Monday, December 14, 2015

Interior Mystery & Meditation in The Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing

What might be the most striking introspection in any book I've recently read is the way Doris Lessing in The Memoirs of a Survivor makes her character withdraw so far inward that a rich, mysterious, and meditative space opens up and becomes as much a reality for the reader and the protagonist as the dystopic reality on the streets.

In Memoirs, society has completely broken down, the few with money have left, and the rest of the population lives like squirrels in what's left of a big city, holed away in empty rooms and fearful of marauders and gangs looking for loot or to create clans to survive.

What is so striking is that Lessing never blows this up into melodramatic proportions--no zombies or futuristic, crazy technological controls or controllers--but rather she shows people trying to live as normally as possible, adapting, taking heart in the tiny securities and privacy left to them, while brooding insanity creeps just beyond the conscious borders of prolonged fear.

Because of her subtle craft, we can already imagine how easily our delicate society could unwind.
I sat waiting quietly in my living-room, knowing that she was asleep, exactly as one does with a small child. I did a little mending for her, washed and ironed her clothes. But mostly I sat and looked at that wall and waited. I could not help thinking that to have a child with me, just as the wall was beginning to open itself up, would be a nuisance , and in fact she and her animal were very much in the way (23-4).
Meditation and turning inward is not always easy, especially when forced to do it within the worsening climate on the physical plane. Lessing plumbs the psyche of her protagonist and dredges up the violence, the trauma that tucks itself away in the darkened crannies of our consciousness that most of us leave unexplored from birth to death.
It was about then I understood that the events on the pavements and what went on between me and Emily might have a connection with what I saw on my visits behind the wall.
Moving through the tall quiet white walls, as impermanent as theatre sets, knowing that the real inhabitant was there, always there just behind the next wall, to be glimpsed on the opening of the next door or the one beyond that, I came on a room--long, deep-ceilinged, once a beautiful room--which I recognised, which I knew (from where, though?), and it was in such disorder. I felt sick and was afraid. The place looked as if savages had been in it; as if soldiers had bivouacked there. The chairs and sofas had been deliberately slashed and jabbed with bayonets or knives, stuffing was spewing out everywhere, brocade curtains had been ripped off the brass rods and left in heaps. The room might have been used as a butcher's shop: there were feathers, blood, bits of offal. I began cleaning it. I laboured, used many buckets of hot water, scrubbed, mended. I opened tall windows to an eighteenth-century garden where plants grew in patters of squares among low hedges (40).
Behind the wall the other world calls our protagonist, and she explores the rooms, tidies them, and searches for the owner of the place. This is the one area she can control as the outside, real world spirals into further chaos and danger.

Lessing seems to be asking us, Is this the kind of catastrophe it takes to seek answers and inward 
credit: Elke Wetzig (elya)
healing? In a way, James Gould Cozzens shows us another side of this equation with his flabby protagonist securing as much material wealth as possible in the peculiar, apocalyptic novel, Castaway.

But Lessing's is much more ambitious in terms of dystopian novels because it seriously examines the deteriorating relationships and imagines society in a way we normally don't. Memoirs has been called "A visionary's extraordinary history of the future." Cozzens, equally entertaining and through-provoking, strikes a simpler chord by enclosing his character in the sprawling, empty shopping complex, leaving untouched the trickier aspects of maintaining an apocalyptic narrative.

The rapidly deteriorating situation seen out of our character's ground floor apartment window becomes even more frightening. Gangs of children camp on the street, light fires, and males stare down each other to gain prominence over the pack of stick-wielding kids. We worry for the child, Emily, and her pet beast, Hugo, as Emily wishes to join the kids.

Gerald, the leader of a large pack of wild kids, sets up an amazing system of collecting discarded goods from the old world, when society had order and structure, and to reassemble, or disassemble for their parts all the material goods that are no longer useful without electricity. What was for vanity, for desire, for want, becomes only important if it's needed to survive.
We sat on through the night quietly by our fire, waiting, listening. 
There was nothing to prevent one or all of us becoming victims at any moment. 
Nothing. Not the fact that Gerald, by himself or with a selection of the children, or even some of the children by themselves, might come down to visit us in the most normal way in the world. They brought us gifts. They brought flour and dried milk and eggs; sheets of polythene, cellotape, nails, tools of all kinds. They gave us fur rugs, coal, seeds, candles. They brought...the city around was almost empty, and all one had to do was to walk into unguarded buildings and warehouses and take what one fancied. But most of what was there were things no one would ever use again or want to: things about which, in a few years' time, if some survivor found them, he would have to ask, "What on earth could this have been for?" 
As these children did already. You would see them squatting down over a pile of greeting cards, a pink nylon fluted lampshade, a polystyrene garden dwarf, a book, or a record, turning them over and over: What was this for? What did they do with it? (208).
How easy it is to float along into the internal rooms beyond the wall, yet as the reader who carries none of the risk or burden of the actual scenario outside in the crumbled city often craves to get back to the action, to the terror that awaits a small old woman living out her days quietly in an apartment that has no security--a door that can be broken in, a ground floor window that can be smashed, and no real protectors or truly trustworthy people.

Despite the kindness of Gerald's pack, there is no safety. Not even the illusion of safety.
But these visits, these gifts, did not mean that in another mood, on another occasion, they would not kill. And because of a whim, a fancy, an impulse (208).
That mysterious interior that Lessing opens up becomes a call for us, who still live in stable societies and have the luxury to do such inward exploring, to realize the impermanence of our superficial lifestyles and equip ourselves internally as much as materially.

As a narrative, what makes Memoirs stand out is the spiritual and psychological layers that give a companionable depth to what would be, without that, another dystopian novel. The internal element allows us space to breathe, to think, to fear while lending a subtlety to the story that is missing in so many others.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

In Descent of Man T.C. Boyle Shows Us What We've Ascended To

In T. Coraghessan Boyle's Descent of Man, the dominant theme of modern day folly lurks throughout every story. The collection seems to be asking, we've come all this way for...this? For what?

To fall below the IQ level of precocious apes? To destroy the only home that gives us life? To instill animosity between genders? To collect useless items in our homes, and waste precious money and time to get our hands on goods and artifacts that have nothing to do with enhancing our lives? To be considered champions of consumption, with the greatest champs being cheered on by everyone else? To sink mercilessly into sentimental entertainment again and again?

If all of that seems overwrought and overdone, it never feels preachy. Rather, it's quite the opposite. If you've read enough doom and gloom in the newspapers, and been made to feel like a guilty associate of our postindustrial society's environmental catastrophe, you'll be reinvigorated by Descent of Man's energy.

Boyle's language rises to meet the darkly humorous, satirical premises of his stories. If it didn't, the collection would fall flat in many places, and would risk dropping into the gutter of fiction serving as panic pieces.

Some, such as That Inscrutable Thing, have accused this collection of stories that "read more like writing exercises than stories--experimental pieces of fiction in which the young Boyle is only attempting to explore a particular concept, story idea, or literary form." I think that's fair, and I hadn't thought of it quite that way until I read it. There is a writing exercise feel to Desecent of Man. 

I'm more partial to Max Apple's take. He characterized Boyle's stories as, "A certain restlessness, a temporary energy takes over, a singing in the brain that is too intense to live with for the duration of a novel. That energy roams the lines of the story looking for a way out. James Joyce called that way out an epiphany, but in our time it is more like the quick release of passion than the stately illumination of the intellect."

Maybe the most surreal, yet most serious story in Descent is "Bloodfall". A group of young people who all live in the same house barely notice one evening when the rain they hear on the windowpanes turns out to be bright red.
In that brief silence between songs, I heard it--looked up at the window and saw the first red droplets huddled there, more falling between them. Gesh and Scott and Isabelle were watching TV with the sound off, digging the music, lighting the cigarettes, tapping fingers and feet, laughing. On the low table were cheese, oranges, wine, shiny paperbacks, a hash pipe. Incense smoked from a pendant urn (47).
At least the dogs like it when they're let outside. They lap it up and come back in covered with it. It's blood, and it smells like a butcher's shop outside.

