Friday, October 29, 2010

okay, franzen 2

NOTE: this entry is full of Spoiler Alert passages.  If you haven't read the latest Franzen, and intend to, and don't want to know anything, don't read this.  You've been warned.

Two hours later, I am still savoring that last epiloguish chapter of FREEDOM. How I feel is the way a person feels after making up with a spouse or best friend post-huge fight. Salty afterglow of mixed emotions, and oddly, not as spent as I felt 90% of the way through this crazy book.

I realize I'm about to mix metaphors, leaving spouse/best friend and moving into bad boy teenaged boyfriend territory, but I'm having a "see how I am?" moment.  As a youngster, I tiptoed to the dark side just enough to glimpse danger, but not, thank God, enough to cause the need for a lifelong balming of scars.  I've always maintained a sort of arrogant anthropological distance from crazy and/or dangerous folk, finding them fascinating but always checking behind me for the quickest escape route as I was led down the dark tunnel. What I liked best and appreciated most about FREEDOM was sensing that same distance in the narrative. I realize that this eccentricity most likely casts me in a weird minority, and I would venture that the same distance is seen as a flaw of the book by many more astute readers than myself, but there you have it.  Ironic distance, done well, trumps all for this reader.

What I liked second best [remember, future readers of FREEDOM, you've been warned] was the Joey extracting his wedding ring from his feces scene.  Oh the scatological indulgence!  Every boy child's obsession, yeah?  To linger in the concrete description of poop for several pages?  Only to be outdone by the continual micromanaged sex deconstructions--which I personally found excessive after a while.

Now, about the bitter commentary that Franzen slathered the book with: although it served the historical landscape well enough, it seemed rather incidental (and somewhat contrived) to the development of some of the characters and their predicaments.  Not all the characters, merely some of them.  But maybe that was the point.  Lalitha felt vastly cypheristic to me--though the reference to her in the very last line of the book made me cry.  But, in the storyline itself, she was sadly so two-dimensional that her actual death, buried in the middle of a cryptic paragraph,  was a shoulder-shrugger.

The wrinkled chronology: I wanted to hit Franzen for it. Truly.  I wanted to throw his tome at the back of his head.  Why did he indulge himself so by bringing in that cumbersome backstory on Walter's grandparents so late in the book?  It was a very authorial, obnoxious move, like when a musician you pay $150 to see (let's say, hypothetically, Dylan), pumps you up with a passionate performance of his best work, and then turns his back to you and the rest of the audience and steers the concert into experimental, boring shit--or worse, retunes his guitar while you stand there in the rain, blowing hot air on your hands until he starts playing again.

But overall, you got to admit, the guy is an amazing writer.  His clarity, his perfect sentences, his incredibly well-developed irony, the juggling he had to do to pull off any sort of a halfway satisfying ending with all those damn characters he peppered into the prose.  The way he infused the freedom metaphor in myriad ways. Whew!  I bow to you, Jonathan Franzen, mostly I do. And, because I said I would, here are the remaining top five reasons I bow.

1. unflinching ring-in-the-shit scene
2. finding a wonderful and heartfelt way to show Walter's complexities at the end of the book (he was annoyingly underdeveloped for me until then--then, suddenly, I got him)
3. pretty masterful redemption of the main characters given their shitty behavior throughout the book
4. reasonable attempt to tackle political shifts over time through interesting characters (though I have to let this percolate for a while, because I suspect I'll find this less successful upon reflection)
5. not one typo or out of place word in the whole 562 pages

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

okay, franzen...

Walter and Patty Berglund. And Richard Katz. Yup, I'm slogging through FREEDOM (about 2/5 of the way through) and I have to say. The book is ambitious. Not to be reductive, but here are the top ten things I like thus far:

1. Imagining Franzen poring over his sentences to make sure his semicolon use is correct and that he's been consistent with Katz's elitist self-deprecation.
2. As always, the unrelentingly effective use of ironic distance.
3. That crazy Eliza chick. (If not for her, Patty would be suffering even more from unlikeable main character syndrome.)
4. The passage shortly into 2004 where Katz gives the kid an interview and slathers himself with gracelessness right before the novel takes a huge swerve. Masterfully done!
5. The twisted, fucked up Patty-Walter-Richard thing. Nice tension.

Okay. I stopped at five. I'm going to save the next five for the next part of the book, which I hope to plunge into as soon as my chores and work and other crap are done. Now, onto the stuff that pisses me off.

