Friday, June 29, 2012

"Silas Marner" by George Eliot

"Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us any more than without us: there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud." (55)

What a smart lady. I mean...


Mary Ann Evans just knocks me out.

In this passage from Silas Marner, the opening for this hopeful, arresting aphorism is Eliot's description of Silas's slow re-introduction to society after the weaver's small fortune has been stolen. It takes a hundred pages more and the arrival of a mysterious toddler for Silas to bloom, but the process starts early and isn't readily apparent.

The line reminds me powerfully of the virtue of patience, that our lives are becoming while they are not in full bloom.

It also calls to mind Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man", which, despite (maybe because of) its absurdity and the low, threatening beat, has always sounded hopeful to me, wonderful in the truest sense. Something is happening and you don't know what it is... When it doesn't scare the bejeezus out of me, I think it is among the very best reasons for living.

P.S. If you've never read Eliot, Silas Marner might make a good start. It's short and showcases Eliot's ability to tell a complete, rounded tale with all the lose ends tied (actual happy endings!) and to still leave you with questions because she's a master of psychological realism. Who can say if Providence stole Marner's gold and eventually gave him a little girl or whether all was coincidence? It's a mystery, and Eliot is as aware as any writer ever was that the stories we tell are always partial truths.

P.P.S. thanks to Ebony (and the anonymous soul who left this book in her office) and to Colin (who pulled this book off his shelf very soon after Ebony mentioned it without knowing I'd think it was a sign)

Monday, June 25, 2012

"No One's a Mystery" by Elizabeth Tallent

"'I'm not wrong,' he said. 'And her breath would smell like your milk, and it's kind of a bittersweet smell, if you want to know the truth.'"

Elizabeth Tallent's very short story (it's under 1000 words) "No One's a Mystery," is like Chekhov's "Gusev" for me because it's the ending, the final sentence, that catapults the piece to a place that feels at once surprising and inevitable. I would like both stories without their final sentences, but not nearly so much. 

Tallent's final line, spoken by Jack to his eighteen-year-old lover as they careen down the highway hiding from his wife, pushes the dramatic irony to new heights and reverses our expectations. We want to believe that his lover is right, that in a year they'll be married, have children, still be in love. It's pretty obvious Jack's not the greatest guy for her, but we're in her point-of-view. She's so powerless, hiding under the seat with Jack's hand on her head, and so idealistic. Wouldn't it be nice?

By the end, we've realized the only really nice thing about Jack is that he understands the relationship has to end, that he really does believe his version of the story and has good reasons to. He has experience. He knows the breath of an infant won't smell like vanilla, that this girl will forget him. As readers, we know what both characters believe, and know, too, that they can't believe one another. 

The story's length also reminds me that in great writing every word is used, that we don't always need many words to do a lot. 

Sudden Fiction is a great anthology full of literary short-shorts—lots of big names with pieces on writing at the end. You can also read Tallent's story online. And here's the Roseanne Cash song ("It Hasn't Happened Yet") they're listening to, sung by Rick Nelson and Roseanne herself

Saturday, June 23, 2012

"How to Tell a True War Story" by Tim O'Brien

"How do you generalize?
     War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead."

I've been thinking about O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story" (the seventh piece in the collection/novel The Things They Carried) because I've been thinking about teaching. How do you explain that successful works of art combine resolution, a feeling of completeness, with irresolution, the sense that some other alternative, a wolf with great teeth or the ghost of a murderous white whale, waits just outside the door? We can say, "It is both ways, many ways, never one," but that is only a rule, a generalization, useful, but abstracted instead of actual. 

O'Brien's story gives us the generalizations paired, and that helps. It engages the mind's logic, the drive toward inquiry. How do you generalize? How do you tell a true war story? How do you tell any true story? It's the piece's main line of tension. As we read, we think we may come closer to an answer. We also get more pieces of the dramatic war story interspersed with the speaker's attempt to answer questions, but we know the essentials very early on: Rat Kiley's best friend "gets killed" (75). 

