Friday, June 29, 2012
Whenever the works or opinions of Jonathan Franzen come up in my conversations, I have a ready reply that I've shared many, many times: I admire the man's writing and devotion to a sometimes old-fashioned view of literature, but I tend to agree with his critics more often than not (and on a side note, the Twitter parody @EmperorFranzen is consistently hilarious). However, with these admissions in mind, I believe it shows my own evolution as a reader, to be able to balance and assess my own enjoyment of a person's writings and my respect of his critics. It's a far cry from the almost crazed fanaticism of my early and late teens in which I'd latch on to a "favorite" author and be so captivated to not realize his or her shortcomings. When Freedom was published in 2009, my own review (and a couple of follow-up essays) made mention of the critiques, ideas that were not against Franzen directly, but necessary wonders of whether or not the novel would have been as highly acclaimed had it been written by a female or minority author and not someone eight years removed from the massive critical and commercial success of The Corrections. In that time, Franzen has published a handful of essays (included in his newest collection, Farther Away) that at best engage American sensibilities of technology and community, and at worst make him come off as more cantankerous than normal. However, this collection has its share of bright spots, notably his attempts to call more attention to environmental issues.
The opening essay is carefully placed, and upon getting into it, the reader finds the unexpected soul of Franzen's arguments. The essay, a reprint of a 2011 commencement speech, starts off as a rant against technological advances and how dangerously close people come to "loving" their devices and social media outlets. However, the meaning of the speech is important, a plea to engage the world for what it contains, rather than engaging it via filtered "likes," gadgetry, and consumerism.
"Let me suggest, finally, that the world of technoconsumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn (Franzen 6)."
"But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist--a person who can't tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable (Franzen 7)."
These ideas are manifested in a more concrete manner in his widely circulated piece "I Just Called To Say I Love You." In this, he acknowledges his critics (a few self-references to himself as 'Grampaw'), and explores our cell-phone transfixed culture through the constant, powerful phrase "I love you," constantly yelled into phones in public spaces when the three words are meant to be private, sometimes little-used declarations. Again, he starts off with a tone that balances on deplorable pessimism, but then works itself into a touching look at his family connections and our post-9/11 world. To borrow a phrase of his from the 1990s, what looks like hate is actually tough love.
"The cell phone came of age on September 11, 2001. Imprinted that day on our collective consciousness was the image of cell phones as conduits of intimacy for the desperate. In every too-loud I-love-you that I hear nowadays, as in the more general national orgy of connectedness--the imperative for parents and children to connect by phone once or twice or five or ten times daily--it's difficult not to hear an echo of those terrible, entirely appropriate I-love-yous uttered on the four doomed planes and in the two doomed towers. And it's precisely this echo, the fact that it's an echo, the sentimentality of it, that so irritates me (Franzen 150)."
My favorite pieces in Farther Away are the essays documenting Franzen's travels abroad, sometimes for adventure and bird-watching, but more often for journalistic reportage of how the world, through its human oversight and carelessness, is creating dangerous conditions for birds and wildlife. His trip to Cyprus, documented in "The Ugly Mediterranean," is a firsthand look at rebellious conservationists who often find themselves the target of poachers and lax government regulations on bird poaching. But it also turns into a fascinating cultural report, showing how poaching is tied to generations of men in the country who view it as a birthright and a token of masculinity. The writing is carefully precise, and with the exception of the emphasis on birds, Franzen himself tends to disappear, and he becomes an impassioned journalist.
"The Republic of Malta, which consists of several densely populated chunks of limestone with collectively less than twice the area of the District of Columbia, is the most savagely bird-hostile place in Europe. There are twelve thousand registered hunters (about three percent of the country's population), a large number of whom consider it their birthright to shoot any bird unlucky enough to migrate over Malta, regardless of the season or the bird's protection status. The Maltese shoot bee-eaters, hoopoes, golden orioles, shearwaters, storks, and herons. They stand outside the fences of the international airport and shoot swallows for target practice. They shoot from urban rooftops and from the side of busy roads. They stand in closely spaced cliffside bunkers and mow down flocks of migrating hawks. They shoot endangered raptors, such as lesser spotted eagles and pallid harriers, that governments farther north in Europe are spending millions of euros to conserve. Rarities are stuffed and added to trophy collections; nonrarities are left on the ground or buried under rocks, as not to incriminate their shooters (Franzen 86-87)."
Like any work of non-fiction, some of the essays are enjoyable than others, and Franzen does stumble on occasion. "Interview With New York State" presents a rambling history of the state as told through a series of "interviews" with Franzen and the state's PR handlers. The idea is quite funny, but after awhile, it becomes tedious, even though there are the occasional nuggets of historical facts. I find Franzen to be at his most humorous when he deploys the occasional use of folly and hilarity, instead of attempting to sustain it for an entire piece. I enjoyed the book reviews scattered throughout, but I haven't read any of the books he mentions, so I'm withholding creative opinions, but based on his past reviews of works I'm familiar with, his literary criticism is almost always on the mark. At the very least, his references gave me some new titles to add to my list.
