Greater Los Angeles, airport to the hills, downtown to the beaches, the slumbering rubble of the entertainment regime.” (p15)

Also, unlike Porto Vergogna, this is not a place that requires deliberation, a place that necessitates the skill of experienced sailors over choppy waters. Rather, it is a city that zombies could navigate. “Her commute to the studio is a second-nature maze of cut-offs and lane changes, shoulders, commuter lanes, residential streets, alleys, bike lanes, and parking lots, devised to get her to the studio each day precisely eighteen minutes after she leaves her condo.” (p24)

The Italian city makes no promises. It is humble. “Porto Vergogna was a tight cluster of a dozen old whitewashed houses, an abandoned chapel, and the town’s only commercial interest — the tiny hotel and cafe owned by Pasquale’s family — all huddled like a herd of sleeping goats in a crease in the sheer cliffs … The hoteliers and restaurateurs to the north had their own pet name for the tiny village pinched in the vertical seam: baldracca culo — the whore’s crack.” (p2) There is just one place for lodging, The Hotel Adequate View, where expectations are lowered so they are forever exceeded.

In contrast, Los Angeles is a delicate house of cards, hope balanced on top of promises, all positioned on a stack of speculation and possibility. “To pitch here is to live. People pitch their kids into good schools, pitch offers on houses they can’t afford, and when they’re caught in the arms of the wrong person, pitch unlikely explanations. Hospitals pitch birthing centers, daycares pitch love, high schools pitch success, car dealerships pitch luxury, counselors self-esteem, masseuses happy endings, cemeteries eternal rest.” (p28)

In Los Angeles, those who follow their dreams almost certainly find a ruinous end: “He got caught in several traffic snarls and took the wrong exit. By the time the security guard shrugs and informs him that his destiny is at the other gate, he is 24 minutes late.” (p35)

In Porto Vergogna those dreams — no matter how frivolous or ridiculous — are met with support, even admiration. “With nothing but steep cliff faces to work with, Pasquale knew that a golf course was out of the question. But there was a natural shelf of three boulders near his hotel, and if he could level the tops and cantilever the rest, he thought he could build forms and pour enough concrete to connect the boulders into a flat rectangle and create — like a vision rising out of the rocky cliffs — a tennis court.” (p6)

There are two distinct story lines that run parallel throughout “Beautiful Ruins” and finally meet in the end, and neither one of those story lines could have existed without the other. The romance that blooms in Italy would not have happened without the Hollywood dreams; and had there been no ambition for fame and fortune, a hotelier in Italy would have never had a shot at love with an American actress. This was only made possible by Walter’s masterful use of two contrasting locations that formed a more dynamic, balanced ecosystem.

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.

High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories

book by Joyce Carol Oates

annotation by Wendy Dutwin

The six stories from each decade of Joyce Carol Oates’ 2006 collection High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories, 1966-2006 showcase the development of an artistic talent devoted to the mastery of her craft. She is a master of the short story form and I learned so much from her, particularly how to build suspense with tiny details.

Oates is constantly exorcising the demons of darkness from her past by revisiting certain themes again and again in her work. It’s no accident that I’m so drawn   her stories. The themes that fascinate her are the ones I find myself most interested in exploring in my own writing. She has a fearlessness I still struggle with in her approach to these subject matters, but I grow braver with every story of hers that I read.

Oates makes zero apologies about the women characters in her work. Feminist critics describe them as weak, needy and passive, withdrawing from emotional and sexual intimacy and drawing themselves toward masochistic encounters. Many of them have experienced abuse, sexual, physical, emotional or all three. But Oates is fascinated with why women are this way, perhaps even why she might be that way as her own history riddled with physical and sexual abuse. She seems to be writing through the violence to discover her own truth.

