book by André Breton

annotation by Carrol Sun Yang

The first line of Breton’s French surrealist work written in 1928 inquires:

Who Am I?

The philosophical thrust of this book is thereby established and I am propelled into this semi-autobiographical novella that operates in the form of a drawn out fit of dreamlike passion and then a waking obsession over the title character Nadja. Breton’s rapturous and sometimes tangential ramblings, albeit linear and spanning ten chronologically ordered days, are intersected by images of Surrealist artworks, quotations by prominent figures in the Surrealist movement, Nadja’s symbolic scribbles on napkins and architectural landmarks (places he narrates in the story, such as café’s he frequents and various other pedestrian locales).  All of the imagery serves the writing by grounding it in a certain reality, a travelogue or possible nonfiction, by refusing to let the airy, phantom texts disorient the reader to the point of misunderstanding. There is a fine balance struck between the poetic language of capriciousness and the sensible speeches of lucidity.

Nadja is a woman who is met by the author, by chance or fate, walking alone on a sidewalk with no apparent destination. She promptly shows herself to be a little “mad” in the sense that her waking life and dream life are blended and this confused state is noted somewhat tenderly by the narrator. We detect her unconventionality (freedom) through her spectacularly absurd but somehow touching, in a childlike way, speeches and dialogue with Breton. The following fanciful transaction occurs between Nadja (or rather she to herself) and narrator in a cab, she invents:

Close your eyes and say something. Anything, a number, a name. Like this (she closes her eyes): Two, two what? Two women. What do they look like? Wearing black. Where are they? In a park… And then, what are they doing? Try it, it’s so easy, why don’t you want to play? You know, that’s how I talk to myself when I’m alone, I tell myself all kinds of stories. And not only silly stories: actually, I live this way altogether.

There is a sense that she is precious to Breton precisely because she is unhinged and able to access a secret world that only she is able to fully inhabit, a place where Breton wishes to gain entry but of course cannot fully, as he establishes early on in the text that his interests are stoked by absurd stimulation/ childish play. He also suggests and perhaps hopes that Nadja will “need him” indefinitely as she is bound like an invalid to her condition, her madness, the condition of the surreal:

When I am near her I am nearer things which are near her. In her condition, she is always going to need me, one way or another, and suddenly. It would be hateful to refuse whatever she asks of me, one way or another, for she is so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares so little, but so marvelously, for life.

His already questionable love for Nadja, as it is based on his perception of her as a darling-magical-cripple in some sense, falters when she progressively reveals to him, what he alone fears are too many remnants of her past. By unveiling herself as not solely his “creature” or “specter” but someone who was part of others lives, she inadvertently alienates herself from the mercurial cocoon that the narrator has spun around them. She bursts his figment of her. She bursts his figment of them. He bursts. In essence, she becomes too common to adore:

I reacted with terrible violence against the over-detailed account of she gave me of certain scenes of her past life, concerning which I decided, probably quite superficially, that her dignity could not have survived entirely intact.

 Upon cutting off ties with Nadja, the narrator promptly begins to pine for her with a fiery obsession, as one would over a newly dead lover. Nadja a ghost. Nadja his concoction. Nadja the abstraction with her “fits of abstraction” who he could not live without as much as he could not live with the flesh and blood reality of her.

When he learns that his beloved was eventually committed to a sanitarium, the platform is set for Breton to offer sociopolitical commentary, which he does quite succinctly, a departure from the more esoteric language that inhabits the preceding text:

Unless you have been inside a sanitarium you do not know that madmen are made there, just as criminals are made in our reformatories. Is there anything more detestable than these systems of so-called social conservation which, for a peccadillo, some initial and exterior rejection of respectability or common sense, hurl an individual among others whose association can only be harmful to him and, above all, systematically deprive him of relations with everyone whose moral or practical sense is more firmly established than his own?

In my reading, this opinion is what drives the book. Breton elevates Nadja, the mad one, to the level of a beautiful, genius, mystical specimen of unfortunate internment. In writing her, he releases her from certain captivity while simultaneously keeping her in bondage to his memory. He champions her flights. There is a section in the book where we see Nadja asking that Breton write her into a book. He does not fail her.