1. Joey? I'm not buying any of the Joey set up. That chapter that worked as a stand alone in the New Yorker? Does not work in the novel at large. Yet. Maybe that'll change as the context of it morphs with the next half of the book.
2. Patty's parents. Huh? I'm missing something huge here. Seems that Franzen could have referenced them occasionally in the subsequent chapters, as her actions warrant some sort of backstory flashpoint. I'm talking about the slightest recall from Patty's weird upbringing brought to bear on some of her "autobiography" section. We don't want to dislike her so much!
3. Walter is an enigma. We are told too much about him and don't see him in action enough. I'd like to see Walter and Patty play hoops together. Will that ever happen?
4. Jessica? There is scant mention of her, then she pops up with scathing dialogue during the "parents weekend" thing, where it's clear that she's simply inserted to better pay off Patty's sink into poor choice-making.
5. Patty's self-satisfied sister whose name escapes me because, again, she was inserted, me suspects, merely to make a case for the shocking shittiness of Patty's family of origin. I'd like to see her come back and opine on the goings on at Ramsey Hill before the Berglunds up and move to DC.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

crush of the month

Don't you just love having a crush on a book and its author? I'm not talking about creepy stalker sort of stuff. I mean, when a sentence stops you cold and you keep rereading it 'cause its beautiful, lyrical and new.

I felt this way about Michelle Huneven's BLAME a few months back, and I sort of fall in and out of crush with Franzen's FREEDOM (the density of his sentences alternately engages and annoys me), but my crush of the month is Laurie Halse Anderson's WINTERGIRLS.

Anderson is the writer whose selectively banned debut book SPEAK heralded the Speak Loudly campaign earlier this month. I'm reading SPEAK, like it pretty well, but WINTERGIRLS is so asskickingly good, it's a hard follow up. I was loath to get to the last page of it I liked it so much, but now, a week after finishing it, it lingers like a supremely satisfying meal at a five-star restaurant.

Perfectly paced, ingeniously conceived and written with startling authority in the first person voice of a seriously troubled 18-yr-old girl, the book takes wonderful risks, and seems to follow a vision that defies YA convention on all fronts: syntax, grammar, love interest (or lack thereof, for the only potential heartthrob turns out to be...*SPOILER* a jerk).

The thing I love most about WINTERGIRLS, however, is Anderson's lyricism. A quality I find lacking in many popular YA books. Often, language takes a back seat to plot and concept, and shortcuts abound on the sentence level. The musicality of WINTERGIRLS is phenomenal. Anderson channels the voice of her character, Lia, and never lets down. Not for a minute. The book soars with energy, from the opening line to the end. It's dangerous, delicious and dark, in a way that I find many YA books skirt in favor of the blockbuster moments: the dystopian constructs, the shape-shifting monsters, the big, bloody battles.

In WINTERGIRLS, I found a powerful, true, gorgeous arc, relateable and contemporary, yet uniquely voiced and constructed. A hard act to follow.

Now, back to the long-and-winding Franzen tome.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

NaNoWriMo 2009 Redux

The writers' marathon month is upon us once again; the social media airwaves are all atwitter and abuzz. I shan't be taking part this year (I think instead I'll sign up for NaNoReMo, 'cause finally I'm top of list at the library for the Franzen), but last year, I plopped my tush on the 'rhoid pillow and dove in, and scrubbed out a good 40Kpages words

(I wrote only a half a novel, sigh).
A yearish later, here are my take-aways:

1. Characters CAN be forced into being
2. I'm sloppy when I'm fast
3. Plot is, and always will be, my downfall
4. Writers are obsessive. But in a good way.
5. All writers who spend more than 2 hours a day at their craft should invest in ergonomic set-ups.
6. The occasional "lost weekend" is reasonable for a writer; a "lost month" when you have a family--you gonna pay!
7. Community is important (so is nightly Scotch)
8. Consider inviting other WriMos in your "group" to post their last paras of the day in a FB message. I did this w/ my friends and it was incentivizing
9. Get your massages lined up. One per week. Seriously. Or trade bodywork w/ others.
10. Don't take the resulting output too seriously. It'll probably be mostly shit, but there will be several gems to glean from it.

I know #10 won't be a popular point, but, when I look back at the digital ink I spilled in Nov 2009, I see lots of cool parts, but the sum of them is head-scratchingly obtuse. I'm not saying that'll be true for everyone, but, as in the Perfect Storm, in order for a novel that's pooped out in a month to be draft-worthy, plot, passion, and people have to align in an enduring way. Just 'cause it's November doesn't mean they will.

Have fun kids!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

imitative fallacy. again.

I'm reposting this blog entry because, given the google searches that drive people to let's talk about writing, "imitative fallacy" tops the list. So, without further adieu, here's a recycled tidbit, originally posted two years ago.

The summer before last I went to Salt Lake City for the Writers at Work conference. In workshop with Steve Almond, I was introduced to the term "imitative fallacy." Until then, I'd always called the concept, "A boring story about a boring man." It was a Dangerous Writing caution: you must avoid falling into the trap of adopting the narrative tools of your narrator when telling a story—unless your narrator is a gifted story teller. It's up to the writer to craft a compelling story, even if your main character is an idiot. Or, in the case of Stairway of Love's Fifi, an emotionally disconnected scientist.