By having the courage to look at the ugliness in her own past, she illuminates a path for others struggling to find their way. Again, it shows the power of fiction, the social importance of it, the revelation of human truth in the words of the brave. She talks about this in the notes following the High Lonesome collection when she says:

“Prose fiction is, in essence, the realization of an elusive abstract vision in elaborate and painstaking construction, sentence by sentence, word by word. The daunting task for the writer is: what to include? what to exclude? Through our lifetimes a Sargasso Sea of the discarded accumulates, far larger than what is called our ‘body’ of work, for each story is an opening into the infinite, abruptly terminated and sealed in language.” (661-662)

One only has to look at a classic short story like “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” to understand what Oates probably wrote and discarded to get to what she ultimately kept in a story so rich with nuance, subtext and horror. Connie is so vain, a typical naïve teenager aware of her good looks, but blind to her empty soul. Arnold is a fascinating character that a writer knows Oates developed “in elaborate and painstaking construction” because of the endless interpretations that surround him. Is Arnold a man or the Grim Reaper? When Connie looks out to “the vast sunlit reaches of land behind him and on all sides of him” at the end, is she staring at a shepherd who is going to walk her through the valley of the shadow of death? Does she transcend beyond her bodily vanity to something spiritual and greater when she leaves the house to save her family, the first selfless act she performs in her life? These are the questions that fill a writer with excitement when contemplating the words of a writer like Oates and dissecting how she chose this word and put together that sentence.

All of her characters are deeply wounded with psychological scars that have no easy answers. The temptation to avoid such twisted characters that cannot be wrapped up neatly by the story’s end is one that Oates resists; she prefers mess and complication, because that is life. But in her brave and honest hands, that darkness of life takes on a greater beauty. Her stories transform loneliness, rape, suicide, murder and other forms of loss into a broken, but recognizable tapestry of our own humanity. And to do that in the structure of a short story highlights the rhythm and poetry of her prose, proving that her prolific quantity of work carries with it an enormous quality, too.

The Sisters Brothers

book by Patrick DeWitt

annotation by Lee Stoops

“My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence…”

~ Eli Sisters, from The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (246)

Recently, I admitted to myself that I like gritty western stories.  It was a secret I kept even from myself. Why I avoided, and told myself and others that I didn’t enjoy, western stories I’ll never know. Principal? Stigma? It doesn’t matter; what matters is that I finally came about. Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers is a gritty western story, to be sure. For that, I enjoyed it. But it is not just a gritty western story; it’s a study in character development, unique voice, and literary craft, a combination place to which few gritty western stories arrive (a nod to Cormac McCarthy for long ago transcending the genre). deWitt’s a gifted storyteller and a deserving new voice in contemporary literature. Evidenced by the sincerity of his first person narrator, Eli Sisters, deWitt, as author, understands that he is under contract with readers of this genre – a contract to entertain, yes, but more so to move, to create sympathy, to enable emotion and draw on senses. His product is fun, engaging, heart-rending, and instructive. It’s a great read for all of these reasons. Since it would be easy to evaluate the book in regards to deWitt’s craft, I’ll turn this annotation exclusively to his use of a transgressive first person narrator.

Eli Sisters, the narrator, kills other people for a living. The story, taking place in the 1850s, follows Eli and his brother, Charlie, from Oregon City to a gold claim near Sacramento as they hunt Hermann Warm on orders from the influential and mysterious Commodore. That Eli is a hired killer and that the story picks up at the beginning of the Warm hit is established almost immediately, but not before the reader gets a picture of Eli watching (and mourning) his nameless horse burn in a barn fire at the end of the previous job. deWitt gives the reader the image in a way both clever and effective: through Eli’s unique voice – using both his (Eli’s) language and his (again, Eli’s) way of seeing the world. The fact that deWitt begins with this description of Eli being tortured by the image of his great companion suffering is important when considering deWitt’s decision to use this character and voice to tell the entire story. The move establishes for the reader a strange connection with a character worthy of loathing. And, because the connection is fused in the loss of something innocent and lovable, the reader can’t leave Eli’s camp. It’s a sharing of sympathy, sure, but it’s also a sharing of understanding – that Eli is troubled and needs to be cared for. Smart work.

I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot popping eyeballs. He could cover sixty miles in a day like a gust of wind and I never laid a hand on him except to stroke him or clean him, and I tried not to think of him burning up in that barn but if the vision arrived uninvited how was I to guard against it (5-6)?