The closing sentence summarizes the structure of the book and the nature of madness and longing:

Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.

What I take away from Nadja is a way to communicate the confluence of mammalian love and human madness, both visually and textually. How love and madness are always initially conjoined. The initial convulsions of an adult “crush” are hormonal and spiritual. A crush is based in fact and fiction. Exposed to dissection. Open to portent. Joyful in it’s high frivol. Obsessive until it’s inevitable death. Precisely the way Breton manages it.

I am also noting the beginning and ending lines of books. In “Nadja” the first line seems to be answered in part by the closing line. (I think that is one possible method I may employ in my own pieces as a jumpstart/ shortcut to creating a basic framework around the “filling”).

In “Nadja” Breton never seems to be able to answer with any solidity the question of who he is except to suggest that who he is, is related to who he haunts or who haunts him. He attempts to understand himself in relation to other men/women/objects in the world. These beings by virtue of purely existing (within his view) are also not-existing (already dead) and in that they become something. They become his/ him. This model which I am able to tease out of his writing appears to be somewhat based on Surrealist engagement with the Hegelian Dialectic. Those people/objects which Breton writes about are ultimately arranged in changeable and mysterious patterns and the only way to know who he, Breton is, is by looking at the ways in which he arranges them in his own mind. Simply, I would say that he is what he writes. That what he writes of and how he writes are convulsive, he haunts with his words and his words haunt back, objects in the world haunt him and he hunts them, in that animal purity is the great beauty that insists on itself and in a way gives answer to who we all are. The haunters/ haunted and the hunters/ hunted.




The Sand Child

book by Tahar Ben Jelloun

translation by Alan Sheridan

annotation by Ghada Bedair

The Sand Child is a lyrical wonderland for all who are mesmerized, intrigued, and passionate about words. The Sand Child is truly a piece of poetic beauty each line taking the reader into that enchanted wonderland. With that said, I must admit to being one of those who deeply love language; I love the use of language so much that I find myself jotting down lines from books whose words are strung together like harmonic notes. I do love when prose becomes poetry and this book was not short on this in the least. While reading The Sand Child, I often became so lost in the fluidity and grace of the translated piece that I would have to go back several times and reread parts of the book to remind myself of the plot.

Being a native speaker of the Arabic language, I often have a critical eye on the fine details of the usage of the language the work is being translated into, in this case the translation was simply exquisite.

The story itself is simple:  a father, hopeless about having a son after fathering seven daughters, weaves a lie that his eighth daughter is a son. It shows the intense desperation and deception this father will go to hide that his eighth child is, in fact, a daughter. He masterminds a plan where he strings a perfectly played out lie which no one questions, and the daughter is raised as a son. Through twists and turns we see this confused child grow to adulthood and even marry; what we also see is the traumatic and bitter impact this lie has on her.

What I disliked about the story was the form of narration Ben Jelloun chose. It was a narrator who speaks to a doubtful audience. The narrator claims to have a journal that recounts the story in the voice of the traumatized daughter. This can get muddled and confusing–the shift in voice, with the sometimes overpowering language–and leaves the reader confused and somewhat frustrated. Although the book was incredibly strong in the execution of its translation and its slow unfolding of the child’s life, it was overpowered with clumsy narration.

I have a deep appreciation and respect for translated pieces–the task of taking on language, culture, and all of the small nuances of writing, being capable of crafting a believable tale is quite a feat that Alan Sheridan was successful in doing.

The book does not have a clear ending, the audience in the book eventually become narrators themselves describing what they believe happens to the daughter, some tragic and some happy, yet you don’t get that clear clean ending that some readers, like myself, crave. For some, the open-ended style of the tale is appealing and believable; for someone like myself who enjoys a clear conclusion to the adventure I felt a tad let down and yet hungry to try to concoct what I felt the ending would/should be, and, as any true writer, I did. I must say, my ending is a happy and beautiful one.