But that line doesn't say what's essential, and alone, no line in the story can. No single line any writer could pen would capture it. It needs to be told over and over again: "You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever" (83). 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"An American Childhood" by Annie Dillard

"It was an immense discovery, pounding into my hot head with every sliding, joyous step, that this ordinary adult evidently knew what I thought only children who trained at football knew: that you have to fling yourself at what you're doing, you have to point yourself, forget yourself, aim, dive." (47)

Re-typing Dillard's line immediately put this song in my head. It was this moment in An American Childhood that convinced me I really liked the book. She's describing being chased through the 1950s Pittsburgh after hitting the windshield of a black Buick with a soft snowball, "right before the driver's face". Her anecdote contains none of the conventional judgment you might expect: We should have been more careful, or, perhaps more satisfying, It felt good to be bad. 

The driver chases Dillard and her friend, Mikey, "silently over picket fences, through thorny hedges, between houses, around garbage cans, and across streets". He never quits. 

He catches them, but it doesn't really matter. All he can say is, "You stupid kids". 

The chase was the thing, the process. "The point was that he had chased us passionately without giving up, and so he had caught us. Now he came down to earth. I wanted the glory to last forever".

P.S. Another favorite line from later in the book. Dillard describes her teenage encounter with Giacometti's "Man Walking". "Artists, for their part, noticed the things that engaged the mind's private and idiosyncratic interior, that area where the life of the senses mingles with the life of the spirit: the shattering of life into color, and the way it shades off a round bend. The humble attention painters gave to the shadow of a stalk, or the reflected sheen under a chin, or the lapping layers of long strokes, included and extended the scientists' vision of each least thing as unendingly interesting. But artists laid down the vision in the form of beauty bare—Man Walking—radiant and fierce, inexplicable, and without the math" (213). 

Monday, June 18, 2012

"Giovanni's Room" by James Baldwin

" can give each other something which will make both of you better—forever—if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe." (77)

View from apartment rental via Haven in Paris via A Cup of Jo

James Baldwin knows drama. Don't you love the four quoted words on the cover of the 1964 edition below? (It's the one I readlucky me, someone left it in my office.) ""

They're actually a great way to describe the 1956 novel. It is, in a word, red. The characters bleed, fall in love hard. They're life-or-death desperate, and so are many of the speeches they make to one another, including the one above. It's Jacques vehemently trying to convince the main character, David, to love Giovanni. "Love him," Jacques says. "Love him and let him love you."

It's refreshing to read a book dramatic enough to be marketed as pulp that also manages to be literary, and I think, art. "Literary" fiction (and those of us trying to write it) can so often be strangled by subtlety. Baldwin is a reminder that characters (and people) are allowed to be sentimental and mawkish and, yes, even melodramatic so long as the narrative extends beyond  melodrama. 

Toward the end, when Giovanni and David say goodbye, you can all but picture Giovanni in a juicy made-for-TV movie, bawling and screaming: "You have never loved anyone, I am sure you never will! You love your purity, you love your mirror—you are just like a little virgin, you walk around with your hands in front of you as though you had some precious metal, gold, silver rubies, maybe diamonds down there between your legs! You will never give it to anybody, you will never let anybody touch it—man or woman. You want to be clean" (187). 

It's entertaining as hell, but it's also an effective piece in the whole because David loves this man, hates him, and in the end, doesn't know what to do with him or his experience. It transcends categorization. He rips up the last pieces he has of Giovanni and throws them to the wind, "Yet... the wind blows some of them back" (224). 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

"Prayer" by Jorie Graham

"This is the force of faith. Nobody gets / what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing / is to be pure. What you get is to be changed."

The first poem entitled "Prayer" (the collection has three) in Jorie Graham's 2002 collection, Never, has a way of re-emerging in my psyche every few years. I always want to return to the book, which is beautiful lots of white space and almost square to accommodate Graham's expansive lines. 

It is always such a pleasure to open the book, begin with minnows, and arrive so quickly, so perfectly at  "The longing / is to be pure. What you get is to be changed." It is one of those lines that names an experience I have all the time and holds it in a little glass bubble for a moment. I think we usually name the longing "perfectionism", but the word is over-used, sounds trite, and really, how often do we encounter the concept and think of it as a goal, the thing to aim for?