There are two pieces about the late David Foster Wallace, and it's impossible to explore them without making mention of some of Franzen's biggest critics. Some people feel he's getting a lot of mileage out of his friendship with Wallace, or that he has claimed Wallace's suicide was done out for legacy's sake. The writings presented here are beautifully touching, and from what I got from them, it's the case of a writer being completely open and honest about a troubled friend, taking every conceivable angle, but never downplaying the depression that led to Wallace's final act. There's love and anger mixed together, the only natural reactions to such a loss. Franzen never sugarcoats his emotions, and to some, that might be viewed as needlessly harsh.
"He was sick, yes, and in a sense the story of my friendship with him is simply that I loved a person who was mentally ill. The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took him away from us and made the person into a very public legend. People who had never read his fiction, or had never even heard of him, read his Kenyon College commencement address in The Wall Street Journal and mourned the loss of a great and gentle soul. A literary establishment that had never so much as short-listed one of his books for a national prize now united to declare him a lost national treasure. Of course, he was a national treasure, and, being a writer, he didn't 'belong' to his readers any less than to me (Franzen 38)."
Being such a public literary figure, Franzen will always have his share of detractors, especially when he talks or writes in the opinionated ways we all tend to do. However, none of his own pet peeves originate from spite or general crankiness--he attempts to share his view of the world with highlights of the solutions and reasons for his demeanor. My mention of sometimes agreeing with his critics is in no way an attempt to soften or apologize for my admiration of him, which goes back almost ten years, when I devoured his literary essays in How To Be Alone. Like any artist, he's not perfect, both creatively or personally, but the complexities make him that much more accessible to me. Farther Away is full of thought-provoking material and excellent nonfiction narratives, and he never asks the reader to share his passions or agree with him all the time, but rather to allow him his opinions and then judge for themselves. My own championing of his literary criticism and overall writings likely won't sway anyone who disagrees with him, but I'm hoping to keep this in mind the next time I encounter a writer or artist who rubs me the wrong way, and continue to separate the writings from the public opinions. Love Franzen or hate him, but it's almost impossible to not be at least partially drawn by his subjects and goals.
Franzen, Jonathan. Farther Away: Essays. Copyright 2012 by Jonathan Franzen.
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Over dinner a few weeks ago, I was recapping the plot and style of Jeannette Walls's Half Broke Horses for my best friend. I explained the "Author's Note" at the end, in which Walls explains how the combination of oral family histories and the occasional loss of precise details led her to present the book as a novel instead of a straightforward history of her grandmother's life. My friend, half-jokingly, asked if that was thanks to James Frey, and I couldn't help but wonder if he was onto something. Granted, Walls is writing about deceased individuals, and there is really nothing scandalous about the adventures and exploits presented, but has this work (along with its subtitle "A True Life Novel") been embellished to the point of a written necessity? I'm not saying this is a bad thing--at no point, especially with recaps of word-for-word dialogue, will the reader assume that everything in the book is a cold, hard fact. And I'm not accusing Walls of any literary wrongdoing: it's a novel, and she is entitled to her artistic license. However, the book's themes and plotting lent themselves to the occasional misstep, and I couldn't help but wonder if Walls was doing too much or imagined too little.
"This book was originally meant to be about my mother's childhood growing up on a cattle ranch in Arizona. But as I talked to Mom about those years, she kept insisting that her mother was the one who had led the truly interesting life and that the book should be about Lily."
Lily Casey Smith, Walls's grandmother, is the narrator of her own life story, from her rural childhood to her adulthood, with the emphasis placed on her self-reliance, insistence on personal toughness, and a desire to do the right thing even in the face of adversity or the narrow-mindedness of the times. Lily's mother is a God-fearing, pious woman, and her father, beset by a faulty leg and a speech impediment, an armchair philosopher and a constant executor of his first amendment rights, with a life devoted to lawsuits, letters to newspaper editors, and a fascination with phonetics. Lily's own worldview is established early, and sets a foundation for the rest of her life.
"The way Mom saw it, women should let menfolk do the work because it made them feel more manly. That notion made sense only if you had a strong man willing to step up and get things done, and between Dad's gimp, Buster's elaborate excuses, and Apache's tendency to disappear, it was often up to me to keep the place from falling apart. But even when everyone was pitching in, we never got out from under all the work. I loved that ranch, though sometimes it did seem that instead of us owning the place, the place owned us (Walls 19)."