The Buddha in the Attic

book by Julie Otsuka

annotation by Tina Rubin

Stories dealing with the misguided actions of the U.S. government toward its perceived enemies usually affect me like a punch to the gut. But I need to know, so I don’t run away. Julie Otsuka’s novella about the Japanese picture brides who came to California between the two World Wars was a killer in that respect. Her short, Hemingwayesque sentences were icebergs of emotion.

Otsuka uses an interesting device: her point of view is first person plural. The “we” of the book is a group of young Japanese women who meet on the boat, sailing to an unknown future in America to meet Japanese husbands they have never seen. The husbands, of course, had sent twenty-year-old photos back to Japan to win over their brides and hired professional writers to craft their courtship letters. The narrative arc moves from the women’s arrival and initial disappointment to their inevitable adjustment—to their husbands as well as to the new country, culture, and language. Most accept their fate stoically and thrive despite disease, extramarital affairs, and having to work in the fields or as maids to white families.

I read the book with mild interest until the last forty or so pages, when the Japanese internment begins. After that, the anguish of the author’s understated words hit me, and I could only read a page or so a night before choking up. It was then that I recognized the degree of Otsuka’s skill. Despite keeping individual characters at arm’s length throughout the book, she managed to reveal who they all were. And I cared about every one.

Here’s how she did it. Otsuka relates much of the action by opening her paragraphs with words like “some of us” or “most of us.” She follows with  statements expressing many different situations, ending with a specific thought by someone in the group that illustrates the point. As I absorbed first the general examples and then the narrower one, I began to differentiate the characters—although I didn‘t realize it at first.

An example, from the opening chapter, “Come, Japanese,” on the boat:

At night we dreamed of our husbands. . . . We dreamed we were lovely and tall. We dreamed we were back in the rice paddies, which we had so desperately wanted to escape. The rice paddy dreams were always nightmares. We dreamed of our older and prettier sisters who had been sold to the geisha houses by our fathers so that the rest of us might eat, and when we woke we were gasping for air. For a second I thought I was her. (5)

Or, from the chapter simply called “Whites”:

One of us blamed them for everything and wished that they were dead. One of us blamed them for everything and wished that she were dead. Others of us learned to live without thinking of them at all. We threw ourselves into our work and became obsessed with the thought of pulling one more weed. . . . We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. . . . But it was not we who were cooking and cleaning and chopping, it was somebody else. And often our husbands did not even notice we’d disappeared. (37)

As the novel goes on, Otsuka attaches names to the characters but keeps the structure intact. The effect is to reveal the tremendous power of each detail. Details tell the entire story, yet each one, so carefully chosen, becomes irreplaceable.

In a startling final chapter, “A Disappearance,” the first person plural now represents the whites who are left behind after the Japanese have been rounded up and taken away. The unexpected shift in point of view is a delicious surprise. Not only does it work perfectly, but it’s a logical choice, given that the original “we” is gone. And from a historical perspective, even if a fictional one, the reactions of the whites trying to make sense of their friends’, schoolmates’, and local business owners’ disappearance wraps the book up with food for thought.

This is a novel that remains in one’s thoughts long after the last page is read—for Otsuka’s technique as well as her story.

The Conservationist

book by Nadine Gordimer

annotation by Diane Sherlock

The Conservationist is a South African novel of the early 1970’s before the end of apartheid that lays out in vivid landscape the contradictions and difficulties of that country and its tensions. It is both dense and lyrical as it follows the life of a wealthy white South African protagonist, Mehring. Mehring has a failed marriage, an estranged son, a dead body on the property he bought on a whim as a weekend getaway, and a mistress who must flee the country due to political messes. Gordimer explores the monotony of both farm life, a hobby for Mehring, as well as the monotony of the business world along with themes of death and rebirth.

For the most part, Gordimer does an admirable job of exploring her themes and painting a vivid picture of life on the veld, but it remains one of the coldest books I have ever read. Certainly the protagonist is one reason. Gordimer provides a fine tension between the way Mehring sees himself and the way he appears to others. He believes he has gained his position in the world entirely due to his own hard work, giving no quarter to luck, circumstance and privilege. By the end of the book, it’s clear he is small minded, both bigot and sexual predator. It is not an easy or quick read, requiring concentration and attention to the small details Gordimer includes. The physical descriptions are lyrical: “…it lashed around them, a furry tongue of fiery soft dust spitting stinging chips of stone.”

