Tag Archives: Tributes

Greetings From Austenland

388px-Jane_Austen_coloured_versionAs an English teacher and someone who devotes considerable time to writing, I’m always interpreting and positioning words. Every day, I look for (and create) patterns, searching for fresh and resourceful arrangements that communicate thoughts separate from my physical setting. I suspect my world is different from some people’s. At least, I hope they experience life more directly—without so much analysis, commentary, or judgment.

Reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park hasn’t been good for me. Austen’s hikes through internal landscapes make mine look like speedboat tours. Ten minutes of Fanny Price’s thinking—roughly four pages—considers seven angles on one aspect of Mr. Crawford’s reaction to her body language after his failed proposal. Sir Thomas says six words before the 500 addressing their meaning to him, the situation, relationships (past, present and future), and the nature of social interaction in general.

I’m barely exaggerating. Austen’s prose evokes thoughts and emotions so subtle I start to feel like a cartoon chameleon crossing plaid. It’s hard to keep up.

Early on in life we’re taught to anticipate, rewarded for guessing, and urged to see beyond this moment. History and current events interpret more than they report, and we assess now by comparing it to our expectations. Partly, that’s what humans do. Our survival relies on seeing some distance. Yet many religious traditions—particularly Buddhism—encourage us to “be here now,” to allow “present” to live up to its name.

Austen would make a lousy Buddhist. After reading Mansfield Park, I step out of the novel as off a treadmill. The world won’t be still. The implications of every moment outrace time, and everything is more (and less) than it seems. Here’s Edmund Bertram telling Fanny about his angsty courtship of Miss Crawford:

I know her disposition as sweet and faultless as your own, but the influence of the former companions makes her seem—gives to her conversation, to her professed opinions, sometimes a tinge of wrong. She does not think evil, but she speaks it, speaks it in playfulness; and though I know it to be playfulness, it grieves me to the soul.

Meaning slips and slides all over the page as Edmund asserts what he knows (but clearly doesn’t, or he wouldn’t need to speak) and then unravels it in repeated reclassification and qualification (her professed opinions, echoed from former companions, to her conversation, sometimes, a tinge, speaking but not thinking, only playfully). What do you grip here?

Before Edmund begins the attempted explanation above, he tells Fanny he “Can’t get the better of ” his thoughts, and, the trouble is, neither can I. What’s actual and imagined switches places constantly. Austen loves characters who build reality from ideas that carry them far away from here-and-now. I go with them.

The 2013 movie Austenland (based on the novel by Shannon Hale) describes Jane Hayes’ (Kerri Russell) visit to a theme park based on Austen’s novels. She spills her savings to go, and (without spoiling too much for you) discovers only the fruition of Austen’s stories satisfy. The rest—murky motives, couched comments, pretense that isn’t really but could be, and notions of yourself and others neither you nor any other person can pin down—all that is a special sort of agony, a ring of hell Austen’s romantic reputation doesn’t advertise.

For me, Samuel Becket has nothing on Jane Austen. He may give a reader little to assemble into meaning, but she gives so much that, at least until the last few chapters, won’t assemble. No surprise, then, when Jane of Austenland decides, “I don’t want to play anymore… I want something real.” That’s my reaction too.

Don’t get me wrong. Austen’s effect does her credit. I admire her artistry. Sometimes, I just wish she weren’t so good, so in sync with the way I perceive, think, feel, and live. She makes me hungry for moments my mind quiets, the positions, angles, and relations of objects become plain, the scene around me solidifies, and the sun discovers a room more real than my mind’s wanderings.

I think, “Hey, it’s pretty nice here. I really should get out of my head more.”

 

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On Will

spockWhen I first watched Star Trek, Spock affected me most. Captain Kirk was bolder, Scotty more resourceful, Bones more lovable, but Spock’s cool calm made him enviable. At the time, his logic was my ideal, and he sticks with me still.

In one episode, “Amok Time,” Spock experiences all adolescence in a fortnight—pon farr, a rage of hormones so intense that it floods him with lethal levels of adrenaline. The episode opens with Spock throwing Nurse Chapell’s offering of soup against a hallway wall. He composes himself long enough to request a leave of absence to visit Vulcan but can’t say why. Kirk agrees, then, when diplomacy moves Starfleet to divert the ship to another planet, Spock must admit his problem is “biology,” a need to mate as powerful as a salmon’s swim upstream. He says “biology” with such shame it’s clear he wants nothing to do with inconvenient bodily processes, emotion, or expressions of personal desire.