Lily engages in activities that occasionally defy early twentieth century notions of womanhood. She learns how to break horses. She eventually becomes a schoolteacher, but travels to her various outposts alone. She questions the existence of God and urges her students to think for themselves and envision the whole world beyond their small town. She learns to drive a car and takes airplane lessons. She marries her second husband (her first not being who he seems) and ends up raising her family in Arizona. This is a generally chronological plot summary, but within each of these activities, what is Walls trying to convey? I had a conversation with a co-worker of mine (I read this book for a book club meeting that I was unable to attend) who made a valid hypothesis: it's conceivable that Walls was trying to provide fictional examples of the feminist movement through the story of her grandmother. While this is an incredibly noble idea, the fictionalization makes it a stretch at times. My co-worker cited this example: While working in Chicago, one of Lily's roommates is killed when her long hair pulls her into a piece of machinery at a bottling plant. Lily cuts her own hair and offers this assessment:
"I didn't expect to like my new short hair, but I did. It took almost no time to wash and dry, and I didn't have to fuss with curling irons, hairpins, and bows. I went around the boardinghouse with the scissors, trying to talk the other girls into cutting their hair, pointing out that even if they didn't work in a factory, the world today was filled with all manner of machinery--with wheels and cogs and turbines--that their hair could get caught up in. Long curls were a thing of the past. For us modern women, short-cropped hair was the way to go (Walls 74)."
As my co-worker pointed out, the early twentieth century feminist movement, like any social move, didn't happen overnight. Again, this is a novel, but this theme (among others) is blatant to the point of being slightly insulting to the reader. These themes are fantastic, but I found myself, throughout the course of the reading, internalizing the history and wanting to do some non-fiction research on the fictionalized ideas.
Walls shows narrative acumen in other areas, though. The place descriptions are some of the more evocative, vivid scenes I've encountered in recent readings. Her attention to detail, creates American small towns and cities that would be right at home in the fictional worlds of John Dos Passos: they feel like a careful combination of the realistic and the cinematic. Despite my critique of the overall motivation of Half Broke Horses, I found myself caught up in the various places where Lily ends up.
"When the train pulled into Chicago, I took down my little suitcase and walked through the station into the street. I'd been in crowds before--county fairs, livestock auctions--but I'd never seen such a mass of people, all moving together like a herd, jostling and elbowing, nor had my ears been assaulted by such a ferocious din, with cars honking, trolleys clanging, and hydraulic jackhammers blasting away.
I walked around, gawking at the skyscrapers going up everywhere, then I made my way over to the lake--deep blue, flat, and as endless as the range, only it was water, fresh and flowing and cold even in the summer. Coming from a place where people measured water by the pailful, where they fought and sometimes killed each other over water, it was hard to imagine, even though I was looking at it, that billions of gallons of fresh water--I figured it had to be billions or even trillions--could be sitting there undrunk, unused, and uncontested (Walls 69)."
As Lily grows older and her children become the age she was when the novel opened, her actions become even more far-fetched. She maintains her independent spirit, but Walls's attempts at comedic, outrageous scenarios feel forced and implausible, especially in a novelized context. Fiction allows for things that don't normally happen in everyday life, but in Half Broke Horses, they're presented so casually that the folly becomes slightly ludicrous. For example, after the death of her father, Lily wants to bury him on his ranch, and ends up transporting the body herself.
"In no time we were out of Tuscon and flying through the desert, heading east into the morning sun. I was driving faster than I'd ever driven before--cars going the other way flashed past--since I wanted to make sure we got back to the ranch before the body started to turn. I figured if I did get pulled over by any police, they'd cut me some slack once they eyed the cargo.
I had to stop a couple of times to ask for gas. Seeing as how the drivers might notice the body when they came out to siphon me their gas, I varied the pitch. 'Gentlemen,' I said, 'I got my dad's dead body in the back of my car, and I'm trying to get him home to be buried as quick as possible in this heat (Walls 198).'"
This situation, while potentially a true story, is just written in far too different a tone than the rest of the work, and that's likely what gave me the biggest pauses during my reading. Walls is a natural storyteller, but the oddity at times, especially late in the novel, feels like part of a different work. I never doubt Lily's history and personality as a strong woman, but Walls seems too intent on stretching the fictionalized elements. Her afterword stresses her research into her grandmother's life and the happenings in the various places mentioned, and I'm sure that she made sure to present a chronologically accurate portrayal. However, I feel the work would have benefited from one of two different directions. The first one, however, goes against the whole point of Half Broke Horses: it would have succeeded for me as a strict novel without any mention of her grandmother, since I would have gone into the work expecting a fictionalized story of an early American woman. Then, I might have been more inclined to accept the sometimes exaggerated happenings. The second direction is perhaps more plausible. Given Walls's background in journalism, I would have been eager to read a history of the eras and places mentioned, with sketches of her grandmother's life explored as context. Even if Walls didn't have all of the information or knowledge of what really happened, the work could have been a fascinating American history sketch alongside a personal family portrait. But again, these are just my own ideas, and they intentionally go against what Walls had in mind.
