Thursday, December 29, 2011

"There Is No Year:" The Ups and Downs of Blake Butler

My final post of 2010 was a look at two aspects of literature--Karen Russell and Tin House--that I became fond of and looked forward to reading more of in 2011. This final post of 2011 is sort of the same. My work with Instafiction has been a joint project of discoveries. I'm now familiar with some excellent writers (David Yost and Jessica Forcier come to mind) whom I likely wouldn't have known about if it weren't for my project research. Jeremy's selections have also introduced me to some compelling literary artists, one of whom is the basis for this review. The stories of Blake Butler (The Copy Family and The Many Forms of Rain ____ Sent Upon Us In Those Days Before the Last Days) managed to stick with me long after my initial readings. In the span of a few pages, across two stories, various themes and styles pop up seemingly at random: dystopian fiction, fables, allegories, horror, and so on. I recently picked up a copy of his latest novel, There Is No Year (The Copy Family is an excerpt from this), and upon reflection, my feelings about his long-form work are contradictory. He's an undeniably talented writer, but at times a reader wouldn't be faulted for thinking that his elaborate set-ups and styles are too much when packed into a single volume.

As a personal rule, I almost never read other film or book reviews before I'm finished with my own write-ups; I want my thoughts to be solely influenced by my own critical background. However, I went through about three different review of There Is No Year, because I was sure that I was missing something. However, the thoughtful reviews explored the text exactly as I understood it. A plot summary of this novel will not give anything away, nor will it fully explain it. An unnamed family--a father, mother, and son--live in a house inhabited by copies of themselves, with minor differences.

"The copy family would not go away. The father worked himself into a state, shouting curse words, splaying arms. He went out to the car and got a softball bat he'd used for pickup games in college--he's not once had a hit, though he'd been beaned more times than he could count on all the hands in all the houses on the street where his house stood--he could often still remember how the ball felt each time, banging fast into his muscle--how his chest would scrunch then expand--how he sometimes seemed not there at all. The father stood at the window with the weapon. He threatened legal action. He spoke in unintended rhyme. He said his own name to the copy father. The copy father seemed to have more hair than him (Butler 13-14)."

After awhile, the mother takes it upon herself to kill off the copy family. After this is done, the three family members become isolated in their own problems and surreal happenings. The father's job is unsatisfying, and he notices the streets to his job growing to the point that his commute takes up most of his day. The mother falls into a state of madness, and discovers an egg-like object that produces intense orgasms. The son seems to suffer more than anyone. There are hints to a previous (and possibly ongoing illness); He develops a relationship with a mysterious girl in his school; and his online communications veer from mystical to creepy. Throughout the novel, the family tries unsuccessfully to sell the house, even with offers of exorbitant cash. Mysterious visitors drop in, and the house has its own life force, with hallways and movements and ominous objects discovered by the family. Plague-like occurrences become almost normal: ants burrow through the house and the son, and the mailbox becomes infested with caterpillars.

On their own, these plot points would seem like the basis for a compelling horror novel. There are moments in There Is No Year that definitely constitute horror:

"The black creation that'd been seated on the neighbor's house's front lawn all this time had by now spread around the structure, further on. It had covered over the old doors and windows with new doors and windows, such as the one the son had come to stand in front of, sopping wet. The son did not see the swelling structure. The son did not see the street, nor his own house there beyond the pavement--the same house they'd lived in all these years, they did not know they'd never moved. The son couldn't see much for all the glaring--even if he had seen, even if he wanted, his house would not be there. The son felt sure that he'd arrived (Butler 243)."

There are also elements that hint to a kind of surreal science fiction:

"At sudden nodules in the network, the father found holes where he could see back into the house--the living room, the upstairs hallway--the walls there had been painted over black--in some rooms orange or yellow--screaming neon--though here the vents went so thin he could not see them, not even partly, just his arms. Some rooms had been filled with dirt or smoke or foaming. Some rooms were full of skin--other families, people, bodies--smushed. One hole into one very far room was the exact same size as his eye--through the hole he could see another small eye seeing. His eye. Light (Butler 263)."

Through all of this, the initial confusion becomes accepted. The reader is not supposed to "get" what "the novel is about." When I read a book, I have a tendency to underline multiple passages and take a lot of notes in the margins. Going back through There Is No Year, I realized that my markings were nearly nonexistent. There is such a wealth of detail and activity, but unless a certain section is repeated or expanded, the novel works as a progression of what the family experiences. I eventually gave up on trying to find active threads or connections and let myself get lost in the atmospheres. Keeping with the personal contradictions in my reading habits, Butler has created a work that is its own contradiction: it's a blend of minimalism (no names, no mentions of a specific city, and stark details) and extravagant forms. The pages are dark shades of grey, there are occasional photos that may or may not reflect the immediate text, and some of the chapters are poetic stanzas or drawn out over multiple pages. The overall atmosphere calls attention to creativity in all its forms. It would be too easy and tempting to make a reference to "the medium is the message," but it seems that Butler intentionally takes this to the extremes.