The first time I saw the episode, that’s what I wanted too, complete control over longing, the power to suppress every impulse. Spock tells Kirk that pon farr, “Stips our minds from us, brings a madness which rips away our veneer of civilization.” My veneer has never been glued down especially well and, back then, it kept getting ripped away by innocent teasing, by precipitous attachments to girls who never liked me enough, by thundering anger and sudden unaccountable tears. Even in pon farr ‘s throes, Spock remains articulate and controlled, exactly the sort of adolescence I sought.

That yearning for self-regulation has hardly left me. Even now, I engage in daily staring contests with acts that require self-discipline—willing myself to work out, to count calories, to write in my journal and sketch, to work on my next blog post, to create a to-do list each morning I’ll pursue all day. None of it will abide looking away. Spock never blinks, and if I do, some lazy, inconvenient, momentary urge wins over will. And, being less than what I want to be, I lose.

In “Amok Time,” Spock hopes to be spared his biology but, in real life, who can truly avoid feeling? My negotiations with emotion seem melodramatic, but the issue can’t be uncommon. I’ve learned, as Spock does, “The ancient drives are too strong. Eventually they catch up with us. We are driven by forces we cannot control.”

“It would be illogical to protest against our natures,” he tells Nurse Chapell.

I know that—and know how ridiculous it is to look to Star Trek for adolescent survival strategies—but, at that time, everything in my family felt like a contest to me. If you idly balanced a yardstick on your index finger, someone could do it longer. Someone could hide in a smaller space for more minutes or think of another name that began with B or present some trivia you didn’t know or ride a bike around the block faster. I obsessed over being or doing just one thing better than my siblings.

As I was a volatile child, the contests involving self-regulation had the greatest stakes—who could finish an ice cream cone last or win a game of “The next one to speak is a monkey for a week.” When an advertisement for Lays Potato Chips claimed no one could eat just one, I watched my family consume the whole bag before I crowed victory, my uneaten chip in my palm under the table. I counted licks of a Tootsie Pop without biting it… many times. I meant never to indicate anger or disappointment. Inevitably, I failed. So I tried harder.

My days repeat (and repeat) the age-old contest between stoicism and hedonism, debates over whether life’s purpose is nobility or pleasure. Most people let pleasure win, which goads me on. No one will regard me as lax or accuse me of choosing the easy way by going with the crowd, giving in, or giving up

Something won’t surrender—I’m determined, productive, diligent, ruminative, and not particularly happy. It hasn’t made me particularly any emotion. Most days I just tire and can’t push my sled anymore. It’s quite heavy and lacks dogs, nice slippery spots, and hills to coast down. It’s a blocking sled, really.

Instead I worry time has spent my inner Spock. My handwriting shows its age. The arches of n, h, and m have melted, the loops of o, p, e, d, and b are closed to daylight, and the lifts between letters drag, tripping at each attempt to leap another height. Once I took pride in writing neatly, fluently, and legibly. Penmanship was like any art—any activity—and required practice of the right sort, the kind that includes consistent effort and willful vigilance, commitment to do more than good-enough.

Though I like to believe I’ve abandoned Spock, scanning my handwriting reveals haste and capitulation to fatigue and utility. I can make-out what I’ve written—it hasn’t come to that yet!—but I can’t stand to look. “I used to try harder,” I say, “where has my discipline gone?”

The conclusion of “Amok Time” seems laughable now, typically Star Trek, with its philosophical overtones drowned by gaudy sets, Dutch angles, transparent stunt-double combat, loud soundtrack music, and a deus ex machina. Spock survives his pon farr, forms another tie with Kirk, and gets a smile out of it. The madness of Spock’s amok time, Bones says, may be “The price [Vulcans] pay for having no emotions the rest of the time.” While that certainly makes sense, the melodrama seems staged. Deadened feelings, numb routines, amplified editing and denial are just as likely costs as explosive outbursts.

My experience tells me so. Even now, Spock is at my shoulder whispering to buck up, toughen up, and shut up and, this late in the series, who could exorcise him?

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Seeing Surprises

WheIannmen my son was very young, he told me he’d drawn a dragon on his play table. They weren’t his first marks there, so I needed to know what color he’d used to find this dragon amid the commotion of his earlier flailing. He held up a green marker, the color of new moss. I saw shapes in green, unclosed boxes, drunken circles, sinuous lines attached at one end.

Then I recognized what he meant. The shape was the first real, perceptible thing he’d drawn. The dragon was there, its eyes and scales and a second color—a lurid red—fanning from its mouth. They were flames, he said. I saw that.

Next week, my son graduates from college and a similar revelation lurks—funny how individual days amount to something recognizable at last. All the evenings at the kitchen table sighing over math problems or another wacky paragraph of The American Pageant or an online physics quiz led to something too, his graduation from high school four years ago.