Eli is, as established early, a transgressive character. Meaning, he operates outside accepted social norms (making a living in crime) while remaining the protagonist. The reader develops a quick understanding about him and can identify some rationale as to why it’s okay that Eli does what he does. The style’s not new, but it’s challenging, and deWitt commits to it, proving to the savvy reader that he (deWitt) didn’t stumble into the storyline ill-prepared. The temptation in writing a transgressive character is to eventually prove the character good, usually by re-directing course or offering some kind of salvation or redemption for the character’s transgressions. deWitt doesn’t cop to that temptation, and if he ever felt tempted, it’s not evident. Throughout the story, Eli dreams about leaving the work and the lifestyle behind, fantasizes about finding love and settling down. He even comes to a point that he blames his brother and claims he’s been manipulated into killing because of his temper and size. And throughout, the reader sneaks further and further into the fold, getting pieces of Eli’s history and seeing that, while he might have a case, his ruminations give the truth of him away: he is not a good guy – he is a bad guy who wants to be good but lacks the real conviction to pull it off. He is human. For deWitt to pull it off, he had to commit fully to keeping Eli in the realm of transgression and then work hard to keep him there, through to the end, without giving Eli any real salvation or change. It takes remarkable skill, and the reader is rewarded with an authentic character experience.

‘We are the opposite of lawmen.’

Her face became pensive. ‘Is this Warm a very bad man?’

‘I don’t know. That is an unclear question. They say he is a thief.’

‘What did he steal?’

‘Whatever people normally steal. Money, probably.’ This lying made me feel ugly, and I search around for something to look at and find distraction in but could not locate anything suitable. ‘Honestly, actually, he probably didn’t steal a penny.’ Her eyes dropped and I laughed a little. I said, ‘It would not surprise me in the least if he was perfectly innocent.’

‘And do you typically go after men you think are innocent?’

‘There is nothing typical about my profession.’ Suddenly I did not want to talk about it any longer. ‘I don’t want to talk about it any longer.’

Ignoring this statement, she asked, ‘Do you enjoy your work?’

‘Each job is different. Some I have seen as singular escapades. Others have been like hell.’ I shrugged. ‘You put a wage behind something, it gives the act a sort of respectability. In a way, I suppose it feels significant to have something as large as a man’s life entrusted to me.’

‘A man’s death,’ she corrected.

I had not been certain she understood what my position consisted of. I was relieved to know she did – that I did not have to tell her precisely. ‘However you wish to phrase it,’ I said.

‘Haven’t you ever wanted to stop?’

‘I have wanted to,’ I admitted (138-139).

It is perhaps in deWitt’s development of Eli’s interior monologue that he sees the most success from his decision to give the story to a transgressive character. Not because the character manages to understand himself (he doesn’t), but because he manages to convince himself he understands himself. The reader knows better, and there follows a sense of compassion, something more powerful than pity but not to the level of love. And, by the end, the reader may or may not understand that deWitt has peppered Eli’s internal missives with lines that get the reader asking for, or at least considering, the truths in his or her own life. This kind of writing is not exclusive in the employment of transgressive characters, but it works well because the reader is coming at the questions from angles he or she might not routinely explore.

…and as we left the musty basement, heading up the stairs and into the light, I felt two things at once: A gladness at this turn of fortune, but also an emptiness that I did not feel more glad; or rather, a fear that my gladness was forced or false. I thought, Perhaps a man is never meant to be truly happy. Perhaps there is no such a thing in our world, after all (162).

My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wished. I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal? I began exhaling hotly through my nostrils, where as Charlie was quiet and calm, and he made a gesture that I should also be quiet. He was used to corralling me like this, winding me up and corralling me into battle. Shame, I thought. Shame and blood and degradation (246).

Looking back at the camp I thought, I will never be a leader of men, and neither do I want to be one, and neither do I want to be led. I thought: I want to lead only myself (302).

Not all gritty western stories are great stories, and not all are well-written. But again, though deWitt’s got a gritty western story in The Sisters Brothers, he’s also got a lot more. Thanks to his commitment to a strong, transgressive narrator and his careful crafting of human trial, deWitt’s story is literature as literature should be: engaging, emotive, and encouraging of deep questions and suspicious truths. Writers need examples such as this. What better way to provide one than by helping to erode the stereotypes that oppress an entire genre?

The Sportswriter

book by Richard Ford

annotation by Heather Luby

It is not often that upon finishing a novel that I cannot immediately formulate an opinion.  As a writer, I find that the reading process has been altered for me, so that any opinion I have must be informed both by my enjoyment as a reader and also by my analysis of craft techniques.  For The Sportswriter I have found myself unable to have a firm opinion because the reader/writer dynamic has led me to contradictory places.

