The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing

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book by Alice La Plante

annotation by Andromeda Romano-Lax

I must have about fifty trade-edition writing craft books on my shelves, but I still keep buying them, in search of some hidden magic that will help me as a writer, or a clearer articulation of some venerable craft topic (like POV) that I can steal—I mean, emulate—to improve my own teaching. For a long while, I avoided textbooks at all costs: too impersonally written, too dense, too much under one cover, and those bland discussion questions scattered throughout, reminding me not of college, but of high school–yuck. But the more I teach, the more I accept that textbooks do have a place. If only they weren’t so ridiculously expensive!

This newer one by Alice Plante (author of the novel, Turn of Mind), I am happy to say, is not. Marketed, priced, and designed as a general reference but structured as a comprehensive textbook, LaPlante’s 677-page guide covers creative writing process and composition strategies (including purpose of writing, coming up with ideas), craft (characterization, narration, scenic construction, point of view, dialogue, beginnings, revision), and anthology (learning from masters, with full texts of 26 short stories and nonfiction essays).

While focused mainly on fiction, a limited number of anthologized works and one chapter at the end are dedicated to creative nonfiction, and LaPlante frequently makes mention of ethical concerns and crossover issues between the genres. She also uses a nonfiction essay by novelist Francine Prose to elucidate creative writing concepts. Numerous shorter passages from notable authors are also used as examples throughout each chapter. Generative exercises are provided, as are strong examples of students’ responses to the exercises. Not included are more conventional textbook-like discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Instead, a general questioning tone and points to consider (for example, “is it possible to define a short story?”) are woven throughout the discussions of craft.

The elements covered and stories anthologized position this text as appropriate for both undergraduate and graduate study, while the personal voice and non-dogmatic, highly readable text as well as non-textbook style design throughout seem to aim for a wider, general audience. (Not to be overlooked is the more affordable price, $21.95 for the first edition, in comparison with expensive textbooks with similar craft and anthology content, such as Burroway’s Writing Fiction, 8th edition, priced at $96.33.) Discussion of craft is pitched at a sophisticated level, with a spirited, opinionated tone and an occasional emphasis on debunking writerly myths or oversimplifications, as well as an openness to questions that have no easy answers. On the subject of metaphor exercises, for example, LaPlante (a successful novelist as well as experienced teacher) is refreshingly unapologetic (123): “There is absolutely no way to do a metaphor writing exercise, because that defeats the purpose. If it doesn’t come up organically, within the creative process of the story, then it isn’t worth anything. Its only value is within context.”

Technique overviews that stand out as more distinctive or nuanced in comparison with many classroom-oriented writing guides include LaPlante’s  discussion of imagery that works at both the concrete and abstract or emotional level (chapter 3); a defense of narration and a clearer explanation of the showing-telling continuum (in contrast with the too-often quoted simplication, “show don’t tell,” (chapter 5) including bolded passages by authors Smiley, Proulx, O’Connor, Hemingway, and Wolff that help the reader distinguish between showing and telling; a more rigorous explanation of the unreliable narrator and types of reliability (chapter 7); explanation of story versus plot (chapter 9); and the art of transferring true emotions onto sensory events (chapter 12). LaPlante is candid about drawbacks to the workshop method, and carefully defines the multiple developmental stages of a creative work, advocating a more cautious approach to the giving and receiving of feedback, as well as a more process-oriented “anti-workshop method” (551) for “exploding” works in progress using exercises, in contrast with product-oriented editing or polishing. By contrast, a less distinguished chapter on characters (chapter 10) included mostly pedestrian explanations (flat versus round, general versus specific, wants and needs) and few surprises or insights in comparison with other craft chapters in this book.

More commonly anthologized story choices in this guide include Chekhov’s “Lady with the Little Dog,” Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” and Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” as well as stories by Lorrie Moore, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Raymond Carver, and the much-anthologized “Shitty First Drafts” essay by Anne Lamott. There are also some less-obvious choices, including Katha Politt’s “Learning to Drive,” plus a nonfiction essay by D. T. Max about the Raymond Carver-Gordon Lish editing relationship.

