Monday, March 24, 2008

A Model Story

My reading of "The Bell Ringer" last week (see the previous post) put me on a short story bender of sorts. In addition to slowly working on a story of my own that has been in the mental drafting stages for awhile, I went back to my bookshelves to find some story collections. This was a good idea, because in the process, I re-read what is probably my favorite story, H.P. Lovecraft's "Pickman's Model."

In literature and academia, horror fiction doesn't get a lot of love, unless the author's name is Edgar Allan Poe. During my senior year at UIC, this led me to write a final paper for an American Literature class trying to prove that Lovecraft was equal to Poe. I ended up with a B on the essay, but my beliefs didn't waver. Granted, the essay probably bashed Poe a bit more than necessary, not a smart move when the professor featured him prominently on the syllabus. That is not to say that I dislike Poe; the opposite is true. However, reading H.P. Lovecraft is an excellent exercise in genres, and he deserves more attention. "Pickman's Model" is a great example: along with horror, the reader gets a balanced mix of regional histories, colorful characters (ones that are developed just enough for the story at hand), and a sort of gothic pulp fiction. A few years back, I took offense at a New York Times anthology review that suggested that Lovecraft's stories were funny because they were ridiculous. Sure, you might find yourself laughing, but it's more out of the sheer horror that Lovecraft attempts to convey, guiding the story to the big climax.

I can think of dozens of writers who have a better grasp of language and structure, but few can match Lovecraft's determination to simply scare the reader. If he had penned "The Tell-Tale Heart," there would have been no need for the beating heart to drive the killer insane; the dead body would have simply emerged from the floorboards to take care of business itself.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Short Story Analysis

"The Bell Ringer" by John Burnside
(originally published in The New Yorker, 3/17/2008)

In both reading and writing, the short story has long been one of my favorite formats. As a writer, it presents a welcome challenge. I personally try to strike a balance between tales that have a definitive beginning, middle, and ending and ones that present just a cross section of a bigger picture. When I recently read "The Bell Ringer" by John Burnside, I was pleased to find both examples in his piece. This is easily one of the best works of short fiction that I've read in a long time.

To me, this is a story that is best described by its opposites: boredom and excitement (exemplified by Matt and Harley); past and present (bell ringing and a brief credit card transaction); and, what I feel is most important in the story, silence and communication (Eva's taciturn acceptance and Martha's nonchalant confession).

Not all of these conflicts are resolved, and that works in the reader's advantage. Would Eva truly be happy if everything worked out in her favor? With just the right amount of background, Burnside creates a character who likely has a lot more issues lurking beneath the surface than we know. The ending is also strikingly effective, for it can be viewed as either a shock or an understandable culmination. If a story or novel is well-written with a straightforward conclusion, that's fine. However, "The Bell Ringer" is straightforward, yet leaves the reader with questions, in the best of ways. The question I posed at the beginning of this paragraph is obvious, but there are more.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Look Down!

I finally posted my Calvino project, but since I originally saved the first part while drafting it, it was posted below the Jonathan Franzen piece. So if you're interested in reading the conclusion of my Calvino essay, keep scrollin' down.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

A Franzen Break

After my post last weekend, I got a little too sure of myself and set up this mental schedule for the Calvino Project: Finish Invisible Cities by Monday, and have the blog updated by Tuesday night. Naturally, it's taking a lot longer than I anticipated, but not for lack of effort. I've started drafting my essay on Calvino's books (see the previous update for details), and it's going to be longer than I anticipated. However, I'm going to try to get much of it finished tomorrow, and then I can move on to other books, articles, and ideas.

As much as I'm enjoying my personal discovery of the works of Italo Calvino, I had to take a break this evening. So, as I've been known to do at least once a month, I re-read Jonathan Franzen's essay "Mr. Difficult," selected from his wonderful non-fiction collection, How To Be Alone. As hard as this question is to answer on the spot, if someone were to ask me who my favorite author is, I'd have to go with Mr. Franzen.

I was first introduced to the works of Jonathan Franzen during my undergraduate years. "Mr. Difficult" was read in one of my classes during a two or three week study of William Gaddis (a name that will undoubtedly come up quite often in this blog). Franzen's brief biography and insight into Gaddis, along with arguments outlining the battle between Art (capital A) and mass entertainment in fiction, make up the essay. I remember slightly struggling in college with all the information provided in the essay, but once I learned more and devoured two of Franzen's novels (Strong Motion, The Corrections), the piece took on great meaning. I make it a point to re-read it often, whether in full or in small doses. I've read it in full at least fifteen times, and I find it very comforting when faced with either a difficult book or a long stretch of focusing on just one author (in my case, Calvino for the time being). Franzen's love/hate relationship with the works of William Gaddis often provide comfort to me as I try to grapple with other works.