The main flaws in the book are a smattering of clunky transitions and occasional awkward turns, such as using coincidence to ill effect when Mehring reads about his friend’s death of a friend right after a chance meeting with the man’s daughter. Mehring’s moral equivalence sticks out: “But the children ignore him as he ignores them. What percentage of the world is starving? How long can we go on getting away scot-free? When the aristocrats were caught up in the Terror, did they recognize: it’s come to us. Did the Jews of Germany think: it’s our turn.” While it illustrates his mindset that the Jews controlled money the way the French upper class did, it didn’t feel seamless within the narrative. In fact, the fractured narrative is at times an annoyance.

On the plus side, Gordimer uses Zulu creation myths in her narrative, leaves conclusions to the reader, and her protagonist and the people around him are full of contradictions: he’s not a male chauvinist, yet he will risk his societal position in a high-risk clandestine fondling of a teen girl on a plane; his leftist mistress travels the world on his money and so on.

Mehring’s philosophy is summarized in a conversation/debate he has with his lover about the farm: “A farm is not beautiful unless it is productive. Reasonable productivity prevailed; he had to keep half an eye (all he could spare) on everything, all the time, to achieve even that much, and of course he had made it his business to pick up a working knowledge of husbandry, animal and crop, so that he couldn’t easily be hoodwinked by his people there and could plan farming operations with some authority.”

There were some problems with this particular edition from Penguin. The paperback cost fifteen dollars, seriously overpriced for such a cheap product. The type was difficult to read and there were only a couple of footnotes explaining that Witbooi = white boy, and Swart Gevaar = black danger. Those were the easiest to figure out. There should have been a dozen more footnotes for American readers, including the information that corn is referred to as ‘mealies’ in South Africa and vlei (pronounced ‘flay’) means wetlands. More problematic is that dialogue is set off with dashes and descriptions use the same device. It would have been less confusing if standard quotation marks had been used.

Gordimer’s facility with language and description alone show why she is held in esteem, as co-winner of the Booker Prize for this work and Nobel Prize recipient in 1991. Her lyricism was the most valuable element for my own writing. The Conservationist is also an excellent study for those exploring unsympathetic protagonists, particularly one as isolated as his country was before the end of apartheid.

East of Eden

book by John Steinbeck
annotation by Tina Rubin

If I ruled the world, East of Eden would be required reading in every creative writing curriculum. Yes, it’s that good, and no, I don’t know how I missed it. Steinbeck’s classic novel, which parallels the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, spans three generations and two families in California’s Salinas Valley.

The point of view is interesting and employs concepts I explored in grad school. The story is told by a first-person narrator, John Steinbeck (one and the same), who was a child as the action was unfolding. The narrator, looking back now as an adult, relates the story using an omniscient point of view. He comes back to the first person pov only now and then—to make an observation or express an opinion and thereby anchor the reader. The narrator clearly could not have been privy to each character’s thoughts and feelings, yet the omniscient point of view works—at least after the first occurrence, I stopped thinking, “Hey, how could he have known that?” I’m still trying to figure that one out, as I learned that a first-person narrator must have been present in order to use an omniscient pov. But that’s the power of Steinbeck.

The narrator editorializes as he opens many of the early chapters, and these were the chapters I really loved—ones where I got a clear sense of who the narrator was. A classic example is in chapter eight, which opens with “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.” He goes on to set us up for the introduction of Cathy Ames (mother of the twins Caleb and Aron), who functions as a force of evil in the story. Another is in chapter thirteen, which opens with the narrator describing the feeling of “glory” that lights a man up now and then, as when he finds a good woman:

The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes . . . a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose….

One of the great moral lessons of the novel comes in its theme, which is the Hebrew word timshel. It translates as the idea that man has a choice, he can choose to commit evil or not (this stems, we are told, from varied translations of the story of Cain and Abel.) The narrator expresses his own opinion in a direct conversation with readers, telling us that we all have “a secret pond where evil and ugly things germinate and grow strong. . . it would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.” Steinbeck created two heroic characters, Samuel Hamilton (based on his own grandfather) and Lee, the Chinese-American servant, around whom swirl discussions of this theme, and Steinbeck plays it out in remarkable symmetry among the generations and in repeated symbolism throughout the book.

