Sunday, May 22, 2011

Shepard and Atkinson again

"Happy with Crocodiles," Jim Shepard

I enjoyed this one quite a bit, a tale of an American soldier heading into certain doom against the Japanese while he replays in his head the confusing circumstances of his girlfriend situation back home. The title is a metaphor for "thick with danger" or "surrounded by enemies," which he is on the battlefront and homefront. The ending, with its projection into a terrible future, leaves you unsettled and trapped.

Case Histories, Kate Atkinson

Just brilliant. Some complaints surfaced late in the book, as chapters flipped back in time to gather events from different perspectives, but each time I felt this device slowed things down, I saw how necessary it was to the narrative's secret progress, so that the final chapters, hurling us back to the beginning of the book, become a perfect complement as well as key to unlocking the last mysteries. A complexly organized novel, written in striking prose that could be laugh-out-loud funny, simply smart, wonderfully off-kilter (as characters' attentions wander) or unbearably sad from moment to moment. What a terrific writer. I must read more of her work.

Friday, May 20, 2011

More Shepard; new novel reading

In the midst of various forays into fiction writing, I've also started work on a play. At this point, I'm just trying to see whether I can pull off the particular conceit that drives the narrative. It's tricky. More on this eventually.

More from You Think That's Bad, Jim Shepard
The strength and potential weakness of Shepard's fiction—in his most recent two collections, at least—is the depth of his research. The stories work when the research add illuminating details or enriches something deeper about the story; the stories don't work when the research overwhelms or unbalances the narrative. "In Cretaceous Seas" starts with a heap of information about Cretaceous critters; Shepard's use of language makes the details exciting, makes the lost era live. But after that first page, the four-page tale, a contemporary story of a sad sack of a man, loosens its narrative grip, and the opening never comes back to us as a necessary piece. "The Track of the Assassins" is much better, but the tale of a young English woman's journey to find the ancient cult (while simultaneously reflecting on the catastrophe that is her broken family) doesn't end satisfactorily, never paying off on the promise of all the historical and geographical detail that pushes the tale forward. In addition, whatever connection Shepard was after between the two narrative strands was lost on me.

Case Histories, Kate Atkinson
I believe I ordered this book from the library based on a reference somewhere to the author's talent. I had no idea what kind of book it was, and even now, I don't know where it's heading. It starts off (a bit languidly) as a family drama, but once the first chapter ends, you know that's not what you're dealing with. With each chapter, your sense of the book's intent shifts, as tragedy piles on tragedy. And then a detective is introduced, though so casually, it seems as if he's just another domino in the sequence. Apparently, the novel is "a mystery" (one in a series), and the novelist is renowned for her mystery novels, but this doesn't read like a mystery; not only is the book literary and finely constructed, it doesn't tip its hand to indicate that the author is working within a particular genre. So far, it's immensely enjoyable, and contains of the saddest passages I've ever encountered.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Not exactly writing; plus, Jim Shepard's latest

I've long noticed that, when teaching, or simply conversing, I make sharper connections, better metaphors, and more interestingly phrased statements than I do on the first drafts of my fiction. There's something about working with that speed, with an audience, or bouncing off somebody else, that brings out better rhetoric and greater focus. As a consequence, I've considered writing my first draft orally, recording them onto the computer and then typing (and revising) from that. Today I got to try that with a larger story idea (or set of ill-formed ideas, really) that I've been batting around. I think it went well. We'll see whether this leads to something.

"Minotaur," Jim Shepard (from You Think That's Bad)
The cover of Shepard's latest collection of stories features a photo of a contortionist doubled over backwards so that, it must be said, his head is only microns away from being shoved up his butt. It got me to laugh, anyway. I'd thought of ordering this collection, but it was at the library today, so it came home with me. The first story concerns a man who's spent years working in black ops for the military; this night, he reconnects with a colleague who went even deeper underground three years ago. Oh, how he's missed this man. And it's a connection that the protagonist's wife doesn't understand and that she comes to realize is perhaps more significant than the connection she has to her husband. Like the fabled minotaur—and like the mysterious military program of the same name—these relationships involve labyrinths and monsters who stumble about in the dark. Great little tale.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Delany. Thon. Together for the first time anywhere.