But that I witnessed. Now I only see college pictures—he’s dressed up, standing with friends at a party, or hidden in sunglasses attending some sunny celebration. I don’t see him work or study, don’t experience the marks of knowledge and understanding amassing and something forming in the mess.

Over the phone, he sometimes tells me about a class, paper, or lecture but usually impatiently, always assuming—rightly—my limited comprehension. I like to think he believes me capable of understanding, but I’d have to be there to truly get it. Not being there sometimes seems the central quality of our new relationship, and, of course, I miss him.

And, thinking about his graduation is a little like realizing every mark on his play table is one unnoted image. When children are born, no one says you’ll discover they’re strangers. No one mentions the alien things they do and make and think on their own, quite apart from anything you give experientially or genetically. No one says they will surprise you or that, ultimately, it’s all surprise, a cascade of shock starting with the first identifiable word.

I know my son is anxious about what’s next, and in these times I don’t blame him. His mom and I are nervous too, but mostly we’re proud, happy to accept whatever credit people want to give us for who he’s become, but well aware he’s responsible. His voracious curiosity began the moment he opened his eyes and has hardly paused since. He and his sister are the brilliant lights of our lives.

Once he learned to speak he talked all day, from the moment he woke to the moment he slipped into sleep mid-sentence. Like any parent I still see that little boy when I look at him in tie or tux, but I also know everything he’s made himself. I’m sure he worries it isn’t enough, and some employer will ask for more. I hope he can put his apprehension aside and pause to celebrate his accomplishment. My wife and I care less about what others might want from him and more about what he wants, his continuing desire to learn and do and play and work and feel.

We are in awe of our beautiful stranger.

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15 Specious Novel Openings

Psyche-and-Cupid-300x200A colleague sent me a list of famous opening lines from stories and novels—some usual suspects like “Call me Ishmael” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” and some I didn’t know, like “It was the day my grandmother exploded” (Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road, 1992) and “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass” (Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond, 1956). That last one, my colleague pointed out, was the only dialogue in “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels.”

I’ve been ill this week and haven’t the concentration or will to write much, so I’m posting 15 opening lines for imaginary fiction. I’ve also supplied pretend titles and years to reflect styles of the time, and, yes, one uses dialogue. If you read a lot, you may recognize I’m parroting writers I’ve encountered.

Here goes:

1. He found nowhere to sit, which annoyed him, and the hammering conversation, laughter, synthpop, and his third gin and tonic compounded the headache that met him at the door. (Silverhair, 1985)

2. Sydney put his hat on the shelf in the coat closet and called his wife’s name. (Sydney Burroughs, 1938)

3. She wiped the blood from her finger onto her cheek and giggled. (Polly, 1971)

4. When Henry Stanbury cleared the mist within the carriage window with his ungloved hand, he discovered another layer of grey without, a city half-hidden in fog, and a few drifting souls making and breathing the steam of reluctant dawn. (Castle Palace, 1862)

5. The last thing to worry about, I’ve discovered, is finding something to eat. (The Farrier’s Promise, 2004)

6. There was a mole to begin with, but that was enough. (The Medical Expert, 1925)

7. I could have told you my brother lied about our parents and all the good they did for strangers because I grew up in the same house and watched them every morning put on masks and become strangers themselves. (Glad Is Your Reward, 1956)

8. “You must understand, lapshichka,” Grandpa would say, “no woman thinks first of the circus.” (The Beaten Road, 1978)

9. The noontime sun slanting through the jail window reached just his foot, and he dipped his toes into and out of the light considering (with no success) when in his drunk wandering he’d taken his shoe off. (The Coopers, 1948)

10. Our house blazed all night to neighbors’ oohs and aahs. (Miranda, 1996)

11. The screen door snapped shut behind him, and he turned to face a kitchen scene including Theodora Roos retching in the sink, her children spooning Alpha Bits into their maws, and Theodora’s husband Kenny reading or, more properly, shouting from a letter announcing the failure of their appeal and the imminent evaporation of all their hopes for a substantial settlement. (The Passage of Night Planes, 1966)

12. The bay stilled as the sun fell, and the city’s lights shone on its surface like jewels in gunmetal. (Pyroglyph, 1986)

13. Those well familiar with the affair counted it as indeed fortunate more damage to young Crosswick’s reputation did not accrue from his misstep, but Frederick Crosswick was not finished yet. (A Spring in Mercia, 1896)

14. I wasn’t there, but when I was twelve a boy named Otto who lived just down the block died when he fell from a tree and onto his bicycle. (Ithaca, 2009)

15. Every book begins by announcing itself—think of the blast of the ship horn and it’s done. (When the Moon Droops, trans. from Italian, 1989)

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Trespassing

Today, fiction:broken-window2

“A stack of photos”

He didn’t need to say it. His brain labeled what he saw, and he was alone. Yet, something said he should push his voice into the air, so he did.