There Is No Year won't work for everyone; I can only imagine how divided people can be over this novel, especially since I felt personally divided--there are multiple passages of terrific writing and atmosphere, yet I occasionally found it to be lacking or unsuccessful in its execution. However, I still have the utmost respect for Butler's creativity, and more than once, I found specific chapters that would work exceptionally well as their own short stories, thus turning back to what started my first appreciation for his work. While not every novel needs a tidy conclusion, the ending of the book is far too succinct. Readers can draw their own conclusions and attempt to create hypotheses to why the family experienced what they did, but for the most part, there's a too-familiar pattern of compelling details that draw the reader in, yet never get mentioned again. Butler is a masterful storyteller who is intentionally audacious in his forms and philosophies, but there's an unnerving wonder as to whether he built the work up so much that it collapses under its own weight. Some of the jacket blurbs hint to Butler creating a new form of American fiction. There's definitely a potential for that, but in due time. There Is No Year has definite hints to further brilliance, but its problems are just scattered enough that breathless praise is too much, too soon. I love his writing, and for now I appreciate his shorter pieces. There Is No Year certainly has its merits, but tries to go in too many directions. I don't want Butler to reign in his styles, but this work could maintained its aura and questions and could have been even better with just a bit more condensing.

Work Cited:
Butler, Blake. There Is No Year. Copyright 2011 by Blake Butler.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Instafiction On Longreads

Instafiction has yet another major market appearance this week. Editor/founder Jeremy P. Bushnell wrote up synopses of our five favorite stories of 2011 on behalf of the excellent curatorial site Longreads (beware of this site; even if you're the most casual of readers, there's enough material linked to move one to tears). The folks at Longreads have been very kind to us, linking and retweeting our selections from the very beginning, and now offering Jeremy the chance to expand on some of the more vibrant pieces.

The original link is here. And this link is a compilation of multiple lists of 2011's best long form writings. Enjoy and support!

"Instafiction's Jeremy P. Bushnell: My Top Fiction Longreads of 2011" (Originally published in Longreads, December 27, 2011)

1.) "Backbone," David Foster Wallace (The New Yorker)

During his lifetime, David Foster Wallace made massive contributions to the worlds of fiction and nonfiction alike, and I still miss his presence in the world acutely. The Pale King was a towering book of my summer, and although it didn’t quite yield the pleasures that a truly finished work might have, many of its fragments and episodes had the power of great short stories. See, for instance, this chapter, published as a standalone piece in The New Yorker.

2.)"Zone One," Colson Whitehead (excerpt, Esquire)

Whitehead’s Zone One is a great 2011 novel about government, bureaucracy, urban space, and human population. Oh yeah, it has zombies in it, too. Esquire gave us the first 20 pages—detailing a four-zombie attack on the book’s protagonist—right before Halloween, but it’s just as good a read now, at year’s end.

3.) "Female Explosion Syndrome," Jessica Forcier (New Delta Review)

Women all over the globe begin spontaneously combusting. Men don’t. Feminist? Fabulist? All of the above? Either way, this one stuck with us. Thanks to New Delta Review for publishing it.

4.) "The Empty Room," Jonathan Lethem (The Paris Review)

Lethem hasn’t put out a short story collection since 2006’s How We Got Insipid, but he’s still writing short fiction, and this year he placed a memorable tale of domestic collapse with the Paris Review. The setup: Upon moving his family into a sprawling farmhouse, a father makes a decision: one room will remain empty. “The empty room is like a living organ in our family’s house,” he claims, although in actuality it becomes the hollow core around which the family implodes.