I also love the change in tone at the end, the speaker trying to hold onto something, the sense of urgency, and the sense of brushing that urgency off when the sand can no longer be held: "Listen, I was not saying anything. It was only / something I did."

Do something. Read this poem.


Over a dock railing, I watch the minnows, thousands, swirl
themselves, each a minuscule muscle, but also, without the 
way to create current, making of their unison (turning, re-
entering and exiting their own unison in unison) making of themselves a 
visual current, one that cannot freight or sway by
minutest fractions the water's downdrafts and upswirls, the
dockside cycles of finally-arriving boat-wakes, there where
they hit deeper resistance, water that seems to burst into 
itself (it has those layers), a real current though mostly
invisible sending into the visible (minnows) arrowing 
                                 motion that forces change—
this is freedom. This is the force of faith. Nobody gets
what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing
is to be pure. What you get is to be changed. More and more by
each glistening minute, through which infinity threads itself, 
also oblivion, of course, the aftershocks of something
at sea. Here, hands full of sand, letting it sift through
in the wind, I look in and say take this, this is
what I have saved, take this, hurry. And if I listen
now? Listen, I was not saying anything. It was only 
something I did. I could not choose words. I am free to go. 
I cannot of course come back. Not to this. Never.
It is a ghost posed on my lips. Here: never. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

"Unknown Bards" by John Jeremiah Sullivan

"Part of hearing the blues is taking away the sociological filter, which with good but misguided intentions we allow to develop before our senses..." (270)

The first book I read after completing my M.F.A. in fiction was nonfiction, a collection of essays called Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. You might have heard of it. It's been pretty popular. And it's good, the kind of reading you can do outside and still feel intellectually stimulated. It's 365 pages of keeping company with someone entertaining and smart who knows way more than you about things like animal attacks, One Tree Hill, Michael Jackson, Christian Rock, and mysterious blues legends.

But what really stuck with me were two rather unassuming quotes buried in the essay "Unknown Bards". The first is above. Here's the other: "We have to go against our training and suspend anthropological thinking here; it doesn't serve at these strata" (275).

Sullivan's larger exploration is of two books (Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of Blues and Marybeth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues: The White Invention of Black Music) that acknowledge and discuss the "baroque aestheticization of early black Southern music by white men" (Sullivan, 268). Within the essay these snippets remind us that jumping to conclusions about art, aiming to categorize it, can lead to a very problematic fetishism, but I held onto them because they remind me how essential first responses are to my experience of literature. When I go after a piece with my craft filter (i.e. how is this working? what is the writer doing here?) first, there's no point. I'm not allowing the piece to simply be what it is; it will leave me cold. But if I turn the filter off to begin and allow my senses to develop first, if the work is good, I'll get to that higher strata.

Monday, June 4, 2012

"Gusev" by Anton Chekhov

"Seeing this magnificent, enchanting sky, the ocean frowns at first, but soon itself takes on such tender, joyful, passionate colors as human tongue can hardly name." (Pevear & Volokhonsky trans.)

"Gusev" is one of my very favorite stories, and its final line (above) reliably produces in me as much awe, wonder, and sheer happiness as staring up at a snow-capped peak or a black sky loaded with stars. Of course, I have to read the rest of the story first. It chronicles the last days of two soldiers in a ship's sick bay and is full of pitch-perfect psychological insights, but what makes the story truly special are the moments when Chekhov leaves the real world and shocks us with a healthy dose of wonder.

When Gusev dies we follow his body as it is sewn up in canvas and he "comes to resemble a carrot or a black radish" (Virginia Woolf liked this line too). The other soldiers prepare to throw him into the waves. "Can it really happen to anyone?" the story asks. Gusev is borne down by the current, but as he descends he "sways rhythmically, as if pondering, and, borne by the current, drifts more quickly sideways than down." He meets some pilot fish and a shark. Both are cruel, but we don't judge them for it the way we judged the men on the ship. It is simply their nature. Above, the sky puts on a show: "one cloud resembles a triumphal arch, another a lion, a third a pair of scissors... A broad green shaft comes from behind the clouds and stretches to the very middle of the sky..." And just like me, the ocean is skeptical at first, "frowns," "but soon itself takes on such tender, joyful, passionate colors as human tongue can hardly name."