Friday, July 31, 2009

Samuel R. Delany's "Aye, and Gomorrah," from the collection of the same name, is excellent. Smartly told, with much left unsaid by the characters (a good choice, since his dialogue isn't the most natural-sounding), the tale of future "perversions" (it might be titled "Unsexed Astronauts and the People Who Want Them!") didn't feel dated, despite its 1966 composition date and the unashamed forthrightness of subsequent decades of writing. It's very much a short story in the late American tradition, a brief stay with a character who has a mildly epiphanic moment that isn't truly life-changing. Nicely done.

Summer is the time for not hearing back about stories one has sent out. Unless my records are in error (always a possibility), I have stories out at Granta, storyquarterly, Cincinnati Review, Asimov's Science Fiction, a contest hosted by Northwestern University's alumni magazine, and the National Public Radio Three-Minute Fiction Contest.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Currently reading Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Langages of Babylon, by Lesley Adkins, about early decipherment work, but also slipping in reading on some short fiction.

"We Never Talk About My Brother," by Peter Beagle, is from his collection of the same name. I used to assign Beagle's The Last Unicorn as summer reading for entering seventh graders, but the kids never cottoned to the book. It was too self-aware and literary to simply be the kind of fantasy the ordinary fantasy reader might enjoy, and with its protagonist a female (and a unicorn in the title), it was hard to sale to male readers. The parts of the book don't really make a coherent whole as it goes veering about, but it's clever and has some great ideas. Plus, it understands the genre. I've picked up other works by Beagle from the library, but hadn't read anything else until now. "We Never Talk About My Brother" feels like an outline for a longer piece. It has a few vivid moments, but its thinking is terrible rushed and its climax is like something from an X-Men comic (or, worse, an X-Men movie). There's none of that lyricism I associate with The Last Unicorn, but instead the kind of genre shorthand that becomes the default setting for workers in the field. In short, the protagonist discovers (through one awkwardly described event and one even-more-awkwardly describe off-stage event) that his brother can control reality. The limits of this are utterly vague, and the metaphysical ponderings that crop up aren't fully thought through or given sufficient resonance.

Yesterday I read from an old favorite, Zenna Henderson. Her "Ararat" in the collection Pilgrimage is her first story of The People, those aliens who, scattered, crashed in the American Southwest at the end of the 18th century. The story does a nice job giving a glimpse of the features that would make stories of The People interesting: their powers; the close family relationships; information about their planet (the Home) and their terrible journey (the Crossing); their struggles to fit in among Earth humans. Some of the tales of the People would feel repetitive, as a consequence, but when I read them as a teenager, I appreciated their combination of emotion and science fiction. Her non-People stories are also fine, and some of them reveal darker strands in her imagination. "Ararat" involves the arrival of an Outsider teacher among several families of the People situated in Cougar Canyon. The narrator, a nineteen-year-old girl, is slower to put together the pieces than the reader is, though that's part of the story's fun, as she and we learn that Miss Carmody, the Outsider who can't keep a teaching job, is also one of the People, raised in isolation by parent who had, as young children, survived the Crossing.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Finished Pnin, which managed to, for the most part, evade a plot and remain a character study. By the end, several elements had unexpectedly reared their heads which turned out to be all there was of a plot; this was in keeping with the nature of the character, a static soul who was not altered, by the end, but had had some shocks to the system and was moving on. Twice it appeared that elements of the story would become key turning points, but in both cases Pnin managed to merely take them in stride.

Throughout, the writing was brilliant and lively, and by the end, the occasional evidence of a first-person narrator not only made sense, it brought the story into sharper relief and gave greater sympathy to the character. Rather an amazing final act, really.

At one point in the novel, Pnin attends (by sheer luck, having lost his way repeatedly) a party for Russian émigrés. The Holocaust, which to that point had eluded mention, suddenly becomes personal, and as Pnin thinks about all of the dead through the actions of both Germany and Russia, we have this:

Pnin slowly walked under the solemn pines. The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Read another Samuel R. Delany story, a long one, "The Star Pit." It started off well enough, on the beach of some alien world, but when it shifted to its primary setting, a repair shop at the galactic edge, Delany gave the reader less to see. The dialogue felt flat, and characters unnecessarily repeated information from one scene to another. Some interesting and even wonderful ideas and interconnections in its plot threads, but some characters didn't entirely come into focus (partly because of inconsistencies in voices); the story played out well, though it could have had a sharper ending.