5.) "Becoming Deer," Rachel Levy (PANK Magazine)

This fall, in the Chicago Reader, our Associate Editor Jamie Yates praised this story (from PANK Magazine) as a story that straddles the line between “the realistic and the mythical” and derives strength from each. You could also say it does the same with the line between the human and the animal. All this line-crossing makes the story into a kind of tangled skein, humming with tension. Taut, terse, and eerie: the best of a certain kind of experimental work. **

I think I speak for Jeremy when I say we're excited to carry Instafiction into 2012. Thanks to our readers and the excellent literary community for the excellent work that we find and share.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Chicago Flame Archives: Michael Cunningham Interview

As is the case when I present one of my Chicago Flame, pieces, I'm currently a bit behind schedule on my other readings, especially with the holidays in full swing. After flipping through my copies, I came across this phone interview I conducted with author Michael Cunningham in conjunction with the film version of his novel The Hours. I've now seen the film about four times, and while I wouldn't immediately list it as one of my favorites, it seems to get better with every screening. While several years have passed, and since it was conducted via telephone, I clearly remember Mr. Cunningham to be very engaging and genuinely humbled by the response to his work. I'm ashamed to admit that I still have not read any of his novels, but I'm going to make sure that I include one or two of them on my 2012 reading list. For the most part, this is the full article, but I had to make some edits based on my then-faulty factchecking (A Beautiful Mind was NOT a novel as I originally stated). But otherwise, I present this in full, stylistic problems and all.

Cunningham Reflects On the Impact Of The Hours (Originally published in The Chicago Flame, February 18th, 2003)

A bulk of the best films in the last decade share a little-discussed bond. Forrest Gump, Fight Club, Jurassic Park, and scores of others have been based on novels. An author pens a tale that becomes modified into a screenplay, and hopefully it becomes a feature film. The original storyteller often becomes lost in the shuffle, and probably has every right to feel spited. However, Michael Cunningham is anything but bitter. His novel The Hours is the source of one of this season's best films, a movie set to take home several Academy Awards. Cunningham couldn't be happier for the movie's success and critical acclaim.

"It's life-affirming," he comments. "The movie is about life going on in the worst of situations. It's a beautiful film with its own life."

Authors are also known for disliking the films based on their stories. However, with better acting and filmmaking, this trend seems to be changing. Cunningham seems just as moved by the film as any regular moviegoer. He's especially touched by Nicole Kidman's amazing performance as Virginia Woolf. "I was surprised. She was magnificent, and we've been really underestimating Nicole as an actress. It's a respectful, compassionate portrait."

"The film shows what an actor can do. Meryl Streep breaks an egg in a way we've never imagined. Julianne [Moore]'s able to break down and cry, yet still be composed," he says, regarding the small yet power scenes in The Hours that not only define the emotional intensity, but also show the talent of the film's leading actresses. Cunningham loves the film, and feels satisfied by having written the novel and nothing else. "I wouldn't have wanted to write the screenplay. I got along with [The Hours screenwriter] David Hare. He's English, formal, and kind of standoffish, yet deeply involved. We had a long discussion, yet he wrote the screenplay alone. It needed a fresh eye."

He is not totally modest about his importance to The Hours' legacy, both as a novel and a film. "I feel that I'm part of the team, but I was instrumental. But not for a second did I think it [the novel] would be such a hit. It's shocking and daunting." As satisfied as Cunningham is, the adaptation doesn't come without setbacks, albeit mild ones. "The pattern and symmetry are better in the film," he says. "Things had to be cut out of the film, including characters. But, the characters are more rich onscreen."

The art of writing is a passion that is easily open to influence. Any author will be more than happy to discuss the writers who came before him or her, the idols that shape both styles and serve as motivation for originality. Cunningham best exemplifies this idea, being forever grateful and indebted to the life and work of Virginia Woolf, especially her visionary novel Mrs. Dalloway. What better way is there to honor a novelist than by writing a novel that intricately relates to her life? "Any great artist is fascinating," says Cunningham. "Especially people who beat the odds. Woolf's life was colorful, and she lived in a time when changes were taking place."

His response to Mrs. Dalloway is simple, yet profound: "How does one produce such a thing?...Woolf was the first great author that I read. I was forced to read Mrs. Dalloway [in school], and I saw the complexity. She did what Jimi Hendrix did to music. I hoped to do something 1/10th of that."

"She writes so beautifully about London. It tells more than a document or a photograph."

The Hours is a homage to Woolf in virtually every single aspect, including the title. Cunningham acknowledges that The Hours was Woolf's original working title for Mrs. Dalloway. "She thought it was the simple story of a hostess who eventually kills herself. Then she realized that it really was Mrs. Dalloway. I even tried some different endings for The Hours, just like Woolf. I just wanted a modern day Mrs. Dalloway."

Cunningham is happy to see Woolf's novel continuing to be a required reading in college classes, for he feels its influence will touch impressionable readers for years to come. "It's great to see anything living on. Virginia wrote about the joy of being alive. We're supposed to look at the big things in life because we're only here for a short time. There are no mundane things in life. The clock is always ticking."

"The Hours doesn't belong to any genre, it's a member of its own. There's no real target audience."