These pictures didn’t belong to him and captured moments he never witnessed. They depicted strangers, and, though he felt something in the smiles, he was sure he’d feel more if he, like the photographer, turned a camera to returned affection.

His mother once took photographs on Easter and Christmas. Evidence had long disappeared, but they’d been a family. His father stayed over. He slept, as other fathers must—he thought—in bedrooms dim with sleep and company, curtains heavy and drawn, light seeping only where privacy allowed. So often, on Saturday mornings, he’d found his mother and father entwined. Before it became just her.

After his father left for good, she snapped at him. He might fight back.

This stack of photos described time. Some of the subjects aged, and the places seemed somehow aged too, as if they’d absorbed the colors of an era—harvest gold, avocado, a gray indigo no one liked much but chose anyway.

He shuffled rectangles and found so little to impede him. “Yes, yes, yes,” the images slid by, greased by months and years insisting on progress.

“You bastard,” he said. He hit a patch where the same woman’s face stuttered through frame and frame, neck tipped back, eyes half shuttered, smile stretched because nothing, nothing, nothing restrained it.

One evening, his sister asked, “Do you remember how she was with him? Did she love him?”

He said, “Yes,” less out of belief and more because his sister desired an answer.

When she invited men home, he knew not to believe. He looked into their smiles and sought warmth. He found need akin to his own, expedience.

Tilting sun and fading will told him he must leave soon, but he’d seen no image he had to have, no moment irrepressible, no intimacy to borrow. He hated taking just anything when, if he waited, at any moment, the choice might land as in a saddle, perfect for galloping.

The usual panic rose. He’d be seen, known. Slipping past image after image, he saw lives piled in undifferentiated masses, misery compounded by desperation, desire by short-lived satisfaction, dreams by waking.

He chose nothing to carry away. He swept past the broken lock on the sliding glass door, through the yard, over the fence and into the alley. Looking left and right, he spied no other soul.

He went on.

 

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Going Long: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

o-THE-GOLDFINCH-900Tolstoy and Dickens and Garcia-Marquez, masters of the long novel, have a rival in Donna Tartt, author most recently of The Goldfinch. Reviewing her work, critics call it “Dickensian,” and with good reason. She’s just as ambitious, just as intent on immersing a reader in her narrative.

Finishing a long novel sometimes produces a sort of post-partum depression. If the characters are companionable and the scenery engrossing, the next day may feel a little flat, as if excitement just departed and gray routine took its place. Tartt, however, seems after something a little different.

People say form follows function, but perhaps the opposite is just as true. The effect of a form often arises from that form. Unlike movies, novels (any novel but longer ones particularly) aren’t intended to be consumed in a single sitting, and thus a moving story haunts a reader between encounters. The reason students should write about books in present tense, their teachers explain, is that whatever a reader discusses is still happening, right now, between the book’s covers. The reader my wander off, but the book has its own life. It’s easy to believe fiction continues even when no one watches.

With long novels, form governs a reader’s response even more vividly. Dickens’ painstaking attention to minutiae fills his fiction with shadowy corners and unopened but real rooms. His subtle presentation of even the most minor characters leaves them lingering in a reader’s imagination even when they’re offstage. As different as his worlds are—and they grow more different year by year—they seem actual, complete.

In The Goldfinch, Tartt demonstrates similar ambitions. Theo Decker, narrator of the novel, moves from New York, to Vegas, back to New York, and on to Antwerp, and each place has idiosyncratic light and space, odd smells and colors, distinctive possessions and detritus. Characters, in all senses of the word, populate these peculiar places. Theo Decker may hold the center, but the characters winging in orbit around him are powerful influences too. His friend Boris is particularly well-drawn, as a reader may never really believe he’s gone even though he exits the story, seemingly for good, multiple times.

Yet Tartt’s novel also renovates the form. Where Dickens and Garcia-Marquez, and especially Tolstoy, rely on essayistic passages to abstract the action and address broader concerns, Tartt never really leaves her action for long—at least, until the last few pages. In other authors’ work, these passages are a sort of respite for the reader, and Tartt offers little. She leaves her story in disarray. The burden of each moment’s concerns can create discomfort and enervation, itchiness akin to wearing a cast or sitting trapped in concert with a bad cough.