I can’t claim knowledge of the Bible other than studying it as literature in college, so I’m sure some of the symbolism was lost on me. But it was easy to recognize Steinbeck’s use of the initials of Cain and Abel for the key characters (Charles and Adam, brothers; Cathy and Adam, husband and wife; Cal and Aron, twin boys) and his consistent subthemes of a parent seeming to love one son more than the other and, in turn, one brother feeling murderous towards the other; the marking of both Adam’s brother and wife with scars on their forehead (Cain’s protective marking by God as he wandered in exile east of Eden); and the philosophical question of whether Cal was destined to follow the dark tendencies inherited from his mother or could choose otherwise.

The novel was a lesson in characterization as well, with the personalities of each character being expressed not only through his or her actions but also through in-depth discussions in which each one’s point of view was unmistakably that person’s alone. And as honorable and complex as Samuel and Lee were, that’s how dark and complex Cathy (later “Kate”) and those in her world were. Steinbeck’s Alice in Wonderland references during Kate’s death were the perfect metaphor in what must come close to being a perfect novel. At least from this writer’s point of view.


Normally, I prefer coming into a new book cold, not knowing the particulars of the author or reviews (I also don’t like movie previews). However, I did hear a few things from a publishing insider before reading Paul Harding’s Tinkers. After many rejections, the book was published by Bellevue Literary Press, an imprint of the NYU School of Medicine. Word of mouth built through independent book sellers and the book just won the Pulitzer. Why mention this? Because we often write with an eye on the audience. Tinkers doesn’t. Of course a prominent literary mentor helps (see below). The best thing an author can do is to write and worry about the rest after the book is done. The other piece of information that perhaps made me a bit more tolerant of the structure was hearing that Harding sat down with the entire manuscript (not long at 191 small pages), cut it up and pieced it back together. When faced with some structural changes in the novel I recently completed, I sat down on the floor with the physical manuscript and moved things around, not to the degree Harding did (not appropriate for this book), but it was very helpful to work with the actual rather than virtual pages. In Tinkers, there is a certain patchwork quality that reinforces the jumble of memories that come to a man as he dies and I found it interesting to consider both of those processes as I read the book. There is not always such a clear opportunity for narrative and theme to mirror each other, but when there is as in this case, it’s an effective tool.

What I was not aware of ahead of time, but what is unmistakable, is the influence of Marilynne Robinson, particularly Gilead. The tone, mood, language choice, the son with a minister for a father are all similar. I found it less derivative, more inspired by Robinson, but that’s a fine line depending on whether one enjoys the book or not. Harding does have his own distinct poetic style and (also like Robinson), he puts it to use to observe the world in remarkable detail. There is no earth-shattering plot here, just a quiet finely tuned story about a dying man. Harding is a good example of keeping language simple in order to be effective.

His sentences are often long, “The weaver might have made one bad loop in the foliage of a sugar maple by the road and that one loop of whatever the thread might be wound from – light, gravity, dark from stars – had somehow been worked loose by the wind in its constant worrying of white buds and green leaves and blood-and-orange leaves and bare branches and two of the pieces of whatever it is that this world is knit from had come loose from each other and there was maybe just a finger width’s hole, which I was lucky enough to spot in the glittering leaves from this wagon of drawers and nimble enough to scale the silver trunk and brave enough to poke my finger into the tear, that might offer to the simple touch a measure of tranquillity or reassurance.” (54) I don’t always consider sentence length, particularly not very long sentences, as a way to control the pace of the narrative and it’s a device to keep in mind. More importantly, when I write, I tend to gallop ahead to the next conflict and then go back to fill in detail. Such a minutely observed narrative shows the power of slowing way down and as I begin the next novel, I will try to stay in the moment in order to mine all of the sensory detail before moving on.