The film presents scenes that depict the three leading women displaying homosexual tendencies, which some critics claim supports a "gay agenda" in today's movie business. Cunningham downplays these comments with optimistic views of today's more accepting climate. "There's no gay agenda. Hollywood shows different lifestyles. None of the women in the film are gay or straight. We're all complicated. We don't fit political roles. Today even men can be feminists. The terms gay, straight, and bisexual don't say anything about the ambiguity of sexuality." The notion of a male writer exploring the female mindset doesn't faze Cunningham, as complicated as the subject can be.

"As a male author, I get the character or I don't. The gender doesn't matter. I don't know anything about women that nobody else doesn't know. We may or may not have knowledge of a woman's sexual ambiguity. I like to complicate sexuality." He brings up a crucial fact that applies to all writers. "If I didn't empathize with my characters, I wouldn't care about them." That is extremely important from a writer's point of view. As influenced and touched as Cunningham is by Virginia Woolf, his growth as a writer has yielded immense self-discovery and inner gratitude.

"I started off in writing workshops. I went in confused and young, but came out as a confused, young writer." Cunningham is an alum of Stanford University, where more exposure to creative writing changed his life. "Stanford creative writing taught me how to write," he puts it simply. "It turned a hobby into a passion. The line between talent is blurry. I'm interested by the notion that I could write about my surroundings."

The great writers have influenced him, both past and present. Flannery O'Connor, Gabriel Marquez, William Faulkner, and William Gibson are just a handful of the writers who have helped Cunningham. He's prepared to be a role model himself for any writer who needs someone to identify with. He offers this tried and true advice: "It took me ten years to get published. Don't give up." Fortunately for us, Mr. Cunningham never gave up. A devotion to a legendary author guided his goals, and now he'll forever be associated with the creation of a groundbreaking novel and a surefire film classic in The Hours.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"The Ecstasy Of Influence:" Titular Truth In Advertising

Last year, after consistently reading a good majority of Jonathan Lethem's novels, I picked up his essay collection The Disappointment Artist. The slim volume was enjoyable, especially his take on John Ford's The Searchers (I wrote a film and textual analysis of it, which has proved to be my most-viewed post ever, but mainly because of Google image searches; however, I hope people read my work instead of just browsing the film stills). While I highly recommend Lethem's nonfiction, I would be hard pressed to recap the majority of the topics contained in that volume. That's not to say that it's forgettable, but after a year and a half, only small fragments stick in my mind. Nonetheless, I was excited to read his next batch of essays, the recently published The Ecstasy Of Influence. The work is longer, the topics are more varied, and while the pieces scan multiple years, Lethem has, like any good writer, grown wiser (in its many definitions). It would be difficult and pointless to compare two very different collections, but I'm sure that the newest collection will be sticking with me much longer. I went into both books with the same mentality (I always enjoy checking out the nonfiction work of my favorite fiction writers), but The Ecstasy Of Influence feels much more determined and curated.

As with any collection of separate pieces, it would be much too time consuming to analyze every essay or story (in Ecstasy, there are a couple of fiction pieces, too). With that in mind, it's also difficult to select the most representative works as well, since Lethem has assembled one of the more eclectic volumes in my recent memory. There are analyses of various writers and texts, poetic sketches of Brooklyn, and fantastically entertaining interviews with James Brown's band and Bob Dylan. A good starting point is one of the opening pieces. I had no idea Lethem spent years working as a bookseller, and his memories are pitch-perfect for anyone who works or has worked in this noble trade.

"I was what I would be if I wasn't a writer: a clerk in a used bookstore. No other possibility. I worked in eight bookstores in fifteen years, five years during high school and college, then ten years straight after that. Shelving, running registers, re-alphabetizing sections, learning the arcana. I was bitter, intense, typical, holding myself superior to customers who could afford the best items I could only cherish in passing, part of a great clerkly tradition. I was certainly aware of the tradition. I still repair broken alphabetical runs and straighten piles on tables, absently despite myself, whenever I'm in stores. It calms me during book tours (Lethem 29)."

Reflections on relationships to women, from teenage years to adulthood, have been written about constantly by the usual grouping of white male authors. There are other views out there, from women, homosexuals, and nonwhites, that bring this cycle to completion. But much like his bookselling memories, Lethem's memories of teen angst in dating and coveting are painfully true. He seems to sum up what was going through my mind (and still does, occasionally), energies that I personally put into terrible fiction, poetry, and self-exile.