Initially, I felt that the main character, Frank Bascombe, was wooden and without depth of feeling.  The grief expressed over the death of his son and the dissolution of his marriage seemed a bit hollow.  Frank was detached and therefore, so was I.  I wore weary of Frank’s inner thoughts, sometimes so random and self-absorbed, that I began to find him tiresome.  I spent a great deal of time trying to reconcile his actions with the grief I thought he should have, given his circumstances.  After finishing the novel I sought out reviews, in order to see if I was missing something.  I discovered a New York Times review of the novel by the author Alice Hoffman.  It was not a favorable review, though not as harsh as Ford perceived it to be.  Hoffman detailed many of my feelings, as a reader, for the book.  “Even mourning is replaced by self-analysis” writes Hoffman.  “Bascombe chooses to ignore tangled, emotionally charged family relationships, fixating instead on non-relationships and nonevents.”

After a few days I decided that my opinion of the book, praised by many, was too neat. I had not challenged myself enough.  Deciding to examine it more in terms of craft, I found a different view of the work was possible.  The prose is lyrical, sometimes a bit too extravagant, but it was also precise.  Ford’s has a definite ability to vividly create the landscape of everyday suburban life.  I sometimes felt like the dialogue didn’t ring true, in terms of phrasing, but I could easily attribute that to the fact that it was written more twenty years ago.

Essentially, by dissecting Ford’s novel in terms of setting, dialogue, character development, etc. I began to rethink my emotional response the book.  I began to ask myself, how much of real grief do people display?  How much do people bury in order to continue living?  Once I thought about this, I began to see Frank Bascombe differently.  So many books want to offer us closure, growth, some epiphany by the characters once they have survived a tragedy.  But is that really honest?  Are we being manipulated by writers to arrive at conclusions that may be satisfying, but are not often possible?

In order to give my readers an honest portrayal of a man suffering from a debilitating sorrow, I can’t protect them from what might be ugly or uncomfortable.  My character’s response to his grief has to be genuine, not a facsimile of societal expectations often portrayed in other creative works.  My character is nothing like Frank Bascombe, but Frank and Richard Ford allowed to write my protagonist free from the cliché of “the grieving character.” I don’t always have to like my main character or his actions in dealing with his loss, but I do have feel that he is being honest to me and my readers.

After digesting this book I had to ask these same questions of my own writing and they forced me to reconsider my own goals.  Is my only goal to satisfy my reader or do I want to expose some elemental truth – is it possible to do both?   In my novel Laws of Motion my protagonist is a man whose wife is the victim of a brutal act of violence.  The Sportswriter gave me permission to think outside my initial expectations of how a man would respond to his grief.

In the end, I can’t say that I loved this book, but I did grow to admire it greatly.  Mostly because I think Ford told us the truth with Frank.  I think his character was much more complex and real than we are used to as readers.  Ford refuses to give the reader the “payoff” and instead forces us to contemplate the ways in which a person must survive the worst sort of pain by continuing to exist, to find pleasure and comfort any way possible, and yet always realizing that “Grief, real grief, is relatively short, though mourning can be long” (p. 374).

The Intruder

book by Peter Blauner

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Reading books outside your given genre can still inform your writing on an elemental scale.  I love reading Peter Blauner because of his grip on various aspects of society and how they tend to slam up against one another in New York City. He has a mastery of character structure and contrasts very different lives with each other before a character inevitably crosses the line—and it is there that things explode and become something new.

Blauner’s work is painstakingly researched and informed deeply in a way that only a lifetime New Yorker can accomplish. This is a great lesson in how writers can take advantage of a lifetime knowledge of a place: and how many aspects of a character’s life, ego and story that place can affect. In The Intruder, there’s a many-layered conversation between an upper West Side transplant from Brooklyn and his contractor, where they talk about the old neighborhood. But they’re not just talking about the old neighborhood: the subtext is Jake saying, “I’m still a guy from the ‘hood, even though I live in this brownstone and you’re technically working for me…” and this the conversation also takes on a sinister undercurrent that the reader can sense, but not totally make out. This delicate social balancing act gets turned on its ear further on in the book—all starting in a conversation about the neighborhood. Blauner reminds us to pay attention: every detail matters.