The dread is passed off. Maybe it's a plague. Maybe it's pollution. You know, humans desperate to go back to the pleasant, comforting entertainment of their evenings without having to really give a second thought to the carnage going on outside their homes. Boyle displays that urge, that complacence in us.
Amy howled from the basement. "Hey you guys, guess what? The stuff is ankle-deep down here and it's ruining everything. Our croquet set, our camping equipment, our dollhouse!" The announcement depressed us all, even Gesh. "Let's blow a bowl of hash and forget about it," he suggested. 
"Anyhow," said Walt, "it'll be good for the trees." And he started a bass riff with a deep throbbing note--the hum of it hung in the air even after the lights went out and the rest of his run had attenuated to a thin metallic whisper (52).
As they lose the lights, the electricity, the warmth, the smell of blood is apparent. There's no question of keeping it out.

The reader can imagine the gore being attributed to any number of human atrocities--the blood of
credit: Martin Prechelmacher
those slaughtered in Vietnam, Iraq, and other helpless millions assaulted by the military might of the West. Or the blood of the masses being drained to support a cozy lifestyle for a small section of the planet. Or the lifeblood of the earth, from the chopped trees and slashed mountainsides mined for metals.

One day, it'll seep back to us, fall from the sky, rise up from the ground, and we won't be able to smoke it away, entertain it back into the ground, or sleep through it (which is ultimately what they try to do when the rain does not cease).

Most of the other stories are more playful in tone, even if they have dark underpinnings. One of Boyle's most pleasant techniques is how he bluntly begins, and anchors the story, in absurdity. From "A Women's Restaurant":
It is a women's restaurant. Men are not permitted. Women go there to be in the company of other women, to sit in the tasteful rooms beneath the ancient revolving fans and the cool green of spilling plants, to cross or uncross their legs as they like, to chat, sip liqueurs, eat. At the door, the first time they enter, they are asked to donate twenty-five cents and they are issued a lifetime membership card. Thus the women's restaurant has the legal appearance of a private club, and its proprietors, Grace and Rubie, avoid running afoul of the antidiscrimination laws. A women's restaurant. What goes on there, precisely, no man knows. I am a man. I am burning to find out (83-4).
Boyle sets up each story with care, almost like a circus carefully builds the foundations and tracks for its rides, so that once attached, the participant can be flung along on the wild, colorful ride with confidence that the whole absurd contraption will hang together and not defy its own laws of physics.

There is plenty of mockery in these stories, and the best example is "Heart of a Champion", a story featuring Lassie. A dog more handy than a human, more loyal than any dog on the planet, until she meets a scraggly coyote and lets down her guard over the boy she always protected.

Just as if we're watching a TV show, Boyle uses the omniscient plural to hover over the action, zoom in when necessary, and switch scenes instantly. We cut to Timmy: eyes closed, hair plastered, his left arm looking as though it should be wrapped in butcher's paper. How? we wonder. How will they ever get him out of this? (45). That perspective also gives the author clearance to mock the smoothly audience's reaction and heart levels while in the heat of the drama, as we'll see below.

Little Timmy can't seem to help falling into extremely dangerous situations on a daily basis. One day he falls into a river and is drowning while being swept along by a river rushing toward a gigantic waterfall. Will the dog be able to save him? This is where T.C. Boyle shines by asking us, Do you really enjoy the garbage you people call entertainment? How far can TV take this sentimentality and absurdity and pass it off as heartfelt entertainment?
Then she's in the air, the foaming yellow water. Her paws churning like pistons, whiskers chuffing with the exertion--oh the roar!--and there, she's got him, her sure jaws clamping down on the shirt collar, her eyes fixed on the slip of rock at the falls' edge. Our blood races, organs palpitate. The black brink of the falls, the white paws digging at the rock--and then they're safe. The collie sniffs at Tommy's inert little form, nudges his side until she manages to roll over him. Then clears his tongue and begins mouth-to-mouth (39).
Ultimately, the status of these stories depends on what the reader is searching for. Quirky, darkly humorous, jagged jaunts of the imagination dominate Descent of Man and you won't find even-keeled, slowly unfolding plots. These stories are bursts, like flares, that light up quickly and hit their peak. Not all of the stories succeed, but they are short enough and intriguing enough not to wear out their welcome.

Boyle's first collection is innovative enough to shake the reader or writer out of a rut and goad a frantic cleverness and humor out of a stale or tired mind.

T. Coraghessan Boyle. Descent of Man. Penguin. 1987. 219 pages.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Fair Thought About Consumption in Steppenwolf

Sometimes a writer nails an idea so well you just have to share it with somebody. In Saul Bellow's Herzog I highlighted just such a paragraph that seemed to encapsulate the entire thrumming pulse of that novel.

Such is the following example from Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf:
It is remarkable, all that men can swallow. For a good ten minutes I read a newspaper. I allowed the spirit of an irresponsible man who chews and munches another's words in his mouth, and gives them out again undigested, to enter into me through my eyes. I absorbed a whole column of it. And then I devoured a large piece cut from the liver of a slaughtered calf (34).
The varied shades of consumption reflect back until they spin around each other, each granting more meaning to the other.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Building Suspense for Your Character: Hermann Hesse Defines His Steppenwolf

One of the great challenges in literature is to produce genuine interest in a supposedly madman character without hamfisting his madness, or jamming it down the reader's throat about how nuts he is.

What makes him crazy? What tortures him? The writer quickly runs the risk of creating a whiny character who is not authentically mad, or genuinely wild in his thoughts and actions, enough to justify throwing him into wacky situations and having him commit even wackier atrocities or misdeeds.

Fine examples of truly mad characters? The title character in John Bennett's Bodo. Ahab in Moby Dick. Norman Mailer's portrayal of William King Harvey in Harlot's Ghost. Dean Jocelin in Golding's The Spire. And one very recent book I read where the character falls very short of his self-described lone wolf, "I'm so different" attitude, called Black Magic, by Hamdy el-Gazzar.

So, in Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, we must ask, Why is this "For Madmen Only" manuscript left
behind by Harry Haller worth reading about, anyway? Hesse builds us up by framing the manuscript.

In the preface we learn the nephew of a renter is publishing Haller's records because he's disappeared and left them behind, and the nephew believes maybe somebody could make some use of them or find interest in them. He admits that if he hadn't met the Steppenwolf himself, and greatly distrusted him at first, he wouldn't have found much interest in the pages.

A madman must have peculiarities that are at once not too overt, yet believable enough to fall within the parameters of so-called skillful writing. Or, in other words, the author isn't using the excuse of "look how crazy my lone wolf character is" for writing in random, off-sequence events without proper framing and buildup.
The only request he had made was that his arrival should not be notified to the police, as in his poor state of health he found these formalities and the standing about in official waiting rooms more than he could tolerate. I remember very well how this surprised me and how I warned my aunt against giving in to his stipulation. This fear of the police seemed to me to agree only too well with the mysterious and alien air the man had and struck me as suspicious (6).
Yet, the aunt agrees to the terms. But the key is that Hesse has her skillfully agree without ramming it down our throats like a screenwriter for horror films would do just to have a nice family board with a psychopath. We don't want to feel like the writer's twisting his character's arm.
I explained to my aunt that she ought not on any account to put herself in this equivocal and in any case rather peculiar position for a complete stranger; it might well turn out to have very unpleasant consequences for her. But it then came out that my aunt had already granted his request, and, indeed, had let herself be altogether captivated and charmed by the strange gentleman. For she never took a lodger with whom she did not contrive to stand in some human, friendly, and as it were auntlike or, rather, motherly relation; and many a one has made full use of this weakness of hers (6).
Basically, this isn't the first time she's granted a strange lodger's request. Not only was she charmed by him, but it's in her personal history to create a warm relation with the lodger. So if it seems unlikely that she would rent to the mysterious Harry Haller, Hesse quite expertly plugs that hole with reasonable justification. She's done it before, she'll do it again.