The other striking thing in Tinkers is that Harding changes tense, moving from first to third to second person. This is not something to be undertaken without purpose. Here it serves the notion of the dying brain and a narrative that begins, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” There are quiet pleasures, from the building of a bird’s nest to the inner workings of watches and clocks, that can be read in a sitting. Harding is a solid example of the treasures found in a meticulous novel that has more to tell than the story of a man’s death.


book by Marilynne Robinson

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Gilead is a novel about fathers and sons on many levels: God and Jesus, God and Ames, and Ames and the nearly seven year old son for whom he pens these ‘begats.’  Robinson echoes the clerical tradition of epistolary narration to complement Ames position as a minister.  Biblically, Gilead means ‘witness’ or ‘mound of testimony’ and was a place of healing, birthplace of the prophet Elijah, and in the New Testament, the source of large crowds who followed Jesus.  This Gilead is Ames’ testimony of his life and the name of the town where he grew up and had his ministry.

Robinson begins with the recounting of a conversation between Ames and his son, the end of which states his intention for this long letter to his son. (3)  Ames then delineates who he is, “I grew up in parsonages,” (4) and his medical condition, “angina pectoris” (4) which provides both the context and tension for the rest of his letter to his son.  This section concludes with foreshadowing “There’s a lot under the surface of life…. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.” (6) Ames maintains a confessional mode throughout most of the narration, initially confessing that what he has not learned “was to control his temper.” (6)

His first person meanderings turn poignant as it becomes clear that he is jealous of the son of his best friend, a far closer match in age to Ames’ young wife.  In this case, the first person narrative is more distant than intimate.  As a reader, I felt too removed from the others in his life, even though it was an intimate look inside his thoughts and opinions of not only those around him, but also his relationship to God and the larger questions of life.  Robinson uses this first person diary point of view to good effect in that Ames concern about his namesake reveals as much about himself as the younger man whom he finds by turns threatening and irritating.

There were a few points when the narrator seems inauthentic, his voice more the modern author than the characters (42), particularly for a character well versed in Greek and Hebrew, but these lapses were brief and rare.  Gilead is a meditative and beautifully written novel and gave me something to consider as far as a subtler revelation of the protagonist’s thoughts using the first person point of view.

The narrator states he has a ‘reputation for piety and probity’ (65), but the reader sees the darker thoughts and struggles throughout the letter of envy for his best friend who has not lost a wife and child (65) and his jealousy of his best friend, Boughton’s son (119) who is named for the narrator.  The quiet tragedy of Gilead is the his best friend’s son comes to him for counsel even as his writes a long letter of counsel to his own son, he is loathe to do it for Jack Boughton.  He finds the younger Boughton difficult and repeatedly admonishes himself for his attitude toward the younger man, “I am trying to be a little more cordial to him than I have been.” (123)  He keeps returning to the point, “I found that extremely irritating” (184)  The narrator makes the big assumption that the younger Boughton is hanging around because he fancies the narrator’s life and works himself up into a state where he can imagine the younger man stepping into his place or do his wife and child harm “How should I deal with these fears I have, that Jack Boughton will do you and your mother harm, just because he can, just for the sly, unanswerable meanness of it?” (190)

Toward the end of the book, the narrator doles out advice more freely, having recounted most of what he knew about their family history.  He advises his son, “…don’t look for proofs.  Don’t bother with them at all” (179) because, paraphrasing Coleridge, “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine” (179).  Despite this, the narrator still struggles with his negative feelings toward Jack until the revelation that Jack has a wife and child (217).

There is some lovely writing, nice construction with uncomfortable family secrets mirroring the narrator’s discomfort with Jack Boughton, but ultimately I found it unsatisfying for a myriad of small things that added up over the course of the book (and perhaps that is my primary takeaway for my own work). For example, it seemed odd that a preacher would conclude a letter that “hope deferred is still hope” (247) when the biblical passage he would know well is Proverbs 13:12: hope deferred makes the heart sick. At that point, perhaps it is supposed to tell us something of his character that he would still characterize heartsick as hope, but I was no longer engaged. The tone of the book is slow and prayerful and Ames concludes with a series of prayers for his son and the last act he chronicles is “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.” (247)

Ask The Dust

book by John Fante
annotation by Tina Rubin

Charles Bukowski, in his 1979 introduction to Ask the Dust (which Fante wrote 40 years earlier), says that he knew immediately upon reading it that Fante was the influence he’d been searching for all his life. He notes the “energy and substance, the superb simplicity, of each line, one following the other,” and the directness with which Fante confronted emotion and pain.