I didn't completely dislike the book, but I had trouble with the presentation. Perhaps I would have been better off starting with her debut book The Glass Castle, the preceding memoir that garnered a lot of attention before Half Broke Horses. Walls has admirable writing talent, but the combination of fiction and a desire for a biographical sketch seemed to be at odds throughout the work. If she ever publishes an original novel, I'll gladly read it and hopefully enjoy the story on its own merit without being caught up in the wonder of how it potentially balances with real events.
Walls, Jeannette. Half Broke Horses: A True Life Novel. Copyright 2009 by Jeannette Walls.
Thursday, June 21, 2012
Unless it was promoted in journals or on websites that I haven't visited, Tupelo Hassman's debut novel Girlchild seems to have gained its recognition by classic means, specifically word-of-mouth recommendations and a strong number of reviews on independent blogs and review sites. Hassman has published her fiction widely, yet Girlchild has been her major source of recognition as of late, and for good reason. It hasn't topped any bestseller lists, but its appreciation in the literary community has been strong and consistent. I tend to have problems with works of art that can fall into the "coming of age" category, but this work quickly manages to be so much more than something to which an easy label can be affixed. I'll get to its various components soon, but the novel, first and foremost, is above all a testament to great storytelling. With this in place, and with Hassman never wavering from her story, the work manages to go off in a few directions without distraction or emphasis taken away from its narrator. Girlchild had been on my list since its publication, and I was fortunate enough to receive a copy from the people behind the excellent short fiction site FiveChapters.com.
The novel is narrated by its protagonist, a precocious, keen young girl named Rory Dawn Hendrix. She lives with her troubled but loving mother in a Nevada trailer park called the Calle (originally Calle De Las Flores in better times, before the remaining letters were punched or weathered off). The various citizens in their midst are a community of sorts, but painfully isolated; acts of goodwill are few and far between, and done with an understanding of necessary payback. And some of the residents are severely troubled. Rory is an excellent student, wise beyond her years, and while not officially a Girl Scout, she has checked out the Girl Scout Handbook multiple times and attempts to exemplify its code (and her own honor) despite crippling setbacks. Hassman's expression of Rory's point of view is carefully crafted, balancing her innocence, her loss of innocence, and her unique way of expressing various ideas. The book is full of single, nearly perfect sentences that gave me pause in the best of ways. An early example is Rory's explanation of her family situation and how she and her mother came to settle in the Calle.
"Mama says my brothers were the only reason she'd not followed Grandma to the Calle years before, so when the boys left home to free fish from the ocean with their delinquent dad, we left Santa Cruz and the man who was my father in the rearview. Mama had come to Reno the first time years before that, when she was getting divorced from my brothers' daddy. She'd had to stay here for six weeks to make it legal, and even in that short time was able to find a job, so she knew she could find work here again, running keno or making change, and Grandma Shirley agreed (Hassman 7)."
The town is described with a wealth of details, but the most important aspect is its citizens and their actions. There's an uneasy similarity and unspoken tradition as to how the people act and interact. The occasional lawlessness is necessary for survival, and the instincts and rituals are written as a sociological case study, as if they couldn't be understood by outsiders despite its universal tone of hard times and general malaise.
"Most other rituals concern the Calle bartenders and involve recovering lost souls who come to the Truck Stop or other local drinking establishments to be revived after their shifts downtown have ended. Bartenders serve the workers as well as listen to the much-repeated stories of those who no longer work, whose dimmed eyes suggest their souls are no longer recoverable, their mouths collecting stubborn white spit in the corners despite how much alcohol is poured into them. Alcohol is often considered the root cause of both the loss and the revival of Calle souls, but in some cases, usually those of young men whose eyes are still relatively bright and whose mouths don't need wiping, it is understood that the bartender, if female and 'a fox,' may be the one causing the mood swings and not the spirits (Hassman 14)."
The chapters are a mix of long, narrative passages, recounts of social worker visits, a Supreme Court case, and very small chapters that foreshadow and/or explain a given character's makeup. These small chapters are crafted so well that they could potentially stand on their own as pieces of flash fiction.
"The estimated burn time for the average mobile home, top to bottom, aerial antennae to cinder block, drywall to stucco, is sixty seconds, and I do mean flat, aluminum to ash in the space of a 'Brought to you by' or 'Tonight at eleven.' And those sixty seconds are up even faster in homes whose only source of heating are propane tanks and woodstoves, the easiest sources of heat, because nobody needs your social for a gallon of propane and nobody checks your credit for a truckload of wood. Propane and kindling mean it's a safe bet that nobody from the County is going to come down and see how your cables hook up. Nobody checks to see if you're living right if you don't try to do it official (Hassman 27)."