Part of the challenge I'm facing is because, like Fifi, I'm sort of a geek. I'm not as smart or as educated as Fifi, but I think I share with her the tendency to cause glazed eyes when I go off on one of my conceptual epiphanies. In workshop a few weeks ago, I shared a first draft of a critical scene at the end of the novel's first act. There's a lot going on in the scene, four people all doing something different, and the anticipation of an important family gathering. But something goes amiss, and in trying to unpack the tension leading up to that something, I'm trying to shine the light on an activity that serves as a metaphor for the whole first act. The activity is boiling live lobsters. But, remember, this is a laboratory scientist boiling these lobsters, so it's fitting to engage in some of the character's unique sensibilities while she's boiling these creatures alive.

Even though she's cool as a cucumber while reporting the killing of the lobsters, I need to show how her body betrays the coolness. I need to demonstrate that she's not heartless lest the reader be too turned off to care about her. I have to mitigate imitative fallacy by revealing, somehow, Fifi's broken heart—or at least her discomfort, while still letting the reader know she's a nerd:

These lobsters will take fifteen minutes in the boiling water before their antennae pull out with ease—the old Watch Hill litmus test. But they remain alive in that boiling pot for the first of those minutes. And that’s why I do what I do.

In the lab, we call this the Kevorkian Rapid Unconsciousness Method. K-Rum. Disable the frontal ganglion. Ice pick to the forehead.

I reach into the rubbery pail and grasp the first victim. Lou, I name him. A slimy handful, this big boy. His eyestalks wag like Egon’s tail. I look away as I set him on the cutting board and reach for the large brass nail and hammer. I am horrible. A monster. But my dying cousin wants a lobster dinner tonight, so that’s what she shall have. Lou-the-Lobster is wriggling his ten little legs. His experience of the air must be like being drowned. A person’s horror at being held underwater against her will. A maneuver like this requires a little anesthetic. The Beefeaters bottle—a Watch Hill kitchen counter staple—glistens in the spill of sun through the transom. A half dozen highball glasses still remain in the cupboard and offer themselves up, I like to think, eagerly.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

the waltz of authority and failure

One of the most important lessons I learned working with Tom Spanbauer and the brilliant minds around his table, had to do with authority. That illusive, seductive note in writing that forces the reader's attention to the page, and therefore, the world inside the page.

Tom had a fabulous way of ramming the concept home by example. He could isolate the moment in a passage where the writer disappeared and the narrator was now whispering in the reader's ear. So intimate. So breathtaking. And it was, Tom said, this very act of eliminating everything but the music--the song--between creator and receiver, that established the sort of authority that pulled the audience along the journey. It's the desire for this--oh, let's just call it what it is--lovemaking, that propels the writer forward, and also, keeps him/her coming back to the page to get it that much closer.

So last weekend Michael Cunningham had a terrific op-ed piece in the New York Times that spoke of this very thing. In his essay, Cunningham arrives at this haunting, and, sadly, all-too familiar experience for the novelist in regards to the way words end up failing to translate exactly what has been gestating in the mind of the writer:

"A novel, any novel, if it’s any good, is not only a slightly disappointing translation of the novelist’s grandest intentions, it is also the most finished draft he could come up with before he collapsed from exhaustion."

Okay, this is my Achilles heel, I'll admit it. It's what drives me, frustrates me, compels me and is responsible for more than one shattered ceramic mug and Rorschach coffee stain on my office wall. The thing in the head is never quite translated to the page, and when I go back and peruse my published stories and essays in books and journals, I am loath to the process because I invariably edit. As Cunningham admits, "It’s all I can do not to go from bookstore to bookstore with a pen, grabbing my books from the shelves, crossing out certain lines I’ve come to regret and inserting better ones."

Ah, but luckily I read on after that passage instead of nodding my head, setting the paper down, and thinking that I'd gotten the gist, and, indeed, agreed with the gist, end of editorial--because Cunningham offered a solution, and it was a solution that I longed to resist.

It seems that what helped Cunningham break through his solipsistic angst was to acknowledge "the other," e.g. the reader. And not just a generic reader either. He realized that in order to follow the arc of translation, a writer must consider a very specific niche of reader. For Cunningham, this was a co-worker at a restaurant where he worked at the time, and what she brought to the process was her own unique take, desires and opinions that were necessarily cleaved from those of the creator--him. Ergo, a concrete outcome for an otherwise overly existential process that never ends, which was Cunningham's method (I think) for arriving at a satisfying end to a given body of work.

So, with my latest work-in-progress, I'm at that very place. The Princess Chronicles is now in the hands of various readers who have offered and will offer suggestions for its improvement based on their own, as Cunningham puts it, "private, imaginary lexicon."