As I read through it tonight, I was struck with how one of my favorite passages in the essay reflects my reading life at the moment.

"I was just happy to have a good, hard book to read, and I was impressed with myself for managing it. Following [the] pilgrimage became my own pilgrimage. The loft, for those ten days, in spite of the gurgling pigeons, was the quietest place I've ever been. It was profoundly, metaphysically quiet...I felt virtuous, as if I'd run three miles, eaten my kale, been to the dentist, filed my tax return, and gone to church (Franzen 244-245)."

Granted, I've read (sometimes unsuccessfully) books that are harder than the ones by Italo Calvino, but I'm happy. In my case, instead of pigeons, I'm reading and studying in a beautifully quiet space, accompanied by the sighs of sleeping dogs and the occasional cat walking across my stomach. Back in college, I used to hate reading in quiet places; coffee shops were always my preferred destination. This hasn't totally changed, but I've learned to appreciate serene isolation, alone with books and ideas.

Work Cited:
Franzen, Jonathan. How To Be Alone. Copyright 2003 by Jonathan Franzen.

"Invisible Cities"--The Calvino Project Concluded

"Perinthia's astronomers are faced with a difficult choice. Either they must admit that all their calculations were wrong and their figures are unable to describe the heavens, or else they must reveal that the order of the gods is reflected exactly in the city of monsters (Calvino 145)."



This passage describes the city of Perinthia, one of the dozens laid out in Invisible Cities. Perinthia's foundations were drawn by the aforementioned astronomers, with the zodiac determining the placement of the city landmarks, and the gods determining the lives of the citizens. The passage also perfectly describes my analysis of Invisible Cities in conjunction with Six Memos For the Next Millennium. My literary calculations could very well be wrong, and perhaps the order of the book is reflected in the details.



Invisible Cities is a collection of city descriptions, fabled cities visited by Marco Polo, who is describing them to Kublai Khan. The variations are astounding, yet the underlying possibilities(explored in dialogues between the two men) are that Polo is either making up the cities as he goes along, or that he is describing the same place is an many different ways as he can. The cities are discussed in an average of two pages apiece, yet Calvino crafts in amazing scenery, distinct summaries of the citizens, and moods of either hope or despair (or both).



Having finally finished the book, I am happy to say that it was incredibly rewarding, and I cannot figure out how Calvino's deft combination of metaphor and fable didn't hook me in the first few attempts I took to read it. It is a title that requires multiple readings, which is always a good sign. With that being said, forgive me for not giving the metaphors (or large chunks of the novel for that matter) the attention they deserve. The idea behind this project was to see if Invisible Cities represented the themes of Six Memos. This is going to be done very basically, with select passages from the novel being compared with select passages from the essays. I briefly touched upon "Lightness" in my last post, so I will leave it alone for now. If I feel I've missed anything, I can always return to it in the future.

"Quickness": "...the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language (Calvino 45)."

I can find no better self-summary of Invisible Cities. If we momentarily disregard the idea that Polo describes the same place in a myriad of different ways, the above passage shows that Calvino perfected "quickness" in the novel. If "quickness" can be defined as the true bent of written language (just for example's sake), consider this sample from Invisible Cities:

"You walk for days among trees and among stones. Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognized that thing as the sign of another thing: a print in the sand indicates the tiger's passage; a marsh announces a vein of water; the hibiscus flower, the end of winter. All the rest is silent and interchangeable; trees and stones are only what they are (Calvino 13)."

Can you appreciate Calvino's literary quickness? Not a word is misplaced or casually tossed in. As we read, we're getting a workout. He quickly gives us a few descriptions that move rapidly, that are different, yet are importantly linked. It is an excellent example of communication between sharply different objects.

"Exactitude": "To my mind exactitude means three things above all: (1) a well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question; (2) an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images; in Italian we have an adjective that doesn't exist in English, "icastico"; (3) a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination (Calvino 55-56)."