Friday, July 24, 2009

I have to read more Samuel R. Delany. Last night I read his short story "Driftglass," which was quite fine. It didn't end on exactly the right note, but otherwise built a believable world and main character and held to its tone. A few times, the writing became overly precious or self-conscious. I'm also reading Nabokov's Pnin, where half the point is in the writing itself, but somehow his excesses aren't excesses; it's clearly established that it's a first-person narrative voice functioning like an omniscient narrator, and it's a winning, funny voice that fits the pedantry of its subject. Though Delany comes across as an excellent writer, in spots I less appreciated the writing than simply felt it obtrude into the narrative, whereas Nabokov's whole style has to do with a hyper-present narrator. Reading more Delany (I have his collection Aye, and Gomorrah, and Other Stories) is called for.

I have a vivid memory of being a teenager in the Paperback Booksmith (Oxford Valley Mall, Pennsylvania) and looking with fascination at the covers of Delany's novels Dhalgren and Triton--but finding them somehow too daunting to buy.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The third act of Miéville's The City & The City was a tremendous disappointment. All the hauntingly interesting suggestiveness of the early parts devolved into mere . . . mereness. There's no explanation given for the capabilities of the one truly science fictional element in the book, which on closer inspection doesn't appear science fictional at all—or even interesting. There is an incredibly long conversation when our protagonist confronts the perpetrator; gun-to-gun, then walk us through all the events of the story, sucking the final bit of life from the narrative. Miéville tries to keep the prose level up by throwing his energy into interesting verbs or snappy, noirish exchanges, but he's fighting the downward swirl to no avail, in part because much of what he's set up as the book's main conceit looks, by the end, silly. Ah well.

I have much higher hopes for Nabokov's Pnin, which I started today, and which has already made me laugh out loud a few times in the early pages. Genius.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Finished Robert Olmstead's Far Bright Star. An interesting combination of lyrical and brutal, like a more expressive Cormac McCarthy. Olmstead gets loose with the grammar when it suits the lyrical flow, and for the most part this works. Only once did it just seem like he'd blundered into the wrong tense. I'd like to read more of him. The story was smart and vivid; the small-scale battle scene (and the horrors that followed it) was as impressive, in its way, as the ship-capsizing scene in Conrad's Nigger of the Narcissus (my standard for rapt adventure writing).

Enjoying John McPhee's The Headmaster, a brilliantly written portrait of Frank Boyden, the man who ran Deerfield for decades. I'm also deep into China Miéville's The City & the City. Fascinating and exciting, absorbing and baffling.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Eat the Document wasn't holding me. It's well written. And the author has a detailed, almost reportorial, grasp of the times and places her characters inhabit (the late '70s and late '90s; suburbs of the Northwest). But the voices (there are several points of view, including a detached omniscient) lack momentum, and I'm moving too slowly through it. I have no complaints about the book, but it's not for me.

I read a short story from Jim Shepard's Love and Hydrogen collection ("Creature from the Black Lagoon"--which is exactly about that) to cleanse the palate last night. (This book I own.)

Today I started Robert Olmstead's Far Bright Star and was immediately stunned and engaged by the prose. The story, so far, is simply about soldiers in pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916. Terrific voice, great narrative momentum, smart prose, vivid yet concise descriptions. I've not read Olmstead before. Looking forward to more of this.

As for Flannery, the biography, it was fine. For those of us who've read her stories, essays and letters, there was not a great deal new, aside from some interpersonal material. Gooch does a good job making a coherent narrative from all of the material, but there were countless problem sentences. Most of the problems came with ungrammatical presentations of quotes, which led to my having to reread many sentences. The editor must have been convinced--if he or she cared--that this was an effect of style rather than simply an error.

It seems my novel writing is--naturally, not as the result of some considered weighing of various styles--Nabokovian. I'm not writing fragments on index cards, but I am writing small pieces as I draft. I found myself doing this for "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" (still waiting to hear about that). As a long story, that had something of a novelistic shape and, for me, complexity. Apparently I need to work through such things in teaspoons.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Closing in on the end of Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor. No revelations to it, if you've read her letters and essays. The best thing about the work is its reliance on O'Connor's wit for its laugh lines. I see a mention in the acknowledgements that Conan O'Brien (whose shows I've never seen beyond perhaps a few minutes here and there) wrote his senior thesis at Harvard on O'Connor.

I always call her "Lady Flannery." Like others, I have canonized her, or at least made her accessible to writerly prayer.

I've started Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta. It began very well. I've picked this up because she was hired by Syracuse U. to teach creative writing.