Dickens infuses characters with sweetness by placing them in dire but nonetheless hopeful contexts. Critics in his own time and since have justifiably accused him of sentimentality and bombast. Tartt seems intent on eluding his influence by denying nearly every character any lasting sweetness. Figures a reader might like—Theo’s unrequited love Pippa and his benefactors Hobie and Mrs. Barfour—are often ineffectual. Or they are victims of Theo’s relentless missteps or colored by cynical judgments. A reader may find it hard to encounter The Goldfinch without wanting to scratch… or come up for air.

Many contemporary authors test the lower limits of exposition, and novels like Gone Girl seem made to antagonize readers as well as attract them, often at the same time. Readers, it turns out, like watching traffic accidents too… the question is only how long. Like Gillian Flynn, Tartt tests readers’ patience, perhaps even their perseverance. Theo screws up on nearly every page and, if Tartt hopes his inherent goodness allies a reader to him—the decency beneath his theft, drug-use, apathy, denial, ignorance, and sometimes obsessive and aggravating grief—she also means to make liking him challenging. At the end of David Copperfield, Great Expectations, or Bleak House, a reader takes big bites to reach a desired destination. By the end of Tartt’s novel a reader may want escape and relief, an end to an all-too-full meal.

For anyone who hasn’t read The Goldfinch, one spoiler is necessary: it will end well. Though developments lift a reader at times, they won’t offer hope as frequently as some readers might like. Tartt makes it quite easy to believe that, any moment now, the pudding can still turn to excrement, and the end is still hundreds of pages away.

Some readers will celebrate her innovation and achievement, but some will want a more comfortable and companionable narrative, a book more like the long novels they regret finishing. The Goldfinch isn’t that sort of long novel.

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On Making It

shootinganelephantWhen an established writer speaks to an audience, someone may ask, “What advice would you give aspiring writers?” This moment often arouses the speaker’s chortling, sighs, and/or eye-rolling. Many times—maybe most of the time—the writer urges that if you can do anything else, you ought to. That answer rarely satisfies, coming across as bragging, chest-pounding over some trying period of struggle and doubt now passed, a period the aspiring writer is still, miserably, in.

The advice often sounds self-indulgent, untrue, too happily—smugly—given.

In George Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write,” he offers a similar answer. He presents four motives for a writer: “Sheer egotism” (wanting to be seen as “clever”); “Esthetic enthusiasm” (appreciation of the beauty of words); “Historical impulse” (the desire to find facts and preserve them); and “Political purpose” (wanting to “push the world in a certain direction”). However, by the end of the essay, Orwell decides in favor of simple compulsion.

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle” he says, “one would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” He compares composition to “A long bout of some painful illness.”

His description of writing’s depths of despair echoes more soundly, however, because Orwell adds another distinction few crowing sufferers do. The demon can’t be understood or claimed as a gift, a badge of merit, or a special cargo. “For all one knows” he says, “that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.” The desire to write is a mystery—and also an obsession and a pain and a burden—but mostly primordial, like a wailing child.

The distinction between Orwell and those who claim writing as their special torture may be subtle, but it seems important. Orwell takes no secret (or not-so-secret) pride in survival. He sees agony as central to the process. Creativity is difficult because it requires relentless revision both of the page and the person who fills it. He says, “One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” His answer is not the now-clichéd self-congratulation offered by the persevering author who outlasted the hungry phase. He isn’t saying, “If you can do anything besides writing, you ought to.” He says, “If you want to write well, don’t rest.”

The reward of  revelation is great even when it’s temporary. Orwell must have enjoyed what, to others, seems excruciating. Maybe writing takes that.

His outlook gives essays like “Shooting an Elephant” their power—the writer’s willingness to ruin illusions, to strip himself to reveal source material, to reconstruct himself in print… all that subdues egotism. Orwell closes “Shooting an Elephant,” by saying that he shot the elephant, “Solely to avoid looking a fool.” In confessing, he admits to being a fool. Even when the subject does not demand self-effacement, Orwell suggests a writer should seek it.

“By the time you have perfected any style of writing,” Orwell says, “you have always outgrown it.” The restlessness of a writer is also his or her essential trait.

In the final section of “Why I Write,” Orwell tries to respond to those who identify his writing as politically motivated. He says his writing is better when, rather than setting out to change the world, he sees it more plainly. Though political, his impulses arise from a need to face his—and humanity’s—rationalization, puffery, and hypocrisy.

Many authors suggest the chief trouble of being a writer is working long enough and hard enough to make it, and, having made it, they celebrate their difficult journey. Their pride is understandable. Who wouldn‘t feel justified by at last being read? But Orwell’s self-effacement seems more profound. He suggests no real writer ever makes it.

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