In my own teaching, I will consider LaPlante’s guide as a strong alternative to better-selling textbooks. I appreciated in particular the voice used to address writers at all levels (complex explanations clarified by well-chosen examples, without condescension), more nuanced craft discussions on elusive topics, strong examples of student writings (which would help me choose between exercises and frame my own expectations for student work), and the inclusion of creative nonfiction examples and issues within the larger discussion of fiction craft. Bravo to LaPlante, and to Norton, for putting out a more affordable textbook-style reference guide that any writer in any setting can use.

 

 

Underworld

book by Don DeLillo

annotation by Melissa Chadburn

It’s not about baseball. Thank god it’s not about baseball. Because it’s a tome. That’s to say it’s huge. 800 pages. I don’t particularly like baseball.  It’s linked shorts.  At least I treated it like linked shorts and in summary I would say that I picked it up and put it down a lot and it took a long time to read. It’s brilliant and stunning, but as a reader, you are unsure at times whether it is brilliant or insane. As a writer, this novel proves to be a great example of dialogue and description. I can’t cite all the incredible dialogue in this novel or I would bore you, even though it’s good, really, really good.  There was a contest to write an entire short story in dialogue, just dialogue; I think they allowed dialogue tags, but that was it. I wish I read this novel before I entered that contest.

Here is just a small example of DeLillo’s dialogue:

“Hey Bobby.”

“I’m busy over here.”

“Hey Bobby.”

“I’m busy over here.”

“Hey Bobby. There’s something we want to tell you.”

“I told you, okay, I’m busy.”

“JuJu wants to tell you. Hey Bobby. Listen.”

“Go way, all right?”

“Hey Bobby.”

“Fuck out of here.”

“Hey Bobby.”

“You see I’m working over here?”

“Hey Bobby.  Juju wants to tell you this one thing.”

“What.”

“Hey Bobby.”

“All right. What.”

“This one thing.”

“All right. What.”

“Shit in your fist and squeeze it,” Nick said.

Amazing. All the way through the punctuation, the drawing out, the repetition. That is real dialogue. Then there’s the incredible analogies or metaphors or similes whichever you want to call it.  For the sake of this review they will be referred to as ‘descriptions’

The hand going to his midsection to mean he’s already eaten or peanuts give him cramps or his mother told him not to fill up on trashy food that will ruin his dinner.

meditative pissing

little nagging needs

urgent sexual throb of the dishwasher

a living rebuke to the tactics of moderation

small ingrown toenail rage, a puny frustration

she was all ovals and loops, like the Palmer handwriting method

This was the one that really got me, that sent me reeling off the page and into the banks of my memories.  He was writing here of what happened after the “shot that was heard around the world.”  Which was on October 3, 1951 when the New York Giants played the Brooklyn Dodgers and in the ninth inning, Ralph Brancha pitched to Bobby Thompson who hit the ball into the stands for a three-run homer, beating the Dodgers 5-4 and capturing the National League pennant:

They are tearing up letters they’ve been carrying around for years pressed into their wallets, the residue of love affairs and college friendships, it is happy garbage now, the fans’ intimate wish to be connected to the event, unendably, in the form of pocket litter, personal waste, a thing that carries a shadow identity-rolls of toilet tissue unboltingly lyrically in streamers.

This made me think of my own ‘happy garbage’ – how I used to carry around a letter that was sent to me by a friend when I was living in a group home in Pacific Palisades. He wrote me a letter telling me he thought of me often, that I was loved. Let me know he was thinking about me. I kept that letter folded in my wallet long after that time.  Till it was thin paper ripped in the creases. Little flakes of white rolling off. He died. I have no idea how or why. This passage made me think of that happy garbage I kept in my wallet.  Made me think of sitting with a boy from New York looking out at some mountains in Bel Air and telling him how I was imagining myself lying on my side and tumbling down it. How it looked so easy. I asked if he would go with me. He said yes.