"Aye, and Gomorrah . . . " and "Cage of Brass," Samuel R. Delany (from Aye, and Gomorrah and Other Stories)
I've previously read a few stories from this collection (which I think I picked up at a library book sale). "Aye, and Gomorrah . . . " is one of those I've read before. It's a tale of spacers and the people who love them. Really. "Spacers" are astronauts; given the radiation and other rigors of space travel, they've all been neutered (and they have other oddities about them from birth which make them prime candidates); some people, "frelks," find themselves profoundly attracted to spacers. Rather than simply making the attraction like that someone might have for a eunuch, Delany concocts and wonderfully goofy psychiatric explanation having something to do with freefall. The story follows one spacer in a small group of them bouncing from planet to space and tasting the joys of Earth in their unique, alienated way. One particular encounter with a woman is described. It's a smart story that demonstrates one thing Delany did well even in that novel of his that I thought so dreadful (Nova): he articulates into being another world. "Cage of Brass" achieves this as well, though entirely through dialogue. Our "hero," Jason Cage (a comic-bookish name, unfortunately), has been dumped into a self-regulating prison ("Brass") on another world. In this prison, you stand in total darkness, largely submerged in a gel that tends to your body, leaving your tiny cell one hour a day to exercise in yet another dark space. But Cage is, fortuitously, able to talk to two nearby cells, and the men share their stories, the other two men briefly painting their worlds, Cage detailing the architectural wonders of Earth. It's a smart tale that relies on Cage's past to make sense of the present.

"Girls in the Grass," Melanie Rae Thon (from Girls in the Grass)
Sharply observed first-person tale of ninth-grade girls taking risks, playing Truth or Dare, experimenting with themselves and each other. Alcohol, sex and pills come one after the other in quick succession (each leading to the other, as the drinking grants them permission for sex and the next day's discomforts lead to the protagonist filching pills that do God-knows-what for her mother). It's one of those modern stories that doesn't have an ending that ties up dramatically; rather, it ties up rhetorically, which a biting final image. Still, it's satisfying and well told.

Blogger was down . . .

. . . so I didn't get to post yesterday about Samuel R. Delany. Later tonight, I'll post about both him and Melanie Rae Thon.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Another world

Today's short fiction review:

"Blue Light in the Sky" and "The Bizarre Wooden Building," Can Xue (from Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories)
This book's presence in my collection is the result of shelf-surfing at the former 2nd Story Bookstore, now known as 2nd Story, the owner now "out of the book business" and doing well selling coffees, sandwiches and soups (and a few literary magazines). The story never carried much stock, but what they carried was interesting, not Barnes & Noble fare (and a few times I ordered books from them just to give them my business). This book would never have appeared on the racks at a giant chain.

Xue's stories connect with readers in a way Jung would appreciate: her worlds are dreamy (or actual dreams), slippery, uncertain, hostile. "Blue Light in the Sky" concerns a girl who cuts her foot, an event that leads her unpleasant older sister, who tells her she'll likely die of tetanus, to construct a plot to take the narrator's prized (and stolen?) set of woodblocks. What's dream and what's not is unclear for much of the story, and by the end this somehow works. The work clearly owes much to Kafka. "The Bizarre Wooden Building" is even more labyrinthine, with a less solid set of relationships and images that provide the creeping sense that the author is up to something even more parabolic or allegorical, though I'm at a loss to say more than that about the meaning. A man marvels at a very tall building made of horizontal wooden pieces; he goes upstairs to find a man, huddled in a quilt against the cold, seemingly expecting him. An arrogant boy shows up who challenges our narrator and presents a confounding view of how to interact with the man of the place: by merely thinking of stories from the outer world, which he collects on pieces of paper kept stuffed in his pockets. Our protagonist is finally chased from the place, and looking back from the street he finds the upper floors obscured by mist.

Xue's writing is simple and compelling, the stories unsettled and unsettling.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What people? White people.

Today's short fiction review is of . . .

