Sunday, March 20, 2016

Cozzens Castaway Drawn Out & Dull Or Masterful?

In the act of remembering a great book, I looked up other readers' responses to the memorable James Gould Cozzens' novel, Castaway.

In our online world, it's very easy to access scholarly articles, literary criticism, and round it out with endless blog posts and social media commentary.

One such post I came across was from a reader who did not like Cozzens' style and struggled through Castaway. Reading about his experience, I came back to what is most important about that grand little novel.

Here is a snippet of the reader's thoughts:

It's a sort of book that one reads as a challenge and struggles with, rather than enjoys. It's one of those rare works that crosses Literary Significance with genre content. Still, I have to say I didn't like it much. It often was rather dull and drawn-out for my tastes, even for such a brief work (in hardcover, just over 100 pages). to survive and make sense of things like firearms and cooking would be good grist for their mill.

That part about the dull, drawn-out style was what worked so well for me as a writer reading another writer. The play by play, the drawn out description of each of Mr. Lecky's movements served the narrative so well by heightening the suspense. 

The purpose, whether conscious or not on Cozzens' part, was to give the novel that slow-down affect one gets in a time of panic, when you can feel your heartbeat in your ears, and every footfall seems thunderous when you need to be silent.

Quite brilliant, it seemed, in how the style fit the content, and a lesson for novel writers to really dig deep into why their style and peculiar uses of language or form complements the narrative.

I detailed this effect much more in my article on Cozzens' Castaway. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Don't Make Your Reader Suffer in Adverb Hell

I was immediately caught by the opening to E.B. Vandiver's story "Forcing Bowl" in an old edition of the Kenyon Review. The short sentences, mysterious at first, suddenly giving way into realization that what was being described is a very common experience.

But that already had me hooked. Seeing the familiar in what was first unfamiliar. What an opening. Yet, the writing style quickly wears thin, irritates me, and I begin mentally scratching out adverbs. I didn't even read the rest of the story. I'd seen the markings of a story I should avoid.

Time is precious after all. And I mention this not to tear down Vandiver, but to first of all remind myself, and then you, that the reader doesn't need every moment handed to her, every sense qualified, because that dissipates the same pleasure I had just begun to enjoy at the beginning of the story -- the piecing together and sensing of the scene lightning quick.
They bring him home and stare. Their quiet house. Though he says nothing, hardly cries, they are deafened. When he nurses, he twists his head wildly, latches on off-center. He stares vacantly at the pushed-up flap of Elizabeth’s bra, slowly curling and uncurling his fingers, making mewing sounds. Elizabeth can see the corner of his jaw pumping methodically as he gulps audibly, clacking his tongue. In three minutes he will fall asleep, mouth going slack, colostrum dripping from the corner, soaking Elizabeth’s gown. There are deep red marks around the nipple, bruises where his mouth has been (Summer 2011).
You wouldn't think it would be so cumbersome, but it is. Leave out "methodically" and leave out "audibly". I want to hear it, see it, imagine it without the baggage. On the upside, the endings of the two words do go well together.

Just imagine what the rest of the story might be like. Save the adverbs for the moments that absolutely need to be handed over to the reader.  

Monday, February 8, 2016

Style & Content Must Match...But What's the Risk?

I can't think of a writer more staunchly dedicated to style without giving a damn about making the job easier or more difficult for the reader than William Gaddis, author of such surreal American classics as The Recognitions and JR.

Gaddis, 1975
David Foster Wallace mentioned that if any writer wanted to know who had inspired him most, in terms of style and voice, it would be Gaddis. And this is most apparent in Wallace's last book of stories, Oblivion.

Linguistic tics befuddle, challenge, and inspire the reader throughout in a way that drew both praise and criticism from reviewer and novelist Walter Kirn, who seemed to get caught between marveling and denouncing the work for its overstimulated, tweaked-out abundance of hyper-detailing language and description.

In other words, fiction-Wallace as usual. But with Oblivion, it's Wallace after a lifetime of experience. The language, at first obfuscating the narrative, transforms itself into the picky, obsessive, anxious interior landscape of the character, and it fits. It fits well. The hard reading is worth it. For fiction lovers, it's a book to pore over.

Yet, if the authorial hand is too apparent in the advanced stylistic cues, he is also absent from what we usually expect in short stories, where the writer makes the time pass with a clumsy kind of "Two weeks later" exposition -- or as Gaddis calls it below, "narrative intrusion".

But what is the risk in losing yourself in the particular pattern of consciousness of the character? You run the risk of alienating the reader. You take a chance at overshooting your level of talent. There has to be a profound, layered context by which to root and justify your stylings.

And, as Gaddis says below, if you don't have the ear for voice, you won't soak it up no matter how hard you listen, pay attention, or take "special measures" to acquire it.

Here is a nice cutout from an interview in 1982 provided by Biblioklept:
Style and content must match, must be complementary, accounting in part for a difference between the two books, though the lack of a conventional narrative style had already jarred a good many readers of The Recognitions when it appeared, as its hapless reviews show. J R was started as a story which quickly proved unsatisfactory, inspired- here’s the legitimate gossip—-by the postwar desecration of the Long Island village of Massapequa where my family had had property since around 1910, take a look at it now and you’ll see all the book’s worst hopes realized. In approaching J R as a novel, I was at pains to remove the author’s presence from the start as must be obvious. This was partly by way of what I mentioned earlier, obliging the thing to stand on own, take its own chances. But it was also by way of setting up a problem, a risk, in order to sustain my own interest, especially since the largely uninterrupted dialogue raised the further risk of presenting a convincing sense of real time without the conventional chapter breaks, white spaces, such narrative intrusions as “A week later . . .” How some of the writers I come across get through their books without dying of boredom is beyond me. As for what you call speech patterns, one is always listening and has got an ear or hasn’t, and without one, unless perhaps in dealing with an unfamiliar language and culture, no amount of your special measures like riding around on school buses will get you out of the swamp.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Hemingway Advises Like No Other Writer Can

There is a fascinating look at Ernest Hemingway's literary advice to the 22-year old Arnold Samuelson from the latter's stay with the literary legend back in 1934.