The suspense is created. Who is this Haller fellow? We'll never hear from the nephew again, as the rest of the book is Steppenwolf's manuscript, so Hesse stacks up the outside perceptions of his star character before turning the reader over to the bleak and hopeful shades of Haller's mind.
Two days after this the stranger's luggage--his name was Harry Haller--was brought in by a porter. He had a very fine leather trunk, which made a good impression on me, and a big flat cabin trunk that showed signs of having traversed far--at least it was plastered with labels of hotels and travel agencies of various countries, some overseas (7-8).
It becomes humorous how the nephew begins reading signs among all of Haller's belongings and facial expressions. He is worried about his aunt, after all. So maybe he's justified sneaking into Haller's rooms when he's out and doing a little snooping.

Hesse is also taking advantage of having a hyper-alert young man scout our protagonist and hand more unique details to the reader.

The nephew notices the Steppenwolf sitting near him at a lecture of a celebrated historian who was to speak in a school auditorium. When the lecturer says a few flattering things about the audience by way of introduction, and thanks them for coming in such numbers, we see the piercing quality of Harry Haller's disdain:
...the Steppenwolf threw me a quick look, a look which criticized both the words and the speaker of them--an unforgettable and frightful look which spoke volumes! It was a look that did not simply criticize the lecturer, annihilating the famous man with its delicate but crushing irony. That was the least of it. It was more sad than ironical; it was indeed utterly and hopelessly sad; it conveyed a quiet despair, born partly of conviction, partly of a mode of thought which had become habitual with him. This despair of his not only unmasked the conceited lecturer and dismissed with its irony the matter at hand, the expectant attitude of the public, the somewhat presumptuous title under which the lecture was announced--no, the Steppenwolf's look pierced our whole epoch, its whole overwrought activity, the whole surge and strife, the whole vanity, the whole superficial play of a shallow, opinionated intellectuality. And alas! the look went still deeper, went far below the faults, defects and hopelessness of our time, our intellect, our culture alone. It went right to the heart of all humanity, it bespoke eloquently in a single second the whole despair of a thinker, of one who knew the full worth and meaning of man's life (9).
Notice how fine Hesse picks his way through the nephew's awe of Steppenwolf. With less skill, the reader might be turned off by thinking we're supposed to believe Haller to be some sort of intellectual superman, so he finely combs the minute details of the look, analyzes their parts, and produces a convincing, moving portrait of a man who really can pop the bubble of an entire generation with one sad, sour look.

And with that, the reader might be thinking that this Haller would truly be a difficult character to spend much time with. Finally, we get an analysis of the Steppenwolf that also delicately portends to the metaphysical occurrences that happen to him:
...I suspected that the man was ailing, ailing in the spirit in some way, or in his temperament or character, and I shrank from him with the instinct of the healthy.... In course of time I was more and more conscious, too, that this affliction was not due to any defects of nature, but rather to a profusion of gifts and powers which had not attained to harmony (10).
Instinct of the healthy. What a fine phrase that throws our perception of Haller into some murky, opposite corner of what is the instinct of unhealthy. This cultivates a deeper distrust and dis-ease of Harry Haller by locating his peculiarity to something worse than just strange, as an affliction seated somewhere you can't quite locate, between body, mind, and spirit. And yet, the defect, the nephew suspects, is due to a disharmony of something fantastic, maybe borderline mystical.

Hermann Hesse. Steppenwolf. Picador. 218 pages.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Missed Opportunities in Black Magic by Hamdy el-Gazzar

Maybe the most striking aspect of Hamdy el-Gazzar's novel, Black Magic is the missed opportunity to delve deeper into the quiet, but internally unsettling life of a young man living in an apartment above the shop of an old undertaker.

The first twenty pages detail the aged undertaker sewing shrouds for the bodies he will prepare for their graves each week. Not a better chance for an extended metaphor, yet the power set up by el-Gazzar gets squandered by the far too common insights and revelations of Nasir, the protagonist, agonizing over how he feels having struck up an intimate love affair with a women twice his age.

In my last review, we saw how Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf navigated the complex circuits of a very uniquely miserable character. In Black Magic, the legwork is not done well enough, or extensively enough to convince the reader that Nasir has the same quality of unique misery that is worthy to fill up dozens of pages. We're told, but we're not convinced:
...I'm like some great mystic saint, el-Hallaj for example--a person impossible to accept, rejected by his people, his family, his society. I object to nothing and I don't engage in dialog with the apparatus of authority or the high priests of thought or the men of letters, of the sciences, of the administration. I'm not necessarily some kind of obstreperous animal, or a bird that has separated itself from the flock; my deviancy consists in neither allowing myself to be provoked nor provoking others. In return, what is called society subjects me to amazing repression, over and above the normal censorship and taboos. I am suspended--that's all there is to it--far from things and human relations by a tacit decision to be insignificant, to not belong to any category or fit any niche (92).
El-Gazzar's passage--or the translation by Humphrey Davies of the passage--is not poorly written or boring, but it is one dimensional in the novel. It's too much like having a friend you consider a fairly normal chap with regular ups and downs in his life tell you how weird he is, and how he doesn't accept the norms of society, and society, or what is perceived and called society, doesn't accept him (and, would you believe it, even tries to strike him down).

There is very little in Black Magic to back up this statement, and when it's given to the reader, it's not convincing, because it doesn't light up previous passages and incidents, or lend a higher understanding to the pages that come before and after.

Throughout the novel, it is the camera that supposedly sees life in its truest, most basic form--which is a form not many of us wish to encounter. Nasir is called a great photographer but a terrible employee by his boss. He zooms in, often, on his target, as the rest of his team works to cover the function for which they were hired.

The camera captures something more severe each time Nasir uses it. The final, cataclysmic moment is when he steals a very close look at the sheikh reciting in a Sufi gathering. We suffer the following disenchantment:
In zooming in I got closer to his eyes and lips and flesh. What I saw terrified me. I repented my ugly act and removed my eye from the lens. I should have left an appropriate distance--a 'medium' or a 'total,' a general shot, distant or middle-ground.... Why can't you be satisfied with the sublime--the joyous, awe-inspiring sublime? Sublimity, the sublimity of your bewildering, mysterious, exceptional, unique voice, makes my soul shake with longing.... May the earth swallow anyone who seeks beauty here! Beauty is the blasphemy of the lover's love for the beloved. I have been touched, made sick, rendered diseased by this instrument that I know as well as I know the color of my fingernails and the evil of my innermost thoughts, this deranged camera, this wild beast that goes in close and strips away the mask, pulls back and reveals all, wallows in details, makes the blind see, shocks and humiliates, beautifies and lies and divests all of their clothes and their intentions... (176).
For Nasir, the camera strips bare what we're supposed to see, and what is really to be seen.

The least interesting developments in the book concern his ill-fated relationship with an older woman--a woman divorced, once a frequent adulteress, and then gone rusty (as Nasir says).

More than a couple pages littered with poetic prose about the transcendental wonders of passionate sex get in the way of other worthy characters that need more development, more room to act, such as Nasir's abusive male neighbor, Gum'a, who beats his sister every night. Or the old undertaker. Or the treacherous leader of his photography crew.

Fiction at its best should light up new pathways for thought, should turn inside out old ideas and inspire connections between life experience and knowledge. Fiction can be like a slow burning LSD that plumbs the mind and challenges the soul, without the dangers and immediacy of actually putting some of the real stuff on the tongue.

That is why books like Black Magic frustrate me. Not altogether poor or meager in content and insight, but much potential wasted to re-devour the same longing for physical intimacy coupled with the frustrations and confusion of maintaining a supposedly good thing with a lover. And again, it's the camera's work that becomes the catalyst for everything that's wrong with their relationship.