"Nativity, Caucasian," Allan Gurganus (from White People)
My first exposure to Gurganus came via the radio program Selected Shorts, which broadcast a reading of his story "The Doctor." (I think that's the title.) While the story was simultaneously obvious and unlikely, I appreciated the way the tale was told and the clarity of vision. Some years later, I ordered this collection. There's not much to "Nativity, Caucasian." It's the story of the narrator's birth, taking place in the middle of a contract bridge party. The host's Pekingese is doused with birthwaters, dishes and women fall to the floor, ambulance and fire truck collide en route, and two doctors knowing nothing of childbirth arrive late to the scene from the nearby golfcourse and attempt to attend to the wrong (albeit unconscious) woman. It's an amusing set-piece, finely told, and a record of a people and time.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mansfield Monday

All I have is a short story review:

"The Woman at the Store," Katherine Mansfield (from Stories)
As "The Garden-Party" has long been a favorite story of mine—for its subtlety, power of observation, and moral irony—I bought this book at a library sale a year or two back, but I haven't probed it, near as I can remember. This story lacks the elusiveness of "The Garden-Party" and is told in a more straightforward style, with a more formal resolution. The tale involves three people, at least two of them siblings (the female narrator one of the siblings) riding on horseback through a hot and barren region. They stop at the store Jim has mentioned, Jo picturing a lonely beauty of a woman waiting there, per Jim's description. The woman is nothing like her description, the geography and loneliness having taken their toll, as her husband has gone off shearing for a month—a story everyone doubts. There's a child drawing pictures she shouldn't, and Jo making romantic moves. And the ending, with a drawing and its implication of violence, mirrors the "slate" sky of the story's first paragraph and the red-flecked (as if with blood) kerchief of Jo one paragraph later. A fun story, solidly told, with haunting moments and suggestions.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Today's short fiction review

I've got to get back to regularly reading short fiction. Forthwith (Am I using that word correctly? I've never used it before . . . ) I'll read at least one short story a day, mostly from collections I have at hand but have never finished reading.

"Unterseaboat Doktor," Ray Bradbury (from Quicker Than the Eye)
I've read a few stories from this collection, which was a gift. Starting in perhaps ninth grade, I was a huge Bradbury fan, reading everything he'd done. Even by the end of the '70s, however, the downward shift in the quality of his writing (which varied wildly in any case) was evident. I've long said the Bradbury learned the wrong lessons about his work as he went along. His dialogue was never strong, but, perversely, it came to predominate, and eventually most all of his characters sounded like him: breathless, bombastic, rich in not-terribly helpful allusions, and in love with their own voices. And the spare, Hemingway-influenced prose that shaped some of his finest work either took on that same voice (first person) or felt forced. Those problems mar this story, which could have been fun and smart, but which falls apart at every potentially interesting moment, Bradbury letting voluble chatter stand in for a telling description or two. The story is about a former U-boat captain who becomes a therapist; his office contains a periscope that shows . . . I'm not sure. Everyone's unconscious gunk? His own? Bradbury just gives a heaping list and fails to explore its significance. The narrator is a patient who sees this secret periscope and spills the beans to others, causing some kind of unclear crisis. And throughout, I kept wondering why the doctor only uses the German term for "under" but not for the rest of a submarine: Unterseeboot rather than Unterseaboat.

"The Ugliest House in the World," Peter Ho Davies (from the collection of the same name)
I've read this at least three times over the years (first in an annual "best of" collection which led me to seek out the writer; at least once since purchasing the book; now again) but the story always drops from my brain. That's good, since it always surprises and impresses me. (It's not good because of what it says about my brain; I have no recollection of whether I've read other stories in this collection.) The story concerns a young English doctor whose father has returned to the place of his origins, in Wales, moving into a somewhat dilapidated place next door to the "ugliest house" of the title. In London, the doctor doesn't fit in because everyone picks on him for being Welsh, and in Wales he doesn't fit because he's so emotionally remote; until the dramatic pivot around which the story turns, his father, contrarily, does fit in, in his odd way. The story starts funny. Later, it's quite sad and moving. Fine work.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Talking vs. writing; recent reading

Writing as a physical act—by which I mean typing—feels uninviting to me right now. Not sure why. If I had the place to myself, I'd try composing by recording myself, see if that got me somewhere.