In this description (which, true to the title, is the most exact definition given by Calvino in all of Six Memos), the word that jumps out the most to me is "precise." As varied and layered as Invisible Cities is, there is a poetic feel to the precision of Calvino's language and imagery. The tale of Andria is an excellent example:

"In praising Andria's citizens for their productive industry and their spiritual ease, I was led to say: I can well understand how you, feeling yourselves part of an unchanging heaven, cogs in a meticulous clockwork, take care not to make the slightest change in your city and your habits. Andria is the only city I know where it is best to remain motionless in time (Calvino 150)." (emphasis mine)

Just like with "Quickness," this passage defines "Exactitude" in two ways, both with the overall description and my emphasized phrases. Calvino finds precision in the entire novel, and works it into the smallest places. "Cogs in a meticulous clockwork, take care not to make the slightest change in your city and your habits." Sure, a city like Andria doesn't bode well for free will, but the reader cannot help but appreciate the exactitude reflected. In fact, I feel that "precision" is a better word for the chapter, even though it's a sort of synonym.

"Visibility": "We may distinguish between two types of imaginative process: the one that starts with the word and arrives at the visual image, and the one that starts with the visual image and arrives at its verbal expression. The first process is the one that normally occurs when we read. For example, we read a scene in a novel or the report of some event in a newspaper and, according to the greater or lesser effectiveness of the text, we are brought to witness the scene as if it were taking place before our eyes, or at least to witness certain fragments or details of the scene that are singled out (Calvino 83)."

I have to say that I found the essay "Visibility" to be the most difficult one in Six Memos. While a few more readings of it would undoubtedly clear up most of the confusion, I will focus on this quote. I cannot think of a specific passage in Invisible Cities that would best highlight it. In fact, the entire novel itself can serve as the example. Any written fiction or narrative applies to this, according to Calvino. This takes on greater meaning when one takes into consideration both Invisible Cities and Calvino's admiration of fables. There's really nothing to add to this except appreciation of the cities unfolding magically from the words, in great detail, from the intangible atmospheres to the tallest buildings.

"Multiplicity": "Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function (Calvino 112)."

In this final chapter of Six Memos, Calvino quotes a couple of authors and discusses the ideas of literature being a sort of encyclopedia. I loved the above passage because it's a fitting end to my project. Again, I'm going to take Invisible Cities as a whole instead of selecting a specific passage. I wouldn't describe the novel as "overambitious," but I absolutely agree with the idea of "immeasurable goals." While the cities and the conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo end on the last page, it's impossible to imagine Invisible Cities as having a literal ending. The two men converse as if their having an infinite discussion, and Polo likely had endless cities to share with Khan. The novel may have one hundred and sixty-five pages, yet reads as a slice of a discourse that has no real beginning or ending.

As I stated before, both Six Memos For the Next Millennium and Invisible Cities require multiple readings. I've barely scratched the surface of analysis, and I've resisted further research on both Calvino and the novel. I wanted to take everything at face value, using just the texts as my guides.

I feel this is a decent stopping point.

Works Cited:
Calvino, Italo. Six Memos For the Next Millennium. Copyright 1988, the Estate of Italo Calvino.

Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Copyright 1972 by Giulio Einaudi Editore/English translation Copyright 1974 by Harcourt, Inc.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Calvino Project

Earlier today, I was scanning my bookshelves, looking for a new book to read. I reached for Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, a book that I've started casually a few times and haven't finished. However, Calvino's Six Memos For the Next Millennium was nearby. Feeling ambitious, I decided to re-read Six Memos as an introduction to Invisible Cities.

First, a quick summary. Six Memos started as a series of lectures by Calvino, outlining what he thought were the most important themes that would guide literature into the twenty-first century (this was in 1985). They are: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity (he died before writing on consistency). I plan to explore how these ideas correlate with Invisible Cities, and I re-read the opening chapter, "Lightness." Thanks to the beauty of literary theory, my literal reading of a select passage brought to mind two modern authors.

"We might say that throughout the centuries two opposite tendencies have competed in literature: one tries to make language into a weightless element that hovers above things like a cloud or better, perhaps, the finest dust, or, better still, a field of magnetic impulses. The other tries to give language the weight, density, and concreteness of things, bodies, and sensations (Calvino 15)."

Language as a "weightless element" immediately invoked minimalism for me, with the first example being Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke). Language with "weight, density" makes me think of David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest, Consider the Lobster). True, this probably wasn't what Calvino had in mind (his examples run more along the lines of mythology, Dante, and Cavalcanti).

My point is that my project began with two books by one author, yet led me to ideas for future blog posts that will include even more writers. I'm not trying to get too far ahead of myself. The next post(s) will primarily be on Invisible Cities and Six Memos.

I'm sure Calvino would be pleased that literature (not necessarily his own) is still this thought-provoking in the new millennium. If more ideas and authors come to mind, the essay "Multiplicity" should be a good workout.

Work Cited:
Calvino, Italo. Six Memos For the Next Millennium. Copyright 1988, the Estate of Italo Calvino.