At el-Gazzar's most poetic and haunting, he nails the maddening dance of having fallen too far with someone he'd never meant to, and of the breathless uncertainty ahead. I suspect it would be even more profound if read in the original Arabic:
She will never let herself get trapped into going that extra distance. She draws borders with precision and has a clear, complete map of most things. In her heart is a huge little doll, a daughter who ate lots of hamburgers and pizza and toast and stuffed vegetables and lamb-and-rice in days when they lived in luxury in the Arab Gulf and who doesn't want to stay in Egypt; and in some other space, a young man, whom she now thinks of as a small, fragile shackle--she who believed that she had rid herself of all shackles. She also has a car that she loves. Once I suggested to her that she exchange it for a horse and a small wooden two-seater carriage so that she could progress with the beauty and stateliness of the old fiacre. She agreed, on condition that I be the horse and pull her carriage behind me. She thought I had excellent hooves and a strong back and that I would prove capable of withstanding the blows of the whip, which she would enjoy plying, albeit gently and softly--nevertheless the comparison shocked me ( 180).

Hamdy el-Gazzar. Black Magic. Trans. Humphrey Davies. The American University in Cairo Press. 2007. 186 pages.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Creating An Unforgettable Character like Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

One of the most complicated and intriguing characters in any book I've ever read has to be Harry Haller, in Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf. Like other depressed characters I've recently read oozing malaise through the pages of their stories, such as Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe and Percy Walker's protagonist in The Moviegoer, so to is Haller having intense sickness of heart and undergoing what might be carefully termed as a 'spiritual crisis'.

The difference between some of the other notoriously miserable characters in literature is that there is far less plot and contrivance of narrative action in Steppenwolf than the others. It's a lot closer to Notes From the Underground in that respect, than what is mentioned above.

This book is still memorable for spiritual seekers and disillusioned Westerners the world over because of the way it flips a character inside out through a varied combination of Eastern speculation and Western mechanics. But how does one create a character who has transformed its readers and has been the catalyst for many a seeker in life?

First, the author must map out the internal dialogue within the character with enough detail that it takes on an energy of its own. Hesse does this with such clarity, and lets it dominate the novel, that many readers will be put off by the lack of plot and material tension. The tension is within the language, within the man's thoughts, and believing that he really will test his mettle with his shaving razor.

If one's despair over life starts to spin its linguistic tires, the mud will fly and there will be no ground covered. The internal system must build on itself, come back around again, connect, and show its capacity to build more. It must move. Otherwise, it's just mere complaining thinly veiled from the mind of a grouchy, petty writer.
For what I always hated and detested and cursed above all things was this contentment, this healthiness and comfort, this carefully preserved optimism of the middle classes, this fat and prosperous brood of mediocrity (27).
Fair enough. I feel the same way. But the risk with a book like Steppenwolf is that this complaint wears thin, becomes hypocritical, and poisons an otherwise good treatise on soul sickness. But Hesse carries it through, and we're given a more concrete example pages later to link to the abstract detestation:
Ah, but it is hard to find this track of the divine in the midst of this life we lead, in this besotted humdrum age of spiritual blindness, with its architecture, it business, its politics, its men! How could I fail to be a lone wolf, and an uncouth hermit, as I did not share one of its aims nor understand one of its pleasures? I cannot remain long in either theater or picture-house. I can scarcely read a paper, seldom a modern book. I cannot understand what pleasures and joys they are that drive people to the overcrowded railways and hotels, into the packed cafes with the suffocating and oppressive music, to the Bars and variety entertainments, to World Exhibitions, to the Corsos. I cannot understand nor share these joys, though they are within my reach, for which thousands of others strive (30).
We then see what at first seems like a dual nature battling within Haller, which Hesse defines for us in abstraction, then transmutes into a moment of human longing and abstention:
How foolish to wear oneself out in vain longing for warmth! Solitude is independence. It had been my wish and with the years I had attained it. It was cold. Oh, cold enough! But it was also still, wonderfully still and vast like the cold stillness of space in which the stars revolve. 
From a dance hall there met me as I passed by the strains of lively jazz music, hot and raw as the steam of raw flesh. I stopped for a moment. This kind of music, much as I detested it, had always had a secret charm for me. It was repugnant to me, and yet ten times preferable to all the academic music of the day. For me too, its raw and savage gaiety reached an underworld of instinct and breathed a simple honest sensuality.  
I stood for a moment on the scent, smelling this shrill and blood-raw music, sniffing the atmosphere of the hall angrily, and hankering after it a little too. One half of this music, the melody, was all pomade and sugar and sentimentality. The other half was savage, temperamental and vigorous. Yet the two went artlessly well together and made a whole. It was the music of decline (37).
How authentic and human it feels to have the push and pull of sensuality and good sense. Words like
Hesse, 1926, public domain
'raw' and 'hot', 'steam' and 'flesh' underlines the sexuality in the music, sniffing it angrily, and fighting the craving for the experience to lower oneself into the fast rushing stream of animal passion, yet noticing the repugnant way others do it without a thought otherwise. It's the soul and the body and the multiplicity of self in each.

To bring it all home, dark and serious, reality and abstraction, we hit the rock bottom result of what so many like Harry Haller contemplate, and even this is studied, and he has a theory on it. It is an 'in a nutshell' moment that shows the works, exposes all the gears of the character:
The "suicide," and Harry was one, need not necessarily live in a peculiarly close relationship to death. One may do this without being a suicide. What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that his is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk, as though he stood with the slightest foothold on the peak of a crag whence a slight push from without or an instant's weakness from within suffices to precipitate him into the void (47).
Overall, the author must understand the terms of his own character's philosophy, and then prove its depth by mocking the contradictions and then paving an ever deeper system of justifications over those contradictions to plummet deeper and crumble more barriers set up within the psyche.

How painful it is when the author doesn't quite understand the limits and terms of his character's levels and abilities and the thoughts turn vindictive and dribble out like nothing more than a childish whining. The internal mind is its own universe in a novel, and its tendencies must follow its own rules and laws.

Most novels do not need the kind of overt plumbing of the mind to succeed in rewarding the reader for taking time with its words, but Steppenwolf is a study of character first.

Second, we must get a sense of the character's background. Characters are, after all, only organized bits of information on the page. They aren't real humans, but at their best, can realistically transmit and spark new ideas to real humans reading about them. The human condition and all its extended wrath can then be understood an a unique way.

In many books, reading about the character's childhood and surge into adulthood for twenty or more pages is excruciating. It is often at those points I want to find a better book to read. Hesse is more deft in this. He doesn't beat us over our skulls with cluttered files of personal history like, say, Richard Ford.

We only need to see the outline of the gears in the back of the clock to have faith that it's not magic that makes the hands go round the face. We don't even have to fully understand how the gears work or be able to reproduce them to take the clock's word, at face value, that what it's telling us is true.

We find out somewhere in the middle of the short novel (which is his strange and haunting manuscript he leaves in an attic room he rented) that Steppenwolf's wife one day, rather suddenly, dismissed him from her life and kicked him out.

Haller had been so trusting in who he perceived her character to be, and in thinking that she too indeed loved him, that her sudden casting off of him from her life left a wound so deep and vicious on his person that he could never, it seems, be sure of anything again. That's hardly what the book is about, but rather an excuse traumatic enough to launch a man into a wandering abyss, from which we'll learn lessons never before imagined by the reader.

credit: CherryX
This is apparent in Haller's life. He's polite and cordial, but mostly he stays away from people. The third propeller for testing the tortuous inner complexity of a character is his dealing with other characters.

When the Steppenwolf meets an old friend in the street, he lies about how long he's been in town by telling him he's only passing through for a few days (the truth: he's been there for months and has rented rooms). The old friend remembers the wonderful talks they'd had about Krishna, yet Haller has moved on and isn't interested in chatting about subjects that decades ago fascinated him.