In a way DeLillo accomplished what he stated here in his epilogue not just for himself, but for me the reader/writer/sniper, in what could have been the most beautiful passage I’ve read in 2010:

you try to imagine the word on the screen becoming a thing in the world, taking all its meanings, its sense of serenities and contentments out into the streets somehow, its whisper of reconciliation, a word extending itself ever outward, the tone of agreement or treaty, the tone of repose, the sense of mollifying silence, the tone of hail and farewell, a word that carries the sunlit ardour of an object deep in drenching noon, the argument of binding touch, but it’s only a sequence of pulses on a dullish screen and all it can do is make you pensive — a word that spreads a longing through the raw sprawl of the city and out across the dreaming bourns and orchards to the solitary hills.

Getting Mother’s Body

book by Suzan-Lori Parks

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Getting Mother’s Body is an entertaining novel about Billy Beede, sixteen years old, pregnant by a man whom she discovers has children and is married to someone else. She travels from Texas to Arizona with the objective of digging up her mother’s grave to claim the jewels believed to be buried with her mother. Each chapter is told from the first person POV of one of the characters, with everyone having more than one turn. Even the dead mother, Willa Mae Beede, has chapters, mostly consisting of blues songs. We get to hear different perspectives on the same events and varying opinions of the cast of characters. It also solves the ever-present problem of exposition and backstory, allowing bits and pieces to emerge without overwhelming the narrative.

Parks writes with authority. She uses unconventional spellings, such as “yr” for “your” and “wichu” for “with you.” This device conveys the language patterns of the characters. Parks clearly thought a lot about the spellings which could have undercut the 1963 time period and looked like text messages, but the author seems aware of this danger and avoids it. The unconventional spelling did not make the book difficult to read and added authenticity to the dialogue.

Even though there were clues along the way, I did not know what to expect at the end. Parks is expert at narrative sleight of hand, redirecting the reader’s attention while laying the groundwork for a satisfying and realistic plot resolution. For one thing, she knows that there’s no such thing as absolute silence in a story. In Little Walter Little’s barbershop, “We go quiet. Just the sounds of the scissors going around our heads.” She incorporates small moments of sensory detail like these throughout the narrative, allowing the reader to get lost in the world she creates. Meanwhile, she’s building a credible sequence of events about incredible acts.

The most helpful element for my writing was on page 37. Parks has a character let us know that the mother’s jewelry was never buried with her. Normally, I’d expect to find that at the end, but she slaps it right up front in a chapter from the POV of Dill Smiles (how great is that name?), one of the dead woman’s lovers, who not only took the jewelry, but sold most of it. All of this information is repeated again at page 116, “I took them and I sold the pearls one by one, for a hell of a lot more than ten dollars a piece, to keep myself afloat and I weren’t wrong to sell them. And when I need to sell the ring, I’ll sell it.” I wasn’t sure about the repetition of information, but my best guess is that Parks tried the book with and without this reinforcement and found that she needed it in order to make the end work. It turns out to be half true. Dill did take the jewelry, but only half of that jewelry was real. There’s a great image at the end of her checking the ring, narrated by Billy, “When we rode back from LaJunta, Dill rode in the truck bed. She didn’t want to drive and she didn’t want to talk. Every once in a while she would take something out of her pocket. She reached up and ran the thing across the back of the truck cab window. It didn’t cut the glass. Teddy and June didn’t see but I seen. It was a diamond-looking ring Dill had. Then I knew Dill had tooked it from Mother and if Dill and tooked that ring then she had tooked the pearls too. Maybe real pearls maybe not real pearls, we never did find no kind of pearls at all, but I wasn’t gonna ask Dill about them while we was riding back home. I wasn’t never gonna ask her.” Amazing image, beautifully done and through action. The reader can see Dill testing the stone in the ring and, from Dill’s earlier chapters, imagine her body language and expression. Parks has laid all of the groundwork and earned every pay off for her conclusion. The reader believes that there are no jewels to be had, and thanks to another setup of the mother’s past behavior sewing valuables into hems, Billy finds the real ring and it’s a surprise, believably executed.