Blauner explores the guilt of the innocent and the innocence of the guilty in this story of a homeless man who becomes obsessed with a family, stalking them and the patriarch of that family’s response to this threat. What results is a tangle in which he shows us that as separately as we try to live our city-dwelling lives, we are all tied together more closely than we think.

Once the characters start crossing between their social strata, disaster ensues. In close third person and in intimate detail, we meet Jake the well-to-do lawyer, John G the homeless man, and Philip, the Mafioso. We learn their motivations, background and the reasons for their choices. While there is no part of me that liked Philip, Blauner made me feel for the place life put him—his mobster boss uncle who sexually abused him as a child, his ideas of the success he’ll never attain. The deep sympathy he was able to maintain with each character made the impossibility of their situation all the more painful.

Blauner gives us John Gates in careful layers. We open with his reflections on how he ended up homeless in the park being pushed around by punk kids, who soak him in gasoline and are about to set him on fire. It was through Blauner’s interviews with a guy who had started out with a life, a job, a family, and ended up on the streets that he learned that these things happen in increments, not all at once. In order to show us how John G arrived at the low point where we meet him, Blauner points out that we have to see “each thing in light of what happened before.” We have deep sympathy for John G. His daughter has died, his marriage has fallen apart, he was given Haldol to cope, and started using crack along the way. He stayed at a friend’s apartment and one night just didn’t go home. Then he was on the streets. His paperwork has been shuffled around so much that when he goes to seek help at a hospital, where he encounters Jake’s wife, Dana, she can’t treat him until she sends him to a clinic she where she works–but then only if he gets the right paperwork. John G. is tantalizingly close to getting help, to getting some sort of a life back, but he spends the night in a shelter and it’s when he’s raped by a guard that he becomes truly unhinged and starts to stalk Jake’s family. Jake finds himself increasingly squeezed by this guy, incredulous that this city, which he has spent his life getting to the top of, is closing in around him.  Enter Philip the contractor and the web begins to circle in on itself.

The careful structure of the book is what makes it so difficult to put down and it is this structure that can inform any genre of novel writing. We gain intimate knowledge of each character and his motivation and Blauner ratchets up the stakes for each of them in every ensuing chapter, but it’s the cutting back and forth between the upped stakes that creates its own kinetic energy. John G and Jake’s lives become more entwined and just when you think John’s going to get things together, find his way with the aid of Abraham, who lives in the tunnels under Riverside Drive, Philip enters the scene. Philip encourages Jake to cross the tensile borderlines between homeless and property owner–Guy who has made it and disenfranchised. And it’s then that things explode.

Because of my screenwriting background, I enjoy the way in which cutting from one story to another can up the tension, but in the latest novel I’m working on, with three points of view, three people all in each other’s lives, I got so wrapped up in each person’s story I forgot for several drafts how they were affecting each other’s lives directly. Blauner reminds us that when the characters each step off their tracks and infect each other’s lives, stir things up, that the real action begins.  And if you can push characters beyond their limits, dangerously into each other’s lives, that’s where the story gets interesting.

The Stand

book by Stephen King

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

I just finished Stephen King’s The Stand:Complete and Uncut. I read and read this book as a teenager. (And you’re going to have to bear with me on this annotation because this book is 1345 pages long, and I want to preface my annotation with a wee bit of an introduction. So go get a cold beverage, and dig in for a second, if you don’t mind.)

When I mention Stephen King to many educated and avid readers, they get a look on their faces like I just farted or, depending on how many advanced degrees they have, wet my pants in front of them. I am exhausted by literary snobbery but, on the other hand, I am a literary snob myself. Several years ago when The DaVinci Code came out, I read it in less than two days and I completely understood why it was popular. The Nicholas Sparks phenomenon evades me, but I can generally see why things sell. And who I am to tell a busy man or woman, or even a retiree, what they should and shouldn’t be reading? I am currently sneering at the popularity of 50 Shades of Gray, but if it’s spicing up some couple’s sex life and putting a smile on their faces as they go out into the world to meet the demands of their jobs and families… that’s not a bad deal for under $10, in my humble opinion.