Inwardly, he is transformed constantly, and never is able to place faith in any one idea for long. He is not content settling on a subject, or attaining a long term happiness. He's guarded, looking for the truth, and despises falsity in himself.
And when he went on to invite me very heartily to spend the evening with him, I accepted with thanks and sent my greetings to his wife, until my cheeks fairly ached with the unaccustomed efforts of all these forced smiles and speeches. And while I, Harry Haller, stood there in the street, flattered and surprised and studiously polite and smiling into the good fellow's kindly, short-sighted face, there stood the other Harry, too, at my elbow and grinned likewise. He stood there and grinned as he thought what a funny, crazy, dishonest fellow I was to show my teeth in rage and curse the whole world one moment and, the next, to be falling all over myself in eagerness of my response to the first amiable greeting of the first good honest fellow who came my way, to be wallowing like a suckling-pig in the luxury of a little pleasant feeling and friendly esteem (75).
Haller cannot let himself go in public. Yet, when he finds himself gushing over an insipid conversation with an old friend, the lone wolf inside of him, the one that he says rips sentimentality to pieces, tears into his pretense at being just another happy joe on the street, willing to chat and laugh over the superficial nothingness that others consume themselves with. This treachery within is something with which many can identify, even if not as intense as in Haller.

The dinner with his friend goes awry when Haller criticizes the noxious way his favorite, esteemed poet Goethe is depicted in a painting. The Steppenwolf ends up storming out of the house and decides certainly he'll kill himself with a razor that night. But he lingers in the dimly lit pubs and underground bars, having one drink after another, not willing to admit that he's truly afraid of death. Until he meets a woman named Hermine. A flirt who seems to be a mirror of himself in the way she diagnoses his troubles and speaks harshly to his sensitivities by calling him a baby.

This interaction marks a dramatic shift in the book. Fresh air rushes into the stuffy apparatus that Hesse had created. The mad musings and mental wanderings had built and became so structured they felt as familiar as the two small rooms the Steppenwolf paced back and forth in.

Until the girl. The new understanding of Hesse's complex character is shattered. For a moment, the depth of his spiritual grief and dismay for the way society functions, yet his admittance that he likes the stability of a middle class life, is all swept aside with the harsh, not-untrue reaction of a pretty bar girl with a strong chin: You're a baby.

The sympathetic reader suddenly wonders: Really? Maybe I've been duped to go along with this pitying the self. Is Harry Haller the weakest imbecile self-tortured in Western literature? But that quickly recedes as Haller's feelings are often verified and given new analysis by his female friend.

Through Hermine's speech we can verify or dismiss certain truths related to us by the Steppenwolf, such as when she insists Harry take a bite of tender duck meat from her fork:
Oh, you're a sheep! Are you ready? I'm going to give you a piece off the bone. So open your mouth. Oh what a fright you are! There he goes, squinting round the room in case any one sees him taking a bite from my fork. Don't be afraid, you prodigal son, I won't make a scandal. But it's a poor fellow who can't take his pleasure without asking other people's permission (111).
How adept Hesse is at defining and redefining everything the Steppenwolf has said about himself. He truly is uncomfortable in public, showing himself in intimate fashion, and letting himself go like the other thousands who strive for those pleasures every day. Internally, for him, it's a small scandal, and Hermine calls it out perfectly.

Harry's female companionship opens him up to new levels of warmth, and regrettably he dips a few toes into the swirling waters of careless fun--dancing and music. The internal battle rages all the while. He meets one of the musicians, Pablo, who is friend of his lady's. With Pablo, who becomes a type of foil, the reader sees the opposite of the Steppenwolf, which again sharpens the image of our protagonist, highlights more of his borders and outlines, and the many creases and wrinkles of his composite persona.
Often during the course of the music he would suddenly clap his hands, or permit himself other expressions of enthusiasm, such as, singing out "O O O, Ha Ha, Hallo." Apart from this, however, he confined himself to being beautiful, to pleasing women, to wearing collars and ties of the latest fashion and a great number of rings on his fingers.... His dark and beautiful Creole eyes and his black locks hid no romance, no problems, no thoughts. Closely looked at, this beautiful demigod of love was no more than a complacent and rather spoiled young man with pleasant manners (124).
In some ways, meeting Pablo confirmed exactly the way Hermine described the animals--which impressed Haller very much:
"Well, look at an animal, a cat, a dog, or a bird, or one of those beautiful great beasts in the zoo, a puma or a giraffe. You can't help seeing that all of them are right. They're never in any embarrassment. They always know what to do and how to behave themselves. They don't flatter and they don't intrude. They don't pretend. They are as they are, like stones or flowers or stars in the sky..." (114).
It is from these hints in the book, that sometimes contrast, sometimes expose, and sometimes guide us through the difficult mind of Harry Haller. Because of the depth and connection of thoughts, coupled with the introduction of people who seem to fill, and then defy the very lifestyles and easy mentalities of the people and society that the growling Steppenwolf circles and despises, yet sometimes admires and crouches close, the reader has an opportunity to view himself in the looking glass and watch his own pretenses, hypocrisies, triumphs, and inner quarrels break into pieces that can only vaguely be fit back together again.

Hermann Hesse. Steppenwolf. Trans Basil Creighton. Picador. 218 pages.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Remembering Poet Doug Draime

I wanted to take a moment to remember poet Doug Draime, as he passed away last week. I found out through John Bennett's Shard email list, after Doug's wife alerted him. Doug had sent me a dozen or so poems over the last couple of years, of which I posted a few on my other website, Dear Dirty America.

credit: Outlaw Poetry
Doug's poetry was often considered hard-hitting stuff about the streets, poverty, income disparity in America, and he often tackled political and social problems with a hatred for hypocrisy and elitism.

Draime's ebook, Speed of Light can be found online for free. It's worth checking out.

Here's one of his poems that he sent me. It's a good beginning to Draime's work.

Question Everything

Question this poem
and the publication
    it is appearing in.
      Question every moment
inside your ever changing cage. Now, is the
         release of your age old
                         servitude. Question the
ghosts of shadows, that your past and
                 future parade before you like
monkeys in a barrel. Question the abstract
            projector of your mind.

Question every thought
of mind: of war and
                 conflict. Question greed and all political 
  thinking. Question every hint of fear
             and betrayal. Question all
                                                      things of form
and weight. Question intensely every shade and
  shape of ego. Question the Commander
                   & Chief of the ego, Death. Question it relentlessly
until you know the truth.
                   Now, is the release of your age old servitude. Question
           every stinking lie since the Big Bang.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

John Keats Slogging Away: Getting Your Writer's Education

In a previous post, I highlighted a recent article from FSG's Work In Progress about how one of America's most unique writers, Kurt Vonnegut, became that way. He recognized the wealth of information and material he had to work with at his day job of writing press releases for General Electric's newest inventions and technological escapades.

It is important to recognize what kind of writer you are, and what your strengths might be. Where might you find your richest experience? In books? Have you done a synoptical study of a subject that would make for interesting reading in story form? Do you work somewhere with many unique types of people? The more aware you are of the types of information or experience you're steeped in through every day life, the better prepared you are to incorporate them into your novel or short stories, and when you do that, the writing will most likely feel more vibrant as it's coming from an organic place in your life.

Zadie Smith, in her book Changing My Mind, gives an inspiring account of the tragic John Keats' personal education that eventually spawned a very thin, but very memorable book of poetry during his short twenty-five years on this earth:
For Keats went about his work like an apprentice; he took a kind of MFA of the mind, albeit alone, and for free, in his little house in Hampstead. A suburban, lower-middle-class boy, a few steps removed from the literary scene, he made his own scene out of the books of his library. He never feared influence -- he devoured influences. He wanted to learn from them, even at the risk of their voices swamping his own. And the feeling of apprenticeship never left him: you see it in his early experiments in  poetic form; in the letters he wrote to friends expressing his fledgling literary ideas; it's there, famously, in his reading of Chapman's Homer, and the fear that he might cease to be before his pen had gleaned his teeming brain. The term role model is so odious, but the truth is it's a very strong writer indeed who gets by without a model kept somewhere in mind. I think of Keats. Keats slogging away, devouring books, plagiarizing, impersonating, adapting, struggling, growing, writing many poems that made him blush and then a few that made him proud, learning everything he could from whomever he could find, dead or alive, who might have something useful to teach him (103-4).