Parks also sets up multiple tensions that I found helpful to study. There is the tension of whether or not Billy will get an abortion, whether it’s too late – the choice of ‘it’ or baby – and how she would cope if she does have the baby. Parks sets up a number of obstacles to Billy getting the treasure: whether the jewels are there, that Dill seems to have them, whether to go dig up the mother, how to get to the gravesite, the reality of looking at the corpse – all very well drawn. It’s utterly believable that Billy’s perspective on life and on her mother would change when she sees the skeletal remains of her mother. Death becomes real and sharpens decisions she makes about her life. There’s the added tension throughout the book of whether or not she is her mother’s daughter. She desperately does not want to be like her mother and yet there are many ways Billy does follow in Willa Mae’s footsteps, even literally as a child in wet sand walking behind her mother. “Once, when me and Billy went to Galveston, we had our shoes off and was walking in the wet sand. Billy walked behind me putting her feet prints where my feets had already made a mark. Good Lord, I thought, my child’s following in my footsteps. But I tried not to worry. The way I see it, you can only dig a hole so deep.”

The novel is funny, wise, and heartbreaking in its sadness. Parks manages to include social commentary through an expertly woven narrative that provides a sense of justice and a satisfying conclusion. The end is not over the top, but a quiet conclusion of the twin realizations of Billy and her uncle, both transformed as they both come face to face with the decay of old ghosts, he with the obliteration of his old church and she with the reality of her mother’s death.

Housekeeping


book by Marylynne Robinson

annotation by Philip Barragan

Marilynne Robinson created a unique, magical and somber world in Housekeeping. Unique for her story about three independent women with no significant male characters. And in spite of this, Robinson’s story stands strong as a novel for everyone. Magical for blending together the empirical, physical world with the ethereal world of ghosts and the imagination. And somber for the storyline about loss, abandonment, and the different steps we take in order to survive.

Throughout the book, there were many moments of lyrical writing. Robinson has a strong command of poetry and her prose is filled with lyricism. On page 92, Robinson glides effortlessly into her poetic hand:

It was perhaps only from watching gulls fly like sparks up the face of clouds that dragged rain the length of the lake that I imagined such an enterprise might succeed. Or from watching some discarded leaf gleaming at the top of the wind. Ascension seemed at such times a natural law…For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?

The New York Times Book Review described Robinson’s novel as “So precise, so distilled, so beautiful,” that I wanted to know how Robinson utilized her words. Among the many examples, this line seemed to make the case for me: “And we glided across the ice toward Fingerbone, we would become aware of the darkness, too close to us, like a presence in a dream.” This simple foreshadowing paints the background for the story. The reader is advised to hold on for the bumpy ride.

Robinson’s executed great skill in describing her world. Her attention to detail was a fine example of how to bring the reader into your story: “…and never since then had she been so aware of the smell of their hair, their softness, breathiness, abruptness. It filled her with a strange elation, the same pleasure she has felt when any one of them, as a sucking child, had fastened her eyes on her face and reached for her other breasts, her hair, her lips, hungry to touch, eager to be filled for a while and sleep.”

Housekeeping is a fine example of a polished work filled with beautiful descriptions and lyrical prose. The story is simple and shows how good writing can bring the story to life, brilliantly, and let it shine.

Point Dume

book by Katie Arnoldi

annotation by Rob Roberge

Once, years ago, when my first book came out and I was enormously excited about said book coming out, a much more experienced writer told me, “One’s a good start, but it’s not a career until you have three out.”

“Really?” I said.

“Over fifty percent of first-time novelists never publish a second,” he said.
This scared me a bit, since it had taken me ten years to learn enough to write my first and I’d thrown away at least two bad novels before finishing my first (or, third, depending on how one looked at such things). “So why isn’t two a career, then?”

“Well, it’s like in math. One doesn’t mean anything. Two can be a coincidence. Three’s a pattern. Until it happens three times, it’s not a pattern. And a pattern is what constitutes a career. It means that’s what you do, for better or worse. You’re a writer.”

I’d never, at that time, heard of this fifty percent deal with first-time novelists, but it turns out, according to various studies in publishing, to be true. A lot, if not a clear majority of writers have only one book in them—which stunned me when I first heard it and still surprises me now. Why would you go through the effort and labor of learning the very difficult craft of putting a book together only to stop after the first? But I guess some writers only have one in them—one thing to say, and then they get on with the rest of their lives.