"These girls blew hot, and could be mockingly affectionate or even briefly lusty in my direction, but in their willingness to show disdain, to crush unworthiness like a bug, they were fundamentally cool, cool, cool. I had a lot to learn, and I put my own enthusiasms and provenances on the table very carefully, or so it felt to me. They had a name for what they despised, 'green,' a word which seemed to encapsulate being lame, unenlightened, feeble, corny overreaching or straining for effect, and much else. I lived in fear of being cast in that shade (Lethem 40)."

In addition to feeling solidarity with Lethem's memoiresque remembrances (he's one of a good handful of writers I dearly hope to meet someday), I was immediately reminded of his skill of literary criticism (and also reminded of The Disappointment Artist and the brutally compelling essay on Edward Dahlberg). Lethem knows his way around genre fiction, literary fare, and the often-critiqued combination of the two. There is a definite feeling that this collection is merely an appetizer of further thoughts. In addition to "clerkly traditions," Lethem also understands the tradition of writerly influences and reasoning. So many books, essays, and interviews have long debated the reasons why writers and artists create, and while Lethem is not attempting to sum up these seemingly metaphysical possibilities, he manages to provide one of the better hypotheses.

"Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one's voice isn't just an emptying and purifying of oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing (Lethem 97-98)."

At his best, Lethem combines the technical aspects of writing with the intangible (sometimes these distinctions are mutually exclusive, sometimes not). For as intelligent as he is, there's never a feeling that he claims to have all the answers for the never-ending questions of fiction and writing. But even with his opinions, he manages to illuminate some of the shaky definitions and assumptions. Anyone who has read my essays consistently knows of my fascination, disdain, and collective confusion over what constitutes postmodernism. Lethem understands that it's a mess, and his definition is both right on and comical in its showcasing of that very mess.

"Let's wade into the unpleasantness around the term 'postmodernism:' Nobody agrees on its definition, but in literary conversations the word is often used as finger-pointing to a really vast number of things that might be seen as threatening to canonical culture: author-killing theories generated by French critics, collapsings of high and low cultural preserves into a value-neutral fog, excessive references to various other media and/or mediums, especially electronic ones (ironically even a Luddishly denunciatory take on certain media and or/mediums may be suspect merely for displaying an excess of familiarity with same), an enthusiasm for 'metafiction' (a word that out to be reserved for a specific thing that starts with Cervantes, but isn't), for anti-narrative, for pop-culture references or generic forms...(Lethem 79)."

He can also be intentionally contradicting. The above reflection on art coming from art can sometimes lead to hoisting up a biased debt of gratitude:

"The crime of Literary Rushmore, the one that anyone notices first, is that which ought to dissolve Rushmore forever in a bath of shame, but never does: The stone heads are white American men. There's never a Cather or Ellison or Baldwin or Oates or Ozick or Morrison on that mountain, no matter how unmistakably said person may have knocked one out of the ballpark that particular year, or decade, or century (Lethem 368)."

This review may very well come across like a giddy fan's adoration of a given literary hero. However, while I could easily cite other great passages, namely Lethem's thoughts on Italo Calvino and his problems with the style and demeanor of literary critic James Wood, there were a few essays that didn't grab me like the other ones. I've never been a major reader of graphic novels or comic books, so while I appreciated the effort, I didn't think twice about his essays on Spider-Man or Marvel comics (as much as I adore him and Michael Chabon, there's only so much academic writing I can take on those subjects). The latter half of the collection is dominated by writings on Brooklyn, some of which are vivid (and one, "Ruckus Flatbush" is a cool, almost hip-hop poetic freestyle on the borough's idiosyncrasies), but sometimes a bit repetitive. Granted, the majority of these essays were published elsewhere, but the mental image of a person wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers cap without a bill, resembling a yarmulke, was repeated often and lost its metaphorical shine after awhile. These are minor, almost squabbling complaints, and there is so much in The Ecstasy Of Influence that reaffirmed by literary beliefs and gave me genuine material for deep thought. The collection might seem like Lethem's hand-selected "best-of" anthology, but it's really so much more. For someone like me who loves to be entertained and educated at the same time, this is a nearly perfect book, especially since I came out of it energized and further appreciating Lethem's stances on a myriad of issues. Upon immediate reflection, Jonathan Lethem quite adept at selecting his own material for a single collection. He knows his strengths, he lets his intellect do the talking, yet he's just humble enough to offer critiques of his own essays with honesty.

Work Cited:
Lethem, Jonathan. The Ecstasy Of Influence. Copyright 2011 by Jonathan Lethem.

"Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl:" New Fiction in Gulf Stream Magazine

Good morning, y'all! I have a new short story up today. You can read " Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl " in the Spring i...