I'm perhaps coming to associate typing with all of the tasks I do for work (I even type the comments for major student papers); speech, however, is where I find myself being most convincing. In class, I can spontaneously ramp up the level of rhetoric with such ease, typing/writing consequently feels like it taps a duller part of my brain.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, by Barry Deutsch
A delightful and clever graphic novel that ends too soon. Mirka's an Orthodox Jewish girl from a small village, and she wants to fight a dragon. Instead, she encounters a witch, a curse, and a troll. (I was disappointed that the dragon never entered the narrative.) Yiddish words abound (and are defined in footnotes), and the book is saturated with the culture of a particular (albeit indefinite) time and place that's tied with the plot. The visuals are terrific, very much in comic book mode but inventive nonetheless, with a clean, sharp style. Excellent.

Incognegro, by Mat Johnson
Speaking of graphic novels: Incognegro is a great story from the era of the Harlem Renaissance and Jim Crow. The protagonist, a black man pale enough to pass (like the author), has made a career of covertly reporting on Southern lynchings for his New York newspaper, but he'd like to retire his "Incognegro" byline and get some personal recognition for his work. One last story that he must cover—for personal reasons—comes his way, and he heads southward again with a naive friend in tow. There's humor, violence, fear, suspense, mystery and sharp observations about the era. Great, gripping book with fine artwork.

Pym, by Mat Johnson
And as long as I'm on the subject of Mat Johnson: Pym is among the strangest novels I've read, largely because the type of book it is, exactly what kind of story it's telling, shifts from chapter to chapter. This, like everything else int he work, is intended as a nod toward Poe's original story, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Johnson takes the herky-jerky, abruptly concluded and casually bigoted tale and flips it, repeatedly, as he dissects race relations, blackness, whiteness, politics, genocide, junk food, kitsch (nice to see someone so directly take a whack at what exactly is so wrong with Thomas Kinkade) and the age-old question of why six black people on a boat just can't get along. Some lines are laugh-out-loud funny, and the plot is increasingly goofy and harrowing at the same time. An enjoyable work that doesn't quite exceed the sum of its parts (I wasn't surprised to see Johnson say in his acknowledgements that he'd considered abandoning the book several years into it), Pym nevertheless has plenty of fine moments and twists to remember.

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, by David Lipsky
I love Wallace's essay on David Lynch, but his fiction puts me off and other essays of his bog down for me. The late writer has been in the news recently because his editor put together an unfinished novel of Wallace's—an idea that seems, to me, lacking in merit. In addition, Jonathan Franzen's essay in a recent New Yorker dealt with Wallace (and Robinson Crusoe and rarely seen birds), so Wallace is in the air, which led to begin reading a road trip/interview book about a writer I don't typically enjoy reading. (I also watched on youtube Wallace's last appearance on the Charlie Rose show; I liked it, though the voice of that man doesn't seem like the voice of the interviewee in this book, leading one to ask which pose is closer to the actual person.) I got about a third of the way into the book before feeling I'd taken from it much of what it would likely offer in its remaining two thirds. Problematizing the text was that, though the author used it as the basis of an old article for Rolling Stone, this raw version is peppered throughout with references to Wallace's suicide, so that every grim moment becomes an omen. We know Wallace lost his struggle with depression, and hearing him in this book seems less a glimpse of a man burning brightly than a man inhabiting the valley of the shadow.

All Quiet on the Orient Express, by Magnus Mills
I loved two other Mills novels; Explorers of the New Century is shockingly good (and good 'n' shocking) and Three to See the King is stunningly strange. Like those novels, this one is parabolically told, the narrator's flat affect unable to conceal with the world is somehow bent even more than usual. The title doesn't do much—I get it, but it's not particularly clever—and the devices by which the story proceeds are somewhat too familiar by this point (though this is his second novel, after The Restraint of Beasts; I'm not reading his work in sequence), and it's somewhat less successful because, unlike the others I read, it doesn't take you to a new world. Instead, it takes you to rural England, which already seems creepy if you've watched the old TV show The Avengers or seen any British horror from the 20th century. We know what these people are capable of, we know little towns have secrets, we know the traps in place for a man alone. Mills's contribution to this narrative of British complicity and passivity (these seem to be the traits he's attacking) is different, though: the thing that entices our traveler from elsewhere to stay is useful work accomplished with some handiness. Planning only a holiday, he instead becomes, through his unpaid (or is it?) labor, integral to the town and a participant in an economy of clutching dependence. Enjoyable and disturbing.