And the second book not making you a career writer? I suppose that’s open to debate, but it is true, in both math and in publishing and murder (you’re not a serial killer, after all, until you hit three, either, though I heard that is being challenged by certain FBI profilers, among others) that three is a pattern and it means that you’re probably in it (whatever your “it” happens to be) for the long haul.

So, enter Katie Arnoldi’s POINT DUME (Overlook Press, publication date, May 10th), which is as you may have guessed from this preamble, her third novel. Arnoldi, best known, perhaps, for her first novel CHEMICAL PINK (which was a long running LA Times bestseller) has returned, in many ways, to the overall feel, characters, structure and pace that made that first novel such a hit. In between, she published THE WENTWORTHS, a dysfunctional family drama/satire about a wealthy Westside LA family from 2008, which showed a growing confidence and ability in her craft.

POINT DUME is, in short, a combination of the best aspects of her earlier two books. It has the edge and grit and unconventional characters and unexpected scenes of CHEMICAL PINK along with the refined craft and narrative chops exhibited in THE WENTWORTHS.

The novel, while brief and breakneck paced, takes in a wide range of subject matter and characters. It is, in fact, one of the longer short novels you’re likely to read this year (in the best sense—the way THE GREAT GATSBY is a long short novel, surprising for all the ground it covers in a relatively few amount of pages). Arnoldi balances five major POV in the novel—from the memorable self-reliant surfer Ellis, the eccentric pot-dealer Pablo, Janice a bored and quietly despairing homemaker and one of Pablo’s main clients, Janice’s husband Frank (who’s mid-life crisis infatuation with Ellis he misreads for love), and the sad and trapped Felix, who’s been recruited (forcefully) by the Mexican drug cartel to grow pot in the public lands around Malibu in the hills around all of the other character’s homes.

This unlikely cast of characters is brought together in a series of events that always arise organically out of character desire—never because they’re forced into action by the author. Arnoldi writes in a manner that Flaubert talked about—the writer being invisible, filing her nails while the characters act of their own accord. There are two dominant schools of thought about the author’s job. Some believe the author, like a good baseball umpire, should remain unseen. That the only time he or she is noticed is if they’ve blown a call or made a bad move. Then, of course, you have the overt stylists, calling attention to themselves (either in obvious ways, such as in the metafiction of writers like Ray Federman, or the high-wire “look no hands” prose styling of someone like Lee. K. Abbot, who reminds you he’s there by showing off the conscious beauty of his own prose). Arnoldi falls into the former category—never showing the puppet master’s strings on the movements of the characters.

And it works very well. The book hits on a lot of major issues—obsessive love and desire, the death of surf culture invaded by materialistic trend seekers…people who used to be called yuppies (god knows what name they carry these days), illegal pot farms on public lands (an increasingly large issue in California), the savage, dangerous and thoughtless use of human trafficking, the increasing presence of Mexican drug cartels in California, and the environmental cost of it all.

In the end (without giving away the plot twist that brings all these character’s lives together), Arnoldi’s realistic novel takes a turn toward the Naturalistic novels of Zola and Frank Norris. The book’s climax, in many ways, is reminiscent of Norris’ amazing (and, sadly, largely forgotten) 1902 masterpiece THE OCTOPUS (a Naturalistic history of the building of California in the late 1800’s), with the earth re-establishing its dominance and its inevitable lack of concern for the petty desires of humans.

Along the way, you get a rollicking ride. The book is full of memorable characters, tight, lean prose, better sex scenes than most people seem to write these days (why is sex so awful in most books?) and filled with some downright funny and harrowing scenes. It’s, in the best sense, a well-paced, well written page-turner.

~ Rob Roberge’s WORKING BACKWARDS FROM THE WORST MOMENT IN MY LIFE will be published Fall 2010 by Red Hen Press

Drive

book by Rob Roberge

annotation by Antonia Crane

Instead of a coaster, which is what I use many of my hardcover books for, I keep Drive by Rob Roberge open on my coffee table to use as a road map for great storytelling. It is a book that had a permanent impact on me, like a black and white Herman Leonard photograph. When you look again, you notice something strange and beautiful beneath the smoke, something that you missed before. I use Drive as a vehicle to improve my writing and keep me excited about literature, reading sections compulsively to study the dialogue and scenes on the page.