As you would expect, Hemingway sets down practical, memorable advice when it comes to writing novels, and also what a reader should have read or be reading to educate himself properly. The list of books a writer at that moment in time should have read is enough to peak anybody's interest, but here are some other prize snippets from the book picked so gracefully by Maria Popova:
The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.
I've employed this practice with my own writing since I was a child--leaving off at a high point so as to easily jump in the next day. If I've ever failed to do so, I found I'd be facing mental struggle with where to pick up again with the story, and a wasteful morning of wrestling ideas and submitting them onto the page would ensue.

And my other favorite Hemingway advice for today is:
When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself. That’s the true test of writing. When you can do that, the reader gets the kick and you don’t get any. You just get hard work and the better you write the harder it is because every story has to be better than the last one. 
See the rest of Popova's article, "Hemingway's Advice on Writing...

Friday, January 15, 2016

Is There Such A Thing As Reading Too Closely?

Is it possible to identify too much with the words and fantasies of others? Yet, how far can the writer, who should be the most voracious of readers, take the act of close reading and identifying himself with the text before it goes too far and becomes an exercise in therapy?

Unless you think within all the pages of illusion and literary feats there might be lurking the perfect passages to define you, pinpoint your struggle, and somehow soothe the deepest aching of your soul.

That's what it seems David Foster Wallace did with parts of his reading life. In an interesting article written by Mike Miley called Reading Wallace Reading we learn an important, if not murky and hard to grasp lesson about the role of fiction, and every writer should define what it is or isn't about storytelling that attracts him.

It may not be all it's cranked up to be. Fiction can be a friend or a mirror for the ego, or an excuse to distract one's self from life, but when does it become a misleading factor in our lives? The Reading Wallace article talks about a passage from Don DeLillo, beside which Wallace wrote his initials DFW.

I think this passage helps me to see why I balked earlier at the idea of calling my quest in Austin a pilgrimage. These annotations are not holy relics because they restore nothing. Rather, they are simply the fears and obsessions of a damaged soul laid naked on the page, pushed to the margins but hardly marginal. A close encounter does not provide more salvation.
No one ever talks about how identifying with something you read might not always be a good thing. Saying “that’s like me” is not always an affirmation — it can be terrifying and make you feel “more fucked-up and Unknown.” Critics and fans alike rhapsodize about identifying with David Foster Wallace’s writing as though it can only be consoling and empowering, and I used to think so too, until I got too close and discovered what may be the most important truth about literature, the true “aesthetic benefit of close reading,” though I doubt the Mellon Foundation would be all that interested in hearing about my discovery, as it is beneficial only in the most cautionary of senses: there is such a thing as reading too closely.
It's almost like Wallace was looking for truths in other people's minds that he could attach to his particular quirks and personal suffering, as to give them a voice and an understanding. And yet, maybe he was searching in the wrong places? Some of the eerie silences within cannot be described in words.

What role does reading fiction play in your life? 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Coloring Characters With Language from Their Professions: Learning from Robert Ludlum

People who tell writers to make their characters like real people irk me. As Kurt Vonnegut put it in his novel Timequake, “there are enough real, living and breathing human beings on earth. Why would I want to create another one?” Which means that no matter what, your character is not living and breathing, but rather an effect of a series of letters stamped together to create meaningful sentences, which turn into paragraphs, and that is what the writer uses to drive forth the plot, and to develop that mysterious and all-important “real” character.

engraved by Robert Thew
We all know that characters in books are just products of well-orchestrated information, but many writers’ characters lack the dynamic, fluid, and well-constructed quality that most of us readers crave in our heroes and antiheroes.

One obvious way to add depth and quality to your character is by giving him or her a unique profession, and then using that profession to color the insights the character has throughout the novel. This lends credibility to your character again and again, and it should heighten the prose as well as your character will dip into new pools of language that you, the writer, might not have naturally plumbed.

For example, in Robert Ludlum’s The Holocroft Covenant, we see the master pulp fiction writer craft an architect on a secret mission to South America. There are many characters in this novel, and many plot twists, but what comes through at the right times is the protagonist, Noel Holcroft’s perceptions being those of an architect. He doesn’t see the world as a writer or a commercial airplane pilot, he notices sound structures, pressure points in infrastructure, and how well buildings are built.

As the author, you don’t want to beat the reader over the head with these insights, but when it counts, you need to set the scene with details that your main character is witnessing…and more importantly, witnessing through his primary interest in life.

The Graff state was spectacular. The view was magnificient: plains nearby, mountains in the distance, and far to the east the hazy blue of the Atlantic. The house itself was three stories high. A series of balconies rose on both sides of the central entrance: a set of massive double doors—oiled mahogany, hinged with large, pitted triangles of black iron. The effect was Alpine, as if a geometric design of many Swiss chalets were welded into one and set down on a tropical mountain (85).

You might say, “That wasn’t so spectacular. Yes, he notices a few details about the large house, but so would any other character.”

But Holcraft goes just a bit further than a politician might, or a gardener. If Ludlum’s career wasn’t to write thrillers for the masses, he might have gone further with the particular language, and really laid it on thick for literary fiction lovers (or overdo it with hysterical realists like Zadie Smith or DFW), but he knows his trade, and that’s about as wild with language as he can get. He’s got a particular story to tell. 

It's up to you to determine how much decoration is needed in your literary landscape. Make your descriptive scenes count.

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.