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Writer's Education at General Electric: Kurt Vonnegut Breaks Through

Every writer knows he should read, and read hungrily, opportunistically, always looking for ways to enhance or perfect his craft. Stephen King has said in On Writing that a writer must read constantly, and read everything, to get a feel for language in many circumstances. Not just various genres of fiction writing, but also user manuals, religious texts, science articles, and on and on.

credit: Edie Vonnegut
A writer is always listening, watching, taking in details and wondering about whether or not the situation or sentence, thought or happenstance might make a good story, or be integrated into a good story.

Norman Mailer said he characterized a writer as someone who, just thinking about his writing space, and upon seeing his typewriter, salivates at the thought of sitting down to it. That is his space, and it's for his cherished writing.

Mailer took seven years to write Harlot's Ghost. He told KCRW's  Michael Silverblatt in 1991 that he constantly read books about the CIA, and sometimes took months off from writing just to absorb enough information to write the next chapter. For anybody who has read Harlot's Ghost, it's apparent just how much of the Company's internal operations, attitude, and exploits Mailer absorbed.

If Mailer educated himself through voracious reading about his subject, Kurt Vonnegut got his education in General Electric, where he was writing press releases for some of the newest whiz bang inventions and technological ideas on the planet:
...Kurt, was spending every day at GE writing press releases and features about the fabulous new world that science and technology were creating. But at night and on weekends, he was following his secret ambition to write, cranking out romances and adventure stories for popular magazines. His only reward was a huge stack of rejection slips. 
One day, Kurt had an idea for a new kind of story. He would write about what he was seeing at GE. He would show a scientist facing same ethical dilemma Bernard faced: how responsible was he, as a scientist, for preventing the weaponizing of his inventions? Kurt’s first successful story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect” sold to Colliers in late 1949. 
Kurt wrote a press release about ultrasonics—the use of high frequency sound waves in industry, medicine, and research. Then he wrote “The Euphio Question,” about the invention of a sound wave that, played over the radio, causes everyone to quit whatever they are doing and bliss out. Again, he probes the moral issues raised by a new technology. 
In fact, GE’s archives hold many of the source materials for early Kurt Vonnegut stories—the deer that got into the factory, the metallurgist who loved model trains, the walking, talking refrigerator that sold appliances, the visit to GE of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, destined to be fictionalized as the Shah of Bratpuhr in Player Piano. Asked years later why he had chosen to write science fiction in his early days, Kurt replied “There was no avoiding it, since the General Electric Company WAS science fiction.” (from FSG's Work In Progress newsletter)
Vonnegut said more than once that the difference between himself and other writers was that he actually knew how his dishwasher worked. That's a profound statement. The insights he would have in any situation compared to someone who has no mechanical or technological understanding is as similar as night and day. Because of his experiences in GE and in World War II, Vonnegut's brain stem had unique ways to process information.

Most of us writers scramble to get MFAs these days. To learn to write better. To get a slip of paper to prove we're writers. But that isn't always the best way to get educated. Ishmael's Harvard and his Yale was the whaling ship (and I suspect it was Melville's as well). Kerouac's college was hitching rides across America and collecting dimes in San Francisco to buy the cheapest jug of wine he could find, pounding it on the table while Allen Ginsburg read "Howl", and cheering him on with a hearty, "Go, go, go!"

Writers must be willing to absorb their surroundings and take inspiration from whatever situation in which they find themselves ensnared. The fast food job. The retail manager. The social worker. The unemployed. It's all rich with experience and can be tailored into a vibrant story setting, all the better by which to educate others through a personal vision of humanity crafted into story.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Perfecting Space & Scene in The Spire, by William Golding

If you want to see exuberance of faith, built on shaky foundations, and watch it spiral out of control and threaten to bring down an entire community, then read carefully William Golding's The Spire. Dean Jocelin leads us through his vision of erecting a four-hundred foot spire atop his cathedral -- supposedly Golding based it off the Salisbury Cathedral.

Jocelin has pushed his friends and fellow stewards of the church to their breaking points, and most have fallen out with him. His caretaker has deserted the cathedral, and his poor wife drifts clumsily back and forth, eyeing the master builder as he cusses and swears that the pillars of the cathedral will never hold such a spiral. The church is built on no foundations! he reminds the dean again and again. But the dean tells him to have faith. He prays about it, and he mentally wills the pillars to hold, even as they begin to bend:
His will began to burn fiercely and he thrust it into the four pillars, tamped it in with the pain of his neck and his head and his back, welcomed in some obscurity of feeling the wheels and flashes of light, and let them hurt his open eyes as much as they would. His fists were before him on the stall but he never noticed them.... At last, when he understood nothing else at all, he knew that the whole weight of the building was resting on his back (76).
In the midst of all the confusion and chaos, Golding gives the reader an omniscient narrator to pull him through the story, yet most of the time we're in the widely swinging emotions --from sheer happiness and goofy smiling and the raising of the chin in delight, as well as being visited with the warmth of a nearby angel, to anger, irritation with his colleagues, and being accosted by a host of demonic forces.

With the swirl of a character steeped in manic undulations of emotion, and bordering on madness, Golding does a fine job of containing that madness, and sometimes confusing thoughts of Dean Jocelin, by firmly grounding the reader in the church without physical foundation. He shows us many of the corridors, the deanery, the clerestory, the ambulatory, and so on. 

How well Golding lays out the floor plan in a memorable fashion, and not only hands us a humorous kind of outline, but does so with grace and style. This helps organize the placement of unfamiliar words used to describe the many sections of an official cathedral:
He stopped laughing and wiped his eyes. He took the white spire and jammed it firmly in the square hole cut in the old model of the cathedral.   
The model was like a man lying on his back. The nave was his legs placed together, the transepts on either side were his arms outspread. The choir was his body; and the Lady Chapel, where now the services would be held, was his head. And now also, springing, projecting, bursting, erupting from the heart of the building, there was its crown and majesty, the new spire (4).
Those specific details root us in place. Set the scene. From there, Golding's protagonist can swing high or low, through bouts of sanity and clarity, as far as he likes, and the reader should still feel comfortable to go with him because of the specificity of place. Even if that place is built up of unfamiliar words. We know the general layout.

The cathedral becomes a madhouse as the 'army' of workers construct ladders upon ladders, build scaffolding, hang ropes like vines, and crumble the rock flooring and deconstruct sections of the roof. All the while, Dean Jocelin buzzes around, making enemies, irritating the master builder, and forcing his vision forward despite the great chance that the entire church will collapse.

Again, the detail to space is one of Golding's overlooked aspects. As the spire is built in sections,
credit: Hugh Chevallier
rock by rock, the master builder tells the dean that he is fighting a losing battle. The spire has to be strong enough to not topple in the wind and rain storms, yet if he fortifies it too much, the pillars will surely bend and crumble.

Soon after, the pillars being to "sing". The rocks, the stained glass windows, bearing so much weight, and under that pressure, a whining, singing sound strains the ears of all around. The spire is looking to become what most have already been calling it -- Jocelin's Folly.

The master builder frequently begs Dean Jocelin to call it off, but Jocelin reminds him that he is the most skillful builder in all the land, and he punishes the builder's ego by asking him if he's afraid to dare big. To have big dreams. Nobody accomplishes master feats without faith. According to the dean. In a stroke of brilliance, Jocelin keeps the builder on the job past the point of being able to contract any other jobs in the area, effectively netting him to the calamitous project.

Jocelin visits the spire often. He crawls around the scaffolding, and from way up he peers across the countryside and watches the peasants hauling their goods across the bridge.

The dean thinks of the spire as the Great Finger rising over all the land, to be seen by men for miles and miles, calling them to the Church, and yet, most people outside of the dean's innocent call to faith might see it as another kind of stiff, protruding male member.