I’d be lying if I claimed that my adoration for the author had nothing to do with my devotion to the text. Sometimes you get a mentor whose mind and work speaks to you louder than anyone else’s and for me, Rob Roberge is definitely that guy.  Regardless of who the author is to me, Drive is an entertaining, smart story about a rogue basketball team lead by painter-turned coach, Ben Thompson. It takes structural and narrative risks that made me re-think the way that stories are told.  Drive helped me become a better writer by giving me clues about how to proceed. For instance, my punctuation tends to be sloppy, my dialogue can be elementary and I’m tense-lexic. Drive showed me how to stick with a tense and how play with it, how to vary my sentence structure as though it was music, as well as changing up chapter length. Some chapters in Drive are a paragraph long and they are just as satisfying as longer sections.

Roberge crams texture into his scenes, which reminds me that every section needs sound, dialogue, tension and physical sensation like this: “I can’t miss. It’s been years since I had this feeling. Just you, the ball and the rim. Nothing else exists in the world. It’s like those pictures of the Earth from outer space, only there’s you and a hoop and nothing else. I stop counting and just focus on the rhythm. I’ve got the touch and start shooting threes. The floor shines like a bowling alley, the bleachers rock and creak under the kid’s feet, and everything I throw up falls in like it had eyes.”

Drive showed me how to add layers of life to my pages so that my characters aren’t one-dimensional, silent, or seated – unless they need to be.

Roberge’s sentences buzz and sing with life. It’s the music of lonely, sad people striving to connect and succeed as well as the long road between where they are and where they’re trying to go. Thoughtful, snappy dialogue erupts from the page, but Roberge isn’t only occupied with being clever, he also fleshes out his characters in surprising ways. For example, the ‘man behind the curtain’ is The Chicken Man, aka Rube Parcel, a Hee-Haw suit on TV yapping at insomniacs with the IQ’s of doorknobs, but his logic makes sense. He’s the guy who owns the basketball team. He has corporate, selfish motives, but he’s so logical and true that  I couldn’t help but like him.  The topless cleaner, Sean who’s writing her dissertation on feminist theory is my cup of tea, but I often disagreed with her, just as I would a real person.

There’s nothing typical or simple about Roberge’s characters or scenes, but his sentences are sharp and clean. He makes basketball sound like Beethoven. Women are hot PhD-wielding topless house cleaners as well as brilliant basketball stars with wrenches who know how to jimmie a broken starter.  The action on the basketball court is exciting with a string of characters that the reader instantly cares about.

Drive has all of the humor and camp one expects from Roberge. The larger story he tells is about the subterranean struggles and irresistible urges that drive us to survive and succeed. Sometimes you feel can’t miss and you don’t. Sometimes you fail.

Coach Ben Thompson’s voice drives the plot, but the pages turn because of the quiet moments of tension that drive Roberge’s players. One by one, they get under the reader’s skin. Creepy, sexy and weird, Bone, Money and Hedda are in turns dignified and defiant as they play hard and discover their strengths.

Roberge has a knack for twisting the normal into the perverse and sad, as with a cow hitting the outside wall of Ben Thompson’s building making “a tortured and lonely sound.” He also knows joy, which comes through in searing moments of hope on the basketball court, like a dance in the sunlight: “It’s just me and the ball and the rim and the sun might burn out and the world might stop turning before I miss again.”

~ DRIVE, hardcover now available, softcover from Hollyridge Press this fall

Lolita

book by Vladimir Nabokov

annotation by Tina Rubin

Nabokov became a favorite of mine after I read The Real Life of Sebastian Knight in graduate school. I then devoured his masterpiece, Lolita, which cemented that conviction. His writing is such a joy to read that as soon as I finished the book I started it over again, hungry for more of Humbert Humbert’s (HH’s) world. Through gorgeous and clever use of language(s), remarkable pacing, fabulous detail, and astute character development, Nabokov pulled me into this fictional memoir as if I were entering a prism. I was never quite certain what was “real” and what was reflection as the scenes swirled around me.