Rory's first major problem is the sexual abuse she receives at the hands of her babysitter's father, a character ominously known only as the Hardware Man. Hassman writes these scenes with a child's point of view, therefore making the actions feel even more hideous than they already are. Such a monumental crime and loss of innocence could be the main plot point of a novel, but the fact that it's explained and "resolved" (as much as it can be for Rory's sake) before the book's halfway point is stunning. A socially negative way to explain this would be to say that a pedophile is just one of many problems facing Rory and her mother. But despite its devastating consequences, Rory, despite the threats, is able to expose the Hardware Man and begin the act of healing. Before this happens, the reader is presented tense, uncomfortable passages from an agonizing angle.
"...I pretend not to hear the adult talk that passes across the counter between the men of the town about certain women of the town as they pay the Hardware Man for their wood screws and drill bits. I also pretend like I never have to go potty. Because I don't need help, but the Hardware Man will want to help me anyway. And when he helps me, the lights go out (Hassman 40)."
Joanne, Rory's mother, is a fascinating character in her own right. Though told through Rory's eyes (and the occasional case file), we get her complete picture with nothing left out. She's tough, no-nonsense, and absolutely devoted to her daughter, whom she knows is the smartest member of the family, even at such a young age. Joanne has made her share of mistakes, attracts the occasional unsavory man, and is haunted by her youth. However, she's a strong woman, and her survival instinct and years of hard living help her guide Rory through childhood to her teenage years. Her devotion to her daughter is touching and beautiful, and presented without any needless sentimentality. In one scene, Rory's best friend moves away, and her mother comforts her.
"On the way home, Mama asks me if I want to talk about anything, like she's been asking me every night, and I don't think I do but then I decide to tell her.
'Viv moved away.'
And Mama does something she's never done before. She reaches over and takes my hand and she holds it all the way to our driveway. Her hand is bigger than I think and stronger than it looks but her voice is gentle when she says, 'It's hard to let go of a friend, R.D., even when it's for the best. I bet you'll see her again (Hassman 113).'"
Girlchild is written with a full spectrum of emotions. I've predominantly cited some of the more intense ones, but Tupelo Hassman has a gift for comedic dialogue and scenes. These are sometimes explicitly funny, but more often than not weighed with underlying ideas and metaphors. In one terrific passage, Viv assesses Rory's mobile home:
"She swings her arms and legs fast, pushing like me but harder. 'Your house could go places!'
'Nope,' I say, finishing my wings and getting up, careful not to mess my angel's skirt. I help Viv up, and we brush twigs off each other and check our work, two angels flattening the sage. 'It just looks that way (Hassman 74).'"
This is a novel, but it works as a collage of sorts. Again, Hassman crafts a mix of longer chapters and brief ones, as well as sociological word problems, explanations of the Girl Scout Handbook, and further histories of Rory's mother and grandmother. Without spoiling the ending, Rory grows into a teenager and has to overcome another monumental setback, and the work ends with the right amount of closure and vagueness as to where Rory will end up. It's difficult to pick Girlchild's strongest trait, but what I kept coming back to was its honesty and realism. Literary depictions of trailer park residents and down on their luck citizens are sometimes rendered with underlying stereotypes, but Hassman creates very real people, and this is all the more magnified by the fact that it's her debut novel. Her knack for dialogue and expressions are beautiful, and as I mentioned before, there are so many single sentences hidden within longer paragraphs that work as their own pieces of art. Rory and Joanne are two of the most memorable female characters in contemporary literature, and their determination gives the work the feel of an older classic. Since Hassman is so grounded in honesty and craft, it's not hard to imagine her creating future works in different settings (an urban drama, a story set in a different country) that feel just as vibrant. For a story that could have easily fallen prey to the missteps of a young writer, I'm still amazed at how advanced Hassman's prose is, and how she manages to explore a variety of styles and formats without detracting from what is a generally standard plot. Girlchild is one of the highlights of 2012, and while there's no way to say this without resorting to cliche, it marks the debut and growing awareness of a very talented artist.
Hassman, Tupelo. Girlchild. Copyright 2012 by Tupelo Hassman.
Monday, June 11, 2012
Two of my previous posts hinted, either directly or indirectly, to creative writing styles that upend expectations. Edouard Levé's Autoportrait was crafted in a fashion that subverted the norms of fiction and autobiography, and the stories in Lindsay Hunter's Daddy's took often explored themes and exposed them in brutally honest and intentionally uncomfortable ways. These forays into refreshingly new styles were invigorating for me, yet I analyzed them in what I hope was a grounded, critical manner. While I write reviews to aid my belief that independent literature deserves a wider audience, I realize that some styles or forms won't appeal to all types of readers (I touched upon that more in the end of my Lindsay Hunter piece). The above thoughts were even more mixed and highlighted by my recent reading of The Age Of Wire and String, a story collection/novel by Ben Marcus. My literary essays are less marked by superlatives as opposed to when I was younger, but this work is probably one of the most original pieces of writing I've ever read. Generally, throwing around terms like "original," "unique," or "inventive" are limited to blurbs, and given that I've referenced two other authors in this opening, I'm not trying to say that The Age Of Wire and String is better than the others. Its uniqueness is its own, and in a strange paradox, its form and execution make it a challenging work to tackle, but show the many new ways that language can be explored in fictional settings.