Golding is a master builder himself, as he describes the haunting sway of the spire, hundreds of feet in the air, as the dean hangs onto it:
The boys of the songschool had left their game on the sill of the arcade again. He could not see the squares of the board scratched in stone, but he could see the white, bone counters of the game that lay on it. He could see some of them; but only some, for the stone between the battlements cut off a corner of the board from his eye. There was a kind of childish security in looking at the game, the white counters, one, two, three, four, five-- 
His cheek was hard against the pinnacle and he knew he had not moved. But a sixth counter had appeared, had slid into view with another square of board under it. He knew he had not moved; but he knew that the tower had moved, gently, soundlessly up here, though down there the pillars might have cried--eeee--at the movement. Time after time, he watched the white counter slide into view, then disappear again; and he knew that the tower was swaying under him like a tall tree (128).
Many readers find The Spire challenging, complicated, yet most say it's one of the most interesting novels they've read. Golding's firmness of place and time contributes to anchoring what is a very complex novel of boundless faith and emotion. As Dean Jocelin wrestles with his angels and demons toward the end of the novel, he thinks to himself, "I traded a stone hammer for four people (214)."

Enjoy Golding's language -- specific to the cathedral, and to the era of the fourteenth century or so. Take note of his heavy verbs, like exploding, smashing, exalting, and jammed, the plunges into stream of consciousness, and the important inch-by-inch mechanical, structural details when delicate space is a matter of faith versus materials, and life and death.

William Golding. The Spire. HBJ. 215 pages.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What Kind Of A Writer Are You? Zadie Smith Explains Reading As A Balanced Diet

In Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith relates her experience writing novels. In some ways, it might be called advice. Below is a highlight of what I thought was helpful, to a degree, for the struggling novelist:

Some writers won't read a word of any novel while they're writing their own.... They don't even want to see the cover of a novel.... Try to recommend a good novel to a writer of this type while he's writing and he'll give you a look like you just stabbed him in the heart with a kitchen knife. It's a matter of temperament. Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. Others want to hear every member of the orchestra--they'll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even. I am one of those. My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I'm too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I'm syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if your sentences are baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If your aesthetic has become so refined it is stopping you from placing a single black mark on white paper, stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say; pick up Dostoevsky, patron saint of substance over style (103).

As a writer, I'm not as much of a promiscuous reader as it sounds like Smith is. I would go bonkers with so many books open on my desk. I like to make a close study of a novel while reading it, and then bury it back in the bookshelf after internalizing all I can.

Reading as a balanced diet is a fine way to approach which books we obsess over, glance at, and study. While I'm writing a novel, I can't help but scan the used bookstores for titles that might somehow teach me more about what I'm writing, or trying to.

My current novel is about a drunken mayor of a small town attempting to pull off a surprising feat that will get him back into good graces with all the people, so when I saw William Golding's The Spire, something about a church dean trying desperately to get a crushing spire to be built atop his ancient, crumbling church lured me in. There were lessons about the head of a community undertaking a job despite the grumblings and backstabbing of a small group of people.

I also keep my eyes open for stories about people in small towns, in rural places. Only you know the tone of your novel and where you wish it to go, so it's beneficial to align your reading choices to inform your work.

The other great idea in the highlight paragraph is to be careful that what you're reading doesn't shift the way you're writing your novel. David Foster Wallace has the tendency to make you want to bloat your paragraphs with minute details and do tricks with your sentences. But that doesn't work for everybody, and if you're not adept at it, it certainly won't for you. Also, not every novel needs to be hypersensitive to detail, and overstimulated in its storytelling.

So if you find yourself mimicking one writer more than you think is healthy for maintaining coherency and consistency in your current writing project, substitute what your reading for something else that's in the opposite style. Or a more moderate style. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Plight of the Modern Man in Castaway by James Gould Cozzens

By the end of James Gould Cozzens' Castaway, we see the plight of the modern Western man in all his solitude, surrounded by a mastered material abundance and heaps of time with which to enjoy it, yet the howling void within goes again disconsolate. In this way, the book might be thought of as a parable, but closer to approaching allegory.

It is also, in some ways, a retelling of Robinson Crusoe. There is an ominous footprint, after all, and it is never considered a signifier of hope or a mark from a potential friend.

Castaway was first published in 1934. The material satisfaction one might find today far surpasses what was available then, but the lesson is the same.

Opening the book, the reader finds a man only known as Mr. Lecky prowling the basement of a department store that we learn has nine floors loaded with everything any shopping mall in a major city would sell. But why is he there, and especially, why is he alone? No workers, no shoppers, the place is closed, and Mr. Lecky never once seriously considers leaving the place. We can only deduce something catastrophic has happened in the outside world, and there are not many survivors.

By the time Mr. Lecky has secured himself, has assured himself he's finally alone in the gigantic building, and all nine floors are of his kingdom, under his lordship, he finds himself miserable. The familiar (the department store) has become the unfamiliar (the department store unmanned, idle, eerie), and has become once again, with the help of a sleek apartment floor model with a completely furnished living room, bedroom, and dining room, familiar (as much as home away from home can be).

In his new living room, Lecky reads a book, "...doggedly, paragraph by paragraph, page by page" (105), because of the sketch of a naked woman on the cover. He assumes there must be something worth reading inside. With all his immediate needs satisfied, he figures he might really enjoy a book. He quickly tires of it. On the table are two bottles of witch hazel, which he'd heard a person could drink like alcohol, possibly.
 Outside it was as good as dark, and having got up and seen it, he came back; but he did not sit down or take his book again. He stood bemused, rubbing his chin. Finally he looked at the two bottles on the bureau (105).
And then after having tried a few sips of witch hazel:
It caused him nothing but a feeling of warmth in his stomach, so after a while, he would seem justified in drinking more, if he wished to, hoping to enjoy greater warmth (105).
That was the first lesson I learned in Microeconomics. If one candy bar brings us happiness, the instructor shouted out to us, then by that logic, two candy bars bring us even more happiness. And a third triples the happiness. Until eventually you puke (but he didn't mention that).

Never mind that Mr. Lecky has access to a store of shelves filled with books. Rows and rows of knowledge at his disposal. He could also reflect on what has happened, on what has marooned him in the department store. He could meditate. Develop a longer term plan. He could write about his experience. But quickly he becomes discontented when he's finished the several-days' tasks of securing his fortress.

Every possible good one could need for subsistence, and nearly every other invention to satisfy desires beyond what one needs to live is available, uncontested, and free to Mr. Lecky, yet after he secures his surroundings and hauls everything he'll require for the next few weeks to his stronghold, we see a man discomforted by his own self, by the silence, and by the lack of something as simple as needing a practical chore to do with his hands.

Cozzens leads us along with a slow, considerate prose style. Every consideration of Mr. Lecky is taken into account. Which way he turns, which way he looks, at what does he look, and all of his plans to fortify a section of the mall to secure himself should there prove to be somebody else lurking in one of the nine mega floors. This pushes the larger, circumstantial why and what-for questions further out of range, out of the way.

He learns how to use a gun, but only after a tedious run-through of every gun in the sporting goods section, where he tries to match the ammo with the circumference of the barrel. The reader is kept very close to Mr. Lecky's physical actions, and that effect ties our brains to the must-do, must-have survival mode of a man hunkering down like he's on a deserted island, except with every modern day material good and delight available.
Mr. Lecky had meant only to knock the cover off; but his sharp blow was inaccurate. The neck smashed, strewing glass splinters, syrup, and a few of the figs in a mess on counter and floor. Mr. Lecky was annoyed. Furthermore, he feared that bits of glass might have embedded themselves in the remaining fruit. Setting down his gun, he made a meticulous examination, for he believed that swallowing glass would surely kill him. Partly satisfied that he was not about to eat any, he began to pick the figs out, cautiously looking over each before thrusting it in his mouth. Once or twice the grating of the fine seeds on his teeth made him pause; but hunger urged him on. Setting down the empty bottle, he could think of nothing to fetch and eat next but a second ham (35).

The attention to detail, notably the panicked crunching of the fine seeds on his teeth, is a brilliant exhibit of how careful a man would be who knows there is no doctor on call or nearby, yet can barely contain his hunger.