Nabokov playfully engages us by giving us precedents and clues for every event in the book, ranging from his childhood love for twelve-year-old Annabel to his ex-wife Valeria’s death during childbirth. Even a random story HH recalls is a careful judgment on Nabokov’s part: the story, which occurred in Arles, is about the role that chance played when a jealous lover stabbed a woman to death while her new husband tried to stop him; the killer escaped when, “by a miraculous and beautiful coincidence,” an explosion occurred. These events of course foreshadow Humbert’s love of the nymphet Lolita, her later death in childbirth, and HH’s toying with the idea of drowning Lolita’s mother (but he didn’t have to, because she was hit by a car). Even Clare Quilty, who follows Humbert and Lolita across the country in an Aztec red convertible (as if they wouldn’t notice?), is Nabokov being playful, drawing us in to unravel the clues. Who knows, perhaps the entire Lolita  portion of the “memoir” was meant to be a figment of a madman’s (HH’s) imagination. What I took from all this—I think—is the magnificent possibilities of the novel, the moods and layers of consciousness that can be created on the page through masterful story-telling. I want to write like that. (Who wouldn’t?)

Nabokov’s use of pacing was instructive too. As Humbert’s insanity grows, his sentences become shorter, his imagery more concrete. From the last part of the story, when HH is determined to murder the man who took Dolly away from him, to the part where he has done the deed and decides to drive on the wrong side of the road (love that symbolism), the action is slowed way down. Every detail, from the ditch and the mud to the bullets and blood, is heightened.

In terms of character development, HH is absolutely convincing and, at the end of the story when he finds Lolita again, even empathetic. In his realization that he loves her completely—despite the fact that she is no longer a nymphet—and his awakening to the degree to which he has ruined her childhood, his pain is palpable. This part in particular moved me because of my interest in empathetic villains (I did a critical paper on their development in works by Capote, Stahl, and Highsmith). Humbert’s actions were despicable, but in his suffering, he became human and vulnerable. Someone like us.

Nabokov said in his note at the end of the book that he intended no message with this story, and I can buy that—I think it was a vehicle that enabled him to attain a level he could not have achieved with a tamer subject. He had to dig deep for this one. I’m aiming for something along those lines with my murderous main character. Years from now, I hope I can say my work was influenced by Vladimir Nabokov.

That Old Cape Magic

book by Richard Russo

annotation by Diane Sherlock

What a disappointment. That Old Cape Magic is not nearly as well crafted as Russo’s Straight Man, Empire Falls or Nobody’s Fool. It also lacks their heart and complexity, preferring to shorthand minor and tangential characters as uninteresting types (left wing professor, evangelical, Republican), rather than finding the telling detail. The humor, too, is off and there is way too much pop psychology about the parents’ intrusion and effect on the marriage at the center of the narrative.

The prose is workmanlike and does little to evoke a sense of place in either the Midwest, Cape Cod, or Maine. There is no lyricism here and, again, the finely observed details of, say, Nobody’s Fool are missing. The sense of place is fine, but that’s all it is. Fine. The worst of it comes with inane observations, “Fynch was a tall man, and his suit was well tailored and expensive looking. He seemed comfortable in it, as men who wear suits every day often are.” (189) Sigh. This is more of a problem if you’re familiar with the author because he’s capable of so much more.

There is a set piece late in the novel, built around an improbable event with an old man, a wheelchair and a tree. Hilarity does not ensue. It’s a piece of intended slapstick that feels like it is stuck in for comic effect. There is not the inevitable tension-building that the device of Occam’s Razor provides in Straight Man. There’s just an unfortunate accident coupled with overreactions and misunderstandings. Perhaps if Russo had honed in more on the parallels with the protagonist’s short story and his own parents or the weddings that bookend the narrative with the protagonist’s marriage, there would have been something more compelling here, but overall the narrative came across as unfocused and ineffective. In the last pages, Griffin, the main character observes, “Late middle age was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.” The same cannot be said of this novel: the reader will not fail to see any of it coming because That Old Cape Magic has none of its own.

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.