Bukowski was right to admire Fante. From the first page of this novella, set in 1939 Los Angeles, its hero, 18-year-old Arturo Bandini, gained my empathy. A struggling writer from an Italian family in Colorado, Bandini is a noble character—albeit one with a quirky mean streak—who believes in God and wants to live up to his Catholic upbringing. He loves the little mouse, Pedro, that visits his hotel room; he tries to resist stealing milk bottles from a truck despite his hunger and poverty; and he can’t bring himself to have sex with a prostitute who picks him up because it’s wrong, even though he’s never had a woman. (In fact, he gives her most of the money his mother just sent him for food, so that she will just lie still and talk to him.) These little details wonderfully revealed character and made me care. The central conflict of the story, foreshadowed early, was Bandini’s relationship to Camilla Lopez, the Mayan waitress at the Columbia Buffet.

I was totally taken in as Fante unfolded this character study, gradually peeling off the layers through Bandini’s stuggle as a writer and his schoolboy-like efforts to win the girl. While I anticipated from the title that the story would not end well, I never would have guessed this ending—so, bravo to Fante for the element of surprise, so critical for writers to achieve.

The story is written in the first person point of view, past tense, yet Fante managed to incorporate close third and second person povs, AND present tense, AND shift back and forth among them all without missing a beat. The narrator (Bandini) addresses himself, talks himself through certain scenes, and tells the reader about this Bandini guy in a sort of stream of consciousness. I marveled at how Fante pulled this off; you’d think it would be a disaster. I’m tempted to try his technique just for practice.

The writing is terrific. It would have to be to make all that work. Here’s a moving passage when Bandini is literally running from the prostitute’s room, trying to think of an excuse for his exit (26):
A man of importance, ah yes, now I remembered, my publisher, he was getting in tonight by plane. Out at Burbank, away out at Burbank. Have to grab a cab and taxi out there, have to hurry. Goodbye, goodbye, you keep that eight bucks, you buy yourself something nice, goodbye, goodbye, running down the stairs, running away, the welcome fog in the doorway below, you keep that eight bucks, oh sweet fog I see you and I’m coming, you clean air, you wonderful world, I’m coming to you, goodbye, yelling up the stairs, I’ll see you again, you keep that eight dollars and buy yourself something nice. Eight dollars pouring out of my eyes. Oh Jesus kill me dead and ship my body home, kill me dead and make me die like a pagan fool with no priest to absolve me, no extreme unction, eight dollars, eight dollars. . . .

Fante’s use here of abbreviated run-on sentences and repetition gives a very physical sense of running down the stairs, building the momentum until the character seems to fling himself out into the foggy night, collapsing with shame.
Once Bandini has met Camilla, Fante heightened the tension, bringing out his character’s mean streak. But he also provided Bandini plenty of reflective moments that enabled me to see the similarities between the two characters and where this side of Bandini was coming from; i.e., balancing the bad with the good and maintaining that empathy that was created at the outset. He also used the contrast between Bandini’s rising career and failing romance to add tension, along with a sad, somewhat psycho woman who becomes Bandini’s first lover and the subject of his best-selling novel. The tone, too, becomes darker about halfway through the book when Bandini sends Camilla a love poem at work and, while he stands hidden outside watching her, she tears it up.

Everything about this book was instructive and engaging, but before I go on too long, I want to add that the setting—downtown Los Angeles in late 1930s—was so well done as to be a character in the book. Ask the Dust could not have been written with any other setting. Of course, being a resident of Los Angeles, I enjoyed that aspect tremendously, but it also reminded me that as writers, we can’t just stick our characters down anywhere. The setting has to be as integral to the story as the characters’ own style of speech or personality traits.

Like Bukowski, I’ll be reading more of John Fante. He may not have had the reputation of even his editor, H. L. Mencken, during his lifetime, but he certainly was a major talent, one that we can still learn from.