I consider The Stand (and several other Stephen King novels), Gone With The Wind, Lonesome Dove, The Thorn Birds, and several other novels of John Irving and Pat Conroy, to have been the “gateway” books of my teenage years. My dad was a factory worker who enjoyed reading the paper and paperback westerns and my mother was a voracious reader, enjoying the daily paper, women’s magazines and romance novels. Her ultimate endorsement of a book was, “It reads right along.” My mother had seven children and finances were always tight, if not in active crisis. She alternated working part-time and full-time as our ages and the job market in Michigan allowed. She didn’t want to spend her evenings working through Anna Karenina. She didn’t want to lie on the couch and talk about the marriage plot in the novels of Jane Austen. She wanted a story to amuse and delight her.

There was no literary snobbery in my house. My aunt would give us big garbage bags full of books after she had read them. She bought a few new, a few used, and many at garage and library sales where in the 70s, you could fill up a large bag with books and then pay $1. We would buy books at garage sales, get them from the library (though we had issues returning them–my apologies to The Stair Public Library in Morenci, Michigan) and people knew we read, so we got a lot of people’s handmedowns and castoffs. In my teen years, I began to have some disposable income and one of the first things I bought was my own books. And here was where I encountered the novels of Stephen King. And it was books like The Stand, still a good old-fashioned story, but with literary devices and scope, then enabled me to go further on in my reading and tackle Russian novels. These starter literary novels  (for lack of a better term) were what allowed me to pick up and read the books which would later change who I am as a reader and writer—books like Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart and many others… too many others to list.

So what did I learn re-reading The Stand with adult eyes—the eyes of a college professor, no less? First of all, I couldn’t believe how much I had forgotten. This was very probably my third time through this giant book (published when I was 22) and I probably made my way three times through the shorter version which was published in the late 70s.  Secondly, the novel still piqued my interest with its epic scope and romantic showdown between good and evil. (If you want a summary of The Stand click here because this annotation is already going to be a monster.) And finally, yes, I did notice the wheels do come off of King’s story here and there. There are some inconsistencies with the novel that I never noticed before. In this reading, I had to ask how does the superflu kill everyone on the base instantly, and yet when it is released to the public, it takes days, sometimes even a week for people to die? And all the traffic jams and cars with dead bodies in them? People just stayed in their cars to die of flu? And why does Randall Flagg need a new identity and a car no one can trace if the world is falling apart? Is someone going to check his driver’s license before he becomes dictator of Las Vegas? And how does The Judge get gas in Wyoming when he is trying to get to Las Vegas to spy? I’ve driven across Wyoming. It already looks like there’s an apocalypse, let alone when the few sad and lonely gas stations would be closed and without electricity.

The worst thing to me though, was the “updating” Stephen King did. His 1970s characters were all logical and believable. When he moved those characters (inconsistently, I might add) up into the late 80s and 90s, they lost their credibility. Frannie in the book was supposed to be my age in 1990. She makes little comments about lying to get birth control pills (really wasn’t necessary in 1989/1990… though it might be now the way things are going). She also says “Only the Shadow Knows” which is something my mother would say, not me. (Frannie might have quoted the Partridge Family or the Brady Bunch, or Love Boat etc.)  There is also a part early in the book where someone in east Texas babysits two or three children the whole morning for $1. That would have been fine in the 70s, but a decade later, this woman would have received at least $5, even in the smallest town in America. Toward the end of the book, King begins to mention things like MTV, but his characters are generally inhabiting a pre-cable, pre-music CD, pre-blockbuster movie, Vietnam-was-very-close-and-life-changing, world. Which would be fine if he’d left them in the 70s. But he didn’t.

The other issue I had was King’s treatment of race in the novel. Mother Abigail is the wise African matriarch which, given the archetypal nature of the book , I don’t have a big issue with.  Flagg is a pretty archetypical demon, as well. I had an issue with the following passages… black servicemen “also nearly naked, all wore loincloths”… “more members of this black ‘junta’ covered perhaps 200 khaki-clad soldiers with rifles…”. Now, it’s not that I think when the end of the world comes that race relations are going to be stellar, it was the absence of other discussions or background story to this scene that stuck in my craw. That this, and Mother Abigail and the Rat-Man (who dressed like a pirate), are the sum total of black characters in this massive tome. This too reflects the “old” nature of the book, and I think King would probably write those passages differently today.  (And I won’t even begin to address the problems I have overall with Stephen King’s women characters who tend to be weak, emasculating women who divorce their good long-suffering men. That is SERIOUSLY a separate annotation.)