It's important to immediately dispense with labels and take it as a long piece of writing, even though it can be read as a story collection or as a novel. I read the first forty pages twice, getting to that mark and having to start over from the beginning, not out of chronological confusion, but out of an attempt to figure out what The Age Of Wire and String was trying to do. This admission might give potential readers pause, but my second beginning showed me that I needed to immerse myself in the experience, rather than look for any tangible connections (those connections are there, and I'm sure they will be more apparent on a second or third reading). The chapters explore people, places, and events in sometimes cryptic, sometimes journalistic tones, suggesting a myriad of possibilities: it could be an avant-garde work, a revisionist history of a given era, or even a post-apocalyptic world. Commonplace items are given new names, and there are occasional pages of definitions that paradoxically help and cloud the understanding at the same time. Given these hypotheses and understandings, it's amazing how fluidly the book reads, even if one has to set aside concrete understandings. In Marcus's style, the work quickly makes sense in an abstract way. The introductory chapter, entitled "Argument," offers helpful hints, but is by no means meant to be an explicit explanation.
"This book is a catalog of the life project as prosecuted in the Age Of Wire and String and beyond, into the arrangement of states, sites, and cities, and, further, within the small houses that have been granted erection or temporary placement on the perimeters of districts and river colonies. The settlement, in clusters and dispersed, has long required a document of secret motion and instruction--a collection of studies that might serve to clarify the terms obscured within every facet of the living program (Marcus 3)."
The best examples, however, can be culled from any chapter of the book. In the section entitled "Food," there's a chapter called "The Food Costumes Of Montana," which details exactly the title, and struck me as one of the more compelling chapters in an odd way.
"In the morning in Montana the leg was bound from the ankle to the knee with bacon or hair and then cross-gartered with thongs or strips of uncut rice; later a slack taffy, bound at the ankle, was worn. As the lower legs of the taffy became more fitted, they were called slews, and as the slews eroded or spoiled to the knee, fitted milk skins called loops were worn. By 11:30 a.m., feet were added to the loops. As slews grew shorter, loops became longer; by c. 12:20 p.m., the loops reached the hips and were attached by butter webs to the stomach. By c. 1:00, the loops and slews formed one garment; thus shads were first known. Beans and nuts were used, as was kale, and color became extravagant. The shads were multicolored and often each leg was clothed in a contrasting food style. As the upper part of the loops became more decorated and puffed out, a separation occurred (c. 2:30); the upper part became known as pike rings because of the swimming motion the food made as it circled the thigh, and the leg coverings were for the first time called bones and recognized as a separate accessory of dress (Marcus 31)."
The "Terms" sections highlight words that appear in subsequent chapters, and while cross-referencing them might help, I found it just as beneficial to read and digest the terms on their own, since they are defining the undefinable, and even with the terms memorized, they're not meant to summarize or shed specific light on the events and actions. Once the reader is comfortable with the book's pacing, the terms make sense in the overall arc.
"OHIO The house, be it built or crushed. It is a wooden composition affixed with stones and glass, locks, cavities, the person. There will be food in it, rugs will warm the floor. There will never be a clear idea of Ohio, although its wood will be stripped and shined, its glass polished with light, its holes properly cleared, in order that the member inside might view what is without--the empty field, the road, the person moving forward or standing still, wishing the Ohio was near.
LAND SCARF A garment that functions also as a landmark, shelter, or vehicle. To qualify, the item must recede beyond sight, be soft always, and not bind or tear the skin down (Marcus 61)."
The people who make appearances in The Age Of Wire and String seem to be presented just like the landscapes and objects, but their humanity adds a layer of mystique. Their actions and thoughts are strange and seem to be intentionally hiding a bigger picture, and compared with the usual definitions and times, the above hypotheses become even more magnified. Are these people in the past, present, or future? Would a concrete time period make more sense, or would it take away from the objective tone? I've read samples of The Flame Alphabet, his latest novel, which is a a definite dystopian work, but with my above mention of The Age Of Wire and String potentially being an implied post-apocalyptic work (that's just a possibility; I could be way off), some of the character passages could take on new meanings. At the very least, the ambiguity leads to a wealth of potential scenarios, including religious undertones.