The Holy Spirit of My Uncle’s Cojones

book by Marcos McPeek Villatoro

annotation by Judy Sunderland

The Holy Spirit of My Uncle’s Cojones is a novel which the author has assured me is more memoir than most of his other writing. I sincerely hope that a good deal of it is fiction, because if this is autobiographical, it is a lot to digest. It is a common style, a writer, writing about writing; and, is flashback with the narrator getting ready to attend a funeral and rethinking his history. As common as both these devices are, the book is wonderful and a very pleasant read, even though some of the action cannot be described as pleasant.

The narrator of the story is an unusual character…the emotionally disturbed child of a “Salvadorian mother and an Appalachian father” who is shipped off to spend time learning to be a man with his Uncle Jack. It is Uncle Jack who has died now and hence the flashback of the summer of his sixteenth year. There is action in the past, the flashbacks, and action in the future, the adult narrator is being cuckolded by his live-in girlfriend and is trying to come to some decision. His final solution is a fun read.

The writing is full of action and constantly moves. The characters are believable and sympathetic with a peek (no pun intended) into several different social cultures – Salvadorian Immigrant, South American Spiritual Guru, Latin drug runner, and confused teenager, to name a few). Normally, I try to find style and content to morph into my own work, but this is very personal, and although I would be proud to imitate it, I can’t imagine making it sound authentic to my own voice.

On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beachbook by Ian McEwan

annotation by Ted Chiles

Time should move equally. When the narrative shifts from front story to back-story and then returns, an appropriate amount of time should have elapsed in the front story. Not equal chronological time, but equal narrative time. The alternative is the perception that the characters in the front story have been frozen mid-step waiting for us with glasses raised or forks poised. This equality of narrative time is not maintained in On Chesil Beach, yet we are not thrown out of the narrative. Ian McEwan uses an omniscient narrator to create space in the front story for his extended movements to back-story.

McEwan tells the life stories of a young couple, Florence and Edward, on their wedding night. He focuses on the how life can be altered, not only by what is said and done, but by the choice not to say or do what should be said or done. He uses back-story to explain the reasons of inaction.

Signaling the dominant voice, McEwan begins the novel with the omniscient narrator: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy,” (1). Once the narrator’s voice and command are firmly established, the book shifts to a scene where the young couple is eating in their room: “The formal meal began, as many did, with a slice of melon decorated by a single glazed cherry,” (5). Time slows in the front story as we learn of his sexual anxiety: “His specific worry, based on one unfortunate experience, was overexcitement … ” (8), and her revulsion at the prospect of intercourse: “She simply did not want to be ‘entered’ or ‘penetrated’ … ” (10). We return to the meal: “They ate the melon in less than two minutes… ” (13), where resumption of the front story is marked by a space break. The exploration of their sexual anxieties has taken two minutes in the front- story and six pages of back-story.

Why doesn’t this inconsistency disconnect the narrative? Does the omniscient narrator, always present, with a dominating voice hold the narrative together? The story is largely interpreted and told by a narrator who is not a character reflecting back on his or her life. This choice of POV allows for a different sense of time because a story told instead of shown, is freed from the restraint of the internal logic of scenes.

Scenes exist but even then the characters’ actions are interpreted for the reader: “But the hand that held the wineglass trembled as he struggled to contain his sudden happiness and exaltation,” (14). Two pages of scene again shift into back-story without a space break: “Edward had a degree … ” (15), and returns to scene, delineated by a space break, when the rest of the meal is served: “The waiters were arriving with their plates of beef, … ” (21), six pages later.
In On Chesil Beach, time belongs to the narrator, not the characters. A story mostly told, not shown, has the freedom to move about time because we mark our movement by the voice of the narrator. When does time stop? When are characters frozen helpless and unable to move? It is when a voice, not of the world but above it, comments on the scene below. This we can accept because with omniscient comes such authority.

Often the first piece of advice given to the novice writer is to show not tell. Later, the writer is told that in fiction you can do anything as long as it works. The omniscient narrator, in the hands of an accomplished writer, works. Time can stand still.