The things King does well far outnumber my speculation of how The Judge finds gas without electricity in Wyoming and why everyone takes so much aspirin (when in 1982 the FDA issued a warning about aspirin pertaining to Reye’s Syndrome and young adults and when the kick-ass anti-inflammatory Advil was brought to market in the United States in 1984).

King works in Yeats, the Bible, Watership Down, sociological theory and much more. His vision of a smashed America (an apocalypse where goods aren’t scarce and where we haven’t destroyed our planet) allows him to question why characters turn from good and whether people who have had less than stellar lives ever have a chance to be “inside.” This novel illustrates the power of story, the power of the reader to be invested with characters that are even briefly introduced. King does this extremely well when summing up the post-plague plague—people who were immune to the superflu but fall down wells, die of appendicitis, accidentally lock themselves in freezers, etc. In a few brief paragraphs he tells what happened to these characters and he tells it concisely, each vignette a tiny piece of a more traditional brand of flash fiction.

Reading this book as a writer reminds me to ground my characters fully in their time and place so there isn’t any disconnect with the reader. It reminds me that we all need editors. While the 823-page original definitely benefited from some of this richness and back-story in this uncut version, 1300+ pages was too much. A happy medium between the two lengths probably would have been perfect.

And finally, never forget as a writer (no matter what your genre) the power and the joy of a grand, compulsively readable, invested-in-the-characters-oh-my-god-what-is-going-to-happen-next, story.

Volt

book by Alan Heathcock

annotation by Lee Stoops

 “He inhaled deeply and his insides burned, and Vernon knew that all that smoke was now just the air we breathe.”

~ Alan Heathcock, “Smoke” from Volt (60)

Alan Heathcock’s debut collection of short stories drills into readers’ imaginations, digging for every response possible. His narratives compel senses and emotions, his characters beg attention for their eccentric, strange, dark, fleshy human presentations, his words connect to each other with the evidence of careful, precise architecture. Heathcock is a real story-teller, a wordsmith, and a powerhouse writer. It’s no surprise that this first collection has garnered so much attention and earned awards – many of its stories have already shown up in some of the most respected literary journals in the US. Both Heathcock and his stories deserve the success. Through a smart, consistent commingling of character/circumstance development, of steady and committed pacing, and of dedication to craft, Heathcock reaches for the standard of great American story-telling, and maybe even raises the bar a bit.

By the end of the first page of the first story, someone has died. Not just someone; a man’s son. And not just died, but been accidentally killed by the man. A dark, burning image of a young boy, lying in the field like something “fallen from the sky” (3) is the one Heathcock chose to set the tone for his collection, not because the collection is about death or violence or darkness, but because in each and every story, the reader will live with the characters as they react – living, breathing, loving, hating human beings – to strangely familiar (not wholly familiar, but not unfamiliar…maybe anti- or de-familiar?) – circumstances: love, loss, familial ties, sexuality, desperation. It’s the stuff readers want in short stories, but so often don’t get in modern short stories because many modern short story writers are still learning what, exactly, it takes to make a short story a real short story. The results of eager, amateur, or unseasoned short story writing are melodrama, salaciousness, and cliché. Heathcock, a teacher and student of story creation, loves his characters and commits to their circumstances. The result is a series of character-centric events that infects. An example from the short story “Smoke:”

“Maybe the Devil was in you when you did it?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “What’s better anyway, Vernon? To have the Devil in me, or to have it be me alone?”

“You ain’t a bad man, Pop.”

His father shook his head. “We are what we do.”

“You ain’t bad. I believe in that.”

“No, Vernon,” his father said. “I’m about as bad as they come. Now go on and bring Mr. Augusto in here. I need to lay still and be quiet awhile.”

“Mr. Augusto would’ve killed you.”

“Then he’d be the bad man,” his father said, quietly. “Now leave me be awhile, Vernon. Gather wood for a fire. We need lots of wood.”

Vernon studied his father in the milky light, searching for something in his face, or the way he held his body, that was evidence of the good man he knew as a child. If God didn’t want Mr. Augusto dead, why’d he let Pop kill him? With all the killing in the world, did one more man really matter?