"I pray to the bird and I know that the sky is the bird. How many times until I am hollow, the way, the bird is when it flies? Yes or no, Father said that the bird has to be hollow so it can eat itself and keep flipping inside out. He said that if I looked at it right, I could see it flip over and over and hear the wings beating to keep it from falling. That's what the noise in wind is, and if wind didn't make noise, it would mean the bird was falling all over us, so that we would be getting pecked at and pecked at. How many other hills are there? I want to ask. How many other birds are up stuck up there guarding how many other hills? Or does our bird know about us? I am making a plan so that I will become known to it (Marcus 112-113)."
Again, depending on how the book is read, my opinions could be accurate or completely off the mark. This was Marcus's first published book, and it's hard to imagine a writer coming out with such a painstakingly original debut, especially one that so intensely defies classifications of form, genre, or tangible outcomes. The Age of Wire and String has echos of David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and Anthony Burgess, but not in a way that calls these writers to mind immediately. Instead of inventing a new world, Marcus lets the language take over, therefore creating what could be a new world, an old one, or a fantastical version of a present one. It's a challenge for any reader, no matter how versed he or she is in experimental forms, but the work is captivating and creates vivid scenarios in even the most obscure details. Like any important work, it demands multiple readings, but even after I reread the opening chapters and the occasional passage during my time with it, I'm sure most of the book will seem new whenever I return to it. It's an intelligent, satisfying experience that may cause some stumbles, but through no fault of Marcus. The scenarios are carefully constructed, and it's best to set aside preconceived notions of what a novel (or story collection) normally does. This is postmodernism at its best, and while I try to avoid superlatives, it's almost impossible to explore the work without them. I'm very much looking forward to covering more of Marcus's bibliography, especially since he set the bar so high in his first outing.
Marcus, Ben. The Age Of Wire and String. Copyright 1995 by Ben Marcus.
Friday, June 8, 2012
(NOTE: Some of the citations are NSFW)
Like anyone else, the problems that plagued my early attempts at fiction writing were a lack of experience, a minimal understanding of craft, and the delusion of accomplishment. I'd imagine a scenario, write it out over the course of a few days, and consider it done. I'm not implying that my current work is anywhere near where I need it to be, but after years of questionable output, I at least have a better realization of how my work evolves and how it needs to be fixed. Why am I introducing someone else's work with my personal assessments? It's because, upon reflection, the stories written by Lindsay Hunter are full of themes and scenarios often mangled and overdone by beginning, inexperienced writers. Hunter is a great example of why craft is such a hard skill to master: her works tend to focus on complicated sexuality, strained families and friendships, and unsettling transgressions. I'm sure her early years of writing were full of the missteps every writer goes through, but it's rare to find a storyteller with her skill and confidence in tackling unsavory details in such a vibrant manner.
I recently finished Daddy's, her 2010 short story collection. My initial readings of her work were limited to a couple of other stories, but I was intrigued and affected enough to want to read more, and all but one of the pieces in Daddy's were new to me. The pieces are generally linked by extreme circumstances and the meticulous personalities of her characters, and the situations and dialogues blend and stand out between varying levels of dark humor and stark discomfort. This rarely happens in my readings, but the opening paragraph of the opening story is an excellent microcosm of the emotions that will be encountered throughout. "My Brother" opens:
"My brother tells me monsters set up shop in his closet among his Reeboks and hidden Playboys. Yeah, he says, leaning back and stroking his chin, yeah, you can't see it but something's coming for me. Big whoop, I tell him. We drag his record player out and aim the needle at the middle of 'Rocket Man.' He makes something up. He says, I got two sisters and they're both girls. He says, I'm bored to death with all these nightmares. He says, I'm pretty sure Dad's a pussy (Hunter 16)."
That example is more on the humorous side, but the underlying emotions and potentially unspoken thoughts are heavy. The stories seem to grow more intense as they come, but there is never a feeling that Hunter explores the various scenarios for shock value. Another early example is "The Fence," an excellent story about a woman's sexual experimentation with an electric dog collar and and invisible fence. The details are explicit, but not done for any titillating thrills. In the midst of the actions, the emphasis is on the protagonist's emotional makeup, and much like my cited sample from "My Brother," this is aided, not hampered, by the carefully placed details.
"When Tim left for work, his hair still wet from our shower, his fingers playing with my zipper, I turned Animal Planet on for Marky, removed his collar, and went to the fence. It runs the entire length and width of our property, but I have my favorite corner, right where the gravel driveway stops and the grass starts, where I can see the road and if I stretch I can touch our mailbox. The fence is invisible, but it's there. I wind the vinyl part of Marky's collar around my hand, holding the plastic receiver in my palm, and then I press the cold metal stimulator against my underwear, step forward, and the jolt is delivered. Like a million ants biting. Like teeth. Like the G-spot exists. Like a tiny knife, a precise pinch. Like fireworks. I can't help it-I cry out; my underwear is flooded with perfect warmth. I like back in the grass and see stars (Hunter 33)."