Cozzens keeps the reader mired in each action, the smashing of a bottle, the taste of the food, the urge of the stomach, the phantom sound somewhere far off in the store. Mr. Lecky's senses might not be the greatest, but that's all he's got. We don't penetrate his mind deeply enough to get a reading on his beliefs or his past with anything more than a superficial glance or plain justification.

This style lends credibility to the earnestness of the narrative. It also invites the reader to chide Mr. Lecky on apparent missteps. It's very easy for the reader to get into the habit of thinking, "Well, you fool, why don't you do this, or that?" Or, "If I were in this situation, I'd certainly do this or that first." And Mr. Lecky's decisions and actions become shocking at points, which turns into reflection for the reader.

For writers who like to over explain their concept, the situation their character finds himself in, and what's at stake, Cozzens' Castaway is a lean example of how suspenseful a literary work can be by dialing back the speculation and sticking close to home to the character's actions. But that has to be done correctly, of course.

Cozzens has entered the reality of his Mr. Lecky with his own consciousness, and the decisions the character makes feels organic and justified by his short conclusions of why he must do one thing, like build a shelter, or another, like secure a lavatory. For Mr. Lecky's faults feel like his own, as does his miserable listlessness by the end.

James Gould Cozzens. Castaway. 1989. Elephant Paperbacks. 115 pages.

Friday, November 6, 2015

From the Ground Up: One Rabbit Tells the Story of War in The Sage of Waterloo, by Leona Francombe

Why tell a story from the perspective of an animal? Especially when it's a small, rodent-like creature that will be sure to correct you that he's actually a 'lagomorph' and not a rodent? And retell a war story, such as the run-up and aftermath of a battle like Waterloo?

These were my questions when I began Leona Francombe's tidy novel The Sage of Waterloo. The story spirals outward from the rabbit hutch on Hougoumont, a farm that Wellington and his British troops held as firmly as possible as they repelled the power-hungry emperor, Napoleon. Tucked in Hougoumont is the pen and hutch from which the narrator of Francombe's story, William the rabbit, is told.

The most recent 'animal fiction' I've reread was the classic Animal Farm. But that doesn't count or compare in this case, as it is so purely an allegory and political message that the animals are clear stand-ins for historical figures. The other was Niki: The Story of a Dog, which takes place in Hungary in the ruined, shattered landscape after World War II, is a story more about the dog's relationship to its owners, and the personal catastrophe that befalls them when the husband is hauled away in a political crackdown. It is also, of course, a reason to step into the complex political situation of the time.

So where does The Sage of Waterloo fall into place, and what is its purpose? 

By the end of the novel, it's quite clear why Francombe would subject her reader to see and hear and learn about Waterloo's grotesque history through a small, domesticated farm animal, but it's hinted at early on:

"Our point of view is a gift," she said [William's grandmother, Old Lavender]. "We understand essential minutiae, in our species and in humans: unease in a voice or gesture; electricity sparked by panic or excitement; signals betraying doubt, joy, grief. And don't forget the rich realm of smell. What an encyclopedia that is! Any one of you could have picked up Napoleon's stress on the eve of battle." Grandmother went on to say that Napoleon's very pores had exuded the sort of anxiety that even the dullest animal wit can pick up. His human entourage, however, could only go by less subtle pointers: loud, agitated talking, and orders issued with great vehemence; constant snuff-taking, and the supreme confidence that he would be sleeping at the royal palace in Brussels after his victory (30).

It is that rabbit's point of view that allows Francombe to take her reader back through Waterloo and the events leading up to it. With that heightened smell and sixth sense of animals, we are given a new construct by which to consider war, and why men go to war, and what it means two hundred years later, long after humanity has dwindled the horrors of Waterloo to statistics, military maneuvers, and anecdotes, but, as Old Lavender says, "Nature never truly recovers from human cataclysms" (37).

There is energy, indelibly impressed into that spot of earth that it seems only the animals can appreciate. We get a damning assessment from a black bird named Arthur of how carelessly humans toss aside their greatest violent follies. He tells our rabbit hero:

"People lounge on the terrace, drinking their coffees...clueless they're facing a field where the rye was completely flattened by corpses of their own kind, shot and hacked to death. Oh, they think they know what happened there. But their evolutionary progress seems to be in reverse. They gradually forget the magnitude of what they've done--or at least, they've managed to disguise their violence as glory--so eventually, in the course of time, they can no longer feel what still hangs in the air. Not the way we do. So they don't have any qualms about building cafes on burial grounds. They've never really stamped out their zeal for warmongering--quite the opposite, actually. They can't seem to get enough of it" (146).

Of course, many of you have had those insights before. For sensitive, bookworm souls, we can easily get lost imagining the horrors of atrocious historical events, and many of us feel the same way as wars and proxy wars rage in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and beyond. Men using other men to conquer people. So being chided by something other than a peacenik, in this case a blackbird, is more satisfying than you might think.

For that intimate, gentler view of war that Francombe seems to be after, the mind needs the excuse of just the right kind of narrative to jump into an event as brutal as Waterloo. A history book, a college textbook, a documentary, could never really capture the catastrophic disturbance like it does from Francombe playing up the rabbit's perspective. Richard Holmes, for all of his awe-inspiring recollections of famous battle scenes he did for the BBC, couldn't approach war the way The Sage of Waterloo does.

In contrast to the facts and reenactments of war carried out by grown men dressed in colorful uniforms, firing blanks at each other across the fields around Hougoumont two hundred years after the blood has soaked into the soil, it is from the jumpy nervous system of a lagomorph that we see the painful twitches and coincidences of a haunting human history merge with the every day struggle of living the life of a prey animal.

We learn that Wellington had taken a ride in the early morning of June 18, the day of battle, and had halted, unknowingly, only ten yards from a French sniper:

The man, hidden in the undergrowth, didn't fire. Had he even recognized his target? one wonders. Wellington had been wearing a plain blue coat and cloak, after all. Perhaps, addled by circumstance, and suffering from a momentarily frozen trigger finger, the sniper had had a change of heart.

No amount of vigilance can wrest control from providence--or however you wish to call the powerful force that can, without notice, render even history just a featherweight on the wind. From the mighty Wellington to a humble rabbit, outcomes maddeningly, inescapably depend on myopic snipers or absent hawks; on the thickness of the mud or a hollow under the fence; on whether or not the corn--or begonias--hold up as escape routes (108-9).

Taking the POV of a rabbit presents a number of narrative pitfalls, and requires nimble footing from the author avoid them. For one, how much about human life can an animal, a rabbit, really understand? William is a precocious rabbit, and Francombe does a fairly good job in keeping the text tight enough and close enough to William's perception that once the great leap of faith is taken by the reader in the first few pages, it is not difficult to be tugged along the story path by a rabbit.

There are some oversights, though. It's very difficult to suspend one's disbelief when William mentions how the clumsy boy who sometimes feeds them usually plays games on his cell phone. How might a rabbit know about this? If weaving in and out of Waterloo facts and anecdotes is done skillfully enough to make me imagine the torment of the time, it is quips like those that throw me out of the narrative.

Yes, the rabbits understand human beings, and get exposed to a few of them who come as tourists to Hougoumont, but there is a fine balance to how much the reader will swallow. When William compares Old Lavender's storytelling to that of movie-making, and "the panorama she created" as a "natural film director", the balance just tips off scale. There are more instances like that.

The Sage of Waterloo is an innocent, intimate retelling of a well-known cataclysm in human history, and begs us to reflect deeper on the energy and impulses behind our seemingly constant mass warfare, and to value the meeker, quieter, more modest forms of life on earth and, through that lens, find our own wellspring of compassion to grow softer hearts, especially when considering our role as dominant thinkers and movers on this planet filled with life we humans might otherwise take for granted.

You won't learn more about Waterloo from the novel than you would from a thirty-minute documentary, but I'm willing to bet you'll remember Francombe's version more clearly, and for a longer time to come.

Leona Francombe. The Sage of Waterloo. 222 pages.