Vernon crossed the room and crawled from the shimmering cavern. Maybe awful things is how God speaks to us, Vernon thought, trudging up the lightless tunnel. Maybe folks don’t trust in good things no more. Maybe awful things is all God’s got to remind us he’s alive. Maybe war is God come to life in men. Vernon pushed on toward the light of day. He stepped out onto the ledge and in to the heat, and if felt like leaving a theater after the matinee had shown a sad film, the glare of sunshine after the darkness far too real to suffer (50-51).

After character and circumstance, the element a short story requires to sustain its life and meaning is pace. Heathcock’s stories model methodic, measured tempo – the way a musician might craft the rise and falls of moving instrumentation. The effect is similar in that the reader can settle into the prose and let the story unfold at the speed at which it’s been set. Heathcock engineers the changes in pace with ultimate regard to the characters and their circumstances, without forgetting the reader and the needs he or she will have. In many cases, when tension mounts, Heathcock reigns in the tempo and slows the story – a move that seems contrary to story “rules” but works to the advantage of the experience, permitting the reader time and reason to steep. Heathcock’s gift in this is notable not just because it works in his stories but also because it is so challenging and it speaks to his craftsmanship that he can pull it off without it feeling forced or denuding the stories’ structures or characters. The below excerpt is from just before the end of a long story (“The Daughter”) wherein a mother and her grown daughter struggle to re-establish life after loss, and a troubled neighbor boy has gone missing on their property. The story buzzes the whole way through with ominous, slow energy, and the mystery of the boy’s disappearance sets the tone to dark and somber.

Miriam stepped to the table and swiped the sponge over the trail of salt. “You weren’t in the city,” she said, brushing salt off into her palm. “Where’d you go?”

Evelyn wiped her cheeks on her sleeve. “Don’t’ know what you mean.” She pressed the heel of her hand between her eyes.

Miriam wanted to touch her daughter, to hold her and make her feel right for what she’d done. But Miriam turned away, stepped again to the sink. She rinsed the sponge, watched the water flowing, the salt swirling down the drain.

She shut off the faucet. Snow striking the window was the room’s only sound. “Where’d you put him?” Miriam asked. “Where’d you put that little boy?”

Miriam listened as Evelyn heaved long sighing breaths, each slower, softer, than the last. “Does it matter?” she whimpered.

Miriam quietly gasped. When she looked up from the sink, a face glared back from the window. Night had come early, and she gazed at her bleary reflection in the snow-streaked glass, stared at the room behind her, its faded wallpaper, its watery light, her baby girl slumped at the spot where each morning her mother had sipped her coffee and worked her puzzles (162).

To use the word again, not as recycling but as reiterating, Heathcock is a craftsman. He assembles the skeletons of his stories to support, robustly support, the themes he imbues with his satisfying prose. His language, like his characters, his pace, and his structure, is the obvious result of smart decision-making. There are lines throughout the collection that demonstrate a word-by-word approach to construction. The result is a stylistic pay-off that rewards and informs the themes and architecture of his stories.  Examples of Heathcock’s craftsmanship:

Winslow stepped to the window. The sky hung green. Soon it would snow. The hillside of winter wheat lay swaddled in snow, the rails of freight tracks like silver spears over the wet road (39, “The Staying Freight”).

Black smoke smeared the sky like an oily thumb dragged down pretty paper. In that smoke were brass buttons and blood. Vernon’s eyes burned from smoke. His hands and arms were beaded with soot-black sweat. Smoke clung to his hair, his clothes, his skin. He tasted smoke on his teeth (59, “Smoke”).

This is how I’ll be, she thought. I’ll be this icy hole, this season, this falling snow. I’ll just freeze myself over (80, “Peacekeeper”).

Jorgen could feel himself coming untethered, like he often had over there, where kids slept in the dust and nothing got buried and everything felt like it wasn’t quite real (93, “Furlough”).

His whole life now he’d been awake to feelings a child couldn’t know (110, “Fort Apache”).

Heathcock lands mightily on the short list of contemporary writers who prove that the short story form is not only alive but also that it is well, it is growing, it is coming into its own at a time when readers need more reason than ever to read. And, like his peers, Heathcock inspires other developing writers not by his market success but by his craft commitment, his example, his demonstrating that short stories – real, powerful, well-written short stories – can and are still being written and read. That’s good news for writers, and reason enough to read and write new stories.