In Hunter's literary worlds, limits are meant to be tested, literally and thematically. In "Unpreparing," a woman and her boyfriend push each other to dangerous extremes, getting high off the rush of potential damage. There's a psychological edge to it as well as sexual. The reader, however, is the one who ultimately has to decide whether these actions are done for genuine thrill-seeking or are marks of serious psychological damage. With an objective reading, there's the potential for both hypotheses.
"That evening he picks me up from work. The radio is on so loud that the seat underneath me is throbbing. Over it he yells, The unexpected is everywhere. Danger is our only real home. I just want you to be prepared. Then he accelerates, offroads it, drives us into a tree. I feel my ankle and wrist snap, almost at the exact same time. My neck starts to stiffen. When I look at my boyfriend he's grinning at me, blood pouring from his mouth. My face hit the steering wheel, he says. I think I broke my nose. A sprain at the very least. I've never seen him so happy, so alive (Hunter 48)."
The stories are a careful balance of the realistic and the slightly fantastical. But in every case, Hunter is exposing complicated personalities and thoughts. Even something as simple as the aftermath of a one-night stand has several layers that need to be peeled back.
"There's coffee, you say to the man in a louder voice. You want to get the ball rolling. You imagine yourself enjoying a quiet morning once the man has left, staying in your T-shirt until the late afternoon, and then who knows. Maybe dinner in front of the TV. Maybe a stop by the bar. It all seems like years in the future. You are pleased at the thought. The man starts playing with himself. The man is left-handed and this fact seems to render the man special somehow. You think the words Handicapped, Disabled, Special. No one in your family is left-handed. You realize that maybe you've only ever encountered left-handed people on the TV. Don't drink coffee, the man says. I drink something else, and there's that hole in the gums again, he has apparently said something suggestive to you but you're having trouble picturing exactly what he means (Hunter 88)."
Family relationships in Daddy's are just as complicated. One of my favorite stories in the book is "Tuesday," a piece exploring the interactions between two different sisters. One of them has been thrown out of the house and coaxes her way back in. The conversation reveals the differences between the two girls, but even the supposedly "good" sibling is just as sympathetic and complicated as the troubled one.
"Hey, she said, and when I turned she was holding our mom's economy-sized bottle of Tylenol. She was chewing. White powder clung to her lips and shirt. Hey, remember when I pierced your ear and we used ice to numb it? She tipped her head back, poured more pills in. You bled like a motherfucker. She coughed and a pill flew out of her mouth and hit my shoulder. She picked it up and wiped it on my shirt. Popping it back in her mouth, she said, Come outside and sit with me.
We sat on the porch and stared at the yard. Her lips were chalked in Tylenol. Light this, she said, handing me a cigarette. Don't inhale or you'll turn evil. She blew smoke rings. Look, she said, halos. She said, you're really annoying, you know that? Good grades and virginity don't count for shit.
Her words were slurring. She held the cigarette up and missed her mouth.
I'm sending up a flare, she said. She pointed at the sky. You see that? I'm sending up a flare. Here I am. Here I am. Here I am (Hunter 146)."
This may seem like a drastic shift, but it's also rare that a book's packaging and design seem as integral as the contents. Daddy's is designed like a tackle box, and is set to be read sideways rather than upright like a standard book. On a more obvious level, it gives the work the feel of a chapbook or a notebook, but upon further reflection, the tackle box motif seems to be a wonderfully subversive layout. I'm at a loss for any obvious metaphors, but it's possible that it was done to be more eye-catching than normal, even if it doesn't immediately conjure any of the stories. It's worthwhile to acknowledge the folks behind Bleached Whale Design. They've done multiple book designs, and at the very least, they highlight the collaborative nature of book publishing, especially from an independent standpoint. From the author to the publisher to the designer, Daddy's is a work by people who (as I mentioned with my piece on Matt Bell) worthy of wider attention.
Are Hunter's stories for everyone? It depends on what one expects from their fiction, and these works will definitely turn off anyone who expects safety in their narratives. However, Hunter is a major short story talent, and Daddy's is a refreshing change of pace from some writers who want to shock and upset readers just for the sake of a thrill. First and foremost, Hunter is an extremely talented writer, story-wise and craft-wise. Again, none of the stories are uneasy for the sake of being so. Many writers claim to be exploring human conditions, but Hunter does this in unexpected ways. She respects her characters despite their unsavory tendencies, and creates portraits that are above all honest. The reader might not "enjoy" what goes on, but that's not the point. Psychology and sociology works in strange ways, and we should be grateful that Hunter isn't afraid to hold back. Many writers attempt what she does; very few manage to do so in such original, real ways. Anyone who claims there is nothing new to read simply needs to investigate these types of stories and collections. As I will likely keep mentioning, independent literary publishing needs more exposure. This is just one example, and the stories are hard to shake, for better and for worse, and I mean that very positively.
Hunter, Lindsay. Daddy's. Copyright 2010 by Lindsay Hunter.